One hundred years ago, the Madrid playwright Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The minutes of the deliberations, of that year 1922 and of the previous ones – consulted by this newspaper in the archives of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm -, allow to determine that the jury had been wanting to award a Spanish author for some time for reasons of geographical distribution of the award and “the great importance and influence of that cultural universe”, which then only had one name among the 21 laureates (José Echegaray, in 1904). Although Àngel Guimerà (1845-1924) and Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) appeared much better placed at first, various considerations, some extraliterary, led to the sudden and surprising awarding of the award to Benavente, who got it on the second attempt while that Guimerà came to add 17 years of unsuccessful candidacies, for five of Galdós.
Guimerà’s first nomination dates from 1907, it was presented by Joaquim Miret i Sans, and then they were chained, each year, until 1923. The Swedish Academy only empowers institutions that it considers analogous to propose candidates for university professors of literature (then they were, in Madrid, the Royal Spanish Academy and, in Barcelona, the Reial Acadèmia de Bones Lletres) or previous winners.
Guimerà’s proposal coincided in 1907 with that of Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo made by the RAE. After his death, in 1912, Benito Pérez Galdós became the official Spanish candidate, and more than 700 signatures were presented in his favor at the Swedish embassy in Madrid, including that of Benavente himself.
During the 1910s, the jury issued reports on both Guimerà and Galdós, without deciding on either one, in literary debates but with more political elements than one might think. In 1914, the academician KG Hagberg stated that both deserve the award, although there are objections: in the case of Galdós, “there are many controversies, especially because of his partisan expressions.” In the case of Guimerà, the problem is that he “represents Catalan separatism as opposed to Castilian unity.” The jury proposes a Solomonic and concord solution: to share the prize between the two, Galdós and Guimerà, but, they point out, “it is not certain that a division of the prize will contribute to reducing the possible discontent that the awarding of the award to one of them would originate on the opposite side”. The struggle between two cultures in Spain bothered the jurors. In 1916, the Nobel committee – the part of the jury that is in charge of the reports and the lists of finalists – warns about the danger of “awarding a writer who represents a separatist regional culture before having recognized the national culture Spanish”. In 1917, Harald Hjärne stated that Guimerà “is an outstanding representative of Catalan nationalism”, so there is a risk of “hurting the pride of Castilian national sentiment” and that “to the extent that it can be done, the election of the The Academy should not provoke an increase in tension between national antagonisms, which are detrimental to the peaceful objectives pursued by the Nobel Foundation”.
Rewarding Guimerà can “hurt the pride of Castilian national sentiment”, says a jury in 1917
There were also literary opinions against Guimerà. In 1922 he alludes to “a certain monotony and poverty of ideas.” And, in 1923, it is said: “Nobody denies the meaning that his work has in his country but, when transferring it from the local context to the European arena, it does not maintain the necessary weight”.
Galdós had other problems. Erik Karlfeldt, his main opponent on the jury, alludes to the hundreds of letters and telegrams he has received against him at the Academy itself, from conservatives who branded him “anti-clerical” and “liberal.” In 1915, it is confirmed that “in many parts of Spain a virulent protest movement arose against his election, confirmed by numerous notes and telegrams addressed to us.” Harald Hjärne tries to take the edge off political considerations: “He soon tired of strictly political activity. He is considered a liberal, but in middle age he has never manifested greater enthusiasm for any party and has acted with the utmost calm and restraint even when tempers have sometimes flared around his name.” And he goes on to assess, one by one, what he considers to be the most important of his eighty titles. Specifically, the national episodes they show an author who “does not show himself to be a party man but maintains a generically patriotic posture”. And, he continues, “no hostility to Christianity or the church stands out. (…) he has also characterized in his Nazarin (…) to an authentic believer and self-sacrificing priest in the figure of Ángel Guerra (…) If Galdós shows any inclination, it may well be, according to the words that he puts in the mouth of his Gloria, to reconcile Don Quixote with Sancho Panza, to try to cover the unfortunate gap that time has opened in Spain between lofty idealism and life and daily effort on the construction site”. The discussion was bitter, because Per Hallström, (1866-1960), future permanent secretary of the institution, recorded in the minutes of 1915 his particular vote of protest – in which several jurors agreed – for having granted it to the Frenchman Romain Rolland before than to Galdos. “I am so far from supporting this election – he comments – that I don’t even take the trouble to give an opinion, because such a literary work does not deserve so much honor”.
Galdós died in 1920, Benavente was a Nobel candidate twice, in 1921 and 1922. His name was not proposed spontaneously by any professor, but appeared as the result of an organized action: the first year, it was presented by no less than 21 members of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), which caught the attention of Swedish academics, who noted that “as has been the case on previous occasions, when Spaniards are nominated for the Nobel Prize, their candidacy has been immediately known by public opinion and has won support in the form of massive demonstrations accompanied by the collection of signatures”, which include people who are not qualified, according to the statutes of the institution, to propose names. “These incidents undeniably make it difficult to appreciate the real importance of the writer,” lamented the jury. Despite these inconveniences, they commissioned a detailed report “from Mr. Hagberg” on Benavente’s work. From reading him, “it follows that he certainly deserves to be taken into account” but, being a first candidacy, they decided to discuss him in future years.
And, the following year, the surprise jumped. Guimerà ruled out for the reasons we have seen, and with Galdós deceased, Benavente was in 1922 the clearest option to award a Spaniard, the desire of the Academy for a long time. In the final, he beat the Irish poet WBYeats (1865-1939) – who would win it the following year – and the geographical factor was fundamental: “It is above all in consideration of the already worrying gaps in the geographical distribution of the Nobel Prize for so this year, in the difficult choice between two writers like Yeats and Benavente, so different and hardly comparable in literary value, the committee has given preference to the latter”, can be read in the minutes.
Dead Galdós, Benavente wins to alleviate “worrying gaps in the geographical distribution of the Nobel Prize”
Thus, in 1922, Benavente won, unusually quickly. Per Hallström defines him as “a customary narrator, with an objective, clear and logical temperament, he is not a prophet or a preacher”. His fondness for comedy stands out and, he continues, “the skepticism and bitterness, which some of the critics in his country condemn, do not seem to us, who have palates tanned by much more bitter liquors, especially virulent, but rather genuine for their restraint and balance”. He analyzes the playwright’s production, play by play, and believes that he “has created his own genre with vested interests, where the characters of the old Commedia dell’ Arte, with their masks half uncovered, must put up with a more modern ideology and partially discard the old security for better and for worse in equal parts”. He does not evade criticism of his next work, The cheerful and confident city: “She is not so lucky and frightens the foreign reader with an overflowing eloquence that is too local, but it is worth emphasizing that she had great success on stage. (…) We must often remember that they have been written for a culture and a temperament very different from ours”.
Benavente himself, despite having been the great beneficiary of it, condemned, when referring to the nominations for the Nobel Prize, “the Cainist struggles between Spaniards that have done us so much harm.”
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Why did Benavente win the Nobel, instead of Galdós or Guimerà?