In the Vesuvian spume of bile, gossip, and recriminations that spouted forth upon publication of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography, this unseemly detail emerged: Roth was convinced that his former wife Claire Bloom’s vitriolic account of their marriage in her memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House” may have cost him his much-coveted Nobel Prize.
“But for the spurned ex-wife” is a creative rationalization for not bagging a Nobel, as if anyone needed an excuse. But the Nobel was one of Roth’s obsessions. He called it the “Anybody-But-Roth” prize, and interviewers were warned to steer clear of the subject. When he died, in 2018, Roth joined the illustrious list of great writers such as Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, and James Joyce, who would be Nobel-adjacent but not Nobel laureates.
Another piece of not-so-nice Nobel gossip attends the recent revelations about the deterioration of Bill Gates’s marriage. The Daily Beast reported that Gates cozied up to influence-peddler/sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in hopes of snagging a Nobel Peace Prize. A Norwegian newspaper had previously revealed that Gates and Epstein visited the then-chairman of the Nobel Committee in 2013.
Hmmm. That kind of hanky-panky won’t play well in Oslo. I can see Gates, like Roth, becoming Nobel-adjacent, always the groomsman, never the groom.
Prizes are of course great to receive, the devil to award, and anyone who thinks luck, randomness, and whether or not an influential judge had a nagging head cold and punted on a difficult decision just doesn’t understand human nature. The stakes are high, and the goddess Fortuna is unsentimental on her good days.
How narrow is the line between success and failure? The Nobel Prize committee for economics had already informed John Forbes Nash, the subject of Sylvia Nasar’s book “A Beautiful Mind,” that he had been awarded the 1994 prize when a rogue academic led an anti-Nash revolt in Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences, which had to approve the prize. (Norway awards the Peace Prize; Sweden hands out the others.)
Worried that Nash’s schizophrenia would besmirch the Academy, many scholars opposed his award. Pro-Nash voters prevailed by a narrow margin, and his success ennobled, rather than abased, the academics who supported him.
The only person who didn’t seem to care about the trip to Stockholm was the late Israeli psychologist Amos Tversky, who was mortally ill when told that his name was on a very short list to receive the Nobel Prize in economics. “I thank you very much for letting me know,” Tversky is quoted in Michael Lewis’s book “The Undoing Project.” “I can assure you that the Nobel Prize is not on the list of things I am going to miss.”
A couple of years ago a friend invited my wife and me to dinner in central New Hampshire and warned us that there would be two Nobel Prize laureates at the seven-person table. Not scribblers or peace-mongers, mind you — real Nobelists, from the thicket of the hard sciences. (Russian expert George Kennan once opined that the criteria for the Peace Prize were so vaporous that Josef Stalin could be awarded one, “having worked harder . . . than any of the rest of us for the particular kind of peace in which he is interested.”)
It turned out to be a magical evening, keeping company with two not cloyingly humble — it ain’t bragging if you done it! — but hardly egomaniacal men who seemed to appreciate that brains, diligence, and luck had landed them atop the heap of international achievement. I can’t remember what we talked about — wind conditions on Lake Winnipesaukee, maybe? But it was enchanting to bask in the soothing penumbra of Nobel-adjacency, and yes, we have dined out on that story more than once.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.