Bless their thermal undergarments. Archive material just released under the 50-year rule in Stockholm reveals that the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature spurned a number of prime candidates for the award when they picked their eventual winner, the Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andric, in 1961. Attention has focused on the abrupt dismissal of JRR Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings trilogy – “the result has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality” – and Robert Frost (“advanced age ... a fundamental obstacle”).
Graham Greene, EM Forster and Karen Blixen were also considered and consigned to the ranks. But my eye was drawn instead to the devastating critique of Lawrence Durrell, whose chances were ended when his work was found to give “a dubious aftertaste ... because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications”.
From my memories of reading Durrell’s Bitter Lemons as a young (and impatient) man, it was the monomaniacal preoccupation with describing assorted Mediterranean flora and fauna at mind-numbing length that should have caused greater upset to the Nobel jury, but let that pass. What really struck home was the vision of these upright and uptight citizens, from swinging Scandinavia of all places, worrying, at the beginning of the 1960s of all ages, that a novelist – a novelist! – might be over-concerned with the capricious and dastardly ways of erotic love.
This is a little like criticising the Financial Times for carrying too many stories about money. The permutations of carnal congress are, to the artist or novelist, what the movements of share prices are to this paper. Unpredictable, quixotic, occasionally rational, but always vital and demanding of scrupulous analysis.
It is near-impossible to imagine a novelist criticised for an undue preoccupation with friendship, religion, politics or the courtship rituals of the bourgeois classes. But sex is something different. Even in 1961, with thousands of women beginning to experiment with the newly invented contraceptive pill and a revolution in morality around the corner, it remained the aspect of human affairs that dared not be over-explored.
What on earth would the committee members have made of Picasso, whose late works at the end of that decade and beyond were a melancholy chronicle of loss of libido? “We don’t do it any more, but the desire is still with us,” he told his friend, the photographer Brassaï. Picasso was the greatest artist because he delved into the greatest of human urges. His singular visions might have made it seem as if his erotic life were anything but complicated. But we surely know better. Where there is sex, there is mayhem.
Durrell was in regular and fascinating correspondence with a friend and author who really did have a monomaniacal preoccupation with sex, and who presumably never came near the Nobel shortlists: Henry Miller. (Oddly, this most iconoclastic of authors seemed to have genuinely desired the honour. When another American, Ernest Hemingway, won the prize in 1954, Miller was full of good grace: “[he] strikes me as having the vivacity of a pall-bearer”.)
Miller’s first novel, Tropic of Cancer, published in 1934 (but banned in the US), was a furious investigation of masculine desire. It still shocks with its frankness, not just in its graphic descriptions but in its acknowledgement of the all-consuming and frequently self-destructive qualities of sexual lust. The book was treated by the censors as an aberration that needed to be suppressed. It should have been handed out in schools, as it was in mine in the more relaxed 1970s.
I thought of Miller as I watched Steve McQueen’s coruscating new movie Shame, released on Friday in the UK. For sure, McQueen is more moralistic than Miller, depicting, and deploring, a pornography-saturated universe that offers casual relief at the expense of more meaningful dialogue. Goodness knows what Miller would have made of internet sex; I suspect he would have lustily shared McQueen’s disapproval.
But the similarities between the two men lie in their refusal to pull their punches. Shame’s protagonist, obsessed by the need for constant sexual release, cuts an absurd figure. But his is only an extreme, dysfunctional form of desire. It is sex that has lost its moorings. McQueen explored a similar kind of extremity in his previous film Hunger, about the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands. As one reviewer drily observed, we wonder with trepidation which abstract noun the director will explore next.
What is surprising, given the prevalence of sexual images and provocations that exist in today’s western world, is the lack of really serious artistic work about “erotic complications”. It is not 1934, or 1961. There is the freedom today to discuss this most tangled of issues. Yet most artists shy away from it. Why? They can’t all be after a Nobel Prize.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden