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The Richest Vagabond

Alfred Nobel: A Biography

by Kenne Fant, translated by Marianne Ruuth
Arcade, 342 pp., $24.95

Alfred Nobel—pitiful creature, ought to have been suffocated by a humane physician when he made his howling entrance into this life. Greatest virtues: keeping his nails clean and never being a burden to anyone. Greatest weaknesses: having neither wife and kids nor sunny disposition nor hearty appetite…. Important events in his life: none.”

Thus Nobel described himself at fiftyfour, when he was not only one of the most famous scientific inventors in the world but also one of its richest men. His was an extraordinary story. His father, Immanuel, also an inventor but a poor businessman, went bankrupt before Alfred was born, and the family was so poor that Alfred’s two elder brothers sold matches in the street and his mother had to make their clothes from cheap remnants. Immanuel’s fortunes changed when he moved from Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Russian government encouraged the immigration of foreign scientists and entrepreneurs, and Immanuel, a self-taught expert in explosives, interested them by his improved land and sea mines (his subsequent inventions included a new kind of wagon wheel and Russia’s first central heating system).

Alfred studied chemistry, and quickly perceived the potential of the recently discovered nitro-glycerine, a spectacularly explosive but seemingly unharnessable fluid. If only one could find a way of safely packing and then detonating it, it would replace the far weaker gunpowder. One of his early experiments caused the death of five people including his young brother, but at age thirty he found the solution: a porous silicate of hardened algae called kieselgur, which absorbed the fluid so as to make a solid and transportable form. Nobel christened this dynamite; equally importantly, he invented a percussion cap to replace the quickmatch fuse. He intended dynamite for peaceful uses, especially in mining and the construction of railways, but unluckily it proved a godsend for terrorists—Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a dynamite-filled bomb.

The fear of nitroglycerine was so widespread that he had to conduct public experiments to demonstrate its safety, tossing dynamite sticks from a height or onto bonfires. In England a ban was introduced against its being transported by rail, so that Nobel had to send blasting oil to his British factory in bottles labeled “white wine,” and to ask acquaintances visiting his quarries in Wales to bring cartridges of dynamite in their luggage, as he did himself, a breach of the law which could have earned them two years in prison. But as the safety of his product came to be accepted, opposition waned, and by the time of his death he controlled over ninety factories around the world. He spent much of his life traveling among them by train, which he hated as much as he did living in hotel rooms. Victor Hugo called him “Europe’s richest vagabond.” He suffered continually from headaches and indigestion, and worried so much about drafts that at home he slept in a kind of box of four wooden walls encasing his bed. Though heterosexual, he never married or found a satisfactory partner. His letters and journal suggest that he was one of the most miserable of men.

Nobel’s inventions were by no means confined to the field of explosives. His journal as he approached sixty shows that he was involved in “patents for the soundless discharging of a gun” and “elimination of disturbing sounds in the phonograph.” Other schemes included a superior kind of steel, synthetic substitutes for India rubber, leather, and varnishes, and the mechanical manufacture of potassium, artificial silk, sodium, and synthetic jewelry, and he considered experimenting with “moving pictures on a spherical horizon” several years before the Lumière brothers invented the cinema. He was a voracious reader all his life (how else could he have filled his time in those railway carriages and hotel rooms?), being especially interested in avant-garde literature and the writing of rebels such as Shelley and, though Fant does not mention it, Ibsen and Strindberg, buying the works of the two last-named volume by volume as they appeared. He subscribed to the Times Literary Supplement, and even wrote a fair amount himself, including several poems in English in his youth and, in the year of his death, a turgid but interesting and sometimes moving dramatic tragedy called Nemesis.

Nobel never wanted to forget that he had been poor, and was famous for his concern for his employees’ welfare, giving them free medicine and medical care. Grand living did not attract him. Specifying his requirements when a house was being prepared for him at the Bofors factory in Belgium, he named only a good bed and “a very good kitchen, since…having a troubled stomach, I need to follow a careful diet. My needs are otherwise limited to a cupboard for books and whatever other furniture is available.”

He spoke and wrote fluently in five languages, worked a fifteen-hour day, and seldom employed a secretary. “Yesterday’s mail contained 57 letters and 10 telegrams,” he complained, bewailing the lack of any such assistant, and this was when he was sixty. He needed, he explained, someone who could write in English, French, and German (he could cope himself in Swedish and Russian), and surprisingly seems unable to have found anyone to fill the bill, or to have considered employing two people. Though devoted to his mother and fond of his brothers, he had no friends until at sixty he acquired a Swedish assistant named Ragnar Sohlman, a young chemist in whom he seems to have seen, in Fant’s words, “a mirror image of himself in his youth.” Sohlman’s memoirs, published as recently as 1950, give a different picture of Nobel from that portrayed by any of his other acquaintances:

Dr. Nobel could talk and philosophize in such an entertaining manner that it was pure pleasure and delight to his rapt audience. To spend an hour chatting with him was both a remarkable joy and a challenging exercise, because you had to stay on your toes to follow the wild sallies of his unexpected turns of thought and startling paradoxes. He would soar like a wind-driven swallow from one subject to another and, as seen against the rapid flight of his thought, our globe would shrink and its distances melt, becoming trivial….His movements and gestures were lively, his walk slightly mincing, his facial expressions volatile, as was his conversational manner, spiced as it was with sudden sallies of wit and outbursts of ideas. At times his whims bordered on the absurd and seemed purely intended to épater les bourgeois [scandalize the middle class].

Until 1950, it was generally assumed that Nobel had no sex life, or at any rate no emotional attachments except to his mother, but that year the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm revealed the existence of no fewer than 218 letters written over a period of seventeen years to one Sofie Hess. She was an Austrian flower girl whom he met in 1876, when he was forty-three and she twenty, at the resort of Baden bei Wien, and luckily for posterity (and doubtless to feather her own nest), she ignored his request that she destroy his letters once she had read them. Fant says this was Nobel’s “first intimacy with a woman” apart from a brief and unfulfilled infatuation twenty years earlier, and that his feelings toward Sofie “seemed to have vacillated between fatherly tenderness and sexual desire.” Her letters usually ask for money, although he had set her up comfortably, and he admonishes her regularly for her wastefulness while continuing to pay for her carriage, jewels, and expensive clothes. The intellectual gulf between them was huge, and he was as harsh to her as Professor Higgins to that other flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Two years after their first meeting, he wrote to her:

Dear child, you complain that my letters are too brief and reticent, but you seem not to want to understand the reason why…Everyone and women especially are egoists who think only of themselves….I am therefore forced to remain aloof to prevent your affection from becoming too deeply rooted…. The time will come—perhaps fairly soon—when your heart will be filled with love for another man. How you will blame me then for the way I tied you down with an ardent love’s inextricable bonds. I see this clearly and therefore rein in my feelings. Do not believe, however, that I really have a heart of stone, as you so often charge in your letters.

More than most, perhaps, I have lived with the pressure of desolate loneliness, and in the past have sought an intimate communion with someone. But this someone could hardly be a twenty-one-year-old with whose philosophy of life and spirituality I have little or nothing in common. Besides, your star is rising in the heaven of fate while mine is descending [he was forty-five]….I know that you are a truly kind hearted and sweet little girl. Even if you have brought and continue to bring me trouble, I am deeply fond of you and think more of your happiness than of my own. My happiness! I can hardly keep from laughing. As if that concept could have anything to do with a nature that seems to be created purely for suffering.

This gloomy tone pervades every letter:

I suffer stomachaches most of the time. Being careful doesn’t seem to help. Though I neither smoke nor drink wine, my headaches are so terrible that life seems filled with bile…

Nothing is as repugnant to a man as endless crying and eternal reproaches. Especially if they are served day in and day out like a repulsive dish of leftover food…. Instead of bringing cheer into a man’s life you could very easily make it taste worse. These are words of truth that in all probability you will not be able to understand, since it is foreign to your nature to make the slightest sacrifice for anybody else…

What you are especially lacking, so much the pity, is an understanding of the feelings and efforts of another human being…. It presupposes a refinement and a culture, which you are totally lacking.

Sometimes he turns the blame onto himself. “Seek the bright sunshine and not the shadow, cheerful individuals and not a sad old log like me…. Don’t chain your youth to a sorrowful old man.” How poor Sofie must have dreaded receiving these epistles, attacking her for his physical shortcomings. As Samuel Butler remarked, no one can love a man whose liver is out of order.

You will never be able to understand me on a deeper level. You understand only what suits you. You are not capable of grasping that for many years I have sacrificed my time, my reputation, all my associations with the educated world and finally my business—all for a self-indulgent child who is not even capable of discerning the selflessness of these acts…. I am ending, my dear, good, tender Sofie, with the heartfelt hope that your life will be better than mine, and that you will never be struck by the feeling of debasement that embitters my days.

What a contrast between the writer of these letters and the man remembered by Ragnar Sohlman!

Nobel hated business, and longed to abandon it to concentrate on research. “I am totally sick and tired of the explosive-substance field,” he wrote to his brother Robert in his sixtieth year. “I long for peace and quiet, and want to devote my time to scientific experiments.” He even asked the manager of his German company to reserve a position for him as a lowly chemist, on which Fant comments: “The man must have thought his boss was having a nervous breakdown.”

When his brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper thought it was Alfred and published a cynical obituary describing him as a “merchant of death” who had built a fortune by discovering new ways to “mutilate and kill.” For the remaining eight years of his life, Alfred became obsessed with how posterity would remember him, and he revised his will, reducing his personal bequests and leaving the bulk to be invested in “stable securities [to] constitute a fund, the annual interest on which shall be awarded as prizes to those persons who during the previous [sic] year have rendered the greatest services to mankind.” Three such prizes were to be for physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, a fourth to whoever had done “the most and best work for the brotherhood of nations” (now known as the Peace Prize), and the fifth to “the person who has produced an outstanding work of literature in an ideal [sic] direction.”

Nobel wrote this will in his own hand, probably, it has been suggested (though not by Fant), without consulting a lawyer, and the biggest of the several problems it presented was caused by the word “ideal.” The relevant sentence has usually been translated as “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency,” and indeed it is so rendered in the official calendar of the Nobel Foundation. But Nobel did not write “idealistic,” the Swedish for which is idealistisk. He wrote idealisk, which simply means “ideal,” as in an ideal husband. Nor was this a slip of the pen, for the manuscript of the will shows that Nobel had originally planned to write some longer word such as idealistisk, but altered it to idealisk. Idealisk in this context is bad Swedish; what on earth can be meant by “work of an ideal tendency”? It seems unlikely that Nobel, his literary taste being what it was, meant it to signify hopeful or non-pessimistic, more probable indeed that he meant rebellious and independent, like his beloved Shelley, and Ibsen and Strindberg.

But for nearly fifty years the members of the Swedish Academy barred the door to writers whom they saw as pessimists, so that among those rejected were Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, Hardy, Henry James, Rilke, Conrad, Strindberg, Georg Brandes, Joyce, Robert Frost, and Virginia Woolf (to say nothing of those who died prematurely, such as Proust, Chekhov, Kafka, Lawrence, and Lorca). Some terrible duds got it. Who in Germany now reads Paul Heyse or Rudolf Eucken? Of the fourteen Scandinavians who have won the prize, compared with five Englishmen, the only one admired by posterity is Knut Hamsun. How could any body of men have given it to Galsworthy over James and Hardy, Bjornson over Ibsen, Lagerlöf over Strindberg, Heyse over Rilke, Sully-Prudhomme over Zola, Buck over Frost? Things improved a bit after World War II, but there have been some strange recent omissions, of whom perhaps the most obvious are Auden and Greene, and some even stranger choices, though I applaud that of Toni Morrison.

A gulf exists between English and American literary taste on the one hand and Swedish taste on the other, and one may sum up the differences under three headings. Firstly, Swedish taste tends to favor what in Britain and America, rightly or wrongly, is regarded as woolly and pretentious. Secondly, the Swedes have, partly for historical reasons, a leaning toward the “saga” kind of novel, a form which someone once defined as “covering not less than three generations and weighing not less than three pounds.” Several of the, to our eyes, odder selections of the Academy come into this category, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz (the author of Quo Vadis?), Sigrid Undset, who wrote the grotesquely overrated Kristin Lavransdatter, and John Galsworthy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Swedish critical opinion distrusts anything that might be described as entertaining. I have often noted how Swedish critics, consciously or unconsciously, separate literature into two classes, “good” literature and “entertainment,” rating the best “entertainment” literature, which would include Fielding, Sterne, Sheridan, Stevenson, and Twain, below the worst kind of “good” literature, as though the one were top of Division Two and the other bottom of Division One. As compulsively readable a writer as Greene, even at his most serious, was always regarded by the Academy with suspicion. (I feel entitled to accuse the Academy of poor taste, since twenty-nine years ago they awarded me their Gold Medal for my Strindberg translations.)

Fant’s book is a kind of inverted sandwich with the bread in the middle, interesting for the first hundred and the last fifty pages but stodgy in between. Conscientious and plodding, it tells us far more than we need to know about Nobel’s business dealings, with lists of shareholders and the like. The translation is patchy, with many a cliché and an occasional solecism: “promising beyond one’s wildest dreams,” “toiled like a galley slave,” “a uniquely happy marriage” (uniquely?), “with you, who has an iron constitution,” “something of so high quality and specialized that it exceeds anything existing,” “he literally showered her…with Christmas presents.” Strindberg’s quasi-autobiographical novel, always known as A Madman’s Defense, is clumsily entitled A Fool’s Defense Speech, Nebuchadnezzar becomes Nebuchadonsor, and the past tense of “to fit” is twice given as “fit.” A translation does not have to render clichés into clichés or bad Swedish into bad English. Some mistakes may be the author’s. Strindberg’s father was never “wealthy” (at best well-to-do), and the steamship pioneer Samuel Owen was not “a Swedish mechanic of English ancestry”—he was born in Shropshire and never saw Sweden until he was thirty. Incidentally, though Fant does not say so, he was Strindberg’s uncle by marriage. But the story, even thus clumsily narrated, takes hold. From these muddy waters Alfred Nobel emerges as a remarkable man.

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