Literary daybook, Oct. 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
October 21, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction
On Oct. 21, Mandy retrieves her purse and discovers the body of Esme Carling in the Thames as it flows past the Peverell Press offices.
-- "Original Sin" (1995)
by P.D. James

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1833, Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm. Nobel's great wealth, and the prizes that he established with it, seem directly related to the conditions of his upbringing. His father had some success as an inventor and a businessman, but he was not entirely practical in his approach to either. A series of poor investments bankrupted him just as Alfred was born, and while father went to Russia in pursuit of a contract for his latest invention -- land mines -- his sons sold matches on street corners in Stockholm. More success, more bankruptcy and a lifetime of useful or madcap ideas would follow -- at his death, Nobel's father was fleshing out plans for what sounds like plywood, and for coffins in which those mistaken for dead might have a device to save themselves. The upshot of all this for Alfred was an interest in explosives and inventing, and a resolve to keep his head to the ground and the grindstone, though this ruled out, in his mind, such distractions as marriage. He would create a blasting cap for nitroglycerine, as well as dynamite and other such refinements, from which he would build fortune upon fortune; his only long-term relationship, apart from family members, was an 18-year liaison with a Viennese flower girl less than half his age.

Perhaps acquired from his father, Nobel had a lifelong fear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have his arteries cut after death, just to be sure. To the surprise and dismay of those near him, his will also left the bulk of his wealth to establishing his famous foundation. As a self-made man, he had little time for those relatives who thought he should make them also, and there was more than one veiled reference in his letters to how they were in for a shock.


Nobel described himself as "a nomadic condemned by fate to be a broken shipwreck in life," and he voluntarily excluded himself from "love, happiness, joy, pulsating life, caring and being cared for, caressing and being caressed." He regarded friendship as something found "at the cloudy bottom of fleeing illusions or attached to the clattering sound of collected coins."

Why such an unromantic semi-recluse and borderline misanthrope should leave his money to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" and, in literature's case, to moving mankind in "an ideal direction," is something of a puzzle. Some think that Nobel was partly motivated by a journalistic error on the occasion of his brother's death eight years earlier. Ludvig Nobel was also successful, but in oil; one newspaper's obituary confused the two brothers, and reported that not Ludvig but Alfred had died, labeling him the "merchant of death" for his 90 dynamite factories. The theory is that Nobel was so horrified by this glimpse at his legacy that he did all he could to combat it.

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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