Through-out his life Alfred Nobel cultivated an image of himself as a life-weary melancholic, plagued by a longed-for but never-experienced love and bereft of normal human fellowship. Was it in reality a stigmatizing disease that drove him to this? Author Bengt Jangfeldt has found what could be the answer in an old letter from Nobel to his brother.
This text was first published in its Swedish original in Svenska Dagbladet on 23 Feb 2019. English translation by Anders Sjöman and Stephen Whitlock.
The answer to the enigma Alfred Nobel?
Every year on December 10, a ceremony in Stockholm reminds the world of one of the most famous Swedes of all time: Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize.
Nevertheless, a noun frequently associated with Alfred Nobel is “enigma”. Partly because of his complex personality and the contradictory nature of his work, which encompassed proliferation of dynamite with the pursuit of world peace, partly because of his personal life. Alfred Nobel never married and never expressed a desire to do so, other than as a very young man. Over the years he developed into a sickly and misanthropic loner.
Even as a young man, Nobel was regarded as an enigma. He was not just a brilliant inventor but also a playwright and a poet at high amateur level. His most famous poem begins, “You say I am a riddle…” Written when he was 18, it was addressed to a woman who found his personality mysterious. The poem exists in several versions in English and also one in Swedish, showing how important it must have been to him. It begins:
You say I am a riddle – it may be
For all of us are riddles unexplained
Begun in pain, in deeper torture ended,
This breathing clay what business has it here?
Some petty wants to chain us to the Earth,
Some lofty thoughts to lift us to the spheres
And cheat us with that semblance of a soul.
Thus, already as a young man, Nobel had a romantic, melancholic view of life. The fact that he became gloomy and misanthropic as an adult could therefore be seen as a natural development, as a result of his disposition. However, there is another – and much more tangible – explanation for his growing gloominess. It is to be found in a phrase in Russian in one of Nobel’s letters, previously passed over or ignored.
To put the letter in context, we need to start with some biographical details about Alfred Nobel and his years as young man in St. Petersburg.
Alfred was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Immanuel, was an inventor and architect who, when Alfred was four years old, had to leave Stockholm to escape his debtors. After a year in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland he traveled to St. Petersburg, where he quickly made a name for himself as a weapons constructor. His greatest invention was the design of a sea mine that the Russian authorities bought the rights to in 1842.
The money Immanuel Nobel was paid allowed him to relocate his family from Stockholm: his wife, Andriette, and sons Robert, Ludvig and Alfred. Over the following years, Immanuel built a successful mechanical workshop that made products for military and civilian use. During the Crimean War he received such large orders that he became a wealthy man. When the war was over, however, and Russia had a new emperor in Alexander II, the government broke the contract with the workshop and it went into liquidation.
In 1859, Immanuel Nobel moved back to Sweden, leaving his three sons in St. Petersburg to try to save the workshop. Their efforts failed, and it went bankrupt in 1861. That same year, Robert Nobel moved to Helsinki to get married. Two years later, Alfred left the Russian capital for a life in Stockholm. Ludvig remained in St. Petersburg, where he started a new mechanical workshop, which in the 1870s became one of Russia’s most successful. A decade later Robert returned to Russia where he laid the foundations for the Nobel Oil Production Company (Branobel), which in time would become one of the world’s leading companies in the oil industry.
Meanwhile, dynamite inventor Alfred built his business in Europe and the United States, and only returned to Russia for two short visits in 1871 and 1883. This notwithstanding Ludvig’s insistent invitations for him to visit. As explanations Alfred referred either to bad health or to a heavy work load – or to both. Those were valid reasons. His health was poor and he worked around the clock, but it is hard not to see them as excuses. Considering the fact that Alfred had spent 20 years of his life in St. Petersburg, between his tenth and thirtieth year, it seems strange that he would not have felt tempted to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. If he had wished to, health and work obstacles could surely have been overcome.
In 1952 Ludvig’s daughter Marta Nobel-Oleinikoff published a book, “Ludvig Nobel and his work.” It was printed “in a very limited edition and only at the disposal of the Nobel family.” (The book was made accessible to the public in 1977.) In it she suggests that the reason why Alfred was reluctant to visit St. Petersburg was that “since the 1860s, he had kept with him some embarrassing memories from there, whose nature however is shrouded in mystery.” One may doubt whether the sub-clause was entirely truthful. In all probability, she knew exactly what Alfred’s “embarrassing memories” were. That, however, was a well-kept family secret.
Alfred was the only one of the three brothers who did not marry or have children. Robert had four children, Ludvig a total of 18 (through two marriages). The fact that Alfred never married and had no known intimate relationship with women has attracted speculation. However, nothing indicates that he was a homosexual. Young Alfred was in fact very interested in women. For instance, he courted Robert’s fiancé with such fervor that it led to discord between the brothers, and as a 26-year-old he took English lessons in St. Petersburg, despite speaking the language well, solely to get in touch with women. He explained to Robert how the women admired him for his quick progress, and for the verses he wrote in their honor. He believed that poetry would help him “catch a rich and beautiful girl” and that he would “be the only one in the family to marry rich.” When Alfred visited St. Petersburg in 1871, Robert’s wife believed he went there to get engaged to “an old flame,” whoever that might have been.