Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian novelist Peter Handke were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the years 2018 and 2019 respectively. By Alexa Marshall & Alexandra Alter.
For more than a century, the Nobel Prize in literature has often been a polarising spectacle, with critics denouncing the winners as too obscure, too Eurocentric, too male, too experimental, or simply unworthy of literature’s highest honour.
On Thursday, it waded into fresh controversy, awarding the prize to a right-leaning writer, Peter Handke, who delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia who was tried for war crimes.
This year was supposed to be a reset for the Nobel Committee, after a messy scandal involving sexual abuse and financial impropriety forced the Nobel Committee to postpone its 2018 prize for literature. The Swedish Academy faced enormous expectations and heightened pressure this year, as it promised to deliver not one but two awards.
In addition to Handke, who received the 2019 prize on Thursday, novelist Olga Tokarczuk received it for 2018.
Both writers are from central Europe and are known for their outspoken and sometimes polarising political views. But it was Handke’s prize that sparked a backlash, including a rare rebuke from another literary organisation, PEN America.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic,” novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president, said in a statement on behalf of the organisation. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
When asked about the academy’s selection of Handke, Mats Malm, an academy member and its permanent secretary, said it was based on literary and aesthetic grounds, adding: “It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”
As Handke’s award was condemned in some corners, many in the literary world celebrated the news about Tokarczuk, an experimental novelist and poet from Poland who is beloved by readers and critics.
Handke, who is from Austria, has espoused nationalistic views, and has publicly expressed doubt about the massacres of Muslims during the Balkans War. Tokarczuk has been a frequent critic of right-wing nationalists in Poland, who have branded her a traitor. Her Polish publisher at one point hired bodyguards to protect her.
Some prominent authors, among them Hari Kunzru and Salman Rushdie, were critical of the choice of Handke, who could not be reached through his American publisher.
Tokarczuk seemed untroubled. In an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Thursday, Tokarczuk said she was happy to receive the Nobel alongside Handke. “I am also very happy that Peter Handke has received the award with me, I value him very much,” she said. “It’s great that the Swedish Academy appreciated literature from the central part of Europe. I am glad that we are still holding on.”
In awarding the prizes to two renowned European authors, the academy seemed to brush off criticism it has received in the past that the prize had become too Western and Eurocentric. Since the literature prize was first awarded in 1901, the vast majority of winners have been European and English-language authors.
Women have also been underrepresented historically. Tokarczuk is the 15th woman to win the Nobel for literature, out of 116 laureates.
The academy postponed last year’s prize amid a scandal that involved a husband of an academy member who was convicted of rape and accused of leaking winners’ names—a crisis that led to the departure of board members and required the intervention of the king of Sweden. The academy made several organisational changes after the scandal, including appointing five independent experts to help choose winners.
A group of Swedish cultural figures even set up a substitute award, the New Academy Prize, to fill the gap and show a winner could be chosen in an open fashion, in contrast to the academy’s secret workings. Their laureate was Maryse Conde, a writer of historical novels from Guadeloupe.
Handke was born in 1942 in southern Austria. Both Handke’s biological father and his stepfather served in the Wehrmacht, the German army. After his mother’s suicide in 1971, Handke made sporadic visits to Yugoslavia.
He spent part of his childhood living in war-scarred Berlin and went on to study law at the University of Graz. He dropped out in 1965 after a publisher accepted his first novel, The Hornets. His body of work now includes novels, essays, screenplays and other dramatic works. He has been based in Chaville, a suburb of Paris, since 1990.
Literary critics have described his work as avant-garde, but Handke has dismissed that label, branding himself a “conservative classical writer.”
His decades of writing, published originally in German, include A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a critically acclaimed novella based on his mother’s death. Michael Wood, reviewing the book in 1975 for The New York Times, called it “a major memorial to a host of buried German and Austrian lives” and “the best piece of new writing I have seen in several years.”
But Handke’s friendship with Slobodan Milosevic and his comments that seemed to downplay the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims drew condemnation. In an interview in 2006, he said of Milosevic: “I think he was a rather tragic man. Not a hero, but a tragic human being. I am a writer and not a judge.”
In the same interview, he said he did not expect to ever win the Nobel Prize because of the controversy. “When I was younger I cared,” he said. “Now I think it’s finished for me after my expressions about Yugoslavia.”
The same year, he was selected as the winner of Germany’s prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize, but it was revoked amid public outcry. In response, Handke asserted that he “never denied or played down, not to speak of sanctioned, any of the massacres in Yugoslavia.” When Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Award in 2014, he was met with protesters at the awards ceremony.
In the United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published translations of Handke’s work since 1970, starting with his collection Kaspar and Other Plays, followed in 1972 by the novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Since then, FSG has released more than 15 books by Handke.
“Handke is one of the great German prose stylists, who has spent his career exploring both the natural world and the world of human consciousness with exquisite precision, humor and courage,” FSG’s president, Jonathan Galassi, said in a statement.
Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechow, Poland, the daughter of two teachers. Her father was also a school librarian, and it was in that library that Tokarczuk found her love of literature, devouring book after book.
She went on to study psychology at the University of Warsaw and worked as a clinical psychologist but felt she wasn’t cut out for the work, noting in one interview that she quit because she realised she was “much more neurotic than my clients.”
Tokarczuk published her first book, a volume of poetry, in 1989, and won acclaim in 1993, when she published her first novel, The Journey of the Book-People, a fictional tale of characters in search of a mysterious book in the Pyrenees, set in 17th-century France and Spain. The book was awarded the Polish Publisher’s Prize for a debut novel that year.
But her real breakthrough is considered to be her third novel, Prawiek i inne czasy or Primeval and Other Times. First published in 1996, it tells the story of three generations of a Polish family, from 1914 to the beginnings of Solidarity in 1980.
In 2018, she became the first Polish author to win the Man Booker International Prize, for her novel, Flights, which was translated by Jennifer Croft and published in the United States last year by Riverhead.
“Her work is simultaneously universal and very Polish,” Croft said.
A series of 116 vignettes about characters who are in transit or displaced, the book was praised as a literary antidote to cultural isolationism, xenophobia and nationalism.
“Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness—these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized,” Tokarczuk writes. “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.”
Tokarczuk is a prominent and outspoken figure in Poland, known for her opposition to the right-wing Law and Justice party. She faced a backlash after the publication of her novel, The Books of Jacob, which is set in 18th-century Poland and celebrates the country’s cultural diversity, and won Poland’s top literary prize, the Nike Award, in 2015. Though it was embraced by critics and readers, the novel drew a sharp rebuke from nationalist groups, and Tokarczuk was subjected to a harassment campaign, receiving death threats and calls for her deportation. In January, she wrote an opinion piece for The Times on the state of the country after the murder of a leading liberal mayor in the country. “I worry about our immediate future,” she said.
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES