Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke were awarded Nobel Prizes in literature on Thursday, the Swedish Academy announced at a ceremony in Stockholm.
Handke, an acclaimed novelist and playwright, received this year’s prize, while Tokarczuk, an experimental novelist and poet, received the 2018 prize, which had been postponed for a year because of a scandal at the academy.
Both authors are well-known figures in Europe, renowned for their work but also for their sometimes polarizing political views. Tokarczuk has been an outspoken critic of right-wing nationalists in Poland, who have branded her a traitor. Her Polish publisher at one point hired bodyguards to protect her.
Handke has been criticized for his support of Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia who was widely seen as a war criminal and the driving force behind the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Handke attended Milosevic’s war crimes trial at The Hague and delivered a eulogy at his funeral. 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 be awarded 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 Nobel Prize in literature is awarded on literary and aesthetic grounds,” Mats Malm, an academy member and its permanent secretary, said when asked about the academy’s selection of Handke. “It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”
Tokarczuk found out she received the prize while on the road in Germany. In a telephone interview with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, she said: “When I found out, I pull over. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I am also very happy that Peter Handke has received the award with me; I value him very much. 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 recipients have been European and English-language authors.
Women have also been underrepresented historically. Tokarczuk is the 15th woman to be awarded the Nobel for literature, out of 116 laureates.
Some observers in the literary world anticipated that the academy would select at least one non-European writer this year, perhaps awarding the prize to one of the often-cited favorites, among them Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinese writer Can Xue, or Syrian poet Adunis.
In a statement this year, Anders Olsson, who leads the academy’s literature committee, conceded that diversity should be more of a priority and indicated that the committee would take geographic diversity and gender into account in making its selection.
“Previously we had a more, let’s say, Eurocentric perspective of literature and now we are looking all over the world,” he said in a video interview. “Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers that are really great, so the prize and the whole process with the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”
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 recipients’ names — a crisis that led to the departure of board members and required the intervention of the king of Sweden. The academy made several organizational changes after the scandal, including appointing five independent experts to help choose award recipients.
A group of Swedish cultural figures even set up a substitute award, the New Academy Prize, to fill the gap and show a recipient 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 to a German father and a Slovenian mother. 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, France, 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 Milosevic and his comments that seemed to downplay the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims drew condemnation. In 2006, he was selected as the recipient 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.
On Thursday, some literary organizations condemned the academy’s choice of Handke.
“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, who is president of PEN America, said in a statement on behalf of the organization. “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.”
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 realized 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 receive 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.”
In an interview with the Times, Tokarczuk said she started the novel more than a decade ago, well before Brexit and other nationalist movements took hold throughout Europe. “I wrote this book when the world was looking to be open for everybody,” she said. “Now we’re seeing how the European Union will probably become weakened by the policies of countries like Poland and Hungary, which are focused on their borders once again.”
She also referenced increasingly severe immigration policies in the United States. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”
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 received 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.
Asked this month if he’d read Tokarczuk’s work, Piotr Glinski, the Polish culture minister, replied that he had tried but had never finished any of her books.
On Thursday, Glinski congratulated Tokarczuk. “It is proof that Polish culture is appreciated all over the world,” he wrote on Twitter. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and former prime minister of Poland, also offered his congratulations in a tweet. He added that he had read all her books from start to finish.