Two Nobel Prizes for Literature Awarded

Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author, and Peter Handke, an Austrian writer, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 10. At a ceremony in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy announced the 2019 prize went to Handke, Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize, which was not presented last year because of a scandal at the academy.

The academy cites Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Olga Tokarczuk

Tokarczuk is particularly noted for the mythical tone of her writing. The summaries of her work in the Wikipedia show her closest approaches to the fantastic are in these three novels:

E. E. (1995) took its title from the initials of its protagonist, a young woman named Erna Eltzner, who grows up in a bourgeois German-Polish family in Breslau (the at that time German city that was to become the Polish Wroc?aw after World War II) in the 1920s, who develops psychic abilities…

Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times”) was published in 1996 and became highly successful. It is set in the fictitious village of Prawiek (Primeval) at the very heart of Poland, which is populated by some eccentric, archetypical characters. The village is guarded by four archangels, from whose perspective the novel chronicles the lives of Prawiek’s inhabitants over a period of eight decades, beginning in 1914….

In 2009 the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was published. It is written in the convention of a detective story with the main character telling the story from her point of view. Janina Duszejko, an old woman, eccentric in her perception of other humans through astrology, relates a series of deaths in a rural area near K?odzko, Poland. She explains the deaths as caused by wild animals in vengeance on hunters.

Tokarczuk continues to write significant work, and in 2018 won the Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction for “Flights,” an experimental novel based on stories of travel.

Handke was cited by the Swedish Academy “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Peter Handke

He is a prolific writer, however, the Wikipedia lacks helpful synopses of Handke’s works, having a great deal more to say about the controversies created by his political associations. For example:

His writings about the Yugoslav Wars and subsequent NATO bombing of Yugoslavia with criticism of the Western position and his speech at the funeral of Slobodan Miloševi? have caused controversy, and he has been widely described as an apologist for far-right Serbian nationalism

Two winners were named today because the prize was not awarded in 2018.

The Swedish Academy, which oversees the prestigious award, suspended it to make changes to its processes after it was engulfed in a sexual assault scandal.

Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson, was sentenced to two years in prison in October after being convicted of rape. Furthermore, Frostenson was accused of providing Arnault with the names of seven Nobel laureates in advance; Arnault was later revealed to have leaked the names, resulting in sizable bets placed on the eventual winners.

In the absence of the 2018 prize, The New Academy, a private initiative organized among Swedish culture workers, presented its 2018 New Prize in Literature to Maryse Condé.  

Anticipating today’s awards, Alexandra Pascalidou, a Swedish journalist who set up the New Academy Prize, told the New York Times:

The Swedish Academy needs to change more. It needs more inclusion, more diversity, more openness.

She says the academy should not have awarded the 2018 prize because it will forever be tainted by the scandal. “It’s very sad for whoever wins.”


Prior to 2019, the most recent winner was Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017. The fantastic elements in his latest novel, The Buried Giant (2015) argue for his inclusion among the small number of sff authors to win the prize, such as Kipling and Doris Lessing.

17 thoughts on “Two Nobel Prizes for Literature Awarded

  1. Peter Handke is a very well known fiction writer, poet and playwright in the German speaking world, though his support for Milosevic has significantly tarnished his reputation to the point that I extremely surprised that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The German speaking literary world is divided about this win and how you feel about it depends on how you feel about Handke. Spoiler alert: I am not a fan and would have considered him an unsuitable winner even without the controversy.

    Handke is a prolific fiction writer, poet and playwright. As a playwright, his most famous plays are “Publikumsbeschimpfung” (Insulting the Audience), which is exactly what it says on the tin, two hours of people standing on stage and insulting the audience, and “Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wussten” (The hour in which we knew nothing about each other), which is two hours of things happening on stage, while not a single word is spoken. One of his better known poems is “Die Aufstellung des 1. FC Nürnberg vom 27.1.1968” (The line-up of the 1. FC Nuremberg on January 27, 1968), in which Handke basically reproduces the line-up of the football team 1. FC Nuremberg on the given date.

    Handke is friends with filmmaker Wim Wenders and has written the screenplays for several of his movies, including “Der Himmel über Berlin” a.k.a. “Wings of Desire”, which is genre.

    I would characterise his fiction as “navelgazing white dude prose”. One of his best known novels are “Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter” (The fear of the goal keeper during the penalty shot), in which a former goal keeper now turned construction worker walks aimlessly around, picks up a woman for sex, strangles her and walks aimlessly around some more, while the police is hunting him. The novel was also filmed by Wim Wenders. Another well known novel is “Der Chinese des Schmerzes”(The Chinese of Pain) in which a man is on his way to a card game with friends, when he observes someone spraying swastika graffiti, throws a stone at the sprayer and kills him. He is never arrested, but still spends the rest of the novel wandering aimlessly around, while reflecting on his guilt. Handke has also written autobiographical texts such as “Kindergeschichte” (Children story) about raising his daughter as a single father and “Wunschloses Unglück” (Undesired bad luck) about the suicide of his mother.

    Regarding the Serbia controversy, Peter Handke is part of a Slovenian minority living in the Austrian province of Carinthia. So is the other living Austrian Nobel Prize winner for literature, Elfriede Jelinek BTW. Because Handke has Slovenian roots, he spent a lot of time in what was then Yugoslavia. When the Balkan Wars broke out in the 1990s, Handke initially said something like, “The situation is very complex, maybe the Western media shouldn’t be so quick to take sides.” He got pushback and doubled down, which eventually turned into completely inacceptable behaviour such as denying massacres, holding a eulogy for Milosevic and supporting Serbian nationalism.

    I’ll close with what German literary critic Denis Scheck (who is a fan, i.e. one of us) said in a TV program tonight, “Dario Fo once said about his Nobel Prize win, ‘Now an idiot has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.’ Now, with the win for Handke, there are two of them.”

  2. @ Cora. Thanks for the information. I hadn’t heard of either of them before today, not surprising since they don’t write in genre.

  3. @P J Evans
    Lots of people are not happy with the Handke win, though I doubt that the Nobel Prize will be revoked.

    However, Handke should never have been given the Prize in the first place. And the Swedish Academy pretty much ruined its chance at a new beginning after the scandals of the past year with this choice.

    It almost feels as if there was a trade-off along the lines of “Okay, we’ll award your anti-fascist Polish feminist, if you award our navel-gazing Austrian massacre apologist.”

  4. Oh Jeez, he’s the guy we can thank for Wenders’ most cliche-ridden and overrated film of all times? I mean if it had to be a white straight dude, wasn’t anybody better available?

  5. I can see Pascalidou’s complaint that the academy needs to open up, but ISTM there was no reason not to catch up by awarding last year’s prize this year — unless she feels the academy is still un-credible, in which case she should have denounced its awarding 2019 at all — not just it was giving the award to a jerk of debatable quality.

  6. Olga Tokarczuk often uses fantastic elements in her prose and also always was supportive toward SFF genre (something still rare in Polish intellectual circles). There is a big interview with her in 05/2019 issue of Polish genre magazine “Nowa Fantastyka” (unfortunately not online) in which she openly acknowledges her genre inspirations and criticizes marginalizing of genre by literary critics.

  7. Cora has already covered Handke in detail. Here are some of my thoughts on the politics of the Swedish Academy here, based on both my own observations during the past two years and what I’ve read in comments in Swedish media.

    The first is that while the academy managed to reconstitute itself as an institution, not only was its reputation extremely tarnished, but it lost a lot of its more progressive elements and active artists in the process, and it came out of the scandal a lot older and a lot more male—it lost all of its active female members but one. The selections of new members this year has done a lot to make up for this, but there are other issues as well.

    The second is that the makeup of the academy has shifted in another way. Back when it started in the 18th century, the idea was to keep it one third academics, one third active writers, and one third respected laymen. Today, only the “tradition” that chair number one is held by a lawyer or other jurist remains of that third group. Instead, the academy has become dominated by academics, and that was reinforced by the losses during the past year was four active writers (though one hadn’t been active for a long time) to two academics.

    So the academy became a lot older, much more male, and more homogenous. The current selections for new members this year will help, but not enough. And all the old archeoconservative elements remains; all they lost was, to express it more than a little bluntly, their female alibis.

    Another thing to note: the Nobel Prize working group, which prepares the shortlist of possible laureates, had opened up its membership to five people from outside the academy. But the actual selection of the winner is done by the academy as a whole, and I doubt the “extra” members had any influence there.

  8. Thank you Cora and Karl-Johan for your respective analyses; I’d never heard of either offer, and while I was aware in a general way of the Nobel scandal of a few years back, I’d heard nothing since about how they “repaired” it.

  9. @Karl-Johan: that the panel is overloaded with academics fits with @Cora’s descriptions, which sound like work only academics could love. (This is hardly a new issue; see (e.g.) Anderson’s “Critique of Impure Reason”. I’m also reminded of people going ape over Confederacy of Dunces, which I thought was appalling — I wonder whether it has faded in respect as some in a previous thread say Bacigalupi has.) Is the governance sufficiently self-directed that there’s no way to turf out a dinosaur or two?

    The BBC offers a summary of the responses to Handke; the article covers the political issue, without extending Cora’s discussion of whether the work itself was worthy.

  10. @Chip: It also depends on the academics, both personality and area. There are some excellent translators, linguists, historians, and so on in the academy. But they also had—and still have—a core of some people with a focus on literary studies with rather strong emphasis on poststructuralism as the only way to Good Literature.

  11. @Chip Hitchcock: In my circles, people are still reading and recommending Confederacy of Dunces. It didn’t score with me, but I plan to try it again. I love stories in and about New Orleans–but I don’t think anything will ever top Liquor: A Novel.

  12. Don’t miss the initial part of Cora’s description: Handke is not an obscure writer popular only among academics. He’s very well-known name in the German-speaking literary world – and in Europe in general – and has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize for decades.

  13. @Karl-Johan Norén: one-true-way people shouldn’t be judges. That attitude reminds me of Stravinsky’s “Canticum Sacrum”, which I’ve read he composed just to prove to the hard-assed serialists that he could write atonal music if he wanted to — but he got more mileage out of using a wider variety of techniques, even imitation-~Classical, as he thought they were appropriate. (It’s been too long since I sang any Stravinsky; I’d like another shot at the mass and “Symphony of Psalms” before my voice gives out.)

    @John A Arkansawyer: I get that some people adore New Orleans; it’s possible I might have if I’d been younger than 41 on my first visit, but I didn’t so I don’t — and AFAICT we’re supposed to admire a fundamentally despicable character in Confederacy. Different strokes….

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