ON THURSDAY, the Swedish Academy announced the Nobel Prize in Literature for this year as well as the last, with Polish author Olga Tokarczuk winning for 2018 and the Austrian author Peter Handke for 2019. The 2018 award had been postponed for a year on account of a scandal involving the Academy’s close ties with a man convicted of rape and jailed that year.
The delayed prize went to Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, the citation said. For the current year, Handke was awarded “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”.
Tokarczuk, 57, one of Poland’s most successful authors, has found a wider English-reading audience in recent years and won the Man Booker Prize in 2018 for Flights, a translation of her 2007 novel Bieguni. Much of her work is marked by historical/mythical settings with realistic details, and themes of conflicting cultures and perspectives. “She constructs her novels in a tension between cultural opposites; nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, home versus alienation,” the Academy said on its website.
Tokarczuk studied psychology at the University of Warsaw and made her fiction debut in 1993 with Podróz ludzi Ksiegi (‘The Journey of the Book-People’), set in 17th century France and Spain where the characters search for a mysterious book in the Pyrenees. Her breakthrough novel Prawiek i inne czasy, 1996 (Primeval and Other Times, 2010) is again set in a mythical place, yet full of realistic details. “Tokarczuk has claimed that the narrative was a personal attempt to come to terms with the national image of the past. The novel is an excellent example of the new Polish literature after 1989, resisting moral judgement and unwilling to represent the conscience of the nation,” the Academy said.
Her magnum opus, Ksiegi Jakubowe, 2014 (“The Books of Jacob”), is a 900-page novel about Jacob Frank, a little-known 18th-century sect leader who upset the orthodox with his effort to unite the Jewish, Christian and Muslim creeds.
Handke, 76, published his debut novel Die Hornissen in 1966, dropped out of his law course at the University of Graz, and went on to write novels, essays, dramatic works and screenplays in a vast body of work spanning more than 50 years. The Academy described him as one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War.
Son of a Slovenian-minority woman in Austria and a German soldier whom he would meet only as an adult, Handke chose to “revolt against his paternal heritage, that in his case was perverted by the Nazi regime”, and “chose the maternal line of heritage”. He once described contemporary German literature as suffering from beschreibungs impotence (description impotence) and has “found much of his own literary inspiration within the New Novel-movement in French literature”, the Academy said.
Handke, now based in France, is widely seen as sympathetic of the Serbian far right. He attended former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral in 2006, and expressed sympathy for the Serbs in the 1990s Yugoslav wars, a subject he has also written about. The Academy acknowledged that Handke has sometimes “caused controversy” but added that “he cannot be considered an engaged writer in the sense of Sartre, and he gives us no political programs”.
Why 2018 in 2019
The 2018 scandal followed the imprisonment for rape of Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault, with whom the Academy has close ties. He is married to then Academy member Katarina Frostenson, who resigned. The couple ran a cultural club in Stockholm that received funding from the Academy. The scandal caused a rift among members over how to manage their ties with him — seven of them resigned — and exposed scheming, conflicts of interest, and a culture of silence.
It led to the first postponement of the Literature Nobel in 70 years. A group of Swedish cultural figures set up a substitute award, the New Academy Prize, and chose their laureate as Maryse Conde, an author from Guadeloupe. This was to show that “a winner could be chosen in an open fashion, in contrast to the Academy’s secret workings”, The New York Times reported.