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European stylists make their mark on the Nobel Prize for literature

Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author, and Peter Handke of Austria, won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author, and Peter Handke, an Austrian writer, each received the Nobel Prize for literature.
(Associated Press / Getty Images)

The two winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, announced Thursday, are both European literary stylists known for their imaginative prose, and also for at times becoming lightning rods for controversy.

But that’s where the similarity ends between Austrian avant-garde novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and essayist Peter Handke, who received the 2019 Nobel, and Polish author and political activist Olga Tokarczuk, who belatedly received the 2018 prize. The latter award had been postponed a year after a sexual abuse scandal rocked the Swedish Academy, which chooses the winner.

The judges hailed Handke for producing an influential body of work “that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” The prize announcement compared him to another influential 20th-century writer in the German language, Franz Kafka.

Winning the Nobel is “a sensation of freedom I’ve never felt before,” Handke, 76, said in an interview released on YouTube by the Nobel website.

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It was a turnabout from his views in a 2014 interview with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, in which Handke called for the Nobel Prize for literature to be abolished and derided the award for what he called its “false canonization” of literature.

Nobel judges lauded Tokarczuk for writing with “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

The English version of her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, made the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize. The unconventional crime novel tells the story of an elderly astrologist who lives in a remote Polish village; her revulsion at hunting initially leads her to believe that dead bodies found in her village are acts of retaliation by animals.

National Public Radio reviewer Kamil Ahsan praised the Polish novelist as “fundamentally a portraitist, a writer with a keen sense for sniffing out the incongruities that make a person.”

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In an interview Thursday, Tokarczuk, 57, noted that Central Europe is struggling with political turmoil and said she hoped “such a prize will, in a way, give us a kind of optimism.”

Her books are increasingly being republished in other languages. “That’s why translators are so important,” she said in the interview published on the Nobel website. “They are like fragile links between languages, reminding us that literature is one.”

Last year’s Nobel Prize for literature award was scrapped on the heels of the furor surrounding Jean-Claude Arnault, a convicted rapist married to poet and former Swedish Academy member Katarina Frostenson.

The Nobel Foundation announced in March that it planned to double up on the literary awards after last year’s controversy, which cut the number of Swedish Academy voters from 18 to 11.

Arnault was accused of leaking the names of Nobel Prize winners as well as assaulting or harassing 18 women — including Crown Princess Victoria, heir to the Swedish throne — causing several members to resign. Frostenson and Arnault also faced conflict-of-interest allegations involving Forum, a Swedish cultural center funded in part by the Swedish Academy.

On Thursday the organization took an unusual move to award literature prizes to not one but two authors.

The 2019 winner, Handke was born in the village of Griffen in southern Austria in 1942, the son of a German soldier — whom he wouldn’t meet until his own adulthood — and a mother who was an ethnic Slovenian. After studying to be a lawyer, he dropped out after publishing “Die Hornissen” (“The Hornets”), an experimental novel-within-a-novel, in 1966.

That same year, he gained notoriety with a provocative play, “Publikumsbeschimpfung” (“Offending the Audience”), in which a quartet of actors debated the nature of drama in between insulting theatergoers. One of his subsequent plays, 1968’s “Kaspar,” reinterpreted the story of Kaspar Hauser, the 19th-century German boy who claimed to have been held in isolation in a basement cell for years, and portrayed him as a victim of society’s attempts to impose its values upon an innocent.

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Handke went on to become such a prolific writer that the announcement of his Nobel win cited nearly 100 works. Of those, one of Handke’s best-known books is 1970’s “Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter” (“The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick”), a Kafkaesque crime novel about a former soccer player who becomes a murderer. It was made into a film by German director Wim Wenders, with whom Handke collaborated on the screenplay. Handke also helped write the screenplay for Wenders’ most famous film, 1988’s “Wings of Desire.”

Handke’s 1975 book “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” an account of his mother’s life and death, was praised by a Times reviewer as “an exacting picture of the shock and grief that await those who have inherited the ruins of a suicide.”

Handke also has received criticism for his political views. After he published “A Journey to the Rivers,” a 1995 book that presented a sympathetic view of the Serbian side during the war in Bosnia, reviewer David Rieff called Handke’s book “contemptible.” In 2006, after Handke attended the funeral of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — who died while being tried for war crimes — German politicians threatened to revoke a literary prize Handke had been awarded, leading him to turn it down, according to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle. “I am a writer and not a judge,” Handke said of Milosevic in a 2006 New York Times interview.

The 2018 winner Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechów in Poland, the offspring of two teachers. She studied psychology at the University of Warsaw before publishing her 1993 debut novel, “Podróz ludzi Księgi” (“The Journey of the Book-People”), which was set in 17th-century France and Spain. She rose to literary stardom with 1996’s “Prawiek i inne czasy” (“Primeval and Other Times”), which retold the history of the Polish nation in the 20th century, starting on the eve of World War I.

Other books by Tokarczuk include the historical novel “Księgi Jakubowe” (“The Books of Jacob”), based upon the life of charismatic 18th-century sect leader Jacob Frank. In 2018, Tokarczuk became the first Polish writer ever to win the Booker Prize for her book “Flights,” a novel that contemplates both modern travel and the human anatomy.

But Tokarczuk also has become a lightning rod because of her opposition to Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice Party and her support for gay rights, according to the Associated Press.

A 2018 profile of Tokarczuk in the British newspaper the Guardian depicted her as a controversial figure in her native Poland, where some denounced her after she gave a television interview in which she questioned Poland’s self-image as a survivor of oppression, saying that the country had committed “horrendous acts” of colonization during its history. Her publisher had to hire bodyguards to protect her as a result, the Guardian reported. Conversely, she’s become a hero to youthful leftists in her country, as the New Yorker reported in a recent profile.

Tokarczuk told the New Yorker she sees herself as a “psychotherapist of the past,” who compels her readers to contemplate portions of their own lives and Polish history that they otherwise wouldn’t think about.


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