The 2018 prize was awarded to Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Before today, only 14 women had won the Nobel Prize in literature since it was first awarded in 1901. The 2018 prize was not awarded last year amid a scandal at the academy.
The judges praised Handke for his vast production in different genres, including essays, short prose, plays and films, and noted that he has become “one of the most influential writers of contemporary fiction” since his 1966 debut novel, “The Hornets.” His most widely read work is “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” about his mother’s suicide in 1971. The Nobel committee called out for special praise for “Die Obstdiebin” (“The Fruit Thief”) published in 2017, for its acute awareness of the landscape and its nomadic theme. “With great artistry, he explores the periphery and the unseen places,” the judges said.
For some, Handke’s win has been a long time coming. When Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel in 2004, she told the New York Times, “I was convinced that, if Austria was to get it, it would go to Peter Handke, and rightly so.” But Handke’s win today is not without controversy. The committee, so eager to move beyond its recent scandals, may have just stumbled into another one. Handke has been widely accused of being an apologist for fascists and Serbian nationalism. Such influential writers as Salman Rushdie have noted with alarm Handke’s coziness with the worst elements in Serbia. Handke was condemned for speaking at the 2006 funeral of Slobodan Milosevic and suggesting that the West had misunderstood the leader, who was accused of war crimes.
Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, Vlora Citaku, immediately condemned the Nobel Prize for Handke, saying it was a “preposterous and shameful decision.” Citaku tweeted: “SCANDALOUS! #Nobel committee decides to award Peter Handke — a man who glorified Milosevic aka ‘The Butcher of The Balkans’ & supported his genocidal regime — this year’s prize in literature. There is nothing nobel about this!”
Handke’s works have received mixed reviews in the United States. In 1985, a Washington Post reviewer described “Slow Homecoming” as “stupendously dull . . . clotted, undramatic, entirely self-obsessed.” A Post review in 1984 claimed that Handke was the best representative of those avant-garde German writers who are “solemn, strenuously intellectual, and glumly determined not to entertain.”
But in 1998, Post reviewer Thomas McGonigle praised “My Year in the No-Man’s Bay” and noted that “a new note of an acceptance of complex reality has gradually come to the fore in Handke’s work.”
Handke’s film work has expanded his audience considerably. In 1987, he co-wrote the award-winning movie “Wings of Desire,” directed by Wim Wenders. A review in The Post praised Wenders and Handke for creating “a whimsical realm of myth and philosophical pretense, dense with imagery.”
The judges read a statement saying that Tokarczuk is “a writer preoccupied with local life but at the same time inspired by maps and speculative thought, looking at life on Earth from above. Her work is full of wit and cunning.” The committee also singled out for special commendation Tokarczuk’s 1,000-page historical novel, “The Books of Jacob,” about an 18th-century sectarian leader. Riverhead Books plans to publish the novel in English in 2021.
Hearing the news, Tokarczuk’s U.S. editor, Rebecca Saletan, at Riverhead, said: “It has been an indescribable joy to immerse myself in working with Olga Tokarczuk. Her serene devotion to her work, her playfulness, her generous acknowledgment of her translators and all those who bring her books before the world, and her infectious joy as that happens make the outward persona of this remarkable writer a mirror to one of the most fertile imaginations of our time.”
Tokarczuk’s U.S. translator, Jennifer Croft, said: “One of the things that sets her apart from a lot of other Nobel Prize winners is that she is simultaneously critically acclaimed and beloved — overwhelmingly beloved by the public. She is an extremely ambitious writer who is also incredibly accessible. And her background as a psychologist lends her characters so much psychological nuance.” Croft also praised Tokarczuk’s “beautifully lyrical” prose. “It has a kind of reassuring rhyme,” she said. “She can write about really ghastly things and confront terrible truths about history, and yet the reader still feels comforted by the prose itself.”
Tokarczuk’s novel “Flights” (translated by Croft) won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction. Reviewing the novel in The Post, Tom McAllister wrote: “It moves briskly, buoyed by a sense of humor that is sometimes dark but often joyful. . . . It’s one of the novel’s great strengths that Tokarczuk can keep you turning the pages even as you’re not entirely sure what she’s getting at, or how it all fits together.”
The unprecedented decision to confer two prizes today was expected, because the Swedish Academy announced in May 2018 that it would postpone the 2018 literature prize until this year.
That decision was made in the wake of a scandal that had embroiled the academy and threatened the future of the world’s most prestigious literary award. The controversy erupted in late 2017 when news broke that French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a member of the academy, had been accused of multiple instances of sexual assault and harassment over a period of many years. Arnault and his wife were also accused of misusing academy funds and even leaking the names of prizewinners for profit.
In the internecine battle that followed, Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the academy, was forced out of her position over her handling of an investigation into Arnault’s behavior. Several other members resigned or refused to participate on the Nobel committee.
Arnault was subsequently found guilty of rape, fined and sentenced to more than two years in prison.
Critics around the world called for more transparency to help rebuild the prize’s reputation. Delaying the 2018 prize until this year was intended to provide time for necessary housekeeping. The academy has since removed members with conflicts of interest, added new members and appointed Mats Malm as the new permanent secretary. In March, the Nobel Foundation, which funds the prize, issued a news release saying that “the steps that the Swedish Academy has taken and intends to take will create good opportunities for restoring trust in the Academy as a prize-awarding institution.”
Honoring two authors in one year is unusual for the Nobel Prize in literature, but it is not unprecedented. It has happened four times in the past, most recently in 1974 when the Swedish writers Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson won. The difference this year is that Handke and Tokarczuk are not sharing the prize; they’re each getting their own and about $910,000 apiece.
The last person to win the Nobel Prize in literature was British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017.
The only living U.S. winner of the Nobel Prize in literature is the musician Bob Dylan, who received the award in 2016.
The winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.