Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian author Peter Handke – two writers whose works are deeply intertwined in Europe’s religious, ethnic and social fault lines – won the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for literature on Thursday.
The rare double announcement came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex-abuse allegations that tarnished the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize.
Yet if prize organizers hoped to get through this year’s awards without controversy, they will likely be disappointed.
The Swedish Academy called Handke “one of the most influential writers in Europe” after World War II and praised his work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience” with linguistic ingenuity.
But the 76-year-old author has long faced criticism for his vigorous defence of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges, calling him “a rather tragic man.”
Handke – who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished – said he was “astonished” to receive the award.
“I never thought they would choose me,” Handke told reporters outside his home near Paris.
“It was very courageous by the Swedish academy, this kind of decision,” he added. “These are good people.”
If Handke’s victory caused uncomfortable ripples, the choice of Tokarczuk was welcomed by liberal-minded authors and readers in her native Poland and beyond.
The 57-year-old novelist is one of Poland’s best-known authors, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak. The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Beginning with his first novel, “The Hornets,” in 1966, Handke made his name with works that combine introspection and a provocative streak. One early play was called “Offending the Audience” and featured actors insulting theatregoers.
He has written screenplays, several of them for German director Wim Wenders, who also filmed Handke’s 1970 novel “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.”
He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” his 1972 autobiographical novel about his mother’s suicide.
But his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans wars has set him at odds with many other Western intellectuals.
In a 1996 essay, “Justice for Serbia,” Handke accused Western news media of depicting Serbs as aggressors in the wars that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. He denied that genocide was committed when Bosnian Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995, and was an opponent of NATO’s air strikes against Serbia for that country’s violent crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s. In an interview with Serbia’s state TV earlier this year Handke said those behind the bombing “don’t belong to Europe and the planet Earth.”
Handke’s views led novelist Salman Rushdie in 1999 to call him a contender for “International Moron of the Year.” Rushdie’s publicist at Penguin Random House said Thursday that Rushdie stood by what he wrote in 1999.
In 2006, Handke turned down the Heinrich Heine award from the German city of Duesseldorf after his selection sparked a row among the city’s politicians. His selection as winner of the International Ibsen Award for drama in 2014 also prompted protests from human rights groups.
The same year, he told the Austrian Press Agency that the Nobel Prize should be abolished because of its “false canonization” of literature.
Tokarcuzk has been attacked by Polish conservatives – and received death threats – for criticizing aspects of the country’s past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. She is also a strong critic of Poland’s current right-wing government.
Her 2014 novel “The Books of Jacob” tackles the forced conversion of Polish Jews to Catholicism in the 18th century. Her book “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a crime thriller with feminist and animal-rights themes that offers a sometimes unflattering depiction of small-town Polish life.
She won the Booker International Prize in 2018 for “Flights,” which combines tales of modern-day travel with the story of a 17th-century anatomist who dissected his own amputated leg and the journey of composer Frederic Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw after his death.
Poland’s Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who said earlier this week that he has not finished any of Tokarczuk’s books, tweeted his congratulations and said he now felt obliged to go back and read her books all the way through.
Polish President Andrzej Duda called it a “great day for Polish literature” on Twitter.
Tokarczuk is only the 15th woman to win the Nobel literature prize in more than a century. Of the 11 Nobels awarded so far this week, all the other laureates have been men.
Both winners will receive a full cash prize, valued this year at 9 million kronor ($918,000), a gold medal and a diploma.
The literature prize was cancelled last year after an exodus of members from the exclusive Swedish Academy, which chooses the winners, following sex abuse allegations. Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a former academy member, was convicted last year of two rapes in 2011.
The Nobel Foundation had warned that another group could award the literature prize if the academy didn’t improve its tarnished image, but said in March it was satisfied the Swedish Academy had revamped itself and restored trust.
The 2018 and 2019 awards were chosen by the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee, a new body made up of four academy members and five “external specialists.” Nobel organizers say the committee suggests two names that then must be approved by the Swedish Academy. It’s unclear whether academy members simply rubber-stamped the experts’ choice.
Anders Olsson, chair of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee, said “we are not ready to evaluate this new process yet.”
In his will, Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel designated the Swedish Academy as the institution responsible for the Nobel Prize in literature. Nobel decided the physics, chemistry and medicine prizes should be awarded in Stockholm, and the peace prize in Oslo.
The coveted Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Friday and the economics award on Monday.
The laureates will receive their honours at an elegant ceremony on Dec. 10 – the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896 – in Stockholm and in Oslo.
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