Nobel Prize in Literature: Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke win awards

Polish author and controversial Austrian writer named 2018 and 2019 winners in Stockholm

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austria's Peter Handke have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two winners were named, one for 2019 and one for 2018, because the prize was not awarded last year. Video: Reuters


The Austrian writer Peter  Handke has won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the postponed 2018 award went to the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. Each laureate receives just over €825,000 in prize money.

It is the first time in the award’s 118-year history that two literature prizes have been given in the same year. The move follows sexual assault allegations and high-profile resignations from the Swedish Academy, the institution that administers the Nobel Prizes, in 2017, which led to the cancellation of last year’s prize announcement.

Handke, who is 76, won the 2019 prize  “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”, the academy said. The 2018 prize, delayed by a year, went to Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

Handke, best known for his screenplay for Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, is controversial. His eulogy in Serbian at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic in 2006 provoked much criticism. Later that year he was nominated for the €50,000 Heinrich Heine Prize, but political opposition resulted in the award being withdrawn.

He won the International Ibsen Award, the world’s leading theatre award, in 2014 for “a body of work that is unparalleled in its formal beauty and brilliant reflection. If Ibsen was the model playwright of the bourgeois epoch, which has yet to end, Peter Handke is undoubtedly theatre’s most eminent epic poet.”

Handke, who was born in Kärnten, studied law at the University of Graz from 1961 to 1965 but broke off his studies when his first novel manuscript, Die Hornissen (The Hornets, 1966), was accepted in 1965. In the same year, the legendary play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) was put on in Frankfurt, directed by Claus Peymann.

Handke has since published more than 30 novels and prose works, and has written a number of plays and screenplays. He has won a number of international awards for his literary work and is regarded as one of the great names of European literature. Handke lives in Chaville, outside Paris.

Tocarczuk, Poland’s foremost contemporary writer, won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights last year. 

Born in Sulechów in 1962, she first came to the attention of the wider English-speaking public with the publication of House of Day, House of Night, which was written in 1998 and shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2004. The work already bore the distinctive mark of her “constellation” style as she moves across topics and genres but all the time informed by her deeply ethical engagement with human beings and their vulnerabilities.

In Flights the reader is brought from 17th-century Flanders to 18th-century Vienna and to 19th-century Paris, while the subject matter ranges from techniques for preserving body parts to the advent of travel psychoanalysis (“I am what I look at”).

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the main character, Janina Duszejko, lives near the Czech Republic and criss-crosses the border repeatedly. “It gave me pleasure, because I could remember the time when it wasn’t possible. I love crossing borders,” she told Michael Cronin in an interview in The Irish Times last October.

Her inspiration, she told him, was Stanley Kubrick, “every time telling something different in a different way” and that to be creative is not “to stay with what you did already, but to be on the move even if this movement is between genres, subjects and so on”.

Tokarczuk describes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead as a “book about pain” and sees Janina as a spokesperson for animals, “these voiceless creatures” who “have this ability to feel pain”. In thinking about Janina, Tokarczuk wanted “a system of thinking that wouldn’t be official in some way, an alternative system of understanding”. A chance meeting with an amateur astrologer at a party gave the Polish writer the idea for the dissident system she was looking for.

However, it was not Janina’s interest in the stars but the defence of animals that got Tokarczuk into trouble. When a film version of the book was premiered at the Berlin film festival it was denounced by sections of the Polish press as “a deeply anti-Christian [work] that promoted ecoterrorism”.

In her most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk looks to the history of the charismatic Jewish leader Jacob Leibowitz Frank and his fascinating journey through Christianity, Judaism and Islam in 18th-century Poland. Her critical remarks on what she saw as self-serving images of Polish victimhood led to threats from right-wing extremists, and for a time she was assigned armed bodyguards.

Tokarczuk, however, believes that the sales of The Books of Jacob in Poland (it has already sold more than 170,000 copies in hardback) show that there is a nostalgia for another version of Poland. “We can feel in Poland a kind of phantom pain for lost multi-ethnic territories.” She sees the “project of a monoethnic Poland as a nation as paradoxically designed by the Communists”, a notion that has been adopted uncritically by their ultranationalist opponents. She feels that “even unconsciously Polish people are interested in this golden age of Polish multiethnicity, multilingualism.”

Tokarcczuk believes that Polish geography subverts the myth of national purity. “There is no such thing as a clean blood, a pure blood. We are living here in the centre of Europe, on the stage, in the corridor of Europe. It’s impossible to be ethnically pure.”

On a trip to Ireland a number of years ago Tokarczuk noted that the Irish and Poles “have many things in common”: a troubled relationship with a larger neighbour, the influence of Catholicism, and a tendency “not to trust reality too much”. She sees as a shared point of reference in modern Irish and Polish writing “a sort of craziness” that involves, among other things, “a tendency to experiment” and a desire to always “transgress the borders of language”. The memory of historical displacement, of fractured territories and languages, means inevitably she sees in Irish and Polish writers alike a desire to challenge or break all the “norms and canons”.

Kazuo Ishiguro was the last author to receive the prize, in 2017, precded more controversially by the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Seamus Heaney was the last Irish writer to win the prize, in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Samuel Beckett won in 1969 “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”. George Bernard Shaw won in 1925 “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty”. William Butler Yeats won the prize two years earlier “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”.