Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke

Award is given twice this year after the academy that decides who receives the honour was hit by scandal in 2018

Roisin O'Connor
Thursday 10 October 2019 11:43
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Watch the announcement of the winners for the Nobel Prizes in literature

The Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018 has been awarded to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, while the 2019 prize goes to Austrian author Peter Handke.

Two writers were awarded the honour this year following a sexual assault scandal that forced the Swedish body that selects the laureates to postpone the 2018 ceremony.

Tokarczuk won for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. Her novels are written in Polish and translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft.

She caused outrage among right-wing Polish patriots after commenting that Poland, which likes to depict itself as a plucky survivor of oppression through history, had itself committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation. For a time she was given bodyguards by her publisher as protection, after being branded a “targowiczanin” – an ancient Polish term for “traitor” – by her detractors.

Handke, who has been producing a number of works in varying genres for more than 50 years, was honoured “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”.

Explaining its decision, the Nobel Prize said that Tokarczuk “never views reality as something stable or everlasting. She constructs her novels in a tension between cultural opposites; nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, home versus alienation.”

Of Handke, the academy said: “The peculiar art of Peter Handke, awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, is the extraordinary attention to landscapes and the material presence of the world, which has made cinema and painting two of his greatest sources of inspiration.”

It was expected that the Swedish Academy, founded in 1786, would attempt to avoid any further controversy following reports of infighting and conflicts of interest among its 18 members, who are selected for life and are viewed as the country’s guardians of culture.

Poet Katarina Forstenson was among seven academy members to quit the body amid a bitter row about how to handle rape accusations made against her husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, who was also accused of leaking the names of several prize-winners. Arnault is currently serving a prison sentence for rape.

Following the scandal, seven new members have been appointed, while respected literature professor Mats Malm has taken over as permanent secretary.

Members of the Nobel Foundation, which funds the Literature Prize, have said the academy still needs to do more to recover its reputation.

Academy member Anders Olsson said the committee had sought a more diverse shortlist this year and attempted to move away from a “male-oriented” and “Eurocentric perspective of literature”.

Lars Keikensten, executive director of the foundation, commented that the academy needs to act “more openly than they have done in the past”.

“Our reputation is everything,” he said. “Obviously it is important to avoid this kind of situation we have been in and of course it cannot be repeated.”

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