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, the group that awards the literature prize. 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.
Both winners will receive a full cash prize, valued this year at 9-million kronor ($918,000), a gold medal and a diploma.
Yet if prize organisers hoped to get through this year’s awards without controversy, they will likely be disappointed.
The Swedish Academy praised Mr. Handke’s work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience” with linguistic ingenuity.
Ms. Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best-known authors, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak.
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 to her Thursday 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.
The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. She 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.
Ms. Tokarcuzk has been attacked by Polish conservatives and received death threats for criticising 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.
Handke once wanted Nobel abolished
Beginning with The Hornets in 1966, Mr. 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.
But the choice also drew criticism. In the past, Mr. Handke has attracted controversy for his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars. In a 1996 essay, Justice for Serbia, he accused Western media of depicting Serbs as aggressors in the wars that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. He was an opponent of NATO’s air strikes against Serbia for that country’s violent crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s.
In 2014, he told the Austrian Press Agency that the Nobel prize should be abolished because of its “false canonisation” of literature.
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 organisers 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 evaluable this new process yet”.