No Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded last year due to a sex scandal involving prominent members of the Swedish Academy. So this year, the organization decided to make up for it by giving out two awards. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize, while Austrian author Peter Handke was awarded this year’s honor.
The Nobel’s official release praises Tokarczuk “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Well known in Poland, Tokarczuk has also started gaining international acclaim as her books have started to be translated into English. Her 2007 novel Bieguni was published in English last year as Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) and won the International Man Brooker Prize.
“Taken all together, Flights has the quality of a dream, in both the best and most maddening sense; you almost feel as if you have to bend your brain sideways to follow its trail of ‘moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations,’” EW’s Leah Greenblatt wrote in praise of the book. “But when her prose lifts off, it’s magical: electrifying, strange, and sensationally alive.”
Tokarczuk was given the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature because the award wasn’t given out last year. The Academy was then rocked by a scandal involving Jean-Claude Arnault, a major Swedish cultural figure and husband of an Academy member who was accused of sexual harassment by 18 women. The fallout from the scandal resulted in resignations and falling public confidence in the Academy until they eventually delayed the award for a year.
If one thing’s for sure, though, the scandal hasn’t scared the Academy away from courting controversy. The 2019 award was given to Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” Though an influential author in Europe (in addition to novels, he also co-wrote Wim Wenders’ acclaimed 1987 film Wings of Desire), Handke is also well-known for his friendship with the late Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Handke eulogized Milošević at his funeral after he died in a prison cell at The Hague and said in a later interview that he fully expected to never win the Nobel because of it: “Now I think it’s finished for me after my expressions about Yugoslavia.” As it turns out, he was wrong.