Polish author Olga Tokarczuk has won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature "for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life." Austrian author Peter Handke has won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience."
Tokarczuk, who was profiled by PW in August, is the author of the Man Book International Prize–winning novel Flights, which was published in the U.S. by Riverhead Books and translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was named one of our Best Books of 2018. Her latest novel to be translated into English, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, which PW also awarded a starred review, and which Riverhead published this year. She is perhaps best known in her home country for her 2014 historical novel The Books of Jacob.
Tokarczuk, who studied psychology at the University of Warsaw, has been condemned by some in her home country for her leftist views, specifically by the far-right group called the Nowa Ruda Patriots and Polish senator Waldemar Bonkowski of the country's Law and Justice Party. Tokarczuk responded to the condemnations with criticism of nationalism in her home country, which has seen xenophobic and racist protests over, among others, its Jewish population.
Handke is the author of a capacious body of work, consisting primarily of fiction and including Across (1986) Slow Homecoming (1988), Repetition (1988) Afternoon of a Writer (1989), Absence (1990), The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling (1994), A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (1996), Once Again for Thucydides (1998), My Year in the No-Man's-Bay (1998), On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000), Crossing the Sierra de Gredos (2007), Don Juan: His Own Version (2009), and The Moravian Night (2016). In the U.S., his primary translators are Ralph Manheim and Krishna Winston, and he has been published by publishers including Collier Books, New Directions Press, Viking Books, Seagull Books, and, most prominently and consistently, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (All dates reflect U.S. publication.)
Handke, who previously won literary honors that include the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2009, and the International Ibsen Award, in 2014, has faced significant criticism for his positions on the Yugoslav Wars and NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, as well as his speech at the funeral of former Yugoslav and Serbian president and Slobodan Milošević, who was charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for his policies and actions surrounding the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. In spite of praise for his literature, Handke has been called an apologist for far-right Serbian nationalism. His Ibsen Award honors were condemned by PEN Norway. Since the Nobel announcement, Handke's honors have been widely condemned, both across the Internet and in a statement from PEN America.
Following a few years of rising nationalist views in countries worldwide, including in Europe, the decision by the Swedish Academy, the 18-member body that deliberates on the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, to award two European authors with seemingly contradictory political views may be seen as a political statement in itself—especially considering that the Academy has been frequently accused of having a European bias. Of the past 10 Nobel laureates, seven have been from European countries, including 2010 laureate and Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa, who was born in Peru. Two have been from North America, and one from Asia.
Four members of the Swedish Academy and five external experts were involved in the decision-making process this year. The unique situation follows upheaval at the Swedish Academy two years ago over a sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the postponement of the 2018 prize until this year.
This story has been updated with further information.