After a one-year absence brought on by an ugly and convoluted sexual abuse and financial malfeasance scandal, the Nobel Prize in Literature returned in 2019 with a charm offensive. The Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee would bestow not one, but two awards, to make up for last year’s no-show. And it promised that, after a period of intense self-reflection brought on by the scandal, everything would change.
Famously opaque, the Nobel Committee announced earlier this year that it would be more transparent in an effort to regain the public’s trust. Notoriously Eurocentric, it also indicated that it would broaden its purview to better include authors from the rest of the world. “We need to widen our perspective,” Anders Olsson, the committee’s new head, said in a video hyping the revamped Nobel. Having historically marched to the beat of its own drum, the Swedish Academy seemed, at long last, to be listening to its critics.
But when Olsson stepped through the Academy’s gilded double doors to announce the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes, it became clear that the Academy had set out to invite criticism, not quell it. The winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize was Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish novelist whose ambitious, deeply political work has made her an enemy of nationalists in her country. The 2019 Nobel Prize was won by Austrian Peter Handke, one of the greatest novelists of his generation who is now most famous for having eulogized Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian military leader who died while being tried for war crimes at The Hague.
This was not, in other words, a clean break from the past for the Academy. Instead, as Swedish journalist and Nobel-watcher Jens Liljestrand told me, “The prizes mirror the Academy’s identity crises.” Handke was likely “a concession to the Academy old guard,” while Tokarczuk represents the kind of new voice Olsson said he intends to elevate. And both awards show that, despite its professed global ambitions, the Nobel Prize in Literature is still bogged down in Europe. Taken together, it’s difficult to discern what the Prize stands for anymore, other than to provide a new shock every time October rolls around.
Tokarczuk is an emerging literary celebrity whose Flights won the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Her work challenges the nationalist myths being spouted by a growing number of would-be despots across Europe, including in her native Poland. The Books of Jacob, a 1,000-page historical novel set in Europe in the 18th century, won the Nike Award, Poland’s highest literary honor in 2015, resulting in controversy. “There’s a lot of xenophobia that Olga was trying to fight with The Books of Jacob,” Jennifer Croft, who is currently translating the book into English (and translated Flights), told me. “The novel shows that in Poland’s Golden Age, Poland was actually incredibly diverse.” The portrait of a diverse Polish nation “angered a lot of people,” Croft said. “A lot of people called for her to leave the country since she was a traitor to the nation. That has abated somewhat but I’m sure that, with this announcement, it will rear its ugly head again.”
Tokarczuk’s victory is reminiscent of the Nobel’s past awards to writers like Orhan Pamuk—a show of solidarity with those standing up to authoritarianism and persecution. It is also in line with the changes that the Academy pledged to make after being engulfed in scandal. “Olga has long championed women’s causes and women’s concerns,” Croft told me. “She’s a great writer of polyphonic novels that celebrate a diversity of perspectives. That’s a wonderful thing for the Nobel Prize to be championing.”
Handke, in some ways, is a more traditional Nobel laureate. First making a name as a playwright, Handke rose to prominence as a novelist, writing a string of autobiographical masterpieces, most notably A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (about his mother’s suicide), Repetition (about his search for identity in the former Yugoslavia), and the 1,000-page My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay. Starting in 1972, he also began a long collaboration with the director Wim Wenders, which resulted in a number of films, including The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Wings of Desire, one of the greatest films of the 20th century. If he had won the Nobel in, say, 1994, he would have been seen as an exemplary laureate: serious, adventurous, decidedly European.
Over the last two decades, however, Handke’s politics have overwhelmed his literary work. Beginning in the 1990s, he has been outspoken in defending Serbian nationalism, arguing that the Serbs were the true victims of the Balkan Wars. His pro-Serbian tract A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia suggested that the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, the Srebrenica Massacre, was a kind of false flag operation “staged” by Bosnian Muslims, despite overwhelming evidence and international consensus that it was conducted by Serbs.
As The American Scholar’s Michael McDonald argued, Handke went on “to adopt Milošević’s overriding myth of Serb suffering.” He compared the Serbs to Jews during the Holocaust, though he later apologized. And, in 2006, he spoke at Milošević’s funeral, saying, “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.”
“There is the view that the Nobel literature prize often goes to someone whose political stance is found to be sympathetic at a given moment,” the Times Literary Supplement’s Alan Jenkins wrote after Harold Pinter won the Prize in 2005—at the time, many believed he was being rewarded for his aggressive stance against the Iraq War. But the decision to award Handke suggests that the Nobel Committee has taken the opposite approach. This can be read as a statement: It will not be browbeaten into political correctness. It will reward whomever it pleases.
There is also another possibility. The Nobel Prize’s overarching crisis is not unique. Once the ultimate arbiter of great literature, it has struggled to remain relevant at a time of cultural fragmentation. It could not continue on its historical course—awarding unknown European poets who would fail to stir excitement in the media (and social media)—and remain relevant. In 2016, the Nobel Committee took a daring and controversial step in awarding the prize to Bob Dylan, a musician, and the lesson it seemingly learned is an old one: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Giving it to Handke after an extensive public relations push aimed at convincing the world that it was changing its ways can only be read as a finger in the eye. Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s main mission these days is not to diversify or evolve, but to troll.