The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature go to…
October 10, 2019 4:09 AM   Subscribe

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke respectively. Tokarczuk was recently the subject of a feature in the New Yorker by Ruth Franklin called Olga Tokarczuk’s Novels Against Nationalism. Leland de la Durantaye wrote in 2014 about Handke’s career for the London Review of Books in an article titled Taking Refuge in the Loo.
posted by Kattullus (37 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The Guardian has a liveblog which will be updated throughout the day, and so will Michael Orthofer’s post on the Literary Saloon.
posted by Kattullus at 4:24 AM on October 10, 2019

So the literature committee has been cleaned up and reformed?
posted by Big Al 8000 at 4:31 AM on October 10, 2019

As far as I understand, the regular Swedish Academy was kept out of selecting the winner, and instead an outside committee was formed, which selected the two winners following the normal process of the Swedish Academy. Then the winners were presented to the full Academy, which approved the winners.

This is essentially how it was done before, but the committee was exclusively made up of members of the Swedish Academy, which is no longer the case.

During the press conference the head of the Academy said that this would be reviewed next year, presumably by the Academy and the Nobel Foundation itself, which took the responsibility of selecting the laureates away from the Academy after last year’s scandals.
posted by Kattullus at 4:37 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

The LRB article about Handke is paywalled for me, but I take it that his selection is going to be controversial? I'm seeing some tweets from literary people questioning the judgment of giving the prize to an author who was (is?) an apologist for genocidal nationalism. I can see the start of the LRB article, which discusses that, but I have the sense that they're setting up some sort of twist? (Like it's the "yeah, he was a pariah because he went all in for the worst excesses of Serbian nationalism, but then..." structure, but I hit the paywall before they got to the "but then"? And is there any "but then" that erases giving the eulogy at Milošević's funeral? Because we all make mistakes, but that's a pretty bad one.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:16 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

There's no twist in the LRB article, and as far as I'm aware Handke is still entirely unapologetic about his position on Serbia (although he doesn't talk about it as much as he used to).
posted by inire at 5:39 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

No one disputes Handke’s stylistic skill or formal inventiveness, but it’s his understanding of humanity that’s been the issue.
posted by Kattullus at 5:57 AM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Huh, I can read the LRB article now. I'm hesitant to critique the selection of someone I haven't read, but it seems like there might be worthy authors who aren't apologists for genocide.

I'm not familiar with Tokarczuk, though, and she sounds amazing. I put a hold on Flights at the library.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:00 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Linking Tokarczuk to that other person is a cruel joke that cannot be seen as unintentional.
posted by Etrigan at 6:04 AM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, if nothing else, these selections are of the zeitgeist. For better and for worst.
posted by gwint at 6:04 AM on October 10, 2019

Peter Handke? The "Offending the Audience" guy? Christ, why not give it to Neil Simon while you're at it.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:26 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don’t have much to add here but I woke up this morning excited to see the announcement and ended up legitimately devastated to learn Handke was awarded it.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 6:36 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Olga Tokarczuk I haven't read, but will. I have read bits of Handke, and find him mostly kind of turgid, and less interesting than the generation before him, which he railing against (Boll, Bernhard, etc.)

The Nobel Prize is pretty Eurocentric in the last few years, which frustrates me because Adunis is getting older, and do we have a better poet writing today? (I feel similar to Ko Un). Have they just stopped giving them to poets?

Also, on that note---There has only been one Nobel laureate who wrote in Arabic, two who wrote in Mandarian, two in Japanese. None who wrote in Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Malay, Teluga, Javanese, Korean, Igbo, Wolof, Swahilli, or Brazillan Portugese.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:08 AM on October 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Handke is an apologist for the Serbian far right and a big fan of Milosevic, speaking at his funeral.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:30 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My apologies, but I have little interest in reading someone who gave a eulogy at a war criminal's funeral
posted by Ahmad Khani at 8:37 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Apparently Handke is set to soon make an appearance on Ellen
posted by Ahmad Khani at 8:39 AM on October 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

So the literature committee has been cleaned up and reformed?.......As far as I understand, the regular Swedish Academy was kept out of selecting the winner, and instead an outside committee was formed....after last year’s scandals.

I somehow never heard about this. Can anyone explain what happened last year?
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on October 10, 2019

I only know Handke through Wings of Desire (aka Der Himmel über Berlin), so when I first read the announcement I thought "hey, there's someone I should read". Then I read the LRB article and... crap.
posted by Slothrup at 8:58 AM on October 10, 2019

They're both good authors. Handke is a shithead. I do wish that they'd go back to picking people that I had never heard of or read like Le Clezio and Jelinek because it was a great literature recommendation service at one point.
posted by bootlegpop at 8:59 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Can anyone explain what happened last year?

This is a pretty good explainer.
posted by Etrigan at 9:00 AM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Handke is a shithead.

I mean, I guess I was able to read and enjoy Knut Hamsun's work so... ? But at least he had had the grace to have been dead for nearly four decades by that time, whereas Handke would presumably still profit from book sales today.
posted by Slothrup at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk's story "All Saints' Mountain" is available online, and FWIW it has a science fictional premise--I can see putting it on a Hugo Award nomination ballot.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:20 AM on October 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Two good, old pieces linked to by Michael Orthofer on Handke’s support for Milosevic.

The Apologist by Michael McDonald. Excerpt:
And so he wrote Justice for Serbia (1996), a book that was part political harangue and part travelogue. Like one of his fictional creations in the 1980s, Handke embarked upon a journey to experience the reality of Serbia for himself. What he discovered was a land of openhearted and generous people. Handke went so far as to adopt Milosevic’s overriding myth of Serb suffering. Milosevic always portrayed himself and the Serbs as the victims of “Muslim propaganda.” Handke went him one better, likening the fate of the Serbs to that of the Jews under the Nazi regime, a “slip of the tongue” for which he later apologized.

When he was attacked for turning a blind eye to Serbian war crimes, all Handke would reply was that his view was neither “Yugophile” nor “pro- Serb,” but rather one of “raising doubts” in order to dispel unjust assessments. Handke repeatedly stressed the complexity of the situation and the need to transcend simplistic, one-sided debate as he pleaded for people to “learn the art of the question.”

Curiously, though, Handke’s awareness of the mechanisms by which the media bounds debate and channels perceptions failed him when it came to Serbian state television. The poet Charles Simic has rightly observed how the “daily diet of lies” churned out by the government-controlled press and television in Serbia “must bear heavy guilt for spreading nationalist madness and inciting hatred.” Handke evidently saw nothing amiss. He granted numerous interviews to Serbian state television, which in turn celebrated Handke as the greatest living European novelist.
The Artist as Provocateur: Handke and Knausgård by Sindre Bangstad. Excerpt:
And so it was left to Peter Handke’s Norwegian publisher, the perhaps most well-known and internationally celebrated Norwegian novelist of our age, Karl Ove Knausgård (1968 -) of My Struggle- fame, to spring to Handke’s defense. Knausgård has used some of the revenues he has earned from that series, which has won him critical acclaim in the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker to establish the small independent publisher Pelikanen. And Knausgård certainly took to the high-minded rhetorical heights in so doing. In a two-page interview with the Norwegian weekly newspaper Morgenbladet, which caters to a well- educated middle-class intellectual audience, published on September 19 2014 under the title ‘Knausgård’s defense of Handke’, Knausgård declared that he was “deeply ashamed over the reactions to Handke” in his native Norway, placed Handke in a tradition of some of the more famous contrarians of modern Austrian literature (Thomas Bernhard) and whilst en passage “reminding” Norwegians that Handke had personally “never killed anyone” (as if anyone of Handke’s Norwegian critics had ever claimed that he had done so!) and asserted that “Handke is not for sale. There are hardly any other authors I can say this about.” In his award speech to Handke, delivered at a ceremony in the town of Skien (Ibsen’s birthplace) on September 22, Knausgård by and large evaded the question of Handke’s long-standing record of statements and writings in support of Serbian ultra-nationalists by in act of poetic abstraction strangely similar to that of Handke’s own tactics on these issues skirts over fundamental questions relating to human culpability and responsibility for acts of warfare which led to the brutal death of 100 000 people and displacement of 2 million people from 1992 to 1995. According to Knausgård, Handke’s polemical pro-Serbian tract A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia from 1996, which Knausgård makes ever so brief reference to, “Handke also tries to fill ‘Serbia’ with something else which is as true and as important because it is human, belongs to reality just as the other facts do.”

Knausgård does not even bother to register that this is the very book in which Handke alleges that Bosnian Muslims had ‘staged’ their own massacres in Sarajevo and blamed it on the Serbs, and denied that the massacre of an estimated 8000 Bosnian civilians at the hands of Serbian paramilitary forces led by General Ratko Mladić at Srebrenica in 1995 had ever taken place. Fortunately, we do have authors who have written about the Srebrenica massacres in less poetic and evasive terms than Handke and his defender Knausgård. In Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, one of the standard works on these massacres, Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Booth writes that “the massacre that followed the Serb take-over of Srebrenica must count as the largest single war crime in Europe since the Second World War. Between 6 and 16 July 1995 the Serbs seized the Srebrenica safe area, expelled 23,000 Bosnian Muslim women and children and captured and executed thousands of Muslim men.”
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 AM on October 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

What one needs for the Nobel is a good translation into English, alas.

And hey, Tokarczuk is #4 in a pretty impressive run - joining Sienkiewicz, Miłosz and Szymborska. We Poles can write, when we're not busy with backstabbing. It's a lovely black eye for the ruling party 3 days before the elections, since Tokarczuk is one of their favourite examples of degenerate leftist art.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:22 AM on October 10, 2019 [22 favorites]

It's a lovely black eye for the ruling party 3 days before the elections, since Tokarczuk is one of their favourite examples of degenerate leftist art.

Repeating this so I can favorite it again.
posted by chavenet at 10:49 AM on October 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

If there were ever a better symbol of our era: one fascist and one anti–fascist. "See, both sides …"
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:12 AM on October 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

"If a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.”

-Ezra Pound.
posted by clavdivs at 11:31 AM on October 10, 2019

Two more pieces on Handke and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

Short Book, Long Apology, a review from 1997 by David Rieff of Handke’s A Journey to the River: Justice for Serbia. Excerpt:
The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, except presumably, as he does throughout much of the book, when he’s talking about himself. He came to Serbia knowing nothing about its complicated politics and, to judge by the book, left knowing no more.

The obscenity of his portrayal of the Bosnia he never deigned to visit is clear enough, but what is far sadder is that the people “A Journey to the Rivers” defames most terribly are the Serbs. For as recent events in Serbia have demonstrated, the Serb people are anything but the monolithic nationalists that Handke portrays them as being. Many opposed the war and despised the Milosevic government. But they are nowhere to be found in Handke’s book. He prefers his Serbs as he imagines them, not as they are.
Peter Maass, a reporter who covered the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, doesn’t mince words, in his article Congratulations, Nobel Committee, You Just Gave the Literature Prize to a Genocide Apologist . Excerpt:
So what does Handke really believe, and is it so terrible? Handke distilled his views into a concise article he wrote for the French newspaper Liberation after his 1996 essays appeared. The article has gotten very little attention in the current discussion, and that’s unfortunate because it clearly demonstrates that he is a truther on the subject of the genocide in Bosnia. For instance, he wrote that it is wrong to talk of “concentration camps” in Bosnia.

“True, there were intolerable camps between 1992 and 1995 on the territories of the Yugoslav republics, especially in Bosnia,” he wrote. “But let’s stop automatically connecting these camps to the Serbs in Bosnia. There were also Croat camps and Muslim camps, and the crimes committed here and there are and will be judged at the Hague.”

Let me tell you something about the Serb camps in Bosnia that Handke, who never visited Bosnia during the war or after it, does not admit: They were concentration camps. I visited them during the war, which I covered for the Washington Post. I talked with prisoners inside the camps and with survivors. The United Nations war crimes tribunal at the Hague sentenced Serbs to lengthy prison terms for the crimes committed there.

Let me tell you something else about Bosnia: The Muslims had nothing like those industrial-scale camps, where thousands of prisoners were brought in, tortured, and killed. The position that Handke adopts — everyone was doing it — is a dodge that would be funny if it weren’t so evil. Were some atrocities committed by Muslim troops? Yes, but equating a small number of random crimes with a systemic and massive number is a transparent form of deception and deflection. That’s what apologists do.
posted by Kattullus at 3:09 PM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

In contrast, a lovely piece by Jennifer Croft, a translator of Olga Tokarczuk, in the Paris Review. Excerpt:
Working as one of Olga’s translators for the past fifteen years has been challenging only insofar as anglophone publishing houses have been slow to see the commercial appeal of her work. Always wary of outsiders, the editors I approached in New York would often tell me that Tokarczuk wasn’t quite right for an American audience, regardless of how popular she might be in Europe. My efforts to pitch Olga’s books, give her a social media presence in English, and apply for grants have always taken up far more time and energy than the translations themselves.

Olga’s work is crystal clear: her characters live on the page and speak for themselves, and her tone and intentions are equally easy to grasp, transform, and transmit. While she is always ready to help when I (or any of her other translators) have questions, she is also too busy breaking ground on new books to micromanage the old ones in languages that aren’t her own. It is a treat to see her in person, as I do once or twice a year, and to watch as she is inevitably approached, then circled by admirers, all drawn in by her warmth and insightfulness, her alacrity and wit.
posted by Kattullus at 3:27 PM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was a student, Handke was a revelation. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams helped me through the suicide of my own mother. I still have my old copy of his journals (the base for Wings of Desire). His support for Serbia disgusted me, and I haven’t been able to read him since. When he dies, he and Ezra Pound can go drinking together in some kind of deluded writer Hell.
posted by frumiousb at 3:57 PM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Olga Tokarczuk is an absolute miracle and I'm thrilled bout her Nobel. I stumbled across her work about seven years ago, and I've been feverishly shoving it at people ever since.

The award for Handke definitely casts a pall over the whole thing, though. Fucking hell.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:07 PM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

one of these years they'll finally give it to archimboldi...
posted by JimBennett at 10:08 PM on October 10, 2019

In the 1980s and 1990s I read and appreciated some Handke. I also enjoyed Wings of Desire.


In 1995 I was in Split and Mostar. I was in country when the Srebrenica massacre happened.

I don't know if I still own any Handke. But he can burn in a fiery pit.
posted by doctornemo at 8:07 AM on October 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

posted by mediareport at 12:02 PM on October 11, 2019

In related, sad news, Sara Danius, the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who was pushed out in the power struggle that followed last year’s scandal, has passed away from cancer.
posted by Kattullus at 6:32 AM on October 12, 2019

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