Nobel Prize in Literature continues to court controversy

Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk was named the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature

Oh, for a time when the greatest controversy affecting the Nobel Prize in Literature was bestowing the award on an American troubadour.

Since the heady days of 2016, the #MeToo movement galvanized the world, in the process turning the spotlight on photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, who was accused of sexual malfeasance and, in 2018, convicted for a 2011 rape. Arnault is the husband of Katarina Frostenson, who resigned her position as a member of the Swedish Academy, the notoriously secretive body that selects the literature winner.

The head of the Swedish Academy also stepped down in the wake of the scandal, and the 2018 prize was put on hold for a year to allow the body to reset and to review its policies and procedures. The Nobel committee announced at the time that two prizes would be awarded in 2019.

While the Swedish Academy clearly hoped for a fresh start, the 2019 prizes did little to burnish their reputation, instead igniting a whole new set of controversies.

The first, and less serious, involves the choice of two Europeans as winners. When it was announced in October that the 2018 prize would go to respected Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 prize would be given to Austrian writer Peter Handke, critics charged that the desire for the prize to decrease its Eurocentric focus was not being manifest. Two members of the Nobel committee quit in protest.

Nobel laureate Peter Handke has been criticized for his views on the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s

The second, much more severe, controversy surrounds the choice of Handke as Nobel laureate. The author is considered a lambent prose stylist, though he has come under attack personally for his views on the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, particularly his refusal to categorize Serb atrocities in the war as genocide and his decision to attend the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Quoted in The Guardian, author Hari Kunzru called Handke “a troubling choice,” especially for a Nobel committee trying to put a series of controversies behind them. Kunzru, who has taught Handke’s work in the past, says the author “combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness.” Writing in The New York Times, Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon called Handke “the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists.”

Earlier this week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, criticized the Nobel committee – somewhat ironically – for “rewarding human rights violations.”

On November 15, the Swedish Academy defended itself in a letter, stating in part that “in an open society there must be room for different opinions about authors and … there must be space for different reasonable interpretations of their literary works.” The Academy also wrote that in giving Handke the award they were recognizing the work, not the person, and celebrating literary achievement, not political ideology. Journalist and editor Peter Maass tweeted that the letter “should be displayed in a museum of genocide denial.”

It is unfortunate that Tokarczuk, a fine writer whose win would in any other year be uncontroversial, should find herself forced under this particular shadow. She is generally considered one of Poland’s finest novelists; the English translation of her novel Flights won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; and her second novel translated into English, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, has made its way onto many best-of lists for 2019. It is a shame that she is not being afforded the attention or acclaim she deserves, especially given the distressing fact that she is only the fifteenth woman to win the prize in its 118-year history.

Both Tokarczuk and Handke are admired as world-class fiction writers, though in the latter case it is difficult for those protesting the Nobel recognition to separate the literary sensibility from a political ideology that appears hateful and incorrect. This separation is made more nettlesome in a global geopolitical environment that is experiencing a disturbing rise in nationalist and far-right parties and their supporters.

As a novelist, Handke displays psychological acuity and a powerful technical style: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is one of the great European short novels of the 20th century. It is also clear that the political views the author has espoused are troublesome at best and at worst outright abhorrent. The question in our present moment: are we capable of separating the artistic achievement from the personal political ideology of the artist who produced it? In our present moment, should we be capable of doing this?

Nobel Prize in Literature continues to court controversy