Brow Beat

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature Was Postponed Over Scandal, but This Year’s Choice Just Created More Controversy

Peter Handke sits at a table with a mug and several apples against a backdrop of greenery.
Peter Handke poses in Chaville, in the Paris surburbs, on Thursday after being awarded with the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. Alain Jocard/Getty Images

The Swedish Academy took the extraordinary step of not awarding a Nobel Prize in literature last year to “help safeguard the long-term reputation” of the award after a member’s husband was accused of rape and other misconduct, including leaking prize winners’ names. But while the postponed 2018 prize was finally given on Thursday to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, the body has still managed to create a new controversy with its choice for 2019: Peter Handke, an Austrian novelist and playwright infamous for his Serbian nationalist sympathies.

Handke set off an international firestorm in 1996 with two essays blaming journalists for what he sees as a mischaracterization of Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav Wars, arguing that “international magazines from Time to the Nouvel Observateur relentlessly portray the Serbs as evil and the Muslims as the usual good guy.” In 2006, Handke drew further ire by speaking at the funeral of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, sometimes known as the “Butcher of the Balkans,” who was on trial for war crimes and genocide at the time of his death. Handke defended his speech afterward, calling Milošević “a tragic human being” and himself “a writer and not a judge.”

The academy claimed a similarly nonjudgemental stance over giving Handke the literature prize, with permanent secretary Mats Malm telling the New York Times that it awards the prize on “literary and aesthetic grounds” regardless of political affiliation. Handke has rejected the idea that literature can be a force for social change; the academy even notes in its official biography of Handke that while his political views are controversial, “he cannot be considered an engaged writer in the sense of Sartre, and gives us no political programs.” The academy instead recognized him “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Ironically, Handke once called for the Nobel Prize’s abolition because it creates a “false canonization” of literature, and the now-76-year-old writer wasn’t optimistic about his chances of winning in 2006. When asked about it in an interview with the New York Times, he said, “When I was younger I cared. Now I think it’s finished for me after my expressions about Yugoslavia.” Apparently not.

Handke’s critics decried the Swedish Academy’s decision on social media, with Albania’s acting foreign minister calling it “an ignoble and shameful act.” Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States tweeted her dismay that “in a world full of brilliant writers, the Nobel committee choses to reward a propagator of ethnic hatred & violence.” Though human rights organization PEN America emphasized that it “does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards,” it made a point of publicly condemning the Swedish Academy’s decision.

“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic,” the organization said in a statement. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”

One person who does not seem bothered by Handke’s prize is the 2018 winner, Tokarczuk, whose work is not only political but staunchly anti-nationalist. According to the Times, she told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that she was “happy” that Handke had also been honored. “I value him very much. It’s great that the Swedish Academy appreciated literature from the central part of Europe,” she said. Tokarczuk is only the 15th woman to be awarded the prize.