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Peter Handke, Olga Tokarczuk Win Nobel Prizes In Literature


Nobel news now. The Nobel Prize for literature was announced this morning. And the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, just cannot seem to avoid controversy. After not awarding a literature prize last year because of a scandal, the academy handed out two prizes this year - one for 2018, another for 2019. After hopes for more diverse winners, the Nobel Committee picked two white Europeans, one whose political views have been widely criticized.

Since there are two winners, we have asked two NPR reporters to join us this morning to talk about them. NPR's Lynn Neary and NPR's Rose Friedman - both with us.



MARTIN: All right, Lynn, I want to start with you. Can you - let's just start with this controversy that led to the fact that two writers are being honored this year.

NEARY: Well, two years ago, the Swedish Academy, which gives out the Nobel in literature, was almost taken down by a sex scandal. The husband of a member of the academy had been accused of sexually abusing or harassing 18 women, and he was later found guilty of rape. His wife was accused of leaking the names of winners to him for gambling purposes. And it turned out that the academy had been giving money to a cultural organization the couple owned.

All of this led to a number of academy members stepping down. And because of an institutional rule, they couldn't be replaced, and that meant there weren't enough active members to decide on the award. So they decided to skip last year and, instead, make some changes to repair the damage. And that brings us to this morning, two winners - 2018, 2019.

MARTIN: All right, so two winners. Let's start off with this year's winner for 2019. Lynn, you want to do the honors? Who is it?

NEARY: Yes, he is Peter Handke, an Austrian writer. He's the 2019 winner. And if the Swedish Academy had any desire to avert controversy, they have certainly failed this time around.


NEARY: Well, he is a novelist, a playwriter, a screenwriter, poet and essayist. But he has been very controversial from his early days until right now. Most recently, he's been highly criticized for support of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader and alleged war criminal. Asked about that in a 2006 interview with The New York Times, Handke said he thought Milosevic was, quote, "not a hero, but a tragic human." And he continued, I am a writer and not a judge.

MARTIN: So what about his writing? I mean, he's clearly being awarded. He's a good writer, apparently.

NEARY: Yeah. And as we said, he's considered avant-garde. He came to attention with his first play in 1966 called "Offending The Audience." Just to give you an idea, it involved four actors sitting around, talking about the nature of theater, taking turns insulting and then praising the audience for its performance.

His book "The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick" is a thriller about a former soccer player who commits a murder. And that was a bestseller in 1970. It was made into a film by the director Wim Wenders. And he and Wenders collaborated a number of times. I think a lot of people will recognize this next title. In 1987, Handke co-wrote Wenders' film "Wings Of Desire." And Wenders also adapted one of Handke's plays in 2016.

He also wrote a memoir about his mother, "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams."

And in giving him the award, the Nobel Committee commended what they called his influential work that with linguistic ingenuity explored the periphery and specificity of human experience.

MARTIN: Oh, all right. So there's another person to talk about - another writer. Rose, let's bring you into this conversation. Tell us about the 2018 winner.

FRIEDMAN: Her name is Olga Tokarczuk. She's a Polish writer. She's one of the most acclaimed writers in Poland. She's won the top literary prize there twice. She actually trained as a psychologist, and for a while, she was a practicing addiction specialist, but she burned out. She once told an interviewer, I was working with one of my patients, and I realized I was more disturbed than he was. So she turned to writing after that, and very successfully. If you're a follower of literary prizes, you might actually know her name already. She won the Man Booker International Prize last year for a novel called "Flights."

So she's known for this kind of fragmented style that blends fact and fiction, these very deeply researched stories told in sort of nonlinear snippets. She called "Flights" a constellation novel. It's about the idea of travel, but the stories range from a guy whose wife disappears on a vacation in Croatia to an account of Chopin's heart being smuggled into Warsaw.

MARTIN: Wow. And I understand, though, she, too, has a controversial backstory - right? - especially in Poland.

FRIEDMAN: Yep, she does. One writer for The Guardian called her a vegetarian feminist in an increasingly reactionary and patriarchal country. So she's best-known in Poland for a novel called "The Books Of Jacob," which is coming out here next year. It's about a Jewish religious leader in the 18th century who led a big conversion to Catholicism. And she was accused of digging up parts of the past that show the country as intolerant. The reaction was really strong. For a while, her publisher actually hired her a bodyguard. She's been very outspoken against what she sees as a rising nationalism in Poland as well as in other European countries, and she's criticized President Trump.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Rose Friedman and NPR's Lynn Neary with the not one, but two winners of the Nobel Prize for literature announced this morning - controversial folks, both of them. We appreciate it, ladies. Thank you so much.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

NEARY: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.