STOCKHOLM, Oct 10 (AFP): Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk on Thursday won the 2018 Nobel Literature Prize, which was delayed over a sexual harassment scandal, while Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke took the 2019 award, the Swedish Academy said.
Tokarczuk, 57, considered the most talented Polish novelist of her generation, was honoured “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.
Her books portray a polychromatic world perpetually in motion, with characters’ traits intermingled and language that is both precise and poetic.
Tokarczuk’s first novel, “The Journey of the People of the Book,” released in 1993, chronicles a failed expedition to find a mysterious book.
The daughter of a school librarian, she won the Booker International Prize along with her translator Jennifer Croft for her 2007 novel “Flights”, whose English version came out in 2017.
Her 900-page “The Books of Jacob”, which the Swedish Academy hailed as her “magnum opus”, spans seven countries, three religions and five languages, tracing the little-known history of Frankism, a Jewish messianic sect that sprang up in Poland in the 18th century.
Released in 2014, its pages are numbered in reverse in the style of Hebrew books.
The Academy called it a “remarkably rich panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history.”
Handke, 76, was meanwhile honoured “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience,” the Academy said.
Ironically, in 2014 Handke called for the Nobel Literature Prize to be abolished, saying it brought its winner “false canonisation”.
The son of a German soldier he only met in adulthood, Handke “has established himself as one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War,” the Academy said.
Handke also stoked controversy when he attended former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral in 2006, and expressed sympathy for the Serbs in the 1990s Yugoslav wars.
His works are filled with a strong desire to discover and to make his discoveries come to life by finding new literary expressions for them, it added.
Notable works include “Short Letter, Long Farewell”, the poetry collection “The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld” and “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” about his mother, who killed herself in 1971. He has also described Thomas Mann, a giant of German literature and a 1929 Nobel laureate, as a “terribly bad writer” churning out “condescending, snotty-nosed prose”.
Tokarczuk and Handke each take home a cheque worth nine million kronor (USD 912,000, 828,000 euros). Tokarczuk becomes just the 15th woman to have won the prestigious distinction, out of 116 literature laureates honoured since 1901.
Dating back to 1786, the Swedish Academy is at pains to repair its reputation after a devastating scandal that saw Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault, who has close ties to the Academy, jailed for rape in 2018.
The Academy was torn apart by a deep rift between members over how to manage their ties to him. The dispute exposed scheming, conflicts of interest, harassment and a culture of silence among its 18 members, long esteemed as the country’s guardians of culture.
The revelations shook Sweden, a Lutheran nation that prides itself on transparency and consensual democracy and is intolerant of inequality.
Arnault is married to Katarina Frostenson, a member of the Academy who later resigned over the scandal at the height of the #MeToo movement against harassment of women. The pair also ran a cultural club in Stockholm that received funding from the body.
Ultimately, seven members quit the Academy. In tatters, it postponed the 2018 prize until this year — the first delay in 70 years.
“From having been associated with literature of the highest order, the Nobel Prize is for many now associated with #MeToo… and a dysfunctional organisation,” Swedish literary critic Madelaine Levy told AFP.
Even before the scandal, the Academy had courted controversy in 2016 when it gave the prestigious prize to US singer songwriter Bob Dylan, leading some to question its judgement. The Academy has in the past year been revamped with new members and statutes. Literature professor Mats Malm took over as the new permanent secretary in June.
“The changes have been very productive and we are hopeful for the future,” Malm told AFP in an interview just days before the prize announcement. He acknowledged the affair had tainted the institution and said improvements were still needed. “A lot of hard work remains, of that we are certain.”