alfred nobel, nobel prize

Nobel at Noon: Literature

November 12, 2019

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2019 was awarded to Austrian writer Peter Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” In the same announcement, the Nobel Prize committee also awarded the 2018 Nobel to Olga Tokarczuk, an experimental novelist and poet from Poland, “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Cynthia Wong, PhD, professor of English at CU Denver, will lead a discussion about the two authors for the November 21st Nobel at Noon Series.

The Nobel at Noon Series spotlights each Nobel Prize with an informal presentation and discussion. CU Denver faculty experts discuss the meaning and importance of the Nobel Prize while drawing the audience into a discussion about why this award matters to society as a whole.

The lecture begins at 12 p.m. on Thursday, November 21 in the Wartgow Welcome Center (Student Commons Building, Room 1300). Light refreshments will be provided. Feel free to bring your lunch.

Olga Tokarczuk’s narrative imagination

Last year, a scandal involving sexual abuse and financial impropriety forced the Nobel Committee to postpone its 2018 prize for literature. This year, the committee awarded it to Olga Tokarczuk, who has been a bestselling author in Poland for more than two decades, but was relatively unknown to the rest of the world until an English translation of her third book, Primeval and Other Times, published in 2010.

According to her Nobel Prize biobibliography, “Tokarczuk never views reality as stable or everlasting. She constructs her novels in a tension between cultural opposites: nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, home versus alienation.”

In 2018, she made her international breakthrough by winning the Man Booker International prize for Flights, “a novel about travel in the 21st century and human anatomy,” told through the lens of a 17th century Dutch anatomist, an 18th century North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier, and the travel of Chopin’s heart, among others. Tokarczuk refers to it as a “constellation novel”—a combination of fiction, history, memoir, and essay. She followed it with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a crime novel described as a “William Blake-infused eco-thriller” longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Her most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, tells the story of an 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank, who led the forcible conversion of his Jewish followers to both Islam and Catholicism. Many consider it her masterpiece (translator Jennifer Croft is currently translating it into English; its French translation earned the 2019 Prix Laure Bataillon Award for the best foreign-language book translated into French).

Influential Austrian novelist’s controversial award

This year, the Nobel Prize committee walked into another controversy when it awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2019 to Peter Handke.

The Austrian writer has a long career writing narratives, essays, short prose, and dramas. He’s made films and devoted himself to the visual arts as much as his writing. Handke has long been one of the most influential writers of contemporary fiction, beginning with his first book in 1966, Die Hornissen, “an experimental ‘double fiction’ in which the main character is recollecting fragments of another, for the reader unknown, novel.” More than fifty years later, he has established himself as one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War. His work is “characterised by a strong adventurous spirit, but also by a nostalgic inclination.”

But blowback from his award by the international literary community was swift. The anger stems from Handke’s history of vocal support for the Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslav war. In a 1996 book, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, Handke cast doubt on the Serbian massacre at Srebenica and accused the Bosnian Muslims of staging attacks. In 2006, he spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader accused of genocide and other war crimes.

After the award, author and PEN America President Jennifer Egan wrote, “We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’ At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”