After a skipped year, the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for 2018 and 2019

The Swedish Academy had postponed the award last year after a scandal. The winners are Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke.

Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters
Olga Tokarczuk poses in Bielefeld, Germany, Oct. 10, 2019, during a photo call after being awarded the 2018 literature Nobel Prize.

Amid all the flurry over Nobel Prize announcements this week, the two awards for literature went nearly unnoticed by the general reading public – at least in the United States. In an unusual twist, there are two winners: Polish author Olga Tokarczuk for 2018, and Austrian writer Peter Handke for 2019. That’s because, as you may recall, the literature prize was not given out last year. The reason: A scandal involving the husband of a Swedish Academy member undermined the integrity of the award. 

Who are these writers, and why haven’t many Americans heard of them? 

Unlike the Pulitzer prizes in the U.S., which are awarded for a single work of fiction or nonfiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature recognizes a body of work. European readers would be familiar with both writers’ work over the years, and both are bestselling authors in their respective languages.

Ms. Tokarczuk, a staunch critic of nationalism who has run afoul of her government, writes about Polish topics with universal themes. Her third novel “Prawiek i inne czasy” (“Primeval and Other Times”), published in 1996, is considered to be her breakthrough work. It follows several generations of a Polish family, beginning on the eve of World War I and continuing through the rise of the Polish labor union Solidarity in the 1980s. She’s also a beloved poet.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Austrian author Peter Handke poses in his garden in Chaville, France, Oct. 10, 2019, following the announcement that he won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mr. Handke, who has drawn condemnation for his right-leaning views, “has spent his career exploring both the natural world and the world of human consciousness,” according to his U.S. publisher. Along with novels, Mr. Handke has published essays and plays. His accomplishments extend to screenplays, including “Wings of Desire,” the 1987 Wim Wenders film. (In the Monitor’s archives, I found a review of a film that Mr. Handke wrote and directed, based on his novel, “The Left-Handed Woman.”)

Both writers have numerous works translated into English. Now, with the prestige of the award backing them, their work is likely to reach a wider audience outside Europe.  

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