Last year, the literary world lamented when the Swedish Academy announced that it would not award the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature due to a scandal involving the husband of one of its members. Today, the Swedes made up for the omission with a 1-2 punch, announcing the retroactive winner of the 2018 award—Polish author Olga Tokarczuk—and the 2019 recipient, controversial Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke.
Every year, it seems, the run-up to the announcement of the next Nobel Laureate is marked by speculation that the winner will be a commercial choice—Haruki Murakami is often the odds-on favorite—but more often than not, the Academy sees fits to honor writers whose literary worth isn’t necessarily matched by their mainstream success.
These newly announced winners have a foot in both worlds—though neither is as widely read in America as Murakami or recent winners like Alice Munore, Kazuo Ishiguro, or, um, Bob Dylan, neither are they obscure. Tokarczuk is considered one of the most commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, and recently earned international acclaim for her 2018 Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (notably, she is also one of only 15 women to earn the honor since 1901). Peter Handke’s long career includes dozens of acclaimed plays and novels as well as the screenplays for several well-regarded films from director Wim Wenders, including 1987 award-winner Wings of Desire. He also obtained a certain level of infamy for his remarks about the Yugoslavian war and his support of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, who died in the midst of a trial in which he was accused of war crimes against the people of Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.
To help you familiarize yourself with the output of our two new Nobel Laureates, we’ve highlighted a small selection of their work below.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Janina is a retired schoolteacher living in a remote Polish village who likes to pass the time studying horoscopes, translating William Blake’s poetry, and looking after the usually empty summer homes of part-time residents. When one of her neighbors, whom she has nicknamed Big Foot, is found dead, followed by an increasing number of other locals, Janina injects herself into the investigation, determined to discover the culprit. While Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is in essence a literary mystery, its macabre humor, quirky characters, and spot-on, breathtaking observations about humanity push it beyond any one genre, making it it as unclassifiable as it is utterly unforgettable.
This disarming collection of essays and vignettes features tales of wanderers, vacationers, explorers. Each story is distinct, yet certain themes are interwoven throughout the book: meditations on the nature of travel, on the limits of the human body, on what it means to be in motion. The stories jump back and forth in time and crisscross the globe; various characters find themselves in variously strange situations. A young man’s wife and child mysteriously vanish while they are on vacation together, and then just as mysteriously reappear; a woman returns to Poland to assist with the suicide of a dying friend. A profound, perplexing and then suddenly illuminating novel filled with shining moments.
Primeval and Other Times
One of Tokarczuk’s earlier works, Primeval and Other Times is a fascinating, dynamic story chronicling the lives of the oft-unlucky inhabitants of Primeval, a mythical Polish village, whose political history loosely mirrors that of 20th century Poland. There’s an examination of the push-pull of modernity vs. the natural world and the periodic brutality suffered—and accepted—as a part of ordinary village life. Written in an almost allegorical style with hints of magical realism, this novel has a quiet, almost hypnotic power.
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
The first of Peter Handke’s novels to be translated into English, this 1970 novel (later adapted into a film by frequent collaborator Wim Wenders) chronicles the upsetting existence of a disgraced football goalkeeper-turned-construction worker who, after mistakenly believing he has been fired from his unsatisfying job, spends a night with a woman he meets at the cinema, then abruptly kills her. The rest of the book follows his slow decline as he wanders aimlessly around a dull Austrian town. Playing out like a fractured detective story internalized, the novel depicts the way the goalie’s thoughts grow distracted and disordered in prose that becomes increasingly diffuse, ending on a note of profound ambiguity. The dreamlike narrative seems to suggest that our understanding of the goalie’s life is distorted by the limitations of language itself.
Don Juan: His Own Version
A much more recent selection from Handke’s body of work, this 2004 novel offers the author’s own sly take on the life of that most legendary of “Latin lovers.” Ostensibly Don Juan’s own account of his lurid life story, the narrative is delivered to us through the eyes of a hapless innkeeper who the lothario deems worthy of hearing of his scandalous misdeeds. Each day, Don Juan treats the innkeeper to an account of what he did exactly one week prior—stories invariably tilted toward the erotic. But the novel isn’t really about sex—this Don Juan is less a conqueror than a victim of ardor, and the pleasure comes in the vividness and humanity of the narrator’s account of the man’s larger-than-life exploits.
Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders, written by Wenders and Peter Handke
Wings of Desire was German director Wim Wenders’ follow-up to his internationally acclaimed Paris, Texas; co-written by Handke, it is a film both strikingly uncommercial in style and deeply universal in theme (though for what it’s worth, it wound up becoming a box office success). It is set in Cold War era Berlin, a place still divided by animosity and the Berlin Wall (the German title translates to The Sky Over Berlin), but that infamous structure is of little import to the host of angels who watch over the city—they frequently pass right through it. These angelic beings aren’t guardians in the traditional Christian sense (they only occasionally have wings, preferring long trench coats); they are more like observers, wandering unseen through the streets, listening to the worried thoughts of passersby and occasionally stopping to place a comforting hand on a particularly troubled shoulder. One angel, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz), finds himself drawn more and more to his human charges; their chaotic lives fascinate his ordered mind to the point that he eventually decides to fall from grace and become one of them—if only to feel closer to Marion (Solveig Dommartin), an acrobat in a run down circus, who has drawn his eye. We watch Damiel experience life, discovering what it means to be cold, or hungry, or tired; where the Hollywood remake—the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan weeper City of Angels—was all about love, Wenders and Handke seem much more interested in the human condition, and the resulting film is deeper for it: transcendent.
What do you think of this year’s Nobel Laureates?