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Austria's Peter Handke, Poland's Olga Tokarczuk win Nobel Prizes in Literature

Austrian author Peter Handke was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, while Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was announced as the 2018 winner after last year's literature award was postponed following sex abuse allegations that rocked the Swedish Academy.

Prizes for 2019, 2018 handed out after postponement due to sex abuse allegations

Austrian author Peter Handke, left, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, while Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was announced as the 2018 winner on Thursday. (Reuters/Reuters)

Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian author Peter Handke — two writers whose works are deeply intertwined in Europe's religious, ethnic and social fault lines — won the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature on Thursday.

The rare double announcement came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that tarnished the Swedish Academy, the group that awards it.

Prize organizers who hoped to get through this year's awards without controversy will likely be disappointed.

Handke, 76, has faced criticism for his vigorous defence of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He also spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges. His selection as winner of the International Ibsen Award for drama in 2014 prompted protests from human rights groups.

Handke — who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished — said he was "astonished" to receive the literature award.

I never thought they would choose me.- Peter Handke

"I never thought they would choose me," he told reporters outside his home in suburban Paris.

"It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy — this kind of decision," Handke said. "These are good people."

The novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter was described by the academy as "one of the most influential writers in Europe" after the Second World War. He was praised for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, his 1975 novel about his mother's suicide.

Handke's work was described as exploring "the periphery and the specificity of human experience" with linguistic ingenuity.

Handke has been described by the Swedish Academy as 'one of the most influential writers in Europe.' (Hugo Correia/Reuters)

Tokarczuk, 57, won for works that explore the "crossing of boundaries as a form of life," the academy said. 

Tokarczuk is one of Poland's best-known authors, with a fast-growing reputation in the English-speaking world. She has been criticized by Polish conservatives — and received death threats — for criticizing aspects of the country's past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. She is also a strong critic of Poland's right-wing government.

She told Polish broadcaster TVN on Thursday that she was "terribly happy and proud" that her novels, which describe events in small towns in Poland, "can be read as universal and can be important for people around the world."

Despite being a trained clinical psychologist, Tokarczuk said writing makes her alive and is the only thing that she knows how to do. 

Speaking with readers in Bielefeld, Germany, hours after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she said she knew her name was "circulating" as a candidate for the award, but she was not expecting it. She got a call from the Swedish Academy while driving between Berlin and Bielefeld.

"So it happened somewhere on a German highway. I don't even know exactly where," Tokarczuk said, to laughter.

Her novel Flights, which won the Booker International Prize in 2018, combines tales of modern-day travel with the story of a 17th-century anatomist who dissected his own amputated leg and the journey of composer Frederic Chopin's heart from Paris to Warsaw after his death.

Poland's Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who said earlier this week he has not finished any of Tokarczuk's books, tweeted his congratulations to her and said he now felt obliged to go back and read her books all the way through.

Tokarczuk is only the 15th woman to win the literature prize in more than a century. Of the 11 Nobels awarded so far this week, all the other laureates had been men.

Tokarczuk is a known critic of Poland's right-wing government. Her novel Flights won the Booker International Prize in 2018. ( Krzysztof Cwik/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters)

In March, the foundation behind the Nobel Prize in Literature said the Swedish Academy had revamped itself and restored trust. The Nobel Foundation had warned another group could be picked to award the prize if the academy didn't improve its tarnished image.

Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a former academy member, was convicted last year of two rapes in 2011. Arnault allegedly also leaked the name of Nobel Prize literature winners seven times.

The 2018 and 2019 literature awards were chosen by the Swedish Academy's Nobel Committee, a new body made up of four academy members and five "external specialists."

Nobel organizers said the committee suggests two names that then must be approved by the Swedish Academy. It's unclear whether the academy members simply rubber-stamped the experts' choice.

The coveted Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded Friday, and the economics award winner will be announced on Monday.

Canadian-born prof among this year's laureates

The chemistry prize went Wednesday to three scientists for their work leading to the development of lithium-ion batteries.

  • John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas.
  • M. Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton.
  • Akira Yoshino of Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University in Japan.

On Tuesday, Canadian-born James Peebles, 84, an emeritus professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, won half of the physics prize for his theoretical discoveries in cosmology. Swiss scientists Michel Mayor, 77, and Didier Queloz, 53, both of the University of Geneva, shared the other half of the prize, for finding an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — that orbits a solar-type star.

A day earlier, two Americans and one British scientist — doctors William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain and Oxford University — won the prize for advances in physiology or medicine. They were cited for their discoveries of "how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability."

Each prize comes with a $918,000 US cash award, a gold medal and a diploma. The laureates receive them at an elegant ceremony on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896 — in Stockholm and in Oslo.

In his will, Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor Nobel specifically designated the Swedish Academy as the institution responsible for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other institutions in Sweden and Norway were given the task to find winners for the other Nobel Prizes.

Nobel decided the physics, chemistry and medicine should be awarded in Stockholm, and the peace prize in Oslo. His exact reasons for having an institution in Norway handing out the peace prize is unclear, but during his lifetime, Sweden and Norway were joined in a union, which was dissolved in 1905.

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