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Swedish Academy Announces Winners Of The 2018 And 2019 Nobel Prizes In Literature


The Nobel Prize for literature has been synonymous with controversy for years. The Swedish Academy put off naming last year's winner after an embarrassing scandal. So today two winners were announced - one for 2018 and another for 2019. And at least one of the winners won't do anything to change the Nobel's reputation for generating controversy. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: After the scandal, which involved sexual harassment and the names of finalists getting leaked, it was speculated that The Swedish Academy might try playing things safe. But instead, an award already criticized for going to esoteric Europeans went to an avant-garde Austrian playwright.


PETER HANDKE: Why? Why? Why? Why?

ULABY: Peter Handke fended off reporters today who pressed him about his controversial history, which includes accusing Bosnian Muslims of making up their own genocide and appearing at the funeral of accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.


HANDKE: So I tell you - you are born as a guilty person. And now today, perhaps in the evening, it will change. Today, for this hour, I don't feel guilty; I feel free.

ULABY: The freedom of speech organization PEN America expressed dismay over the choice. Handke's political leanings have long been assumed to complicate his chances for a Nobel, says one of his primary translators. Krishna Winston says Handke's identification with Serbs may come from his Slovenian mother. She says he has...

KRISHNA WINSTON: A kind of nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia, which is not based on any kind of really reasoned political thinking.

ULABY: Over the years, Winston says, Peter Handke has provoked controversy by insulting German-language literary heroes like Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann.

WINSTON: Handke really likes to stir the pot. He likes to be disagreeable. You may be familiar with his play "Insulting The Audience" (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, foreign language spoken).

ULABY: Or maybe you're not. It's an early work from the late 1960s, intended to thumb its nose at its bourgeois audience. But Peter Handke also co-wrote one of the most acclaimed films of the past 50 years. "Wings Of Desire," from 1987, begins with his poem "Song Of Childhood."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, through interpreter) When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent and this puddle to be the sea.

ULABY: The humanist sentiments in that poem could have come from the other literature winner announced today.


OLGA TOKARCZUK: (Foreign language spoken).

ULABY: Olga Tokarczuk, in an interview on the Nobel Prize website, says Polish is one of the best languages for expressing difficult things. After her novel "Flights" won both the Man Booker International Prize and Poland's most prestigious literary award, she was attacked by an army of trolls for her anti-nationalist writing, says her translator Jennifer Croft.

JENNIFER CROFT: People calling for her deportation, making rape threats and death threats because they considered her a traitor to the Polish nation.

ULABY: But Olga Tokarczuk's Polish fans have made her a best-seller at home. Tokarczuk is a fearless contrarian whose work includes a thriller promoting animal rights. The Nobel Prize in literature has once again succeeded in shining a light on world authors. When it comes to avoiding controversy, well, there's always next year.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BORIS BLENN'S "MELLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.