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Peter Handke’s Nobel Is a Celebration of Violence

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EDITOR’S NOTE:&nbspThe presentation of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to Austrian author Peter Handke—who has denied the massacre of thousands of Bosnians and expressed support for accused genocide instigator Slobodan Milošević—has been strongly criticized. At the announcement on October 10, 2019, Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson said the selection was literary, not political. In an essay originally published by Swedish newspaper Göteborgsposten, Swedish poet and author Johannes Anyuru, whose work revolves around the affect of history, questions the split between artist and artwork. The English-language edition of his most recent novel, They Will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears—which is about terror, nationalism, and racism—is out in November.

This essay was translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson.

A tremble.

“The prize is always political, always a compromise, always a statement of values.”

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

An organization that draws its authority from a professed ability to “objectively” judge literary “quality” must of course show that it, unlike the rest of us, is able to make such judgments. It must show that it is able to step out of the present day, away from the limitations of its own horizon, away from the problem of translation, and so on. One way—possibly the only way—to do this is by picking authors whose work, in addition to being manifestly fantastic, is also darkened by that which is condemned in the contemporary era. That which should make these authorships impossible. The darker the shadows attached to the writer, the purer the gaze seems that praises the work. And so we arrive, via postmodernism, at a Gothic view of literature, where the genius is once again a monster, a Mr. Hyde, a man who goes against the morality of the plebs and the politically correct. Suddenly abuses, violence, and other ethical abysses are not merely to be tolerated—they are badges of honor for the artist.

One of the winners of the two Nobel Prizes in literature given this year, Peter Handke, plays his part of the equation almost too perfectly when he comments on the prize by saying that the Nobel Committee made “a brave choice,” since “they voted for literature, not politics”—for he is, he claims, “pure literature.”

The day that follows the announcement of the two Nobel Prizes is one of the first truly cold fall days. Steely sky over the bunker-like building that houses the public television channel.

I like putting skies, weather phenomena, addresses, in texts like this one. To situate the body, the gaze, in the landscape and the shifting seasons, in the movement of time.

I am sitting in the green room, waiting to appear on a literary TV show to talk about the prizes. I look up at a TV screen that lets you follow what’s happening in the studio in real time. Critic Anders Olsson and journalist Steve Sem-Sandberg discuss Peter Handke’s work; they are both happy, almost congratulating each other on their excellence. Then, because they can’t not, they talk about Handke’s siding with Serbia in the Yugoslav War, his denial of the ethnic cleansing of this war, his oddly hollow speech at Slobodan Milošević’s funeral. They are in wholehearted agreement that none of this should affect the judgment of Handke’s work.

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