The author, the Nobel Prize, the backlash

The Austrian author Peter Handke has been announced the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. You don’t know him? Should you? Does it matter? 

And why is Twitter raging against him?  

Not so long ago, Peter Handke didn’t understand all the excitement about the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2014 the author suggested it wasn’t necessary, saying it generated only ‘a small moment of attention’.

“There is no need for it,” he railed. 

How times have changed. Handke seemed rather pleased during his first statement to media in his garden in Paris. 

The award gave him a strange sense of freedom, the playwright said.  

Still, it caused controversy all around the global literature scene. To some, his victory is an affront. 

Dr Brangwen Stone, a lecturer for Germanic Studies at the University of Sydney says: “It is not a question of the excellent quality of Handke’s work – the question that should be asked is if you can ignore extreme political views.”   

Since the beginning of his career in the late ‘60s, Handke has loved to provoke – it has been the foundation of his success. But not only in Austria, the public is torn about this prize. Significant numbers of people despise the 76-year-old writer, whether they read him or not. 

There are, as literature critics have put it lately, many different versions of Peter Handke.

There is the early Handke, the rockstar of the Austrian literature scene. It all started in the late 1960s: long hair, small glasses, Beatles look.

Handke used his voice to rage against the dominant narrative and became famous overnight.

He has now been writing for the past half-century. 

The judges praised Handke for his vast production in different genres, including essays, short prose, plays and films, and noted that he has become “one of the most influential writers of contemporary fiction” since his 1966 debut novel The Hornets.  

These days for most Austrians Peter Handke’s books are studied as classic texts. They read him in high school and write essays and assignments on his work, just as with Goethe. But elsewhere in the world he is less well known and the Nobel Prize will open up a new audience for him.

In the light of thisHandke’s win might seem rather overdue, as some of his German and Austrian colleagues say.

Yet even many of his fans were surprised.  

In the 1990s Handke outraged many when he presented himself in a public essay as a sympathiser of Serbia in the Balkan wars, believing the country was unfairly demonised for a conflict in which atrocities were committed on both sides.

It has not been forgotten: shortly after the announcement from Stockholm, social media exploded with a stream of invective denouncing the Academy and Handke.   

It posed an old question: do politics and ethics influence the quality of art? 

“Yes,” argues Dr Stone, “especially for the Nobel Prize, that has such a strong humanistic background. It should be taken into account.” 

For Handke himself, he never wanted to be thought of as a political author.

The playwright who, among other works, co-wrote the ethereal Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire always aimed to provide ‘a counterweight to the generally held view’. 

“Which is ironic because if you choose to be seen at a funeral of a Serbian leader (Slobodan Milosevic), you are choosing to be political,” Dr Stone adds. “Maybe Handke’s literature wasn’t political, but his actions were.”  

Maybe Handke himself finds it quite ironic in the light of the latest discussion. Maybe he enjoyed that sparked offence. 

Main image by Dnalor_01 – source Wikimedia Commons: license CC-BY-SA 3.0.

– @julianelehmayer