For more than a century, the Nobel Prize in Literature has often been a polarizing spectacle, with critics denouncing the winners as too obscure, too Eurocentric, too male, too experimental, or simply unworthy of literature’s highest honor.
On Thursday, it waded into fresh controversy, awarding the prize to a right-leaning writer, Peter Handke, who delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia who was tried for war crimes.
This year was supposed to be a reset for the Nobel Committee, after a messy scandal involving sexual abuse and financial impropriety forced the Nobel Committee to postpone its 2018 prize for literature. The Swedish Academy faced enormous expectations and heightened pressure this year, as it promised to deliver not one but two awards.
In addition to Mr. Handke, who received the 2019 prize on Thursday, the novelist Olga Tokarczuk received it for 2018.
Both writers are from central Europe and are known for their outspoken and sometimes polarizing political views. But it was Mr. Handke’s prize that sparked a backlash, including a rare rebuke from another literary organization, PEN America.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic,” the novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president, said in a statement on behalf of the organization. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
When asked about the academy’s selection of Mr. Handke, Mats Malm, an academy member and its permanent secretary, said it was based on literary and aesthetic grounds, adding: “It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”
As Mr. Handke’s award was condemned in some corners, many in the literary world celebrated the news about Ms. Tokarczuk, an experimental novelist and poet from Poland who is beloved by readers and critics.
Mr. Handke, who is from Austria and whose mother was Slovenian, has espoused nationalistic views, and has publicly expressed doubt about the massacres of Muslims during the Balkans War. Ms. Tokarczuk has been a frequent critic of right-wing nationalists in Poland, who have branded her a traitor. Her Polish publisher at one point hired bodyguards to protect her.
Some prominent authors, among them Hari Kunzru and Salman Rushdie, were critical of the choice of Mr. Handke, who could not be reached through his American publisher.
Ms. Tokarczuk, for her part, seemed untroubled. In an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Thursday, Ms. Tokarczuk said she was happy to receive the Nobel alongside Mr. Handke. “I am also very happy that Peter Handke has received the award with me, I value him very much,” she said. “It’s great that the Swedish Academy appreciated literature from the central part of Europe. I am glad that we are still holding on.”
In awarding the prizes to two renowned European authors, the academy seemed to brush off criticism it has received in the past that the prize had become too Western and Eurocentric. Since the literature prize was first awarded in 1901, the vast majority of winners have been European and English-language authors.
Women have also been underrepresented historically. Ms. Tokarczuk is the 15th woman to win the Nobel for literature, out of 116 laureates.
Some observers in the literary world anticipated that the academy would select at least one non-European writer this year, perhaps awarding the prize to one of the often-cited favorites, among them the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Chinese writer Can Xue or the Syrian poet Adunis.
In a statement this year, Anders Olsson, who leads the academy’s literature committee, conceded that diversity should be more of a priority and indicated that the committee would take geographic diversity and gender into account in making its selection.
“Previously we had a more, let’s say, Eurocentric perspective of literature and now we are looking all over the world,” he said in a video interview. “Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers that are really great, so the prize and the whole process with the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”
The academy postponed last year’s prize amid a scandal that involved a husband of an academy member who was convicted of rape and accused of leaking winners’ names — a crisis that led to the departure of board members and required the intervention of the king of Sweden. The academy made several organizational changes following the scandal, including appointing five independent experts to help choose winners.
A group of Swedish cultural figures even set up a substitute award, the New Academy Prize, to fill the gap and show a winner could be chosen in an open fashion, in contrast to the academy’s secret workings. Their laureate was Maryse Conde, a writer of historical novels from Guadeloupe.
Mr. Handke was born in 1942 in southern Austria. Both Handke’s biological father and his stepfather served in the Wehrmacht, the German army. After his mother’s suicide in 1971, Mr. Handke made sporadic visits to Yugoslavia.
He spent part of his childhood living in war-scarred Berlin and went on to study law at the University of Graz. He dropped out in 1965 after a publisher accepted his first novel, “The Hornets.” His body of work now includes novels, essays, screenplays and other dramatic works. He has been based in Chaville, a suburb of Paris, since 1990.
Literary critics have described his work as avant-garde, but Mr. Handke has dismissed that label, branding himself a “conservative classical writer.”
His decades of writing, published originally in German, include “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” a critically acclaimed novella based on his mother’s death. Michael Wood, reviewing the book in 1975 for The New York Times, called it “a major memorial to a host of buried German and Austrian lives” and “the best piece of new writing I have seen in several years.”
But Mr. Handke’s friendship with Slobodan Milosevic and his comments that seemed to downplay the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims drew condemnation. In an interview in 2006, he said of Milosevic: “I think he was a rather tragic man. Not a hero, but a tragic human being. I am a writer and not a judge.”
In the same interview, he said he did not expect to ever win the Nobel Prize because of the controversy. “When I was younger I cared,” he said. “Now I think it’s finished for me after my expressions about Yugoslavia.”
The same year, he was selected as the winner of Germany’s prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize, but it was revoked amid public outcry. In response, Mr. Handke asserted that he “never denied or played down, not to speak of sanctioned, any of the massacres in Yugoslavia.” When Mr. Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Award in 2014, he was met with protesters at the awards ceremony.
In the United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published translations of Mr. Handke’s work since 1970, starting with his collection “Kaspar and Other Plays,” followed in 1972 by the novel “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.” Since then, FSG has released more than 15 books by Mr. Handke.
“Handke is one of the great German prose stylists, who has spent his career exploring both the natural world and the world of human consciousness with exquisite precision, humor, and courage,” FSG’s president, Jonathan Galassi, said in a statement.
Ms. Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechow, Poland, the daughter of two teachers. Her father was also a school librarian, and it was in that library that Ms. Tokarczuk found her love of literature, devouring book after book.
She went on to study psychology at the University of Warsaw and worked as a clinical psychologist but felt she wasn’t cut out for the work, noting in one interview that she quit because she realized she was “much more neurotic than my clients.”
Ms. Tokarczuk published her first book, a volume of poetry, in 1989, and won acclaim in 1993, when she published her first novel, “The Journey of the Book-People,” a fictional tale of characters in search of a mysterious book in the Pyrenees, set in 17th-century France and Spain. The book was awarded the Polish Publisher’s Prize for a debut novel that year.
But her real breakthrough is considered to be her third novel, “Prawiek i inne czasy” or “Primeval and Other Times.” First published in 1996, it tells the story of three generations of a Polish family, from 1914 to the beginnings of Solidarity in 1980.
In 2018, she became the first Polish author to win the Man Booker International Prize, for her novel, “Flights,” which was translated by Jennifer Croft and published in the United States last year by Riverhead.
“Her work is simultaneously universal and very Polish,” Ms. Croft said.
A series of 116 vignettes about characters who are in transit or displaced, the book was praised as a literary antidote to cultural isolationism, xenophobia and nationalism.
“Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness — these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized,” Ms. Tokarczuk writes. “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.”
In an interview with The Times, Ms. Tokarczuk said she started the novel more than a decade ago, well before Brexit and other nationalist movements took hold throughout Europe. “I wrote this book when the world was looking to be open for everybody,” she said. “Now we’re seeing how the European Union will probably become weakened by the policies of countries like Poland and Hungary, which are focused on their borders once again.”
She also referenced increasingly severe immigration policies in the United States. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”
Ms. Tokarczuk is a prominent and outspoken figure in Poland, known for her opposition to the right-wing Law and Justice party. She faced a backlash after the publication of her novel, “The Books of Jacob,” which is set in 18th century Poland and celebrates the country’s cultural diversity, and won Poland’s top literary prize, the Nike Award, in 2015. Though it was embraced by critics and readers, the novel drew a sharp rebuke from nationalist groups, and Ms. Tokarczuk was subjected to a harassment campaign, receiving death threats and calls for her deportation. In January, she wrote an opinion piece for the Times on the state of the country after the murder of a leading liberal mayor in the country. “I worry about our immediate future,” she said.
Asked this month if he’d read Ms. Tokarczuk’s work, Piotr Glinski, the Polish culture minister, replied that he had tried but had never finished any of her books.
On Thursday, Mr. Glinski congratulated Ms. Tokarczuk. “It is proof that Polish culture is appreciated all over the world,” he wrote on Twitter. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and former prime minister of Poland, also offered his congratulations in a tweet. He added that he had read all her books from start to finish.
Is this the first time two people have been honored?
Far from it. Authors have shared the prize on four occasions, most recently in 1974 when the academy gave the prize to two Swedish writers, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson.
That award caused a scandal, too, because the two were members of the academy. “Mutual admiration is one thing, but this smells almost like embezzlement,” wrote Sven Delblanc, another Swedish author.
What other scandals have hit the literature prize?
Some people will always find the choice of winner scandalous, or at least not to their taste. In 2016, Bob Dylan won, the first musician to do so. His award prompted weeks of debate about whether a songwriter should win a literature award. Jodi Picoult, the novelist, wrote on Twitter: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”
The following year’s prize was a more conventional choice. It went to Kazuo Ishiguro, the British writer best known for his novel “The Remains of the Day,” about a butler serving an English lord in the years before World War II.
Who else has won a Nobel Prize this year?
The prize for medicine and physiology was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their work in discovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.
The prize for physics went to three scientists who transformed our view of the cosmos: James Peebles shared half of the prize for theories that explained how the universe swirled into galaxies and everything we see in the night sky, and much that we cannot see. Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were jointly recognized for the other half of the prize for their discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in our galaxy.
The prize for chemistry was given to three scientists — John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino — who developed lithium-ion batteries, the energy storage systems that have revolutionized portable electronics. Larger lithium-ion batteries have given rise to electric cars that can be driven on long trips, while the miniaturized versions are used in lifesaving medical devices like cardiac defibrillators.
When will the other Nobel Prizes be announced this year?
Megan Specia and Joanna Berendt contributed reporting.
Correction: Oct. 10, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated where Peter Handke’s mother was from. She was from Austria, not Slovenia.