On the tenth of October, when the Nobel Committee for Literature announced the laureates for 2018 and 2019, I wandered over to my shelf of Peter Handke’s plays and books, the earliest of which I read in Berlin when I was a teenager and Handke a literary rock star. Others I later reviewed for U.S. papers. The long arc of a writer’s life work, standing on a few feet of wooden board.
That same day, the Stockholm decision ignited a fire-storm of indignation in international literary circles, one that continues to rage. The few anodyne introductions to the 2018 recipient, Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk—often focusing on her dreadlocks—have been overshadowed by the sulfurous scandal clinging to her co-honoree, 2019’s winner, Peter Handke. His stubborn denial of the Bosnian genocide, despite its clear and terrible evidence, has laid waste to his own reputation, prize or not. Admirers who once praised Handke as a language innovator—even a genius—are keeping their heads low.
The Guardian’s critic wrote, “Handke’s dismal morals should have disqualified him.” British novelist Hari Kunzru said Handke “is a troubling choice…a fine writer, who combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness.” Aleksandar Hemon called Handke “the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists.” And Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s current president, declared ex cathedra, “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 Milošević and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić.” This furious condemnation contrasts with PEN’s stance in 2015, when its Freedom Prize went to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after many of its staff were gunned down by radical Islamists. PEN stood by the award despite scathing criticism and resignations by big-name American authors who perceived in the magazine’s famously roundly offensive cartoons an anti-Muslim bias. (Would that be a justification for murder?) The current climate in Europe of pro- vs. anti-Muslim finger-pointing and reproaches has undoubtably tinged the Handke debate. From social media to the punditry, the opposition are either defenders of terrorism or racist oppressors. No nuance, no middle ground.
In a novelistic twist, mere days after the announcement of Handke’s Nobel the prestigious German Book Prize was awarded to one of Handke’s most vocal opponents, the Bosnian-born Saša Stanišić, who devoted his acceptance speech to a furious attack: “He doesn’t mention the victims. He distorts historical fact. I’m shocked that something like that was singled out for an award.”
Perhaps before trying to answer the question of whether Slovenian-Austrian writer and dramatist Peter Handke, a self-identified Yugoslav patriot, “deserves” his Nobel— whether he should even have been considered for the Nobel, or any other literary prize for that matter—one might ask some questions about the question itself. What is really being required of our judgment here, as readers, writers, citizens? Do we require artists today to be models of acceptable morality—moreover, by the standards of our time and place, not always theirs? If so, do we reject those who have spoken or written words deemed grossly unacceptable? Should our condemnation take into consideration the actual effect of those words—or the lack thereof? (People aren’t generally idiots, and obsessive, ineffectual rants can be dismissed for what they are.) Does it matter whether the words/acts are embedded in the work, or should artists’ actions outside of their literary output be equally subject to potentially disqualifying scrutiny? (Paul Gauguin and Roman Polanski, I’m thinking of you.)
The more polemic a debate, the fewer references one hears to basic facts. So it might be useful to note briefly some relatively undisputed facts about both Handke’s work and his public statements and actions, in context.
Let’s take the work first: the 76-year-old author and filmmaker’s bibliography lists nearly a hundred titles. He came roaring off the starting block in the sixties and seventies with fiercely original plays, film scripts, and novels, such as Offending the Audience, Kaspar, The Ward Wants to be Warden, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The Ride over the Bodensee, and the moving novels that followed his mother’s suicide, including A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and The Left-Handed Woman. (This brings us roughly to 1980. I’ll not go on—although he certainly did—except to mention the film Wings of Desire). Few who have read his plays will dispute that Handke’s tenacious probing into the borderlands of language versus identity have had enormous influence on, by now, a couple of generations of writers.
I can’t help but wonder: have some of his loudest critics even read him? Much? Recently? “I’m standing at my garden gate and there are fifty journalists,” Handke told an NPR freelancer last week, “and from not a single person who comes to me do I hear they have read any of my works or know what I have written.”
To dismiss the groundbreaking Offending the Audience as “four actors sitting around insulting their audience,” as one commentator did, is like saying that Waiting for Godot is about two tramps doing nothing. Many of the later books are journeys in which Handke, a hyper-tuned observer, painstakingly explores borderlands. Landscape, identity, and the solitude of human experience are interwoven. The going isn’t always easy, but one feels the texture of rocks, air, and rivers. The protagonist lives off what the land can offer, shunning soldiers and traveling light, except for the precious presence of memories: an absent love, a vanished home.
Now for the politics. Handke—in his youth anti-Fascist and a declared Yugoslavian patriot—fell from grace, or rather leapt off the ledge voluntarily, during the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian Wars (1991–2001) when he denounced the U.N. bombing of Serb-led forces. (He also returned a literary prize in protest.) That bombing was a desperate and too-late effort to halt atrocities that later would be certified by the Hague court to be Serbian-led ethnic cleansing and genocide aimed at Bosnian Muslims, crimes against humanity which Handke has never acknowledged.
Instead, he wrote, aggrieved, of a trip back to the old country, where he found only suffering Serb peasants and no real evidence of any massacres. Matters got worse, and more surreal, in 2006, when Handke spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević, who died during his trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The chorus of condemnation presaged this year’s scandal. Salman Rushdie—hardly a paragon of rectitude himself—called Handke “runner-up for moron of the year.” (NRA supporter Charlton Heston was Rushdie’s first pick.) Not long after the Milošević funeral, Handke stated in a New York Times interview that the deceased was “not a hero but a tragic human being.” And that he, Handke, “was a writer and not a judge.”
There is nothing clear-cut about the debate over whether a work of art can be appreciated apart from the artist. Does the perceived value of the art sway the outcome? Should it? Carolyn Kellogg, after slamming the Nobel committee’s decision in The Chicago Tribune, concluded proudly, “I have never read Handke, and I don’t plan to start now.”
A few years ago, fundamentalist ISIS destroyed the temples of Palmyra, convinced of the virtue of their act. Just sayin’. And let me emphasize: none of my reflections here are intended to relativize in any way the horrific crimes perpetrated, according to every reliable witness, by Serb forces during the war: at least 800,000 men and boys interned, starved and massacred; mass rape as ethnic warfare, and the unimaginable suffering of the women imprisoned and forced to bear the babies; civilians freezing and starving in the besieged regions. I remember evenings when I stood next to the radio in tears, hardly able to believe that Europe could do this to herself again.
Still, the moral high ground can make for strange bedfellows—Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek fulminated: “In 2014, Handke called for the Nobel to be abolished, saying it was a ‘false canonisation’ of literature. The fact that he got it now proves that he was right. This is Sweden today: an apologist of war crimes gets a Nobel Prize while the country fully participated in the character assassination of the true hero of our times, Julian Assange. Our reaction should be: not the literature Nobel Prize for Handke but the Nobel Peace Prize for Assange.”
Seriously? That Assange, who laid a fat finger on the 2016 U.S. election scale by coordinating with Russia to release Clinton’s hacked emails?
My title lists other writers who have come under fire for similar political misdeeds—or worse. The academically canonized Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio made the news recently, and also for a delictus in the Balkans: in his case, for having led a personal army that took over parts of Croatia for Italy in 1919. A new statue of him in Trieste has understandably irritated that city’s close neighbor—Croatia.
It’s the Ezra Pound story, though, that feels most comparable to Peter Handke’s. Both writers were essentially politically naive, hardly activists, apart from and until a certain obsession took over. Each then developed a massive, reality-denying mental cataract. Each has had a groundbreaking influence on fellow and younger writers. T. S. Eliot declared Pound “more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than any other individual.” Four decades later, Donald Hall in Remembering Poets wrote, “Ezra Pound is the poet who, a thousand times more than any other man, has made modern poetry possible in English.” Apart from Handke’s influence on theater—his plays are still widely produced, for example by Thomas Ostermeier—Karl Ove Knausgaard and filmmaker Wim Wenders are among the few who have recently reaffirmed their artistic debt to him, and expressed happiness over the Nobel decision.
It must be said that Pound’s actions—above all, supporting Mussolini through a radio broadcast campaign—were much graver, more radical and consequential, than Handke’s. Treason in wartime, in fact. But time passes. Today, his cantos are taught at our universities without a blink.
As a teenager I took these lines into my heart:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas. . . .
Apart from the unequal impact of their offenses, there’s another instructive difference between Pound and Handke: once Ezra Pound was arrested, the government sought to annihilate him. It was the community of writers—Auden, Eliot, and Lowell among them—who came to his defense and managed to have his sentence commuted from prison time to years in a psychiatric ward, though there was never a written diagnosis.
Autre temps, autre moeurs.
There are plenty more miscreants waiting to be swept off the shelves by the morals police. What about Eliot, still hanging on to his full laurels? Apart from his putative anti-Semitism, there’s the unsavory fact that Eliot, feeling harassed and thus unable to work properly, chose to permanently commit to an institution his perhaps bipolar, certainly lost and clinging wife Vivienne, without trying any other remedy first.
A few writers have welcomed the Stockholm decision. In addition to Wenders and Knausgaard, the reclusive 2004 Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek said a few weeks ago, “The great poet Handke deserved the Nobel Prize ten times over.” And Tokarczuk, whose work has been termed left-liberal and staunchly anti-nationalist, told Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that she was “happy” Handke had been honored. “I value him very much. It’s great that the Swedish Academy appreciated literature from the central part of Europe.”
I have never read Olga Tokarczuk, but I plan to start now.
It is one thing—the right thing—to call artists to account where there is evidence of bad or even heinous behavior. It is another thing to suppress their work or reject it out of hand. Anyone interested in crossing the picket line to explore Handke’s writing might want to begin with A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Or The Left-Handed Woman—or even the play Kaspar, in which the eponymous wild boy is first tamed, then reduced and imprisoned by language.
Kai Maristed is the author of the novels Broken Ground (Counterpoint, 2003); Fall (Random House, 1996); and Out After Dark (Permanent Press, 1993), finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; and as well as the story collection Belong to Me (Random House, 1998), which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in Southwest Review, The Iowa Review, Epiphany, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Ploughshares. She is also a playwright and translator, with a new translation and adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu currently in development. (updated 4/2023)