STOCKHOLM — Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian author Peter Handke — two writers whose works are deeply intertwined in Europe’s religious, ethnic and social fault lines — won the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for literature on Thursday.

The rare double announcement came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that tarnished the Swedish Academy, the group that awards the literature prize. Both winners will receive a full cash prize, valued this year at $918,000, a gold medal and a diploma.

In this Friday Aug. 7, 2009 file photo, Austrian author Peter Handke attends a dress rehearsal of Samuel Beckett’s and Peter Handke’s drama “Krapp’s Last Tape/ Until Day Do You Part or A Question of Light” on in Salzburg, Austria. The winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature is Austrian author Peter Handke. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson, File)

Yet if prize organizers hoped to get through this year’s awards without controversy, they will likely be disappointed.

Handke, 76, has faced criticism for his vigorous defense of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He also spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges. His selection as winner of the International Ibsen Award for drama in 2014 prompted protests from human rights groups.

The Swedish Academy praised Handke’s work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience” with linguistic ingenuity.

Tokarczuk, 57, is one of Poland’s best-known authors, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak. The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

She is only the 15th woman to win the Nobel literature prize in more than a century. Of the 11 Nobels awarded so far this week, all the other laureates have been men.

Tokarcuzk has been attacked by Polish conservatives — and received death threats — for criticizing aspects of the country’s past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. She is also a strong critic of Poland’s current right-wing government.

Her 2014 novel “The Books of Jacob” tackles the forced conversion of Polish Jews to Catholicism in the 18th century. Her book “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a crime thriller with feminist and animal-rights themes that offers a sometimes unflattering depiction of small-town Polish life.

She won the Booker International Prize in 2018 for “Flights,” which combines tales of modern-day travel with the story of a 17th-century anatomist who dissected his own amputated leg and the journey of composer Frederic Chopin’s heart from Paris to Warsaw after his death.

Poland’s Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who said earlier this week that he has not finished any of Tokarczuk’s books, tweeted his congratulations to her Thursday and said he now felt obliged to go back and read her books all the way through.

Polish President Andrzej Duda called it a “great day for Polish literature” on Twitter.

Handke is a novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter described by the academy as “one of the most influential writers in Europe” after World War II.

Beginning with “The Hornets” in 1966, he made his name with works that combine introspection and a provocative streak. One early play was called “Offending the Audience” and featured actors insulting theatergoers.

He has written screenplays, several of them for German director Wim Wenders, who also filmed Handke’s 1970 novel “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.”

He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” his 1972 novel about his mother’s suicide.

But the choice also drew criticism. Handke has attracted controversy for his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars.

In a 1996 essay, “Justice for Serbia,” he accused Western news media of depicting Serbs as aggressors in the wars that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. He was an opponent of NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia for that country’s violent crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

In 2014 he told the Austrian Press Agency that the Nobel prize should be abolished because of its “false canonization” of literature.

The literature prize was canceled last year after an exodus of members from the exclusive Swedish Academy, which chooses the winners, following sex abuse allegations. Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of a former academy member, was convicted last year of two rapes in 2011.

The Nobel Foundation had warned that another group could award the literature prize if the academy didn’t improve its tarnished image, but said in March it was satisfied the Swedish Academy had revamped itself and restored trust.

The 2018 and 2019 awards were chosen by the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee, a new body made up of four academy members and five “external specialists.” Nobel organizers say the committee suggests two names that then must be approved by the Swedish Academy. It’s unclear whether academy members simply rubber-stamped the experts’ choice.

Anders Olsson, chair of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee, said “we are not ready to evaluable this new process yet.”

In his will, Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel designated the Swedish Academy as the institution responsible for the Nobel Prize in literature. Nobel decided the physics, chemistry and medicine should be awarded in Stockholm, and the peace prize in Oslo.

The coveted Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Friday and the economics award on Monday.

Wednesday’s chemistry prize went to John B. Goodenough, a German-born engineering professor at the University of Texas; M. Stanley Whittingham, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton; and Japan’s Akira Yoshino, of Asahi Kasei Corporation and Meijo University.

On Tuesday, Canadian-born James Peebles, 84, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, won the physics prize for his theoretical discoveries in cosmology together with Swiss scientists Michel Mayor, 77, and Didier Queloz, 53, both of the University of Geneva. The latter were honored for finding an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — that orbits a solar-type star.

On Monday, two Americans and one British scientist — Drs. William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter J. Ratcliffe of Britain’s Francis Crick Institute and Oxford University — won the prize for advances in physiology or medicine. They were cited for their discoveries of “how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.”

The laureates will receive their honors at an elegant ceremony on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896 — in Stockholm and in Oslo.

Lawless reported from London. Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Monika Scislowska and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.


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