The Nobel Prize for Literature: 2018 and 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke have been awarded the Nobel Prizes for Literature, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Ms. Takarczuk’s award adds to the luster of Polish novels and poems within the Republic of Literature. I confess that I am not familiar with her work, and one might think that this award might spur me to take a look at it. If I didn’t have a full-time job, I would indeed get one of her books, but the reality is that I am primarily focused on ways to make the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes more visible to my students at CSULB. Once I achieve that, then I will indulge myself.

When I was young, I had no profession and could devote myself to reading what I was interested in. Poetry was secondary, in fact, for a couple years to theater, although I found myself especially attracted to playwrights such as Peter Handke who also wrote poetry. I have noticed that the commentaries on Handke’s work following the Nobel Prize announcement cite “Offending the Audience,” but do not mention that his book of poetry, “The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld” sold thousands of copies in Germany. My copy of it is one of the books I will most reluctantly part with, when age nudges me nearer mortality, should I be granted a slow departure.

I suppose the only way we can truly understand the controversy over Handke’s friendship with someone associated with genocide is to imagine a writer in the United States being a close friend of George W. Bush, whose war criminal status has not yet been adjudicated, or Donald Trump, who flirts with the ideals of fascist dictatorships. I doubt that writer would win a Pulitzer Prize, let alone an international award.

Of course, Handke could resolve it all by refusing the prize. Did not Jean-Paul Sartre do so? How much does it really matter to his readers whether he ever got this award? Nothing can change how much “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had as a reader.

And then there are the secondary memories: getting on my motorcycle in the mid-1970s to drive from Ocean Park to Theater Vanguard in Los Angeles for a screening of Wim Wenders’ adaptation of “A Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.” I wonder how many people are still living in Los Angeles who remember Theater Vanguard. Probably less than a thousand. The diaspora of nostalgia: the things in memory restrain our tears, when the imagination makes them real.