'Gross hypocrisy’: Nobel heavyweight to boycott Peter Handke ceremony

Peter Englund, former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and current member, refuses to celebrate the controversial 2019 literature laureate

Days before the Nobel laureate Peter Handke receives his award, a longstanding member of the Swedish Academy has announced that he will be boycotting the ceremonies because celebrating the Austrian writer’s win would be hypocritical.

Peter Englund, the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Friday that he would not participate this year because “to celebrate Peter Handke’s Nobel prize would be gross hypocrisy on my part”. Handke was set to give a press conference about his win at noon on Friday, with his laureate’s lecture due on Saturday. Formal presentation of his medal is timetabled for Tuesday.

The Austrian writer’s win in October has proved highly controversial, with politicians and writers lining up to condemn his denial of Serb atrocities during the war in the former Yugoslavia, as well as his presence at the funeral of war criminal Slobodan Miloševic. The Kosovan ambassador to the US, Vlora Çitaku, has called the choice of Handke “scandalous … a preposterous and shameful decision”.

Peter Handke signs autographs in Stockholm on 5 December, ahead of his lecture on Saturday.
Peter Handke signs autographs in Stockholm on 5 December, ahead of his lecture on Saturday. Photograph: Karl Schoendorfer/REX/Shutterstock

Peter Maass, a journalist at the Intercept who has been critical of the choice of Handke, said Englund’s move was stunning. “Stunning because the Academy is small – just 18 seats – and Englund is the only member with firsthand experience in Bosnia (where Handke is accused of genocide denial),” he wrote on Twitter.

Earlier this week, two members of the external committee set up to oversee reforms to the Swedish Academy following a sex scandal quit, with Gun-Britt Sundstrom saying her decision was linked to the choice of Handke. “The choice of 2019 laureate was not just a choice about a body of work, it has also been interpreted, both inside the academy and outside, as a defence of the stance that literature is above ‘politics’,” she told Dagens Nyheter. “That is not my ideology.”

Kristoffer Leandoer said he was leaving the committee “because I have neither the patience nor the time to wait for the result of the work to change that has been started … The academy and I have a different perspective on time, one year is far too long in my life and far too short in the life of the academy,” he said, in his case adding that his decision was not linked to the choice of Handke.

The Swedish Academy has been tight-lipped about the reasons for its choice, although Maass has highlighted how Anders Olsson, chair of its Nobel committee, has responded to criticism from public figures in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Olsson told Mehmet Kraja, president of the Academy of Sciences and Arts in Kosovo: “It is clear that Handke is understood in different ways … When Handke is awarded the prize, the ambition is to celebrate his extraordinary literary work, not the person … We should strive to respect each other notwithstanding sharply diverging views in important matters.”

On Thursday, Maass repeatedly attempted to get the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy to explain the choice of Handke. “The institutions responsible for Peter Handke winning this award … are hoping they can continue to dodge direct questions about what they have done,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m a journalist, half my life has been spent getting brushed off. But this is the Nobel prize for literature and it has been awarded to a writer who is reliably accused of genocide denial. This is different.”

Handke is the winner of the 2019 Nobel prize for literature. The winner of the 2018 award, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, was also announced in October. Tokarczuk, who is using part of her Nobel winnings to set up a foundation to support the work of writers and translators and to help “describe the reality in which xenophobic and nationalist sentiments are growing dangerously quickly”, has not publicly commented about Handke’s politics. But her translator Jennifer Croft tweeted that it was absurd to make Tokarczuk share the stage with a “genocide apologist”.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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