In these times when literature is sold cheaply and those who raise the banner of arts as a distinct domain are in short supply it is refreshing to review a statement made by the highly acclaimed Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse on the work of Peter Handke.
Some context: Handke was recently awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature along with Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. The committee decided to give out two awards this time after a one-year hiatus. A debacle concerning some prominent members of the committee had led to the prize not being awarded in 2018. It would be logical to think, then, that previous conflicts have now been assigned to the past. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Recently two more committee members announced their resignation, citing a disagreement over awarding the prize to Handke.
Controversies regarding Handke’s work is nothing new. A few years ago he was awarded a different prize, the Ibsen Award for outstanding achievements in dramatic writing. On arriving in Norway to collect the prize, Handke was met by around 200 protesters who claimed he was a fascist, and in denial of the Holocaust.
When freedom of speech is increasingly encroached upon; when artists who sympathise with those brutally crushed by Western military powers are rendered as demons; and when a writer who demonstrates his affection for his mother’s homeland is haunted as if he were a war criminal, it is refreshing to see a literary luminary such as Jon Fosse come to Peter Handke’s defense. In an interview with the literary magazine Vinduet in 2014 Fosse was asked what his opinions were of giving the Ibsen Award to Handke. These were his thoughts:
Did Peter Handke deserve the 2014 Ibsen Award?
I fully support giving the Ibsen Award, as the prize has become known by now, to Peter Handke. He deserves it, not as a person, or as a political speaker and essayist, but as the author Peter Handke, the one who, as far as I can tell, is possibly our most significant living author, all things considered, that is to say if we include prose and drama and essays, i.e., the entire authorship. I have been asked several times who I believe deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, and every time I have given the answer Peter Handke.
Subsequently, it is in my view as misguided to ground an award for aesthetic activity in political motivations, for instance in order to promote the position of women in society, as it is to ground a refusal to give such an award in political motivations. To pass over Peter Handke when this prize was awarded would have been a political act, or at least a political decision. Furthermore, there were others who had misgivings when NATO’s bombs descended onto Serbia, such as the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Lastly, when Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature she remarked that it should have been given to Peter Handke; she won simply for being a woman.
It is true that a remarkable amount of authors have had fairly extreme political sympathies. In many cases it is as if a sovereign aesthetics is extended into the political domain; in any case we see an aestheticisation of the political. This tendency is particularly apparent in the case of Peter Handke. In his books the Slavic, and particularly what was once referred to as Yugoslavia, features as a dream world of sorts, where aesthetic considerations governed at the expense of the brutal capitalism he believed to see in the West. Notice how he describes his love for the Slavic tongues: you need go no further than Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972). It tells the story of his mother’s suicide; she was a Slovenian, living in the Austrian village where Handke himself grew up. In this text we can trace this characteristic trait of his aesthetics.
What political responsibilities rest on authors?
I am against turning the political into an aesthetic domain; it may for instance lead to a celebration of rules who have committed genocide, such as Pol Pot, or Mao, or Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. And yet I cannot hold the view that the author of On Overgrown Paths did not deserve his Nobel Prize. Furthermore, I cannot deny that Dag Solstad is the greatest living author in Norway; and I can clearly not let these considerations serve as the ground for an attack on Øyvind Berg because of his translations of the anti-Semite Ezra Pound’s texts into Norwegian, even if the Swedish Academy believed that they were unable to award Pound a Nobel Prize for this reason. Finally, it is difficult to deny Céline any literary qualities on the grounds of his opinions.
In the same manner as I am against subordinating politics to aesthetic considerations, I am against politicizing aesthetics. Brecht wrote many good texts, but it is always when an imposed political frame loosens its grip that his talent lifts us up, such as in his poetry, or in lyrical passages in his [dramatic] works. In any case, I have little regard for the political literature of the 1970s in Norway, where mountains were dressed up with weapons.
Yet, ever since my debut in 1983, I have frequently been asked whether I write politically, which, more often than not, implies that I should do so. I have time and again wondered what the point of such a question might be, and I have arrived at the conclusion that there must be something immoral about me, since I don’t commit to political writing, whatever that might mean. I have always said the same thing: I do not write politically. However, the aesthetic and the ethical domains are connected, as for instance Wittgenstein has noted; and embarking from the ethical dimension of literature it is also possible to arrive at politics, if one pleases. And from such a perspective it is clear that there is something quite different from a praise of genocide that lies at the core of Peter Handke’s aesthetic programme. Similarly, there is no praise of Nazism in Knut Hamsun’s aesthetics. In both these cases we should take the contrary view.
(Translated excerpt from “Enquête: Peter Handke og Ibsenprisen,” published in the literary magazine Vinduet, 17 September 2014. Retrieved 9 November 2019, from https://www.vinduet.no/enquete/)