Archive for October 10th, 2019

A Nobel for Olga Tokarczuk – Poland’s leading novelist!

Thursday, October 10th, 2019
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Congratulations to Olga Tokarczuk! She is the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize – 2018, because the Nobel Committee was enveloped in scandal last year, and so is issuing two awards at once (the 2019 one went to playwright Peter Handke, a more controversial choice). We’ve written about Tokarczuk before, here and here and here. We didn’t predict this big win, however. The dreadlocked vegetarian is a mere 57 years old – relatively young for Nobel winners. However, she has been a leading light in the Polish firmament for years. According to The Guardian, “it has found not only a fine winner but a culturally important one.” The Nobel Committee cited “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” And congratulations, too, for her translators into English (vital for Nobel contenders) –American Jennifer Croft, and Britain’s Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Congratulations, too, to her phenomenal publisher (we’ve written about him here), Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo.

The photo above was taken during a reading at the home of Izabela Barry, in New York City (Yonkers, to be more precise). Izabela has been a mover and shaker in the world of Polish lit for years (she’s holding a glass of wine in the photo above), and her living room the setting for readings, discussions, and receptions. (We were honored to have Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard featured one evening a couple years ago – a French event, not Polish, admittedly, but we were further privileged to have the incandescent Polish scholar Irena Grudzińska Gross as interlocutor.)

The New York Times reports:

Ms. Tokarczuk is best known for her 2014 historical novel Księgi Jakubowe or The Book of Jacob, centered in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires and focused on the life of Jacob Frank, an 18th century Polish leader of a Jewish splinter group that converted to Islam and then Catholicism. “She has in this work showed the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding,” Nobel officials wrote in their citation.

In 2018, she got renewed prominence after winning the Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction for “Flights,” an experimental novel based on stories of travel.

From the Guardian:

“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner,” mused the 57-year-old author earlier this year, “because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication.” This might not be a desirable state of affairs but for writers from many parts of the world it is a fact of life. Her Booker win, as Antonia Lloyd-Jones – one of her two English language translators – remarked, was not just a triumph for her but for the whole of Polish literature.

By then, her canny independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo, had already followed up with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Whereas Flights was one of the glittering historical and geographical collages that Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels”, Drive Your Plow is very different: a William Blake-infused eco-thriller which significantly extended her reputation, not least because it is much easier to read.

Postscript from NYRB Classics, via Twitter: In the photo above, one careful observer noticed another notable Polish translator, Sean Gasper Bye.  The “photobomb, if the eyes do not deceive,” would describe the man sitting on the floor, facing the camera, half-lit. Wrote the NYRB Classics: “I love his expression. Happy and rapt.”

Tokarcyk and Croft at the Man Booker awards, 2018. (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)