Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Gunnar Gunnarsson, Peter Handke, and the Nobel Prize

Think of it. Peter Handke, perhaps the greatest writer of the last fifty years…

peter handke

No, not in translation, but in his native German, won the prize that eluded Gunnar Gunnarsson…

… but has been spat upon for his politics, with many saying he should be stripped of his prize for his support of Serbia in the Bosnian War. Gunnar fell into the same kind of mess. In his case, he met with Hitler on the day Hitler was planning the invasion of Norway and Denmark. Gunnar had just completed a 40 city reading tour in the German Reich, including its new European colonies. In Gunnar’s case, his politics were too right wing to remain popular. The charge was laid against him that he knew of the invasion but didn’t warn anyone. Well, we’ll never know, but we do know that he invented a kind of writing that attempted to be relevant to all combatants, a mix of biography, nonfiction, fiction and fairytale. It didn’t work, but it is more than anyone else did, and is a model of possibility. His works, Inseln im Großen Meer, The Black Cliffs, Vikivaki, “Our Land”, and Advent (still in print), are a model of what we could still achieve. Now Handke has done it again, with a series of books showing how it is possible to confront right wing politics without losing one’s individuality and humanity — pressing issues for modern Europe, and no doubt why the Nobel Academy awarded him the prize — is being dismissed for his politics. What a shame to have a second guide stripped from us. They don’t come often. I’m not saying that Milosevic was not a war criminal. I’m saying that Handke showed us a path for displaced persons, a path of multilevel emotional sensitivity that included history but not its making. There’s more than one form of humanism. Did both men make huge mistakes? Yes. The choice is before us: to dismiss them for the mistakes, or to accept them as brothers for their achievements, achievements we need.


Rejecting the achievements of these writers diminishes us. The time for a new one to come with the same message appears to be about fifty years.

Why Gunnar Gunnarsson Did Not Win the Nobel Prize

In 1955, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, Genius of Wordsmithing, Bane of Gunnar Gunnarsson the Scold, won the Nobel Prize, which Gunnar, who had friends in high Scandinavian places like Copenhagen and Oslo, thought would be his. Here’s Halldór, looking like the 1920s in 1984.

Halldór is rightfully famous for a number of books, but perhaps most importantly for Independent People, his masterpiece of Icelandic stubbornness, lack of planning and general nrrrghhhhh!

The Ogre of Dritvik


Right, here is the ogre in book form:

Sjálfstætt Fólk: Self-Standing People

In translation, it loses a little something:

And that’s the irony, eh. Gunnar and Halldór thought they were competing for a literary prize, but, really, it was a political one. In 1955, NATO needed Iceland as a military base blocking Soviet access out of the Arctic, which means it needed it to be independent, and with Icelandic leanings towards communism, who better than a reformed communist like either Gunnar or Halldór? Perfect. Even better, Halldór wrote like an American, while Gunnar wrote like a German, all tangled up with prayers and poetry and other bits and pieces of Icelandic Nrrrghhhhh!. Here, let his neighbour today show you:


Gunnar translated this neighbourly chat into his book Advent, which the Americans translated, complete with skis like a bazooka and a fur hat like a military helmet, to secure their WWII military base on Iceland:

Neither of them in their little wrestling match quite understood that right. Halldór’s Nobel prize speech is an example:

But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?

A dig at Gunnar, I’d say, who wangled his writing into fame on the European continent, especially with his friends in the German Propaganda Ministry, for whom he, nonetheless, wrote books about Icelandic peasants who would have been right at home in Halldór’s Independent People, although, ahem, Halldór also left Iceland when he was 17, and lived for decades abroad, mostly on the European continent, and it’s all so sad now, that old politics, because somewhere in their time, someone broke a shovel handle at Kirkujubær and just left it there in a spate of “Nrrrghhhhh!” (you can find it still, today at the sheepfold, one of Gunnar’s favourite spaces)…

In Gunnar’s Iceland, both wood and shovel would have been untold wealth.

… while the modern world that replaced that fierce stubbornness has also gone to ruin now for the same reasons:

“Nrrrghhhhh!, Back to Reykjavik!”

Ah, perhaps, we might give Halldór the last word:

It is not so strange perhaps that my thoughts turned then – as they still do, not least at this solemn moment – to all my friends and relations, to those who had been the companions of my youth and are dead now and buried in oblivion. Even in their lifetime, they were known to few, and today they are remembered by fewer still. All the same they have formed and influenced me and, to this day, their effect on me is greater than that of any of the world’s great masters or pioneers could possibly have been.

After all, not just the Nrrghhhhh but also the wealth remains:

Horse-Drawn Wealth-Spreader Waiting for Resurrection


Now that the West needs Iceland as a military base once more, I think we can expect the Nobel Committee to turn its eyes to Iceland once again, and writers being writers, I think we can be pretty sure that they will talk about words. Meanwhile…

The ogre waits.