5 Polish Writers Who Won the Nobel Prize in Literature
#language & literature
default, Wisława Szymborska receives the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm , 1996, photo: Rex Features / Forum, full_szymborska_wislawa_nobel_east_news_770.jpg
Poland now has a total of five Nobel Prize winners in literature – the most recent in 2019. Who were they, and who could be next?
Since the Nobel Prize in Literature was established in 1901, Poland has had five winners. Should we decide to also include writers who were born in Poland (or in the territory that was once Poland), the list would be substantially longer and include names like Shmuel Yosef Agnon (born in Buczacz, wrote in Hebrew), Isaac Bashevis Singer (born in Leoncin, wrote in Yiddish) or Günter Grass (born in Gdańsk, wrote in German). But, for now, let's stick to the Polish-language writers first.
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1905: Henryk Sienkiewicz
Contrary to what is usually said in this context, Henryk Sienkiewicz didn't receive the Nobel Prize for his 1896 panorama of ancient Rome, Quo Vadis. The reason for this misattribution was the enormous popularity of the book. In fact, the jury awarded Sienkiewicz for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’.
When Carl David af Wirsén, the secretary of the prize, presented the award, he repeatedly stressed the importance of a different book in Sienkiewicz's oeuvre: The Deluge (Potop). This historical trilogy set in 17th-century Poland in a time of great political turmoil became a eulogy for the Sarmatic tradition and a source of patriotic hope – given that the book was written, as the popular phrase goes, ‘to cheer hearts’.
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In his Banquet speech, Sienkiewicz emphasized that the honour of receiving the Nobel Prize was especially valuable for a son of Poland, which at that point wasn't even on the map. He said:
It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph. Like Galileo, one is forced to think ‘e pur si muove’ when before the eyes of the world homage has been rendered to the importance of Poland's achievements and her genius.
1924: Władysław Reymont
Interestingly, one of Władysław Reymont's main rivals in the running for the Nobel Prize in the early 1920s was another Polish writer, Stefan Żeromski. In fact, it was Żeromski who was considered to have a better chance at first, but the heavy critique which landed on the writer after the publication of his allegedly anti-German 1922 novel Wiatr od Morza (Wind from the Sea) – combined with the Germanophilia of the Swedish jury – resulted in tipping the scale in favour of Reymont. The winner also beat favourites such as Thomas Mann (who would have to wait another five years for his Nobel Prize), Maxim Gorki, and Thomas Hardy.
The jury awarded The Peasants (originally: Chłopi), a four-volume ‘great national epic’ depicting one year in the life of peasants living in a small village near Łódź. Originally written in the years 1901 to 1908, the book was translated into Swedish only in 1921 (Reymont's other famous novel The Promised Land was translated one year earlier). Reymont didn't go to Stockholm to receive the award, as at that time, his health had deteriorated and he was convalescing in Nice, France. He died the following year in Poland at the young age of 58. Not long before his death, he wrote to a friend:
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What irony, a Nobel Prize, money, universal fame, and a man who cannot get undressed without great fatigue. This is the quintessential irony of life.
Read more about Reymont's presentation in Stockholm here.
1980: Czesław Miłosz
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Czesław Miłosz receives the Nobel Prize from his majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, 1980, photo: Bertil Ericson / SCANPIX SWEDEN / Forum
The 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature for Czesław Miłosz has been always seen primarily in a political context. The jury's decision to award the prize to the Polish émigré poet – Miłosz had defected to the West in 1951 and had lived in United States since 1960 – in the same year that the Solidarity Polish trade union was formed has been interpreted as a sign of Western support for the political changes taking place in the Soviet Bloc.
This political overtone can be heard also in the justification of the verdict, according to which the award went to a poet 'who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts'. At the time, Miłosz was known in the West primarily as the author of The Captive Mind.
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But this perspective may be especially harming and unfair, as Miłosz – probably more than any other previous Polish Nobel laureates – deserved the award on the grounds of pure literary merit. In his Nobel Prize speech, he avoided talking about politics. Instead, he made the key figure of his lecture Nils Holgersson – the hero of Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventure of Nils, Miłosz's favourite childhood book. According to Miłosz, this little boy travelling on the back of a goose, and looking at the world from a great distance but also seeing things in great detail, is the best symbol of the role of the poet. Developing this metaphor and drawing on some of his favourite writers, like Simone Weil and William Blake, Miłosz expressed what could be seen as his poetic credo:
Thus both – the Earth seen from above in an eternal now and the Earth that endures in a recovered time – may serve as material for poetry.
Find Czesław Miłosz's the entire speech here: www.nobelprize.org
1996: Wisława Szymborska
Only 16 years after the Nobel Prize for Miłosz, the award went to another poet from Poland. Wisława Szymborska was awarded ‘for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality’. Compared to Miłosz, Szymborska may seem like a poet of smaller intellectual scope and ambition – but hers is the realm of the everyday, the little raptures and despairs brought by daily life, all of it served with the warm irony that is distinctive of her poetry.
The poet, known for her shyness and dislike for any public appearances, was at first overwhelmed by the media hype around the Nobel Prize – reportedly, her first reaction to the news were the words: 'Oh, God, why me...'. Still she was able to survive the Nobel fuss (or the Nobel tragedy, as she called it), with her trademark charm and intelligence. She started her Nobel lecture with the words:
They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway.
Over the next 15 years, until her death in 2012, Szymborska remained impressively distanced from her public image, shunning poetic homages and public recognition, she cherished her privacy and isolation.
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2018 (2019): Olga Tokarczuk
The fifth Nobel Prize in literature for Poland came in 2019 – but it was awarded for the year 2018 (the reason being last years’s Nobel Prize committee scandal, which resulted in postponing its decision until the next year). Therefore, in 2019, two Nobel Prizes for Literature were awarded: one went to the Austrian writer Peter Handke (for the year 2019) and the other to the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk (for the year 2018).
Tokarczuk (born in 1962) was cited by the committee for 'a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life'. The Nobel committee’s Anders Olsson said her work, which 'centres on migration and cultural transitions', was 'full of wit and cunning'.
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Her output includes several novels like House of Day, House of Night, Primeval and Other Tales, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (all translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) and Flights and The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft, the latter to be published in 2020).
In 2018, Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and in 2019, her book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist and the longlist of the first National Book Award in Translated literature.
Olga Tokarczuk Wins Man Booker International Prize
nobel prize for literature
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Apr 2015, updated 9 Oct 2019