Austrain Peter Handke, considered one of the most original German-language writers alive, has seen his career crowned with a Nobel Prize – but the accolade was overshadowed by controversy over his outspoken support for the Serbs during the conflicts that ravaged the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Handke has always had a reputation for speaking his mind – including, ironically enough, once calling for the Nobel Prize in Literature to be abolished.
The prize brings its winner “false canonisation” along with “one moment of attention [and] six pages in the newspaper,” the novelist, playwright, poet and translator told Austrian media in 2014.
But far more shocking for many was his attendance at former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral, and his sympathy for the Serbs in the 1990s Yugoslav wars.
At one point he even compared them to the Jews under the Nazis, a remark he later retracted.
His 1996 travelogue A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, caused a storm, and in 1999 he returned Germany’s prestigious Buechner prize in protest at NATO’s bombing of Belgrade.
The renewed storm of controversy after the award of the Nobel Prize did not lead to any contrition.
On the contrary, Handke angrily reacted to journalists asking him about the row and told them to “leave him in peace”.
Perhaps in keeping for a man whom Austrian literary critic Klaus Kastberger has called “a stubborn so-and-so” who “time and again has come out with provocative actions”.
Handke was born in Griffen in southern Austria during World War II on December 6, 1942 to a German soldier father and a mother from Austria’s Slovenian minority.
After spending his early years in Communist East Berlin, Handke grew up in Austria, and first discovered his love of writing while contributing to the magazine of his hated Catholic boarding school.
He burst onto the literary scene in 1966 with his novel The Hornets and with a play, Offending the Audience, in which four actors dissect the nature of theatre and then turn on the audience.
That success led him to kiss goodbye to his law studies and write full-time. He has never looked back, leading a peripatetic existence and writing prolifically.
Notable works include Short Letter, Long Farewell, the poetry collection The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld” and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams about his mother, who killed herself in 1971.
He has also been no slouch in film-making, cooperating several times with German director and close friend Wim Wenders, including on the 1987 cult classic Wings of Desire about a pair of angels roaming Berlin.
Many of their works explore themes such as loneliness and mortality.
Iconoclasm has been another consistent theme of Handke’s career.
He has described Thomas Mann, a giant of German literature and a 1929 Nobel laureate, as a “terribly bad writer” churning out “condescending, snotty-nosed prose”.
At the 2006 funeral of Milosevic – who died while on trial for crimes against humanity, and who wanted Handke to testify in his defence – the writer made a speech in front of thousands of mourners.
Some have stood up for Handke in the furore over his positions regarding the former Yugoslavia, including Nobel-winning compatriot Elfriede Jelinek.
But many others have lined up to lambast him.
German poet and essayist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, noting Handke’s 1960s firebrand past, said it was “a paradox that the remnants of the peace movement are running around with supporters of mass murder”.
In 2006 an outcry forced him to reject another German prize – the Heinrich Heine award – and the Comedie-Francaise theatre in Paris refused to put on one of his plays.
And when, in 2014, he came to collect the Ibsen prize in Norway, he was greeted with demonstrators chanting “fascist” and holding “Genocide-denier” placards.
“What an indignity!” Handke told the Austria Press Agency afterwards. “Not for me, but for the seriousness of writing.”
At 76 and with a mane of grey hair, Handke remains active and currently lives in Paris. His last novel was published last year.