The Nobel Women of Eastern Europe

Of the fifteen women who have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, six are from Eastern or Central Europe. Born between 1891 and 1962, in the stretch of land from East Germany to Belarus, these Nobel women differ wildly in the way they write—especially about power and hopelessness, two subjects they all share. There’s Elfriede Jelinek, whose 1983 novel The Piano Teacher uses BDSM as a way of talking about abuse and deviance. Then there’s Svetlana Alexievich, whose renderings of Chernobyl testimony are as spare and haunting as the exclusion zone itself. And, of course, there’s Olga Tokarczuk, whose dialogue delights in that brand of sarcasm so unique to the Eastern European aesthetic: Cheer up! Soon it’ll get worse.

Despite their differences, Eastern Europe’s Nobel women often use a similar tone of voice, one that is bleak, desperate, and detached. Perhaps it’s a tonal signature of their region’s suffering over the past hundred years, a century that included genocide, gulags, nuclear tragedy, and government surveillance. These six selections represent both the range and unity of these authors, along with the continental catastrophes that unite them.

The Appointment (1997)
By Herta Müller — German-Romanian, 2009 Laureate
(Translated by Michael Hulse & Philip Boehm)

The Appointment takes on the psychology of trust: why we bestow it, how we revoke it, and what a society looks like without it. Müller’s novel takes place during Ceausescu’s totalitarian reign in Romania, when censorship and surveillance stifled free speech. The narrator, an unnamed woman continually “summoned” to confess a petty crime to a Communist bureaucrat, feels watched at every moment. Her only relief is her own consciousness, rife with images and observations both exquisite and disjointed. Müller’s lyrical prose is well-suited to the mind of this character, who, in noticing things like “jam the color of egg yolk” and “wreaths as big as cartwheels,” manages to wring some beauty out of the bleakest circumstances.

Glowing Enigmas (1964)
By Nelly Sachs — German-Swedish, 1966 Laureate
(Translated by Michael Hamburger)

“The poems of Nelly Sachs are of this character: hard, but transparent,” writes Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his introduction to Sachs’s collected poems. “They do not dissolve in the weak solution of interpretations.” Then again, neither does her subject matter: Sachs often wrote about the Holocaust. Born in 1891 to a Jewish family in Berlin, Sachs fled to Sweden just before she was supposed to be sent to a concentration camp. (Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Sachs had corresponded for many years, reportedly saved her by pleading Sachs’s case to Swedish royalty. Lagerlöf also won a Nobel.) Persecution is the centerpiece of Glowing Enigmas. The imagery in this four-part elegy is Biblical and elemental: sand, dust, sea, stars. Then there’s the alphabet, which Sachs uses not only as a metonym for speech, but also as a symbol of freedom. She writes about words and letters as persons who disappear, hide, get lashed, and defeat death. Loss of language, the poet implies, approximates loss of life.

The End and the Beginning (1993)
By Wisława Szymborska — Polish, 1996 Laureate
(Later translated by Stanisław Baránczak and Clare Cavanagh in Map: Collected and Last Poems)

“After every war / someone has to tidy up.” So begins the first stanza of “The End and the Beginning,” the titular poem from Szymborska’s collection. The effects of World War II hover over Szymborska’s work, but without the desperation that electrifies Sachs’s poetry. Instead, Szymborska’s poems have a feeling of resignation. Her voice, often bitter and sarcastic, comes from the vantage point of someone who has little faith in the past and even less in the future. “Someone, broom in hand, / still remembers how it was,” she writes, “But others are bound to be bustling nearby / who’ll find all that / a little boring.” The End and the Beginning stares at the slog of time and shrugs at its outcomes. In this book, meaning is not found in conclusions, but in the nothingness that emerges when humanity reaches its lowest point. In the words of Szymborska herself, “What moral flows from this? Probably none.”

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
By Svetlana Alexievich — Belarusian, 2015 Laureate
(Translated by Keith Gessen)

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl collects testimony from survivors of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Alexievich sets the words of these survivors into something like a musical score, with each of the book’s three sections ending on “choruses”: a soldiers’ chorus, a people’s chorus, a children’s chorus. Beyond simply recording facts, Alexievich layers experience on top of experience, story on top of story, until readers can observe how these narratives harmonize with each other. The clearest throughline is the Soviet citizen’s commitment to serving the state, a willingness of individuals to sacrifice their lives in order to keep the Soviet Union strong. “If we had to, we went, if it was needed, we worked, if they told us to go to the reactor, we got up on the roof of that reactor,” recounts one worker tasked with cleaning up the site. HBO’s 2019 miniseries Chernobyl draws heavily on Alexievich’s reporting, and the series has revived interest in the tragedy, albeit through a Western lens that sees the incident as a relic from a bygone era, rather than a sign of a continuing nuclear threat in the present. Reading Voices from Chernobyl might challenge that sense of safety.

The Piano Teacher (1983)
By Elfriede Jelinek — Austrian, 2004 Laureate
(Translated by Joachim Neugroschel)

Though remembered for its transgressive sex, Jelinek’s novel is more about power. The protagonist is a repressed piano teacher in her thirties. Unmarried, she lives with her abusive mother, with whom she has formed a poisonous relationship. When a young, seductive piano student threatens the teacher’s carefully-wrought truce with her mother, the household’s power dynamics dramatically shift. Because the story takes place in 1980s Vienna, the setting feels luxurious compared to the stifling Communist atmospheres of Müller and Alexievich. But Jelinek is hardly one to tout the benefits of capitalist freedom. Instead, in her protagonist’s enslavement to music, she raises the difficult question: Who’s to blame for the lack of personal freedom and fulfillment in “free” societies? Jelinek deconstructs gender, age, sexuality, filial piety, and the worship of art, and examines how these forces oppress individuals even within democracies.

Flights (2007)
By Olga Tokarczuk — Polish, 2018 Laureate
(Translated by Jennifer Croft)

The characters in Flights are always in motion. They fly across continents, ride trains, and escape “bland, flat communist cities” by boat. Moving is their natural state, and their journeys pay no heed to borders. Flights is comprised of fragmentary vignettes that range from philosophical musings on airports to extended anecdotes on travel mishaps. In these sketches, Tokarczuk balances the dire and the funny: dire, as when a Polish man who doesn’t speak Croatian searches aimlessly for his missing wife and child in Croatia; funny, as when an Eastern European-turned-Norseman finds himself in jail, learns English by reading Moby Dick with his cellmates, and develops a prison slang consisting of “By Jove!” and references to “a-whaling.” As a whole, Flights celebrates the cultural jumble of twenty-first-century Europe, in all its comedy, hope, and disillusionment.

Stephanie Newman is a writer living in Brooklyn.