Stockholm: American poet Louise Gluck won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature for "her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal", the Swedish Academy said on Thursday.
Gluck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her collection "The Wild Iris" and the National Book Award for her latest collection, "Faithful and Virtuous Night", in 2014.
The Academy's permanent secretary Mats Malm said he had spoken to Gluck just before making the public announcement. Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry were awarded earlier this week, and the peace prize is to be announced on Friday.
"The message came as a surprise, but a welcome one as far as I could tell," Malm told reporters.
Gluck was not seen as a favourite for the Nobel in the run-up to Thursday's announcement - though betting sites' odds on her reportedly plunged just before Thursday's announcement. The chair of the Academy's Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, lamented that she was not more well-known, "at least outside the US' borders", and had not been translated into many other languages.
She is the fourth woman to win the Nobel Literature Prize in the past decade - after Olga Tokarczuk, Svetlana Alexievich and Alice Munro - and only the 16th since the Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1901.
A professor of English at Yale University, Gluck "seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works," the Academy said in its prize citation.
"The voices of Dido, Persephone, and Eurydice - the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed - are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid."
2019: Peter Handke (Austria)
2018: Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)
2017: Kazuo Ishiguro (Britain)
2016: Bob Dylan (US)
2015: Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus)
2014: Patrick Modiano (France)
2013: Alice Munro (Canada)
2012: Mo Yan (China)
2011: Tomas Transtromer (Sweden)
2010: Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
2009: Herta Mueller (Germany)
2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (France)
2007: Doris Lessing (Britain)
2006: Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
Her collections "The Triumph of Achilles" (1985) and "Ararat" (1990) address "almost brutally straightforward images of painful family relations", the jury said, noting that her use of a "deceptively natural tone is striking", with "no trace of poetic ornament."
Gluck is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, describing in her poem "Snowdrops" the miraculous return of life after winter, her work often marked by "humour and biting wit".
The jury said her 2006 collection "Averno" was a "masterly collection, a visionary interpretation of the myth of Persephone's descent into Hell in the captivity of Hades, the god of death." "She writes oneiric, narrative poetry recalling memories and travels, only to hesitate and pause for new insights. The world is disenthralled, only to become magically present once again," the Academy concluded.
The literature prize has been dogged by controversy over the past several years.
In 2019 the Academy exceptionally named two winners after postponing the 2018 prize in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving the husband of one of its members. The secretive, 234-year-old Academy later announced changes it billed as improving the transparency of the awards process.
But one of the literature laureates announced last year, the Austrian novelist and playright Peter Handke, had drawn wide international criticism over his portrayal of Serbia as a victim during the 1990s Balkan wars and for attending the funeral of its nationalist strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic died in detention in 2006 while awaiting trial on genocide charges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The 2016 literature prize granted to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sharply divided opinion over whether a popular musician should be given an award that had been largely the domain of novelists and playwrights.
Like much of public life around the world, this year's awards have taken place under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the splashy Nobel prize-giving ceremony held each December in Stockholm.
Instead, a televised event will be held with winners receiving their honours in their home countries.