Lothar Struck’s long anticipated book on the tensions between literature, media, and politics in the work of and about Peter Handke took me by surprise.
These are works I know very well.
I have translated two of Handke’s Yugoslavia texts, the fine and controversial A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (Viking) and the remarkable play Voyage by Dugout: The Play of the Film of the War (PAJ, Performing Arts Journal).
The final chapter in the Companion to the Works of Peter Handke (2005) is my essay “‘That sweet And so on’: Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia Work”
(you can read a version of that here, and other works on Handke are at the same general site: http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/22/)
Struck generously thanks me for support while he was writing his book and he cites some of my work.
So why does this book surprise me?
Because it contains so much that is new to me.
With his German Gründlichkeit (thoroughness, carefulness, meticulousness), a characteristic I admire but often lack, Struck has, most importantly, done what most critics of Handke’s Yugoslavia work have failed to do: he has read the texts and their con-texts (especially Handke’s own work in the decades leading up to the Yugoslavia works). In the course of the book Struck lays out the substance of each text, reporting as objectively as possible, simply stating what is there and only then offering commentary.
In addition, he examines Handke’s actions (like his meeting with Radovan Karadzic) and his statements (like the one he made at Slovodan Milosevic’s funeral) and various interviews on the subject of Yugoslavia.
Less important for my own taste, but critical for the purposes of this book, Struck also reads and comments on the vast literature that has gown up around this part of Handke’s work over two decades.
Although Struck takes Handke to task, especially for an occasional lapse into what Struck sees as the same rhetorical tendentiousness Handke attacks in the media, the book is for the most part a careful defense of the author on the basis of Handke’s critique of language (present in all his texts since the very beginning), a critique that Struck argues (and I fully agree) is a fundamentally political act.
This is a big book, bristling with information and analysis, and I’ll not try to recapitulate it here.
I’ll end with my favorite sentences from the book (which I won’t translate, other than to note that they attack the current public sphere in German with phrases like “crude zones of titillation” and “totalitarian base” and a “rhetorical Jacobinism of self-satisfied guardians of meaning”:
Das deutsche Feuilleton und mit ihm große Teile der Publizistik dieses Landes ist schon lange zu einer kruden Erregungzone von Gesinnungsgauklern mutiert, deren pluralistische Firnis immer dann den totalitären Boden aufblitzen lässt, wenn es nicht so läuft, wie es gewünscht wird. Diese Flucht in das virtuell-rhetorische Jakobinertum selbstzufriedener Deutungswächter lässt vor allem eines erkennen: eine einerseits erschreckende — andererseits dann wieder auch beruhigende — Furcht vor dem abweichenden Wort und dessen Wirkung. (12)