On 22 May 2014 the London Review of Books published a diatribe against Peter Handke disguised as a review. I sent this letter to the Review in response, but they decided not to publish it. Because I think the answer is important, here it is:
Peter Handke’s greatest flaw as a writer is his supposition that if he writes carefully, his work will be read carefully. As the American translator of Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, his play Voyage by Dugout: The Play of the Film of the War, and the forthcoming To Duration, I am not surprised, but nonetheless disappointed, to see once again that careful writing does not ensure careful reading.
Leland de la Durantaye’s review of Peter Handke’s latest essay, Versuch über den Pilznarren, is drawn straight from an up-to-date edition of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. In place of Flaubert’s “Antichrist. Voltaire, Renan . . .” we have “Peter Handke. Serb lover, denier of the Srebrenica massacre, and eulogist at the funeral of Slobodan Milosević.” These received ideas are shared, we are told, by none other than Alain Finkielkraut, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag, and Jonathan Littell. They must, then, be true.
Although the review begins with an attack ad hominem, it makes some interesting points about the search for form in “Handke’s five Versuchen [sic]” (de la Durantaye might well check his dictionary for the plural of Versuch, which is Versuche). But the exploration of the essays quickly gives way to the problem of Serbia when the Versuch über den stillen Ort mentions “a nondescript Balkan loo” and then describes a young girl who was killed during the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia and when the Versuch über den Pilznarren is “read” as an allegory in which the mushroom fool’s passion for fungi somehow translates into Handke’s passion for defending the Butcher of the Balkans.
And so the review ends where it began, with a black or white choice: “you either speak at the funeral of a man you know to have ordered the murder of innocents or you don’t.”
This “reader,” like so many others before, isn’t interested in the dialectical texts. He is unwilling to wrestle with what he mocks as “professional precision.” He dismisses what he calls “casuistic distinctions that were essential to him and meant little to his detractors.”
And what does he offer in place of a careful reading? A threat quoted from Littell: “’But had I lived in the 1930s, I would have tried to kill him [Céline]. Okay, Peter Handke is not killing anyone. But he’s an asshole.’”
Without the patience (or ability?) to read the texts, Leland de la Durantaye is trying to kill Peter Handke’s reputation. That makes him a worthy bearer of Littell’s epithet.