Received Ideas: Killing Peter Handke

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.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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3 Responses to Received Ideas: Killing Peter Handke

  1. Scott Abbott says:

    This note from Michael Roloff

    — I spent some time interrupting my SCREEN MEMORIES decimating this pathetic excuse for a professor at Claremont, just when you think maybe sanity in the matter of Handke and Yugoslavia may also set in in the Anglo-Saxon world, as it has on the Continent, another All-American-Asshole such as Durantaye steps forth to make sure that the old USA does not lose its leads in the asshole count!

    his long and forceful response to Durantaye here:


  2. klemperer85 says:

    I am happy to have read the unpublished letter. Just one addition, about the “ad hominem” attacks. (You might want to read but not publish it in your blog, it is more a letter to you, I just found no address to write to you).

    Handke himself shouts and screams. Those are ad hominem attacks. It began in 1966, Princeton, when Handke wanted to make it, he admitted, into the “Spiegel” (a paper he described so very accurate in his books on Serbia and the destroyed Yugoslavia). Whenever I pass by somewhere and see a book by Walter Höllerer (who was not resentful, but is forgotten today) I ask myself if Handke would have met Höllerer somewhere else – maybe he had acted totally different, like he did so many good things for Emmanuel Bove in Germany, for Hermann Lenz, for others.
    Handke wrote a review against the then well known Karin Struck a decade ago when he was young, and it was of course another sharp, rather hateful ad hominem attack. Yes, for Handke she wrote very badly, but who knows what she would have written later? One critic of the then well-known Handke rather destroyed her. I read that as a boy and was astonished to find that spreading hate in this article, written by Handke.

    Handke himself, der Schriftsteller, hates it if things are just “washed away”, if one does not listen carefully. His own attacks can be rather one-sided and biased, so they should be mentioned too. Even the suhrkamp-war of late was not that “100/0” Erfahrung, but Handke of course demonized Barlach to a degree that was not only an ad hominem attack, “Abgrundböser”, it was a try to “kill Barlach”. 100/0, no questions possible, and a lot of media wrote like that. The solution to the suhrkamp-problem was a trick of the lawyers – hmmm….but those of course were “the good ones”, so we would not lose a word on that. Something is wrong here…

    Why is it that one has, and no philosophy has changed a bit here, to see people one worships as nearly ‘holy’ people? Nobody admits it, but we laugh about popes who think they were infallible in the exercise of his office – yet we would not stop until our authors are just that…. Funny, is it not?

    If I read his books, sometimes it is like Handke himself would feel sorry after his sometimes not well thought of ad-hominem attacks, a while later. Then he falls again into black/white views, occasionally. It would be good for the books, (which of course can’t be “killed” as this critic you mention cannot of course kill Handke’s books), if we all would stop to make ourselves ridiculous with all those one-sided praises and curses.
    Isn’t it enough if someone, thousands, say, in my case, love “Der Chinese des Schmerzes” which I read again after years, and that Handke helped Hermann Lenz, (“Der Kutscher und der Wappenmaler”, what a wonderful book)?

    What would we say if we read an article in the (nowadays horrible) “Zeit” journal of 2003, where Handke stated he would never ever speak again in public, one could remind him of that – and a few years later he is speaking in public?
    What will we say after he a few weeks back claimed the Nobel prize should be abandoned, when he, and of course he will get that prize in some years, will “win” it? Of course Handke will accept it…
    Maybe it would be better to finally abandon these hero-reviews so many feuilletons write. Maybe then Hermann Lenz, Emmanuel Bove, Mikhail Osorgin, Gertrud Kolmar, or Hans Erich Nossack, to name just a few who are wonderful but nearly forgotten, would not need people to help them finding readers. It would be about books, about sentences, about poetry, about landscapes in writing, about so many more… it is not only the critics who work in those “hype-times”, the authors themselves sometimes lust after using their elbows. Just that nobody ever admits it.
    Handke joined in this “hype” style, even if his books at least since “Langsame Heimkehr” with few exceptions (“Don Juan” maybe) do not really fit into the literature-scenes-hypes.

    The downside of this “ooooh, Goethe”, “oooooh aaaaah Hoelderlin” is that many readers do NOT read carefully. Many go to the bookshops that still exist and – I spent many hours at Heidelberg to listen to actually that – ask for “the hyped authors”, neglecting all others, just because some majority of scene-critics think X is “allererste Sahne”.
    How many times did I listen to people, at a “reduced price” table, who only took Enzensberger for 2 Euro? Some rare times I asked them, why they chose just him besides Lenz, Savinio, de Satta, Kaschnitz, many more. “Well he is famous, isn’t he, never heard about the others”…

    Often Handke uses the picture of a wonderful landscape, a “geglückter Tag”, and he describes it like “als ob nun endlich alle Vermißten zu Hause wären” (I can’t translate this, a bit like “as if all the lost ones finally would have come home”, but it sounds more poetical in what Handke said about “Der Kutscher und der Wappenmaler” by Lenz). I, for one, do like that his books are like they are, knowing that this is for me, some sentences are not for me after reading them over years (like Handke does not love all authors and every book of them, he hates many, in fact, but others find something in it that can’t be ridiculised, there is no ranking in good literature).
    I don’t like this wondrously hubris that many seem to wear llike a coat, out of fear or what do I know. Yes, the critic wrote stupidly. Of course. Nobody will kill Handke’s reputation. He is and will be famous.
    Now to hundreds that deserve just like Handke that some of us, every one those who are nearest to us, read really, like you say, carefully.

    “Von der Alleenstraße, wo er in einem Hinterhaus logierte, fuhr der Kutscher August Kandel…” or

    “På morgonen, då världen ännu var liten, varm och genomskinlig, då den bara bestod av det egna hemmet, trädgården, grannbyn Fjodorovka, och slutade vid skogsbrynet,…” Mikhail Osorgin (I cannot read russian, this is the wonderful swedish translation, outstanding in its own right for me, by Ester and Josef Riwkin)


    • Scott Abbott says:

      I hope you won’t mind me posting your reply to my letter. I find it reasonable and even gentle as it points out that Handke himself can be guilty of ad hominem attacks with an absolutist flavor. At his best — and this can be found throughout his early and recent writing about other writers — he reviews works from his own perspective and not from some supposed omniscient viewpoint. His translations, of course, are works of love.
      As you write, his work on behalf of Hermann Lenz and his Kutscher August Kandel is admirable. And he has supported many other writers.
      There are authors I wish he would praise — like his Serbian translator Zarko Radakovic, who is a remarkable novelist in his own right.
      In the end I read and translate and write about Handke’s work because it eases my mind into a careful and even beautiful dialectic.
      In person and in public he sometimes contradicts himself. He can be unkind. He’s a human being. And he has a remarkable gift.


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