Zwiegespräch (Dialogue / Conversation)

Zwiegespräch (Dialogue / Conversation) Bibliothek Suhrkamp, 2022

Peter Handke’s new book is an invitation to a conversation between two old friends, two old fools. An  invitation because I too, old fool that I am, find myself involved in the conversation from the beginning:

“I’ll begin with a story. Attention — story. A little patience for the story, please. And patience while the story is being told!”

He’s speaking to me, I think. He’s asking for my patience as a reader. I welcome his request. I’ll honor it. It honors me.

His first story is about a childhood experience in a theater, an experience he relives while telling it. He can’t remember the play itself, he says, but the scenery. A house at the back of the stage. A door he expects will open at any moment to reveal a singular person, a person he has never encountered. He watched the house’s windows, waiting for shadows. The door didn’t open, doesn’t open now. There were no shadows, are none now. But, in an odd and telling doubling: “the door the story remained closed.” The old man hopes now for “a play, a serious play, the serious play. No more serious seriousness than in a serious play, in all seriousness, more serious than in all seriousness, the most lively of all seriousness, the most playful.”

Over the years Handke’s narrators’ penchant for the most, the best of the best, the strangest of the strange has been off-putting to me, an irritating quirk, the most irritating of all irritations. But today I’m patient, patient for the story and while the story is being told…and it comes to me: this story is about stories. Stories have the quality of exaggeration. The claim isn’t that the exaggeration is true (that expectation was what has been off-putting), the claim is that this is a story. Pay attention, this is a story. This is not true. It is a truthful story.

Later in the conversation one of the old fools tells a story about the stories his grandfather told about the war, always alone, always far behind enemy lines, always fully prepared to evade an attacker with the longest possible saber, always, the children soon understood, packs of stinking lies. In short: children’s stories.

But back to the door that never opens, the windows that reveal no shadows. 

The storyteller says that over the years he has often come across huts, habitations recognizable as such because of a window, and behind that window “it is taking place.” What is taking place? “Just yesterday,” the storyteller continues, 

“I knocked on a window like that. No answer: powerful! In fact I hadn’t expected one. An answer: that would have been more beautiful still. An answer, I want to hinder that, but not: prohibit. I just wanted to hear my knocking on the pane. Pure music.

“And what did it sound like? 

“Music without sound. The windowpane thick milk glass. My knocking absorbed: again, powerful. In my imagination a sparrow pecked with a dull beak against the pane. And nothing to be seen through the milk glass: praise God.

“But didn’t you try to enter the hut?

“What are you thinking? Never! Because I know: If I enter, no one is there.”

But yesterday, he continues, he heard sounds while he waited and then the door burst open and a man stumbled out, “mute, as only a person can be mute . . . with literally disheveled hair . . . alone as only a person can be alone.” “Literally.” This is a story. This is not a revelation of what was behind the window.

These are the blind windows of Handke’s Repetition. This is what I called “postmetaphysical metaphysics” in an essay on that novel. This is epistemological skepticism coupled with narrative truths. This, one of the storytellers says as he navigates a busy crowd of inattentive people, is a scene in which “the less real, the less authentic the spaces, the more blatant the billboards: THE REAL … THE TRUE … THE AUTHENTIC! And I grew, step by step, more helpless. Helpless, more helpless, speechless.”

Language. Speech. Handke’s themes from the beginning.

The narrators of these stories need interlocuters. “For a long time,” one of them tells the other, 

“I have imagined myself in conversation with someone?—no, that is not the word—to debate?—no, that’s not it either—, to argue with someone?—no, that isn’t it either, Help!

“With someone?

“With someone like you.”

“Mit jemandem wie dir”—the familiar “dir,” and I, reader, feel like he is addressing me. This is intimate, personal. 

I want to sit down and write a letter that begins “Dear Peter, this morning, reading your Zwiegespräch, I was moved to write a letter that began with the words ‘Dear Peter.’ Personal interactions with you have been important to me. Your letters feel like gifts. But finally it is your work I have an intimate relationship with. Reading Zwiegespräch this morning I was engaged in a conversation with you—you/your characters speaking carefully, thoughtfully, openly, each word, each phrase, meant for a response, for my careful, thoughtful, open response.”

I do write the letter. I add my thoughts about refusing ultimate answers, about answers found only in language. And I end with a confession: “Peter, the storyteller insists that there is ‘nothing to see clearly here, nothing to dissect, nothing to analyze.’ I can hear echoes of your ‘Dr. Scott, always on the job’ (after the premiere of your Voyage by Dugout in Vienna). And I blush.”

I love this little book. I am thrilled by the conversation.

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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