Re-reading Peter Handke
Germans. Always preceded by “blond,” “dreamy”—but how efficient their army!
Hugo, Victor. Made a sad mistake, really, when he entered politics.
Impiety. Thunder against.
Voltaire. Famous for his frightful grin or rictus. His learning superficial.
Handke, Peter. Genocide denier. No need to read his works.
It is time, I think, to move beyond the latest addition to Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, time to pay attention again to Peter Handke’s work itself. Handke’s new book Zwiegespräch (“Dialogue”), a conversation between two old friends, issues an invitation:
I’ll begin with a story, one of the old fools says, Attention—story. A little patience for the story, please. And patience while the story is being told!
For a long time, he continues, I have imagined myself conversing with someone?—no, that’s not the word—debating?—no, that’s not it either—, arguing with someone?—no, that isn’t it either. . . .
With someone like you.
“Mit jemandem wie dir”—the familiar “dir.” The old man is addressing me as well, old fool that I am. He’s asking for my patience as a reader. He hopes for a lively conversation. I respond.
Reading Zwiegespräch this morning, I feel I’ve been invited into a conversation. When your character describes knocking on an opaque window to hear the music of his knocking, I catch the allusion: language is not a window to look through but is itself an object of literary inquiry. But then the storyteller insists that there is ‘nothing to see clearly here, nothing to dissect, nothing to analyze’ and I hear echoes of your response to my brilliant! comment after the premiere of your Voyage by Dugout at Vienna’s Burgtheater: “Dr. Scott, Dr. Scott . . . always on the job.” I blushed then. I blush again this morning. But then I think: isn’t thoughtful reading always a kind of analysis? An attempt to understand? A wish to experience?
I send the letter and then, while the setting sun tints the high clouds a delicate pink that slowly fades to grays, I sit on a deck overlooking Utah Valley and recall responses to a few of Handke’s works over the course of more than four decades.
In 1976, or maybe it was 1977, I walked out of a theater in an old chemistry building on Princeton University’s campus and stepped into a dimly lit passage between two high brick walls. The discordant music from Wim Wenders’ film of Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970) still vibrated in my skull. The murderous goalie who either read every detail of the surrounding world as a sign or slipped into states entirely bereft of language had disrupted my relationship with the world.
I found my way home. The orange Suhrkamp paperback of Handke’s novel was waiting for me. At one point Bloch, the goalie, lies in bed utterly disassociated: “he had become unnatural . . . as impossible as he was real; no comparisons now.” The story nears its end with Bloch sitting on a bench comparing the surrounding landscape to its depiction on a map. If the map corresponds exactly to the actual landscape, the police will surely find him; he has left clues, after all. The language of the map is imprecise, however, and he rests a little easier. Although his sanity relies on the meaningful correspondences language can provide, language marked by relative rather than absolute correspondence serves Bloch well. “The main thing,” Handke explained to André Müller, “is that the imagination produces something. Life consists of veiled images. If the veil is gone one dies of horror.” The novel ends at a soccer match. The former goalie describes how a goalie reads the shooter and how, with its infinite possibilities, the interpretive task is nearly impossible. But then “the goalkeeper . . . stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball into his hands.” This novel, Handke told Žarko Radaković, “was a discovery for me, because I thought we all have to write toward a black door, toward a dark abyss. I realized, without wanting to, without meaning to, that the story passes into openness. . . . I thought, for me that is a law of literature: balance. . . . It must remain open.”
“Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.” This final line of Handke’s moving response to his mother’s death, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), is preceded by a series of increasingly short descriptions of her life. Teaching the text in a seminar on German literature at Vanderbilt University, I drew the students’ attention to the Austrian village where Handke’s mother grew up: “for a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly.” The 1938 annexation of Austria into the German Reich changed things for her: “’We were kind of excited,’ my mother told me. . . . For once, everything that was strange and incomprehensible in the world took on meaning and became part of a larger context.” We discussed the problematic nature of the meaning-producing Nazi context. We expanded the critique to any systematic, all-encompassing ideology. We considered the interpretive claims of conventionally structured biographies. I pointed to how the increasingly fragmented form of Handke’s biography was an epistemological statement. At the end of the semester the students evaluated the course. “I enjoyed the book about Peter Handke’s mother,” one student wrote memorably, “but when we finished the discussion, I felt like I had been served only a few carrots and potatoes. I wanted the whole soup.”
As an undergraduate student of postwar German literature, I was especially interested in the idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—coming to terms with the past. Because the German language had been ravaged by Nazi use, some writers advocated clear cutting or Kahlschlag of Nazi inflected words like Führer and Volk. Celan, Grass, Wolf, Bachmann and others found ways to turn the German language back onto itself. Handke was a generation removed from those first postwar authors, but the problem of ideological exploitation of the German language became a central theme for him as well. His Slow Homecoming tetralogy (originally titled “Into Deepest Austria,” 1979-1981) depicts the protagonist’s slow, hesitant, self-critical return to a country and a language from which recent history had distanced him. Child Story, the third volume of the set, depicts an Austrian father for whom “no tradition, however longed for, could ever be meaningful . . . he could certainly transmit no trace of any tradition to his child . . . as the scion of an unpeople, an unworthy man-of-no-people.” Living in Paris, he enrolls his daughter in a Jewish school so that she, “by birth and language a descendant of murderers who seemed condemned to flounder for all time, without aim or joy, metaphysically dead,” would come to embody the “steadfast, living earnestness of “the one Volk deserving of its name.” The experiment finally fails—the child is not Jewish, after all. The book ends with an invitation from Pindar’s sixth Olympic ode: “Arise child, and follow my voice into a land common to all.” The proposed commonality ensures that the question “Are you still a child or have you become a German?” will be meaningless. The new Volk will be an aesthetic achievement rather than a totalizing religious or political construction. “The word ‘God,’” Handke notes elsewhere, “does not disturb me (in fact, it moves me) in, for example, Parzival, the epic; with Meister Eckhart, in a treatise, however, it does: it even inhibits me.”
The late Michael Roloff, Handke’s early translator and founder of Urizen Press, asked me a few years ago which of Handke’s books was my favorite. Handke writes faster than I can read, I answered. I have something like a hundred of his books on my shelf. How could I possibly pick a favorite? Still, the question intrigued me.
Which of Handke’s more than thirty plays? Either the lively, language-critical Kaspar (1967; Roloff’s translation), or Voyage by Dugout: The Play of the Film of the War (1999; my translation). Imagine filmmakers John Ford and Luis Buñuel in a Serbian town ten years after a war trying to decide how to make a film together.
Which of Handke’s translations of works by Walker Percy and Shakespeare, Florjan Lipuš and Gustav Januš,Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, Char, Modiano, Bove, Ponge, Genet, and Duras? Perhaps the lively translation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, with crafty Autolycus selling ballads that include Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
I’m especially fond of the published notebooks comprised of aphorisms, reading notes, sketches, and thoughts for works in progress. Of these, English readers know only Manheim’s excerpts for The Weight of the World (1977). Since then, Suhrkamp Verlag has published “The History of the Pencil” (1982), “Phantasies of Repetition” (1983), “At the Cliff Window, Mornings” (1998), “Yesterday, Underway” (2005), “A Year Spoken from the Night” (2010), “Before the TreeShadowWall at Night” (2016), and “Inner Dialogues at the Peripheries” (2022). Selected drawings from the notebooks recently published as Peter Handke, Zeichnungen elicit a foreword by Giorgio Agamben in praise of notes: “If completeness is the suppression of what is missing, the notetaker knows that something always remains, knows, as it is written in the old manuscripts, that residua desiderantur.”
Which of the essays on tiredness, the jukebox, the achieved day, the outhouse, and the mushroom fool? Probably the collection of travel essays titled Once again for Thucydides, several of which I translated for Conjunctions.
Which of Handke’s films? In addition to his frequent collaborations with Wim Wenders, Handke has directed four films himself. My favorite is the peripatetic Absence, with Jeanne Moreau, Alex Descas, Bruno Ganz, Sophie Semin, and Eustaquio Barjau in the leading roles.
Which of the two dozen novels Handke sometimes calls stories or fairy tales? Although I especially admire The Goalie’s Anxiety, The Afternoon of the Writer, and The Moravian Night, my favorite is Repetition, a novel I’ve written about both critically and personally. The novel simultaneously undercuts ideological thinking and explores productively contingent possibilities beyond those closed systems. As protagonist Filip Kobal crosses the border from Austria into Slovenia in search of his lost brother, the blind windows and empty cow paths he encounters are open signifiers, both offering and refusing meaning. Storytelling itself becomes a major theme and the novel insists, in conclusion, that repeating, renewing, postponing, and healing stories must continue: “Take a deep breath, and start all over again with your all-appeasing ‘And then . . .’”
Twenty-five years ago, I visited Peter Handke at his home in Chaville, outside of Paris. He sautéed mushrooms he had foraged and served them with dark bread and Portuguese white wine. After lunch, he showed me a letter from Roger Straus to Siegfried Unseld, Handke’s German publisher: “We have a problem,” Straus wrote, “and his name is Peter Handke.” The books weren’t selling as they once had. Handke handed me a manuscript of Krishna Winston’s translation of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay) (1994, translation published 1998) and asked what I thought. I read a few pages and then pointed out an early sentence that ended with “an der Stelle des zwischendurch mich weiterwürgenden ‘Ende’ das Ding Verwandlung.” The translation rendered this as “the ‘end’ that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing.” With the throwaway silliness of “this metamorphosis thing,” I told Handke, “das Ding Verwandlung” (the thing that is metamorphosis) has lost its philosophical tension. Why not something tighter, more direct: “. . . replacing the ‘end’ that continues to choke me, the thing metamorphosis”? How is it possible, I asked, that an editor with Straus’ experience isn’t paying attention to the translations? In his 2010 review of Handke’s Don Juan, Joel Agee wrote that “Krishna Winston’s translation faithfully conveys what is said, but she tends to simplify and generalize how it is said. This is not a trivial subtraction” (New York Times, February 12, 2010). When the subject of a novel is language, when its sentences are the thing itself, simplification and generalization are devastating.
Aside from the translations, the “problem” is that Peter Handke has things in mind beyond selling books. Michael Hofmann, reviewing Handke’s Absence in 1991, wrote that “Handke is not exactly unreadable in German but he is friendlier, more purposeful . . . in [Ralph Manheim’s] English, though he has lost his pioneering awkwardness” (Times Literary Supplement, May 1991). With all due respect to Manheim, the “pioneering awkwardness” of Handke’s increasingly complex syntax and perception-altering descriptions forces readers to slow down and pay attention to language itself. Handke has said he doesn’t know how to write plays, an inability that led to his being awarded Norway’s International Ibsen Prize for theatre in 2014. He doesn’t know how to write novels either.
The Moravian Night (2008), for instance, abandons conventional plot and character development to explore possibilities of narration over the course of an ex-author’s journey through Europe. What are the potentials of cinematic structures? Of the gestures of painting? Of the magic of fairy tales? Of rhythms of music? Of the attention to language that is poetry? When the protagonist happens on a gathering of jew’s-harp players, the simple music with limited means reminds him of his own craft. Ensuing performances of national anthems, however, raise his ire: “abusing the jew’s-harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible.” He calls such music “melodic demagoguery,” implicitly contrasting that aesthetic nationalism to his own self-conscious and self-critical structures. As the novel progresses, a character claims that the inconclusive openness of the ex-author’s work has had its day: “Poetic language is dead. . . .” He has almost finished his own book, the character says, with a plot, characters, climaxes, and elements of surprise, good techniques that “can be learned in any creative-writing program.” Handke comments on the products of such techniques in “Inner Dialogues from the Peripheries”: “I can’t stop reading this book.—Not a good sign.”
A reviewer of the premiere of Peter Handke’s Still Storm (2010) claimed that the play is an act of “linguistic nationalism.” (Die Zeit, 17 August 2011). I turned to the published play to see whether the author so critical of mendacious harmonies and melodic demagoguery had really succumbed to the siren call of nationalism. The young narrator’s uncle Gregor, about to join WWII Slovenian partisans, tells his nephew that after the war they will be “free, above all, to speak our language.” It’s not that simple; “our language” is as troubled as every language. The play’s primary language is German—along with plenty of Slovenian, some Austrian dialect, a good bit of English, a little French, some Russian, and even a smattering of Dutch. The characters talk reasonably in those various languages, they swear roundly, they grieve. Some advocate for a Natursprache (natural language). Partisan soldiers require communication through what they naively suppose is Klartext (direct, unmediated, clear, and unencoded language). Characters curse or praise foreign languages and rail against abstractions like “god,” “love,” “history,” and “Fatherland.” While cautioning, with Shakespeare, that the storm still rages, the play critiques and celebrates language(s) and confounds at least one reviewer.
Was denkt in dir? Peter asks. What is thinking in you?
Sorrow, I answer. For two months in 1992, there was intense fighting here. Marauding Bosniacs. Marauding Serbs. Since we crossed the border into what has become the Republika Srpska, I have been imaging Bosniacs and Serbs lying in bed those sixty nights. Worrying, as they lay there, about possible futures. About a sudden end to possible futures.
In 1997, my translation of Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia was published by Viking. When he saw a late draft, the Viking editor recommended that I not begin so many sentences with the conjunction “and.” I explained that the word “and” was a tool of Handke’s dialectic, of making peace between competing interests, of continuing a story. The wars had severed the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity that had stretched from Slovenia through Croatian Zagreb to Serbian Belgrade and on to Macedonian Skopje. Thinking about his travel through the recently devastated region, Handke questions his own focus on “the small sufferings in Serbia . . . while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihać.” He praises “those—more than uncovering—discovering reporters on the scene.” And he reminds himself that his work is different from theirs: “To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts. . . . [T]hat which binds, that encompasses—the impulse to a common remembering, as the possibility for reconciliation of individuals.”
The year after The Journeys to the Rivers was published, I traveled with Handke, Žarko Radaković, and Zlatko Bocokić up the Drina River to Višegrad and beyond, a trip that fundamentally changed my sense for the world and for my place in such a world. In Višegrad we stood atop a building under construction with the architect who, like the others who would live in the new building, had been forced to leave her home in Sarajevo because she was a Serb. The site was available for them, we learned, because a mosque standing in that spot had been razed during the war. Up the river in Goražde, we witnessed a new mosque built on the site of a former Serbian Orthodox church. In Foča, we spent a sleepless night in a darkened and scarred hotel where, we learned later, Muslim women had been systematically raped during the war. Sorrow, anger, and despair overwhelmed me. Justice for Serbia? For Slovenia? For Croatia? For Bosnia? For Montenegro? For Kosovo? For Macedonia? Not if “or” is dominant. Justice only if “and” is the governing conjunction.
In 1992, while nationalist leaders Slobodan Milošević, Franjo Tuđman, Alija Izetbegović, and others of their ilk fomented the civil wars that decimated Yugoslavia, Handke published what he called a minor epic titled “Once Again for Yugoslavia.” Reprinted in 1995 in a collection whose title Once Again for Thucydides gestured back to the Athenian historian and general whose history of a vicious war has been read as an inditement of imperialist leaders, the story bore the title
“Head Coverings in Skopje: A Story”
A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as, for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountaineering caps covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and now and then the bicycle-cart drivers with little black Muslim caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodbye to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window-and-capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). It was snowing in southernmost Yugoslavia and thawing at the same time. And then a man passed by with a white, crocheted forage cap shot through with oriental patterns under the dripping snow, followed by a blond girl with a thick bright stocking cap (topped by a tassel), followed immediately by a bespectacled man with a beret, a dark blue stem on top, followed by the beret of a long-legged soldier and by a pair of peaked police caps with concave surfaces. A man walked past then with a fur cap, earlaps turned up, amidst the crowds of women head-scarfed in black. After that a man with a speckled fez pulled down over his ears, in magpie black and white, Parzival’s half-brother, piebald Feirefiz. His companion wore a leather-and-fur cap, and after them came a child with a black-and-white ear band. The child was followed by a man with a salt-and-pepper hat, a “black-market magnate” briskly underway along the Macedonian bazaar street in the slushy snow. The troop of soldiers then, with the Tito-star on the prows of their caps. After them a man with a brown loden Tyrolean hat, front brim turned down, the back brim turned straight up, a silver badge on the side. A little girl hopping by with a bright suede hood, lined. A man with a whitish-gray shepherd’s hat with a red band. A fat woman with a linen-white cook’s scarf, frayed in the back. A young man with a many-layered leather cap, each layer a different color. A man pushed a cart and had a plastic cap over his ears, his chin wrapped in a Palestinian scarf. One man walked along then with a rose-patterned cap, and gradually even the bareheaded passersby seemed to be equipped with head coverings, hair itself a covering. Child, carried, with a stocking cap, overtaken by woman with broadly sweeping movie hat set at an angle: there was no keeping up with the variety. A beauty wearing glasses and a pale violet Borsalino hat walked past and sauntered around the corner, followed by a very small woman with a towering cable-knit hat she had knitted herself, followed by an infant with a sombrero on its still open fontanel, carried by a girl with an oversized beret made in Hongkong. A boy with a shawl around his neck and ears. An older boy with skier’s earmuffs, logo TRICOT. And so on. That beautiful And so on. That beautiful And so on.
Scott Abbott translated Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (Viking, 1997), Handke’s play Voyage by Dugout: the Play of the Film of the War (PAJ, 2012), Handke’s lengthy ode To Duration (Last Books, 2015), and the documentary film Peter Handke: In the Woods, May Be Late by Corinna Belz (translation for the subtitles; 2016). Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy, and Humanities at Utah Valley University, he lives in Woodland Hills, Utah.
I originally posted this on December 5, the day before Handke’s 80th birthday, after having sent him a letter with the essay earlier. He replied with a letter on birchbark:
80…happy day of his birth….thank you and zarko for turning me on to handke…
you, Zarko, and I are the три пријатеља / tri prijatelja / three amigos / drei Freunde / tre amici