Exile of the Pharmacist

You might not return from Peter Handkes new novel I permitted myself a moment of awed hesitation after reading the final sentence of Peter Handkes new book, ON A DARK NIGHT I LEFT MY SILENT HOUSE (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ). Then, as if following some urgent instruction, I opened the book and began reading again. You emerge from this mesmerizingly peculiar novel with plenty of uncertainty about what has just been experienced, and with a strong desire to put off returning to familiar shores. The Austrian-born Handke, who has spent more than 30 years chasing the vapor trail of middle-European ennui in his plays, novels, and essays, has outdone himself. On a Dark Night makes a label like original seem quaint. The book is part fable, part existential comedy, part heroic hallucination, and part wartime allegory, and its delivered with the confessional intimacy of a whisper. As starkly as a documentary, Handke introduces us to the village of Taxham, on the outskirts of Salzburg. The setting feels very much like the present, though we are told, At the time when this story takes place, Taxham was almost forgotten. Hemmed in by a river, a railroad embankment, and an airport, and further isolated within a ring of looming hedges, Taxham has about it an aura of the furthest reaches, accessible only by circuitous, inconvenient routes that make it hard to find your way in, and even harder, whether on foot or by car, to get out again. The towns residents are war refugees, expellees, emigrants, but its most mystical figure -- aside from the local soothsayer, who predicts that before summers end a war would break out to the west of T., a three-day war, but with never-ending consequences! -- is an unnamed middle-aged pharmacist. The pharmacist languishes in numb invisibility: No one talked about him, recommended him to others, sang his praises, or made fun of the pharmacist the way they do in the classic comedies. People who ran into him outdoors . . . either ignored him -- quite unintentionally -- or failed to recognize him. The man and his wife share a house without ever occupying the same room at the same time; their son has been kicked out of the house. The man eats his lunches in a concealed grove in the forest; he is endowed with a prodigious, almost troubling sense of smell; and whatever energy he doesnt devote to reading medieval epics he directs toward the study of mushrooms. At first the pharmacists story is told with an insistent clinical reserve, framed as a series of beautifully arid slice-of-life fragments. Its only as you are lulled deeper into Handkes thicket that you come to feel as if you have consumed some transformative mushrooms yourself. Quite unexpectedly, the pharmacist suffers a blow to the head, precisely on the spot where he has recently had a growth removed for biopsy. He loses the ability to speak and eventually finds himself driving through a long tunnel with a once-famous poet and a former champion skier. The three men stop for a night to visit a recently widowed woman, who attacks the pharmacist during his sleep. He becomes fixated on her. Before long the pharmacist, now called the driver, finds a letter sewn into his jacket: You threw your son out in a wrongful fit of anger. As punishment, a mark grew on your forehead, from which you will die. The group proceeds to a religious festival in a town set on a cliff, and here the man catches a glimpse of his son playing the accordion with a band of gypsies. As the narrator points out, At the end of such a journey... you could find that you had no sense of the direction in which youd been traveling.... Indeed, your head might be spinning. Like an errant knight in one of his beloved quest narratives, Handkes pharmacist is compelled to cross dizzying, blighted terrain before returning home. The novels brief descent into phantasmagoria -- imagine Carlos Castaneda adrift in the European Union -- is the only false note in this blazing, one-of-a-kind journey. Handkes tale is seductive enough to restore full-grown adults to that blissful childhood state in which reading is an abandonment to unknown terrors and elations. Be prepared: Not asking questions, as the narrator discovers, is one of the unspoken rules of the game. This pharmacists elixir will go right to your nerve endings and make you believe that what mattered was to be out there in the nocturnal wind, with the others, with these particular people, for a while, and then to see what would happen next. --back issues of Cosmo. By: Mark Levine

On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House By KAI MARISTED

its possible to argue that there are two kinds of novelists: one theme-driven, the other a writers writer -- passionate about method. The Austrian-born novelist, essayist and playwright Peter Handke is generally counted among the latter, a fierce purifier of language. Indeed, on the evidence of his new novel, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, which has been deftly translated from the German by Krishna Winston, Handkes power of observation and his seemingly casual tone, in which every word bears indispensable weight, are as mesmerizing as ever. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House is a modern-day questing tale in which the grail is never defined or seen, but rather, as the journey unfolds, intuited by both the reader and the hero. The protagonist, an unnamed middle-aged pharmacist remarkable for his keen and greedy sense of smell and a (typically Austrian) passion for wild mushrooms, has banished his son in a fit of rage; he lives with his estranged wife, although he also has a mistress. He is apparently happy to go through the motions of daily life in his village, Taxham, a featureless drive-by suburb of Salzburg that despite (or because of) its magnified dullness manages to hook the readers curiosity. Unlike the old villages in Salzburgs orbit, Taxham, founded after the war, never became a tourist attraction. There was no cozy inn, nothing to see -- not even anything off-putting. It is hard to find your way in, and even harder, whether on foot or by car, to get out again. Almost all the routes that promise to lead you out then turn off and take you around the block or wend their way back past cottage gardens to your starting point. Or they simply dead-end at yet another impenetrable hedge, through which open land and whatever leads elsewhere can just barely be glimpsed, even if the street is named after Magellan or Porsche. When do the pharmacist and his wife, who remains silent in her half of the house, share a moment of communion? Handke lets them supply their own elliptical answers: When were in our own rooms at night and see through the window the emergency flare flashing up in the mountains over on the other side of the border. -- When in last springs flooding the drowned cow floated down the river. -- At the first snowfall. The pharmacist reads medieval epics in his every spare moment. He eats out in an airport restaurant, swims in the icy Saalach River and enjoys wandering in some nearby woods. It is here, in a blinding downpour after a drought, that the story takes its first bizarre twist: he is ambushed and viciously beaten by strangers. Accustomed to a kind of numbness, he puts up little defense. As he says in a typically paradoxical aside: I felt a curious joy inside me, or was it gratitude, or a kind of elan? Now things were as they should be. The struggle could begin. Bleeding from head wounds, he emerges into a Taxham that is subtly yet pervasively altered -- as is he. On entering a restaurant, the pharmacist finds himself unable to speak: hes been literally struck dumb. He is taken up by a pair of charismatic, down-on-their-luck drifters -- a once famous poet and a former Olympic skiing champion. It happens to be the start of a holiday, the feast of the Ascension. In the pharmacists car -- from now on he will be known only as the driver -- the three men set out from town. They cross borders, drive through mountain tunnels in the Alps and finally enter a harsh steppe: a fantastic landscape, constantly swept by a nocturnal wind, where roaming bands of thugs drown all civility and the driver learns, among other things, how to fight and how to calm his heart on demand. A Handke tale invites active reading, speculation rather than passive absorption. For all its laconic modernity, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House suggests a Dantesque purgatory, a painful battle for the souls survival, along with the more romantic template of the knights quest. In my story no one dies, the pharmacist says. Sometimes sad things happen, occasionally almost desperate things. But a death is out of the question. Handke -- whose previous books include the novel The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and the unforgettable memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams -- makes no bones, and never has, about the permeability of the membrane between his life and his fiction. He has been accused at times of arrogance and narcissism -- his first play was titled Offending the Audience, and he has been a famously sharp critic of postwar German literature. Here he lets the poet set the record straight: Young Narcissus was the soul of devotion and affection, and wished for nothing more than to take the whole world in his arms. But the world . . . recoiled from him, didnt return his loving gaze. . . . And so, as time passed, he had to find an anchor in himself. It is Peter Handkes loving gaze, honed by time and discipline, that shows readers the way out again into the worlds prolific and astonishing strangeness. Kai Maristeds most recent book is Belong to Me, a collection of stories.

By Thomas Curwen, Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

Peter Handke

Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

New York Review Books: 80 pp., .95 paper

Judging whether life is worth living or not is, as Camus famously wrote, the fundamental question of philosophy. Yet he clearly understates the problem. For those who kill themselves, there can be no second-guessing. That decision is merely the surcease of pain. Hardly an answer, it is the beginning of the anger, the sorrow, the guilt, disbelief and shame for those left behind. But the real legacy of suicide is a story, a reiteration of Camus' question tied onto every memory and every memory recast, reshaped and re-imagined to provide an explanation for an event that has none. Perhaps no two authors could be more dissimilar in their ventures into this territory than Peter Handke and Jonathan Aurthur, and it is precisely their differences that make their stories important today.

=A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,= written in 1972 and first published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1975, is Handke's account of his mother's life and death. Prosaic, poetic, elliptical and self-conscious, it is an exacting picture of the shock and grief that await those who have inherited the ruins of a suicide. =The Angel and the Dragon= is messier and more desperate. The story of Charley Aurthur's life and his death in 1996, told by his father, lacks literary concision but gains momentum in its inconsolable grappling with the meaning of mental illness.

Charley Aurthur was by all accounts a talented and precocious child. He was born in 1973 of activist (and soon to be divorced) parents, grew up in Culver City, played the piano with obvious aptitude and wrote. By the time he turned 15, however, a shadow, tinged by insomnia and abrupt mood swings, had begun to dim his talent. Then, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at college, he took a weekend trip to Yosemite and, while driving home, totaled the family car. A week later, he was sitting with his parents and a psychiatrist, who recommended that he be hospitalized. It is every parent's nightmare: Aurthur and his ex-wife soon learned that the accident and Charley's subsequent behavior -- jittery, dazed, anxious and weeping -- were most easily understood as the symptoms of a psychotic break.

The Aurthurs' introduction to the world of mental illness was precipitous. For his part, Charley experienced disorienting extremes of delusion and despair, reconstructed here through his letters, poetry and journal entries. His doctors debated whether he suffered from manic depression or schizophrenia. (Their diagnoses were often guided by the effectiveness of specific medications, which after one suicide attempt became an extraordinary cocktail of Navane, Cogentin, Klonopin, lithium and Wellbutrin, cut by an occasional session of psychotherapy.) Aurthur was no better prepared emotionally -- or financially -- than Charley and found himself searching the past and the present for a clue as to why his once seemingly balanced child had changed and what could be done to set his life right again. He ranged broadly through the written landscape -- from Michel Foucault to A. Alvarez, from Kay Redfield Jamison to Kate Millett -- scrutinizing biomedical and psychosocial treatments and fast confronting his own powerlessness in the face of Charley's rapid decline.

Mental illness is a phrase you won't find in Handke's account of his mother's death, yet it surely waits in the wings. While attempting a factual account of his mother's life, told with a journalist's precision (=The Sunday edition of the Karntner Volkszeitung,= his story begins, =carried the following item under 'Local News': 'In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night ....' =), Handke can't help but fall through the occasional trapdoor. =This story,= he concedes, = ... is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror.=

Born in a small Austrian village in the 1920s, Handke's mother -- he keeps her nameless -- lived in a world constrained by history and convention, where girls grew up playing a game based on the stations of a woman's life, Tired/Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead, where Hitler was a man with =a nice voice= and World War II became =contact with a fabulous world.= Pregnant by her first love -- a married man who disappeared from her life as quickly as he appeared -- she married a German army sergeant, and, after the war, they settled in Berlin, where he worked as a streetcar motorman and drank, worked as a baker and drank, and finally just drank. She had a second child, aborted a third and grew old before her time. In 1948, they fled the eastern sector of the city and returned to Austria, to the house where she was born and where life bore only a marginal resemblance to middle-class privilege. =Squalid misery can be described in concrete terms,= Handke writes; =poverty can only be intimated in symbols.= And poverty abounded.

Given the fact of her death, the mystery is how she survived these years, but it is not uncommon to find purpose in great hardship. She swaddled herself with the illusion of progress, the chimera of change, and, in truth, her husband, now in middle age, was becoming less of a bully, and she -- we are told rather cryptically -- =was gradually becoming an individual.=

But suicide is not the result of one moment or one wound. It is a slow accumulation of pain, often triggered by a physical malady. She began having bad headaches. Her doctor thought it was a strangulated nerve, and what first incapacitated her (=She dropped everything she picked up, and would gladly have followed it in its fall. Doors got in her way; the mold seemed to rain from the walls as she passed ....=) became with time a chronic condition. She visited a neurologist, whose diagnosis, =nervous breakdown,= provided a strange comfort. =He knew what was wrong with her; at least he had a name for her condition. And she wasn't the only one; there were others in the waiting room.= And so she endured, traveling to Yugoslavia, putting up fruit and vegetables for the winter and talking of adopting a child, until the world closed in on her. When her husband, who had been sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis started getting well, she grew desperate again. She stopped seeing people. She shut herself up in her house. She went to a pharmacist for 100 sleeping pills.

The final pages of Handke's story are a wrenching litany of real and imagined moments, of syncopated flights of mostly single-sentence paragraphs -- heart-wrenching associations and chasms of silence between each thought -- and when he recounts the flight home for the funeral, he confesses: =I was beside myself with pride that she had committed suicide,= as if she had finally availed herself of the only freedom remaining to her. It is a stunning line. Could Jonathan Aurthur make this claim? Perhaps. Eleven days after Charley leaped from Lincoln Boulevard into the morning rush hour on the Santa Monica Freeway, Aurthur visited the overpass, stared into the flow of traffic and walked away feeling suddenly, perhaps inexplicably, liberated. =[Charley's] terrible affliction and suffering had imprisoned him but it had also imprisoned me,= he writes, =and now both of us were free.=

During his last three years, Charley had been buffeted among five hospitals, a process that Aurthur equates with the life of a soldier =repeatedly wounded, repeatedly sprayed with sulfa drugs and patched up and sent back to the trenches, a little weaker each time.= At the end of each treatment, Aurthur was left with no greater certainty about what could be done to restore his son, and, indeed in some cases, questioned whether the cure might be worse than the disease.

Thirty years may be an instant and an eternity when comparing the world between =A Sorrow Beyond Dreams= and =The Angel and the Dragon,= but the before and after of a suicide has changed little. The statistics are stark. In this country today, a person completes a suicide every 15 minutes, and almost as often someone is left behind to try to make sense of it. It may be a father remembering his son; it may be a son remembering his mother. In either case, it is less a philosophical question than a profoundly social problem.

While the pleasure, if this is the word, of reading Handke comes from the existential assumptions of his story, it is important to realize that suicide -- the reality, as opposed to the idea (which Camus seemed to savor) -- is not an existential dilemma. It is the final, tragic outcome of a psychiatric illness. Yet how prepared are we for this knowledge?

There is no more a prescribed course for treating mental illness than there is a prescribed course for being human, and as Aurthur looks at what we now know -- and don't know -- about mental illness, it becomes clear that the model we have today for understanding the diseases of the mind and suicide is inadequate. Beyond the brain-mind dichotomy that has of late polarized our understanding of human behavior must lie a paradigm that will break the icy rivers of vested interests, professional bias and brazen certainty and encompass the complex social and emotional roots of these diseases. Certainly, Handke's and Aurthur's books suggest this need.

The New York Review of Books

June 23, 1977


Play It Again, Franz

Michael Wood

Nonsense and Happiness

by Peter Handke, translated by Michael Roloff

Urizen Books, 93 pp., .95 (paper)

A Moment of True Feeling

by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pp., .95

Three by Peter Handke

by Peter Handke

Avon Books, 298 pp., .25 (paper)

We have heard a good deal, from Thomas Mann as well as from John Barth and Harold Bloom, about the lateness of the modern artist, and no doubt the sensible response to such a proposition is to ask who is holding the watch. Who sets the time for these feasts or lessons or performances which are always ending just when our representatives arrive? But there is a form of lateness which is familiar to us all. It is possible, for example, to fall in love and find the language you need already in use, shabby and dog-eared from misapplication, and there is a celebrated passage in Madame Bovary where Flaubert, irritated by a character who doesn't understand that cliches may reflect the most passionate sincerity, allows himself the sort of complaint we normally see only in his letters:

He could not distinguish, this experienced man, the dissimilarity of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression. As if the fullness of feelings did not sometimes spill out through the emptiest of metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, or ideas, or sorrows, and since human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to attract the sympathy of the stars.

Cliche has colonized quite a bit of new territory since Flaubert, and the most eloquent language will become tired if it is made to travel all over the place. A great part of the gift of Peter Handke, a much-acclaimed young Austrian novelist and playwright, lies in his sensitivity to this situation. Yesterday's lyrics are today's advertisements, and when the central character in Handke's novel A Moment of True Feeling crosses the Pont Mirabeau in Paris, he recalls the obligatory line from Apollinaire: +Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Et nos amours / Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne.+ But he is too late. A poster describing high-rise apartment buildings is there before him, saying: +Seen from the Pont Mirabeau, Paris is a poem.+ Even the small, strange details of a surrounding scene, the working materials of an observant writer a woman wearing odd shoes, another woman carrying a cocker spaniel and crying evoke in this novel only a feeling of dejA vu in an old movie. +He felt,+ Handke says of his character, +like the Prisoner of Disneyland.+ When someone suggests that a writer might escape from this Disneyland by concentrating on the +inexhaustible riches of everyday life,+ the suggestion itself can be made only in a cliche: the inexhaustible riches of everyday life.

+We behave as if being alone were a problem,+ Handke says in Nonsense and Happiness, a book of rambling meditative poems. +Perhaps it's an idee fixe.+ Perhaps it is the idee fixe of a culture which has managed to package even alienation, to turn it into the necessary accouterment of any educated, self-respecting, disaffected middle-class life. +Hey,+ Handke says in another poem in the same book,

Hey, you at the street corner:
In the meantime we know all about
the loneliness of modern man

In the meantime: somewhere between Dostoevsky and Midnight Cowboy, between Kafka and Last Tango in Paris. Nausea travels fast, and indeed A Moment of True Feeling is so blatant a remake of Sartre's La Nausee that I wonder whether even Handke knows quite what he is doing.

He knows, of course, all about Flaubert's cracked cauldron. His great successes A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Short Letter, Long Farewell, both reprinted, along with the more programmatic and less satisfactory Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, in Three by Peter Handke [*] are the crisp and mournful tunes he gets out of it. He knows that one can exploit a packaged despair even as one complains about the packaging. +I had been enjoying all the poses of alienation available to me,+ he has a character say in Short Letter, Long Farewell. And in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams he writes,

Ordinarily, I start with myself and my own headaches; in the course of my writing, I detach myself from them more and more, and then in the end I ship myself and my headaches off to market as a commoditY.

But in spite of this knowledge and these successes, there is a lot of flat and unreconstructed existentialist orthodoxy in Handke, a whole world of threadbare thought which he is not attacking but merely bathing in. Life is absurd, and we know this because at certain moments its consolatory fictions of meaning splinter, and senselessness is everywhere. Senselessness, Sinnlosigkeit (and occasionally Unsinnigkeit), which Michael Roloff translates as nonsense and Ralph Manheim translates as inanity: the condition of not making any sense.

So you don't take yourself seriously in company
but the nonsense is too real,
and therefore unbearable.
The face turns ugly with non- sense
+Don't wake up now!+ I thought
and held my breath
But it was too late
Nonsense had struck again.
A bombing attack of nonsense on the world:
right behind the housewall the earth breaks off into whirlpools of
the undefinable

Gregor Keuschnig, in A Moment of True Feeling, has a bad dream one night and stumbles excitedly through the two following days, feeling both violent and vulnerable, exposed to life's inanity: +nothing made sense.+ +How steadfastly they go through with it,+ he thinks of other people. And at another point: +How human they all seemed in comparison with him.+ His own life now appears to him as a complicated fraud:

From today on, he thought, I shall be leading a double life. No, no life at all: neither my usual life nor a new one, for I shall only be pretending to live my usual life, and my new life will consist solely in pretending to live as usual. I can't conceive of continuing to live as I've lived up until now, but no more can I conceive of living as someone else lived or lives. I can't live like anybody; at the most I can go on living +like myself.+

He worries about death and his dwindling future, and at one point he wants to +
howl with hopelessness.+

The name Gregor, like the name Joseph in The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is no doubt meant to recall Kafka, and we may remember that Gregor Samsa, who woke up one morning to find he had turned into a cockroach, had passed, like Gregor Keuschnig, a night of +unquiet dreams.+ There are enough mentions of nausea in A Moment of True Feeling to indicate Handke's awareness of his other major predecessor in the exploration of this treacherous and alarming ground. Handke has made Sartre's lonely protagonist a married man, with a child, and a job at the Austrian embassy, and he has placed him in 1970's Paris; takes him to a press conference, has him give a dinner party for an Austrian writer, where he cracks up, takes off his clothes, and smears his face with stew.

But the sense of Sartre revisited seems more powerful than Handke wants it to be. Kafka is alluded to, but Sartre is systematically echoed, and I wonder whether in fact Handke has not read La Nausee lately, and is for that reason borrowing from it so freely, with reckless and not very conscious abandon. Or it may simply be that Sartre has covered this ground so well that every excursion into it will look like an imitation. The discovery that life doesn't make any sense, while not exactly a piece of historical news, may still be an intense private experience, and an experience of this kind appears in all of Handke's works that I have read. He often motivates it by a plot, gives it an objective cause or correlative the loss of a job, the death of a mother, a fear that your wife is out to kill you, and even, in A Moment of True Feeling, a prehistory of fits of terror but the experience really seems prior to these occasions, a form of anxiety or metaphysical unease simply waiting for its chance to spring out into the world and devour everything that looks like a meaning.

The trouble with this experience for a writer is that, authentic or not in life, it has been worked over in literature, and not only by Sartre; and this literature in turn has been raided by the various agencies of our culture, so that it would not come as a surprise to see references to Kafka or Sartre on posters advertising the delights of Prague or Le Havre. Get away from it all. Visit the scenes of two of modernity's most famous losses of meaning. Play it again, Franz. None of this diminishes anyone's actual, lived anxiety, of course, but it does make the experience harder to write about.

There are intelligent and lucid passages in both A Moment of True Feeling and Nonsense and Happiness. Gregor's breakdown is described as +a complicated fracture of the mind,+ a medical metaphor for a spiritual disaster: you can break your soul (Handke's word is Seelenbruch) as easily as you can break a leg. In the poems flies die +obtrusively+ and cats sniff in mausoleums, activated, it seems, by a complementarity in the words themselves (Katz and Maus). But the poems generally are pretty slack and meandering, and they tend, unfortunately, to rob the novel of some of the benefits of doubt. Gregor seems less a character than a prolongation of the poems, a man who is being indulged rather than examined. Nausea here is a little too comfortable, and neither Handke nor his protagonists seem to care very much how cracked the cauldron is as they rattle out a handful of established existentialist tunes: +I'd like to be a character in a novel+; +This face is not mine+; +Words don't mean a thing+; +Isn't this an ugly day?+; and +How long has this been going on?+

Still, the cauldron is cracked, and apart from the infinitely variable strategies of self-consciousness all those plays and poems and novels about cracked cauldrons which make up so much of modern literature there appear to be only three things we can do with it. We can play very modest tunes, quiet and careful numbers which the cracks in the cauldron can't really spoil; we can play whatever we feel like playing and hope something will survive the cacophony; and we can try to make the cracks themselves sing in some way. Peter Handke exercises the first and the third of these options with great skill frequently in Short Letter, Long Farewell, consistently in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.

Handke's modest tunes are those of a patient, stylish observer of the world. Here is a piece of displaced autobiography from Short Letter, Long Farewell:

It occurred to me that for a long time my own vision of the world around me had been twisted: when I tried to describe something, I never knew what it looked like; I remembered only its anomalies, and if there weren't any, I made them up. All the people I described were giants with birthmarks and falsetto voices.

Only later, Handke's character continues, after he +really experienced something,+ did he +begin to see the world with something more than a malignant first glance.+ What takes the place of distortion and malignance is a very simple and direct form of care for small gestures and traits. A poem in Nonsense and Happiness remembers that Handke looked askance at his mother because she moved her head in time to a Beatles record, and the precision of the memory catches a whole dimension of a relationship: a movement and a response to that movement are all that is needed, and we are out of the Disneyland of merely bizarre details. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a brief memoir recounting the life and suicide of Handke's mother, is full of discreet, slightly eccentric, always sharply focused lists, as if shedding a more complex syntax would help to stave off lying and allow the world as experienced to speak for itself:

Was there, then, nothing more? Had that been all? Masses for the dead, childhood diseases, drawn curtains, correspondence with old acquaintances of carefree days, making herself useful in the kitchen and in the fields, running out now and then to move the child into the shade.

She indulged in the following luxuries: a seat in the ninth row at the movies, followed by a glass of wine and soda water; a one- or two-schilling bar of Bensdorp chocolate to give the children the next morning; once a year, a bottle of homemade eggnog; on occasional winter Sundays she would whip up the cream she had saved during the week by keeping the milk pot between the two panes of the double windows overnight.

Here is Handke's record of his mother's leaving home, quite young, to work in a hotel; it is a rich miniature of social and linguistic history:

No other course was open to her; scullery maid, chambermaid, assistant cook, head cook. +People will always eat.+ In the photographs, a flushed face, glowing cheeks, arm in arm with bashful, serious-looking girl friends; she was the life of the party; self-assured gaiety (+Nothing can happen to me+); exuberant, sociable, nothing to hide.

City life: short skirts (+knee huggers+), high-heeled shoes, permanent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of admirers, kept at a distance! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (+They weren't my type+). Work, pleasure; heavy-hearted, lighthearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio. The homesickness of those who can't afford anything; back at the HOtel du Lac (+I'm doing the bookkeeping now+); glowing references (+FrAulein has shown aptitude and willingness to learn. So conscientious, frank, and cheerful that we find it hard. She is leaving our establishment of her own free will+). Boat rides, all-night dances, never tired.

This last quotation also illustrates Handke's other option, or at least one way of getting some music out of the cracks in the cauldron. Like Flaubert, Handke collects quotations (+People will always eat,+ +They weren't my type+) and italicizes cliches (admirers, distance). Unlike Flaubert, he does this out of affection for his subject, as a means of approaching a life that will be lost if you don't write about it (because it will simply be forgotten), but may also be lost if you do write about it (because you will dress it up in fine, self-observing phrases).

Cliche, frequently the writer's most recalcitrant enemy, is seen as a form of memory, what Handke calls +the linguistic deposit of man's social experience.+ It is important, of course, to avoid fussiness or parody in the use of such language. +The essential is to avoid mere quotations; even when the sentences look quoted, they must never allow one to forget that they deal with someone who to my mind at least is distinct.+ To his mind; and to our minds. The individual shares a history with others, and can be remembered through this communion.

When Handke's mother, in postwar Berlin, becomes +a city person, adequately described in the words: tall, slim, dairk-haired,+ she has stepped into a stereotype, and of course she is all but imprisoned in it. A life of her own, adjectives of her own, would be better. But how many of us really rise to that, and how often? Handke shows us how to find the glitter of truth in dull-looking commonplaces, and his tall, slim, dark-haired mother is more alive to me than countless well-described figures in more +original+ novels and biographies. She becomes an emanation of the Forties without ceasing to be a private, if scarcely visible, self.

It is late, then; and language regularly falls short of our needs. But we should be careful not to pretend that it is later than it is, and even the weariest language will point us back to the world if we know how to read it. NaIve and old-fashioned as the thought may seem, Handke's best writing appears when he has patently +really experienced something+: the break-up of a marriage in Short Letter, Long Farewell, the death of his mother in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. In these cases, a general metaphysical anxiety not only finds an objective correlative but is refined and specified by a demanding reality. I interpret this to mean not that Handke is sincere in these works and half-faking in the others, or that the others don't rest on experience at all, but that his more urgent and more localized experiences caused him to put a pressure on his language which he does not always apply. Language points to the world, and the world begs for language. If you have any talent you will get some sort of tune out of the cracked cauldron; but beyond that, the quality of the tunes must depend on the depth of your need for the music.


[*] All three of these books were reviewed by Frank Kermode, NYR, May 1, 1975

The New York Review of Books

May 1, 1975


The Model of a Modern Modernist

By Frank Kermode

The Making of Modern Drama
by Richard Gilman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 292 pp., .95

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
by Peter Handke, translated by Michael Roloff
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 133 pp., .95

Short Letter, Long Farewell
by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 167 pp., .95

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story
by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 70 pp., .95

The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld
by Peter Handke, translated and with a postscript by Michael Roloff
Seabury Press, 172 pp., .50 (paper)

I shall say little about Mr. Gilman's instructive, well-written, and unaffected book, because I want to write about Peter Handke, whose plays and other works have made him perhaps the most interesting young writer in German today. This is in itself a tribute to Mr. Gilman, for it was his chapter on Handke that compelled me to read that author for the first time.

The making of modern drama had to be achieved in the teeth of powerful opposing forces; the theater has been for centuries a bourgeois stronghold, and one would expect it to change more slowly than other literary forms. Yet Gilman has to begin his account with BUEchner in the 1830s, a good while before any comparable figure appeared in other arts. It is true that the struggle to +renew drama, to combat its tendency to inertia and self-repetition,+ had constantly to be recommenced, for example by all the authorS Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, and Handke whom Gilman writes about in this book. Still, there is a paradox here, and the only way to resolve it is to consider that avant-gardes thrive, and only thrive, on opposition, and the opposition comes closest to being permanent in the theater, where, for whatever reasons, the force of convention powerfully tends to reassert itself.

Gilman's authors are in time and by nationality a scattered lot, and he isn't of course claiming that they represent a concerted movement or development. What they have in common is that each renewed the assault on conventions that had come to look like nature. This common quality is admirably documented by Gilman, and there are valuable accounts of individual plays. The essays are brief, sometimes too brief, and some important works are given rather short shrift; but at his best Gilman makes a virtue of brevity, as in his essay on Ibsen; I would have liked more discussion of the last three plays, but as an account of Ibsen's transformation of the pIEce bien faite into an instrument of moral revelation, a transformation not fully achieved before The Master Builder, this essay is useful and fresh.

Gilman finds himself in enthusiastic sympathy with Strindberg, and says many warm and perceptive things about him, his risk-taking and his bold anticipations of much later experiment; but this does not mean that he cannot value just as highly the reticence of Chekhov. It is central to his argument that Tolstoy was wrong about Chekhov, for he failed to understand that drama is not +a provider of imaginary solutions to real dilemmas+ but of +analogues to our lives.+ Gilman has less admiration for Brecht but still sees him as a kind of saint of the new theater of thought and enlarged consciousness.

The stage is always trying to throw off its staginess, even if in the process it disintegrates the idea of personality, as Hofmannsthal thought Brecht did; in undermining its own illusion it deprives many other illusions of their future. Peter Handke therefore comes in quite properly at the end of Gilman's book (there might also have been a word on Pinter). He treats him as a dramatist, though at thirty-three Handke is also the author of several novellas, a volume of stories, a collection of poems, and other books. The better part of all this work is already available in translation, a state of affairs as satisfactory as it is unusual. I think that anybody who gives Handke a fair reading will have to agree that there was nothing in the least absurd about putting him in a book with such formidable predecessors, though I'm not sure I can wholly accept what Gilman says about him.

Handke is by origin a small-town upper-working-class Austrian Catholic. He studied law and at once turned to writing. His first novel, The Hornets, appeared in 1966, when he was very young, and the plays which made his name, Offending the Audience (or Public Insult) and Self-Accusation, belong to the same year. In 1967 appeared another novel, The Peddler, and a short play, Calling for Help (or Distress Calls), of which a translation appeared in The Drama Review (Fall, 1970).

Kaspar, his most important play so far, followed in 1968; it is translated, together with the first two plays, in Kaspar and Other Plays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Noonday, 1972). Quodlibet and My Foot, My Tutor, a mime-play (TDR, Fall, 1970), came out in 1969, as did the novel The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The Ride Across Lake Constance (in Contemporary German Theater, edited by Michael Roloff, Avon, 1972) belongs to 1971. Since then there have been two more narratives, Short Letter, Long Farewell and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (both 1972), and a play called They Are Dying Out, which I have not read, that followed in 1973. The poems were published in 1969.

Handke's photograph turns up here and there; clean-shaven and bending over a pinball machine, or hairy in jeans, or wearing shades and trying to look like Paul McCartney. He is said to be, or to have been, +into rock,+ and he certainly is into old movies. John Ford seems to be a special hero, honest and generous in a wise old American way. None of this means, of course, that he is not an intellectual. He is, I'm glad to say, sympathetic to the idea that he can help people to understand what he is up to by talking about it. I had better try, in a very provisional way, to say what I think he is up to.

Here I deviate a little from Mr. Gilman, who, rightly observing that Handke is in some way a philosophical dramatist, finds him to be very like Wittgenstein. It is true that Wittgenstein called philosophy +a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,+ and that Handke shows himself to be very suspicious of language as the means by which we are induced to accept +reality+; indeed he sometimes hates it and speaks of its +idiocy.+ But these similarities, even if not misleading, are not sufficient to justify the conclusion that +nothing could be closer in spirit+ to Wittgenstein than Handke, and I am not surprised to learn that the dramatist has himself rejected the comparison.

Wittgenstein was concerned to avoid errors arising from a failure to understand the workings of language. This is not the same as to wish to +learn to be nauseated by language,+ as Handke says he does, and as he says we should if we are to achieve consciousness. But Handke's theory is not fully articulated, and there is excuse for confusion. He believes language to be an agent of social oppression and mystification, so there is a political aspect to his theory; but Handke seems to me less interested in this for its own sake than as the symptom of a more radical distress. Language makes us sick, perhaps makes us wicked (his theory is really quite Rousseauistic), and if we can find a single dominant motive in Handke's work it is that as a writer he is always having to love what he abhors. The consequence is that he is a poet above all else, and almost always in a state of fright or horror.

I doubt, for this and other reasons, whether it can be right to argue, as Gilman does, that the language of his plays is meant to be a sort of homeopathic cure for the ills language has inflicted upon us, an agent of resurrection or health. In an interview with Artur Joseph, partially translated in the issue of TDR already mentioned, Handke does make a few cautious gestures of this kind, saying that a moral theater could only belong to a new social order and that meanwhile one can show +through revelation in language+ that we do not have to accept the present one as given. But this is clearly not his prime interest, although he holds that in breaking up the conventions of the theater, including those of its language, he is doing something to destroy the hierarchical society that meets his disapproval.

But it seems to be in the nature of language that it imposes upon us its arbitrary universes, oppresses us, and permits us only such freedom as is consistent with its conditions. Handke rages against it, calling it a stupid pretense, saying +it expresses nothing but its own stupidity.+ The nausea which he says he feels, and which he compares to the nausea of Sartre's Roquentin about things, arises less from the brutalization of people by (the abuse of) language than from disgust at having to deal with the corrupt and systematic independence of language itself.

Hence for Handke language is what prevents us from being in the world as it is, a set of debilitating fictions. He is faithful to the puritanism of the avant-garde in general when he says that +the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of unnecessary fictions,+ and his earliest effort was to destroy the fictions that are habitual in the theater. He sought to strip it of all its familiar trappings, going beyond the point where Beckett leaves off, trying to make audiences understand the +produced+ quality of what they were seeing, to abuse the theater and the audience too, in so far as it contributed to the theatrical fiction. In his early plays, there is no action, no character, no fourth wall; there are people in a room, and all that is happening is language. Of course the theater can be seen as a model of other forms of social lying, all dependent on language. Attack language, Handke seems to be saying, and you attack the root of evil.

Using language to attack language sets problems Handke is always aware of. His anti-theater is very theatrical, his anti-language has great linguistic and rhetorical resource. The words of his SprechstUEcke (+speak-ins+) are not, he explains, +pictures+; they point not to a world beyond them +but to the world in the words themselves.+ This words can do only by insisting on themselves as interesting, as opaque rather than transparent, exactly as the atheatrical quality of his plays requires constant reminders that we are in a theater and nowhere else. The expectations of the audience are constantly maintained by assertions that no conceivable curiosity or expectation of theirs may hope to be satisfied.

It may be the case that you expected what you are hearing now. But even in that case you expected something different.

This is from Offending the Audience. The speakers, who divide the text arbitrarily between them, say: +We don't tell you a story. We don't perform any actions. We don't simulate any actions. We don't represent anything. We don't put anything on for you. We only speak. This is no drama. No action that has occurred elsewhere is re-enacted here we are not playing time. Time is for real here. We are not doing as if.+ They claim that their scrupulous observance of the unities makes the play strictly +classical+a good historical joke. They end with a long abusive tirade against the status and expectations of the audience.

By constantly and aggressively challenging expectations Handke makes his anti-play playable, the anti-language speakable, intelligible to a language-corrupted audience. Self-Accusation, a less epatant piece, explains the process of corruption: one is born, one acquires with language desire and anxiety, one commits crimes indiscriminately social and linguistic. Offending the Audience is said to be based on rock style and rhythms; My Foot, My Tutor is all mime. But these are evasions; language, as game or disease, dominates the entire enterprise.

Kaspar consummates Handke's theatrical treatment of this topic. According to the author it is +anarchic, and negates everything it comes across. I don't care whether this yields a positive utopia.+ As his name suggests, Kaspar is a clown, a virtually speechless person with a difficult relation to objects. The play is based on a celebrated nineteenth-century event, the emergence of a man named Kaspar Hauser who had spent sixteen years in a closet and who knew only one sentence: +I want to be a cavalry officer as my father once was.+ Handke's Kaspar also knows one sentence but it is general and abstract: +I want to be a person like someone else was once.+ Kaspar emerges from the closet +incapable of correct perception,+ as Handke explains. He is unable to distinguish between two and three dimensions, and supposes that everything white is snow.

In Handke's play, prompters exhort Kaspar to use the one sentence he has as a model for generating others, and so find his way about the world. First he plays about with the sentence itself, without understanding its possibilities as a model. Then he acquires more phonemes, and by degrees comes to speak regular sentences. He can now control objects and establish order. For example, he can tie his shoelaces. But in liberating him from his world of prelinguistic terror, the prompters enslave him to society. Their instructions turn for Kaspar into slogans of acceptance: All suffering is natural, good order is the foundation of all things, you should feel responsible for the furniture. Now Kaspar's clothes are more orderly, and the stage looks, for the first time, like a room. He speaks poetry, reflecting the order he has found.

Now I know what I want:
I want
to be
and every object
that I find sinister
I designate as mine
so that it stops
being sinister to me.

But the order is phony. He learns metaphor and lying; he becomes rational and oppressed. +Already with my first sentence I was trapped. I have been made to speak. I have been converted to reality.+ Handke says the play could also be called Speech Torture.

Although Wittgenstein said that +to understand a sentence is to understand a language+ he went on to say that +to understand a language means to be a master of a technique.+ Handke's point is that in acquiring a delusive mastery one is mastered. At a time when linguistics and psychoanalysis are moving together again we should perhaps look to them rather than to Wittgenstein for clues to the nature of this extraordinary play; and perhaps we should also look to poetry. Mr. Gilman tells us that Verlaine, Hofmannsthal, and Trakl had all used the original Kaspar Hauser as a figure of the poet, the man who +does not know what he is to do in the world+ and is obsessed with the power, the limitations, and the opacity of language. Kaspar, like Handke's poems, is a word game.

Handke's poems, unfortunately too long to quote usefully, are much concerned with horror or fright (reactions produced more by language than by things) and also with such topics as singular and plural, the sociolinguistic circumstances in which one says +I+ and +mine+ and those in which one does not (+my cell+ but not +my prison,+ for instance). They are series of sentences bound together by linguistic and rhetorical devices of the kind that are currently interesting practitioners of +text-linguistics+ or +discourse-analysis.+ Above all they are encounters between the poet, a self-confessed traitor to silence, and his enemy the language.

The poems, and Kaspar, have a tension I can't find in The Ride Across Lake Constance, a play in which, as Gilman puts it, +people in 'real' life act as though they were cast in plays.+ The play is a series of gestures and routines existing as themselves, without reference to anything, occasionally establishing some ritual of social or sexual superiority. The actors, who have no names but their own, provide each other with identities, form relationships on the basis of the roles they force upon one another. Perhaps it would seem more interesting on stage; Handke is such a theatrical wizard that one ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Of the novels The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is most immediately impressive. It is of course obsessed with language and the anxieties it induces; but despite this attention to its own medium of communication it is a highly wrought story about a character called Joseph Bloch. Even the title is part of the story, which expands the moment in which the goalkeeper waits for the shot he is supposed, but can barely hope, to save. It opens with a powerful but delusive and transient reminiscence of Kafka:

When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site.

Bloch's dissociation, his difficulty with objects, is a consequence of language. Urban things assert themselves; there is a tedium of detail, of unimportant false inferences and frustrations, useless detours. Bloch is mugged in the Prater, but it means nothing. He takes a girl to her room and in the morning gratuitously kills her. +If the pressure of everything around him when his eyes were open was bad, the pressure of the words for everything out there when his eyes were closed was even worse.+ There is a murder hunt, but it makes very little impact; we are concerned rather with the way in which anxiety, represented as a disease of language, seeps into the text, a nausea induced by words and even sounds. +
Bloch dropped in the cards. The empty mailbox resounded as they fell into it. But the mailbox was so tiny that nothing could resound in there. Anyway, Bloch had walked away immediately.+

Arriving at a frontier town, Bloch finds that there is a search for a missing boy who has a speech impediment; it turns out that all the children of the town are similarly afflicted. He himself begins to suffer from a +loathsome word-game sickness,+ nauseated by the treachery and absurdity of the words he speaks, by grammar, by the conventions of written language, by apparitions among things of such rhetorical devices as synecdoche (very important in Handke, for that things should stand for or imply other concealed things is a source of horror) and anaphora (including many repeated motifs, such as coins, apples, sponges, or meat falling, with no apparent relevance to the narrative).

There is a trick ending, well prepared; and yet we can no more take it at its narrative face value than we can suppose the repetitions of words and motifs have the kind of sense one would expect in a more normal novel. They are indices or symptoms of the language-disease. The book has frontiers with Kafka and with the nouveau roman, but its peculiar pathology makes it decisively different from either.

Short Letter is another matter, though again its principal character, the narrator, is in a dissociated state. He is traveling in the US, which he reports with an almost bizarre attention to detail; all the references are accurate from Greyhound buses to Braniff planes, and the routes are specified: +The bus took the Bruckner Expressway through the Bronx, turned off to the right, and crossed the Harlem River to Manhattan + and so on down Fifth Avenue and to Forty-first Street; then a cab to the Algonquin. He has a compulsion not to leave things out, to imply or conceal nothing; a hyperamnesia ordinarily fatal to narrative, though not to this one.

There is a plot: his wife is trying to kill him. He joins an old lover and travels to St. Louis and Tucson with her and her child. This child has the capacity to take things as they are, not as representing something; she has language licked. But she cannot bear things to be partly open, car trunks, for example; things that seem to contain or suggest other things drive her into hysteria. Even a crooked pole, disturbing the regularity of a line of poles, distresses her; it is not comfortably redundant, it contains information, it may be a sign of what is not simply evident. She is growing up into a world diseased by its modes of communication, riddled with synecdoche. Juke-boxes and movies send out their messages; an itinerant Austrian dramaturge attacks people who +have words for everything.+ We leave the hero and his wife temporarily reunited and deep in conversation with the wise and real John Ford, who tells them:

+It's your thoughts you want people to get a glimpse of, not your idiosyncrasies. One day you tell the truth, and you're startled. You're so happy you can't bear it; you try to tell the truth again, and then of course you lie. I still lie,+ said John Ford. +Two seconds ago I knew what I wanted, but now I've lost it. I'm happy only when I know exactly what I want. Then I'm so happy I feel as if there were no teeth in my mouth.+

They then tell Ford their story, swearing that it is true.

The blurb speaks of an +unobtrusive structure of metaphor and symbol,+ but the markers of this structure are ironically placed. The puritanical Handke is reduced to telling the truth but foxing it with opacities. So, too, in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. It is an account of the life and suicide of Handke's mother and it cannot help being sad; but the material must submit to the process of writing words, to a man +alienated from himself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.+ In speaking of his mother he is remembering and formulating his own +moments of extreme speechlessness.+

There is a narrative; it tells how the mother was worn down by social pressures from a person to a type, and from a type to a nonentity.

As it wore off, her illness became an affectation; now she only played at being sick. She pretended that her head was in a muddle as a defense against her thoughts, which had become clear again; for, once her head was perfectly clear, she could only regard herself as an individual case and the consolation of belonging to a group was no longer available to her. She exaggerated her forgetfulness and absent-mindedness in order to be encouraged, when she finally did remember or show that she had understood everything perfectly, with a +You see! You're much better now!+ as though all the horror had consisted in losing her memory and being unable to join in the conversation.

But the narrative cannot be let alone; it is punctuated by interruptions that comment on the problems of narrating, say on the danger of merely telling what happened, or the danger of submerging a human being in sentences, or the danger of selling out to one's own horror when extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness. The +idiocy+ of his mother's life becomes his own idiocy, and the story becomes an account of his own horror, characterized as horror vacui: the source of the very language he uses, in all its fallibility and corruption, is now frozen.

New readers of Handke might do well to start with Sorrow, for here his deviations are less puzzling and better marked than in the early plays. Certainly he is not to be thought of only as a playwright; his place is wherever language needs to be examined or purged. He has the fertility and the resource to maintain himself alive in this extraordinary combat. Perhaps Handke is a little preoccupied with his own originality, and with the specificity of his own terrors. He nevertheless offers, with prodigality, evidence that the obsessions of modernism still afford the possibility of greatness.

Peter Handke. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House. Trans. Krishna Winston. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. 186 pp. .00.Peter HandkEs new novel envisions a panoramic dreamscape that displays a remarkable sequence of events in the life of an obscure, contentedly self-absorbed pharmacist, who owns a shop in a nondescript town lying in a suburban spandrel near present-day Salzburg. When one day an unexpected blow on the head disrupts the pharmacists habitual routine, this learned devotee of mushrooms takes flight, beginning a journey in which he wanders like a spellbound observer of his own life through a landscape of surreal fantasy. The ensuing narrative ostensibly records this extended trip, taken several years before the pharmacist recounts it to the writer who puts it into words and whom the pharmacist occasionally interrupts. Once detached from his everyday concerns, the pharmacists life opens like a tropical flower, to inhabit a realm entirely of the imagination. Upon reaching certain milestones, almost at random but with a curious logic of their own, the pharmacists personal mythology is newly configured and recast through the muted agency of the writer/recorder he employs. Their periodic conversations about the narrative lend an impression of ongoing revision while the composition unfolds before us. Occasionally, as their conversations in the background interrupt the narrative, the pharmacist steps out of his role to comment on, suggest an alteration to, or quibble over something the writer is conveying. Yet casting the writer as little more than an amanuensis suits the nature of their free-wheeling collaboration, as if events were being made up by the pharmacist as he went along, lending an odd resonance to the whimsically self-regarding, self-consciously numinous perspective being displayed in the tale itself. [Michael Pinker] Peter Handke. Once Again for Thucydides. Trans. Tess Lewis. New Directions, 1998. 90 pp. .95; My Year in the No-Mans-Bay. Trans. Krishna Winston. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998. 467 pp. .00.In Once Again for Thucydides, Peter HandkeS the renowned Austrian novelist, dramatist, and man of letters extends the tradition of his Greek forebear admirably. In =The Short Fable of the Ash Tree in Munich,= the longest and, perhaps, most revealing of the seventeen =micro-epics= contained in Handkes idiosyncratic new collection, a narrator says, =Hadnt I always felt alienated or even repulsed when other writers used their sense of imagery in this way . . . parading their mystical gift for an omnipresence that could always transform a modern ruin into an ancient temple.= Although Handke playfully resists the transformative nature of imagery, his prose finds images of passing hats, a snowfall, a shoeshine man, an ash tree, or a glowworm becoming elements of the narrators moment-by-moment existence and, as such, transforming the narrators understanding of his being and times. For example, in =Sheet-Lightning Epopee or Once Again for Thucydides,= the narrator is literally guided by flares of sheet lightning in the sky to the literal and mythic wonders of the Pleiades, while =Attempt to Exorcise One Story with Another= finds the narrator watching as the touch of a small blue butterfly releases the screams of children persecuted during World War II, =almost a half century after their deportation, but only now as they should.= These images also evoke echoes of history both natural and anthropocentric allowing Handke to open a symbolic gateway through which he examines and finds himself implicated with the wisdom and atrocities of the past. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke presents us with a truly (re)visionary history.Thucydides has been critiqued by Ford Madox Ford for allowing his philosophical musings to curtail the immediacy and visionary power of his writing. Appropriately, such criticism could also be directed toward Handkes new novel, My Year in the No-Mans-Bay. Although the novel contains passages of wondrous prose (particularly in part 3), the novel with its painfully contorted trajectory and didactic tendencieS will reward only the most patient and forgiving of readers. For those unfamiliar with Handkes work, Once Again for Thucydides is a much more accessible and engaging introduction to this vital international voice. [Matthew Badura]

The complete reviews Review:
Peter Handkes novel, On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House, may not seem immediately appealing. It is a narrative that only slowly circles to its actual story. The writer recounts a story that someone has told him, but he takes his time in getting to it, first setting scenes, filling in background, preparing the reader. The story itself is also an unusual one. Nevertheless, the novel is gripping from the beginning, a testament to Handkes talents.
Near the end of the book Handke writes:
Hed always been drawn most powerfully to observation when he witnessed the simplest, most undramatic occurrences and processes, for instance rain coming down heavier or tapering off, or simply continuing; snow melting; a puddle slowly drying up.
This reflects Handkes own interests and strengths. Few writers are able to make as much from such a focus.
On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House begins with a description of Taxham, a small and easily overlooked town near Salzburg, in Austria. Handkes description centers only partially on the physical; instead, he situates the town. He conveys, with deceptive ease, exactly what it means to live in Taxham -- and only then moves on to the local pharmacist, the central figure of the novel.
Despite being near the Salzburg airport Taxham seems at the edge of the world: the narrator and a friend of his, a teacher of classical languages named Andreas Loser, are perhaps the only strangers who went there more than once. The two form a friendship of sorts with the unnamed Taxham pharmacist, and it is, eventually, the pharmacists story that gets told.
Before getting to the actual story Handke describes the pharamacists life, an essential aspect of the story itself. The teller is more than just part of the tale, and understanding of who he is is essential to understanding of the episode he relates.
The pharmacist had traveled a great deal when he was younger, almost all over the world. He is still restless, but travel seems to offer nothing any longer: By now nothing tempted him anymore, not a single place. He has some interests (he is particularly knowledgeable and passionate about mushrooms), but few friends. He is not the sort of person people greet (or often even just recognize) on the street. His family life is also far from satisfactory -- he is separated from his wife (uneasily still sharing his house with her), his son is unaccounted for, and even his daughter is far away.
The pharmacist is interested in literature -- when he goes without reading one morning he was missing something like his breakfast -- but has only limited literary aspirations. He does eventually take great interest in his story, a narrative that mirrors life, is an essential part of it, but is also apart from it. The narrator recounts:
I realized: My story was at risk, my storyteller said. And I cared about my story -- and how ! But if I continued to stand by, it wouldve been done for, and everything that had gone before null and void.
The story, then, is essentially a road trip, as the pharmacist decides to travel again. He and two unlikely (though perhaps typically Austrian) companions, a poet and a former skiing champion, head to Spain. It is an unreal, surreal, polyglot trip through the Europe of the 1990s, though always presented with Handkes reserve and control. The pharmacists only form of self-defense was calm; to become the epitome of calm, and Handke seems no different. Through all the incidents in the novel (and there are a number of surprising turns) there is always a sense of calm -- and not a forced one: Handkes calm is by now completely natural and convincing.
It is an odd trip, as the three seek without truly finding (stumbling across, among others, the peripheral Andreas Loser again -- the rare figure in the novel who is actually named -- who made some radical life-choices after disappearing earlier).
The pharmacist eventually returns to Taxham, and there he recounts his summer story to the narrator, who tells it in turn. The world is a different one after the trip, but the changes are small and subtle. After telling the story the pharmacist says:
From speaking it, orally, nothing comes back to me. In written form, that would be different. And in the end I want to get something out of my story, too. Long live the difference between speech and writing. Its what lifes all about. I want to see my story written. I see it written. And the story itself wants that.
The notion convinces. It is not your usual storytelling (and not your usual story), but Handkes art is persuasive. In a time where so much writing is so relentless the deep, assured breaths of Handkes prose are a welcome respite. There is no tedium here either (though some of the book is fairly elusive); it is a short book, incident-filled and nicely paced. It is a book of details, but they are well-chosen and there is no surfeit, there are no unnecessary encumbrances or exhibitionistic displays. Handke writes crouching: Crouching down to see what was happening from close up; and besides, crouching you were closest to yourself.
Not for everyone -- those who want action and meatier plots should look elsewhere -- but certainly recommended. On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House is literature, and theres not too much of that being written nowadays.

Note that Krishna Winstons translation is less assured than Handkes original, and occasionally discomfiting. The German tenses can be a struggle, and there is a rougher (or perhaps clumsier) feel to the prose in the English version -- though by modern American standards it is still near as rarefied as one can find.
The fact that hay-horse was the Austrian word for grasshopper had escaped us -- though perhaps it was a stab at an evocative translation of Heuschreck..... And, while we understand that the German Apotheker must be translated as pharmacist rather than apothecary we regret the loss: the pharmacist of this book is an Apotheker (with its latinate roots suggesting clerk and storehouse), not a Pharmazeut (suggesting clinical modernity and drugs)

Strange Alchemy
On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House by Peter Handke
By Reviewed by Paul West

Sunday, January 21, 2001; Page BW06
By Peter Handke
Translated from the German By Krishna Winston
Farrar Straus Giroux. 186 pp.
A subtle writer of unostentatious delicacy, the Austrian novelist Peter Handke excels at fiction that, as it grows, coils around itself like wisteria. What is especially interesting about On A Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a title that recalls both Calvinos If on a winters night a traveler and those of Bach cantatas, is the protagonist, a pharmacist marooned in a hamlet near Salzburg, telling his story to the narrator, which makes for more vibration and resonance than usual: The captive audience has a prisoner, and we have both.
The lonely pharmacists tale gradually accumulates density without ever seeming fuzzy, and there is a fragile crescendo toward a climactic instant when the pharmacist gets a bang on the head rendering him speechless -- at which point the novel changes completely into a fantastic extravaganza in the Alps. The novels narrator, who has hitherto had access to the pharmacists speech, now has a clear view into his mind.
This is not so much a shift as a metamorphosis; the novel goes from placid assembly and philatelic perusal of everyday things (blackbirds, mushrooms, bicycles, apples, a bakery) into hyperbole, rendered in the same even tone. It is not as if Handke hasnt warned us, managing several times to embed in his narrators text the sort (and sport) of mutable vision Polonius has in Hamlet. Excerpts from another world get into the book to make us nervous or expectant -- for example, the well-known pioneers of flight Graf von Ferdinand Zeppelin and Otto Lilienthal come up in conjunction with lesser-known ones such as Nungesser and Coli. . . who attempted the first transatlantic flight and vanished. Thats a mild sample. Here is a more ambitious one: In a thicket, tied bags with only a wet cowlick poking out here and there become a company of soldiers resting. In a similar manner, extraneous material flops into the novel to amplify and multiply it, and we encounter ancient Egyptians (only the men were brown; the women had to be white as alabaster or cheese), and the pharmacist turns alchemist when he tampers with known nostrums, transforming them into another substance.
It all makes sense when you read, on page 49, No. You, the recording scribe, mustnt be the master of my story. After all, not even I myself am master of my story. Ones head among phenomena is never quite a master of itself and can easily be dispossessed by a shower of the unprecedented. Or by a determined narrator.
Handkes short, gently shaped novel thus becomes a fugue of visual gradations and shocking swaps. Our pharmacist, a Renaissance man in many ways, gets knocked out of himself, then knocked back, with speech returned, but sea-changed. It is not the state of devastation proposed by William James, or quite the ecstasy invented by the Greeks for when youre evicted from yourself, but it is mutability writ large -- perhaps (as Shelley writes in his ode to it) the only thing that endures.
So much for the novels theme. Numerous pleasures await the reader who delves into the fabric of Handkes prose. Take the blackbird, for instance, with a black, shiny, seemingly eyeless head, a knight in search of single combat, his visor already closed. Or this: A cloud field, white, rippled, foamy, forming dunes. Flat oval stones here and there on top of the highland scree, with a black circle in the middle: pebbles polished by the Ice Age, which had sunk into the ocean here as the snow melted, called eye stones.
The novel, for all its concern with the commonplace, never scants the rapture of nature, to which, in almost quil vein, it opposes the fabrications of the mind. At the end, the pharmacist tells the narrator I want to have my story in writing. He certainly got it. This is where the French New Novel might have gone if pushed. br>
Paul West is the author of many books, including O.K., The Dry Danube and The Secret Lives of Words. 2001 The Washington Post Company

Reading/Writing: Short Pieces on Two Non-Fiction Texts by Peter Handke 

Thomas F. Barry

Himeji Dokkyo University/Japan 

=. . . for me that is a kind of recurrent idea. The more I immerse myself in an object, the more it approaches a written  sign.=  

(= . . . das ist bei mir so eine wiederkehrende Vorstellung. Je mehr ich mich verstiefe in einen Gegenstand, desto mehr naehert er sich dem Schriftzeichen.= ) 

Peter Handke in conversation with Herbert Gamper/1986  (231)  

I. A Circumscribed Life: A Confusion of Nature and History

Wunschloses Unglueck (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1974)

     Because of the obviously painful personal circumstances that occasioned the writing of this biographical memoir, it is, for many readers, the most poignant and most accessible of Handke’s otherwise rather impersonal or emotionally distant writings. It represents his attempt to come to terms with the suicide of his mother, Maria Handke, at the age of fifty-one in November of 1971. Discussions of the book are to be found in the monographs by Schlueter (119-136), Naegele and Voris (55-61), Firda (77-85), Mixner (182-188), Renner (84-92). Also useful is the introductory essay by Becker-Cantarino in her class textbook edition of the text as is the Volker Bohn essay in the Fellinger collection. The essays by Hammer (1995), Naegele, and Varsava are also informative. A discussion of Handke’s childhood and family history can be found in the Haslinger biography.

     Most critics read the book as a self-reflexive text which foregrounds the processes that produce it, a postmodern revision of the biography genre. He does not want to produce a mere life chronicle fleshed out with mute facts nor a literary exercise that fashions his mother into some kind of artificial literary construct. Instead of simply narrating the course of his mother’s life, he examines the linguistic environment that shaped her life: the social-cultural, religious, and the political-ideological clichÃÆ’ƒÂ©s (during WWII) that she received naively and uncritically and which formulated her identity as a =woman.= As with his structuralist insight into the Catholic religious ideology of the seminary priests that posed as =divine nature,= he deconstructs the life of his mother as if it were a =text= and exposes it as a construct =indeed a circumscription=of (a largely male/paternal dictated) =history.= Her choices as a human being were literally circumscribed/curtailed by the language of the political, economic, and gender power structures that dominated her life. He comments at one point that after the Anschlus with Germany in 1938, Nazi ideologues presented historical events as if they were a =drama of nature= (252). His mother’s life is viewed here in terms similar to those presented in his other writings: as a confusion of nature and text, of empirical-existential fact with language, cultural values, and social ideologies. The influence of Barthes’ Mythologies on his idea of nature/history distinction is apparent. This deliberate confusion of nature and political ideology also forms the basis for Handke’s more recent criticism of the liberal bourgeois media in its portrayal of the Serbs. Praised by some German critics for its historical and feminist relevance, one surmises that this formalist approach to his mother’s life also provided Handke with a measure of emotional distance from an obviously painful personal situation. The American reception of the text stressed the emotional and existential dimensions and was rather positive. Jeffrey Eugenides comments in his  introduction to the 2002 New York Review of Books Classics edition of the Manheim translation differeniate Handke’s project in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams from that of other American (and for that matter, European) postmodernists. His remarks deserve citation here: 

     Interestingly, Handke’s grim book came out during the free-for-all of literary postmodernism. In the United States, writers like Barth, Pynchon, and Coover were publishing wild, funny novels full of narrative disjunctions and formal play. The American postmodernists, fatigued with the complacency of realism, were turning narrative on its head. Because they distrusted omniscience, and more importantly because they distrusted the government during those years of the Vietnam War, they sought to undermine the conventions of storytelling and, in so doing, undermine the political authority that perpetuated itself through conservative, national myths.
     Handke’s postmodernism is quite different. Though full of the standard hesitations and skeptical of omniscience, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams displays no high-low conflations, no outright attack on political authority. There is just a rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence. The American postmodernists gave up on traditional storytelling out of an essentially playful, optimistic, revolutionary urge. Handke despairs of narrative out of sheer despair (xii-xiii). 

Many German and American postmodern writers and academics are focused on what can be called political deconstruction, the revelation and analysis of social, ideological-political, and gender-based systems of power which ultimately demean and oppress the individual. Handke is certainly in sympathy with these concerns as his writings on Yugoslavia and his critique of the western media’s demonization of all Serbs. His clear emphasis, however, on existential and spirtual (essentially Romantic) issues has alienated him from many European readers and professors. Eugenides observations are indicative of the generally positive reception Handke has received in the United States. His American reception is reminiscent of the positive evaluation given to Hermann Hesse’s books during the 1960s in the U.S. when, during the same period, he was largely discounted by German critics as being a tedious post-Romantic.

     Yet, Handke ultimately judges his own work to be a failure and claims he will write more concretely about it at a later time. He manages to maintain the balance between mere reportage and literary artifice to the extent that his mother’s life conforms to the ideological and gender norms of her social milieu. However, when her existential estrangement becomes so intense as to transcend the linguistic and cultural cliches that society has dictated, he comes to identify with her more closely while simultaneously trying to maintain an emotional distance and he loses this delicate balance. He begins to describe her in the same words he uses for himself and his fictional characters, a dilemma he remarks upon in a section of his meta-commentary (263-265).

     At one point towards the end of the text, for example, he describes his mother as follows: =It was a torment to see how shamelessly she had turned herself inside out; everything about her was dislocated, split, open, inflamed, a tangle of entrails= (52). The graphic image of the self being turned inside out is a prominent motif in several of Handke’s fictional texts and depicts the existential nadir of the individual and the complete estrangement of consciousness: the self viewed as a monstrous, obscene growth (Barry 1986). In the earlier novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, the former soccer goalie Josef Bloch undergoes a schizophrenic breakdown and during one of his more extreme episodes, he is described in terms similar to those Handke uses to portray his mother: =Defenseless, incapable of defending himself, he lay there. Nauseatingly his insides turned inside out; not alien, only repulsively different= (57). The 1975 novel A Moment of True Feeling deals with a similar existential crisis in the character of Gregor Keuschnig. He is again described with images that recall both Bloch and the figure of Handke’s mother: =In the next moment he felt as though he were bursting out of his skin and a lump of flesh and sinew lay wet and heavy on the carpet.= (8). The portrayal of the mother here moves subtly from fact to fiction.

     The mother becomes ironically, in the course of the narrative, yet another confusion of text and life, a fictional extension of the son, another character of the son’s literary texts. In the Gamper interview, Handke remarks that the book is not really about his mother but is =meine eigene Geschichte= (=my own story=) (225), that is, autobiography rather than biography. On the theme of women and sexuality so curiously neglected in the critical literature on Handke, Hammer (1993), whose provocative writings on the author explore issues of gender, sexuality, desire, and anger, suggests that there may well be oedipal and narcissistic issues at work in this text. The (perhaps highly sexualized) merging of son and mother in the text seems to prompt the breakdown of the narrative into fragments =a literary impotence or a narratus interruptus--and it ends with a promise of repetition.1  

II. The Essays: Attempts at Writing/Revisioning the Self 

Versuch ueber die Muedigkeit (1989)

Versuch ueber die Jukebox (1990) (The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling, 1994)

Versuch ueber den geglueckten Tag (1991) 

=Listening to Beatles’ records turned out to be an excellent cure for too much thinking.= Geoffrey O’Brien 

     This set of essays, like Handke’s journals, has received a mixed reception from readers and critics and for much the same reasons as the latter. They have been condemned as being boring and inconsequential, reflecting an author ultimately obsessed with his own thought processes, residual echoes of Durzak’s older charges of narcissism. The topics are indeed unusual, even trivial, but they are essays very much in sense of Montaigne, explorations of the writer’s consciousness (his memories especially) =un livre de moi= but they are also reflections upon the act of narration. The first essay is an examination of the role tiredness has played in the writer’s life, presented in a series of questions and answers. Handke transforms an everyday experience--often precipitated by states of boredom--into a fascinating exploration of the world of slow motion, differentiating degrees of fatigue, the types of weariness, its rejuvenating effects, as well as its erotic, cultural, and political implications. The second is a third person chronicle of a writer who travels around Spain, much like the peripatetic Nietzsche in his wanderings from hotel to hotel in Switzerland and Northern Italy, in search of these old music machines in order to write an essay with the title =Essay on the Jukebox.= Handke attempts to understand the significance of the jukebox, a spiritual quest that leads him into the literature of the jukebox, the history of the music box, and his memories of the Beatle's music. In so doing, he elucidates the various stages of his own life. The third text contains a first/third person reflection on what might constitute a successful day for the writer. Handke invents a picture of tranquility, using a self-portrait by Hogarth as his point of departure to describe a state of being at peace, a project already conceived of by Valentin Sorger in The Long Way Around =on such a day the fact of morning and evening, light and darkness ought to be beauty enough= (132). Some of the better critical readings of the essays are by Hammer (1993), Hoesterey, Ribbat, Steiner, and Moser.

     The essay on tiredness takes up a theme that has concerned Handke throughout his career. His first novel, Die Hornissen (The Hornets), contains a chapter entitled =Die Muedigkeit= (=Tiredness’) in which the blind narrator, sitting in a chair, endures a semi-paralysis and becomes sensitive to the sounds around him.2 Tiredness is also taken up in the =Geborgenheit unter der Schaedeldecke= (=Safety beneath the Skull=) essay in which it is associated with states of anxiety. The essay on tiredness proper is structured like a conversation between a therapist and patient. The analytic/synthetic act of writing here is ultimately a therapeutic one in which the self of the past is simultaneously dismembered or =deconstructed= in and as memories--and then remembered in the act of writing. In this remembrance, the self is thereby repeated and re- (en) visioned, recreating itself anew in and as the transfigurations of textual activity.3 This textual reconstruction of the self constitutes the writer’s transcendence, which is only momentary, occurring only during the activity of writing. The author seeks in his essay to examine the =Bilder=/=pictures or images= his problem of tiredness engenders in him, translating these inner pictures into language =with its twists and turns and overtones= (12).  Near the end of the essay, he makes the following observation on images, memories, and his own writing: 

A few days ago, the dead body of a mole was making its way through
the dust of this Andalusian road as slowly and solemnly as the
statues of sorrow that are carried about on stands during Easter
Week here in Andalusia; under it, when I turned it over, there was
a procession of glittering-gold carrion beetles. And last winter,
on a similar dirt road in the Pyrenees, I squatted down in the
exact same way as we are squatting now, and watched the snow
falling in small grainy flakes, but, once it lay on the ground,
indistinguishable from grains of light-colored sand; in melting,
however, it left strange puddles, dark spots very different from
those made by raindrops, much larger and more irregular as they
trickled away into the dust. And as a child, at just the same
distance from the ground as we are now, I was walking in the first
morning light with my grandfather, on just such a dirt road in
Austria, barefoot, just as close to the ground and just as
infinitely far from the dispersed craters in the dust, where the
raindrops had struck--my first image, one that will let itself be
repeated forever (39-40). 

The act of writing/calligraphy in =strange puddles, dark spots= and =dispersed craters,= images of dust, decay, and death, and squatting down as the close observation of nature structure this paragraph. A personal (and therefore idiosyncratic) chain of visual associations link the vulnerable childhood self (and Handke’s beloved and protective grandfather) with the aging and tired adult in a reverie of a funeral procession that is also linked to a rebirth. A primal image that is repeated and in its repetition, there lies the existential continuity of the writer’s self and his texts.

     The image of writing and the self here is mystical and should be understood as a signatura rerum in the mystical sense of Jacob Boehme’s 1621 De signatura rerum (The Signature of All Things.; Chapter One/Sections Six and Sixteen): 

6. In the human mind the signature lies most artfully composed, according to the essence of all essences; and man wants nothing but the wise master that can strike his instrument, which is the true spirit of the high might of eternity; if that be quickened in man, that it stirs and acts in the centre of the mind, then it plays on the instrument of the human form, and even then the form is uttered with the sound in the word: As his instrument was set in the time of his incarnation, so it sounds, and so is his knowledge; the inward manifests itself in the sound of the word, for that is the mind's natural knowledge of itself.
16. Therefore the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man (viz. the image of the greatest virtue) may not only learn to know himself, but therein also he may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures, by their instigation, inclination, and desire, also by their sound, voice, and speech which they utter, the hidden spirit is known; for nature has given to everything its language according to its essence and form, for out of the essence the language or sound arises, and the fiat of that essence forms the quality of the essence in the voice or virtue which it sends forth, to the animals in the sound, and to the essentials in smell, virtue, and form.

The observation of form in nature and humankind is a religious activity that is practiced in many of Handke’s fictional persona from Josef Bloch and Valentin Sorger to his most recent creations. The conjoining of art and religion enlightenment in all its dimensions--is implicit in the existential and psychotherapeutic project of his writing. It is religious in the sense of both of the presumed Latin roots of the word: religare or a re-binding of the finite self with the divine and relegere or a re-reading of the signs that constitute the divine self and its re-creation in the reader. The reading and writing of the divine signature the images of death and rebirth he observed on the ground =is an effort to capture the nunc stans or the eternal present that is a revelation of the divine presence. The act of revealing the divine is, however, an attempt--an essay of the writer--and is imperfect and must therefore be repeated. The eternal present in this imperfect image =will let itself be repeated forever= and indeed, must, in the Nietzschean sense of the term =eternal repetition,= be embraced and affirmed.

     The text of the essay treats many forms of tiredness and they resemble the modalities of Handke’s own fictional characters, negative states of tiredness associated with guilt, shame, and estrangement and positive forms associated with a merging of the self with the external world as in his mystical loss of ego as he watches people passing by in Manhattan (27-29) (a scene which also finds expression in the final section of the Long Way Around novel). This latter positive form of =clear sighted tiredness= (31) is linked to what the writer calls the fourth attitude of his =linguistic self= (31) with respect to reality in which the self is extinguished and becomes pure gaze. The world then reveals itself in its objective truth and =the world tells its own story without words, in utter silence= (31). The first two attitudes of his linguistic identity describe his utter alienation from the external world accompanied by (autistic-like) states of speechlessness, the nadir of self in Handke’s texts. The third attitude represents the origins of his sense of relatedness to the world and others in and through language as story/text: =life enters into me by beginning spontaneously, sentence for sentence, to tell stories= (31). This is the stance that dominates Bloch’s consciousness in The Goalie’s Anxiety.

     He discusses the fourth attitude of a =unifying= (36) tiredness in terms of a rehabilitated Kantian =Thing in itself= that is the pure (mystical) perception of the world as it is when the self/world dualism collapses. He also discusses it in terms of the longing for an (epic) spiritual-aesthetic totality in which all things are related as the good, the true, and the beautiful =the world map of the =all together’= (39)--that forms such a prominent theme in Handke’s writings.4 The interlocutor-therapist figure ironically terms these expressions in the essay =typically mystical stammerings= (42). Handke is well aware of the audacity of his radical insistence on his subjectivity and the negative criticism it has engendered.

     The essay on the jukebox is a text about the preparations for writing a text, a meta-text that recalls his first novel Die Hornissen that is a novel about the origins of a novel. It treats the melancholic writer’s quest around the Spanish countryside for a highly ironic vision of the =holy grail= of the now defunct artifact of pop culture, the jukebox. It is associated in his mind with the music of the 1960s that has been a motif in his writings and with his first experiences of the ecstatic loss of self, the overcoming, as the O’Brien quote on listening to the Beatles suggests, of the (neurotic) thinking that generates his estrangement from the world (91). In these earlier experiences with the jukebox as with his mystical moments of ultimate (epic) tiredness, he perceives the people and objects around him with =such enhanced presentness= (99), a moment that resembles the vision of =EINER ANDEREN ZEIT=/=SOME OTHER TIME=(116) in the narrator of Short Letter, Long Farewell and the epiphany experience of the nunc stans or the static moment of eternity in The Lesson of Sainte Victoire (143). It also recalls the =disturbed= perceptions of earlier estranged characters such as Josef Bloch and Gregor Keuschnig. Like these latter figures, the writer in the jukebox essay feels compelled to view objects as signs or metaphors to =read= the world as a text--as in the beginning of the essay at the train station, he sees the footprints of previous travelers as some kind of graphic omen for his project (4).

     Having found his jukebox in a bar in Linares/Andalusia, the text ends with desolate and ironic images of alienation and writing as the author observes a Chinese girl (who resides in Spain) copying Chinese characters into a notebook and realizes his quest as only having just begun (118). The irony of the image resides in the notion that the writer who seeks experiences of totality/connection with reality must do so under conditions of the utmost isolation from society, the conditions of all those who seek mystical visions.

     The imagery of Chinese writing here recalls Handke’s use of it in The Lesson of Sainte-Victoire in order to formulate his poetics of the transformation of the world =Thing-Image-Script= (178)--into text.5 This aesthetic transformation of the mute world of objects into language signs is the project of Handke’s fiction, the creation of a therapeutic connection, a totality between his (estranged) consciousness and world, a project the character of Sorger also a fan of the jukebox-- formulates succinctly in the Long Way Around novel: =There is a possible connection, . . .. Every moment of my life is connected with every other without intermediate links. The connection is there; I need only imagine it in full freedom= (75). The experience of totality/connection that the writer seeks is one of radical immanence in the domain of the imagination liberated from the ideological concepts and the =system thinking= of bourgeois society.

     In the writer’s ruminations on what constitutes a successful day, he discusses the difficulties of sawing logs for his fireplace as =a complete parable, or fable?, for the success of his day= (141). He describes his problems writing in terms of startling ironic imagery, the saw, as it makes its final cuts, striking =against stone, nail, and bone all in one, and just before the finale, so to speak, the undertaking would come to grief= (142-143). Hammer (1993) reads this violent scene, and the essay series as a whole, as a =process of aesthetic self-castration in payment for a new, legitimized, subjectivity= (P19). The sawing of the log serves, indeed, as a (highly sensual, sexualized, and even masturbatory) depiction of the writing process and of the potential collapse that hovers behind the writing of the essays (and, as in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, behind all of Handke’s texts). Writing is both an analytical dismemberment a =deconstruction= in the broadest of terms--of the real self and its synthetic =rememberment= in a transformed state as a textual self. The writer claims the best way to proceed is to find the correct starting point for sawing and to begin with a =jolt= (141). The word serves as a major motif in Handke’s writing as a signal of the (violent) dislocation from everyday reality, the estranged consciousness in its radical immanence that motivates such characters as Bloch and Keuschnig and that initiates the aesthetic process for the author. The writer of the successful day essay even comments earlier on that many (readers) has objected to the =’ugliness’=(129) of this word. He discusses the even rhythm of the saw in aesthetic terms as =the ideal embodiment of his dream of disinterested pleasure= (143) and in words =one thing led to another= (142) that describe the paratactic style the essay writer uses himself (136). They also which recall both the paratactic sentences in many of the entries in Handke’s journals and those the disturbed Josef Bloch finds so calming: =One sentence yielded the next sentence. And then, and then, and then . . . For a little while it was possible to look ahead without worrying.=(Handke’s ellipsis; 60-61). The setbacks he experiences in writing from the breaking of a pencil point to touching upon issues so intensely personal, of flesh and bone as it were, that they remain incommunicable serve him, however, as a renewed occasion to reimagine/rewrite the moment into a positive experience through =a liberating act of awareness or reflection= (143), an imaginative act of therapeutic self-determination that points to the core of what has been Handke’s aesthetic program since his first experiences of reading literature in his seminary days. 

Peter Handke’s Works Cited 

=Die Geborgenheit unter der Schaedeldecke= in Als das Wuenschen noch geholfen hat. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974,  71-80. (=Safety beneath the Skull=)

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Trans. Michael Roloff. In Three By Peter Handke. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974. 5-97.

Die Hornissen. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1966. (The Hornets)

Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972. (I am an Inhabitant of the Ivory Tower)

Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972

Short Letter, Long Farewell. Trans. Ralph Manheim. In Three By Peter Handke. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.99-238.

Wunschloses Unglueck. Eine Erzaehlung. Frankfurt am Main; Suhrkamp, 1972.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. A Life Story. Trans. Ralph Manheim. In Three By Peter Handke. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974. 243-298.

Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975.

A Moment of True Feeling. Trans. Ralph Manheim. In Two Novels by Peter Handke. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977. 9-102.

Langsame Heimkehr. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979.

The Long Way Around. Trans. Ralph Manheim. In Slow Homecoming. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985. 3-137.

Die Lehre der Mont Sainte-Victoire. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980.

The Lesson of Monte Sainte-Victoire. Trans. Ralph Manheim. In Slow Homecoming. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985. 141-211.

Das Gewicht der Welt. Salzburg: Residenz, 1977.

The Weight of the World. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

Versuch ueber die Muedigkeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989.

=Essay on Tiredness.= Trans. Ralph Manheim. In The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994. 3-44.

Versuch ueber die Jukebox. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990.

=Essay on the Jukebox.= Trans. Krishna Winston. In The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994. 47-118.

Versuch ueber den geglueckten Tag. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991.

=Essay on the Successful Day.= Trans. Ralph Manheim. In The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994. 121-167.

Secondary Works Cited


    Barry, Thomas F. ==Sehnsucht nach einem Bezugssystem’: The Existential Aestheticism of Peter Handke’s Recent Fiction= in Neophilologus 68 (1984), 259-270.

    Barry, Thomas F. =Language, Self, and The Other in Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s        Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.= South Atlantic Review  51.2 (May 1986), 93-105.

    Boehme, Jacob. The Signature of All Things. London and Toronto: J. M. Dent, 1912. Reissued, Cambridge, England: James Clarke, 1969.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill, 1972.

    Becker-Cantarino,  Barbara. =Introduction.= In Peter Handke. Wunschloses Unglueck.          Edited by Barbara  Becker-Cantarino. Boston: Suhrkamp-Insel, 1985, pp. ix-xiv.

    Caviola, Hugo. =Ding-Bild-Schrift: Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming to a =Chinese’ Austria.= Modern Fiction Studies 36/3 (Autumn 1990), 381-401.

    Durzak, Manfred. Peter Handke und die deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur. Narziss auf    Abwegen. Stuttgart:1982.

    Eugenides, Jeffrey. =Introduction.= In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. A Life Story. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2002. v-xiv.

Fellinger, Raimund, Ed. Peter Handke. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985.

Firda, Richard Arthur. Peter Handke. New York: Twayne, 1993.

    Gamper, Herbert. Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenrauemen. Ein Gespraech, gefuehrt von Herbert Gamper. Zuerich: Ammann Verlag, 1987.

    Hammer, Stephanie Barbe. =On the Bull’s Horns with Peter Handke: Debates, Failures, Essays, and a Postmodern Livre de Moi.= Postmodern Culture 4/1 (September 1993). Electronic Journal.

    Hammer, Stephanie Barbe. =Just Like Eddie or As Far As a Boy Can Go: Vedder, Barthes, and Handke Dismember Mama.= Postmodern Culture 6/1 (September 1995). Electronic Journal.

Haslinger, Adolf. Peter Handke. Jugend eines Schriftstellers. Salzburg: Residenz, 1992.

    Hoesterey, Ingeborg. =Autofiction: Peter Handke’s Trilogy of Try-outs.= In The Fiction of the I: Contemporary Austrian Writers and Autobiography. Ed. Nicholas J. Meyerhofer. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1999. 47-60.

    Klinkowitz,  Jerome and Knowlton, James. The Goalie’s Journey Home: Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation. Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

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