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A son's long good-bye
About the writings of Peter Handke
(until Die Wiederholung, 1986)
ONLY A FEW, IF ANY, of those who attended the literary seminar at Princeton in 1966, probably believed in a literary future for this 23 year old Austrian newbie with a Beatles hair-cut, who had crossed the Atlantic to attack celebrities like Günter Grass, Peter Weiss and Siegfried Lenz. Peter Handke's talk about the "descriptive impotency" of literature seemed at the time to be merely a juvenile's urge for attention.
Handke's first novel, "Die Hornissen", had been published that same year, and after the visit to Princeton, his play "Publikumsbeschimpfung" ("Offending the audience", transl. Michael Roloff, London, 1971) was staged. Considering that this play belonged to the experimental scene, its success was tremendous. Handke had turned the communicative act of the stage ninety degrees, and all of a sudden, the actors were addressing the audience, they even commanded it and abused it. "These boards do not represent a world", the actors say at the beginning of the piece. Everything at the theater is just what it seems to be, the stage floor, the curtain; nothing needs interpretation. The absense of a door does not mean that this is supposed to depict some sort of "lacking door problem".
The early novels and plays all exploit this insight that language is actually the only reality literature truly may represent. Sometimes Handke combined texts in a concretist fashion, letting styles clash. For instance, he interlaced a law text with parenthetically inserted reactions from the audience - like when Lenin's or Stalin's speeches were published in the Soviet union: "thunderous applause", "amused laughter" etc.
In "Die Hornissen", a person keeps fragments of a novel stored in his memory. In such a way fiction is doubled and even self-revoking, since the reader constantly wonders what is the novel and what is the novel's novel. In "Der Hausierer" from 1967, the plot of a detective story is first outlined and later followed, the result, again, being a narrative, voluntarily abstaining from suggestive power, instead generously exhibiting its own mechanisms.
In November of 1971, Peter Handke suffered a personal loss. Maria Handke, his 51 year old mother, committed suicide. In a short letter she explained that it was "inconceivable to go on living". Only a few months later, Handkes grief after this blow resulted in a small book, "Wunschloses Unglück" ("A sorrow beyond dreams: a life story", transl. Ralph Manheim, New York, 1975). Handke shows us a both intimate and distant view of the emotional poverty that obviously prevailed in his family. Particularly his mother sustained an almost total lack of identity. The word "individual" was used as an invective only, to be "special" was to be odd.
Several critics were delighted to read a more tender, less abstract Handke, one who dared to include bluntly autobiographical material. In his book "Romane als Krankengeschichten" psychoanalyst Tilman Moser claims that Handke is fullfilling his symbiotic duty to his mother, a duty she at an early stage had delegated to him: he was to give her the identity she had lacked all of her life, posthumously through his writings. That is certainly a heavy burden for anyone to bear. In this book, it seems to me, Handke is showing us a well-embedded rage over this heritage of poverty, inhibition and unsolved problems that his mother left for him, but at the same time, there is an ambivalence, since this is the very conflict that makes him a writer. Thus, this duality is perpetually masked, now as defense of the literary aspect, now as defense of the memory of the dead.
There is an aggressive momentum already in the German title: "Wunschloses Unglück" alludes not only to complete misfortune, but also to a misfortune leaving nothing to wish for. Wolfram Mauser is on to this track when he, also from a psychoanalytical standpoint, scrutinizes Handke's work in "Der Deutschunterricht" 5/1982. He even maintains that the book in its entirety is a psychological defense - the narrator creates a person out of his collected frustrations and finally lets it stand in for his mother.
Handke used another technique for "Stunde der wahren Empfindung" 1975 ("A moment of true feeling", transl. Ralph Manheim, New York, 1977). He walked the streets, taking notes on loose scraps, which became valuable puzzle pieces when he later sat down to render the scattered inner life of Gregor Keuschnig. Keuschnig belongs to the corps diplomatique of Austria in Paris, but after a dream, where he commits a murder, he looses his foothold and lets impulse take command and lead him all over the city. He experiences "the true feeling" alternately with an inexplicable emptiness and anger. Handke's true feeling is, however, not at all kindered with the Joycean epiphany, which is an enhanced feeling for life. With Keuschnig it is but a fickle experience of being alive at all; out of a condition characterized by exclusion and unreality, suddenly a temporary contact with life is established, with both the inner and outer world, and particularly with the self, that connects those two poles.
Tilmann Moser thinks that Handke's portrait of Keuschnig is a very precise clinical description of the borderline patient's fluctuation between illusions of grandeur and an all-encompassing experience of void and worthlessness. To shape this special kind of sensibility, Handke nurtures a sort of urban superstition, similar to the magical thinking, typical of the borderline disorder; chance is charged with meaning, "secret understandings" occur all of a sudden aboard on buses etc.
"Langsame Heimkehr" 1979 ("Slow homecoming", transl. Ralph Manheim, New York, 1985) marked the beginning of a new period in Handke's writing. Now he lets nature represent mental states, with a consistency and almost religious solemnity that brings to mind Georg Büchner and his depiction of the vogesian mountain country in "Lenz". The main character Sorger is a geologist but preoccupied with "the search for forms, their distinction and description, apart from the landscape /.../ where this often painful, in between enjoyable, activity was his profession".
This is a good description of Handke's own literary project, as he explains it in the interview book "Aber Ich lebe nur von dem Zwischenräumen", published in 1987. Obviously, Handke now writes in a more and more intuitive way, he says the first sentence of the book took him three days to complete. This was, however, a necessary starting point for his account of the departure from Alaska, which was supposed to fill ten pages but grew to last for ninety. Sorger had to visit several places before he could return home. The plane had just descendend through the clouds covering Europe, when Handke suddenly realized that the book was finished.
Sometimes language is even more essential than time, in getting from one moment to another, and this goes for both Handke as author and for his characters. To "narrate" is an existential need. In several interviews Handke points out that he regards himself not as a storyteller but as reteller; the world consists of signs to write down. Many people say that you must read Handke with the eyes of a writer, but at the same time he claims that he writes like a reader.
Handke had the same sensitivity for his own text while he worked on "Die Wiederholung" 1986 ("Repetition", transl. Ralph Manheim, New York, 1988). He thought of it as completed many times, but then decided to go on. The narrator, Filip Kobal, of Slovenian origin like Handke, grew up in a small village in Kärnten in the south of Austria. Here he remembers a journey he made in the early 60's, when he was 20 years old and crossed the border to Yugoslavia in search for his brother, who had disappeared many years earlier.
Handke is fascinated by the expression "being conspicuous by one's absence". In the Kobal family the brother gains a remarkable presence through his constantly awaited return. The disappeared brother is a void that Filip may fill with projections and expectations ad libitum. Every time he needs calm and strength, he evokes the inner image of his brother, and this happens frequently, since the misery of the Kobalian household is almost parodic; the father always angry and grumbling, the mother sick and the sister distracted.
One recognizes biographical data from earlier books, although certain facts have been altered (the brother, for instance, seems to be a portrait of Handke's maternal uncle). Linguistically, Filip is split in his identification between his father's German and his brother's Slovenian. This probably also represents the ambivalence Handke feels himself, when it comes to the German language, which, in the words of George Steiner, "created, organized and exculpated Belsen". Already the lack of a passive voice in Slovienian is something the young Kobal regards as hopeful for the future.
Kobal is also travelling the strange karst land of northern Yugoslavia, a world of subterranean torrents, caves and dripstones. The story almost loses its steerage-way at times here, and the reader's patience is severely tried. This novel is not one of Handke's best, although there are some very fascinating passages, e.g. the brother's annotations about how to graft different brands of apple trees, or the account of the Slovenian dictionary, which almost turns into a philosophical tract, yet with an unusual poetry budding out of the very raw material of language.
Those mystical, implicit understandings appear in this book too. First there is a servant, whose unbroken attention and incessant care become subject to Filip's adoration: "Once he stood in the night, in the unfurnished, empty room, stock still, gazing ahead, then he stepped forward, up to a remote niche, where he executed a small tender twist on the decanter, so that the entire house was filled with hospitality."
At an outdoor party an unsuspecting girl arouses Filip's admiration, and while the table cloth gets colored more and more deeply red by falling mulberries, he "marries" her in his fantasy, without one word being uttered.
"Slow homecoming" is the first novel where Handke addresses his main characters, he even sometimes turns to the narrative itself: "Oh story, /.../ grant us grace." Sometimes Handke's style is archaic, his intonation adopts to that of the fairy tale. This tendency is even more apparent in his next novel, "Die Abwesenheit", 1987 ("Absence", transl. Ralph Manheim, New York, 1990). Handke looks upon himself as a reteller. Maybe this could explain his urge towards pastiche.
Finally: The more glimpses you get from Handke's own biography, the more you understand of the apparently empty and formalistic experiments in his early plays and poems. Maybe they depict the childs lack of a functioning language within an aggressive adult world that is permeated by ambiguous messages and humiliation. If you read for instance "Publikumsbeschimpfung" as a family drama, where the grown-ups command the children in the same way as the actors try to control even how the audience is breathing, then almost every line becomes unbearably ambiguous and upsetting.
Too bold as it may sound, I still would like to introduce an even more specific reading. Should it not be substantiated in Handke's own biography, it is nevertheless an interesting angle that casts a different light on the bulk of Handke's Žuvre. Publikumsbeschimpfung" and several other works, or parts of works, need not be interpreted as just any family drama, but as precisely that scolding which children most likely are subject to after having witnessed the Freudian primal scene; their parents having sexual intercourse.
Try to read Handke's books again with this in mind! Almost every closed room might be a bedroom, almost every enigma or unsolved problem could be connected with the mystery of one's own conception, which happened during such a primal scene. The goalie, Bruno, Keuchnig, Sorger and all the others - surely they were all witnesses!
In retrospect Handke's literary production through the years stand out as remarkably consistent, not to say persistent, and he spent the greater part of the 70's and 80's trying to define an independent role for his writing, outside of his dead mother's jurisdiction.
Her short suicide note certainly resulted in a long literary good-bye for him.
This article is © Copyright Karl-Erik Tallmo, 1988, 1994