A SURFEIT OF HANDKE FOR DAVID SHIELD’S REALITY HUNGER
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Dear David Shields,
a while back I had planned to do a critique of your REALITY HUNGER... an intention re-elicited by your recent claims as to have sacrificed your life for art! Whatever validity of that claim aside its noticeability, I instead take a positive illustrative approach “on what in READING is REAL and how a writer might make writing realer for the reader.” – The world of reading, after all, anyhow of novels, is a world unto itself, and if it affects the world outside the world of reading, as it can, does so indirectly in unpredictable ways.
For direct affect other ways of writing would seem more effective, vide THE COM-MUNIST MANIFESTO.
You may recall that we fell into a conversation these years ago on your saying what a great metaphor Handke’s GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK is. At the time I failed to point out that at the end of the book - Bloch back in goal - all anxiety has ceased! That objective to overcome, to still anxiety was, became I suppose a discovery of Handke’s during his adolescent piano-like practicing of writing – “I am so excited yet everything I write then is so calm.” - and, once achieved, became addictive, and became one of the driving sources of the well-honed genius’s art, a genius whose every sense is at least ten times more sensitive than that of the ordinary hunting dog. And one, one of his many sources of confidence. - In his 1971 – 1976 diary WEIGHT OF THE WORLD Handke notes his 4 year old daughter saying “daddy, you’re writing again.”
I will not go into the reason why Handke as of a very young age was so anxious as to feel he could proclaim, at the time of his first major public appearance, at the Gruppe 47 meeting in Princeton, in May 1966, that he was “the new Kafka” – on top of the Empire State Building, to German T.V., and to my friend Ted Theodore J. Ziolkowski, a Hesse specialist teaching at the university; but it certainly was the case, and for the best of traumatic reasons. Meanwhile – 20 plays half a dozen screenplays and several dozen prose volumes later we think of our self as Goethe redivivus, and much as I hate to admit it, there is something to that too. It’s not a case of mad vanity! And there is more, see anon.
To write Goalie Handke first studied the linguistic components of what is called paranoid schizophrenia – and if you really read the first page or so of that book, its grammatical sleight of hand will put you into the state of mind in which Bloch becomes so thoroughly discombobulated, and then a murderer at another moment of confusions – bubbles of water on the hotplates like scurrying ants is the image.  It is a form of disassociation – however, things can happen in such states, unlettered impulses break through. The book then proceeds, also using phenomenological narrative procedures.
Goalie was preceded by an even more ambitious attempt for consciousness to deal with a far more generalized form of anxiety, DER HAUSIER / The Panhandler (which exists in the Romance languages in the event that you don’t have German, and which gets pretty close to the original bloody and brutal source of terror); lots of Handke of that period - Radio Play I and many of the poems in Innerworld - perform the same stilling of anxiety, of creating a still point. (Did Handke want to be “the surrogate” in the sense that Freud felt some artists did? Well, he certainly was in the first series of plays he wrote.) - I analyzed one of the poems that achieved a stilling of anxiety, at considerable length.
Handke finds a phenomenological equivalent of an interior state and then linguistically alters it and, and, as a consequence, the reader’s consciousness is altered” – is the kind of Aristotelian plainness with which one could describe Handke’s endeavors - from comparatively simple beginnings to powerfully sustained – the 100 pages of the end of his CROSSING THE SIERRA DEL GREDOS, a climb and descent the likes of which has never before made for what many regards as the greatest ending of any novel ever.
But as you then told me, repeatedly, you are not interested in Handke any more. Yet you write a big grab bag Reality Hunger!
Subsequent to Goalie Handke went on to provide a wealth of technical innovations that modernize the great – in the widest sense of the terms - realistic tradition, some of which I will address here – but as you wrote me several times, you “are not interested in Handke” ….
Yet you profess “Reality Hunger”! Are you aware that you have actually disqualified yourself?
I agree with your lack of interest in the instance of some of other writers whose name cropped up, although I always allow that I may not have read enough of their work, and other reasons.
I wrote the pre-amble to indicate the linguistic and grammatical level which Handke was able to access and use as a writer as of an early age, the play Kaspar is yet another example of his understanding of language, equal to Noam Chomsky’s at that time. I also wrote the preceding to indicate my then surprise at your expressed lack of interest in the rake’s progress. With the 10 k text of The Hour We Knew of Each Other – one of the great texts of German 20th century literature, comparable to Heiner Mueller’s Quartett – Handke then comprises all his plays from the 1965 Prophecy to the 1971 The Ride Across Lake Constance, say as Bach’s The Art of the Fugue comprises, and on a higher level. When you read the text it is as though your syntax had been taken by its braid (am Schopf!) and is not let go until you have been scalped!; its performance has a cathartic, a cleansing effect on the audience. It is such a piece of virtuosity that everybody else can basically go home. But you are not interested and editors in the U.S. now assign swine such as J. L.Marcus, Michael McDonald, Neil Gordon, David Siegal as reviewers of his work – initially there were some interesting intelligent noises made by the liked of Richard Gilman, Michael Wood. These have become rare, . Things HAVE gotten worse.
I myself don’t much care for Handke personally, he can be humorless as only a German can be humorless, and at least at one time gratuitously injured those closest to him, a pasha! I appreciate the “wound he writes out of”, the joy he takes in writing so well conveys itself, at least to me. The only way I can maintain credibility is to be critical also of the work when it is problematic. For example, much that I find extraordinary in the forthcoming Spring 1914 Moravian Night, that fellow Handke translator Scott Abbott and I will discuss on line yet my first take on it was quite critical of several aspects. [See links in the Notes] In other instances – too numerous to mention! I am left beyond quibbling… which is saying something for one the caption on whose yearbook photo read “born to be critical!”
Mine of course must seem like one of the more unusual forms of obsession. It is not really. I have always taken an exhaustive approach to individual authors, going back to the days of Karl May. Handke just happens to be the most interesting all around, and I have had the time in the past nearly 30 years to focus on his many aspects.
Here, however, I merely – merely! - want to point out some of the linguistic achievements of his, of a technical nature in the field of prose that enhance readers’ sense of reality of what is evoked in their minds - I am not the only one to experience his texts – Handke creates experiences par excellence, Happenings, and not only in the theater, not only there do some of his work have a cathartic, that is cleansing effect – but, using GOALIE for an example I wanted to point out how deeply in language and in its grammatical functioning Handke is engaged at that point and possibly just mentioning as much indicates that good old American naturalism will not do the trick, and perhaps a lot of people ought not to even claim that they are writing novels, and what I will try to show is how that being so deeply inside the world of language afforded Handke certain unusual opportunities in narrative prose.
I ventured a while back to do a psychoanalysis of reading, in two parts
and this attempt here represent a more practical, less theoretical approach to the same subject and of course I use the work of my subject of interest to illustrate my case. - But let me step back even further.
I myself started to read on the same magic pad that Freud refers to in his famous piece on the extraordinary event he had on the Acropolis (part I of the above provides that account) and have made it part of my self-analytic memoir novel SCREEN MEMORIES, IDYLLIC -?- YEARS. The chief continuing feature of the current material manifestation on which what I am writing is being composed is the on-going sheer “magic” of, initially, letters, and then words for objects arising as it were “ex nihilo”, a matter that has made me comfortable, nay has proved attractive now that we have computer screens where words appear… perhaps not quite that ex nihilo. But leave it for the magic to disappear with over-usage.
At any event, the first thing that can be said to be real is the paper or the screen on which symbols can appear; the ink, pencil marks or their electronic equivalent, too, are indisputably so. As are the eyes – unless gone dead - needed to take in the symbols however they manifest themselves, in the form of ideograms, in cunei-form or in various kinds of lettering – sound eyes, not too many cataracts, squints etc. And of course there needs to be something that we call a mind and the mind needs to be taught to be able to decipher, which as we eventually realize means that our interpretations may just be ours and no one else’s; that is, that to a lesser or greater degree what we read, what is evoked in us, is a projection. Communal responses thus are reassuring, we may be mad in what we read but at least we are not alone.
A few examples.
There is MICHI in Kroetz’s Michi’s Blood spelling out what she reads, one slow word after the other “X w r o t e m e t h i s l e t t e r.” – The momentousness of someone contacting the retarded girl in the solitude of her being!
There is the fairly rapid inuration to the kind of language you find in the great majority of newspapers – receptacles for dead and deadening prose - which then allows for, nearly demands speed reading, skimming. - You cannot speed read Handke since every sentence of his is an event, every sentence starts to breathe, say, as of The Repetition (1986), a book I regard on the level of Stendahl’s two great novels. Real writers have a breath – now and then it goes dead, sometimes just for a few pages, but a real reader notices.
The Repetition is a transformative book, it makes the reader into the kind of “King of Slowness” that Handke became during its writing. It is infused with his self, there is a self to infuse. Handke is 44 years old, our genius has an impressive past, and an even more impressive future.
– Just the other day I happened on a review by one of the few regular reviewers whose work I respect, James Wood writing about Rachel Kushner in the New Yorker, a pretty writer, Americans like writers who write prettily unthreateningly
and it struck me that he was, for a change, flailing away in trying to show that he liked her work – he too used the word “real” and “reality” frequently, as in mixing the “real” with the “invented” – which implies that he knows the difference – but how? Only via newspapers. Once the newspaper memories die there remains the fabulous, and several great instances among novels of the past 50 + years are Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum – the first half – and Gabriel Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude – and the manner in which they are fabulous does not depend on referentiality to that kind of newspaper real, but, especially Grass’s Tin Drum and his novella Cat & Mouse on the kind of transformation that transpires in the story teller as Walter Benjamin describes in his essay on the Russian fairy tale writer Leskov – “Whiling away time is the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience." Handke achieves the fabulous in a different manner… The concept for an experience appears to come alive in him, it is gradually birthed, left behind of the experience is what Benjamin calls “the death mask.” Another way of putting it is to say that something – an imaginary, a project appears as an “As If” … and is then realized. Thus, Handke’s calling some of his long narrative fables, and forward-date, by a few decades, creating a rather simple-minded plus-cum-perfect, seems to me to indicate that his trust in his one beautiful sentence after a breathing sentence – his aesthetic manner of proceeding - is shaky! Yet, since some of Handke’s prose works, especially the longer ones – which have not gone through the transformative imagination - so autobiographically based - overlaps with historical reportage it is not possible to make sharp demarcations between genres – you notice the point I am granting you!
Of course there exists the possibility that Handke is unaware of the deeply mind-altering effect, or of some, of his work the reasons for which, many of them technical, I will elaborate below
There is the kind of reading that you do as a literary scholar, many times the same text, there is the kind of reading I started to do during the non-literary the psychoanalytic approach to Handke, a detective’s twelve beagles on the watch for his thirteen telltale foxes – not such a hard job in the case of an exhibitionist, and so much information that you might think you might not be missing anything. There is the kind of Talmudic reading you might do if you have had thorough exposure to Gadamer’s Truth and Method – interpret interpret interpret. There is the kind of reading you do as a translator that gives you the idea that maybe you ought not to make any kind of judgment about texts or writers until you had translated a good hunk of their work. But first off comes reading as experience if the work provides an experience.
However, what you, David Shields appear to have in mind is how REAL, the REALITY that the symbols create once they have entered our minds impresses itself; fatigue with certain kinds of procedures. I don’t know, maybe you ought to move to Austria for a while, Handke is not their only star, or read some of the other wonders that Ariadne Press has made available in translation, for your screed strikes me as horrendously, typically Norte Americano insular.
And it is there, on that level, the how of the way you read that the changes that Handke has introduced into the classical style effect/ affect the degree of the real. And not, say, in the amusing manner in which Tom Wolfe managed to mimic the experience of an acid trip, all those wonderful American superficial comic book tricks!
Let me address another writer and one of his books that we discussed, a writer whose artistry is less demanding, but perhaps more pertinent to your concerns, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.
I met Frank at the first day at Haverford, Freshman year 1954, and the first thing he told me was that he was going to be a writer. During his four years he wrote a number of stories that were published in the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Review and during his Junior Year visiting writer Elizabeth Bowen made sure he became the recipient of one of the then famous $ 100 Knopf advances that tied the possible future major leaguer to that house.
In 1962 or thereabouts Frank completed a novel, about a religious, of which even I, still his closest friend, would not run a single chapter in a literary magazine I had at the time. A few years later, around the time of the birth of his first son, Frank started to write Stop-Time, and I saw chapter after chapter as it was being written, and helped a few of them to get published. Even before publication, advance praise was starting to go to Frank’s head, and it would be 18 years before he published Midair, which not only contained several pieces quite self-critical of his life-style subsequent to the publication of Stop-Time, but also a number of extremely well-crafted and forally ambitious longer stories, the title story among them, that showed that Frank had now become a real writer – not just what is now called “memoirist” - where, in Stop-Time, since he had such talent, also as a musician, he accessed the flow of memory, as truthfully as he could best as I was aware. Slowly, one slow sentence after the other, by pencil. Truthful condensations of that kind demand not just a conscience but the luck of grasp and succinctness – after all, he was not taking the Proustian route where each and every little detail becomes enshrined; Conroy manifests the resolve of editing. The self-critical pieces in Mid-Air - as compared to the longer deliberately composed ones, such as the one about the death of his mother - still strike me as rather rudimentary – and when I saw Frank last, in 1986 in Washington, D.C., I found his memory of the period 1966 to 1971, when he moved to Nantucket, to be quite deficient. Whereas recollections of growing up and childhood were not edited with self-image in mind, that factor, however, seemed to play a role for the later period. – Handke, who is not an especially psychological-minded writer either in his Yoknapawtawka exhibit of his self for the sake of teaching the world the ways of the word, in his 2007 Moravian Night finally allows – there are other indirect funny descriptions of what a little monster was as a child and adolescent - a lover to mention that he is a “mama’s boy” – both Handke and Conroy and many good writers like them are their mother’s favored sons. Philip Roth! Their mothers infused them with love, they infuse the act of writing, the word with it.
At about the time that Conroy became head of the Iowa writer’s workshop, he began what was meant to be a big fat major novel, Body and Soul, another musical title, which, however, the first four fifth, although superficially autobiographical, but oh so superficial - turned out to be a pile of dead dog bones if ever there was! As they saying went “a dog of a book” and the piles of green books went back to the publisher. Body and Soul was not written slow sentence by sentence, it is written to be big and fat and make an impression, as wobbly as the tub of jelly as Frank himself looked at the time, drenched, bulked up with lousy dialogue, except for its last fifth… there he starts to boogie and it becomes one of the more amazing piece of writing, especially so unexpectedly because of the preceding dogginess… that final fifth testifying to our mutual friend Wilfred Sheed’s once comment that Frank loved himself more than anyone else. Yet it’s wonderful to see it express itself like that, the way he was at the piano.
Frank’s last book, Of Time and Tide, about Nantucket, I think is his best and is so for the manner in which he completed the island – he went there first during our sophomore year, and then he and his wife built a house, into which he moved after his she had kicked him out in New York when success had ruined his life for a while; he had come to know the island as well as his self – and it is the one instance where there is interesting overlap with the Handke who roots his Assayings, as I call his Versuche – On Tiredness, the Jukebox, The Day that Went Well, and in 2012 On the Quiet Place – but also other longer books and novellas, in a particular place that then becomes part of his self and the telling. My Year in the Noman’s Bay and the forest of Chaville on the outskirts of Paris.
In nuce, talent, a self, time, the manner in which conscience handles language, these are matters that, best as I can tell, are the most important.
Before enumerating these innovations and what they do to a reader let me give a brief account of my Handke reading experiences.
1-there was the experiencing his first nearly dozen plays and Innerworld-
A lot of fun, and I realized quickly that the bastard child was a true genius.
2-I didn’t really understand while translating Goalie how the book arose out of language. Only subsequently… I imagine it would have been a better translation if I had.
3-My stupendous experience with the first chapter of A Slow Homecoming I expect is unique to someone who has spent nigh a year in the interior of Alaska, who has dozens of great anecdotes which he recounts, but who is haunted by having been unable to articulate the inarticulatability of the experience as a whole… it was just too immense the immensity of it. Thus the Handke seismograph’s sensitivity to the landscape forms…
4-I have cited my experience with The Repetition – absent that experience I doubt I would have set out on this 25 year plus trek – I have friends and acquaintances who have become disgusting groupies because of that book and then written extraordinary books about their experience.
5-Probably the most major of these experiences was translating Handke’s richest work, the dramatic poem, Walk About the Villages at about the stage of a complete regression, all defenses down, during a pycho-analysis. The abov4e link has part of that experience as does my postscript to its Ariadne Books edition. – The experience can probably not be duplicated – at any event, I would not recommend it, no one in the world nothing but a text with the shrink off on an extended X-mas vacation, and shouting out th great text over and over. I got a hint of a few things at that time, and the text came out very cutting for voice. That is audible, at least it was to the original author.
Currently there is the ongoing experience of reading a 70 year old author writing some of his best work and exuding the joy of writing at such a level.
The various effects that Handke’s works, both in prose and drama have is kinesthetic. The Repetition alters the reader’s sense of time; Absence for being experienced as a film constitutes for my money the most profound alteration that Handke has introduced into the reading experience – this method is used more subtly in Crossing the Sierra del Gredos where the heroine, a former actress and bankieress, rich in experience, notices that as she records what she experiences as though she were acting in a film, a species of self-consciousness that then alters the reader’s consciousness by making them more attentive, precise in their noticing. In One Dark Night I left my Silent House the protagonist for a stretch narrates what is occurring in dream syntax, a matter that I noticed Handke doing first in a sequence in The Afternoon of a Writer where the writer transposes his woundedness after running the gauntlet of Salzburg gossip (entirely justified if I know my rake!) by seeing himself as a hit and run victim, a woman, tossed into the bushes in the ditch – an instance where this procedure meshes with metaphoric expressiveness; Storm Still (2010) and for once quickly available in translation (Swallow Press, U. of Chicago distributor), is a drama that can be read as a novel or vice versa – the title derives from a line in The Tempest as is appropriate for a writer, especially as a playwright, who is at least a quarter cut of the trunk of William Shakespeare – and whose origins in a village cottage – Keuschnig means Cottage - might change Freud’s opinion that Shakespeare had to derive from the educated classes. Lots of factors had to come into play to produce a productive genius like the Count von und zu Griffen! And not all of them can be regarded as admirable. As a writer he is of a different order and kind and one of these days a larger group, at least of writers, in this country or at least a few more of them than now will catch on and learn from him. In two of his other novels, both of which are being translated, Moravian Night (2007) and The Great Fall (2011) the variety of techniques and language knowledge that I tried to outline come together to… to manifest one of the… great Romanciers! And all it takes to disprove everything you say in Reality Hunger is a single one of those horn-billed woodpeckers!
For the overarching website with its Discussion, Watch, Trivia, Revista-of-Reviews, Yugoslavia, Scholar and Drama blogs
Handke’s drama see
The catastrophic reception see
It ought to go without saying that books of prose of the length of My Year in the No-Man’s Bay and Crossing the Sierra del Gredos or Moravian Night – will afford opportunity for criticism – but it never it has never come to that kind of considered criticism in this country.
The forth-coming Spring 2014 Moravian Night online discussion
1) About 20 year ago I tried to see if I could duplicate Handke’s grammatical sleight of hand, it took about a week. I thought of a time that I had been especially dissociated – jetlag, disorientation, the counting mechanism off, alienated and anxious. Torrejon Air Force Base April 1968, my mother was dying of cancer, the nurses’ husbands were practicing bombing runs over the mesas, the assassination of Martin Luther King, I noticed the headlines on the Stars & Stripes as this early bird stood behind a black seargent in the chow line. “Everything will burn” flashed through my mind. The endless death of liver cancer. - I managed the attempt, but have not completed the novella yet.
2) It occurred to me that David Shields may have other peculiar senses of unreality in mind. I recall that in 1955 the fine Kantian Professor Foss who taught the philosophy class – father of Lukas and Olivier -came to the philosopher Vaihinger and the “Philosophy of the As If” – and how shocked he was when the class, to a man, seemed to have found a philosophy that described their state of mind! The falseness of the 50s was beginning to break apart at as idyllic a spot as Haverford College. Now we have the falseness of near absolute continuity between the regime of GB Bush and Obama’s 9 out of ten broken promises, a continuing economic debacle, a new one just about every week, the Potemkin Village that is the US of A.