Mistakes by others that highlight equivalent errors of our own precipitate a moral disappointment that permits us to assume the strict and noble stance of both judge and victim and gives rise to an inner state of moral euphoria. This euphoria distances us swiftly and surely from the process of personal moral perfection and makes of us terrible and merciless and even bloodthirsty judges.
Ivo Andric, Signs by the Wayside
Dear Professor Durantaye,
Imagine this Handke specialist’s surprise on coming on your piece on my subject in the London Review. What moral fortitude you show in giving the Griffen kid yet another really good spanking for having truck with those Serbians! You and the editors of the LRB appear to take it for granted that Handke, as defender of the Serbs against exclusive culpability lover and as acquaintance of Milosevic, is eo ipso part of a list of criminals such as Hitler, Handke, Hirohito, Huftnagel, etc. on which all and one agree! And so I congratulate you for being truly antediluvian yet fresh and original in your approach for writing under the voluntary aegis of no less than the great immoraliste Jonathan Littell! On discovering that you are a professor, and a full one at that! Who supplied the Botox?!
“Peter Handke began his career insulting his audience,” you begin your piece, and have it wrong from day one! Peter Handke uses musically arranged insults at the end as bait to have an Haydn-like “Surprise Symphony. Einen Witz will er sich machen! Public Insult as I now call a piece I would have preferred to call Abusing the Audience, like The Ride Across Lake Constance (which instead of telling the audience what being in the theater of life is like, destroys - in the course of two hours - its categories of experiencing, and in Constance, by means of Witttgenstein’s, it so happens, Socratic querying, or in The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other – talking about programmatic titles! – via a continuous change of imagery - mesmerizes the audience into a cathartic, paradisiacal state.) That is the activist theater of formalist happenings! I conducted the first itinerant rehearsed readings of Insult of my translation in New York around 1969 and an analyst at the Goethe House reading accurately commented that the audience had received several hundred dollars worth of consciousness raising. What the so exposed then does with its consciousness scrambled or exquisitely catharted – I don’t know it’s supposed to be healthy and so other good things might come of it, individually and for society.
Then Your Ignorance proceeds: “Thirty years later, after he took up the cause of Serbian independence, condemned NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, compared the Serbs to Jews under the Third Reich, doubted the authenticity of reports of massacres in Srebrenica… and gave a eulogy before a crowd of 20,000 at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral… Alain Finkielkraut called him an ‘ideological monster’, Salman Rushdie nominated him ‘International Moron of the Year’ for 1999. Susan Sontag said that there were many many people who would never pick up one of his books again…” etc.
Where have you been since 1994 or 1999, the first two comings of the Handke wars that paralleled the famous disintegration, worse than our banana slugs in the Great Northwest, under what rock? Are you still wearing the little pigtail braids of the righteously outraged busybodies? Because you sound just like the ignorant prêt a porter human rights hyenas of those days - Sontag, Fienkelkraut, et al - who ganged up on Handke for not chiming in the anti-Serbian hue and cry of that time, the progeny of an imperium that killed more people, overthrew and destabilized more governments, was allied with more of “our s.o.bs” than any other in the past sixty years; thus these saintly people might have busied their inwits with outrages closer to home (or homeS since the outraged number so many Frogs and Heinies amongst them) but whom I at least grant the authenticity of their then ignorance, and impulsiveness, their equivocating if they equivocated, of their being propagandized (although intellectuals of course ought to be least of all), especially the Satanic Verses fellow, whose European book tour the controversy and the war interrupted and displaced, might of course have been more immediately reflective, also of knowing beans about Yugoslavia. For Handke, though half-Slovenian, knew that bailiwick inside out as the reading of certain texts of his might have informed his alleged readers even then – that very great multifaceted portrait of an artist in situ, the 1993 My Year in the Noman’s Bay that has some lovely sections set in Yugoland; or the 1991 Abschied des Traeumers vom Neunten Land that disagrees in the gentlest way with Slovenian, the land of peace’s. severance from the Federation; or the 1986 The Repetition, the fulfilment of the promise that ends Sorrow Beyond Dreams, to get back to all of that once more, and which traverses large stretches of the then still Federated Slovenia.
All I can grant YOU, I’m sorry to say, is the cowardice of piling on! You are a camp follower, you are the most bedraggled of jackals, you pile on a corpse that has been squashed by a dozens just like you, and I hope the name Durantaye will be used as a verb to signify this kind of piling on - to durantaye, and the efficiency of the genius of the tongue will abbreviate it to “to drunt” and rhyme it with grunt - after all the other jackals are on top, the last of the jackals drunts on top! –
Handke manifests a nice and hard-won sense of humor about himself in the 2007 Moravian Night
which plays, whenever it is read, twenty years so the text alleges subsequent to the reader’s time, and there Handke has the writer, someone very much like himself, on his last round-about, near the end, and someone very much like Ramsay Clark, whom Handke met in Scheveningen during his observance of the Yugoslav trials, STILL demand justice for Serbia… that is, for all eternity. If I were to film that scene I’d add have that twosome not only sit in one of those Dolminen, those lime-stone depressions fit for any rabbit’s good and safe nite’s sleep, in Slovenia but add the camel from Road to Moroccoo that alternately kisses Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with the two-some keep looking at each other in surprise. Oh what a reader the “drunt” is!
Much time has passed and we now know that Handke was by no means as wrong as he was made out to be in the matter of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. However, as far as I am concerned we are all wrong, simply for knowing too little (Thus the conclusion that the two directors reach in his Voyage by Dugout, that it is too soon to make the final film about the Yugoslav events), no matter how much we know, and so the degree to which Handke’s first hand appraisals and the statements he based on them are at least justified ought in fact to matter and not be held against him. Of course he could have gone about his defense differently once he had had his many look-arounds, a Habermas or even someone like David Brooks speaking their kinds of sociologeeze probably would have been more immediately understood. That was not to be expected of someone as highly observant and linguistic as adverse to cliché and platitude as Handke for whom the entirety of Yugoslavia was evidently something of a heart-throb. He certainly was right about the way the all-around propaganda was conducted (say Roger Cohen in the NY Times Magazine making the big bad wolf of Pogarevic responsible for each single domicile that was burned during those days!), and the neo-liberal and fascist impulses that led to the disintegration. The NY Times did not let up until Steve Erlanger became Belgrade bureau chief.
Handke had noticed Yugoslavia getting colder well before the outbreak of warfare (see the diary volume Am Felsfenster, Morgens), ethnic tribal conflict was brewing, especially of course from Croatian nationalists, had been for years, and the Kosovo Albanians. Comparatively ancient vengeances of all kinds became “hot spots” again. The federation did not hold.
You, you lazy ignoramus, write "After the facts about the massacres in Srebrenica and elsewhere became clear, he kept calling them the ‘so-called facts’” and are typically unaware of Handke's awareness of his own ever so human tendency for denial (in Justice for Serbia Handke mentions his wife’s saying “and you are going to question Srebrenica too,” is how he handles that matter, or about the murdered bodies floating by, Handke, typically laconic, mentions how he then skipped stones angrily across the water of the river,(in Journey to the Rivers, Justice for Serbia) or in the 1999 Unter Traenen Fragend he merely mentions the “well known Yugoslav tank communism”. And independent operators like Arkan. In SOMMERLICHER NACHTRAG (1994) he has himself theatrically exclaiming at the sight of Srebrenica, over and over "I don't want to be a Serb." (Not that anyone but he himself had asked him to be, but - it turns out - his preference of that kind of confederation over the European/ NATO Union, that disposition, may very well have its origin in his beloved Slovenian grandfather voting for the First Yugoslav Federation in 1919, and the Serbs were the keepers of the Confederation) Ultimately, Handke stated that of course Srebrenica was the worst violation in Europe since WW II; and published Die Tablas des Damiel (2007) which gives a proper account of the controversy from his point of view and which you of course have read! What slovenly totally lazy non-work on your part who claim to realize how precisely Handke writes! And the great play Voyage by Dugout that he got of the experience is in English! Oh the things a professor might have learned reading!
The violations in Yugoslavia were mutual and committed by certain parties on all sides, and incrementally increased, war is war and is a crime as such, certainly Milosevic did not start the conflagration, although Serbia next to Croatia then had the most powerful army, neither tribe had great love of the converted. Moreover there was U.S. interference in, typically, supplying the fascists, the Croatians and KLA, with arms, and the Bosniaks with left-over Mujahidin from Afghanistan. Much and as long as I have delved into that complicated disintegration that has left so many refugees of all kinds and unsolved statuses, I have not read anything that successfully describes the asymmetrical dimensionality of those conflicts, of near-eastern discombobulation. The NATO expansion eastward - it constitutes a breach of the agreement between Gorbachev and G.H. Bush - evidently played a role, and perhaps more ancient Reconquista of Slavic lands impulses going back to the age of the Carolingians. However, blaming I don’t think will foster understanding. McFarlane I recall found Bakir Izetbegović the most impossible of the three major leaders, Tjudmann was never brought to trial.
You have not read one of the finest reportages ever written – perhaps since Handke kept being accused of merely writing travelogue he put himself down in the Kosovo for a time and composed The Cuckoos of Velica Hoca (2009).
There isn’t a writer in English capable of the like. Whom do we have? The crude and simple-minded George Packer! Your bio claims a specialty in German, no? And be sure to read Professor Hans Hoellers magnificent essay on Velica Hoca! I have it in PDF form.
Of all this you are unaware, you typically are not only unfamiliar with Handke’s writing on that subject, but of several major books such as Professor Fabjian Haffner’s on the subject of Handke and Yugoslavia [Head of the Musil Institute in Klagenfurt], or of Lothar Struck’s Der und sein Jugoslavien that covers the controversy from A through Z, available as an e-book, and of my http://handke-yugo.blogspot.com/ where you would find a host of material to either set you straight or at least set you to puzzling instead of piling on with all that typically righteous all-American certainty and wishes to kill. Ah, to be as Manichean as Robert Lytell! Not that Handke’s equivocal relationship to power -since his initial prominence in the late 60s- and to the powerful – frequent expressions of disgust yet frequent truck stops – is not puzzling to say the least. Yet it is within a European tradition. Handke also met Karadzic during one of those trips as Malte Herwig found out, in company of his Suhrkamp editor Raimund Fellinger and his ZZ Tops! We have a pretty good account of what transpired during the conversation and of Handke’s reasoning for these kinds of meetings and his trust in his own senses over newspaper reports
Although I find Malte Herwig’s fine shoe leather biography severely deficient for its lack of insight into Handke’s literary works, in the matter of affording the like into Handke’s Yugoslav endeavors and his close friends thoughts about these matters it is essential reading – but you remain innocent of interests of that kind and pull out Robert Lytell’s’ blind and ignorant Manichean cudgel.
Your miserable piece – and your miserable editor(s) in allowing it - comes on the heels of 20 years of the shoddiest writing on the subject and on Handke in general by the likes of J.L. Marcus in the NYRB
Of Michael McDonald in the American Scholar,
of Neil Gordon the in the NY Times.
And an endless list of the laziest of copy cats of lies and the sleaziest of readings. We are in the world of the darkest of dark ages! Oh the horrors revealed by a decades-long single-minded focus on Handke
(and the few great pleasures of some fine scholarship!) A single solitary American review during that period by a peer of his, William Gass.
The now historical near uniform attack by American and French innelectuals (G.H. Bush) on the Serbs and then on their sole truly prominent defender proved to me that intellectuals are as easily propagandized as the rest of the sheeples, that all they do is watch t.v. and gossip, that editors of left publications as well as right wing publications at the time ganged up uniformly for once! Oh what an abattoir on the right it was! The most grotesque being the self-congratulatary comparison of the engagement against Milosevic and the Serbs to the pro-Rebulican efforts during the Spanish Civil war. If I started to wretch I would never stop and you know what that leads to!
Yet as may surprise you in light of the foregoing, I had no particular reason to come to the defense of the fellow whose work had become very important to me. When the controversy irrupted in 1994 I had for three years retreated into a rural idyll in Mexico and my Handke project, then seven years old and well advanced in some respects (nearly completed what turned out to be an initial version of a psychoanalytic monograph
[dem handke auf die schliche/besuch auf dem Moenchsberg, a book of mine about Handke]
for what from early on was not all that uncomplicated a relationship between two people whom Innocent III is not about to propose for sainthood!
I didn’t mind that abrogation at all, let the devil stay in Miss Jones, I had had enough of dark people in New York, not that Handke's dark side played into his Yugoslav engagement. The beaten, longtime ex-girlfriend Marie Colbin, chimed in during those days
yet despite her stinging piece, continued to perform Handke texts, but haunts the stung writer even in his 2007 Moravian Night which also contain a dreadful - if one of Handke’s typically brilliant series - misrepresentation of what led to the beating, guilty overkill!. Handke does lie as she says, badly, not just poetically, though there are only poetic truths – he lies I would say when bereft of self-understanding, when he is obviously guilty as in A Child’s Story. Spend some time with Handke and daughter Amina in the 70s and read A Child’s Story to make acquaintance with profound levels of unawareness. Subsequently Handke then felt guilty for having been a miserable father and became an utterly indulgent one to his second daughter, Leocadie, vide Lucie in the Woods with the Thingamajigs as which I would translate as which I would translate the delightful Lucie in dem Wald mit den Dingsbums. He lied - perhaps not all that gratuitously - at the end of Sorrow Beyond Dreams where he claims that his real father during their post-graduation jaunt was allegedly fearful that the twosome might be regarded as a gay couple. Well, according to Malte Herwig’s discoveries there was no such trip, but inventing it and hurting his real father in this fashion perhaps only expresses Handke’s homophobia. And Handke said after he had written Sorrow that he felt like lying again a little, apparently having already forgotten that he just had! And if you delve into the reasons for the mother’s suicide as these trickle out over the years, it was the prospect of the return of her husband Bruno from a T.B. sanatorium that effected the decision – no one in the Handke/ Sivec clan in very rural benighted Griffen appears to have heard of separation and divorce, Handke himself was ever so fortunate to have been picked by a priest to enter a seminary and escape that hidebound world. And ever so fortunate that the entire family including the apparently monstrous all-around hated stepfather appear to have realized from early on that the kid was something extra special and afforded him The luxury of behaving like a little dictator from early on – Handke has some delicious descriptions of what he must have been like. Handke may be a very great artist in the most unexpected ways, he will not go down as a great enlightener, except that his art enters regions inaccessible it appears to enlightenment. As it says so wonderfully, and then in chorus, in The Ride Across Lake Constance “Let the drawer remain stuck,”, well, occasionally Herr Handke would obviously have been better off waxing it. Self-understanding has come slowly, and usually in the form of making fun of himself. The best of that kind I would say is the figure of the Restarateur in No-Man’s-Bay who serves the world’s most delicious food but is just as fussy about his customers and thus keeps going broke and moving his restaurant deeper and deeper into the woods.
I was glad to have some distance because in that fashion I could do my work both intimately but also more objectively, so I told myself, the things one tells oneself, I could be critical, and also defend and champion and, boy, is there a lot of magnificent work to champion! And despite the personal reservations I then had reading experiences like no other with The Repetition, No-Man’s Bay (five times in a hovel of a donut shop here in Seattle in the company of Smerdiakov and his ilk!) Crossing the Sierra del Gredos which must have the greatest ending in the form of a pure language Berg und Tal Fahrt than anything written in any language that I know, of Absence as of which point the filmic, experiencing prose as film enters Handke’s technical repertoire, and not just for its own sake.
By then I had already had the great experience of the 60s and 70s, and of A Slow Homecoming (the novel part) and of translating Walk About the Villages, so how daft or not the fellow was in defending the Serbians really did not much matter to me.
Initially I found his engagement suspect, “what’s he up to now?” as others who are still close to him will say. Handke the great exhibitionist in each and every respect who has so many great works to show.
I spent at least a year in toto over the course of a decade and a half trying to puzzle out not only Handke’s involvement in the disintegration itself prior to being conclusionary in any matter of that kind, and you find those pieces on the handkeyugo.blospot. Not that that in itself is a guarantor of anything except possibly time wasted, of an aging noggin misused!
Ah, the easy life of the professor, all he knows is what the other jackals screech!
Handke’s politically so cowardly American publisher Roger Straus Jr. was not to be expected to publish any of Handke’s writings and travelogues on the subject, and this big crook who fleeced me of at least 7/8th of my editor’s and translator’s royalties of the wealth I brought Farrar, Straus + Giroux in the 60s, indeed was frightened to death at the thought of the controversy splattering egg on his $ 1,200
suit; thus Viking Press published the one solitary title (of a total of six) in Scott Abbott’s translation: Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. Not only did Straus not have guts, he was so foolish - that is, so incompetent - to wait seven years to publish another Handke title after the huge successes of Sorrow /Beyond Dreams & Lefthanded Woman, when Handke was really hot in this country, and after ruining the success then wrote Dr. Siegfried Unseld that he had a “Handke problem;” a problem of his own making, that is, after I left in 1969 Handke was handed to a succession of I think ten different editors each of whom, and they were all fine the ones I knew and worked with, had to familiarize themselves with his growing oeuvre – not that easy a thing to do. Thus some important links are not in English, such as The History of the Pencil, the successor volume to Weight of the World (which had done well), and one of the great work books that shows the reader how, e.g. Walk About the Villages developed, how Handke creates. Though Farrar, Straus had done extremely well with both volumes of play collections, it then stopped publishing his plays. And aside Straus’s unawareness of who he had as an author I would say the churn of editors, Steve Wassermann’s incompetence when he edited Hill + Wang, the subsidiary into which plays have been shoved, the lack of continuity is to blame, as well as Michael DeCapua’s dislike of Handke and any of my projects. Giroux might have stepped in. Apparently he only did at the very beginning. - Oh how I rue the day I saw that brute Roger Straus’s face the first time and let him cherry pick me!
Here the links to Handke available from his German chief publisher Suhrkamp (another half dozen important titles are available from Austrian Jung & Jung)
Here the wealth that Gallimard, Allianza and Garzanti publish in translation
And what’s available via Farrar, Straus/ MacMillan, USA/ Holzbrink.
Six other Handke titles are strewn about.
You begin to see why Anglo-American publishing has fallen into the hands of continental conglomerates Bertelsmann, Holzbrinck and Hachette.
About six years ago, I, who after all knew publishing, sought to find a university press for an interesting volume of Yugotexts that Handke’s translator Scott Abbott proposed to put together, where people could at least read the work of someone who continued to be defamed so thoroughly by the likes of you. No such luck. I stopped after about 50 I think. McCarthyism by another name prevails on the subject. People don’t want to know, and that includes his current prose translator Krishna Winston, who is first rate at that task, but as an advisor on Handke to F.S.G. is both ignorant, how can she but not be with all her other tasks and translations, and stupid, and thus incompetent.
She advised that the extraordinary novel Kali (The Saltworks) was not different (!) from other Handke works, and must also be responsible for their passing on the 2011 Muehlheim Prize winning drama/novel hybrid Forever Storm, which however already exists with Swallow/ U. of Chicago Press who have successfully “rounded” out Farrar, Straus whom it takes a minimum of seven to eight years to publish a Handke title. Swallow Press has not only published Forever Storm but also his 2009 Beckett-complement play Until the Day. (see * for links to the wealth of material for Forever Storm)
To get back in focus: Handke at once took back his momentary comparison of the suffering of the Serbians with the Jewish people under Nazism. However, his so feeling testifies how deeply injured he was by the destruction of Yugoslavia. He knew the Milosevic family prior to the disintegration and was not going to judge him guilty without legal proceedings - that is Handke did not take your or Lytell’s route of being judge, jury, prosecutor AND executioner in one - he watched the trial and had looked forward to what the trial would bring, and wrote about it in Rund Um das Tribunal and he and Harold Pinter visited Milosevic in jail, and he wrote about how disgusted he was when the tribunal’s chief judge subsequently expressed her regret that the unconvicted M. "had got away”, and he had an invitation to the funeral and he expressed his solidarity with the Serbians – I think ought to have with the Yugoslavs (because in fact – though Handke in typically European fashion can think in the terms of national ethnicities - I tested him once – he bears no preference or dislike for any of those various tribes). Yet Handke I would say has that third testicle of being aufmuepfig as they put it in Austrian, uppity! And all the assholes hop up and down and have the typical fit: Skandalon! Skandalon!
As soon as it became clear that the big bad wolf from Pogarevic would expire in prison, who was so publically dying in prison, I knew Handke would show up at the funeral. He used to have his own predictability and is equally guilty of occasional irruptions of righteousness. - Everyone seemed to be permitted their nationalistic moment but Milosevic and the Serbians who voiced it last, and who were the sole defenders and upholders of the confederation.
Handke has said that he was as proud of his engagement for the Serbians as of anything in his life, and I must say the last thing I expected when I started to take a look at all that was that I would be proud of that in a fellow I had personally started to feel so ambivalent about.
Your ignorance, your laziness and inability to read and apparently intentional misreadings reminds me or J.L. Marcus misreading of Voyage by Dugout, where Marcus thinks because one character says “what war” about the disintegration, Handke himself denies it. Darling Susan Sontag, who rehearsed Endgame during Sarajevo's worst days, then would play "being fired upon" when back in the USSR, but certainly had only the most limited of narrow perspectives of what transpired in Yugoslavia. All I can say, now that the milk of human kindness - that once inspired human rights endeavors - has so thoroughly soured for its instrumentalization, is for the hyenas to bay away in their home precincts. Baying at the U.S. prison complex that holds one fourth of the world’s prisoners ought to get them hoarse!
Then you offer us a few statements about the early Handke and what I like to call his “assayings.” First, you doodle on about what’s an essay and what isn’t but you are wasting our time, if you knew Handke you’d know that already in Phantasien der Wiederholung (1983) he announced an eventual attempt to change his narrative procedures. Besides, from early on he’s been unable to write a brilliant regular essay of the kind, say, that the envied Hans Magnus Enzensberger can fashion. Thus “departures” would perhaps be an acceptable designation, for these variations on proceeding, on approaching and circling a subject and simultaneous exploration of a location, are indeed a considerable departure from the foregoing fairly straightforward prose narratives - Goalie via Short Letter, Sorrow, Moment of True Feeling, Left-Handed Woman, A Slow Homecoming, Across, The Repetition, The Afternoon of a Writer - the difficulties of his first two novels – the (1964) 1966 Die Hornissen, and the 1967 Der Hausierer no longer obstruct. Handke plays by the standard rules, he wants more than an avant garde audience.
You also mope a bit about form – a matter Handke handles in exemplary manner without need to mope. E.g. all his early plays, their form is comprised in their summa, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other – and that mental act might give one pause to consider whether Handke on that level is not some kind of genius like J.S. Bach. -Handke is a formalist, who explores forms until he needs new challenges. He does variations on form. One might think of Handke as an unusual manifestation of the romantic impulse to turn literary works or art into music, and the formal solutions he finds usually have a musical form or forms as their foundation, from early on folks have written papers on the subject, and the “assayings”, too, are variations of that kind. The form that Noman’s Bay takes, as a series of woven “assayings,” would be inconceivable the ones on Fatigue, Jukebox, and The Day that Well, which can also be regarded as preparations for the one year marathon. “Look, Ma, no hands!” How do you become so form obsessed? So artful? Perhaps all it takes is to be such a love-child, surrogate for the great absent love of your life, and reverie on the beautiful breast of such a young woman!
The weakest of the “assayings”, the one on Fatigue (it takes Handke a bit of time to reach virtuoso mastery at each change of mode) is weak for not accounting for other sources of fatigue (or its opposite, the energetic) than of his own, easily done as that might have been, but of course provides deep insights into the angry anaclytically depressed young genius. Prior, imaginatively cast, fictions such as Left-Handed Woman or Moment of True Feeling are best approached I think with Benjamin’s concept of “the completed work is the death mask of the experience” although Moment induces some of the suicidal state of mind which the writing overcomes, but the details are not necessarily that rich autobiographically speaking, or as permissive of inference as the ”assayings.” You are quite right in emphasizing the apparent autobiographical aspect in his work, yet this in the course of my thinking has made me wonder whether such thinking is not irrelevant chaff in evaluating and responding to the work.
Then you noodle on about Handke’s interest in language, but noodling is about all you do. You fail to note that the coming of Handke pretty much coincided with Chomsky’s reiteration of certain ideas of Von Humboldt’s, and of McLuhan’s and of theater turning into happenings.
Language may indeed have been and continues to be a major pre-occupation, how can it but not be for any writer, but Handke initially presented himself as the “new Kafka, fear ridden, at a time that he wrote the fear-ridden Der Hausierer (1966) which, however, is as noticeable for the reader’s ability to experience extreme states of continuous fear as the author’s ability to expunge it by literary, playful means, although even if Handke saw himself as surrogate it is most unlikely that you will reach for Hausierer during an anxiety attack of whatever duration instead of your meds. Certainly, he himself did not when he started having panic attacks after his mother’s suicide and his severely insulted and neglected wife split and Handke spat out the handful or sleeping pills – no, he started to take valium and eventually wrote himself out of that particular catastrophe and after a few more decades and marriage catastrophes figured out a way of writing and having a wife in town instead of subjecting her to the cold-blooded Salamander that he appears to be when at work on one of his projects – and when isn’t he!
To have the ability to conquer fear, and eventually put Kafka behind you, can sure make you as sprightly conqueror as which Handke stepped out on the world stage. Kafka as La vache que rit! Near endless headlines “Handke lacht” and photos of a smiling Handke
For Goalie’s Anxiety - the sliver of anxiety and paranoia that derived from the far richer Hausierer - Handke investigated the linguistics of schizophrenia and a real exposure to Goalie’s grammar will induce a similar state in the reader (Handke’s innerwor[l]d outerworld Innerworld procedure at its keenest), and here we are indeed in one of the mansions of the prison house of language and what a master might be able to do with that prison’s machinery as it then develops is one approach that I think is indeed useful in understanding the power of his writing, and as he then did.
Handke has also mentioned that he might have become a second Karl Kraus, and I think we can all be thankful that instead he chose to simply write in an exemplary manner and open up new possibilities for classical prose.
The playful exploration of sado-masochism that is the play without words – that is, the body language of - My Foot My Tutor (1967) is the first instance where Handke induces S L O W N E S S, an ability that reaches its full flowering in the 1986 The Repetition where the “king of slowness” he had become writes a true “Sein und Zeit” that indeed brought me closer to pure being – not that difficult of course if you live and shuffle through the dusty paths of the chaparral of the idyllic St. Monicas.
Regarding Handke’s Versuche, the term that Brecht, too, used for works in process, provisional, these “assayings” indeed can be regarded as autobiographical accounts or particular explorations invariably of locales that are turned into literary works of art, but for the playful and more fantastical one on mushrooming. Handke has been engaged in the project of self-memorialization and his venue in Chaville will be a marvelous museum of and to “labora verimus.”
You feel that solitude is a major theme of the late work. Someone who has such an excess of pure nerves for each and every sense (or lack of buffers) I imagine is destined to look for quiet places to not be besieged. Thus, he ought to have put a sign on himself early on saying “do not disturb, nitroglycerine.”
For an alleged Nabakovian I am surprised you fail to appreciate Handke’s Don Juan (as told by himself), a gem that is similar to the “assayings” but as of the Nth power in sheer artfulness, where women seek him out because they sense his loneliness – that is then the problem of the man who secretes himself in the loo, he gets lonely, and it appears that the once socially so inept Handke then became famous for serving mushroom stew to his friends. People change! He no longer just roams the forêt de la Chaville for mushrooms, these peaceful beings as he calls them, as in Lucie in dem Wald mit den Dingsbums (you notice the play of words on the Beatles song and intimations of possible hallucinogens), an artificial fairy tale for his second daughter, Leocadie.
Claremont is said to have as many trees as Ph.D.s Could you do us the favor of turning into a tree so that all the dogs in Claremont will pee on you!? Or maybe have a cultural revolutionary vaccaciones with the tomatillo campesinos near Colonet, just south of Ensenada!
(* FOREVER STORM links)
HANDKE MAGAZINE RUBRICS
Taking Refuge in the Loo
Leland de la Durantaye
• Versuch über den Pilznarren: Eine Geschichte für sich by Peter Handke Suhrkamp, 217 pp, £14.70, September 2013, ISBN 978 3 518 42383 7
• Peter Handke im Gespräch, mit Hubert Patterer und Stefan Winkler Kleine Zeitung, 120 pp, £15.36, November 2012, ISBN 978 3 902819 14 7
Peter Handke began his career insulting his audience, and it long seemed that he would end it with his audience insulting him. In Insulting the Audience (1966), the play that brought him fame at the age of 23, he called the audience ‘dirty Jews’, ‘Nazi pigs’ and many things besides. Thirty years later, after he took up the cause of Serbian independence, condemned Nato intervention in the former Yugoslavia, compared the Serbs to Jews under the Third Reich, doubted the authenticity of reports of massacres in Srebrenica and elsewhere, received various honours from the Serbian government, and gave a eulogy before a crowd of 20,000 at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral, the vector of insult was mightily reversed. It seemed that all the warmth and admiration that had fallen to Handke over the course of his career had disappeared into thin air. Alain Finkielkraut called him an ‘ideological monster’. Salman Rushdie nominated him ‘International Moron of the Year’ for 1999. Susan Sontag said that there were many many people who would never pick up one of his books again. Presenting the matter in the starkest possible terms, the human rights worker and novelist Jonathan Littell remarked in 2008:
When a family is sitting in its house in Foca and suddenly someone bursts in with a machine gun, chains up the daughter to the radiator and rapes her in front of her family, this is no laughing matter. Okay you might say, the world is like this. But you don’t have to go up to these criminals and start shaking their hands. This is obscene and yet it is precisely what Peter Handke has done … He might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy. You have to keep things separate. You can be immoral as long as you keep to art. But as soon as you leave it and start talking politics, other rules apply. If you compare Handke with Céline, a fascist who wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets, you will understand what I’m talking about. Céline was a wonderful poet, and I can say today that I value him greatly, because he’s dead. But had I lived in the 1930s, I would have tried to kill him. Okay, Peter Handke is not killing anyone. But he’s an asshole.
Keeping things separate is harder with a living writer, and yet another difficulty is introduced when the writer’s work is as close to life as Handke’s is. The line separating fact from fiction often disappears in his books. The blend of fact and fiction is confounding by design, as it was with his fellow countryman, contemporary and sometimes rival, Thomas Bernhard, and as it was with one of his finest critics, W.G. Sebald. In Essay on the Jukebox, the second volume in the series Handke has recently finished, he, or a narrator quite like him, tells of how, in writing, he moved a cypress he’d seen in Cologne to Indianapolis, and a stable he’d visited from Salzburg to Yugoslavia. But, he tells us, these changes from fact to fiction were nothing in comparison to the shifting of ‘the whole place of writing’ into the background of the book. Just as his early dramas – Insulting the Audience is just one example –tried to pull down the curtain separating the audience from the actors, his later experiments attempt to bring ‘the whole place of writing’ into the story. None of Handke’s more than fifty works draws this line between fact and fiction to greater effect than the Versuchen, begun in 1989 and now just completed.
Handke’s five Versuchen present a problem of translation. It stems from how exceptionally literal a writer he is. His finest work, Wunschloses Unglück (1972), is an account of his mother’s suicide. The German title is hard to translate but easy to explain. It takes very literally an everyday expression, wunschlos glücklich, which means to be so happy one wants for nothing, and then upends it. The unhappiness is so profound and present-devouring that no room is left to want or wish for anything (in Ralph Manheim’s translation it is rendered as A Sorrow beyond Dreams). The translational trouble created by the cycle of books Handke has just completed is less dramatic, but no less central. The German term they all share, Versuch, means ‘experiment’ or ‘attempt’. In this it resembles the term essai before Montaigne gave it a new literary function. The problem with translating the first three volumes as Essay on Tiredness, Essay on the Jukebox and Essay on the Successful Day, as was done in 1994, is that it can give rise to misperceptions: the books are in some very literal sense essays, but they aren’t what essays are expected to be. They are fictions, but of a strange and intermittent sort.
Handke’s work of the 1960s had a single, all-encompassing theme, one very much of its time: the coercive force of language. Frank Kermode wrote of him in 1975: ‘language, as game or disease, dominates the entire enterprise.’ At the outset of his best-known play, Kaspar, Handke tells the reader ‘the play might also be called “Speech Torture”.’ The figure of a young, solitary man of uncertain origin and means – a fictionalised version of the historical Kaspar Hauser – clearly appealed to the young Handke. His Kaspar has a problem (speechlessness) whose only solution is a still greater one (speech).
The central theme of the early work has since ceded to the two themes that dominate the final instalments in the Versuchen series: solitude and form. Solitude is an easy enough theme to find in Handke’s writing, form is not. Nietzsche wrote that ‘one is an artist by virtue of experiencing what non-artists call “form” as content.’ This is literally true of Handke: the search for form, both in literature and life, is the explicit subject of a great many of his books. The five books in the series present a stark contrast between how casual they seem in telling their stories, and how precise they are in the construction of their sentences. Each tells at least two stories – about fatigue, jukeboxes, happy days, still places, mushroom hunting – and the story of the telling of the story. Some are written in the first person; others introduce an unnamed ‘he’ around whom the story revolves. All digress continually, and often enchantingly. Essay on Jukeboxes really is about jukeboxes. The unnamed protagonist, a ‘he’ who has much in common with Handke , pursues his fascination with them largely in solitude. He says a lot about the history of jukeboxes and where they were once found. He discusses the role of ‘juke joints’ (although he calls them ‘juke points’) and the way artists such as Louis Armstrong could be heard mostly on jukeboxes because radio stations in many places wouldn’t play the music of a black man, no matter how gifted. But there are many things in the Essay on Jukeboxes that don’t seem to have anything to do with jukeboxes: ‘the curious role of hearsay in dreams’ (‘it is neither said nor heard, it simply presses forward through the air’) and the nightingale-filled ‘singing trees’ of the Spanish town of Soria. In Soria the unnamed ‘he’ sees a strange light that seems ‘as though it were shining up from the earth’. It’s arresting enough to make him want ‘immediately’ to ‘go off somewhere and write and write and write – without a subject, or, as far as I’m concerned, about something like a jukebox’.
The difficulties of translation don’t end with the first word of the titles. The fourth book, published in 2012 and coinciding with Handke’s 70th birthday, Versuch über den Stillen Ort, ‘Experiment on the Place of Stillness’, sounds reflective and removed, serious and even spiritual. And so it is. But it’s about going to the bathroom, about visiting what, in an antiquated euphemism, is sometimes called in German ‘the place of stillness’. The narrator’s trips to the bathroom aren’t to use the facilities, at least not in the habitual sense. The book is about a lifetime of taking refuge in the loo as though it were an ever-present panic room where he can wait out the storm of unhappiness, annoyance and anxiety that comes from being with others. ‘Were my searches for those places of stillness,’ he asks, ‘in the course of my life, all over the world, so often without any special need, perhaps an expression if not of a flight from society, at least of a resistance to society, a social exhaustion?’ The question is not purely rhetorical; there’s more to the story. He seeks shelter in the loo out of insecurity and boredom, and to wait for his powers of speech to return. He needs to regain the desire to speak. In Slow Homecoming (1979) the protagonist, again sharing much with Handke, sees ‘a danger in his inner muteness – as though he were an inert object whose sound had died away for ever – and he longed to have back the suffering of speech’. The narrator of Versuch über den Stillen Ort feels the same danger and longs for the same suffering. He finds himself struck dumb by social pressure, social tedium, by boredom and distraction, arrogance and insecurity. But in the stillness of the bathroom something special can happen, and ‘the desire for speech’ can return.
In other words, it’s a private tale about the need for privacy, about the forms this search for solitude has taken, and about the forms seen in different places of stillness. And yet this very private book has a public and political element. In the long list of bathrooms recalled – in Handke’s childhood home in rural Carinthia, in Berlin, in Paris, in Nara, Japan; one with a view of the Yukon river; one overlooking Central Park – a nondescript Balkan loo which Handke photographed is given pride of place. Studying the image, he recalls the spiders and flies and the straw broom used as toilet brush, finding it ‘strange’ that it ‘didn’t bother me – on the contrary’. A few pages later he will turn to pictures taken by others, one of which contrasts with the themes of peace and solitude elsewhere in the book. It shows ‘a young girl in a rented home in the city of Batajnica north-west of Belgrade who, in the spring of 1999, during the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia’, was killed by shrapnel. It’s the only story of death in the book. Handke has said he wants to have done with people asking him about Serbia, but remarks of this kind are hard to take seriously when he’s consistently sought to have the last word on the matter. But this isn’t the last word. That’s reserved for the final volume.
We have no reason to distinguish the ‘I’ of the bathroom book from Handke himself. But the last volume presents a character who isn’t the speaker, a specialist in international criminal law who defends individuals accused of human rights violations. Handke isn’t a lawyer (though he studied law). But if we take this job description a bit less literally, and recall Handke’s public defence of, say, Milosevic, then the role of fact in the fiction changes. The book’s main concern, however, is mushrooms. Or, more precisely, another literally untranslatable figure: the Pilznarr. Pilz means ‘mushroom’ and narr means ‘fool’, and the term is hard to translate because Handke wants us to take it literally: his lawyer goes mad in his search for mushrooms. Like the earlier novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, the book is, among other things, a descent into madness. Mushrooms become an all-estranging passion as wife, job and almost everything else is abandoned in the search for them, or in the solitude the search affords. Mushrooms can’t be cultivated. They are truly wild, and more than a little mysterious, so there are no limits to their pursuit. The balance between what Handke has called ‘introversion with its free, form-creating thought and formless extroversion’ is lost, and what he has called ‘the great formlessness’ threatens to engulf the mushroom hunter. We follow him deeper into the forest, and see a snake’s skin hanging from a winter branch, the remains of bunkers deep in the forest, and ‘the serrated maple leaves that begin in a diving fall before levelling to glide gently onto the ground’. He warms up by walking through an area that’s unlikely to have any mushrooms to sharpen his vision. He reflects on his passion and on passion in general; searching for the ‘foreign form’ of the mushroom becomes an occasion for reflecting on the search for form itself. We may know that a particular passion comes at a price, that it has negative consequences for us or those around us, but it’s hard to say a passion is all bad, or even bad at all. The mushroom hunter has ‘a feeling that was at once also a certitude, that through such actions he was doing good to those entrusted to him (including the accused he defends), he was doing his own good, and doing good itself’. The sense that he’s doing not only the right thing for himself, but the right thing in general, is part of the power of passionate obsessions, and it’s rendered with rare conviction here. But his solitude isn’t without the ghost of a desire for company. The mushroom hunter, like Beckett’s Murphy, dreams of a social connection in the form of disconnection; he dreams of a ‘society of the different – the fundamentally different’. What he finds is something else.
In 1991, Sebald wrote that ‘the particular storytelling genre which Handke created consisted in the completely new linguistic and imaginative precision with which, in stories such as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and A Sorrow beyond Dreams, Handke reports and reflects on the silent catastrophes that ceaselessly follow one another deep within us.’ Like Sebald, and like most Austrian and German writers of his generation, Handke has uneasy feelings about his homeland. In the first book of the series, he writes of not feeling part of a people, a Volk, like the one he glimpsed as a child, on trips to Slovenia, ‘which I always in later years wished for in my own country of Austria, and which I increasingly missed’. In The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980), he writes that Austrian politicians, ‘like all artists engaged in politics’, appeared to him when young as nothing more than ‘ham actors’; he listened to them, and his ‘only thought was of “failure to atone”’. In a later work Handke says of his own child that she is ‘by birth and language a descendant of murderers who seem condemned to flounder for all time, without aim or joy, metaphysically dead’. In Essay on Tiredness he calls the Austrians ‘the first irretrievably rotten, the first unbetterable … the first irreversible people in history’. It’s not hard to see in his idealisation of the Serbs a longing stretching into his unheimliche Heimat.