Once Again for Thucydides

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In ONCE AGAIN FOR THUCYDIDES Peter Handke, a major post-modern German-language writer, describes a series of ordinary events which he experiences on journeys through Switzerland, the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Japan between March, 1987, and January, 1990. In these essays Handke examines commonplace events in the natural world like melting snow in springtime, flocks of pigeons, a lightning storm, and the devastation resulting from a forest fire. He also observes everyday features of the human world, like a shoeshine man’s simple routine, the boarding of a ferry, and a religious procession.

Under Handke’s careful examination ordinary events and people become the vehicle for literary and artistic tour de force and philosophical reflection. The descriptions are more than diary entries. They are epopees or little epics in which everyday events like the evening flight of swallows and bats and the variety of hats worn by an urban crowd take on cosmic proportions. At the same time, these realistic descriptions become works of art in which life and art are blended and the ordinary becomes extraordinary and timeless. Handke’s narrator then symbolizes the individual’s quest for personal meaning and connection with other people and the surrounding world.

An ash tree in a public park in Munich illustrates this interconnection. The tree which Handke sees before his eyes is his link with memories, with the past. It also links the narrator to living things like lichen and butterflies in the park and to the rest of humankind, including the dead. Handke’s description of the ash tree thus takes on epic and artistic characteristics which enable him to move beyond the description of specific events and places to a vision of a world of relationships which transcend time and space.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 22, 1998, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 3, 1998, p. 76.

Once Again for Thucydides

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At first glance, the reference to the fifth century b.c.e. Athenian historian Thucydides in the title of Peter Handke’s book seems to be a red herring by a deconstructionist, postmodernist German-language author noted for his introspective language. Only two of the seventeen essays in this book even mention Thucydides, and then only in their titles. Neither deals directly with the historian. The first essay, “For Thucydides,” describes butterflies on a spring day in Felsenberg, Switzerland. In the third essay, “Sheet- Lightning Epopee or Once Again for Thucydides,” Handke recounts the details of a lightning storm over the Yugoslavian island of Krk. Yet, in these detailed examinations of everyday occurrences, Handke seems to emulate the great historian, who has long been admired for his close and impartial observation of events. Indeed, in the first book of his Histories, Thucydides warns his reader that his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta will be difficult to read because it lacks a romantic element. Thucydides, ever the careful observer, has as his goal not the satisfaction of passing literary fads but the creation of a work that will be useful to those who seek a clear understanding of past events as a guide to the future. Thucydides desires his work to be a ktema es aei, a possession forever.

The Austrian-born Handke, a prolific writer of avant-garde poetry, essays, dramas, fiction, and nonfiction, desires the same difficult reading and the same timelessness for his work. Ever since he entered the German literary world at a 1966 convention in Princeton, New Jersey, with a tumultuous diatribe against the realism and conventionalism of German postwar literature, Handke has attempted to take language beyond conventional form and to reconstruct it in its primordial, natural state, as careful, meticulous observation. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke describes a rambling journey that begins on March 23, 1987, lasts until January, 1990, and takes the reader from Felsenberg (Switzerland), to Pazin, Krk, Split, Dubrovnik, and Skopje in the former Yugoslavia, to Patras (Greece), Aomori, (Japan), and Brazzano (Italy), to Galicia, Llivia, and Linares (Spain), to Salzburg (Austria) and Munich (Germany), and to Lyon and Aix-en- Provence (France). At each stop, he searches for profound and universal meaning in commonplace experiences. The first signs of spring in Felsenberg become a cosmic drama of melting snow and rustling shoots. Flocks of pigeons in Pazin are so fascinating that the author delays his scheduled train departure to savor the spectacle. On the island of Krk, Handke is drenched while watching a lightning storm. He is mesmerized by a shoeshine man in Split and by the sea of humanity boarding a ferry in Dubrovnik. His attention is drawn to the variety of hats worn by the residents of Skopje. In Patras, he watches a man’s futile efforts to capture an escaped parakeet. In Aomori, a snowfall emphasizes the beauty of the Japanese landscape. In Galicia, Handke juxtaposes the flow of seawater up a tidal river with the procession of priests to their home cathedral during Holy Week. In Brazzano, he celebrates a night lit by glowworms and the rumbling of a thunderstorm. Handke dips his bare feet in a stream fed by melting snow in Llivia and watches an evening contest between swallows and bats in Linares. Finally, he contemplates cloud-covered mountains near Salzburg, a hotel near the railroad terminal in Lyon, an ash tree in a public garden in Munich, and a path through the scarred remains of a forest fire on Mont Saint-Victoire. Nowhere among these diverse experiences does Handke directly encounter other human beings. Rather he watches them from a distance, from the outside.

In this solipsistic perspective, Handke can be identified with those characters in his earlier works who live solitary lives and try to find connection with the world by means of a personal and philosophical journey, an intellectual quest for self and the other. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke combines the travelogue of Short Letter, Long Farewell (1974) with the journalistic format of Weight of the World (1984) and the meticulous descriptive abilities of the narrator of Across (1986). The result is a diary that is less an example of intimate, personal reflection than of Thucydidean objectivity. The narrator only rarely uses the first-person singular. In one essay, he refers to himself as the “wet man” who enters his hotel after watching a lightning storm. Sometimes he describes himself as “the...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)