Valentin Sorger, an Austrian geologist working in Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. He is in early middle age. His work consists of making geological sketches of the Alaskan terrain. Sorger begins to feel estranged from existence and decides to return to Austria. He flies to San Francisco and spends time with a married couple he knows. The colors and forms of nature become the object of his meditations, and he longs to find some kind of spiritual law, an experience of salvation, that will redefine his existence. He then flies to Denver and, finally, to New York, where he engages in a long and intense conversation with a stranger. Ultimately, he takes a plane for Europe.
The narrator, a writer who wanders in the South of France to see the various scenes that had been painted by artist Paul Cézanne, especially the Mont-Sainte-Victoire. The narrator reflects on the shapes of nature and the artist’s task of transforming these landscapes into the transcendent forms of art. After a bizarre encounter with a half-crazed guard dog in a Foreign Legion camp, he realizes the extent of the hate and violence that permeate the world, and he longs even more for the existential salvation of art.
The noisy entrance with which in 1966 the twenty-three-year-old Peter Handke from Austria spoiled the party of some of Germany’s most influential writers gathered at Princeton has by now become an almost legendary event in the history of German postwar literature. At first, his diatribe against the older generation’s socially committed realism and his own attempt to sever all customary relations between words and things struck many as little more than the promotional antics of a self-styled enfant terrible. Yet despite the early Handke’s insistence that literature is concerned with language, not with the representation of reality—an attitude which had all the trappings of an unpromising formalism—he did not exhaust himself or his theme in the sterile exercise of mere wordplay. After twenty years and eleven novels, ten plays, four volumes of poetry, three diaries, and numerous essays, the young man’s deconstructionist approach to language must not only be acknowledged to have existed well within the context of a peculiarly Austrian preoccupation with language—a tradition which includes such men as Fritz Mauthner, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and even Sigmund Freud—but also must be recognized in retrospect as only the first radical step toward a new and demanding poetic realism. For Handke, to strip the incrustations of conventional language from the face of reality turns out to have been simply an unavoidable preparation for a successful reconstruction of the world’s primordial beauty.
A few years after his provocative beginnings, Handke advanced beyond the austerity of his early works in such novels as Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling, 1977) and Die linkshändige Frau (1976; The Left-Handed Woman, 1978) by writing about men and women who managed to escape the deadening automatisms of their linguistic conditioning in moments of immediate and, therefore, as yet inarticulate experience. Still, the suggested mysticism can never be the last word for an artist who must love form even more than any true feeling. This love for form strives for intersubjectivity, for communication, for permanence in a valid linguistic system; it strives, as Handke is not at all embarrassed to state, for modern myths, stories that link the forms arising from the contemplation of reality into a new gospel of harmony between man and world. This latest and most ambitious turn in Handke’s romantic quest can now be followed in Slow Homecoming, which in its solemn, at times ceremonious pursuit of what is real often reads like the story of a new Adam renaming his universe. The book, admirably translated by Ralph Manheim, contains one fictional narration, “The Long Way Around,” and two clearly autobiographical accounts, “The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire” and “Child Story.” Though published in Germany as three independent books between 1979 and 1981, these texts have here justifiably and wisely been combined and should be read as a fictional project followed by two efforts toward its realization by the author.
“The Long Way Around,” which takes up about half of the volume, represents the most programmatic and complete story because it allows its hero to proceed where Handke himself, as the two autobiographical reports will show, has not yet been able to follow. Valentin Sorger, an Austrian geologist, pursues fieldwork in Alaska to regain his sense for the essence of reality. Through patient observation, he gradually succeeds in reclaiming from the apparently numb presence of vast uniformity interlocking elements of form which begin to reveal to him the law of harmonious existence. To test this new vision and to systematize its wisdom, he finally decides to return to his university in California. Yet an unmotivated assault by a drunken Indian on the day of Sorger’s departure from Alaska and nagging reminders upon his arrival of his citizenship in a nation of former mass murderers challenge his newfound faith in the goodness of things, confronting him with his troublesome social and historical identity. All efforts to shelter himself in the peace and permanence of spatial configurations fail, and in the end it takes only a minor instance of confusion in the streets to shatter Sorger’s precarious sense of order and purpose. That in his ensuing panic a neighboring family appears in the role of a most welcome guardian angel abruptly converts the now diffident man to a grateful acceptance of social life’s benign dispensations. Acknowledging the misguided pride of his lonely search for personal meaning from impersonal form, Sorger is suddenly willing and eager to lay claim to his native country and culture, to go back home. During a layover in New York, his confidence in the order of human history is buoyed by a vision in a crowded Manhattan coffee shop, which reveals to him its ordinary routines as nothing less than the fruit of...
*Alaska. Northern wilderness country where Sorger, a deeply alienated person seeking some kind of personal salvation or healing, is conducting geological surveys. In a clearly existential quest to find forms or patterns that will guide or give meaning to his life, he sketches the landscape. His sketching—making marks on paper with a pencil—becomes a literary symbol for author Peter Handke’s own philosophically self-conscious (and yet highly personal) activity of writing: the imaginative creation of aesthetic forms by which can he can somehow orient his own existence.
For Handke, the fictional images of otherness that human beings generate in and through language (and the human...
Firda, Richard Arthur. Peter Handke. New York: Twayne, 1993. Covers Handke’s work through the tetralogy (chapter 5) and beyond. Annotated bibliography.
Kirkus Reviews. LIII, March 15, 1985, p. 237.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation: The Goalie’s Journey Home. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. Places Handke’s work in the context of postmodern literature. Useful for understanding the...