The Afternoon of a Writer
Peter Handke has seldom focused much of his attention as a writer on plot structure and the craft of storytelling as it has been traditionally understood. In recent years particularly he has been preoccupied with the mental mechanics of the writing process, a process perceived as highly idiosyncratic yet beyond the writer’s control and reliant on its own momentum in its most productive stages. For Handke, as for a number of Austrian predecessors in the twentieth century, this focus has been enriched by an acute awareness of the complexities and problems of the writer’s relationship with language. The earliest of his works, published in the 1960’s, reflected more traditional linguistic concerns—although in highly original and innovative terms; only in the late 1970’s did he begin to combine these concerns with meditations on the process playing itself out between perception and the written word. The three journals which he published between 1977 and 1983 directly illustrate his growing fascination with the transformation of raw perceptual data into corresponding linguistic responses. Reacting to the “weight of the world” like a finely tuned seismograph, the persona of the journals evolves from a passive percipient into a self-conscious creator.
Although written from a third-person perspective, The Afternoon of a Writer is essentially another of these running commentaries on consciousness, detailing the responses of a nameless writer to the minutiae of his perceptions. Here, however, unlike in the earlier journals, Handke embeds these responses in a structure controlled by a narrative voice, a device that establishes a more objective presence as well as sequence and coherence. The spontaneous jottings of a diary give way to the fiction of an afternoon stroll that takes the writer away from his desk, down through the nearby city to a tavern on the city’s edge, and finally back to his home. Although the writer is hardly a palpable figure in the physical sense, he is caught up in the flow of time as well as in an interaction with his environment as he moves from point to point through the landscape. The time is one of transition, the hours between the peaks of concentration and presence of mind involved in actual writing. With a successful morning buoying his spirits he sets out to bridge the interval spent away from his desk until his work begins again the next morning. It is an afternoon of respite in the cycle of the writer, yet one fraught with anxiety in the renewed encounters with a world that resents his self-imposed isolation. He has interrupted the momentum of the muse, put his connection with language at risk by leaving his desk and allowed speechlessness the chance to return. The recurrent fear of stasis impinges not only on his life as a writer, the narrator observes, but has long hung like a threat over the other aspects of his life. Paradoxically, however, he regards a previous traumatic experience at the boundaries of language as his rite of passage into the writing profession.
In The Afternoon of a Writer Handke has come closer than ever before to his ideal of a fictional work that dispenses with plot and reduces the narration of events to a minimum. He told an interviewer in 1987 that it is never an event that kindles his desire to write but a place, a concrete experience of a locality that he then attempts to “narrate.” Although he has not stripped it entirely of incident, Handke has abridged the action in The Afternoon of a Writer to a minimum.
Before embarking on the walk and a succession of minor occurrences, the writer performs several household chores while basking in the sense of righteousness or self-justification that he earned during his morning’s production. Once in motion he exchanges his first words of the day with a street sweeper and buys a newspaper, both gestures of communication with the outside world that he had effectively shut out in the preceding hours. He experiences the first sentence of a newspaper as so deadening, however, that the power of thought deserts him and he lashes out at journalistic writing in general and the feuilleton section in particular. Leaving the restaurant where he had momentarily paused, the writer resumes his wanderings through a gauntlet of faces populating a busy street near the city center. He is met by the hostile glances of the many enemies of the written word who resent the self-absorption of his single-minded passion for writing. If he finds condemnation in their eyes, he finds encouragement and trust in the silent eyes of an occasional serious reader, a member of that “rare species” which Handke has singled out for praise elsewhere. Near the end of the street, the intrusive behavior of a pair of celebrity seekers sends the writer...
(The entire section is 1954 words.)