Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
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 into flight along the road away from the city’s center toward its periphery.
His confidence shaken that he can retain the tenuous hold on the creative momentum of this day until the following morning, the writer vows to change his afternoon habits while his present work remains unfinished. Handke’s irresolute figures often indulge in such rhetorical gestures which hold out the promise of a definitive solution to an existential dilemma yet which are quickly forgotten. Continuing along the road leading out of the city, the writer spots an old woman lying unconscious in the thicket at the side of the road, her forehead cut by the thorns and her arms extended. The image that immediately forms in his mind is indicative of his relationship to the world. He figuratively perceives this suffering refugee from a home for the aged as an airplane forced to make an emergency landing rather than in the terms of a hackneyed religious signifier. His fresh image reflects a fundamental task of Handke’s project as a writer, the revitalization of perception through the reinterpretation of the filter of culturally available signs and signifiers. Later, when the old woman has regained consciousness, her babbling remains incomprehensible to everyone who has rushed to her aid except the writer, who intuits meaning in the disjointed language. For him the jumble of words contains the story of her life. At the heart of the writer’s professional talent, the construction of codes, lies the complementary capacity for reading and decoding the myriad languages spoken by man and latent in nature.
Shortly afterward, while resting on the bench of a bus shelter, the writer glances into a traffic mirror at a road junction and discovers in a moment of epiphany an enchanted world. Common objects and sights lose their empirical dimensions, “emptying” reality as it were of its fixed boundaries. It is this radiant emptiness that the writer claims as his space, a dimension apart where he can give free reign to fantasy. Finally wearied by the string of occurrences that have punctuated his walk, yet anxious to be among people, the writer turns into a tavern at the edge of the city. Here too he remains on the margin, sitting in the corner until the incoherent harangue of a drunk undermines his acquired sense of control over language and his connection with the creative momentum driving his unfinished manuscript. His inability to decode the words of the drunk marks the low point of the afternoon and plunges him into an orgy of self-doubt and guilt. Pronounced a weakling and a liar by the drunk in a final articulate burst, the writer makes a hasty retreat from the tavern onto the street again.
The penultimate incident in the narrative sequence of the writer’s walk is a prearranged meeting with a translator of his works, also a nameless figure, who fled the city fifty years previously. After his questions have been answered, the translator becomes the third person that afternoon to direct a monologue at the taciturn writer. His subject is his own writing career, a career that began well but ended with debilitating feelings of guilt and fear. These feelings and the perceived lack of justification to continue mirror the main figure’s own dark thoughts at the nadir of his emotional curve following the verbal abuse by the drunk: “to write was criminal; to produce a work of art, a book, was presumption, more damnable than any other sin.” While the translator succumbed once and for all to an internal interdiction, the writer apparently faces the Sisyphean task of overcoming it on a daily basis. In his role as translator, the older man claims the absence of self-doubt and the same intellectual satisfaction in working with language, yet he admits that his work obliges him to remain in the “forecourt” of creativity rather than crossing its “threshold.” German Romanticism and its twentieth century successors, particularly Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, resonate in his statement: “And by displaying your wound as attractively as possible, I conceal my own.” Their meeting at an end, the two partners in the literary enterprise part ways and, almost without transition, the writer abruptly finds himself at home once more. Thoughts of his work and the resolve to persevere fill the final moments of the day.
In The Afternoon of a Writer Handke continues to add to a larger body of work that draws its unity and strength from the presence of his distinctly individual and thoroughly poetic sensibility. It leaves its mark through a number of metaphors and concepts central to his notion of the writing process. The writer’s path, for example, is strewn with concrete as well as figurative borders, peripheries, edges, thresholds, and transitional points where crossings and creative discovery happen: “Freshness and strength emanated from edges, as in an everlasting age of pioneering.” Both socially and aesthetically the writer chooses a marginal existence at a distance from the center, where convention reigns and definitions and boundaries have rigidified. The starting point of his artistic vision is a landscape void of convenient connections, an emptiness pregnant with the possibilities of his imaginative powers.
The most common characteristic of the figures as well as the city in The Afternoon of a Writer is their namelessness, their existence beyond the encompassing nexus of an empirical reality. They stand outside the order of things much like the landscape which the writer describes in the following reflection: “Surprisingly, it was almost exclusively at times when he was writing that he was able to divest the city he lived in of its limits. The little became big; names lost their meaning; the light-colored sand in the cracks between cobblestone became the foothills of a dune; a pallid blade of grass became part of a savanna.” The writer’s main task is to find language for the objects and spaces that are uncoupled from their natural and linguistic order. For Handke, the dissolution of the grammar of reality is the moment of artistic possibility, the epiphanic moment. The danger inherent in this possibility, however, is the failure of language, the ever-present specter of speechlessness; the emptiness that is opened up must in turn be given form.
With the spatial sensitivity of a poet Handke chooses to plumb the depths of the momentary illumination rather than to weave an intricate narrative structure on the storyteller’s time loom. He counters the rush of modern time perception with deliberate attempts to slow down his and his reader’s sensorium by calling attention to the slightest and most trivial images and movements. “Why had no one ever invented a god of slowness?” his alter ego asks in The Afternoon of a Writer. Under the increasingly frenzied pressure of the world’s weight of perceptual data, Handke’s writer seeks the peripheries of this world where speed is diluted and the poetic response still possible.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37
Kirkus Reviews. LVII, June 1, 1989, p.788. Library Journal. CXIV, September 1, 1989, p.216.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1989, p.3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, September 3, 1989, p.11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 16, 1989, p.56.
World Literature Today. LXII, Spring, 1988, p.269.
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