Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551
Gregor Keuschnig, a press attache with the Austrian Embassy in Paris, is married and has a four-year-old daughter. One morning, he has a dream in which he murders someone. From that point onward, his inner life is in upheaval, although he pretends to be normal and to go about his everyday business. He is often in an extremely agitated state, and he believes that he has fundamentally changed. Keuschnig realizes that he is divorced from his own “true feelings.” In this alienated condition, he wanders around the streets of Paris. As in Peter Handke’s earlier novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972), there is little overt plot. The narrative focuses primarily on Keuschnig’s perceptions of himself and others.
Keuschnig goes to work but leaves soon after arriving. He finds a phone number, written on the sidewalk, which he then calls. A woman answers, and he makes a date to meet her the next evening. He visits an old girlfriend but is constantly plagued by feelings of estrangement. Returning to the office, he has sex with a woman worker whom he hardly knows. He has a strong desire to disrobe in public. Keuschnig’s behavior is the extreme opposite of his actions prior to his dream. He seems to exist in an almost schizophrenic, disoriented state. Random objects that he sees on the street suggest strong feelings to him. He longs for a new “system” of perception, to be able to experience life in a new way.
This longing for a change in the way he perceives reality is satisfied in a section toward the middle of the novel. He is sitting on a park bench at sundown and sees three objects on the ground before him: a chestnut leaf, a piece of a broken pocket mirror, and a child’s hairclip. Suddenly these insignificant items become miraculous objects that give him a sense of well-being and harmony with the world. He experiences a kind of semimystical epiphany or revelation and realizes that he has the power to change his life.
Keuschnig returns home, where he and his wife have a dinner party with several friends, including a writer who always seems to be taking notes on Keuschnig’s behavior. Keuschnig becomes increasingly paranoid during the dinner; overcome by a sense of alienation, he spits at the writer and then begins to undress, smears his own face with food, and starts fighting with the guests. Later, Keuschnig and the writer go for a walk. He continues to perceive objects as representing his subjective visions. Dreams of his mother also haunt him. He again becomes so desperate that he feels like committing suicide. He grasps the meaning of his experience with the three objects in the park: Insofar as the world can become “mysterious” for him—as opposed to routine and typical—he can connect himself to it. At the end of the novel, he decides that he must find a new kind of work, a new perspective on life. He begins to experience himself as if he were a character in a novel. He goes to a cafe to meet the strange woman whose number he had called. The text ends with a paragraph that suggests the beginning of a new novel.
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