Peter Handke

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Michael Hays (essay date January 1981)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10360

SOURCE: “Peter Handke and the End of the ‘Modern,’” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 346-66.

[In the following essay, Hays examines the theoretical and aesthetic principles governing Handke's critical perspectives and dramatic works, particularly his effort to subvert the conventions of modern drama. According to Hays, “Handke's goal is to make art out of artifice while revealing the artifice of that art.”]

In order fully to understand Peter Handke's contribution to modern European drama, one needs not only to locate his work in relation to that of other contemporary playwrights (this has been done often enough), but also to come to grips with the fact that Handke is a serious literary critic and theoretician whose dramaturgy springs more from his desire to expose the ideological substance of drama and criticism than it does from a desire to author works which follow in the tradition of the “modern.”1 Therefore, prior to dealing with his plays, I would like to place Handke in the historical-critical context out of which his art and criticism have arisen. By exploring this context and his work, I wish to show that Handke stands at the crossroads between the modern and the as yet undefined realm of “post-modern” culture.

In his book on the modern drama, Richard Gilman comments that “ … Handke's plays are all extremely resistant to conventional methods of criticism and critical reporting. …”2 Gilman is right, of course; the irony is that he has failed to connect Handke's radical subversion of the modern drama with his equally radical attack on modern criticism and its approaches to reading and spectating. In both cases, Handke wants to draw our attention to the way in which conventions—conventions of form, language and perception—have blocked our ability to recognize the artificial, that is the fictional and therefore non-“real” nature of art. According to Handke, this failure in understanding takes place whenever the critic accepts or propounds the ideal that a particular literary-dramatic model represents reality or is “true to life” or “describes nature.” Such critics, according to Handke, take no notice of the fact that these forms, all the conventions of the drama for that matter, have a history. That is to say, the drama is artifice and, as such, as something constructed, cannot be the same as nature or external (non-artistic) reality. It comes into being at a certain time and a certain place because a new historical-aesthetic mode of perceiving reality has been developed. In a short essay on the popular German critic Marcel Reich-Ranickí, Handke points to “realism” and the “realistic” narrative method as examples of what he means. “Even the realistic method is not natural but an artificial model that … at first created the impression of being affected and amateurish and only through familiarity came to seem natural. …” The same is true of more recent literary models. The interior monologue, for example, has come to be described as “realistic” and “natural.” Handke further asserts that formalism, today’s “affected art, belongs nonetheless to the natural, to the realism of tomorrow.”3 Thus we see that “nature” in this case is itself a convention, one which describes the imputation of a particular way of seeing and doing to the world itself. Critics who do not recognize this fact mistake the artistic reality of the work of art as well as its historically conditioned quality. Far from revealing more of our reality to us (how we stand in relation to our art and our history), these critics and their criticism blind us with claims about a...

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“nature” and a “metaphysics” that are in fact internal to the formal-verbal structure of the work of art and in no way synonymous with the “external world” of everyday experience. We are, thus, prevented from recognizing the difficulty that exists in designating our relationship to either of these realities. Instead, we are provisioned with a simple, mechanical vocabulary (with no recognition of its own artificial structure), which prevents our making independent judgements about art and life. Critics and the general public alike are then trapped inside a system of clichés which lead one to search for the “universal truth” or the “life-like” qualities of a work because “art reflects life” or “nature imitates art.” Prime examples of this kind of critical rhetoric can be found in Gilman’s comment that the “tension and struggle” in Handke's plays “rise from a sense of a stricken human condition beyond any immediate causes. …” Gilman draws on the post-existentialist/absurdist critical idiom here because Handke's plays “lack … the usual elements of conflict between characters or … a moral or psychic dilemma. …”4 Since Handke's plays do not provide the linear narrative and character psychology of earlier “realistic” modern drama, Gilman cannot apply the methods of criticism which have been developed to perpetuate the conventions of the “real.” He therefore moves over to the lexicon of absurdist abstractions and, as Handke suggests will be the case, helps naturalize the idea that the drama (in this case Handke's) should and does present us with a picture of the human condition as “stricken.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that Gilman believes “ … Handke has … absorbed and been much influenced by Beckett. …”5 There is, of course, no question about the fact that Handke knows Beckett’s work. He occasionally quotes from Beckett’s plays in his own. But he has also commented on Beckett’s work—negatively and at some length—in his critical texts. Handke's statements indicate how misleading Gilman’s rhetoric actually is. Indeed, Gilman has reproduced the very practice to which Handke objects. Handke's own position is that Beckett belongs to the old theater—to the tradition of the modern drama—because his plays are locked into the conventions which associate the stage with the real world. “The fatal signifying structure (stage means world) remains unanalyzed and leads … to the ludicrous straightforward symbolism of the Beckettian pantomimes. That is nothing new, but rather a falling back on the old meaning of the stage.”6 What Handke wants to show us is that for all Beckett’s attempted subversion of traditional theatrical conventions and despite his ironic use of the rhetorical forms and clichés of literature and society (a use that only seems to parallel Handke's own), what he actually accomplishes is an inversion which, although it empties the forms of their value as signifiers in a narrative structure, in no way denies the referentiality of linguistic and dramatic activity as such. Beckett’s plays may not be construed as concrete pictures of everyday experience, but they are understood as symbolic representations of the nature of reality—of life as “absurd.” His plays make no effort to assert the theater’s artificiality over and against life. It is rather that Beckett’s theater shows us that life is artificial—like the theater. This is not at all Handke's opinion. He believes that the external world is not an artificial construct, but rather a reality which can be construed more or less clearly depending on the consciousness one has of one’s self and of one’s signifying systems. This is the reason the theater is so important for Handke. It provides the place and the possibility for an analysis of the social, linguistic, and gestural forms which have become the normative structures for describing and defining reality. This is also why Handke is so deeply interested in critics and criticism, since, for Handke, critics have the role of substantiating (or negating) the artistic forms and norms which institutionalize our perceptions of the world. As far as Handke is concerned, both drama and criticism have for some time promoted the same erroneous notions about the “reality” of the theater’s fictions. Dialogue and the narrative (story) form of the modern theater have been means of perpetuating the false notion that what takes place on stage represents or is part of natural life. But, as Handke has stated in his critical writing, the drama (and literature as well) presents not reality, but rather a “mechanical and automatized … false naturalness.”7 The nature/reality presented in the theater is always one that derives from the norms and conventions of the drama of the period (“reality” is monologue, or dialogue, or silence, etc.). These forms, and particularly the social, linguistic and theatrical mechanisms which define dialogue on stage, “are not in tune with the actual problems of the spectators.”8 Indeed, how can they be when everything that appears on stage is in fact part of an artificial construct, not part of an ontological order?

Until quite recently, then, the theater has enclosed the spectator in words and forms which are thoroughly artificial, but because they laid claim to reality, they prevented a self-conscious recognition either of their artifice or of external reality. Handke says this aspect of the theater dates back hundreds of years and, as another recent critic has pointed out, one can document the effort to transform the theater, as an institution, into a place and a form which claims to give a truer “picture” of reality than that provided by personal, everyday experience. In his essay on “Tableau and coup de théâtre,” Peter Szondi examines Diderot’s part in establishing the language and action of the theater as a “higher” reality. In his commentary on the drama, Diderot suggests that in the theater one sees “the human race as it is. …” Far from being troubled by the experience of the everyday world, one can, in the theater, learn to be reconciled to “life,” by seeing the truth of human existence.9 The beneficent vision of an ideal humanity that Diderot proposes has certainly been altered in the drama of the last one hundred years, but, and this is the main point of Handke's argument, the notion that the theater presents us with insights into the “true nature” of human experience—a nature which, though more or less at odds with individual experience, is presented as everyone’s reality. It is this theater, or rather this idea of the theater, which Handke's criticism and his plays attack and attempt to subvert. He wants to show that the rhetoric of criticism and the conventions of the theater cannot present reality because they are signifying systems which are man-made and self-referential. As has been pointed out by almost every student of Handke's work, this linguistic and dramaturgic analysis owes a great deal to Wittgenstein,10 but it should be added that the terms in his discussion of the multiple sets of signifiers in the theater belong more to Saussure and Roland Barthes than they do to the Philosophical Investigations.

The codes which govern signification in the theater are grounded in the development of the theater as an institution. They are historically and ideologically bound structures which pre-empt the self-conscious critical faculty of the individual by providing the terms through which all social and aesthetic experience is to be understood. In the traditional theater, one is supposed to sit back and be entertained by these encoded, prejudged descriptions of “life,” rather than to see them as artistic fabrications which use language and gesture as conventions according to the demands of the currently accepted theatrical manner.11 Far from providing a serious statement about the external world, the theater, which refuses to announce its own artifice, in fact transforms everything that is “serious, important, clear and final,” outside the theater into “play”—the interplay of connections which allow us to recognize, not reality, but the encoded meanings proper to the world of the drama itself.12 Thus, self-conscious awareness of and engagement in the social, political and aesthetic realms are “played” away in the pre-structured play and signifying space that we call the theater. Every moment, every word, every sentence is formalized by the conventions of drama and has meaning only in terms of the lexical possibilities contained within these formal, semiotic structures.13

Handke wants the public to recognize this “mendacity” of the theater in order to become more conscious of the fact that neither the order found inside nor that found outside the theater is permanent and natural. They are rather products of the social and artistic norms generated by the dominant groups in a given society at a given time. This is true for the moral codes of a society as well. For Handke, “morality, however moral it claims to be, is simply a lie in a hierarchically organized society, an alibi for the inequalities that crop up in society. And the theater, in its role as a moral institution, functions simply as a safety-valve for the social order.”14 Handke wishes to give the theater a different function. He believes the theater can make one conscious of the fact that structures of power exist to which one has been blinded, structures which one has accepted as a matter of course. This can happen if the theater suddenly appears to be something artificial and not at all natural, through “linguistic deconstruction, through grammatical analysis which … reveals the fact that structures of domination are neither divine nor state necessities.”15 Handke would like to contribute to the end of the domination of one individual or group over another. Outside the theater he would, therefore, support the development of a Marxist model “as a solution to the dominant contradictions in society (‘dominant’ in every respect)—but not its announcement in the theater.”16 His reasons for rejecting Marxist or “political” theater of any kind are rooted in his analysis of the formal and theatrical qualities of the theater discussed above. Handke's specific rejection of Brecht’s dramaturgy is also understandable in this light and makes clear why one should be careful when ascribing “Brechtian” characteristics to his work.

Handke regards Brecht as having made a positive contribution to social and aesthetic analysis through his “alienation effects” and through his presentation of the formal contradictions that exist between, for example, rhetoric and action. But, according to Handke, Brecht has applied the wrong sociological means in the wrong place—totally away from the reality he wished to change, Brecht tried to use “the hierarchic order of the theater to disturb other hierarchic orders, hierarchically. …”17 Even Brecht’s attempts to alter acting techniques were of no value, since it is “historically false” to assume that changing the actors’ comportment indirectly changes that of the spectator. Despite his revolutionary will, Brecht was so caught up in the performance canon of the theater (referential, narrative plot line, theater as entertainment) that he failed to see that the forms of his plays actually subverted his intentions. His techniques were inevitably constructed as variants on the formal structures of the modern drama in general. Furthermore, claims Handke, the lack of contradiction at the ends of Brecht’s works, his formalizing of a solution to the contradictions announced in the rest of the play, simply naturalizes another “order,” without giving the audience awareness of the ordering process behind the theater as an artistic and social institution.18 Form and“content” convey another version of “reality,” without making the spectator aware that all formal orders are reductive structures which deny alternative modes of perception and self-conscious analysis. Like the other works of the modern canon, Brecht’s plays are self-enclosed and, formally speaking, clichés. In place of the “modern,” be it as contemporary as Brecht’s socio-political narratives or Beckett’s inversions of the “meaning” found in earlier drama, Handke proposes a new critical and dramatic method, one which calls into question all that has previously been settled and shows “that there is … another manner in which to present reality,” or rather “that there was another manner, since this one is also exhausted with its first use. It is not a question of imitating this model, but with it to make known how, as reader, one can seek out other possibilities.”19 Instead of what Handke calls theater-theater (drama which does not scrutinize its own situation and conventions), he calls for a theater in which the play space serves not as a means of perpetuating social and aesthetic norms, but as a context for the development of “as yet undiscovered inner play spaces in the spectator, as a means whereby the individual’s consciousness is not expanded, but rather made more exact, as a means to sensitize, to cause reactions, to awaken to the world.”20

Although Handke wants a drama which announces itself as “play,” as pure formal/linguistic abstraction, the purpose of this play is to indicate to the audience the nature of the forms which encode the performance event. By becoming conscious of himself or herself in this theatrical context, the spectator is more readily able to identify the way in which all institutional structures allocate meaning in a certain, arbitrary way. The theater, by imitating (playing on) its own conventions, can awaken the spectator/listener to the historical and non-necessary character of these forms. This in turn can lead to a more explicit consciousness that the world can be changed.21 Thus, Handke's critical method and his dramatic method are both aimed at revealing the fact that the public can liberate itself from the ideological orders institutionalized by language, literature, all systems of naming and describing. He wants us to see their historical origins—how and when they were formed, and how they inform our social and aesthetic practice. He does not give us this history though, since to do so would create the closure of a fixed explanation, a conclusion. This was Brecht’s error. Handke insists on the public’s ability to understand by itself the abstract playfulness of his texts. They are meant not to show us how to think, but to elicit the knowledge that new possibilities of thinking, speaking and acting are possible. This is the reason that Handke's plays, although they employ the forms and conventions of the modern drama, are not part of the modern. They are prologues to our awareness of the modern and also prologues to a drama yet to come, so it is not surprising that Handke uses this very term to describe Offending the Audience, one of his first dramatic pieces.

This and Handke's other plays expose, subvert and do away with all of the forms—verbal, gestural, spatial—that embody and give meaning to the modern drama. They leave the audience with an awareness of what has been and, therefore, with the possibility of creating new socio-aesthetic patterns to take the place of the old. Handke accomplishes this, as I shall show, by transforming the traditional dramatic narrative into an “archaeological” exploration of the bits and pieces, the artifacts that were the constitutive elements of the drama. His method is, in fact, quite close to that employed by Michel Foucault, who, during the past fifteen years, has produced a series of archaeological investigations of the knowledge, discourse and cultural institutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.22 In both cases, the purpose of their work is to reveal the historical and ideological foundations (the structures of order and power) which lie in and behind the terms and practice of social and aesthetic institutions. Handke's archaeology of the drama proceeds from his awareness that the audience comes to the theater enmeshed in the presuppositions which have made the drama understandable in a specific way: through the dialogue and interaction of the characters, one gets a “picture,” albeit mediated and symbolic, of the “nature” of human experience and reality. The task of the audience is to decode and understand this mediated vision of the world by means of symbolic association, allegorical and metaphorical interpretation, and the general codes built into language, architectural space and gesture. An initial premise of such drama is that the audience cannot perceive reality on its own. Instead, the public “sees” that reality is knowable only when it learns to interpret the interpretations presented on stage. Thus, the forms of the drama produce a fiction which becomes “reality.” We learn to be entertained not so much by this artificial world as by the fact that we have learned to understand the codes which are used to interpret and present this world. Handke reverses this process. Instead of presenting to a passive audience a coded picture of “reality,” he forces the audience to become an active participant in the discovery of the formal principles which have generated the fictions on stage.

Plays were played here. Sense was played here. Nonsense with meaning was played here. The plays here had a background and an underground. … They were not what they seemed. … The conspicuous meaninglessness of some plays was precisely what represented their hidden meaning. … Not a play, reality was played. Time was played. … The theater played tribunal. The theater played arena. … The theater played tribal rites. … It was not there, it was only signified to you, it was performed.23

The audience is no longer the object of an action which unfolds on stage; it becomes the subject, the center of the process of deconstructing the roles and functions of the traditional theater.24

You are the subject matter. You are the center of interest. … You are an event. You are the event. … You are a species. You form a pattern. … You are a standard pattern and you have a pattern as a standard. You have a standard with which you came to the theater. … You don’t need a standard. You are the standard. You have been discovered.25

It is this discovery—the revelation of the audience’s primary role in the coding and decoding of meaning in the theater—that lies at the heart of all of Handke's work, but especially his Sprechstücke (“Talking plays”; Michael Roloff has given the word a political turn by translating it as speak-in). These first four dramatic works—Offending the Audience,Self-Accusation,Prophecy and Calling for Help—are the initial archaeological investigations and the premises upon which the later plays are built. They and their accompanying commentary present the method and the focus of Handke's dramaturgy.

The … Sprechstücke … are spectacles without pictures, inasmuch as they give no picture of the world. They point to the world not by way of pictures but by way of words; the words of the … [Sprechstücke] don’t point at the world as something lying outside the words but to the world in the words themselves. The words that make up the … [Sprechstücke] give no picture of the world but a concept of it. … Ironically, they imitate the gestures of all the given devices natural to the theater.26

By reducing his plays to pure language, Handke hopes to interrupt the learned tendency to interpret dialogue and action as references to or pictures of the real world. Freed from this habit of mind and focused on language itself, the audience is able to recognize the norms and concepts which lie behind speech. This in turn should lead to an awareness of the fact that these concepts and norms determine how we “see” the world, not how the world is. Handke, through his ironic imitation of the “devices natural to the theater,” doubles the fictions of the drama and thereby exposes their un-naturalness, their fictional and playful quality.

Handke's goal is to make art out of artifice while revealing the artifice of that art. Therefore, as soon as the audience enters the house to see Offending the Audience (1966),27 it is “greeted by the usual pre-performance atmosphere. One might let them hear noises from behind the curtain, noises that make believe that scenery is being shifted about. … These noises should be amplified … and perhaps should be stylized and arranged so as to produce their own order. …”28 Handke also insists that late comers should not be admitted, that a dress code be enforced, and that the ushers act in a particularly solemn manner. His purpose here is not simply to trade on the clichés of traditional theater comportment. He wishes to evoke in the spectator a spontaneous recognition of these codes and their arbitrariness. In so doing, he hopes the audience will become aware of the way in which these codes condition the theater event. Because one hears and sees certain things, one expects other things, not because they must come, but because they have been joined together by the habits of mental association. Once this expectation horizon has been evoked,29 the speakers on stage (who talk to the audience, not to each other) announce that the public will “hear nothing … [it has] not heard here before,” but that what it hears will not be what it has “always heard” before in the theater (p. 7). In lieu of the expected, the speakers name the words and forms which constituted that expectation. All the conventions of action, space, decor and dialogue—all the illusions of stage reality—are named and subverted in the lines that follow. Finally only two realities remain: that of the words themselves and that of the presence of the actors and spectators. These words are not, as Christopher Innes has suggested, the “irreducible basis of reality. …”30 They are their own reality and stand in contradistinction to that of the audience. This dialectical relationship is the basis for the analysis of the theater event which now becomes possible for the audience. The real words in Handke's plays are to the fictional “meanings” of the modern drama as the self-conscious presence of the audience is to its traditional role as receiver/interpreter of meaning. This knowledge is not imparted to the audience by the speakers, though. It is experienced by the public when its actions and interpretations meet the negating presence of theatrical language which insists on remaining theatrical: fiction, play and pure acoustical pattern.

There is no back door. Neither is there a nonexistent door as in modern drama. The nonexistent door does not represent a nonexistent door.

(p. 13)

By always speaking directly to you and by speaking to you of time, of now and of now and of now, we observe the unity of time, place, and action. … Therefore this piece is classical.

(p. 20)

A final, brief section gives the play its name. The speakers announce that they will now offend the audience. But, they say, “we won’t offend you, we will merely use offensive words which you yourselves use. We will contradict ourselves with our offenses. We will mean no one in particular. We will only create an acoustic pattern. You won’t have to feel offended” (p. 29). Some critics feel Handke has backed off from his intention here. After preparing the audience, he fails to affront it. Innes, for example, thinks the audience is therefore able to enjoy the “expertise” of the verbal assault, without being affected by it (pp. 239–40). What Innes has failed to understand is that Handke's intention is not to insult the public, but rather, by using language heard on the street, to show how that too, like the language of the drama, is formal and not referential. Handke obviously wants to draw the attention of the now theatrically self-conscious audience to the forms which structure perceptions in the everyday world. He attacks the “audience” so that the actual spectators can become aware of and take their distance from the clichés, the stereotypic codes and concepts which isolate and oppress individuals in society.

you drips, you diddlers, you atheists, you double-dealers, you switch-hitters, you dirty Jews. … you vigilantes, you socialists, you minute men. … You positive heroes. You abortionists. You anti-heroes … You generals. … You tax-evaders.

(pp. 30–32)

Handke wants to sensitize the spectators to the patterns and contradictions of common speech so that they can, perhaps, perceive themselves and others as the “fellow humans” whom the speakers address as they announce the end of the play.

In Self-Accusation (1966), Handke continues his assault on the “world in … words themselves.” But this time it is not the clichés, conventions and conceptual patterns that authorized “meaning” in the theater that are the focus of the piece. Instead, it is the process whereby the “self” takes on an identity that comes under investigation. The play is an actionless patterning of the words and phrases through which the “I” structures its relationship to the world and to the “others” which surround it. This play prepares the way for Kaspar, but here, instead of seeing how one is socialized by learning to speak, we hear a chorus of two voices. The play is in the “form of a Catholic confession and carries the marks of those public self-criticisms that are usual under totalitarian regimes.”31 The “I” of Self-Accusation is not the “I” of a story; it is the grammatical “I,” according to Handke.32 By making this distinction, he emphasizes once again the fact that it is the forms of speech and, by extension, the forms they inculcate, that are of central importance—not the accidental pathos of some fictional individual. The “I” in Handke's play acquires an identity in relation to the forms to which it is attached. “I learned the verbs. … I became the object of sentences. … I said my name.”33 Along with these acquisitions, “I” “became capable of separating good and evil …” (p. 39). But the moral and social rules thus embodied stand in contradiction to each other, so that “sin” becomes inevitable. This is in fact “original sin,” the unnamable original sin of “becoming” for which the “I” must take responsibility although it has not created the forms into which it fits. “I offered an easy target. I was too slow. I was too fast. I m o v e d” (p. 51). “I” can only be guilty once; it has become a function of an oppressive cultural model. That model and its antithesis are implied in the confessional form of the work. The specific source, the “confession” that underlies not only Catholic confessional practice but moral self-stigmatization in general, is Augustine’s Confessions.34 Handke introduces Augustinian argument and “proof” in his own text. “One day in the world, I was no longer free of sin. Bawling, I craved my mother’s breasts. … All I knew was to gratify my desires. … I was disobedient out of love of play” (p. 47).35 The antithesis to this moral verbal web is obviously the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil, and Handke's humor takes on the strong flavor of Nietzschean irony: “I refused to divulge the name of the highest being. I only believed in the three persons of grammar” (p. 48).36 It is obvious that Handke's analysis of language in general and of the oppressive structures imposed by the hierarchic institution of class and moral orders is also Nietzschean—as is the process of subverting these forms through irony and play.

Prophecy (1966) and Calling for Help (1967) are further additions to Handke's deconstruction of the world perceived and produced through language. Prophecy is a choral presentation of metaphors which are employed to describe and “explain” the experiences of life, but they are denied their “meaningfulness” when we recognize that the “reality” which underlies them is not some higher truth.

The flies will die like flies.
.....The vulture will circle like a vulture.
.....The bombs will strike like bombs.
.....The fool will prattle like a fool.(37)

There is no special significance, no pathos in a fly dying “like a fly.” It is the sequence “die like flies” itself, without any context, which has, in our cliché-filled verbal life, acquired a weight that it brings to its every usage. There is no more “truth value” in it than in “The skin will be skin-deep” (p. 16).

Calling for Help is an equally short piece, a formal exercise in searching through the common stock of everyday phrases for the word “help.” The play may be a demonstration of the spatial and verbal distance between the speakers on stage and the audience—a signal of the need to establish a community of support, but as Handke himself has said, this play and Prophecy as well are so lacking in inner tension or contradiction that they are little more than formal models. Handke would like to eliminate them from his works.38

In his next play, Kaspar (1969), the pure forms of language Handke has used before solidify into a character—Kaspar—and thus begins the second phase of Handke's dramaturgy. In addition to the idea of language as perception, we are now given the opportunity to see language as action. Kaspar is not a person, though—Handke continues to reject that kind of referentiality; he is instead the embodiment of “what IS POSSIBLE with someone.”39 He is the model for a person who, through language, through recitation, learns to fit into the behavioral practice of a society.40 Handke has borrowed the name and his starting idea from the true story of Kaspar Hauser, but there the similarities end. Handke's Kaspar is “born” onto the stage: he struggles for some time before he “breaks through” the “slit” in the backstage curtain and emerges into an as yet undefined world of “theatrical props.”41 These props—chairs, tables, a sofa, an armoire, a bottle, a broom—participate in the theatrical event, but they are not part of a “story.” They are the objects used to evoke an awareness of the subject (Kaspar)-verb-object basis of perception and of social integration.

When Kaspar emerges onto the stage, he has at his disposal a single sentence: “I want to be a person like somebody else was once.” The sentence itself “means” nothing on an immediate level, however. This becomes clear as soon as Kaspar comes in contact with the furniture on stage and uses the “sentence” in “response” to each experience—whether that of knocking over a chair or getting his hand caught between two cushions. The sentence does not “mean” in the social and lexical sense because it is a totally private and subjective utterance, like the sounds that babies make before they learn to talk. Handke could hardly stage the whole process of growth and development from infancy to young adulthood (this would require too much narrative and offer too much opportunity for identification and association), so instead he presents us with a hypothesis: a stage figure, aged sixteen, who can utter word sounds which, for him, are free of fixed signifying properties. Kaspar is thus able to “verbalize” all his inner experience without having that experience shaped by the lexical and grammatical systems which govern ordinary speech. As the play progresses, three “prompters” begin to introduce him to the purpose of “purposeful” model sentences:

The sentence is more useful to you than a word. … You can make yourself comfortable with a sentence. … With the sentence you can pretend to be dumfounded. Assert yourself with the sentence against other sentences.

(pp. 67–68)

The sentences that they then offer as models are tautologies and normative points of view that often stand in contradiction to each other, but are conceptually complete “pictures” of “reality.”

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Good order is the foundation of all things.

(p. 83)

Through these models, Kaspar, who at first has no ability to distinguish between two and three dimensions or to “name” time-space relationships, acquires the ability to speak rationally and to act in accord with the concepts contained within these sentences. Through them he is also given the means to build sentences of his own, sentences which, unlike his first verbal production, are based no longer on an inner urge to express, but on the acquired need to order experience according to the norms he has learned. As he learns the models, his own sentence is lost, fragmented first into single words, then into letters and a jumble of sounds. Clearly, two parallel events have taken place. Kaspar has become adept at using the social/verbal structures of society, but he has also lost contact with his original experience of himself—however painful it may have been. In lieu of this immediate, subjective awareness, Kaspar learns the sentences “that an ordinary person learns to get through life safely.”42 But this safety necessarily brings with it alienation and fragmentation of the self. The goal-oriented rationality of everyday speech is anti-individual and also hides its historical/ideological origins: Kaspar has been “sentenced” to life in the prison house of language. When, in a moment of doubt and, perhaps, self-awareness, he asks,“what was it I said just now,” he regains his original sentence and is free to reconstruct playfully his early life and learning experience. But this new “poetic” freedom leads only to chaos and schizophrenia, since there is no place for this kind of liberated self-expression within the formal constraints of contemporary language and society. At the end of the play, Kaspar and the other Kaspars who have appeared on stage to make clear the leveling and homogenizing effect of language are knocked over and fall behind the curtain as it slowly twitches shut.

Kaspar’s closing line is “Goats and monkeys” (p. 140), Othello’s raving comment about human lasciviousness (IV, i. 256). This is obviously not the final word on the subject, however; we know that both Kaspar and Othello have been misled by their “prompters.” The play provides no specific answer to the problem of linguistic oppression, though; it cannot if the public is to be seized by that nausea which Handke hopes will be the beginning of individual consciousness.43 But his own position is clear. “People who are alienated from their language and from speaking, like workers from their products, are alienated from the world.”44

Given Handke's interest in contemporary society and his wish to overcome the limitations of traditional drama, one might wonder why his next two plays have titles that conjure up that most canonical of playwrights: Shakespeare. My Foot My Tutor (1969) takes its title from a line in The Tempest where Prospero rebukes Miranda with the comment, “What, I say, my foot, my tutor!” (I, ii 354).45 Handke's intent is clearer in the German version, in which the lines read, “the ward wants to be guardian!” Once again Handke wishes to deal with the manner in which authority is imposed, and in The Tempest, not only Miranda and Ariel, but also Caliban, whom Prospero “took pains to make … speak” (I, ii), are under the sway of Prospero’s words. It is not Shakespeare whom Handke wishes to attack, though; it is the concepts of tutelage and control that he wishes to explore. So too Quodlibet (a musical term meaning “something liked”) echoes As You Like It. Written in 1969, it draws on characters from “‘world theater,’”46 not in order to create a literary puzzle, but to evoke in the audience an awareness of our expectation that certain words, characters and actions belong together in ways that are established by association, not by fact.47

My Foot My Tutor marks another shift in Handke's dramaturgy as well. His first plays were primarily language oriented in their effort to identify the habitual connections between language and practice. They were also demonstrations that one could construct works of art out of “pure” language by giving it a formal, choral/acoustical structure independent of any narrative action or symbolic referent. Audiences discovered that the discovery of associations between language, structure and power was not only enlightening, but fun.48 With this foundation firmly in place, Handke could begin to reintroduce action in his plays—not action in the old narrative sense, but action freed of the constraints that were targets of his first pieces. My Foot My Tutor, therefore, is a play of movement without words, a play of form, not meaning.49 As in Kaspar and the Sprechstücke, we are to pay attention to the shape of the event, not to some pre-established reference point. Each of the actions in the play is constructed on the pattern established in the first scene: movement from a calm, uncomplicated situation to one filled with tension, from the ward’s self-possession to his disorientation and repression through the guardian’s mere presence. Repression is not actively presented on stage, and only once after a minor “rebellion” (he throws burs at the guardian) does the ward show the marks of possible violence—blood trickles from his nose as he begins the following scene. The control and tutelage exercised here are structural, not physical. Like Foucault, Handke has understood that the way in which experience is ordered, the way in which daily activities are presented and supervised, defines much of the view we have of ourselves and our relation to the world.50 History and ideology frame our experience because the forms through which we experience are their institutionalized expression. The play does not end on a dark note, however. The final scene shows the ward alone on a brightly lit stage, repeating a series of “meaningless” but free, playful actions.51 It is left up to the audience to decide what has happened to the guardian.

Once Handke developed a method that would allow him to present both language and action as significant forms rather than as forms of signification, he could proceed to full-length dramatic works. The first, Ride Across Lake Constance (1971), takes up where Kaspar left off. Handke presents “the patterns of human behavior dominant in society. …”52 His technique is to deconstruct the apparently formless statements about life heard in those daily interactions based on love, work, buying and selling. By presenting the theatrical forms of these events, Handke hopes to show that these statements are as “exploitative and dependent on the market, on supply and demand, as the ‘false nature’ which they depict.”53

The title of the play derives from a poem by Gustav Schwab, “The Rider and Lake Constance.” In the poem, a rider, who accidentally rides across the thin ice of the Lake, falls dead of fright when he is told what he has done. In Handke's play, it is not the aftereffects that count; it is the immediate danger that lurks below the thin ice of language and form—the abyss of uncertainty which convention and habit help us bridge—that is the source of danger. By enacting the collapse of the rapport between linguistic/formal reality and real reality, Handke allows us to recognize the former as a model of authority and our subjugation to that authority. This recognition comes to us, the audience, as we watch the characters in the play struggle to maintain a firm footing in “life” and safely, thoughtlessly pass through the most common of daily experiences.

The characters, all named after well-known German (originally silent) film stars, act out situations which turn on failures in the assumed connections among language, gesture and reality. These events appear as moments of wakefulness within the dream of life as a simple narrative tale.

Emil Jannings reaches for a cigar box which falls to the floor. “Jannings points at the cigar box. [Heinrich] George misunderstands the gesture and looks as if there was something to see on the box. Jannings agrees to the misunderstanding and now points as if he really wanted to point out something.54 George has successfully rejected Jannings’s power play. Later, both characters make mistakes about each other’s gestural intentions and Jannings ends up with the cigar box after all. The two act out the conventions of power, control and ownership while at the same time revealing the multiple possibilities actually available for interpreting the relationships among word, gesture and situation. In a similar demonstration, Henny Porten almost falls when coming down the stairs because Jannings and George skip a number while counting the steps as she descends. Expectations based on speech acts do not, of necessity, correspond to reality.

Later in the play, Elizabeth Bergner becomes disoriented by seeing “herself” in reverse in a mirror. She is helped back to “reality” by the same kinds of model narrative sentences that were used to instill ordered perception in Kaspar. A short while later, Jannings proves the “naturalness” of social and verbal conventions.

I’d like to pick it up for you, but I have to stick to what I said (To Porten), don’t I? (She nods.) I can’t say something and then do the opposite of what I’ve said. Inconceivable! That would be a topsy-turvy world. … And that’s how it is generally: (As though to the audience) the manner in which one thinks is determined by the laws of nature!

(p. 123)

When Bergner and Von Stroheim act out a love relationship, it takes on the form of a melodrama; the lines are all delivered as if known in advance. Imitation of a love story replaces and eliminates the possibility of real emotional exchange. Love and failure of love are played like all other coded interactions, and with as little conviction. The players have no choice, though. For them the alternative is the “madness” and disorder of unrestrained self-expression and unstructured, unmediated contact with the world.55 All the characters prefer instead the security of known forms.

The piece closes with a doll-child being carried around the room. It reaches for the women’s breasts and between the men’s legs. In this drama of imputed meaning and structured significance, these gestures seem to carry heavy symbolic weight, but if we keep Kaspar in mind, it is fair to assume that Handke is simply extending the logic of his dramaturgy. In a world of fictions organized around language and gesture, it is appropriate that an image (fiction) of a child be the one to express direct, unmediated interest in the persons and (pro)creative parts of the characters. But as was the case with the events designated by Kaspar’s first sentence, the subjective value of these gestures remains outside the realm of pre-structured symbol and meaning. We are left to contemplate our need to contain and render harmless uncoded gestures of the “other” by giving them a specific interpretive meaning.

In his most recent full-length work, They Are Dying Out (1974), Handke sets a coda to his prior dramatic activity. Having established the techniques of concrete language and concrete action, he is in a position to dramatize the passion of an individual in search of himself. From the tragedies of Shakespeare and Lessing, Handke takes the themes of impossible love, loss of power, betrayal; then, in “imitation” of Chekhov and Horváth’s plays of socio-linguistic collapse, he builds these themes into a drama of contemporary social, economic and linguistic reality.56 To do so, Handke draws his characters from the dominant, capitalist class, since what is at stake is the possibility of having personal, tragic experience that has some bearing on society in general. If a person who has both power and knowledge is unable to grasp reality or find a self-conscious mode of expressing his subjective being within the rationalized framework of contemporary industrial society, then such experience is simply not available. If, on the other hand, one can express the “irrational” self within the rational language of society, what will the terms of this expression be?

In the first act of the play, we see Quitt, the “hero” of the play, in consultation with several other capitalist entrepreneurs about ways to rid themselves of the problems and anxieties created by competition and market fluctuation.57 They agree to join together in a cartel which will control prices, production and marketing. They opt for the ultimate in rational planning as a means of making life clear and secure—at least from the producer’s point of view. Before the agreement is reached, each of the would-be business partners expresses his or her concern about the present state of (business) affairs and about the need for a secure social (again business) order. But each of them adopts a different tone and rhetoric. Von Wullnow, the aristocrat, speaks of a need to return to the old days when the owner of an enterprise and his workers made up “one big happy family.” Krober-Kent, the pastor, speaks in a detached, sermon-like style which never gets beyond the level of moral generalization and cliché. Paula Tax, on the other hand, uses progressive socialist rhetoric—in order better to organize her own economic empire.

I would like to go on the basis that we don’t generate any artificial needs but only awaken the natural ones of which people aren’t conscious yet. … Take a look at the socialist states. They have no irrational products—and still they advertise, because the rational needs advertising most of all. That’s what transmits the idea of what is rational. For me advertising is the only materialistic poetry. … [I]t endears us to the objects from which we have been alienated by ideology.58

Handke has a rather savage sense of humor here. Marxist analysis of reification, be it through the randomness of the market, the alienation of the working class from the means of production, or the making fetishes of goods as commodities, is transformed into another means of producing greater profit for private enterprise. All rhetoric is equally useful in this sense. It is exactly this transformation of all alternative forms of analysis and understanding into naturalized, goal-oriented systems that produces and maintains the alienated condition of modern art and society. In our world, the average person, like Kaspar, learns to get by with the “answers” provided by these rhetorics. But Handke has not written a play about average people; these ladies and gentlemen of high finance are aware of their own and each other’s rhetorics. “I know my rhetoric,” says Von Wullnow, and is quite capable of willfully borrowing the trope “premature undialectical impressionism” from Paula Tax’s rhetorical lexicon (p. 185). Given this superior knowledge and ability based on and in the abstract models of capital and production, can one manage to allow the subjective and irrational to give meaning to life? Or is there no meaning-free space left in our rationalized and alienated social order?

These questions are broached indirectly in the first lines of the play. Quitt says, “I feel sad today,” then, “ … I felt lonely.” These feelings “cut like a yearning dream deep into … [his] heart” (pp. 165–166). Hans, Quitt’s servant, assumes that these statements are mere “political” rhetoric, part of Quitt’s and his own daily routine of role-playing. But they are not. Driven by these inner, irrational (non-“productive”) feelings, Quitt decides he must express himself at all costs. He first attacks Paula Tax for her failure to escape from a totally rational, business-oriented manipulation of language and people (p. 203). Then, in order to demonstrate the power and importance of his inner being, in order to make contact with the reality of his feelings, he turns on his partners.

… I am playing something that doesn’t even exist. … That’s the despair of it! Do you know what I’m going to do? I won’t stick to our arrangement. I’m going to ruin their prices and them with it. I’m going to employ my old-fashioned sense of self as a means of production. … It will be a tragedy. A tragedy of business life, and I will be the survivor. … There will be lightning and thunder, and the idea will become flesh.

(p. 211)

Unfortunately for Quitt, his desire for self-realization is hopelessly locked into the model of free enterprise and capitalist competition. As can be seen from his rhetoric, he is not able to verbalize his feelings in any other terms. He borrows from the theater and from the Bible, from the literary canon, in order to create an idealized picture of himself as the leading figure in a grand economic drama. His rhetoric not only is self-alienating, but hides the fact that his drama of self-expression is in reality merely another business scheme. The traditional Western thought-complexes of love, loyalty and hate have been reduced to technical manipulations.

In the second act of the play, we see the results of Quitt’s decision. The other members of the cartel try to “bring him to his senses” through rhetorical manipulation. Paula Tax even tries seduction, playing on their earlier unrealized (and in a world of technical abstraction, unrealizable) emotional involvement. Quitt rejects her with brutal self-confidence. Handke next adds an ironic touch by having the “minority-stockholder” and board-meeting gadfly, Kilb, attempt to assassinate Quitt. Kilb, critic of capitalist and institutional practices, turns out to be part of the system after all and is as ineffectual in his attempted violence as he has been in his past efforts to disrupt meetings and draw attention to himself.

Quitt survives these struggles as he claimed he would, but his victory is empty since he has not given expression to the feelings emanating from his “self.” He has in fact alienated his subjective being as a “means of production,” given it over to the world ordered by the abstract value of capital, a world where “Even the Freudian slip from the unconscious has already become a management method” (p. 253). Quitt, who wants “to speak about … myself without using categories” finds he cannot (p. 256). Though he does not “want to mean anything any more …”, all his words have a signification assigned to them already, by what he calls the “superego voices of our culture” (pp. 256–257). He finally ceases to believe in the possibility of anyone escaping from the world of forms into the freedom of self-expression. “While one set of monsters is being exorcised, the next ones are already burping outside the window” (p. 257). Even the act of murdering Kilb, though it marks a release of energy, brings no relief. The rational and the irrational cannot be joined. Quitt commits suicide by running his head against a large, carefully hewn block of stone. In this last mad act, the inner being and the “rationalized” order of the external world meet—in a way.

The events of the play do not produce an entirely hopeless situation, however. Hans, the servant, and Quitt’s wife have moments of self-recognition which indicate that they might be able to create a more fully integrated life. Indeed, for the original production Handke suggested that they be seen dancing together across the stage as Quitt falls dead.59 This is not a symbolic dance of victory, though; it is simply a playful gesture of hope.

The tragedy in this drama turns out to be not at all the same as that of its classical models. In a world reduced to the rhetorical fictions found in the theater and repeated in life, there is no place for tragedy—if, that is, tragedy embodies personal/emotional contact with a community struggling for identity. Clearly, Handke's position in this play is that the modern world, its institutions and especially its theater, can only feed on itself, on its own forms, and can produce nothing more of interest—no new awareness of the self or the external world. Handke's effort to escape this cycle of repetition through subversion and transformation of the conventions of the theater has also reached an end point. Having totally theatricalized and objectified the language and process of the drama, he has contributed a great deal to our understanding of art and reality, but his method, built as it is on the carcass of the modern theater can only help us unearth those bones not yet discovered. Handke's dramaturgy too has run up against the stone wall of linguistic and social “reality.” It remains to be seen if he too will fall into the trap of repetition or will be able to escape into a space where new meaning is possible. For the moment, he seems to have recognized that further developments in his dramatic art are predicated on changes in society itself—assuming that the monsters burping outside the window turn out to be benign.


  1. The term “modern” is used here to designate that complex set of cultural and aesthetic notions which have their origins in the social and ideological transformations of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but find their concrete forms in the art and society of the last one hundred years. There is no room in this essay for a full discussion of the idea of the modern. The reader is therefore referred to Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972).

  2. Richard Gilman, The Making of Modern Drama (New York, 1974), p. 275; hereafter cited as MD.

  3. Peter Handke, “Marcel Reich-Ranickí und die Natürlichkeit,” in Prosa Gedichte Theaterstücke Hörspiel Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main, 1969), p. 289. This collection will be cited hereafter as Prosa. All translations from Prosa are mine.

  4. MD, p. 275

  5. MD, p. 277. See also Christopher Innes, Modern German Drama: A Study in Form (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 254, 259.

  6. Peter Handke, “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms,” in Prosa, p. 271.

  7. Artur Joseph, Theater unter vier Augen: Gespräche mit Prominenten (Cologne, 1969), p. 27; hereafter referred to as Theater. All translations from Theater are mine.

  8. Theater, p. 31.

  9. Denis Diderot, Oeuvres Esthétiques, ed. P. Vernière (Paris, 1965), pp. 192–93, quoted in Peter Szondi, Lektüren und Lektionen (Frankfurt am Main, 1973), p. 30; my translation.

  10. See, for example, MD, pp. 267–70.

  11. See Handke, “Ich bin ein Bewohner” and “Strassentheater und Theatertheater,” in Prosa, pp. 267 and 304–06.

  12. Handke, “Strassentheater,” in Prosa, p. 305.

  13. This concern with the formal signifying properties of what we usually refer to as the “content” of a work, though clearly semiotic, also has profound connections with the Hegelian, dialectical analysis of form and content as found in the Logic and, more recently, in the works of Lukács, Adorno and Szondi.

  14. Theater, p. 30.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Handke, “Strassentheater,” in Prosa, p. 305.

  17. Ibid., p. 304.

  18. See ibid., p. 305.

  19. Handke, “Ich bin ein Bewohner,” in Prosa, pp. 265–66.

  20. Handke, “Strassentheater,” in Prosa, p. 306.

  21. Ibid.

  22. See, for example, Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York, 1971); The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York, 1976); and Discipline and Punish (New York, 1978).

  23. Handke, Offending the Audience, in Kaspar and Other Plays, trans. Michael Roloff (New York, 1969), pp. 24–25.

  24. By making the audience a participant in the deconstructive process, Handke overcomes one of the major problems that has faced Foucault in his archaeological deconstructions. Rather than presenting the reader with an already assembled structure of knowledge (as Foucault must, since he presents his analysis in the finished form of a book), Handke allows the spectator to experience whatever knowledge he or she acquires as a personal awakening of consciousness, independent of any pre-structured mode of perception. For a more detailed discussion of the order of knowledge in Foucault, see Paul Bové, “The End of Humanism: Michel Foucault and the Power of Disciplines,” to be published in a special Foucault issue of Humanities in Society, Spring, 1981.

  25. Offending the Audience, p. 12. Like Foucault, Handke insists on the importance of recognizing the event and the nature of one’s participation in it.

  26. Handke, “Note on Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation,” in Kaspar and Other Plays, p. ix.

  27. The dates cited here will always be those of the first performance.

  28. Offending, p. 5. Subsequent references to Offending will appear in the text.

  29. The term “expectation horizon” is borrowed from Hans Robert Jauss, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation (Frankfurt am Main, 1970).

  30. Innes, p. 238.

  31. Peter Handke, Stücke I (Frankfurt am Main, 1972), p. 205; my translation.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Handke, Self-Accusation, in Kaspar and Other Plays, p. 38. Subsequent references to Self-Accusation will appear in the text.

  34. See also Foucault’s discussion of confession in La Volonté du savoir, Vol. I of Histoire de la sexualité (Paris, 1976).

  35. See Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth, 1961), pp. 27, 47.

  36. Cf. Augustine, p. 71.

  37. Peter Handke, Prophecy, in The Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays, trans. Michael Roloff (New York, 1976), pp. 3–5. Subsequent references to Prophecy will appear in the text.

  38. See Uwe Schultz, “Zwischen Virtuosität und Vakuum,” Text + Kritik, No. 24/24a (Sept. 1976), 18.

  39. Handke, Kaspar, in Kaspar and Other Plays, p. 59.

  40. Theater, p. 35.

  41. Kaspar, pp. 60–63. Subsequent references to Kaspar will appear in the text.

  42. Theater, p. 36.

  43. Handke freely admits his debt to Sartre for the term, but unlike the existentialists, he believes that “nausea” can lead to a positive recognition and transformation of objective social reality.

    My reference to Othello comes from the Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1958).

  44. Theater, p. 39.

  45. The Yale Shakespeare, ed. C. B. Tinker (New Haven, 1918). Most recent English editions of The Tempest have assigned these lines to Miranda, but since German translations continue to follow the tradition established by Tieck and give them to Prospero (see, for example, Sturm, trans. R. A. Schröder [Frankfurt a.m., 1958]), Handke would associate them with Prospero. Thus, I have cited an early English version which corresponds with the German.

  46. Handke, Quodlibet, in The Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays, p. 57.

  47. Handke's choice of a general, a bishop, a politician and a grande dame as representative social/theatrical forms echoes Genet’s analysis of these form/function relationships in The Balcony.

  48. See Manfred Mixner, Peter Handke (Kronberg, 1977), p. 31.

  49. Mixner, p. 96.

  50. See Foucault, Discipline and Punish, passim.

  51. Innes calls them “laboriously carr[ied] out meaningless actions” (Modern German Drama, p. 249) and assumes they are signs of the ward’s psychological collapse. In fact, they are just the opposite: they are playful acts of self-expression, unfettered by the omnipresent eye (“I”) of the guardian.

  52. Peter Handke, Stücke 2 (Frankfurt am Main, 1973), p. 57; my translation.

  53. Ibid.

  54. Handke, The Ride Across Lake Constance, in The Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays, p. 74. Subsequent references to The Ride will appear in the text.

  55. For Handke, “madness” is yet another ideologically bound category, one that is used to institute and perpetuate an hierarchically structured society. At first, persons who threaten this structure are deemed mad in order to remove them to places where they can be observed and controlled. Later, as society’s rules are internalized, the individual personally takes responsibility for avoiding those “mad” events and feelings which would jeopardize carefully ordered social “reality.” Constraint becomes liberty and freedom insanity. Oppression thus becomes productive. Handke pays his debt to Foucault in this play by having Porten cite the lines, “Of water and of madness, of ships of fools …” (p. 133), which Foucault places in the opening chapter of Madness and Civilization.

  56. Mixner, pp. 189–90.

  57. Their discussion obviously parallels Marx’s analysis of alienation in a capitalist money economy.

  58. Handke, They are Dying Out, in The Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays, p. 196. Subsequent references to They are Dying Out will appear in the text.

  59. Mixner, p. 196.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2256

Peter Handke 1942-

German dramatist, novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, screenwriter, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Handke's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 10, 15, and 38.

Since his debut as a bold experimental dramatist in the mid-1960s, Handke has earned acclaim as a major European literary figure and one of the preeminent German-language writers of his generation. A leader in the international postmodern movement, Handke consciously avoids literary or theatrical conventions in his work. Influenced by the writings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the French structuralists, Handke's own writings examine the influence of language on the formation of personal identity as well as the problems and possibilities that arise from language. Despite his trenchant attacks on the oppressive force of social and cultural preconceptions, Handke rejects the combination of politics and literature and refuses to use his art as a platform for proselytizing. Though much of his writing is drawn from personal experience, the presentation of his ideas is often decidedly abstract, especially as he decontextualizes familiar concepts and words to probe subjective reality.

Biographical Information

Handke was born on December 6, 1942, in the Austrian village of Griffen. Both Handke's father and stepfather were German soldiers. His mother, like most of the villagers, was part Slovenian. Handke won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school located in Tanzenberg and then transferred to a gymnasium (a European secondary school) in Klagenfurt. He studied law at the University of Graz from 1961 to 1965. While there, he worked with writers affiliated with the avant-garde Forum Stadtpark. After he published his first novel, Die Hornissen (1966; The Hornets), Handke chose not to take the necessary exams to complete his law degree. In 1966, he married Libgart Schwarz, an actress with whom he has a daughter; they later separated, and Handke raised their daughter himself. In 1966, Handke also participated in an event that defined his literary career. He attended a convention at Princeton University of the Gruppe 47, the most influential association of German writers at the time. On the last day of the meeting, Handke, speaking from the floor, attacked the lectures and discussions he had attended. He criticized members of Gruppe 47 for their use of fictional and dramatic conventions. He insisted that literature is made up of language and not of that which language describes. In addition to its likely contribution to the decline of the Gruppe 47, Handke's highly publicized critique of his literary forebears established him as the enfant terrible of a new generation of European writers. He further declared his artistic assault on social and literary conventions in a 1967 essay entitled “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms” (“I am an Inhabitant of the Ivory Tower”). Handke's first drama, Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience), created a sensation when it premiered during a week of experimental theater in Frankfurt. Two years later, he earned international recognition as a playwright with a production of Kaspar (1968). Handke's first collection of poetry, Die Innenwelt der Auenwelt der Innenwelt (1969; The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld), appeared soon thereafter. A year later he won acclaim as a novelist with Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). Since then, Handke has continued to produce additional volumes of highly regarded fiction, drama, essays, and poetry at a remarkable rate. In 1988, he was awarded the Der Grosse Oesterreichische Staatspreis, Austria's highest literary honor.

Major Works

While having demonstrated his skill in many genres, Handke is known best for his drama and fiction. Handke captured the attention of audiences and critics with his first drama, Offending the Audience, in which he employed minimalist techniques to call into question traditional bourgeois theater. The play opens with four actors announcing that the anticipated dramatic performance is canceled, and instead they begin to discuss the nature of theater. The actors' discussion then turns to the spectators themselves, whom the actors alternately compliment and insult. The drama culminates in verbal abuse directed at both the audience and theatrical conventions. Handke referred to this drama as a Sprechstück, or “spoken piece,” the first of several he wrote during the late 1960s, including Selbstbezichtigung (1966; Self-Accusation), Weissagung (1966; Prophesy), Hilferufe (1967; Calling for Help), and Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969; My Foot My Tutor). While Handke's Sprechstücke eschewed plot, characterization, and dramatic structure, the focus of these plays is language and how language determines an individual's identity. To radically underscore this point, for example, My Foot My Tutor is performed without any spoken dialogue. A later drama, Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander der wuβtten (1992; The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other) also uses no dialogue. The play consists only of stage directions and involves some 400 actors who traverse the stage, gesticulating and performing a variety of quotidian and symbolic acts. The role of language in the creation of one's social identity is central to Kaspar, Handke's first full-length play. This work, another Sprechstück, is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a developmentally delayed teenage orphan in nineteenth-century Nuremberg. In Handke's version of this oft-told tale, Kaspar is indoctrinated with social precepts as he learns how to speak. Kaspar's entry into a corrupted society signals his fall from a state of natural grace.

Of Handke's first two novels, The Hornets and Der Hausierer (1967; The Peddler), repetition, minute descriptions, and atmospheres of anxiety and violence reveal the influence of the French nouveau roman, especially as practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Handke's preoccupation with language is also evident in the critically important novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. In this book, Bloch, a construction worker, loses his job following the misinterpretation of a gesture. Bloch begins to lose his grasp of ordinary conversation and then reality. His paranoiac state culminates with the motiveless murder of a girl. Connecting language with personal identity, the book examines the alienation that results from a failure to reconcile one's inner reality to the powerful social reality. Handke explores similar themes in Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell), which involves an Austrian writer who flees his estranged wife and embarks on a parodic coast-to-coast trek across the United States. Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling) centers upon an Austrian diplomat who dreams that he is a murderer and attempts to authenticate his meaningless life, only to experience empathy for his fellow man which diverts him from suicide. Die Linkshändige Frau (1976; The Left-Handed Woman) features a thirty-year-old female protagonist who defies the dire expectations of others after parting from her husband and beginning her life anew. During this time, Handke also published Das Gewicht der Welt (1977; The Weight of the World), a journal of the years 1975-77 that consists of Handke's observations and reflections on his life and artistic aims while living in Paris with his daughter. Handke subsequently wrote the Langsame Heimkehr (Slow Homecoming) tetralogy, comprising the novels Langsame Heimkehr (1979; The Long Way Around), Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980; The Lesson of Sainte Victoire), and Kindergeschichte (1981; Child Story), and the dramatic poem Über die Dörfer (1981). Collectively, these works mark an important transition for Handke, who began to move away from deconstructive studies of fear and alienation to focus instead on the ameliorative properties of subjective transformation and mystical transcendence through altered states of perception. As a leading proponent of the “New Subjectivity” movement in West German literature during the 1970s and 1980s, Handke advocated a withdrawal into the liberating inner world of thought and being as an antidote to the oppressive, coercive external forces of society.

Der Chinese des Schmerzes (1983; Across) involves protagonist Andreas Loser, a teacher of classical languages and amateur archaeologist, who spots a man spray-painting swastikas on trees. He throws a stone at the graffitist and kills him, an impulsive act that reveals the dark depths of his nature and alludes to Austria's fascist guilt. Die Wiederholung (1986; Repetition) recounts the journey of a young man who leaves his Austrian home for Yugoslavia in search of his Slovenian heritage and long-lost older brother. He brings with him a Slovenian dictionary and an old notebook belonging to his missing brother, which, together, allude to the problem of language and translation. Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers (1987; The Afternoon of a Writer), based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 short story “Afternoon of an Author,” involves a nameless writer who, while occupying his apartment and wandering about the city during the course of the day, records his observations and reflects on the anxiety and isolation necessary for creative inspiration. Die Abwesenheit (1987; Absence), an essentially plotless novel, involves four generic characters—the old man, the soldier, the gambler, and the girl—who embark on a walking tour which, in its randomness, represents an anti-quest novel. Like Absence, the play Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum sonoren Land (1990; Voyage to the Sonorous Land) involves a cast of purely emblematic characters—including the actor and actress, the old couple, the local man, and the wide-eyed man—whose journeys and metamorphoses involve ventures into myth, history, and various psychological states. An even more complex consideration of reality is displayed in what may be considered Handke's magnum opus, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (1994; My Year in the No-Man's Bay). In this massive novel, protagonist Gregor Keuschnig, an Austrian lawyer who shares many biographical details with Handke, has moved to an ordinary Parisian suburb to write a book that turns out to be the novel being read. In his writing, the lawyer explores his isolation as well as the connection to others that he experiences. In order to make sense of his situation, he thinks of distant friends in Japan, Scotland, and Austria, as well as his son, who is traveling to Greece.

Handke's recent novel, In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus (1998), centers upon a lonely pharmacist who leaves his home and work in suburban Salzburg to embark on a journey with a champion skier and formerly respected poet whom he meets at a restaurant. Handke has also published several volumes of experimental essays, which he terms versuche (translated literally as “attempts”). These self-styled prose pieces, an amalgam of poetic meditation and metaphysical reflection, are contained in Versuch über die Müdigkeit (1989), Versuch über die Jukebox (1990), and Versuch über den geglückten Tag (1991), subsequently collected and translated in The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling (1994). In the genre of nonfiction, Handke's best-known work is Wunschloses Unglück (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams). In this memoir, written in the months following his mother's suicide, Handke not only recalls his mother's life but addresses the difficulty of treating her life as a literary subject while at the same time maintaining her individuality. In contrast to this highly personal work is Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau (1996; A Journey to the Rivers), in which he recounts his travels to Serbia in the fall of 1995 and relates his anger over Western media accounts of the Croatian and Bosnian wars. In addition to calling into question journalistic reporting, Handke blames the Yugoslavian crisis not on Serbia but on Germany, which, the author maintains, prematurely recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia.

Critical Reception

The interest of Handke's work to critics has strengthened over time. While he is consistently praised for his evocative explorations of language, perception, and the limits of expression, some of his more experimental works, though appreciated for their ambition, have been judged overly cerebral and abstract to the point of inaccessibility. His first drama, Offending the Audience, not only thrilled the audiences that were the object of Handke's abuse, but also reviewers. Praised for its attack on conventional notions of the theater, the play has exerted a significant influence on contemporary drama. Kaspar, the last of Handke's Sprechstücke, has been cited as one of the most important works of post-World War II German literature. Even when the play's thesis—that socialization through the teaching of language robs a person of his individuality—was rejected, the drama was commended for its intellectual rigor and overall dramatic intensity. The success of Kaspar established Handke's international reputation and helped silence critics who questioned his qualifications after he spoke out against Gruppe 47. Handke was recognized as an important German novelist with the publication of his third novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The book was praised for its examination of how language can influence the mind and for its use of madness as a metaphor for the writer's own difficulties. Critics note that Handke's later works change focus from the dilemma of language to the potential inherent in language. This shift in emphasis is perhaps most evident in what reviewers have judged to be the author's most significant novel, My Year in the No-Man's Bay. A great public success in German-speaking countries, the novel also fared well with critics. Reviewers praised the work for the complexity of its prose, its deft handling of the first-person narrative device, and the abundant variety of its themes. Critical response to his earlier memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was similarly positive, as Handke was commended for both the sensitivity and objectivity with which he recounted his mother's life. The reaction to A Journey to the Rivers, however, could hardly have been more different. While the book was a popular success among many Europeans, Handke was strongly denounced by reviewers for writing as an apologist for Serbian hegemony. Despite the controversy surrounding this work, Handke continues to be regarded as one of the most challenging and important literary figures in the contemporary German-speaking world.

June Schlueter (essay date January 1981)

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SOURCE: “Politics and Poetry: Peter Handke's They Are Dying Out,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 339-45.

[In the following essay, Schlueter examines the deep-seated themes of individual loss and alienation that underlie the political ideology of They Are Dying Out.]

In 1974, a year after its publication, They Are Dying Out was produced at Zürich’s Theatre am Neumarkt and Berlin’s Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer. The Schaubühne, like Frankfurt’s Theater am Turm, favored politically involved plays with a leftist orientation,1 and three years earlier it had shown considerable hesitation with respect to The Ride Across Lake Constance. There was no such hesitation with They Are Dying Out, however, which Horst Zankl (who directed both the Zürich and the Berlin productions) undertook without reservation, apparently feeling its anti-capitalistic message was clear. When the Yale Repertory Theatre produced They Are Dying Out in 1979, the play was billed as a “biting, wry comment on the cult of mass marketing and its creators,”2 with translator Michael Roloff and director Carl Weber “Americanizing” the production to reflect the special embarrassments of our home-grown consumerism.

To be sure, Mr. Quitt (be he the original “Hermann” or the Americanized “Oscar”) is by anyone’s definition an unconscionable capitalist, who manipulates his colleagues into a position of vulnerability in order to destroy them. And the group of entrepreneurs who gather in his home are unrelenting in their criticism of free enterprise, committing themselves to deception and dissembling while acknowledging that they are cigar-smoking monsters in the public eye.

Nowhere in Handke's work is politics so prominent as in They Are Dying Out, yet no critic has satisfactorily accounted for this play’s political ideology. Rainer Nägele and Renate Voris, for example, compare the play with Brecht’s didactic St. Joan of the Stockyards but conclude that Handke's repudiation of capitalistic practices is ambivalent.3 And Manfred Mixner carefully examines the political framework of the play but denies the existence of any direct political message.4 The fact is that the play is simply not convincing politically, and one is left with the feeling that Quitt’s suicide, effected through successive smashings of his head against a massive stone, is something other than—or more than—his disillusionment with life in a capitalistic society. Politics may indeed offer an entry point for the play, but once one gets beneath the surface texture, he finds himself in a skillfully-wrought playworld which has as much to do with alienation as with capitalism, and more to do with aesthetics than with either. Beneath its political mask, They Are Dying Out is a dramatized continuation of the aesthetic dialogue which informs all of Handke's work, and particularly of the growing feeling of loss first suggested in his novel Short Letter, Long Farewell.

Like the hero of Short Letter, Long Farewell, Quitt is a man in search of self. Quitt has invested much time, effort, and capital in building not only an empire but an image, yet he is not content; though seldom given to displays of emotion, Quitt admits he is a lonely man and, in the play’s opening scene, rejects the suggestion of his servant, Hans, to be reasonable. Quitt the businessman suspects there is more to him than his professional pose, and he resolves to prove to Hans—and to himself—that his feelings are “useful.”

The entrepreneur becomes preoccupied to the point of obsession with finding the self beneath the camouflage of his businessman’s life. In a conversation with Paula Tax, the one female entrepreneur among them, he pleads, “if you look at me now, please become aware of me for once and not my causes,”5 then begs, “Do I have to bang my head against the floor to make you ask about me?” (p. 202). He tells the story of how the eggman came to the door at the same time each week and how he wanted to scream, “‘Can’t you be someone else for once?’” (p. 200); and he delights in listening to Kilb relate an event of his (Quitt’s) recent past, commenting, “It’s beautiful to hear a story about oneself” (p. 174), a remark suggesting that he is looking for verification of his existence. He tells of how some young boys once saw him step out of his house and tauntingly cried out, “ … I know who you are! I know who you are!”, “as though the fact that I could be identified was something bad” (p. 195).

But Quitt’s colleagues are disarmed by the unexpected signs of humanization in the entrepreneur. Hearing his long derogatory assessment of the free enterprise system, Koerber-Kent asks, “What were you playing just now? It was just a game, wasn’t it? Because in reality you are—”, to which Quitt sardonically replies, “Yes, but only in reality” (p. 187). And Kilb, the minority stockholder who faithfully attends all such meetings, asks Quitt, “Can’t you distinguish between ritual and reality any more?”, warning him, “Know your limits, Quitt” (p. 191).

Quitt does indeed have limitations, and they are not only those of the businessman unable to escape society’s labels, but those of a man aware of a self which bears no relationship to the world, to other people, to itself. Quitt longs to be human and speaks to Hans of “Real people whom I can feel and taste, living people. Do you know what I mean? People! Simply … people! Do you know what I mean? Not fakes but … people. You understand: people. I hope you know what I mean” (pp. 217–218). But despite his hopes, Quitt cannot become any more than a “phantom” of himself, one who suddenly notices that he no longer has anything to do with his face. Quitt’s quest ends with the discovery that his reality is defined by his fictions, that his very essence is nothing but role.

Quitt, of course, is no real man but a dramatic character whose search for self must logically end with the cry, “I’m still stuck too deep in my role” (p. 254), for a dramatic character’s freedom cannot be had without annihilation. Quitt, in fact, does have an existence beyond his role as businessman, but it is not to be found in the liberation of a necessarily non-existent essential self. It resides, rather, in Quitt’s identification of himself as artist. As Joseph A. Federico points out in “The Hero as Playwright in Dramas by Frisch, Dürrenmatt, and Handke,” Quitt “sees himself as the hero of a self-authored drama, a ‘tragedy’. …”6 In Quitt’s words, the tragedy is one of business life, in which “… I will be the survivor. And the investment in the business will be me, just me alone” (p. 211). For the artist himself, for Handke, the tragedy expands beyond the world of the play, accounting for Quitt’s—and modern man’s—loneliness and alienation in terms of no less magnitude than the decline of Western civilization and the consequent loss of a poetic language.

In a 1974 interview for Die Zeit, Handke remarked of his characters in this play: “They play as if they were tragic figures. But they remain in the shadow of a parody.”7 The comment is central to the play, not because Handke's “wry humor” (as the Yale Repertory Theatre calls it) precludes a serious treatment of Quitt’s fate, but because an advanced capitalistic society, such as the one in which Quitt functions, precludes tragedy. Critic Georg Lukács, tracing the decline of narrative in his Theory of the Novel (and elsewhere), speaks of the utopian age of the Greek epic, a form which emanated from a civilization in which there was no disparity between meaning and essence. Tragedy, he contends, developed when the “inner world” and the “outer world” became opposed, but the form permitted their momentary reconciliation, in the tragic crisis. In more recent centuries, there have been only a few writers who have shared this awareness of the schism between man and his environment and who have attempted to restore harmony through narrative.8 Among the writers whom Lukács regards with especially high esteem is Gottfried Keller,9 whose masterpiece is the autobiographical Green Henry, the novel to which the hero of Short Letter, Long Farewell keeps returning.

Indeed, the same sense of loss which the protagonist in Short Letter, Long Farewell feels whenever he reads Keller’s nineteenth century novel is expressed by Quitt following Hans’s reading him a long (slightly edited) passage from Adalbert Stifter:

How much time has passed since then! In those days, in the nineteenth century, even if you didn’t have some feeling for the world, there at least existed a memory of a universal feeling, and a yearning. That is why you could replay the feeling and replay it for the others as in this story [“The Bachelor”]. And because you could replay the feeling as seriously and patiently and conscientiously as a restorer—the German poet Adalbert Stifter after all was a restorer—that feeling was really produced, perhaps. In any event, people believed that what was being played there existed, or at least that it was possible.

(pp. 210–11)

Quitt’s nostalgia for a lost literature sounds more like Handke the poet than Quitt the capitalist, yet Quitt’s status as a promoter of free enterprise has much to do with aesthetics. For Lukács, the relationship between the decline of Western civilization and the decline of poetry is clear: “The domination of capitalist prose over the inner poetry of human experience, the continuous dehumanization of social life, the general debasement of humanity—all these are objective facts of the development of capitalism … The poetic level of life decays—and literature intensifies the decay.”10

Hegel, of course, also analyzes the effects of capitalism, not in terms of literature but in terms of human relationships, suggesting that mass production prevents the worker from understanding the totality of the events in which he is involved or the product he partially makes. As George Steiner explains Hegel’s theory of alienation, capitalism “severs man from the natural rhythms and shapes of creation.”11 The resulting “Verdinglichung,” or “reification of life,” defines Quitt the capitalist and Quitt the poet as product of the same historical phenomenon. Quitt the capitalist cannot establish contact with the world:

I would like to snap at the world now and swallow it, that’s how inaccessible everything seems to me. And I too am inaccessible, I twist away from everything. Every event I could possibly experience slowly but surely transforms itself back into lifeless nature, where I no longer play a role. I can stand before it as I do before you and I am back in prehistory without human beings. I imagine the ocean, the fire-spewing volcanoes, the primordial mountains on the horizon, but the conception has nothing to do with me. I don’t even appear dimly within it as a premonition. When I look at you now, I see you only as you are, and as you are entirely without me, but not as you were or could be with me; that is inhuman.

(pp. 202–03)

And Quitt the poet can only complain of failed attempts at poetry:

All I actually do is quote; everything that is meant to be serious immediately becomes a joke with me, genuine signs of life of my own slip out of me purely by accident, and they exist only at the moment when they slip out. Afterward then they are—well—where you once used to see the whole, I see nothing but particulars now. … I would so like to be full of pathos! … What slips out of me is only the raw sewage of previous centuries.

(p. 211)

Handke's own political inclinations may well be Marxist. But he has repeatedly denied that his writing has political intent, insisting that there is no such thing as an engaged writer, but that there are only engaged men.12 If Handke's writing, and particularly They Are Dying Out, is political, it is so in the sense that Gottfried Keller has referred to all man’s activities as “political,” not limiting the definition to ideology but referring to man’s communal activities, that is, his relationships with other people and with the world at large. They Are Dying Out may indeed echo Lukács’s aesthetics, but it stops considerably short of becoming a Marxist platform. For Handke's concern in this play is not to attack capitalism but to portray truthfully the condition of modernism, which, whatever the historical reasons (and the rise of capitalism may be one of them), he sees as a nearly unbridgeable schism between the individual and the world.

Speaking of his recently completed Langsame Heimkehr in a 1979 Berlin interview, Handke explains that this novel—or, more accurately, he suggests, this epic poem—is an attempt to reach both a world harmony and a universality for himself as a writer. He speaks of history, and particularly the history of the German-speaking world, and of how the past has destroyed the relationship between nature and language, making the poetic creation of men living together a near impossibility. The conflict between the “great nature” of which Hölderlin speaks—for in his time it was still possible to do so—and the modern writer’s impotence is what Handke tries to narrate in Langsame Heimkehr.13 Clearly the restoration of a harmonious vision of life is the key for Handke to the restoration of a language which will become the kind of literature Keller and Stifter, as well as Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, were able to create.

So also is the restoration of this vision of life necessary to the creation of epic, or even tragic, figures. Whereas the Greek epic hero felt a continuing sense of union between his inner and outer worlds, and the tragic hero experienced a moment of reconciliation (albeit too late), the modern hero, standing in opposition to his world, can at best be a parody. For Lukács, the prototype of modern literature is the madman, unable to achieve integration. And the characteristic state of the modern artist is impotence. As New York Times critic Mel Gussow remarks in his review of the Yale production of They Are Dying Out, for Quitt the world ends not with a bang but with a burp,14 this inarticulate utterance suggesting the final failure of the modern poet.

The extreme pessimism which informs Quitt’s fate, however, is not Handke's final comment on modern literature nor the Armageddon of his own writing. For, as Lukács suggests in The Theory of the Novel, the grotesque failure of the protagonist in search of himself is inevitable in a world in which no reconciliation is possible, but the work of literature itself can stand as a symbol of the writer’s successful integration of matter and spirit. In They Are Dying Out, Quitt himself is destroyed, but his servant, Hans, endures. At the end of the play, Hans notices with hope that he is becoming human and, in a parting poem, speaks of learning to dream and of changing the world. If Handke has been using capitalism as a metaphor for the decline of Western civilization, then the survival of Hans, the proletarian, would suggest some hope of a return to an age when the integration of man and his environment was still possible. What suggests the possibility of redemption even more strongly, however, is the fact that Hans has been more than just Quitt’s servant throughout the play. He has, in fact, been Quitt’s Doppelgänger. The strong kinship of the two men is suggested in an early monologue, when Hans, hearing Quitt complain of loneliness and detachment, laments:

I can’t remember anything personal about myself. The last time anyone talked about me was when I had to learn the catechism. “Your humble servant” of “Your Grace.” Once I had a thought but I forgot it at once. I am trying to remember it even now. So I never learned to think. But I have no personal needs. Still, I can indulge in a few gestures.

(p. 169)

Moments later, Hans explains to Kilb that he is serious only when Quitt is serious, and later, when Quitt invites him to tell him about himself, he replies “You mention me. / Yourself you mean” (p. 207).

In the second part of the play, Hans speaks of his realization of this connection:

Suddenly I saw that I lacked something. And when I thought about it I realized that I lacked everything. For the first time I didn’t just sort of exist for myself, but existed as someone who is comparable, say, with you.

(pp. 214–15)

And when Quitt asks Hans, “Would you like to be like me?”, the servant replies,” I have to be” (p. 215).

From Hans’s point of view, the play has rather a fairy-tale quality to it, the story of the poor servant who perseveres and ultimately becomes king. The analogy is a more substantial one than a first mention would suggest, for, in an interview with Heinz Ludwig Arnold, Handke speaks of his familiarity with the Austrian playwrights Nestroy and Raimund, and particularly the fairy-tale plays of the latter, which he says were the basis for They Are Dying Out: “The fairy-tale plays of Raimund have been for me what I still am trying to achieve in my plays. Above all in the last play: They Are Dying Out is basically a Raimund-world: the unhappy rich man and the others his comrades.”15 In fact, at one point in the play, a conversation between Quitt and Paula is interrupted by Quitt’s wife, who, involved in a crossword puzzle, asks the name of a nineteenth century Austrian dramatist, seven letters. Quitt suggests Nestroy, and she says, “No”; he then suggests Raimund, and she replies, “Of course” (pp. 201–202).

Even without the Raimund clue, however, a lover of fairy tales should recognize the characteristics of the familiar tale of the hero in search of an unspecified kingdom, the attainment of which symbolizes, as Bruno Bettelheim points out, “a state of true independence, in which the hero feels … secure, satisfied, and happy. … In fairy tales, unlike myths, victory is not over others but only over oneself. …”16 If Quitt, the reigning ruler, fails in his quest, then his Doppelgänger, his complementary alter ego, does not, and achieves the freedom of self which Quitt sought.

Hans’s achievement suggests Handke's idealized vision of the self as the fulfilling union of man and nature, and his hope for a language which can adequately express a relationship he fears is irrecoverable. His survival turns what might otherwise have been a pessimistic, even nihilistic, vision of the future of literature into an earnest hope for new life. It turns They Are Dying Out into both a lamentation and a prophecy, conveying the anguish of modern man in search of self and of the writer in search of a language. At one point in the play, Paula accuses Quitt of thinking of himself as “the deputy of universal truth”:

What you experience personally you want to experience for all of us. The blood you sweat in private you bring as a sacrifice to us, the impenitent ones. Your ego wants to be more than itself, …

(p. 195)

Clearly Quitt’s ego has become more than itself, transforming itself not only into the non-capitalistic Hans, who poetically envisions a changed world, but into the poet Handke as well, whose own commitment rests not in any political cause but in a language which offers a renaissance of literature and life.


  1. See Claus Peymann, “Directing Handke,” The Drama Review, 16 (June 1972), 48, 53.

  2. Promotional advertisement for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s fourteenth season, 1979–80.

  3. Rainer Nägele and Renate Voris, Peter Handke (München, 1978), p. 92.

  4. Manfred Mixner, Peter Handke (Kronberg, 1977), p. 189.

  5. Handke, They Are Dying Out, in The Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays, trans. Michael Roloff (New York, 1976), p. 199. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. Joseph A. Federico, “The Hero as Playwright in Dramas by Frisch, Dürrenmatt, and Handke,” German Life and Letters, NS 32 (January 1979), 171.

  7. “Gespräch mit Peter Handke über sein Stück,” Die Zeit, 18 (American edition, 3 May 1974).

  8. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 29–39.

  9. See Lukács, Gottfried Keller (Berlin, 1946).

  10. George Lukács, “Narrate or Describe?”, in Writer and Critic, and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Arthur Kahn (London, 1978), p. 127.

  11. George Steiner, “George Lukács—A Preface,” in Realism in Our Time, by Georg Lukács (New York, 1964), p. 12.

  12. Handke, “Die Literatur ist romantisch,” in Prosa, Gedichte, Theaterstücke, Horspiel, Aufsätze (Frankfurt, 1969), pp. 273–87, and Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms (Frankfurt, 1972), pp. 35–50.

  13. See June Schlueter, “An Interview with Peter Handke,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, 4 (1980).

  14. Mel Gussow, “Two Plays That Challenge as They Entertain,” The New York Times, 11 November 1979, sec. 2, p. 24.

  15. Heinz Ludwig Arnold, “Gespräch mit Peter Handke,” Text + Kritik, Heft 24/24a (September 1976), 16; my translation.

  16. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York, 1976), p. 127.

Principal Works

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Die Hornissen [The Hornets] (novel) 1966

Publikumsbeschimpfung [Offending the Audience] (drama) 1966

Selbstbezichtigung [Self-Accusation] (drama) 1966

Weissagung [Prophesy] (drama) 1966

Begrüssung des Aufsichtrats: Prosatexte (short stories) 1967

Der Hausierer [The Peddler] (novel) 1967

Hilferufe [Calling for Help] (drama) 1967

Hörspiel (radio play) 1968

Kaspar (drama) 1968

Deutsche Gedichte (poetry) 1969

Hörspiel 2 (radio play) 1969

Die Innenwelt der Auenwelt der Innenwelt [The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld] (poetry) 1969

Kaspar and Other Plays [contains Offending the Audience,Prophecy,Self-Accusation,Calling for Help, and Kaspar] (drama) 1969

Das Mündel will Vormund sein [My Foot My Tutor] (drama) 1969

Prosa, Gedichte, Theaterstücke, Hörspiel, Aufsätze (short stories, poetry, and drama) 1969

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter: Erzählung [The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick] (novel) 1970

Hörspiel 2, 3, und 4 (radio plays) 1970

Quodlibet (drama) 1970

Der Ritt über den Bodensee [The Ride Across Lake Constance] (drama) 1970

Wind und Meer: Vier Hörspiele (radio plays) 1970

Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms (essays) 1972

Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied [Short Letter, Long Farewell] (novel) 1972

Wunschloses Unglück: Erzählung [A Sorrow Beyond Dreams] (memoir) 1972

Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus [They Are Dying Out] (drama) 1973

Als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat [Nonsense and Happiness] (poetry and essays) 1974

Falsche Bewegung [False Move] (screenplay) 1975

Der Rand der Wörter: Erzählungen, Gedichte, Stücke (short stories, poetry, and drama) 1975

Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung [A Moment of True Feeling] (novel) 1975

Das Ende des Fanlierens: Gedichte Aufsätze, Reden Rezensionern (essays, poetry, and speeches) 1976

Die Linkshändige Frau: Erzählung [The Left-Handed Woman] (novel) 1976

Das Gewicht der Welt: Ein Journal [The Weight of the World] (journal) 1977

Langsame Heimkehr: Erzählung [The Long Way Around] (novel) 1979

Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire [The Lesson of Sainte Victoire] (novel) 1980

Kindergeschichte [Child Story] (novel) 1981

Über die Dörfer: Dramatisches Gedicht (poem) 1981

Die Geschichte des Bleistifts (journals) 1982

Der Chinese des Schmerzes [Across] (novel) 1983

Phantasien der Wiederholung (journals) 1983

Slow Homecoming [contains The Long Way Around,The Lesson of Sainte Victoire, and Child Story] (novels) 1983

Gedicht an die Dauer (poetry) 1986

Die Wiederholung [Repetition] (novel) 1986

Die Abwesenheit: Ein Märchen [Absence] (novel) 1987

Der Himmel über Berlin: Ein Filmbuch [with Wim Wenders; released in English as Wings of Desire, 1988] (screenplay) 1987

Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers: Erzählung [The Afternoon of a Writer] (novel) 1987

Versuch über die Müdigkeit (essays) 1989

Noch einmal für Thukydides [Once Again for Thucydides] (sketches) 1990

Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum sonoren Land [Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or, The Art of Asking] (drama) 1990

Versuch über die Jukebox (essays) 1990

Versuch über den geglückten Tag: Ein Wintertagtraum (essays) 1991

Die Absesenheit (screenplay) 1992

Langsam im Schatten (essays, speeches, and criticism) 1992

Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander der wuβten: Ein Schauspiel [The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other] (drama) 1992

Die Theaterstücke (drama) 1992

The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling [includes English-translations of Versuch über die Müdigkeit, Versuch über die Jukebox, and Versuch über den geglückten Tag] (essays) 1994

Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht: Ein Märchen aus den neuen Zeiten [My Year in the No-Man's Bay] (novel) 1994

Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina, oder, Gerechtigkeit für Serbien [A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia] (nonfiction) 1996

Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise (nonfiction) 1997

Zuruestungen für die Unsterblichkeit: Ein Koenigsdrama (drama) 1997

In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus (novel) 1998

Bruce Cook (review date 26 August 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Sorrows of Young Writers,” in Washington Post Book World, August 26, 1984, p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, Cook offers a positive assessment of The Weight of the World.]

The avant-garde thrives in Germany and Austria as nowhere else in Europe. Solemn, strenuously intellectual and glumly determined not to entertain, the literary artists who are best known and most discussed go their own way, fiercely independent of all and everything except the state cultural agencies whose subsidies support them. Not that they would stoop to make willing compromise to the fatherland that feeds them—oh no, they mock the Germans and the Austrians unmercifully!—but almost to a man (and woman) they remain quite scrupulously apolitical. Presumably, the theory is that if they say nothing, then they can give no offense.

The Austrian playwright and novelist Peter Handke probably stands as foremost among them. Although his plays and novels (Kaspar,The Goalie’s Anxiety Before the Penalty Kick,The Left-Handed Woman) are more taxing than difficult, he has achieved a kind of notoriety as a spokesman for the avant-garde. He is most eloquent in denunciation. Handke is noted for his attacks on German writers of the World War II generation. Brecht’s parables for the theater, for example, he dismissed as “fairy tales.”

Yet in this new book, The Weight of the World, a new and different and much more attractive Peter Handke appears. It is a writer’s notebook, a collection of not-exactly-random jottings covering 17 months, from November 1975 through March 1977. We get a sense of the man, as well as the writer, and he turns out to be far more generous and less self-assured than we would have assumed. With regard to Brecht—again, just as an example—he is a bit more sympathetic here: “Perhaps it was easy for Brecht to assimilate and be influenced by political news because the medium through which he received it, the radio, was still a mere medium and not yet a self-sufficient fetish for ‘reality’. …”

This introduces a theme echoed throughout the book. Handke is evidently quite sincerely hostile to history and is contemptuous of those who draw their own sense of reality from the day’s headlines:

“The main thing: not to claim history for myself, not to let myself be defined by history, not to take it as an excuse—despise it in those who hide their personal insignificance behind it—and yet know it, in order to understand people and above all to see through them (my hatred of history as a refuge for be-nothings).”

He seems determined not to allow himself to be duped by the media or trapped by politics. He wants more than anything else, apparently, to be left alone to do his own work—a not uncommon attitude among artists in many lands today.

What this suggests is a kind of bourgeois-ification of Peter Handke—and there are plenty of passages scattered throughout the text to indicate that this process was well under way during the period covered by the notebooks. We see him living in Paris, washing dishes, running errands, reporting almost daily conversations with his daughter. He is in sympathy not just with her but with all children—those whom he sees playing in the streets, those whom he hears being disciplined in restaurants, even with himself as he remembers his own childhood. And finally, he rather uneasily faces the prospect of buying a house in Austria upon his return—for the child, of course.

Yet at the same time he resists all this. There are a number of oddly violent fantasies recorded here—running amok, shooting people—and anti-social feelings expressed toward those who come by and interrupt his work or, more often, simply his solitude. You get the feeling that this period in Paris was not a very productive one for him. He complains, “My moviegoing has become a disease,” and he declares uneasily, “If I didn’t write, life would slip away from me.” Could it be that this notebook, so crammed with movie notes and references to pop figures as well as more predictable literary passages, and so filled with self-analysis—could it be that this was the chief work of this period?

D. J. Enright (review date 14 August 1986)

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SOURCE: “Special Subjects,” in The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1986, pp. 37-8.

[In the following excerpt, Enright offers an unfavorable assessment of Across.]

… The title [of Across] alludes to the novel’s leitmotif, and the subject of several expert mini-essays: the threshold. “Discovering and describing thresholds became a passion with me,” albeit the Austrian narrator, by name Andreas Loser, does nothing so crude as to cross, in any discernible manner, any discernible boundary.

Possibly the narrator of Handke's earlier and more animated novel, Short Letter, Long Farewell, offers the tip when he explains that, in his view, to reduce a thing to a concept is to do away with it through the act of formulation, so that one doesn’t have to experience it again; to characterize is to degrade. Thereby hangs an avant-garde theory of fiction or anti-fiction, no doubt—one which disregards the fact that man is a conceptualizing and, more important, an interpreting animal. We are impelled to make connections, we yearn for meaning.

In the person of his narrator, Handke comes as near as anyone well can to presenting pure, unexamined experience: an intense state of dissociated consciousness verging on the autistic. However weakened by its fashionable use, “alienation” is too strong or positive a word. There are no effects here—or, rather, there are only effects without affect—and there are no causes.

The sole action lies in Loser’s killing, in a strange fit of passion and by a singularly well-aimed pebble, a man who has sprayed a swastika on a tree trunk. In ancient art—Loser is an amateur archaeologist—the swastika has an innocent significance, even a benign one, but “this sign, this negative image, symbolized the cause of all my melancholy—of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in this country.” Despite the reference to “cause,” we hear no more about the purport of the swastika (Handke isn’t going to be betrayed into banalities!), and no more of the dead man. The incident sounds suspiciously like one of those old actes gratuits.

But what we do have is a string of perceptions or sensations … animal, vegetable, or mineral, all is grist to Loser’s receptive though passive consciousness. Among poker-faced minutenesses of observation, and several rapidly enigmatic reflections (“The canal, the light, the willows, the planks of the bridge—they prevail”), we meet some fine impressions or evocations, of mountains, rocks, and trees, a concert of sounds at night, a hedgehog and an owl, a helicopter pad in the grounds of a hospital. The most striking is this passage:

A colony of daddy longlegs adhered to the walls, clinging to the grainy limestone with their spindly legs, which suggested clock hands. Unceasingly, they swung to and fro, giving the whole kitchen the air of a clockmaker’s workshop, filled with pendulums and silent ticking. From time to time the clocks shifted their position, or else one would stand long-legged over another, the two of them swinging together.

We seem to be on the brink of a true epiphany when Loser muses, “Daddy longlegs, patron of threshold seekers.” Such precision and such authority contrast oddly with his vagueness on other points: why he left his family (“Was I sent away? Was it my idea to desert the three of them? Was there any reason for the separation … ?”), and why he hasn’t been teaching of late (“Have I been dismissed or given a vacation or granted sick leave, or temporarily suspended?”). Loser is continually asking questions which he alone can answer.

Mysteries, mysteries. … Asked whether his poems had hidden meanings, John Ashbery replied that no, they hadn’t, because if they did have, somebody might find out what the meanings were and then the poems would no longer be mysterious. With Handke's novel, it appears to be a case of mysteries void of meanings.

Further Reading

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Bernofsky, Susan. “‘The Threshold Is the Source’: Handke's Der Chinese des Schmerzes.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXII, No. 1 (Fall 1990): 58-65.

Provides analysis of Der Chinese des Schmerzes, drawing attention to the presence of “thresholds,” or in-between states of emotional and psychological change, where the narrator's shifting perceptions are played out for the reader.

Chernaik, Judith. “Green Thoughts.” Times Literary Supplement (14 July 1989): 775.

Faults the excessive length and moralizing of The Long Way Around.

DeMeritt, Linda C. “The Question of Relevancy: New Subjectivity and Peter Handke.” Modern Language Studies XVI, No. 4 (Fall 1986): 22-38.

Examines the characteristics and merits of “New Subjectivity” literature, particularly the aspects of alienation and authorial intent, through analysis of Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung.

———. New Subjectivity and Prose Forms of Alienation: Peter Handke and Botho Strauss. New York: Peter Lang, 1987, 278 p.

Book-length critical study of German “New Subjectivity” literature, with comparative case studies of works by Handke and Botho Strauss.

Firda, Richard Arthur. Peter Handke. New York: Twayne, 1993, 170 p.

Provides an introduction to Handke's literary career and a critical analysis of his major works of drama and fiction.

Huston, Nancy. “Three Men and a Basket.” Salmagundi 112 (Fall 1996): 143-56.

Discusses the negative attitudes of various contemporary writers toward reproduction and child-rearing, noting Handke's contrasting view that children introduce possibility and wonder into the world.

Konzett, Matthias. “Cultural Amnesia and the Banality of Human Tragedy: Peter Handke's Wunschloses Unglück and Its Postideological Aesthetics.” Germanic Review LXX, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 42-50.

Examines Handke's approach to the problematic issues of historical memory, social responsibility, and personal tragedy in postwar Austria, particularly as evident in Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter and Wunschloses Unglück, contending that Handke's autobiographic description of his mother's suicide in the latter work reflects his own effort to overcome the distortions of ideological social reality.

Kuzniar, Alice. “Desiring Eyes.” Modern Fiction Studies 36, No. 3 (Autumn 1990): 355-67.

Examines the significance of visual perception—of others and by others—in Handke's work, drawing attention to its connection with the symbolism and imagery of alienation, integration, and subjectivity.

Linstead, Michael. Outer World and Inner World: Socialisation and Emancipation in the Works of Peter Handke, 1964-1981. New York: Peter Lang, 1988, 243 p.

Book-length critical study of Handke's theoretical perspectives and creative development, focusing on his effort to subvert and transcend the forces of social conformity.

Nägele, Rainer. “Peter Handke: The Staging of Language.” Modern Drama XXII, No. 4 (January 1981): 327-38.

Examines Handke's experimental approach to textual and dramatic discourse, particularly his deconstruction and subversion of linguistic and theatrical conventions. As Nägele notes, “Handke's ‘textualization’ of the world” reflects his “increasing awareness of the inevitable inscription of the world in the text and the text in the world.”

Petrovi, Jelena. “The Other Serbia.” Utne Reader 80 (March-April 1997): 83-6.

A positive review of A Journey to the Rivers.

Rorrison, Hugh. “The ‘Grazer Gruppe,’ Peter Handke and Wolfgang Bauer.” In Modern Austrian Writing: Literature and Society after 1945, edited by Alan Best and Hans Wolfschütz, pp. 252-66. London: Oswald Wolff, 1990.

Discusses Handke's association with the avant-garde “Grazer Gruppe” and his early artistic principles and literary experimentation, particularly his use of language and narrative distancing.

Vivis, Anthony. “Own Goal.” Times Literary Supplement (5-11 October 1990): 1073.

A negative review of The Afternoon of a Writer and Versuch über die Jukebox.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Review of Versuch über die Jukebox, by Peter Handke. World Literature Today 65, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 301.

Offers a positive assessment of Versuch über die Jukebox.

Additional coverage of Handke's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 75; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 85, 124; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Novelists; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Linda C. DeMeritt (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Peter Handke: From Alienation to Orientation,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1987, pp. 53-71.

[In the following essay, DeMeritt examines the transition from alienation and fear to harmony and happiness in Handke's literary works, drawing attention to such thematic developments in Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung and Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire.]

The extreme subjectivity which characterizes the works of Peter Handke in the late sixties and mid-seventies is based upon an experience of alienation. Objective predetermined systems and explanations are no longer valid, and the subject is propelled into an inner world of question and doubt. The fear caused by alienation permeates Handke's earlier works, a disturbing, uneasy atmosphere of disquiet and displacement. More and more, however, this tone of subjective anxiety gives way to a quiet objectivity. Handke's more recent works are distinguished by still-lifes from nature, mythical dimensions, calmness reflected in both man and nature and founded in a feeling of harmony and oneness. Alienation is supplanted by orientation, and fear by happiness. The transition from subjective fear to objective happiness itself occupies a central position both thematically and structurally in two of Handke's works which will accordingly serve as the focal point for this examination: Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975) and Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980).1 The earlier novel documents the shift from alienation to orientation as experienced by its protagonist. It is therefore a pivotal work within Handke's oeuvre providing firstly a clear portrayal of the two opposing conditions, and more importantly for the present investigation, insight into the connection between them. Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire offers a comprehensive picture of orientation as well as a commentary on the narrator-writer’s quest for its appropriate form. The narrative reflections trace and elucidate the change manifest in Handke's works.

For most commentators the shift from alienation to orientation represents a definitive turning point in Handke's literary development, a perhaps not completely unanticipated but nevertheless radical shift in direction. Scholars have noted the differences between the earlier and more recent works, and the new aspect of Handke's literature has singularly engrossed scholarly interest. The intent of this paper is to examine the movement from alienation to orientation developmentally, i.e., orientation will be discussed not only as a new literary demarcation in Handke's literature, but also as a natural outgrowth of alienation. The conditions of fear and happiness will be contrasted to discover differences and simultaneously to trace constancy and evolution. The key to understanding Handke's works as a continuum lies within the author’s own stated literary intent. In his now notorious essay of 1967 entitled “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms” Handke stated that his literature was an attempt to destroy all preconceived systems or concepts of reality in order to elicit in the subject, both author and reader, an acute awareness or consciousness of that reality. The goal remains constant, but the method to achieve it must vary from one work to another, for otherwise it too becomes a petrifying conceptual system.2

Alienation as understood here is a sudden and unexpected loss of context which destroys objective and stable categories of reality to plunge the protagonist into a subjectively defined void. He or she feels somehow disconnected as the world without warning loses all meaning: “an einem solchen, unbeschreiblichen Tag / geht auf der Straβe, / zwischen zwei Schritten, / plötzlich der Sinn verloren. …”3 Handke attempts to explain this personal feeling in an interview with Manfred Durzak: “Das Gefühl hatte ich als Kind immer, daβ man drauβen auf der Straβe spielt und plötzlich stellt sich heraus: das stimmt alles gar nicht. …”4 This is the experience of Josef Bloch in the novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970), a classic study in alienation and the epitome of a condition common to many other early Handke protagonists.

A significant portion of Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung fits into the mold of Handke's previous works. The novel relates the story of a typical ordinary man, Gregor Keuschnig, Austrian press attaché in France, who unexpectedly falls out of the context of his everyday routine. Suddenly and against his will everything seems strange and alien to Keuschnig. Handke notes: “Dann habe ich gedacht, das muβ ein Mann sein, der ganz gewöhnlich ist, der nicht wie ein Schriftsteller, also wie ich, davon lebt, daβ er plötzlich das Gefühl hat, alles sei fremd, anders, widerlich, sondern der das wider Willen, gegen seinen Willen so erlebt.”5 This very normal man dreams one night that he murders an old woman, and this dream propels Gregor Keuschnig into the abnormal and frightening experience of alienation: “Auf einmal gehörte er nicht mehr dazu” (SE, 8). Handke's protagonist loses the system which previously rendered his actions automatic and natural; he loses his objectively determined chain of actions and reactions—his “Reihenfolge”: “Ich brauche auch eine Reihenfolge, dachte Keuschnig.—Aber für eine Reihenfolge brauchte er voraus ein System.—Aber es gab für ihn kein System mehr.—Aber wozu brauchte er dann eigentlich eine Reihenfolge?—Um zu vertuschen, daβ er kein System mehr hatte—” (SE, 65). The essence of Keuschnig’s experience of alienation lies in the invalidation of any encompassing system which could permit an unreflected pattern of behavior or perception.

Without a context Keuschnig experiences alienation from himself, the world of objects, and other people. He no longer fits the definition assigned to him by society, and he becomes painfully aware of his most everyday actions: “Was sich so vertraut ereignen sollte, vollführte er als zeremonielle Vorgänge, ängstlich bedacht, nicht aus der Rolle zu fallen: das-den-Korken-aus-der-Flasche-Ziehen, das-die-Serviette-auf-die-Knie-Legen” (SE, 28). Without a role he can take for granted Keuschnig is burdened with the weight of his own sense of self as his sole point of reference. He perceives of himself “als etwas zum SCHREIEN Fremdes” (SE, 99) which bursts grotesquely into his surroundings (SE, 13–14). The objects around Handke's protagonist have similarly lost their matter-of-factness and can no longer be taken for granted. The outer world has no independent existence and becomes a reflection of the inner state of the observer. This means that phenomena of reality are perceived as signs, warnings, and omens for the observer. As random and isolated events attain fleeting personal significance, the continuity between individual segments of reality is broken. Accordingly Keuschnig perceives reality not in whole pictures but in exaggerated and arbitrary fragments: “Er schaute nur noch zu Boden. Ein Pfirsichkern, gerade weggeworfen, lag feucht auf dem Gehsteig, und bei diesem Anblick erlebte er auf einmal, daβ Sommer war, und das wurde jetzt seltsam wichtig. Ein gutes Omen, dachte er und konnte langsamer gehen” (SE, 41–42). Alienation finally destroys the system of societal conventions which normally control interpersonal relationships: “Bei der Radikalität von Keuschnigs Zweifel an den Systemen, in denen er bisher gelebt hat, müssen auch die sozialen Werte zusammenbrechen.”6 On both a familial and a societal level the values which normally guide one’s behavior have been invalidated for Keuschnig, resulting in behavioral patterns throughout the novel which can be characterized as unexpected, inconsistent, and inappropriate. For example, Keuschnig suddenly and without reason feels apathetic or even aggressive toward his wife Stefanie and makes love at the office to an unknown woman (SE, 54–55).

Handke's protagonist finds himself in a situation where his old system is no longer intact and no new one has replaced it. His previous mode of life has become impossible, and yet a new form is unimaginable: “Ab heute führe ich also ein Doppelleben, dachte er. Nein, gar kein Leben: weder das gewohnte, noch ein neues …” (SE, 13). The invalidation of all systems leaves him in a void, i.e., in a state of neither/nor, where nothing is safe, solid, or stable. Keuschnig’s lack of security or verifiable center results in an oscillation between construction and deconstruction of meaning. The protagonist, threatened by the loss of a role he can take for granted, seeks shelter within his previous habits only to perceive their invalidity (SE, 9). The change suffered by Keuschnig is expressed through numerous comparisons of his previous (“früher”) and normal (“gewöhnlich”) condition to the present: “Wenn Keuschnig früher etwas nicht aushielt, legte er sich gewöhnlich irgendwo abseits nieder und schlief ein. In dieser Nacht war es umgekehrt …” (SE, 8). At other times Keuschnig attempts to counter his insecurity with a new meaning or system, only to find that it is artificial and invalid (SE, 65). The vacillation apparent here also defines Keuschnig’s feelings toward the world. The same object will elicit contradictory emotional responses in the protagonist from one moment to the next: “Gerade dieses Austauschbare, daβ jeder Gegenstand in seinem emotionalen Wert plötzlich austauschbar ist, das erscheint mir [Handke] als das wirklich Neue und als das Radikale an der Geschichte: daβ eben nichts mehr gilt.”7 This vacillation is symptomatic for Keuschnig’s loss of context and the invalidation of all that was ordered, foreseeable, and systematic.

Handke's reader is burdened with the same feeling of displacement because of a form determined for the most part by the alienated consciousness of the protagonist. Just as Keuschnig’s life is radically altered by a dream, the reader is affected by a narration which does not flow logically from one event to the next but rather, like the sequentiality of a dream, is constantly disrupted by the unexpected. Because there no longer exists an uninterrupted sense of being (“kontinuierliches Lebensgefühl”) or context (“Zusammenhang”) for Keuschnig,8 the incidents he experiences are subject to a principle of discontinuity:“die Zerstörung des Zusammenhangs, die totale Diskontinuität ist auch organisierendes Prinzip dieses Buches. …”9 The loss of an explanatory system results in the negation of logical causality; there are no reasons or motivation for the events of the story. The progression from sentence to sentence, experience to experience, and paragraph to paragraph is therefore not smooth and predictable but broken, shocking, and usually sudden. “Auf einmal” and “plötzlich” are two of the most frequently found connectives in the entire novel. Similar in function but more directly indicative of the contradiction between the segments being linked are phrases such as “und doch” or “trotzdem.” The reader experiences a process of invalidation similar to Keuschnig’s as he is subjected to a rhythm of constant and sudden change in which his expectations are not fulfilled and his efforts to organize the events of the novel into a comprehensible whole are repeatedly thwarted.

Similarly the world is presented to the reader repeatedly only as a possibility, not as a stable and firm reality. The destruction of validity, i.e., of an objectively knowable reality, is reflected in a narrative perspective which strives for objectivity but is repeatedly undermined by the subjectivity of the protagonist. The work opens with distanced objectivity which imparts to the reader a sense of security. The main character is introduced, his profession, place of dwelling, and family situation; the frameworks of time and place are established, and harmless details are given in a calm and flowing style. Then Keuschnig’s sudden loss of orientation indicates that the security of the introduction is deceptive. The entire novel is characterized stylistically by capitalized words, parentheses, questions, fragmentation, and incompletion, each indicating subjective doubt and uncertainty. The frequent utilization of the subjunctive mood further heightens the hypothetical and contingent nature of the outer world. Subject merges with object and the contours of each become so indistinct that it is difficult to determine what is real and what merely imagined, what is valid and what merely appears to be so: “Mit welcher Scheinheiligkeit ich die Sachen hier geordnet habe! dachte er. Ich rede mir damit eine Sicherheit ein, die es gar nicht gibt. Als ob allein mit der Vorbereitung der Arbeitsgeräte alles den üblichen Gang nehmen würde, und es könnte mir nichts mehr zustoβen” (SE,52). The reader is not given a trustworthy independently existing picture of reality but rather a world as Keuschnig experiences it in all his dreamlike uncertainty and question.

Keuschnig’s and the reader’s experience of alienation negates and destroys systems; it places the subject in a vacuum of invalidity which becomes an extremely negative and destructive experience. However, for Handke it embodies a very positive potential for discovery of the world and of self. Loss of familiarity means loss of naturalness. Since neither the world nor the self can be taken for granted any longer, the individual can approach his world unprejudiced and as if for the first time. The individual who perceives the world around him through a different and alienated perspective (“mit fremden Augen”) can, in the freedom granted from conventions and preconceptions, experience this reality directly and personally.10 Handke calls this freedom from an inhibitory and predetermining context a poetic state. Poetic thought is the power to dissolve conceptual systems and thereby open a world sealed by preconceptions to new experience and a new beginning: “Ich bin überzeugt von der begriffsauflösenden und damit zukunftsmächtigen Kraft des poetischen Denkens.”11 Alienation serves Handke as the literary means of realizing the intended poetic thought or state. It destroys the context which renders reality inaccessible to the subject; alienation “ist nichts andres als das hoffnungsbestimmte poetische Denken, das die Welt immer wieder neu anfangen läβt, wenn ich sie in meiner Verstocktheit schon für versiegelt hielt, und es ist auch der Grund des Selbstbewuβtseins, mit dem ich schreibe.”12

Herein lies the key to understanding the transition noted so frequently for Handke's works. Fear results in idyllic moments of happiness, because the subject, no longer hindered by prescribed patterns of perception, can directly experience the essence of the objects of reality. This state is called by Handke reasonable happiness (“das vernünftige Glück”) and it is a state of attentiveness toward the world and the self. Reasonable happiness fills the individual with sympathy for other forms of existence: “Ich habe noch nicht recht gelernt, im Glück vernünftig zu bleiben und aufmerksam für die andern zu sein. Sehr selten gelingt das vernünftige Glück, das von der Umwelt nicht abschlieβt, sondern für sie öffnet.”13 Although very difficult to learn and attain, the longed for attentiveness of reasonable bliss or happiness is approximated in the moment after the feeling of fear:

Was soll also daran augenöffnend sein? Nicht den Zustand der Angst meine ich, sondern den Zustand danach wenn die Angst vorbei ist. Da entsteht dann ein Gefühl, das jenem vernünftigen Glück nahekommt: das Gefühl für die Existenz und die Existenzbedingungen der anderen Menschen, ein starkes, mitteilbares, soziales Gefühl.14

Fear or alienation, which predominates in much of Handke's literary production, is replaced by hope and a type of utopian happiness in his later works. The author admits to an increasing concern with the question of happiness and its portrayal: “Das ist es, was mich seit diesen Jahren beschäftigt: Wie kann man das Glück darstellen? Wie kann man vor allem das Glück dauerhafter zu machen versuchen?”15 The first work in which moments of happiness play an important role is Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972). The feelings of fear and alienation have gained a different and more positive meaning: “Die [Fremdheitsmomente] haben sich ein biβchen gewandelt im ‘Kurzen Brief zum langen Abschied.’ Es ist zwar Fremdheit, aber diese Fremdheit wird zum ersten Mal als ein wirklicher Glückszustand erfahren.”16 For the first time the fear of alienation results in the condition labelled reasonable happiness and defined as an acute awareness of others and of oneself. The ability to perceive oneself and others as individual entities, an ability which derives from the alienating and terrifying loss of context, functions for Handke as the key to attaining orientation. In these moments of fear-induced happiness the subject re-experiences self and the world as separate beings but senses the existential commonality between subject and object.

Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung is the first Handke text in which the change from fear to happiness is itself thematicized. The dream which initiates Keuschnig’s experience of alienation serves to shock the protagonist out of a life paralyzed by its routines. It is a warning meant to awaken Keuschnig from civilization’s slumber (SE, 46) to the world around him and to a new awareness of life:

Der Traum ist wahr gewesen. … Der Traum ist vielleicht mein erstes Lebenszeichen seit langem gewesen. Er hat mich warnen sollen. Er wollte mich umdrehen, wie jemanden, der lange auf der falschen Seite gestanden hat. Ich möchte die schlafwandlerischen Sicherheiten für den Wachzustand vergessen

(SE, 35).

Within contemporary society it is difficult if not impossible to experience personally one’s own existence, for instead of leading an individual life, the subject merely memorizes a role, memorizes “WIE MAN LEBEN VORTÄUSCHTE” (SE, 50). The inability to participate in life is linked to regulatory meanings, patterns, and systems. The alienated Keuschnig rejects these meanings: “Ausweichen, ihr Sinnreichen!” (SE, 58) and empties himself of artificial societal patterns of experience: “Das Abstoβen als der Widerwille vor all den Fremdbeatmungen: die international bewährten Erlebnisformen als bloβe Kurpfuscherei!” (SE, 66). Keuschnig knows that the infrequency of personal experience is due to preconceptions and predefinitions: “Vielleicht kommt es mir deswegen so vor, als hätte ich, jedenfalls bis zur letzten Nacht, seit langem kaum etwas erlebt, weil ich mir im voraus zurechtmachte, was ein Erlebnis ist” (SE, 84).

Keuschnig embarks upon a journey of rediscovery which climaxes first in a brief moment and then an hour of epiphany and happiness: “Hier also geschieht das Wunder der wiedergewonnenen Unmittelbarkeit, die zeitgenössische Pathologie wird überwunden, Handkes Protagonist fühlt sich in Harmonie mit sich selbst und der Welt—er ist glücklich.”17 Keuschnig undergoes a mystical experience upon noticing three objects lying at his feet in the sand: a chestnut leaf, a piece of mirror, and a child’s barrette. The objects become magical as they form a union among themselves and in this moment the world becomes discoverable: “‘Wer sagt denn, daβ die Welt schon entdeckt ist?’” (SE, 81). Fallen from context, Keuschnig experiences the three magical objects, which have also been stripped of their function and meaning for society, as entities for and by themselves. Alienation removes both subject and object from a context which predefines and predetermines, thereby allowing each simply to exist “für sich” (SE, 152). Handke describes this state as one of mystery which enables the individual to experience the world personally: “Indem ihm die Welt geheimnisvoll wurde, öffnete sie sich und konnte zurückerobert werden” (SE, 152). Handke's protagonist feels a helpless sympathy for the world and welcomes this attachment as a reasonable feeling: “Bei dem bestärkenden Anblick der drei wunderbaren Dinge im Sand erlebte er eine hilflose Zuneigung zu allen, aus der er sich aber auch nicht helfen lassen wollte, weil sie ihm jetzt als das Vernünftige erschien” (SE, 82). This is the state called by Handke reasonable happiness. It is that moment directly after the fear of alienation in which the individual is open and attentive to the other forms of existence in the world around him.

Reasonable happiness creates a new context for Keuschnig. The mystery which he experiences is not a personal one but rather one which he shares with all other beings: “Ich habe an ihnen [den Wunschdingen] kein persönliches Geheimnis für mich entdeckt, dachte er, sondern die IDEE eines Geheimnisses, die für alle da ist!” (SE, 82). The idea (“IDEE”) which he discovers is an existential one, for he has experienced the essence of simple existence. This idea, the mystery of mutual existence, creates an encompassing context and feeling of harmony between Keuschnig and the rest of the world:

Das Kastanienblatt, die Spiegelscherbe und die Zopfspange schienen noch enger zusammenzurücken—und mit ihnen rückte auch das andere zusammen … bis es nichts anderes mehr gab. Herbeigezauberte Nähe! “Ich kann mich ändern,” sagte er laut.—Er stampfte auf, aber es war kein Spuk. Er schaute sich um, aber er sah keinen Gegner mehr. … Er fühlte sich von neuem allmächtig, aber nicht mächtiger als irgend jemand andrer

(SE, 82–83).

Keuschnig loses his extreme subjectivity and becomes part of the world around him: “Er, der nicht mehr zählte, war in die andern gefahren. … Er lebte noch irgendwie—mit ihnen” (SE, 152). He has rediscovered an encompassing context which provides him orientation: “Weit auseinanderliegende Einzelheiten … vibrierten in einer Zusammengehörigkeit. … : ein Gefühl, daβ man von jedem Punkt aus zu Fuβ nach Hause gehen konnte” (SE, 152). The lost balance between subject and object is re-established. Keuschnig’s new sense of orientation is founded in a shared feeling of existence.

Alienation is the means employed by Handke to enable both his protagonist and his reader to attain a poetic perception of reality. The destruction of context for Keuschnig and, through a form mirroring this destruction, for the reader allows both to perceive of reality as separate and individual beings. Each of these fragments is labelled metaphorically by Handke a story (“Geschichte”) and the process of learning to approach reality poetically parallels the gradual realization within Keuschnig that he must learn to tell his own story, i.e., to invent his own world and life: “‘Ich werde zu arbeiten anfangen. Ich werde etwas erfinden. Ich brauche eine Arbeit, in der ich etwas erfinden kann!’” (SE, 139–40). Whereas Keuschnig originally feels like a character in a story concluded long ago (SE, 116), he ultimately experiences himself as the hero of an unknown and unprecedented story: “Bei dem Anblick des von der Tageshitze noch weichen Pflasters zu seinen Füβen erlebte er sich plötzlich als der Held einer unbekannten Geschichte …” (SE, 166). The conclusion of Handke's novel presents in actuality the beginning of a new life for Keuschnig as he steps into his own story. Here then he attains the poeticization of life. It will be a life not of boredom but of adventure, not of routines and roles but of rediscovery. Handke intends in this work to elicit and attain a state of attentiveness, openness, or reasonable happiness, and this intent is realized by means of alienation. The experiences of fear and happiness are dialectically and inextricably linked. Loss of context, whereby each fragment of reality is stripped of preconceptions, is necessary for the rediscovery of the world. The destruction of outer definitions and expectations for subject and object, i.e., their poeticization, leads to the re-experiencing of both as separate individual entities, which in turn leads to the recognition of and orientation within the mutuality of simple existence.

Handke's novel Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire appears initially to be radically different from Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung. Here one is struck by the “biblical quality,”18 the worshipping of nature, the quiet, and the sense of orientation and harmony which characterize his later works. Gone are the panic and terror of alienation; gone is the abrupt fragmentary style reflective of an alienated protagonist. Instead one finds peaceful security mirrored in long and many-layered hypotactic clauses which flow into and from each other.19 However, the transition evident here from alienation to orientation has not been a sudden one; it is a gradual development which can be traced from one work to the next. Handke's story Die linkshändige Frau (1976) is similar to its predecessor in that it too documents an alienating experience which ultimately leads to freedom and autonomy for its protagonist. The woman’s unexpected and unexplained “illumination” to separate from her husband means a loss of context for her as did Keuschnig’s dream for him, but Marianne does not fall victim to the subjective extremes experienced by her male counterpart and is portrayed with a distance indicative of the objectivity to come. The form of Handke's Das Gewicht der Welt (1977) bears witness again to the author’s attempt to free moments of experience from a predetermined system or context. Just as Keuschnig must learn to live his life as a story, each of the events narrated in the journal is intended as a story in itself, lacking all external purpose or plan. It is this type of peaceful being unto itself or mythical quality which increasingly imbues Handke's works: Marianne strives to attain it;20 the journal presages it in many passages, for instance: “Immer wieder das Bedürfnis, als Schriftsteller Mythen zu erfinden, zu finden … als brauchte ich neue Mythen, unschuldige, aus meinem täglichen Leben gewonnene: mit denen ich mich neu anfangen kann” (181); Handke's story Langsame Heimkehr (1979), the first in the tetralogy which includes Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, seems to have achieved it with its static descriptions of nature.

Although Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung is written from the standpoint of alienation looking tentatively forward, whereas the narrator of Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire looks back upon the realization of the anticipated direction, i.e., of orientation, both works serve to document the transition from alienation to orientation, and it is of greater significance that in both novels Handke's intent remains constant, namely the provocation of attentiveness or reasonable happiness by means of poetic language. Both protagonists attain the aestheticization of life; this is what Keuschnig experiences in the moment or hour of true feeling, and this is what the mountain teaches the narrator. Each of the protagonists must learn to perceive of reality and himself in the freedom of poetic language in order to experience directly and to define existence autonomously. It is the methodology or nature of the language which has changed and which accounts for the apparently so extreme difference between these two works. Whereas Handke utilizes the fear of alienation to destruct the context surrounding both object and subject in Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung, the narrator-writer of Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire strives to construct a reality lacking the predetermining definitions of a context. He searches for a poetic language or structure which will allow segments of reality to exist independently of each other and of the perceiving subject and yet as part of the whole, and he finds colors, forms, and analogies.

The action in Handke's novel Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire consists of several walks around and on the Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, Southern France. Standing on the road leading to the mountain the narrator experiences a oneness with the objects before him, a unity between man and nature, a moment of eternity: “Naturwelt und Menschenwerk, eins durch das andere, bereiteten mir einen Beseligungsmoment, … der Nunc stans genannt worden ist: Augenblick der Ewigkeit” (LS-V, 9–10). The protagonist also has a place within this harmony, within the colors of the landscape he perceives: “Einmal bin ich dann in den Farben zu Hause gewesen” (LS-V, 9). This is the first lesson taught by the mountain and it constitutes the state of reasonable bliss or happiness (“vernünftige Freude”: LS-V, 24–25). Alienation is overcome by a feeling of shared existence. It is replaced with a sense of security and contextual orientation, with a feeling of being at home. The narrator-protagonist discovers an existential unity between himself as subject and the world as object, a commonality which transcends time and individuation.

The narrator has experienced similar moments of orientation and bliss within the dreamlike pictures of his previous literary efforts (LS-V, 9). These pictures were, however, threatening to the narrator. They were founded in his feelings of fear and terror which, although continuing to influence his literary production, no longer comprise his principal topic (LS-V, 21). The narrator reflects upon his past manner of writing, whereby he would dream himself into an object in order to comprehend its essence: “‘Sich einträumen in die Dinge’ war ja lange eine Maxime beim Schreiben gewesen: sich die zu erfassenden Gegenstände derart vorstellen, als ob ich sie im Traum sähe, in der Überzeugung, daβ sie dort erst in ihrem Wesen erscheinen” (LS-V, 26). In this manner the objects of his world became magical and provided him a place of safety and orientation (“Hain”). It is a simple matter to draw correlations between such narrative reflections and Handke's own literary production.21 Dreams and the subjunctive “als-ob” perspective typify the experience of alienation as discussed for the author’s earlier works, as do magical objects, which are everyday things made special and therefore discoverable by means of the “fremden Blick.” Here the narrator, again reflecting Handke's development, rejects this magical realm, for behind its dreamlike contours there always will lie the potential for total dissolution inherent in the destructive nature of alienation (LS-V, 26).

The narrator recounts the process of discovering reasonable pictures, which differ from the earlier magical ones in that their reasonableness derives from a quiet distance, not alienation, between subject and object. The picture which initially inspired and continues to justify the narrator’s present account expresses this distance: “Es war nicht in einem Traum, sondern an einem sonnenhellen Tag; auch kein Vergehen vor südlichen Zypressen, sondern ich hier, und mein Gegenstand dort” (LS-V, 27).22 The narrator reflects upon two different landscapes:

In einer Erzählung, die ich ein halbes Jahrzehnt davor geschrieben hatte, wölbte sich einmal eine Landschaft, obwohl sie eben war, so nah an den Helden heran, daβ sie ihn zu verdrängen schien. Die ganz andere, konkav geweitete, vom Druck entlastende und den Körper freidenkende Welt von 1974 steht jedoch immer noch vor mir …

(LS-V, 24).

The landscapes of alienation were too close for the hero to distinguish either himself or the objects of the landscape.23 The ability to experience the essence of reality was dependent upon the destruction of context, a blurring of inner and outer boundaries which threatened to submerge the protagonist. The union between subject and object made it difficult to return to everyday life (LS-V, 26). In contrast the landscape which now determines the story allows both the individual and the phenomena of the world to exist separately and yet, as expressed in the picture’s concavity, connected and reflective of each other. The protagonist yearns for a place of safe secrecy (“Verborgenheit”),24 and feels part of a general context (“‘Nähe,’” “Nähegefühl,” “Zusammenhalt”: LS-V, 76–77), but he does not disappear within the objects of the landscape (LS-V, 68). The subject can realize his own individual existence only by granting his vis-à-vis its independent being: “Nur auβen, bei den Tagesfarben, bin ich” (LS-V, 26).

Handke's narrator-protagonist compares his turn from magical to reasonable pictures to a similar development in the painter Cézanne. Cézanne, who at first painted terrifying and shocking pictures, devoted himself increasingly to the problem concerning the realization of the essence of an object by means of pure form. A perfect form ensures peaceful and eternal being:

Cézanne hat ja anfangs Schreckensbilder, wie die Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius, gemalt. Aber mit der Zeit wurde sein einziges Problem die Verwirklichung (“réalisation”) des reinen, schuldlosen Irdischen: des Apfels, des Felsens, eines menschlichen Gesichts. Das Wirkliche war dann die erreichte Form; die nicht das Vergehen in den Wechselfallen der Geschichte beklagt, sondern ein Sein im Frieden weitergibt

(LS-V, 21).

Cézanne’s later pictures, so close to this realization, celebrate the object with colors and forms: “Es waren die Arbeiten seines letzten Jahrzehnts, wo er dann so nah an dem erstrebten ‘Verwirklichen’ seines jeweiligen Gegenstands war, daβ die Farben und Formen diesen schon feiern können” (LS-V, 35). In giving up the dreamlike magical pictures connected to fear and alienation the narrator attempts to realize the essence of an object in Cézanne’s manner. Reasonable pictures through which the protagonist now perceives his world are those composed solely of color and form.

The narrator pictures the beauty of nature by associating objects with colors: “‘Denk nicht immer Himmelsvergleiche bei der Schönheit—sondern sieh die Erde. Sprich von der Erde, oder bloβ von dem Fleck hier. Nenn ihn, mit seinen Farben’” (LS-V, 71). The principle of naming, exemplified in the following extract, is applied throughout the novel: “Da waren die Risse im Felsen. Da waren die Pinien und säumten einen Seitenweg; am Ende des Wegs groβ das Schwarzweiβ einer Elster” (LS-V, 42). The narrator names the objects of his surroundings without placing them in relationships or assigning them functions. This is achieved stylistically by means of the omission of verbs in favor of nouns and by the usage of “da waren” or in other passages of “da” alone: “Als er [Cézanne] im Louvre vor Courbets Bildern stand, rief er immer wieder nur die Namen der Dinge darauf aus: ‘Da, die Meute, die Blutlache, der Baum. Da, die Handschuhe, die Spitzen, die gebrochene Seide des Rocks’” (LS-V, 33). The effect of the objects in and of themselves is so strong that they can merely be named. The protagonist rejects the “plötzlich” of the magical pictures of alienation as previously discussed for the “da” of his reasonable and objective pictures (LS-V, 23). The protagonist names the objects by means of their colors. In the above passage the narrator does not see a magpie, which is black and white, but rather he sees the black-and-white of a magpie. The color becomes the object and is therefore capitalized, a trademark of Handke's entire work:

Knapp über mir, fast zum Angreifen, schwebte im Wind eine Rabenkrähe. Ich sah das wie ins Inbild eines Vogels gehörende Gelb der an den Körper gezogenen Krallen; das Goldbraun der von der Sonne schimmernden Flügel; das Blau des Himmels.—Zu dritt ergab das die Bahnen einer weiten luftigen Fläche, die ich im selben Augenblick als dreifarbige Fahne empfand. Es war eine Fahne ohne Anspruch, ein Ding rein aus Farben

(LS-V, 12).

The ability to perceive the world as compositions of color and shape allows the protagonist to experience phenomenal reality and is moreover the key to his sense of orientation and security. Describing an object with color alone denies it of all pretensions (“Anspruch”) such as meaning, symbolism, or function. These pretensions have further been disclaimed by the naming principle, which strips an object of any context or category, thereby reducing it to its essence, i.e., to a state of simple being, to Cézanne’s “Sein im Frieden” (LS-V, 21). A picture of pure form and color is silent and dark, unable to impart a message. Instead it elicits a subjective experience of reality, a reality of being so unspecified and so common that it can be shared by all participating imaginations (LS-V, 31). Again the narrator-protagonist uses the paintings of Cézanne to better portray his own experience. He finds that the painter’s later pictures, celebrations of color and form, are so completely silent that they provoke a communicative jump, whereby two onlookers—two sets of eyes—separated by time nevertheless unite in a common artistic experience.

das Schweigen der Bilder wirkte hier so vollkommen, weil die Dunkelbahnen einer Konstruktion einen Allgemein-Zug verstärkten, zu dem ich (Wort des Dichters) “hinüberdunkeln” konnte: Erlebnis des Sprungs, mit dem zwei Augenpaare, in der Zeit auseinander, auf einer Bildfläche zusammenkamen

(LS-V, 35–36).

Aesthetic communication expressed through the metaphor “das Augenpaar” becomes the yearned-for ideal with its promise of contextual unity and belonging: “Wohl also dem, den zu Hause ein Augenpaar erwartet!” (LS-V, 82); “Zu Hause das Augenpaar?” (LS-V, 139). Through a darkness left undefined and a silence which simply exists, the narrator experiences in a moment of creative imagination an existential mutuality which unites all forms of being.

The narrator-protagonist attains the awareness of reasonable happiness whereby the subject enjoys unmediated access to and universal experience of the essence of reality. These experiences are similar to Keuschnig’s moments of epiphany. Reasonable pictures, i.e., those reduced to pure form and color, enable the protagonist to perceive reality in a contextual void. This reduction or avoidance of context results in a poetic state. During an interview with June Schlueter in 1979 Handke stated that for him poetic language was a language not burdened with preagreed meaning or routine:

Die Sprache ist das Kostbarste, was es gibt. Die meisten Menschen haben überhaupt keine Sprache. Es geht ein Aufatmen durch die Massen, wenn irgend jemand da ist, der eine Sprache hat. Was ist diese Sprache? Ich glaube, diese Sprache ist nur die poetische Sprache. Das heiβt Sprache. Alle anderen Sprachen sind Übereinkünfte, sind Routinen. Im besten Fall ist es eine Lebensroutine, im besten Fall. Aber im Normalfall ist es etwas Tötendes und Abschlieβendes und etwas Aggressives, etwas Böses.25

For Keuschnig alienation destroyed the predetermined messages and meaning which sealed the world, thereby enabling him to begin to tell his own life story. For the narrator of Handke's later story the darkness (“dunkelte”) and silence (“Schweigen”) of reasonable pictures, i.e., of pictures consisting of pure form and color without any pretensions, transport the protagonist into a similar aestheticized world as he is transformed into “der Schriftsteller” (LS-V, 72).

The quest which the narrator-writer must now undertake has as its goal a context or encompassing structure within which to unite the fleeting moments of reasonable happiness experienced thus far: “Aber was war das Gesetz meines Gegenstands seine selbstverständliche, verbindliche Form?” (LS-V, 98–99). The narrator-writer has learned to perceive and personally experience reality by means of a poetic language which freed phenomena of a prejudicing context to allow them to exist as separate and individual entities. But now the problem confronting him is one of reconnection. The narrator-writer seeks a poetic language or structure which will prevent reality from dissolving into ever more fragmented pieces, a form which will lend existence constancy, stability, and permanence, a form which Handke himself continually strives to attain: “Sprache heiβt. für mich Form und Form heiβt für mich Dauer, weil es sonst keine Dauer gibt in der menschlichen Existenz.”26 There exists a contradiction here, for how does one interweave the many single moments of life into a whole? How does one render the individual, time-bound, and therefore fleeting appearances of phenomena endless and eternal? How can each moment of life or each object of reality exist in and by itself, but simultaneously within a context? The form must at one and the same time unite and separate. The narrator’s friend D. formulates the contradiction: “‘Der Übergang muβ für mich klar trennend und ineinander sein’” (LS-V, 119).

Just as the mountain first taught the narrator about the Nunc stans, it now offers him the structure appropriate for the communication of these moments of transcendence. The solution to the problem of form is experienced—is creatively imagined—upon observing the site of a fracture or rupture on the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which displays two different types of stone lying side by side as parts of the same slope (LS-V, 108–109; LS-V, 114–15). This rupture overcomes the contradiction between the one and the all by uniting two disparate entities under the same context. The connection is not established through synthesis or compromise of the two independent beings but rather with the help of the viewer’s ability to phantasize freely: “Und so kam wieder die Lust auf das Eine in Allem. Ich wuβte ja: Der Zusammenhang ist möglich. Jeder einzelne Augenblick meines Lebens geht mit jedem anderen zusammen—ohne Hilfsglieder. Es existiert eine unmittelbare Verbindung; ich muβ sie nur freiphantasieren” (LS-V, 100). The form found by the narrator-writer is composed of analogous moments which are bridged by means of the imagination: “sie [die Analogien] waren, Gegenteil von dem täglichen Durcheinander im Kopf, nach heiβen Erschütterungen die goldenen Früchte der Phantasie, standen da als die wahren Vergleiche, und bildeten so erst, nach dem Wort des Dichters, ‘des Werkes weithin strahlende Stirn’” (LS-V, 100).

Analogy is the form used to unite the numerous pictorial descriptions of pure existence; it is the form which lends the many individual instances of reasonable happiness a lasting and universal quality; it characterizes Handke's entire novel. Analogy pervades the scenes of nature surrounding the protagonist. The patterns which he encounters are repeated again and again on his walks: “Im Nachschauen wiederholte sich an der Bergwand, mit den in den Felsritzen wachsenden dunklen Büschen, das Muster der Zikadenflügel” (LS-V, 49). Often recurrences of natural phenomena transport the narrator back or even forward to a setting remote in time or place but provoking a comparable subjective reaction:

und der folgende Mondaufgang tritt jetzt, “im Bedenken des Gesehenen” (wie Cézanne einmal seine Arbeitsweise beschrieb), in Analogie mit einem zweiten Mond, den ich an einem ähnlich ruhigen Abend über einer nahen Horizontlinie als den gelbleuchtenden Torbogen einer Scheune erblickte. Ich saβ in dem Gesause, wie einst das Kind in dem Sausen einer bestimmten Fichte gesessen war (und wie ich später mitten in einem Stadtlärm im Rauschen des dortigen Flusses stehen konnte)

(LS-V, 22–23).

Above all, the shapes and colors of the mountain reappear in never-ending analogies: “Dafür kehrt der Berg aber in der Analogie von Farben und Formen fast alltäglich wieder” (LS-V, 85). The narrator-writer applies this form to his description of reasonable happiness, which is comprised of the many previous fleeting instances of it, each distinct in time and place, and yet similar in feeling. These analogous moments reach back into the narrator’s childhood. Reflecting upon places and objects of refuge the narrator asks: “Sollte es nicht seit je so sein, und gab es nicht schon in der Kindheit etwas, das für mich, wie später L’Estaque der Ort, das Ding der Verborgenheit war?” (LS-V, 68). Even more common than childhood memories are the narrator’s remembered reactions to paintings, especially those of Cézanne. As has already become evident, there are numerous references to and comparisons with the works and development of this painter throughout the text. The novel consists of individual but similar experiences arranged adjacently but lacking any causal or direct relationship except that which can be creatively imagined and existentially experienced. In this manner, i.e., through analogy, each moment remains unique, self-contained, and autonomous while part of an all-encompassing context.

The narrator-writer observes the forms and colors of nature, experiences these pictures, and attempts to translate his experience into words and a form free of concepts and explanations, a form which can in turn be experienced by the reader. The two verbs “weitergeben” and “bewirken” occur repeatedly within Handke's text.27 The narrator-protagonist desires to communicate (“weitergeben”) his experience of harmony to the reader in such a manner as to provoke (“bewirken”) within this reader a similar experience. The key to communication is therefore experience, and the key to experience is the imagination. For Handke the truth contained in poetic language resides not within the merely preparatory stages of thought, planning, collection, or observation, but within the power to imagine: “Das, was dem Schreiben die Wahrheit gibt, muβ in der Phantasie erschaffen werden.”28 Creative imagination is the sole means through which to escape all conceptual systems; it is the source of all poetic language; it is the power which creates the world anew again and again. The narrator-writer of Handke's novel describes nature with forms and colors, which impart to the reader a picture, not an explanation, of an object which must be imagined, not comprehended. The best example of this type of poetic language is afforded by the final chapter, “a word picture”29 comprised of the forms and colors of nature. Similarly, to provoke in the reader the narrator’s experience of orientation it is necessary to engage the reader’s imagination, not his reason (LS-V, 99), for contextual unity can be told but not explained: “Ein Zusammenhang ist da, nicht erklärbar, doch zu erzählen” (LS-V, 69). Integration of single objects into a context is achieved by means of analogies, which permit the segments of reality to remain autonomous while simultaneously connecting them. In the freedom from conceptual systems, i.e., in a poeticized world, both the narrator-writer and through him the reader are able to imagine creatively or to re-experience first the essence of reality and second the existential harmony encompassing all and providing all orientation.

This investigation has attempted to trace the transition apparent in Handke's oeuvre from alienation to orientation not only contrastively but more significantly from a developmental or evolutionary standpoint. Handke's novel Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung evinces the relationship between fear and happiness, whereby the former is a prerequisite for the latter because the moment after fear approximates the state of reasonable happiness. Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire portrays the attainment of orientation through aesthetic communication. The moments of happiness are no longer subject to the sudden change as before, and subjective alienation is overcome within a feeling of contextual belonging and existential mutuality. The development from fear to happiness represents changing literary methods, not diverging authorial purposes. Handke's literary intent remains constant: he attempts to awaken an attentiveness in himself and his reader; he strives to open the individual’s eyes to the self, the world, and others; he struggles to attain the essence of reality, an essence which cannot be comprehended by means of explanation, but must be subjectively experienced by means of poetic narration. The essence of reality is realized by means of a poetic language which frees phenomena from predetermined meanings or a seemingly natural context, thereby granting each and every moment of life existential autonomy. In Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung freedom is created through destruction. The form of the novel is characterized by disconnection, a subjectively limited perspective, acausality, and fragmentation. The form serves both as a reflection of the protagonist’s condition and as the means to infect the reader with this alienation. Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire employs another method or poetic language to free reality from context for both the narrator-protagonist and the reader. Nature appears and is then described with color and form alone, and in its autonomous silence its essence can be experienced. This experience is one which can be shared by all, thus creating a feeling of existential orientation. The form of analogy, which simultaneously expresses disconnection and consanguinity, transforms happiness into a lasting state.


  1. Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975); Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980). Hereafter cited in the text as (SE) and (LS-V) respectively.

  2. “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms,” in Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972), pp. 19–28, especially pp. 20 and 26.

  3. Peter Handke, Als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 103.

  4. Manfred Durzak, Gespräche über den Roman mit Joseph Breitbach, Elias Canetti, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz, Hermann Lenz, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Peter Handke, Hans Erich Nossack, Uwe Johnson, Walter Höllerer: Formbestimmungen und Analysen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976), p. 334.

  5. Heinz Ludwig Arnold, “‘Nicht Literatur machen, sondern als Schriftsteller leben’: Gespräch mit Peter Handke,” in Als Schriftsteller leben: Gespräche mit Peter Handke, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Gerhard Zwerenz, Walter Jens, Peter Rühmkorf, Günter Grass (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1979), p. 21.

  6. Irene Wellershoff, Innen und Auβen: Wahrnehmung und Vorstellung bei Alain Robbe-Grillet und Peter Handke (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1980), p. 33.

  7. Arnold, pp. 22–23.

  8. Arnold, p. 23.

  9. Gustav Zürcher, “Leben ohne Poesie,” Text + Kritik, 24/24a (1976), ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold, 52.

  10. Rolf Michaelis, “Die Katze vor dem Spiegel: Oder: Peter Handkes Traum von der ‘anderen Zeit,’” Theater heute, 14, No. 12 (1973), 5.

  11. Handke, Wünschen, p. 76.

  12. Ibid., p. 80.

  13. Ibid., p. 101.

  14. Ibid., p. 102.

  15. Arnold, p. 26.

  16. Durzak, p. 333.

  17. William H. Rey, “Peter Handke—oder die Auferstehung der Tradition,” Literatur und Kritik, 12 (1977), 397.

  18. Jerome Klinkowitz and James Knowlton, Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation: The Goalie’s Journey Home (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), p. 92.

  19. Peter Pütz, “Peter Handke,” in Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (München: edition text + kritik, 1978), p. 9.

  20. Siegfried Schober, “‘Es soll mythisch sein, mythisch!’ Über Peter Handke bei der Verfilmung seiner ‘Linkshändigen Frau,’” Der Spiegel, 2 May 1977, pp. 177–82.

  21. Manfred Durzak discusses how this text is Handke's commentary on his own literary production, but unfortunately limits his investigation to a thematic linkage between Falsche Bewegung and Langsame Heimkehr, in Peter Handke und die deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur: Narziβ auf Abwegen (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1982), pp. 146–63.

  22. For the narrator’s reference to the experience of cypress trees, see Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied, p. 95.

  23. For the landscape which closes in upon the subject, see Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, p. 47, and the poem “Leben ohne Poesie,” p. 16 in Als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat.

  24. The feeling of “Verborgenheit” is acquired through reading the quiet, patient, and calm descriptive pictures in Hermann Lenz’ works. See Handke's essay about this writer entitled “Jemand anderer: Hermann Lenz,” Wünschen, pp. 80–100. See especially pp. 84 and 99. The ability of Lenz to quiet fear and provoke feelings of naturalness and happiness through his works undoubtedly played a significant role in Handke's decision to dedicate Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire to this author: “für Hermann Lenz und Hanne Lenz, zum Dank für den Januar 1979.”

  25. June Schlueter, The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), p. 166.

  26. Ibid., p. 166.

  27. See pp. 21, 24, 26, and 99 for example.

  28. Schlueter, p. 168.

  29. Klinkowitz and Knowlton, p. 94.

Michael Linstead (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6844

SOURCE: “Peter Handke,” in The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant, Oswald Wolff, 1987, pp. 155-70.

[In the following essay, Linstead provides an overview of Handke's literary career and discusses the major themes, artistic preoccupations, and narrative strategies of his novels.]

Peter Handke burst upon the West German literary scene in 1966, not with a novel or a play, although Die Hornissen (1966) and Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966) had already been accepted for publication, but with a tirade. At the meeting of the Group 47 in Princeton (USA) that year, Handke stood up and vehemently attacked the literature he had heard read. This caused a sensation and was widely reported in the arts sections of all the major West German papers as well as in the weeklies Die Zeit and Der Spiegel. Rapidly, however, the criticisms Handke gave voice to were lost under the tumult surrounding what was seen as a media event, a kind of ‘happening’. It wasn’t then long before Handke was accused of only being concerned with his own image-building at the Princeton meeting—as if he had somehow calculated the reaction to his intervention! When Handke's first novel duly appeared later in 1966 it was of course scrutinised very closely—and found lacking. Hence, the opinion that Handke was all show and no substance became even more rigid. It is an opinion which Handke has had to contend with in various forms right up to the present. He is a writer who seems to attract either unqualified admiration or outright condemnation: he can be mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature or he can be angrily dismissed as a sham, delivering endless variations on the same trivial themes.

A short time after the Princeton meeting Handke attempted to counter this impression of himself as a media creation by setting out in more detail the substance of his intervention. His criticism of the works he had heard read centred on what he called their ‘Beschreibungsimpotenz’1 (‘descriptive impotence’). The authors of these works—Manfred Durzak names them as Walter Höllerer and Hermann Peter Piwitt,2 Handke calls them the authors of the ‘Neuer Realismus’ (‘New Realism’) and speaks at one point of Günter Herburger—were operating, according to Handke, with a method of description which merely added to the number of objects described in literature without reflecting on the basic element of description, indeed of all literature, the language used. Handke maintains that for these authors language is merely like glass or a lens, a means of seeing through to the objects in the world. But this is not enough for him: ‘Es wird nämlich verkannt, daβ die Literatur mit der Sprache gemacht wird, und nicht mit den Dingen, die mit der Sprache beschrieben werden’ (‘It is in fact not recognised that literature is made out of language and not out of the objects that are described with the language’).3 This kind of writing produces a realism in which language is reduced to the secondary function of merely naming these objects:‘Die Sprache wird nur benützt. Sie wird benützt, um zu beschreiben, ohne daβ aber in der Sprache selber sich etwas rührt. Die Sprache bleibt tot, ohne Bewegung, dient nur als Namensschild für die Dinge. Die Dinge werden reportiert, nicht bewegt’ (‘Language is only used. It is used to describe without anything happening in the language itself. The language remains dead, without movement, it only serves as a nameplate for the objects. The objects are reported but not moved’).4 Such a use of language merely reproduces the world in its already established meaning: it does nothing to help us ‘see’ the world, it only helps us to‘recognise’ it as something we know already.

This juxtaposition of ‘seeing’ and ‘recognising’ lies behind another programmatic statement in the 1967 essay ‘Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms’ (‘I am an inhabitant of the ivory tower’): ‘Ich erwarte von der Literatur ein Zerbrechen aller endgültig scheinenden Weltbilder’ (‘I expect from literature a destruction of all images of the world which appear final’).5 An inattentive use of language can clearly contribute to the reproduction of such final images where the world is presented for recognition by the reader. The reflection upon how literature mediates between writer and reader extends in this later essay to the problem of form as well or, as Handke puts it, ‘die Methode’ (the method). The way literature provides the reader with information about the world is then just as important as that information itself. The ‘methods’ of literature, the means of structuring and presenting reality, are just as prone to petrification and ‘deadness’ as language. Hence, Handke's own literature must constantly reflect upon these two elements if it is to maintain its enlightening function, to enable the reader to ‘see’ the world anew. Taken to its extreme this means that for Handke a method of representation can only be used once before it runs the risk of becoming ‘natural’, of producing final images of the world, and thereby of being unrealistic: ‘Eine Möglichkeit besteht für mich jeweils nur einmal. Die Nachahmung dieser Möglichkeit ist dann schon unmöglich. Ein Modell der Darstellung, ein zweites Mal angewendet, ergibt keine Neuigkeit mehr, höchstens eine Variation. Ein Darstellungsmodell, beim ersten Mal auf die Wirklichkeit angewendet, kann realistisch sein, beim zweiten Mal schon ist es eine Manier, ist irreal’ (‘A possibility only exists once for me in each case. The imitation of this possibility is then impossible. A model of representation, applied a second time, does not produce an innovation any more, at most a variation. A model of representation, applied for the first time to reality, can be realistic, by the second time it’s a mannerism, unreal’).6

This understanding of realism means that Handke's literary endeavour in the early period takes on two basic forms. Firstly, he searches for new methods of representation—his early Sprechstücke (1966) are examples of this—or, secondly, he tries to make ‘unnatural’ again those methods which have become so petrified through use that they can only reproduce a conformist view of reality—a good example of this is his second novel Der Hausierer (1967) which deals with the ‘method’ of the detective story. Both strands of his writing aim to disrupt the automatic structures of coherence we apply to the world: literature can defamiliarise reality. This aesthetic undertaking is complementary to the main thematic thrust of much of Handke's fiction: the investigation and disruption of the prescriptive systems of language, perception patterns and social roles, which restrict and model the consciousness of his main figures, robbing each of freedom of individual action and thought. So the following equation applies: literature which uses fixed models of the representation of reality can only produce ‘model realities’ which in turn can only ever be ‘recognised’ by the reader: in this act of recognition a ‘model’, conformist consciousness is reproduced and strengthened: hence the enlightening, defamiliarising function of literature is denied and the ‘final images of the world’ remain in place.

The idea of literature estranging or making ‘unnatural’ both our perception of reality and literature’s own devices and methods of representation stretches back at least to the Russian Formalists (1915/16). The Formalists believed that literature can displace our habitual modes of perceiving the real world and thus make us more open and attentive of it. It can also make us aware of the mechanics of our perception, just as it makes us aware of its own mechanics. Literature works at disrupting the easy process of assimilating information about the world into established structures of coherence, it attempts to subvert fixed hierarchies of meaning and value, the ‘seemingly final images of the world’ Handke mentions in his essay.

This brief account of the similarities between Handke's aesthetic project and that of the Formalists is necessary in order to delineate the kind of wider European context Handke fits into. Although associated with the West German literary scene, Handke's Austrian origins and background, and his membership of a generation uninvolved in the war, must always be called to mind. The kind of contextualisation associated with major West German writers such as Martin Walser, Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll or Siegfried Lenz, clearly does not apply in this case. Rather, a much longer tradition of scepticism towards language—as found in such forerunners as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (1902), Robert Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleβ (1906) or the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein—and formal experimentation—concrete poetry, the ‘Wiener Gruppe’, the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, and the nouveau roman—are operative here.

Peter Handke was born in the village of Altenmarkt in the province of Kärnten on 6 December 1942. His natural father was a German soldier, but his mother married another German soldier, Bruno Handke, before her son was born. In 1944 the family moved to Berlin, returning to Austria in 1948. Handke's stepfather was a heavy drinker and their living conditions were cramped and spartan: add to this the monotony, everyday brutality and narrow-mindedness of the rural environment, and the source of many of Handke's own anxieties, feelings of restriction and dependency, which are to find expression time and again in his writing, is clear. A period of time in a highly religious boys’ boarding school only served to contribute to this complex. From 1961 until 1965 Handke studied law in Graz, breaking off his studies once the Suhrkamp Verlag had agreed to publish Die Hornissen. During the time in Graz Handke became involved with the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, a literary circle around the magazine manuskripte and its editor Alfred Kolleritsch. Many of the concerns of the magazine are to re-appear in later works by Handke. Manfred Mixner characterises the magazine as working to break up ‘die politisch-ideologische Bestimmtheit der Sprache … sie sichtbar zu machen’ (‘the political and ideological determination of language, to make it visible’).7 Handke's writing fits snugly into Mixner’s description of the general direction of the work published in the journal:‘In den manuskripten wurde … jene Literatur veröffentlicht, die … eine Art anarchische Gegenwehr gegen die Verfügbarmachung des Bewuβtseins signalisiert, die … gegen die Erstarrung von Bildern sich richtet’ (‘In manuskripte that literature was published which signals a kind of anarchic resistance to the manipulation of consciousness, which directs itself against the petrification of images’).8

Handke's first novel Die Hornissen shows strong influences from the nouveau roman and its foremost practitioner and theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet. The emphasis in the nouveau roman is on the ‘objectification of objects’, that is, robbing them of their fixed anthropocentric meaning, making them concrete, definable again, and not merely referents of a human emotion or situation. This subversion of pre-established meanings is approached through the method of description, something which Handke also emphasises in Die Hornissen. Through careful, exact description there arises, according to Robbe-Grillet, a creation of distance. This is then the true intent of a recapture of reality. It is not an assimilation of it, but rather exactly the opposite: ‘To describe things, in fact, is deliberately to place oneself outside them, facing them. It is not, any longer, to appropriate them to oneself nor to transfer anything to them’.9 This creation of distance between the reader and the world blocks the automatic process of ‘recognition’ which Handke found generated by the descriptive impotence of the work he heard read at Princeton. Hence, Handke is by no means against description as such, but rather against this particular kind of description. This was not always appreciated by reviewers of Die Hornissen.

The novel is heavily autobiographical, conjuring up through minute description an atmosphere of monotony, repetition, hidden danger, brutality and restriction within a rural setting. At times the notion of formal experimentation is excessively foregrounded as Handke tries out different narrative points of view and different types of narrator. There is no plot structure as such, although the descriptions centre on a main figure who may (or may not) be remembering a book which he may (or may not) have read: ‘Aus den zerbrochenen Stücken, an die er sich zu erinnern glaubt, aus Worten, aus Sätzen, aus halbverlorenen Bildern denkt der Mann den Roman aus, und zwar derart, daβ unentscheidbar bleibt, ob das Geschehen in dem “neuen” Roman nur den “Helden” des alten Romans betrifft, oder auch ihn, der ihn ausdenkt’ (‘The man constructs the novel out of the shattered pieces, which he believes he is remembering, out of words, sentences, partially lost images, and in such a way that it remains inconclusive whether the events in the “new” novel only affect the “hero” of the old novel, or whether they affect the man who is constructing it as well’).10

Die Hornissen was attacked for being dull, repetitive and full of descriptions, as if Handke's intervention at Princeton had been to condemn all types of description. Certainly the novel is not without its longueurs, but it is also a testimony to Handke's skill, even at this early stage, in creating atmospheres of tension and anxiety, dislocation and alienation, out of the narration of seemingly everyday events. This is a skill which he is to refine and employ to great effect in many of his later novels.

Handke's second novel Der Hausierer is similarly concerned with formal experimentation, with breaking down final images of the representation of the world, in this case the detective story. For Handke, the detective story, once a realistic method of writing, showing ‘real fear’ and ‘real pain’, had became sterile, cliché-ridden and automatic. The work of estrangement and renewal involves a division of each chapter of Der Hausierer into a theoretical and an expositional section. Within each theoretical section Handke attempts to make the mechanics of this type of writing clear: the detective story is analysed from the point of view of order, disruptions of order (the murder), and restorations of order (the unmasking of the murderer and the confinement of the deed to history). Handke comments: ‘Würde ich also nur mir diese Schemata des Sterbens, des Schreckens, des Schmerzes usw. bewuβt machen, so könnte ich mit Hilfe der reflektierten Schemata den wirklichen Schrecken, den wirklichen Schmerz zeigen’ (‘If I would only make myself aware of these patterns of dying, horror, pain etc., then I could show, with the help of the exposed patterns, real horror and real pain’).11 This then is the task of the second section of each chapter, where possible sentences from possible detective stories are listed, which the reader then has to reconstruct as far as possible into some kind of coherent whole. The horror and pain result as much from the reader’s difficulties in attempting to order an alogical sequence of sentences as from the content of the sentences themselves.

Handke was later (1975) to describe Der Hausierer as a book ‘wo ein formales Modell eben als formales Modell erscheint und als nichts anderes’ (‘where a formal model appears just as a formal model and as nothing else’).12 Certainly Handke's renown during this early period is based almost exclusively on his Sprechstücke and on his full-length play Kaspar (1968). Whilst still incorporating a measure of abstraction and formal experimentation this play deals with the much more concrete issue of the manipulation of consciousness through language. It becomes clear however that Handke sees this danger inherent in language itself, regardless of who actually uses it. He is not concerned in Kaspar with showing how, for example, the media use language to influence people. What turns the figure of Kaspar into a ‘model’, conformist citizen, incapable of an original thought, is rather the model structure of language itself, its rigid grammar, syntax, model phrases. Although language provides Kaspar with a means of expression, Handke wishes to show that it also sets its own limits on that expression, in that it mediates, according to its own rules, like a filter between the self and the world. This situation is to become, in various forms, the main theme of Handke's writing, and as he investigates this theme so the degree of formal experimentation diminishes. Handke's novels (and plays) now begin to examine particular types of mediation between outer and inner world, reality and consciousness: more explicitly they investigate and attempt to disrupt the normative forces of language (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, 1970), perception patterns (Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied, 1972), and social roles (Wunschloses Unglück, 1972; Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung, 1975; Die linkshändige Frau, 1976). The disruption or emancipation from these forces which some of these novels propose only takes place however through the straight denial of such mediating forces, via a ‘magical’ or ‘mystical’ ‘directness’ of experience and expression: there is no attempt to confront these forces within their social context.

In Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter the particular state of Josef Bloch’s inner world, his consciousness, mediates between and moulds his perception of the outer world. This state is one of fear, of anxiety, of unease. Hence, the outer world appears threatening, encroaching, closing in on him. The reader may initially be tempted to think that this is because Bloch has committed a murder and is ‘on the run’. But, in fact, these symptoms were clearly present before the murder was committed: this was itself just another symptom of his feelings of persecution. Believing he has lost his job as a fitter, Bloch, a former goalkeeper, wanders around the town before spending the night with the box office cashier of a local cinema. In the morning she asks him if he has to go to work, whereupon he strangles her. He flees to a village near the border, becomes involved in various aspects of village life, including the search for a missing boy, whose body he finds but does not report. At the end of the novel he watches a football match and sees a goalkeeper save a penalty. The story of Handke's novel is easily and quickly told. What is far more important is Bloch’s inner life, his perceptions. He perceives his environment constantly encroaching upon him, forcing itself into his inner world, giving him guidelines, instructions and rules as to his behaviour: ‘Überall sah er eine Aufforderung: das eine zu tun, das andere nicht zu tun. Alles war ihm vorformuliert’ (‘Everywhere he saw a demand: to do one thing, not to do another. Everything was preformulated for him’).13 The world becomes a system of signs imparting meanings, signs which have to be interpreted: the world becomes ‘linguistified’ (‘versprachlicht’). This coercion to interpret is present from the very beginning of the novel. Bloch has not in fact lost his job as a fitter: that is his interpretation of the fact that only the foreman looked up at him when he entered the site hut.

Bloch’s particular perspective on reality can be explained in conjunction with his former professions. They are both mentioned in the opening sentence of the novel: ‘Dem Monteur Josef Bloch, der früher ein bekannter Tormann gewesen war, wurde, als er sich am Vormittag zur Arbeit meldete, mitgeteilt, daβ er entlassen sei’ (‘The fitter Josef Bloch, who had once been a renowned goalkeeper, was informed, when he clocked in for work one morning, that he had been dismissed’) (7). But even before this first sentence there is a reference to his former profession as a goalkeeper in the motto: ‘“Der Tormann sah zu, wie der Ball über die Linie rollte …”’ (‘“The goalkeeper watched as the ball rolled over the line …’”) (5). This is an image of failure, an image of the fear of the goalkeeper at the penalty kick. As a goalkeeper in a football match Bloch is dependent on interpreting the movements and feints of the attacking players correctly, on divining their ‘meaning’. The complete action of the game is directed towards the goalkeeper, he is at the centre of its world, and yet his is the most passive role. He stands between the posts, able to react but with very little possibility of intervention. His fear is that he will not function well enough, that he will not interpret the shooter’s intentions correctly, that he cannot rely upon a system of coherence to order the world, and yet all the time he is aware that it is the only possibility open to him. This attitude of the goalkeeper in the game is carried on by Bloch through his life and is allied with the ‘loss’ of his job as a fitter, whose task it also is to manufacture coherence out of isolated, separate units. For Bloch there is now no coherence at all, but merely a constant stream of isolated and false interpretations, and yet he is still tied to the compulsion to interpret: he cannot escape from this system of mediation between outer and inner world. In fact, all the characters in the novel are seen at various points to operate with similar systems, causing them to perceive reality in a particular way: what distinguishes Bloch from them is that his compulsion to interpret is much more intense.

A possible liberation from this conventional functioning of experience and perception is then postulated very tentatively by Handke at the end of the novel. Such an ‘emancipation’ from the mediation between inner and outer world cannot however involve Bloch himself, as the perspective of the goalkeeper is far too established within him. It does however involve another goalkeeper and the central image of the novel’s title, a penalty kick. While talking to a company representative at the football match Bloch explains how the goalkeeper will try to interpret the penalty taker’s actions before he actually kicks the ball, and how he will use these interpretations in his attempt to save the penalty. Bloch maintains however that ultimately the goalkeeper has no chance because the penalty taker is always ‘one thought’ ahead of him. But when the penalty is taken, the goalkeeper remains motionless and the penalty taker shoots the ball straight into his arms. It would seem that the goalkeeper rejects the interpretation of signs, feints and dodges, which has become the perspective on life for Bloch. He rejects the memory of former penalty kicks, he rejects his previous experience, he rejects the traditional, ‘natural’ behaviour on such occasions, indeed he rejects his own historical dimension, and ‘magically’ saves the kick. Freed from the mediating system between inner and outer world the goalkeeper reverses the motto of the novel.

Clearly, in practical terms this is not a course of action to be recommended to goalkeepers. Rather it functions as a metaphor for a ‘direct’ (yet ahistorical) relationship to the world. It is a metaphor for an attempt to avoid the normative perception patterns which have led to a stagnation and mechanical functioning of that perception. But to avoid them by simply rejecting them—the goalkeeper does not even attempt to move—is to transcend rather than to confront and change these patterns of experience, perception and living.

1972 marked an important year for Handke's work with the publication of two novels—Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied and Wunschloses Unglück—which many critics believe to be his best. The former, set in America, took up a number of aspects of Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter but with the extra dimensions of an autobiographical base—the break-up of Handke's own marriage is mirrored in the first-person narrator’s problems with his estranged wife—and an attempt to understand how patterns of perception and resulting alienation are established in the cultural and socio-political environment of early childhood. The novel disappoints however in its ending, which has the narrator and his wife meet the film director John Ford at his home in California. During the meeting the alienation between inner and outer world is overcome in a ‘magical’ moment when history stops and a state of ‘pure nature’ is reached. It is a weakness of the novel that it presents an analysis of the disruption of the narrator’s perception of the world and of his increasing distance from his wife in terms which link the specific constitution of this gap between inner and outer world to the conditions of the narrator’s childhood and his position within the social and property relations in Austria, only then to avoid a similarly concrete coming to terms with this alienation of perception by raising the action in the final instance into a ‘magical’ moment of unalienated ‘directness’ of experience. In the end it would seem that Handke has not finally abandoned the hope of a ‘direct’ unmediated relationship between reality and consciousness, of a ‘magical’ coincidence of the two as a means of overcoming normative socialising forces, as he had tentatively mooted on the final page of Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter. This pattern is certainly to appear in subsequent novels, which are very close thematically. On the one hand, an historically sited account of the pressures on people to live a socialised existence; on the other hand, the presentation of any liberation from such forces within the terms of an irrational, quasi-mystical withdrawal into purportedly autonomous inner spaces.

Wunschloses Unglück is not only a book about the life of Handke's mother, who committed suicide in 1971; it is also a book about the writing of such a biography. As such, Handke explicitly thematises the reflection upon ‘method’ which informed the essay ‘Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms’. In the novel he reflects upon the already available models of the literary representation of his subject matter, and realises that he cannot simply reproduce these when writing of his own mother. This is particularly so as his mother is seen to have been the victim of a ‘model of existence’. From birth her biography is seen to have been determined, according to a pre-set notion of what women can and cannot do, by the male-dominated society in which she lived. The portrayal of her life, the public form it takes, must not then be such that it again, in its turn, only fits that life into an established representation of it. The problem is how to fit her biography into public, yet individual sentences.

This problem of the tension between public and private, between role-determined behaviour and autonomy, runs throughout the subject matter of the novel as well. Handke's mother is presented as having no sphere of autonomy within her formative years, no possibility of a private life: her life is public and delineated by forces outside her control. Social mobility or the possibility of change would seem to be blocked, for the all-encompassing rigidity of her ascribed position—according to class and gender—within the particular, almost feudal set of social relations dominant in rural Austria at the time denies any notion of an achieved position through personal action. Women’s biographies under such conditions are easily mapped: ‘Müde/Matt/Krank/Schwerkrank/Tot’ (‘Tired/Weary/Ill/Seriously Ill/Dead’).14 Women had no individual futures—girls never had their palms read, only boys. Happiness was sometimes present in some form or another, but wishing, the projection of an imagined future on an expected future, the construction of a personal and private reality, was non-existent: ‘Selten wunschlos und irgendwie glücklich, meistens wunschlos und ein biβchen unglücklich’ (‘Seldom: without desires and somehow happy; mostly: without desires and a little unhappy’) (19). Personal, private desire was eclipsed by the demands of the specific public existence for women.

Handke takes his mother’s life through the Anschluss and the attraction of fascism for the Kleinbürger into the post-war period. It is only towards the end of her life that some flickerings of an emancipatory drive announce themselves: she takes more care over her appearance, she goes out more, she begins to read the books that her son has lent her. But these flickerings clash with the comfort she still derives from being typical: she is afraid of ‘standing out’, of being noticed if she does anything out of the ordinary: ‘Spontan zu leben … das hieβ schon, eine Art von Unwesen treiben’ (‘living spontaneously, that meant causing some sort of trouble’) (52). In the end her internalisation of the social pressures she has had to endure for most of her life is strong enough not to allow her to throw herself whole-heartedly into a new life. She remains trapped in a ‘no man’s land’ between hatred of her former life and fear of any different one. Her suicide is a refusal to compromise—‘“Ich will mich nicht mehr zusammennehmen”’ (‘“I don’t want to compose myself any more”’)—but it is also a capitulation—‘“an ein Weiterleben ist nicht zu denken”’ (“‘to live any longer is unthinkable’”) (91). It is only Handke's literary undertaking—the novel Wunschloses Unglück—which saves her from total oblivion. Although most of Handke's novels contain autobiographical elements, the acuteness, sensitivity and intensity of the involvement in this book and the extremely skilful handling of the narration, which never slips into sentimentality, make it his most accomplished piece of work.

Handke picks up the theme of women and social roles again in Die linkshändige Frau. Marianne suddenly asks her husband Bruno to leave her: ‘“Ich hatte auf einmal die Erleuchtung”—sie muβte auch über dieses Wort lachen—“daβ du von mir weggehst; daβ du mich allein läβt. Ja, das ist es: Geh weg, Bruno. Laβ mich allein”’ (‘“All at once I had the illumination—she had to laugh at this word as well—that you were going away from me; that you were leaving me alone. Yes, that’s it: Go away, Bruno. Leave me alone”’).15 It is clear that the fear of becoming the object of an action—his leaving her—moves her to transform herself into an active subject: she breaks up a relationship which had been characterised by his dominance and her subservience, and by his brutality whenever this dominance was in any way challenged. The rest of the novel charts her attempts to live with her child, to support herself financially, to gain and consolidate her independence. She has rejected the social determination of her life and now shuns a society which no longer appears as a medium within which the individual can develop a meaningful identity: rather this society is the place for loss of identity, and relationships between people are reduced to struggles for power.

Marianne declares at one point: ‘“Wenn mir in Zukunft jemand erklärt, wie ich bin—auch wenn er mir schmeicheln oder mich bestärken will—werde ich mir diese Frechheit verbitten”’ (‘“If anyone explains to me in future what I’m like—even if he wants to flatter or support me—I’ll refuse to tolerate this impudence”’) (37–8). Her drive for emancipation is supported then by the narrative organisation of the novel. Handke only ever narrates from without, with the sober, objective eye of the camera—indeed the novel resembles rather a screenplay for the film Handke was later to direct. Descriptions of physical movement abound—e.g., ‘Sie reckte die Arme: ein Loch zeigte sich im Pullover unter einer Achsel; sie schob einen Finger hinein’ (‘She stretched her arms: a hole appeared in her pullover under an armpit: she pushed a finger into it’) (38)—but these actions are never interpreted or explained for the reader by the author, they are merely reported in a detached manner. The narration does not intrude upon her inner world but remains distant and respectful of her isolated individuality.

Marianne is partially reintegrated into society in the final long scene of the novel, a party she throws at her house. It is a scene however which has an unreal quality about it. The party becomes an event where all social hierarchies, individual gaps and personal distances are ‘magically’ overcome. Strangers embrace each other, arguments are laid aside, and social and economic differences between people are miraculously forgotten—the publisher, having left his chauffeur outside for hours when he visited Marianne previously, now offers to drive him home! Thus the left-handed woman’s assertion at the end of the novel—‘“Du hast dich nicht verraten. Und niemand wird dich mehr demütigen!”’ (‘“You haven’t betrayed yourself. And no-one will humiliate you anymore’”) (130)—remains largely untested by this gathering. Her ‘emancipation’ is not incorporated into any kind of recognisable social reality, but without such incorporation it becomes instead ‘the transcendence of fixed and rigid definitions of social roles’.16 Inner world merely deems or asserts itself free of the pressures of outer world, and the latter ‘magically’ disappear.

After the publication of Die linkshändige Frau Handke was to wait three years before the appearance of his next novel Langsame Heimkehr in 1979—an unusually long gap for such a prolific writer. This period could well be seen as a time of ‘gathering breath’. Langsame Heimkehr was to turn out to be not only the title of an individual novel but also of a ‘tetralogy’ incorporating Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980), Kindergeschichte (1981), and the ‘dramatic poem’ Über die Dörfer (1981). If the theme of Handke's previous work can roughly be summarised under the headings of an examination of the forces which attempt to determine the individual from without and possible emancipatory strategies in the face of ‘die vorausbestimmte Biographie’ (‘the predetermined biography’),17 then the tetralogy, Langsame Heimkehr, portrays various attempts to find eternal ‘laws’ and ‘secrets,’ a new order which will ‘heal’ the disharmony, the ‘ontological split’ between the self and the world, consciousness and reality.

‘“Somewhere I lost connection …”’ was the motto of the volume of poems and essays Als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat (1974).18 The idea of a re-established ‘connection’ between the self and the world to overcome the individual’s alienated state is present in each of the separate works in the tetralogy. In Langsame Heimkehr the geologist Valentin Sorger journeys on his quest from the frozen wastes of Alaska via America to Europe with the notion that ‘“Der Zusammenhang ist möglich”’ (‘“The connection is possible’”).19 He eventually experiences the ‘gesetzgebender Augenblick’ (‘law-giving moment’) in a coffee shop in New York where he leaves his self-imposed isolation behind him and‘heals’ his friend Esch of his anxiety in a scene which has strong religious overtones: ‘Sorger wurde sein Vorsprecher: befahl und verbot ihm … ; sprach ihn frei von Schmerz; weissagte ihm Gutes und gab ihm schlieβlich den Segen’ (‘Sorger became his prompter: ordered and forbade him; released him from pain; prophesied good things for him and gave him finally his blessing’).20

The ‘connection’ between Sorger and the world is re-established here in a mystical moment of caring for others. In Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire it happens via art. Through the study of Cézanne’s paintings of the Mont Sainte-Victoire and a personal pilgrimage to the area, Handke hopes, in his own writing and landscape descriptions, to bridge the gap between man and nature: ‘Der Zusammenhang ist möglich’, Handke writes again, ‘Es existiert eine unmittelbare Verbindung; ich muβ sie nur freiphantasieren’ (‘The connection is possible. There exists a direct link; I only have to free it through imagination’).21

Handke turns away from nature at the end of Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire towards the figure of his own child: ‘Dann einatmen und weg vom Wald. Zurück zu den heutigen Menschen … Zu Hause das Augenpaar? (‘Then breathe in and away from the wood. Back to the people of today. At home the pair of eyes?’).22 The child’s perspective on the world as one that is innocent, ‘pure’, unsullied by experience and as yet oblivious to social determination, is presented in Kindergeschichte as something to be learnt from in the search for the lost ‘connection’. It had in fact had a similar function in Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung, where the main figure Gregor Keuschnig breaks out of his humdrum, restrictive existence as an embassy official and observes, amongst other things, his own child’s attitude to the world, admiring its ‘Für Sich Sein’ (‘Being For Itself’), its refusal of outside control over its life. In Kindergeschichte the child embodies ‘ein groβes Gesetz … welches er selber entweder vergessen oder nie gehabt hatte’ (‘a great law … which he himself had either forgotten or never had’) and is presented by the narrator as ‘sein persönlicher Lehrherr’ (‘his personal master’).23 The point of view on the child in the novel is however extremely limited. It is never referred to by name and is shown as existing outside human society. It is never given its own voice, but only functions in relation to the narrator. Where, on a few isolated occasions, it is presented with a life of its own—playing with other children, going to school, making irritating demands on the narrator—then the tone of the narration changes from the triumph of the majority of the book to one of sadness, annoyance and disappointment. Any kind of social interaction or experience is immediately seen in a negative light. It becomes clear that the child’s identity is understood by the narrator to be complete at birth: ‘Als dem Erwachsenen durch die Trennglasscheibe das Kind gezeigt wurde, erblickte er da kein Neugeborenes, sondern einen vollkommenen Menschen’ (‘When the child was shown to the adult through the dividing pane of glass he caught sight of a complete person, not a new born baby’).24 The child’s individuality would seem to pre-exist historical and social forces. The meeting with society does not then become a formative and developmental process, but rather a process of antagonism and destruction of this individuality: any resistance to the wholly negative concept of socialisation must necessitate a turn inwards to those areas of the inner world which are still ‘childlike’, which still retain traces of a potential for autonomy.

Within the context of West German literature of the 1970s and 1980s and the notions of neue Subjektivität and neue Innerlichkeit Handke is clearly a central figure. His espousal of the ability of the individual to withdraw into ‘free’ inner spaces as a bulwark against normative pressures is indicative of the basic antagonism between society and the individual, public and private, outer and inner worlds, running throughout his writing, whereby both are presented as conflicting blocks in a static, hostile relationship. This antagonism extends also to the sphere of interpersonal relations, which are almost always presented as power games, where love is yet another means of controlling others and sex is only conceivable as a spontaneous act between strangers on an office floor (Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung).

Handke's later novel, Der Chinese des Schmerzes (1983), deals with the by now familiar themes of the outsider, power, alienation, violence, the emptiness of human relationships, the attempt to attain different ways of ‘seeing’ the world. The basic problem of Handke's writing to date still remains then. His total faith in the power of the individual to withdraw into the security of free inner spaces within the inner world contrasts with the portrayal of his mother’s life in its social and historical context, where this inner world itself was also completely dominated and defined by social demands: his mother had no such private, autonomous sphere to inhabit. In an interview Handke pleads for the kind of literature he writes to be accepted as ‘ein Modell von Möglichkeit, Leben darzustellen’ (‘a model of the possibility of representing life’).25 This may hold as long as ‘life’ is perceived as some existential category: as soon as one thinks however of individual lives within their respective social and historical contexts, then Handke's writing since 1972 only provides false, passive notions of emancipation, ignoring the active, political ways in which people can effect change in their lives. The final sentence of Wunschloses Unglück—‘Später werde ich über das alles Genaueres schreiben’ (‘Later I will write more accurately about all that’)26—will never be realised if the present direction of Handke's writing holds.


  1. Peter Handke, Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms (Frankfurt, 1972), p. 29.

  2. Manfred Durzak, Peter Handke und die deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur (Stuttgart, 1982), p. 9.

  3. Handke, Bewohner, p. 29.

  4. Ibid., p. 30.

  5. Ibid., p. 20.

  6. Ibid., p. 20.

  7. Manfred Mixner, ‘Ausbruch aus der Provinz’ in Peter Laemmle and Jörg Drews (eds.), Wie die Grazer auszogen, die Literatur zu erobern (Munich, 1979), p. 21.

  8. Ibid., p. 26.

  9. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Towards a New Novel (London, 1965), p. 91.

  10. Peter Handke, Die Hornissen (Frankfurt, 1978), p. 2.

  11. Handke, Bewohner, p. 28.

  12. H. L. Arnold, ‘Gespräch mit Peter Handke’, in H. L. Arnold (ed.), Peter Handke, Text + Kritik, vol. 24/24a (Munich, 1978), p. 25.

  13. Peter Handke, Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (Frankfurt, 1974), p. 99.

  14. Peter Handke, Wunschloses Unglück (Frankfurt, 1975), p. 17.

  15. Peter Handke, Die linkshändige Frau (Frankfurt, 1977), p. 23.

  16. Richard Critchfield, ‘From Abuse to Liberation: On Images of Women in Peter Handke's Writing of the Seventies’, Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik, 14 (1982), part 1, p. 34.

  17. ‘Und plötzlich wird das Paar wieder denkbar’, Der Spiegel, 32 (1978), no. 28, p. 140.

  18. Peter Handke, Als das Wünschen noch geholfen hat (Frankfurt, 1980), p. 121.

  19. Peter Handke, Langsame Heimkehr (Frankfurt, 1980), p. 112.

  20. Ibid., pp. 177–8.

  21. Peter Handke, Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (Frankfurt, 1980), p. 100.

  22. Ibid., p. 139.

  23. Peter Handke, Kindergeschichte (Frankfurt, 1981), p. 63.

  24. Ibid., p. 9.

  25. Arnold, ‘Gespräch mit Peter Handke’, p. 39.

  26. Wunschloses Unglück, p. 105.

Gail Pool (review date 8 July 1988)

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SOURCE: “A Tale of Rediscovery and Renewal,” in The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, Pool offers a favorable assessment of Repetition.]

In Peter Handke's previous novel, Across, the central character asks whether “repetition,” so often viewed as negative, might instead be viewed as good. “Could not one … speak of refreshing repetition as opposed to wearisome repetition? … The possibility of repetition as opposed to the danger of repetition?” he says. “Here is my other word for repetition: ‘rediscovery.’”

Rediscovery and renewal are at the heart of Handke's new novel [Repetition], an evocative, many-layered treatment of a familiar theme: a youth setting forth to find the world and himself.

Filip Kobal’s journey takes place in the summer of 1960 when, not yet 20, he leaves his village in southern Austria for Slovenia. In part, Filip is “on the trail” of his brother Gregor who vanished in Slovenia 20 years before, during the war. Though Filip never really knew Gregor, who was 20 years his senior, throughout his childhood the missing brother was so honored and talked about that he seemed always present, “an additional voice in every conversation.”

Filip is also on the trail of his Slovenian heritage. The Kobals were banished from Slovenia in the 18th century, after one ancestor helped lead a peasant revolt, and Filip associates this exile with his father’s inability to be at home anywhere. Like his mother, he sees Slovenia as a “magical” country where the Kobal family might recapture their “true selves.”

From the first then we are aware that Filip is looking for “his place in life.” His account of his journey, written 25 years after it occurred, shows a boy who sees himself as everywhere an outsider and has yet to find value in the role. Though he has begun to write, to become a storyteller, to perceive the nature of the artist’s work, he is still afraid both of being known and of being alone.

Though set in the present day, Filip’s journey has a timeless, primordial quality, the aura of a fairy tale, to which the narrator at times compares it. His first, nightmare-ridden night in Yugoslavia, for example, is spent in a tunnel where he dreams that though forbidden to stop talking he cannot complete a single sentence, an episode that evokes a passage through the underworld.

As Filip travels deeper into Yugoslavia, he feels himself experiencing the world differently: he finds his “natural gait,” he moves with the “flow” of people, history, time.

The sense of a mystical experience intensifies as Filip turns to two of his brother’s books, which he has brought with him. One, a copybook on fruit-growing Gregor kept while at agricultural school, is not, Filip discovers, simply lecture notes but “the record of a young scientist’s independent research,” an account of how Gregor built his magnificent orchard from a single tree. Filip reads it as a “story about a place and its hero.”

The second is a Slovenian-German dictionary. As Filip follows the words his brother ticked off, an entire people and their vision take shape, and in his experience of naming the world—his ancestors’ naming of the world, all peoples’ naming of the world, the “epic of words”—he is exhilarated by language, its meaning and its power. He appoints his brother—“who had the gift of bringing words and through them things to life”—his “forebear,” and accepts his own role as storyteller: “reader and onlooker in one … the third party on whom everything hinged.”

On the final stage of his journey, in the Karst, a woman greets him as “the son of the late blacksmith, returned home at last,” and takes him home. At last, recognized, known, Filip can lay claim to his own life; attached to other lives, he can “straighten up in my turn into a grown-up, a man.” He returns home with compassion and love for his parents, with gratitude for having been born.

Recounting his journey in middle age, Filip observes that it is a story he could not have told at 20, because it was “not yet a memory.” Memory, he says, makes experience known—“nameable, voiced, speakable”; memory “situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.” Stories, he suggests, are rediscoveries; they repeat, and renew. Filip’s story is both his own and a prototype.

Repetition is a complex, thoughtful, and poignant book. A personal story of a particular individual struggling to come to terms with his particular life, of one storyteller struggling to find his voice, it is also an expansive and joyous meditation on storytelling itself.

Paul Oldfield (review date 5 August 1988)

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SOURCE: “A Magic Touch,” in New Statesman & Society, August 5, 1988, p. 38.

[In the following review, Oldfield offers a positive assessment of Repetition.]

In Peter Handke's new novel, his young narrator describes a painter retouching an unseen mural inside a wayside shrine. He resolves to write “so silently … without ulterior motive of any kind. Whatever this future work might be, it would have to be comparable to this painting, which ennobled the painter and with him the chance witness”. This sanctified, secluded site of creation is just the latest variant on Handke's belief that literature belongs in an “ivory tower”, that it can be an autonomous pleasure-dome of language. His career has been a struggle against the confinements and sclerosis of language and a search for a cleansed, innocent vision.

In Repetition, Filip Kobal recalls a cross-border pilgrimage in his youth to the Yugoslavia of his forbears, with only his long-lost brother’s German-Slovenian dictionary and agricultural college copybook as a vade mecum. Some readers will take it as a journal of self-discovery and recovered familial roots. In fact, it’s less about finding a place or an identity than about a visionary uncovering of the world. Problems of identity or purpose receive magical resolution, often in the parallel worlds of etymology, phonetics or semantics, in language.

Handke's “kingdom of freedom” does have a political complexion, it’s true. Filip Kobal claims Slovenian as a language of the unoppressed because there are no indigenous words for authority. But he recognises this as his illusion: Tito’s gaze is upon him everywhere. Freedom comes by dreaming the world differently.

Freedom isn’t found in attempts to escape the prison-house of language, but within language. Filip’s first night abroad passes in nightmares of dumbness, incoherence or “retrograde rhythms” that actually separate him from his experience. His younger self only knows a flux of the senses that isn’t articulated or fully accessible to him. Only when everything can be remembered and told is it “free”.

Handke's fiction aspires not to communication but communion. There’s no narrative, just access to things-in- themselves. Filip’s ex-teacher is a paradigm with his fairy-tales that are simply “the sun and the object, without the moonlight of adjectives”. Like Filip’s tales told to children, they’re evocations, not narrations.

Repetition rediscovers Joyce’s epiphany, the sudden clarity of perception. Filip is granted moments when things, abstracted from their context, are “ennobled”. His mural-painter can summon up another, heightened world, in which even a hen scratching for grain becomes a heraldic emblem. Only dreams, fictions, visions, the moments Filip calls “congruences”, let him be reconciled to the world. “No longer able to dream, I could no longer see”, he asserts.

Repetition’s dreamer finds this grail, this “holy of holies” as he calls it, in the very slipperiness of languages and their differences. No laments about the opacity of words here. Filip happily straddles the twin columns of his dictionary: every entry is “a one-word fairy tale” for him. He even rewrites the Tower Of Babel myth. No longer is the babel, the superfluity of language a fall from grace, it is the ladder to the heavens.

Handke has been criticised for failing to imagine action to change the world. Repetition claims instead that only dreamers are ever “fully in this world”, that they have the power of “the Child, the King” to create, renew, defer ceaselessly, a world. If Repetition is compelling reading, it’s because it casts a spell of language.

Ursula Hegi (review date 16 July 1989)

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SOURCE: “Of What, Then, Shall He Write?,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 16, 1989, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Hegi offers a positive assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

Language functions as barrier and bridge in Peter Handke's The Afternoon of a Writer, a fascinating exploration of a man who has distanced himself from his life and, therefore, from the material he draws from in his writing. Though aware of sensuous details in his environment, he remains emotionally detached. His major connection to the world is through language, a sequence of words which—he reminds himself frequently—he has lost contact with before.

Handke's nameless writer, who lives with his nameless cat in an unnamed German city with many bridges, believes he wants to be with people; yet, he cannot even tolerate a superficial encounter. In a restaurant, he notices the waitress’ little boy at a table next to the kitchen door. “Instead of looking at the child for any length of time, he had intermittently registered its presence. And now the place at the table was empty.” This sense of loss is repeated throughout the novel, a loss of something that never was real to begin with.

The writer wants anonymity, not the terrible intimacy with the public who feels it owns him, who can take his photo, stop him, demand an autograph. “He was no longer a writer as he had been during the hour after work, but was merely playing the part of a writer in a forced, ridiculous way.”

His house is a place to work and sleep—no more than that. He can’t picture a home, just as he can’t picture a family for himself. His connections to people are wordless—he imagines himself into their lives, surrounds them with his compassion. The first explored human relationship in the novel is the writer’s bizarre link to an unknown correspondent who showers him with cryptic letters in gray envelopes, often several a day.

Stunted in his human interactions, he moves in a compulsive pattern of actions that defines his days, pacified by superstitious rituals he sets for himself to assuage his doubts and nourish the hope that words will be there for him the next day. His moods change swiftly, ranging from childlike joy to anguish. He has frequent nightmares that “what he had written that day was irrelevant and meaningless … for to write was criminal; to produce a work of art, a book, was presumption, more damnable than any other sin.”

Rescue is the only direct human contact he feels comfortable with: Once he saved a child from drowning, and during his afternoon walk he rescues an old woman who has collapsed along the side of the road. In a brief, moving scene, her tragedy connects him in “inspired namelessness” to others who assist him in helping the woman.

Aware that he has shut himself out from society, he analyzes his reactions and his responses to these observations, turning in a tight circle within himself that is only relieved when he makes a journey of imagination into someone else. Like a voyeur, he walks past houses and looks into lit rooms—an outsider who subsists on unfocused desires, who sees and hears in a unique way, who is alive to outside impressions, but who—ultimately—cannot connect. While the people he observes become catalysts for his writing, he stays detached—a choice that preserves his solitude but, at times, fills him with despair. “Why was it only when alone that he was able to participate fully?” The one thing worse than this kind of despair is the abyss of not writing, of being cut off from the one connection he has left.

In his youth, literature meant freedom to him; now he is cynical at the insights of critics and refuses to be one of them. One of the best scenes in The Afternoon of a Writer is his meeting with his translator who used to be a writer, who believed in his own vision until he was crushed by the belief that the attempt to express that vision was sin, who spiraled into a fear that finally released him from the need to write his own material. The old man has found freedom in translating the words of others, and he has become the rescuer of literature, carrying his manuscript bag like the “basket in which Miriam entrusted the infant Moses to the river Nile.”

Handke's new novel poses interesting questions about the balance between the nature of solitude and the nature of writing. At what point did the writer’s isolation start to get in the way of his writing? What came first for him—the isolation that drove him to write or the writing that demanded this isolation? Is it his connection to his words that made him flee from humanity, or did he find a sanctuary in writing because it was the only safe bond for him?

Handke never indicates whether his writer’s work is of significance. People recognize him on the street; he has published several books; he meets with his translator; he owns a large house with a view. … But those are external successes—and the question that remains concerns the value of the writer’s work. And perhaps that’s evident without further details. How can a writer, who withdraws from life, render a whole vision?

The Afternoon of a Writer is the 12th book by Austrian-born Handke and, as his previous works, written in lean and clear prose. As in his novel, The Left-Handed Woman, also translated by Ralph Manheim, Handke makes deliberate omissions that force his readers to seek their own conclusions. Both books are extremely short, fewer than 90 pages, but they deliver the essence of much longer works.

In some of his plays, Handke likes to develop language as if it were a character: In Offending the Audience, he insulted his audiences to the point where they stormed the stage; in Das Mündel Will Vormund Sein (“The Ward Wants to Be Guardian”), he left his audiences stunned by the total absence of spoken words.

One of the strongest contemporary authors to emerge from German-speaking countries, Handke continues to probe the role of language: its inadequacy, its seduction, its integrity.

Mark Kamine (review date 2-16 October 1989)

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SOURCE: “Tender Is His Plight,” in The New Leader, October 2-16, 1989, pp. 18-9.

[In the following review, Kamine offers a positive evaluation of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

This short novel [The Afternoon of a Writer] was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Afternoon of an Author.” That story describes one uneventful day in its protagonist’s life, episodically tracking his movements through Baltimore and recording his memory-laden reflections. It opens with the author feeling “better than he had for many weeks” and ends—after he suffers a crisis of confidence—with his resolution to go on writing. The piece is alternately ironic and elegiac.

Handke reproduces the story’s structure. His “writer” (like Fitzgerald’s “author,” he is never named) is at home working when he feels “impelled to go out” into the December twilight. An acute but fragile person, he ambles through an anonymous European city. Over the course of his day, we are made to feel the slipperiness of his hold on his craft and sanity alike. The day is filled with minor crises, including a hallucination-filled trek down a crowded street and an angry reaction to a daily newspaper. In the end, though, he too resolves to go on with his work. The closing line—“To himself he was a puzzle, a long-forgotten wonderment”—is as good a description of Fitzgerald’s character as Handke's. A celebratory mystification of the self lends a mythic resonance to both narratives.

Yet neither Handke nor Fitzgerald believes fully in the myth. Fitzgerald’s heroes, particularly in his later stories, never quite reach their goals. They die, drift away or settle for less. In the case of Handke's characters, present goals are scaled down, simplified; grandeur is always hopelessly past.

Early on, Handke's writer seems to want nothing more than “to establish a harmony between what he was doing” and the “unhurried one-thing-after-another” of some workers he sees outside his window. The novel proceeds with just such deliberation. While moving the writer from one encounter to the next it provides little in the way of suspense to urge on the reader. Slowness is one of the work’s central leitmotifs: “Why had no one ever invented a god of slowness?” the writer asks himself. The accumulation of incident and observation is so evenly paced that it is easy to underestimate the sweep of the text. What is instantly apparent, however, is the sureness of Handke's hand.

His prose (in Ralph Manheim’s superbly fluid translation) mirrors the sensibility of his hero. In one scene, the writer is harangued by a drunk:

“And then suddenly—for once this word, often so thoughtlessly used, is peculiarly apt—suddenly the writer lost the secret thread, known only to the two of them, and at the same time, just as suddenly and inexplicably, he lost the nexus with his next morning’s writing, which he thought he had secured that afternoon and without which he would be unable to carry on with his work.”

Handke has throughout his career been intensely aware of language. At times—notably in the early plays and poems—he has seemed conscious of little else. Even in the novels he never lets us settle into a comfortable state of suspended disbelief. They approach conventions without ever quite conforming to them. His characters’ struggles have as much to do with how they see the world as with what they do in it. Consider the following account of one of the writer’s recollections:

“He saw a little boy running back and forth below the river wall; he had thought the child was playing because of the way he hopped while running; the rushing water prevented the writer from hearing the child, but then he saw by the movements of the child’s lips that he was shouting for help. He had fallen off the wall. Again the writer’s shoulders felt the strain of pulling the child up.”

A less sensitive narrator would have played up the danger in the scene—the drama, perhaps, of the rising river and the terror of the child, the riskiness of the rescue. Handke, by contrast, refreshingly accentuates the moment of realization that the boy is in danger.

Fortunately, Handke is conscious of what might be perceived as his ponderousness. Since his first efforts he has put bits of his characters’ more abstruse musings in quotation marks, capitals or italics—a kind of textual winking. If his sense of self-irony is not as pronounced as Fitzgerald’s, it nonetheless keeps our brows from a too-constant knitting.

Sometimes introspection gives way to levity. One of the episodes here concludes with this mild slapstick: “In his precipitate flight, a billiard cue grazed him, a dog snarled at him, and, lastly, the belt of his coat got caught on the door handle.” Similarly, a mock solemnity marks the announcement, “Thus the writer, confident of being unobserved, made, as it were, his entrance into the city.”

Soon after that entrance we begin to realize Handke is up to more than merely taking us for a walking tour. The writer’s encounters start to strike a familiar chord. There is a windy bridge to be crossed, an addiction to newspaper reading, an old poet with “naked eyes, wide open as though blind.” The writer is confronted in the street “by dagger-eye after dagger-eye.” He remembers a dream “about a book which—like a ship that had just set sail—was full of bookmarks.”

Increasingly the writer comes to resemble another mythic wanderer, and Fitzgerald begins to seem a smoke screen for Joyce. We even meet a kind of Cyclops, a drunk who “stared from high above, as though he had only one eye.” And near the end the writer intones, “What am I? Why am I not a bard? Or a Blind Lemon Jefferson?” Or possibly Homer-Ulysses? (Handke, it will be recalled, has done some translations from the Greek.)

But Handke is too skilled to allow such an interpretation sole reign. He has much to say about writing (including a denunciation of “writers on cultural matters” who leave the reader “with a buzzing of wasps in his ears”), as well as the writer’s position as a public figure. Not as recognizable as a movie star or a politician, the hero is not sure what to make of the glances from the people in the street. “Some of the passersby stopped short, obviously wondering where they could have seen his face. Wasn’t that the face on the ‘Wanted’ poster in the post office, the only picture that had not yet been crossed off?”

Pungent observation is yet another diverting aspect of the novel. Of the writer’s confrontation with the patrons in a bar, the narrator notes, “If he had met them individually by day in the city, he would not have known where to place them,” though many had told him their life stories. All the writer remembers are “certain turns of phrase, exclamations, gestures, intonations. The first had once blurted out: ‘When I’m right, I get excited, when I’m wrong, I lie’; the second went to Mass every Sunday because it always gave him a cold shiver; the third, a woman, referred to each of her rapidly changing lovers as her ‘fiancé’; the fourth, spraying his listeners with saliva, had cried out: ‘I’m lost!’; the fifth was in the habit of saying that he had achieved all his aims in life—what the writer particularly remembered about him was that he had once touched the writer’s wrist, a kind of nudge one might have called it, with a tenderness possible only for a man on the brink of despair.”

Handke's lyrical bent is also in evidence. “Precisely because they were small and scattered,” says the narrator, “the catchfly, daisies, buttercups, and dead nettles enlivened the undulating landscape.” From the story the writer is working on there are these images:

The jet of the fountain met the cumulus cloud overhead. In a wheat field near which sheep were grazing, the ears of grain crackled in the heat; the city streets were covered with poplar fluff so light and airy that one could see through to the asphalt, and over the grass in the park there passed a droning which became a humming when the bumblebee that went with it vanished into a flower. The swimmer in the river plunged his head into the water for the first time that year and once again the air and the sun and the feel of his nostrils gave the writer a sense of temporary reprieve.

Handke gets his effects simply, with an accuracy of description and a building up of particulars rather than with overcharged language or exquisite metaphor. What we discern is his immense curiosity about the workings of the world and his quiet respect for language. The Afternoon of a Writer is brief but masterful.

John Leonard (review date 4 December 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Afternoon of a Writer, in The Nation, December 4, 1989, pp. 694-5.

[In the following review, Leonard offers a positive assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

Peter Handke's early novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and his semifictionalized memoir of his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, were both fiery gems. Since then, the Austrian novelist, poet, playwright and translator seems to me to have been painting himself into a corner and then complaining that he couldn’t move. His books got thinner and more exasperating. So what if language itself were the secret hero of listless narratives like A Moment of True Feeling,The Left-Handed Woman and Repetition? We’d been here before—at this impasse, in this trap—in the superior company of Kafka and Rilke and Sartre. I found myself preferring Handke's collaborations with the filmmaker Wim Wenders. At least in the movies all that language was attached to something I could look at, even if what I was looking at was urban masochism. Handke's latest, The Afternoon of a Writer, is a reproach and reminder. We go on reading these complicated Europeans through their depressive phases until they finally get it right, and then we’re dazzled.

A nameless writer in a nameless Central European city leaves the warmth of his room and his cat for a December walk among the ruins. He crosses bridges, looks into windows, stops at a cafe, reads a newspaper and a letter, meets a couple of colleagues, witnesses an accident. The city itself is language, with its “distance” and its “limits”; “its concentrated din of traffic coming from all directions … comparable to the region on the fringe of dreams.” This city of language assails him with humming and fragments, “a hodgepodge of dots and spirals,” wavy lines and mutilated cuneiform, musical intervals, whispering sibilants, chords and squeaks and silence. He finds himself in a bar, on trial, accused of lying. His work “is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspension [and] which cannot be worn out by use.” He stands for what the crowd detests: “daydreaming, handmade writing, dissent, and ultimately art.”

Against this city there is another language, his own weather, the seasons of his dreaming: “The snow in the air could have been flying seeds, the snow on the ground could have been fallen blossoms. The rounding of the image gave emptiness a radiance.” At a deserted playground, a swing still moves in emptiness: “The writer watched it until the aftereffect of the child’s motion had dwindled to a mere trembling of ropes in the snowy wind. ‘Emptiness, my guiding principle … my beloved.’” If emptiness is his beloved, “slowness” is his “illumination.” Why, he asks, “had no one ever invented a god of slowness?” I can’t tell you how this writer, out of namelessness, the city and the weather, manages to reaffirm his vocation. I can only tell you that this vocation—the puzzle of the self, “a long-forgotten wonderment”—has never before been so wonderfully affirmed, not even at the end of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Carry on, we’re told: “Portray. Transmit. Continue to work the most ephemeral of materials, my breath; be its craftsman.”

John Updike (review date 25 December 1989)

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SOURCE: “Writer-Consciousness,” in The New Yorker, December 25, 1989, pp. 103-8.

[In the following excerpt, Updike offers a tempered assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer, which he notes may appear “pompous” and “claustrophobic” to American readers despite its “phenomenal intensity.”]

Harold Ross, the founding editor of this weekly, was wary of, among many other things, “writer-consciousness,” and would mark phrases and sentences wherein, to his sensibility, the writer, like some ugly giant squid concealed beneath the glassy impersonality of the prose, was threatening to surface. Writing, that is, like our grosser animal functions, could not be entirely suppressed but shouldn’t be performed in the open. Yet fashions in aesthetic decorum change. Modernism, by the spectacular nature of its experiments, invited admiring or irritated awareness of the experimenting author. Intentionally or not, the written works of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were exercises in personality, each provoking curiosity about the person behind the so distinctive voice. Postmodernism, if such a thing exists, without embarrassment weaves the writer into the words and the twists of the tale. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the mirrors and false bottoms of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and The Gift, John Barth’s self-proposed and exhaustively fulfilled regimens of tale-telling—all place the writer right up front. …

Peter Handke, in The Afternoon of a Writer (translated from the German by Ralph Manheim), presents a texture that is almost alarmingly immediate. Handke can be hysterical—indeed, hysteria is his métier—but this brief tale of the after-work hours of one of those nameless writers (he walks into town, out of town, has a drink or two, walks home and goes to bed, alone) applies such an intense sensibility to his paragraphs that we seem to enter a supernatural dimension:

It was early December and the edges of various objects glowed as they do at the onset of twilight. At the same time, the airy space outside and the interior of the curtainless house seemed joined in an undivided brightness. No snow had yet fallen that year. But that morning the birds had cheeped in a certain way—in a monotone suggestive of speech—that heralded snow.

In a bramblebush, single crystals [of snow] would balance on thorns and then encircle them like ruffs. Though there was no one to be seen, the writer had the impression at every step that he was walking in the traces of someone who had been there before.

And when the hero comes in his walk to a convex traffic mirror, and gazes into its bent reflections, we labor along with the translator to realize the precise evanescent shades of reported sensation: “The rounding of the image gave emptiness a radiance, and gave the objects in this emptiness—the glass-recycling center, the garbage cans, the bicycle stands—a holiday feel, as though in looking at them one emerged into a clearing.”

Handke's hero is all eyes, all nerves. Being a writer gives his hypersensitivity a use, and also a professional alternation with insensibility. While he writes, he is all but oblivious of the outer world: “In his mind, it was only a moment ago that the midday bells of the chapel of the old people’s home at the foot of the little hill had suddenly started tinkling as though someone had died, yet hours must have passed since then, for the light in the room was now an afternoon light. … At first he was unable to focus on anything in the distance and saw even the pattern of the carpet as a blur; in his ears he heard a buzzing as though his typewriter were an electric one—which was not the case.” Preparing to leave the house, he returns to his study to make one last revision: “It was only then that he smelled the sweat in the room and saw the mist on the windowpanes.”

In his few human contacts, too, he is able to turn off. In the bar, a drunk addresses the writer at futile length:

As he spoke, his face came so close as to lose its contours; only his violently twitching eyelids, the dotted bow tie under his chin, and a cut on his forehead that must have bled recently remained distinct. … Not a single word of what he was saying came through to the writer, not even when he held his ear close to the speaker’s mouth. Yet, to judge by the movements of his lips and tongue, he was not speaking a foreign language.

The writer inwardly bemoans his deafness, his isolation, his “defeat as a social being.” He asks himself, “Why was it only when alone that he was able to participate fully? Why was it only after people had gone that he was able to take them into himself, the more deeply the farther away they went?” Handke's writer suffers a Promethean, a Luciferian, isolation—that of the too greatly daring, the damned. “To write was criminal; to produce a work of art, a book, was presumption, more damnable than any other sin. Now, in the midst of the ‘gin-mill people,’ he had the same feeling of unpardonable guilt, the feeling that he had been banished from the world for all time.” A translator of his (apparently an American), whom he meets in his day’s one scheduled encounter, once wanted to be a writer but couldn’t bear the onus: “My attempt to decipher a supposed Ur-text inside me and force it into a coherent whole struck me as original sin. That was the beginning of fear.” Translation, while being sufficiently engaging, avoids the primordial fear: “By displaying your wound as attractively as possible, I conceal my own.”

At his brief excursion’s end, our wounded but resolute hero climbs into bed. Trying to recall the hours so vividly just passed, he can visualize only two small details, both of them distorted. Already, he is writing. He is an inscrutable stewing, a transmuter of world into word. “To himself he was a puzzle, a long-forgotten wonderment.” To a cold-eyed reader, however, he is in danger of seeming a self-dramatizing solipsist. With a phenomenal intensity and delicacy of register, the little book captures the chemistry of perception and of perception’s transformation into memory and language. We are there with the writer, behind his eyes and under his skin. But the cultural presumptions that make it worth our while to be there are perhaps more European than universal. These winter walks with reflective, misanthropic bachelors occur also in the brief, elegant contemporary novels of the Swede Lars Gustafsson and Handke's fellow-Austrian the late Thomas Bernhard, and go back to Olympian strolls with Kant and Goethe and Nietzsche. To an American reader, so reverent an examination, by a writer, of a writer’s psyche verges on the pompous and, worse, on the claustrophobic.

The Afternoon of a Writer is dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in 1936 published a short story called “Afternoon of an Author.” Freshly available in Scribners’ edition of “The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” the story offers a sombre contrast with Handke's small, rapt novel. It has none of the Austrian’s triumphant undercurrent; Fitzgerald’s American scribe is in poor health and down on his luck. He wakes up after nine o’clock, gratefully observes that he does not feel distinctly ill, shuffles through “an annoying mail with nothing cheerful in it,” chats desultorily with his maid, has to lie down for fifteen minutes, and then unsuccessfully tries to write: “The problem was a magazine story that had become so thin in the middle that it was about to blow away. The plot was like climbing endless stairs, he had no element of surprise in reserve, and the characters who started so bravely day-before-yesterday couldn’t have qualified for a newspaper serial.” He ends by going through the manuscript “underlining good phrases in red crayon,” tucking these into a file, and dropping the rest into the wastebasket. The process, though dismal, seems more concrete than the creative processes in Handke's book, and there are phrases of sad self-illumination, of a flickering romantic light. Looking into a mirror, the writer calls himself “slag of a dream.” Out riding a bus, he comes into a district where “there were suddenly brightly dressed girls, all very beautiful … no plans or struggles in their faces, only a state of sweet suspension, provocative and serene.” He observes within himself a sudden spark of life force: “He loved life terribly for a minute, not wanting to give it up at all.” A deflationary sentence immediately follows: “He thought perhaps he had made a mistake in coming out so soon.”

After getting a shampoo at a barbershop, he rides the bus back to his apartment, reflecting on reviews he received when young, at “the beginning fifteen years ago when they said he had ‘fatal facility’ and he labored like a slave over every sentence so as not to be like that.” He feels fatigue and the “growing seclusion” of his life; he thinks of himself as needing “reforestation” and hopes “the soil would stand one more growth.” But, he further reflects, “it had never been the very best soil for he had had an early weakness for showing off instead of listening and observing.” He makes it back home, chaffers bleakly with the maid, asks for a glass of milk, and lies down again: “He was quite tired—he would lie down for ten minutes and then see if he could get started on an idea in the two hours before dinner.” The reader doubts whether he will get started; the sketch of creative exhaustion is delicate but devastating. Death is not far off. Writer-consciousness, in Handke somehow exhilarating and enviable, in Fitzgerald weighs like a disease, a gathering burden of guilt. We pity the fellow, while perhaps admiring the subtle slight strokes by which his plight is sketched. As so often in Fitzgerald, we have only the afterglow of a dream to see by. There is a strong sense of professional predicament and none of cultural mission; a weary clarity but no wonderment.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Winter 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 100-1.

[In the following review, Skwara complains that Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land tends to be abstract and inaccessible.]

Peter Handke's newest book [Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land] is a play, although it seems difficult to imagine the work successfully staged and performed. It is too cerebral and symbolistic to captivate a viewing audience with ease, I fear. Is it then a text destined rather to be read despite the distribution of roles and a cast of characters stemming half from history and myth, half from the author’s increasingly abstract yet sensual vision of things? Or, put differently, what is Handke's intention when he transgresses purposefully the limits between the traditional literary genres?

In Das Spiel vom Fragen Handke seems to violate the foremost demand made on all literary fiction: namely, to create reality instead of delivering analysis. The play is so rich in words that they sometimes stand as obstacles between text and reader. We must watch out constantly to avoid stumbling over these words. Of course, Handke (see WLT 55:4, pp. 603–7) may just want us to stumble. He is too careful and too experienced an author to have fallen unwittingly into such a snare. He is a writer who fully intends what he states, and he lends the signature of his art to every line. These very facts, however, make many of his recent writings (see e.g. WLT 62:2, p. 269, and 62:3, p. 456) virtually inaccessible, above all to his admirers over the past two decades. The priest’s gesture is the poet’s realm ever since antiquity and should not be disputed here. The issue is whether the priest can truly redeem by alienating his community? Why does his new play—and many another of his recent works—have to contain so many cold abstractions, when the poet is mainly concerned with tenderness and warmth?

The dedication, the motto (from Dante’s Vita nuova), the cerebral characters (the “Mauershauer,” the “Spielverderber,” the “native,” and even Parzival) all try to bridge the gap between ancient allegory and our present need for meaning. Handke's invocation of great names from all times is surely no sign of personal ambition, but seems to derive rather from a painful anxiety about the future of mankind that may well be saved only with a new awareness of our finest forebears from all epochs. Handke worries, as do most of us, about the daily increasing loss of our identity, and he therefore comes up with a language and a style intended to preserve, to galvanize, to conjure back, to aid. He risks sounding old-fashioned, solemn, even phony in order to shake up the reader before it is too late.

It is quite possibly our fault alone that we are not willing or able to be shaken. Handke's new tone appears—and only appears—to be old stuff, a music we think we have heard elsewhere. Naturally this is not true; the text is entirely original, yet is it a play? The action does not really matter here; characters without much flesh and blood encircle one another’s inabilities to speak, to question, to exist. The work is set in tones of color and mood rather than in places or actions. What a find—or what a wide field on which to fail—for all future producers of the play!

Is it better then to read Das Spiel vom Fragen? That is difficult to tell. Of course, much beauty is present in the text. We find on every page a flawless picture, a memorable metaphor, a quietly breathing description of nature, and of course a multitude of truths about humankind. Handke mourns our collective and individual inability to ask the questions that matter; he observes our failure in living without them; he encourages the strength to ask these questions, which are perceived as either the great return to our essence or the great beginning of a new humanity; and sometimes, just sometimes, he offers a bit of consolation like a caressing hand.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Versuch über die Müdigkeit, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 460-1.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of Versuch über die Müdigkeit.]

What a wise and beautiful book, quite possibly one of Peter Handke's major works. Did we, the tired ones, ever know or suspect how much variety and wealth there is to being tired, how much power of innovation is hiding behind fatigue? We will find out and come out of it rejuvenated, or at least reconciled and comforted with our frailties. Versuch über die Müdigkeit is an essay—or is it a story, or mere poetry?—that we want to read slowly, frightened as we progress about the book’s small size, since we do not wish to come to the end. Naturally, there is the liberty to read again, to return often to these pages, and I suspect we will.

What then sets the work apart from others Handke (see WLT 62:1, pp. 74–75, and 55:4, pp. 203–7) has written in recent years? As is often the case, the text is built on memory. Handke goes back to his childhood, and soon the Du of an inner dialogue between the writer and the remembered child and adolescent takes over, giving the prose the solemn tone that many Handke readers deplore. Nevertheless, it is the right tone for the voice of the poet detecting festivity in what we like to call—wrongfully—our everyday life. There is no such thing, Handke informs us, and tiredness does not exist either. To be sure, there is fatigue, surrounding and filling us like the atmosphere, but also invigorating us like the oxygen contained in that atmosphere: fatigue as a universe in itself, a stronghold of weakness that invites the poet to name its lands, its provinces and hidden valleys. Handke does just that: he teaches us the ways of tiredness and how much one must have lived and how tired one must be in order to find these proper names. It is no exaggeration to assume that his Versuch adds to the German language a wealth of new images and thus opportunities to express what formerly was unspeakable. For this alone the reader will be grateful to Handke, who speaks precisely of the “bildhafte Müdigkeiten” he sees expressed in simple people but denies to the “Bürger.”

When, halfway through the book, the reader becomes “müdstolz,” when, in the passage on erotic tiredness, Handke describes fatigue as the very condition of touching and being close to one another, then the essay leaves the literary realm and turns into a metaphysical exercise. Handke tells us about the four ways of his “Sprach-Ich” in facing the world, and the reader becomes the delighted observer of growing oneness between language and poet.

Does utmost fatigue permit us action? Handke asks. In reply he finds that being tired is the best possible action in itself. His wonderful essay was written during a stay in southern Spain, and Latin clarity combines with German complexity to form the text. Fatigue, we learn, is foremost a teacher, and Versuch über die Müdigkeit, I would say, is above all a friend.

Ursula Hegi (review date 1 July 1990)

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SOURCE: “Only Disconnect,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 1, 1990, p. 3.

[In the following review, Hegi complains that Absence lacks characterization and creates intentional linguistic gaps.]

The four nameless characters in Peter Handke's latest novel are like paper dolls, suspended against a bleak sky in a chain of silhouettes that block the scant light. Told in a strangely passive voice that appears to rise from a void, Absence is not only about the condition of being absent—it also demonstrates the condition through the absence of words, connections and characterization.

Though Handke's characters are indifferent and detached, his language soars at times. His old man “resembles an old singer, long fallen silent.” The woman, who has been told by her lover that she is corrupt and destructive, lives surrounded by photos of herself in which she “displays the same look of imperiousness and of knowing herself to be the center of attention.” The gambler, impassive and volatile, mumbles to a packet of bank notes: “Instead of embodying the world, I am the point where lovelessness is concentrated.” The soldier disengages himself from the attention of others by focusing on things around him. His parents accuse him, “You don’t make your presence felt. … You’re there and then again you’re not. It’s your absence that drives us away from you.”

In previous works, including his splendid recent novel, The Afternoon of a Writer, Handke creates intentional gaps, challenging his readers to climb into the texture of his fiction and drama. But in Absence, the fabric is stretched taut across an abyss, a fragile web of words and interactions too fragile to guide one to the other side of the abyss.

A brilliant and successful writer who has stunned and outraged his audiences, who has moved them deeply, who has jabbed at the complacency of society, Handke has proven himself to be far too skillful to have left all these gaps by mistake. They’re intentional. He takes a huge risk in pulling us into this absence, this nothingness—but unfortunately the risk doesn’t work. I like Handke's work. I’ve admired his novels and plays for many years, have read them in German and in translation, and I’m disappointed by his new book while realizing that, perhaps, he succeeds in what he intended—to create such a strong depiction of absence that it leaves a void in me.

Within his significant body of work, Handke has frequently explored the insufficiency of language, as well as the absence of intimacy and communication. Though he has written about bleak situations, his characters are usually complex and unique in their struggles with self and community. But unlike the protagonist in The Afternoon of a Writer, the characters in Absence don’t have the depth, the awareness, the despair at being detached, or the struggle with wanting and fleeing intimacy. They’re swimmers who “have left no trace in the wind-ruffled lake.”

Handke describes the occupants of a sanitarium for the elderly as “immobile, inactive, and for the most part unseeing.” But that description fits every character in this novel. The old man, the woman, the gambler and the soldier are cast together in a surreal journey where time slows and the landscape contains elements of different continents, where the weather changes drastically and objects take on a weight they didn’t have before, where the woman’s suitcase contains anything she could possibly need. In their undefined quest, the travelers drift along, believing “there was nothing more to investigate or discover on Earth.”

The strongest scene in the novel emerges when Handke lets his characters feel the impact of a storm. Even his language—which until then has sounded as though an indifferent observer, watching from a great distance, were relating the story of a journey void of motivation and destiny—takes on a new intensity and power. The rain “streamed down the backs of our hands, slammed into the hollows of our knees, bowing our heads, we saw sheets of water … heavy and increasingly cold, terrifying.” Odd moments of intimacy link the woman to the old man, on whose shoulder she rests her head, and to the gambler whose hair she cuts. In a cave, the travelers form a community, one unit “in which all of us not only heard and saw the same things but in addition were all of the same age and sex.”

Handke's narrative frequently reads like stage directions and, indeed, much of Absence has the texture of a play waiting for the interpretation of a director, and for three actors and one actress to move into the roles of the characters. As the curtain rises, they stand with their backs to the audience, delivering toneless monologues in a sequence of frozen moments that mirror the emptiness of contemporary society as well as the numbness of the detached individual in a confusing landscape—yet without involving the audience in the passion of that emptiness.

Hugo Caviola (essay date Autumn 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ding-Bild-Schrift: Peter Handke's Slow Homecoming to a ‘Chinese’ Austria,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 381-94.

[In the following essay, Caviola examines the development and significance of Handke's increasingly sober and subjective tone in Langsame Heimkehr and Der Chinese des Schmerzes. Caviola argues that “Handke's solemn tone cannot be taken at face value but has to be perceived in the context of an aesthetic that is allegorically inscribed in the text.”]


“Niemand, fast niemand, kann oder mag Handke noch weiter auf dem Wege folgen, den dieser nun schon seit mehreren Büchern eingeschlagen hat.” This remark by Jürgen Manthey (383) reflects a general trend in the reception of Peter Handke's latest works. Starting with Langsame Heimkehr (1979), Handke's writing has acquired a new tone that, although adumbrated by his preceding works, either surprised or affronted many of his previous readers. Invariably, negative critical response has focused on the subjectivity and solemnity of Handke's new tone. Manfred Durzak, for example, accused Handke of narcissism, criticizing his seeming indifference to literature’s social and political dimension. With Langsame Heimkehr, Durzak judges, Handke is “als Künstler abgestürzt” (159). Jörg Drews discovers an attitude of self-ordained priesthood in Handke's recent work and subsumes his writing under “Spielarten des Kulturkonservatismus, Einfaltsromantik und Intellektualromantik” (951, 954). Judgments of this kind are based on textual evidence. Handke's latest works contain archaic and sometimes solemn and absolutist vocabulary. Emphatic words like “Sehnsucht,” “Bedürfnis nach Heil,” “selbstlose Daseinslust,” and “stille Harmonie” seem to celebrate existence rather than to make it accessible to reason, to lay bare alienation, and to expose the deficiency and imperfection of the world. Instead, Handke seems to enact an absolution of the Word and through it an absolution of the world. This analysis, then, will attempt to elucidate how this absolution can be understood. My view is that Handke's solemn tone cannot be taken at face value but has to be perceived in the context of an aesthetic that is allegorically inscribed in the text. My argument begins not with Handke but with some remarks about criticism of contemporary literature.

Durzak’s and Drew’s charges against Handke betray a particular naïveté in that they avoid the hermeneutical questions they would be willing to ask when approaching classical or romantic texts, such as: what is a text’s use of language, and what is its literary repertoire? What are, in other words, the aesthetic standards to be applied to the text? Only after defining the frame of reference employed by a contemporary text are we able to determine with some accuracy its historical locus and relate it to contemporary social and political realities. Only then are we able to gauge a text’s potential simplicity, naïveté, or romanticism. Given the postmodern narratology within which Handke produces, we have to credit his literary work with the potential of being less accessible than it seems to be. This requires further explanation.

Peter Handke's early prose, including his Sprechstücke, are part of the experimental writing of the 1960s neo-avant-garde. Pop-Art, Concrete Poetry, the writing of the Vienna Group, Heissenbüttel’s Textbooks, and Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum aimed to subvert received notions of literature. They tampered with the textual order of the page, refused to capitalize nouns, and treated linguistic themes in a storyless prose. Like their dadaist and surrealist predecessors, neo-avant-gardists employed formalist innovations in an attempt to blur the line between art and non-art. Thus they aimed to challenge the bourgeois domestication of art in an autonomous but politically irrelevant sphere. However, when all traditional definitions of art were eroded by the virus of avant-garde innovation, formalist innovation lost its function as a work’s historical index. Artistic production had reached the point of “anything goes.”1

This is the point when postmodernism sets in. In postmodernist literature, both experimental and traditional forms of writing are potentially “avant-garde.” (Today experimental theater such as Publikumsbeschimpfung [1966] is integrated into the repertoire and has lost its provocative bite.) The notion of experimental literature has become obsolete for a definition of a work’s contemporaneity. The literary work aspiring to be “avant-garde” is stricken with historical anonymity.2 Deprived of normative aesthetic standards, postmodern“avant-gardism” is doomed to operate in an aesthetic vacuum. If there is no more standard against which the literary work can set itself (and be gauged by the reader), its language becomes opaque. Reading and criticism lose the ground of traditional philosophy. Textual evidence becomes treacherous. This is, in short, the difficulty we are facing in Handke's recent work: we cannot define its avant-gardism or conservativism unless we find a key to disclose its use of language.

Some contemporary authors have written actual decoding manuals to their hermetic books. Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s seemingly factual but actually fictitious biography Marbot (1980) was later supplemented with its “key” “Arbeitsprotokolle zum Verfahren ‘Marbot’” (1984), Christa Wolf’s Kassandra (1983) was followed by “Die Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: ‘Kassandra’” (1984) which allows us to relate the book to its historical situation, and Umberto Eco’s Postscript toThe Name of the Rose” (1984) reveals the “avant-gardist” motives of his novel The Name of the Rose (1980). Whereas such supra-texts provide the necessary frames of reference for an understanding of the hermetic works, other postmodern texts employ techniques such as multiple framing, meta-fictional intrusion, or allegory to indicate ways of understanding.3

In the reading that follows of Langsame Heimkehr and Der Chinese des Schmerzes makes use of decoding material from Handke's explanatory comments in a recent interview and employs an allegorical method of reading.4 An allegorical reading perceives the narrative to be located simultaneously in two frames of reference both as narrative “story” and as commentary about the story. Thus allegory can serve as a framing device that allows us to derive meaning from a hermetic text. By applying these indirect approaches to the texts, one is in a position to locate the alleged intransigence of Handke's self-ordained priesthood, lay bare the intricate relation between themes and the status of his narrative, and thus contribute to an understanding of the enigmatic “Chinese” element in Der Chinese des Schmerzes.


Handke's Langsame Heimkehr (1979) is the first volume in a tetralogy with the same title.5 The “Homecoming” allows interpretation as a reversal of Handke's novel Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972). While Der kurze Brief describes an emancipatory, “avant-gardist” westward movement across the American continent, Langsame Heimkehr presents a European’s emotional and intellectual preparations for returning home. Orientation in physical space, narration, and writing now emerge as Handke's dominant themes, themes that indicate the self-reflective, allegorical dimension of the book. Der Chinese des Schmerzes, the book following the tetralogy, is set in Salzburg and illustrates a new perception of Austria. Handke's Langsame Heimkehr and Der Chinese des Schmerzes aim to realize the goal the author had set for himself in 1978 of inventing another Austria outside its definitions through newspapers, statistics, philosophy, and realist writing. Although containing realist details, his new Austria is based on a vision he hopes to accomplish through writing.6 In Langsame Heimkehr Handke prepares his protagonist’s homecoming through a painstaking and existential reexamination and redefinition of language and writing. The “lesson” his literary alter ego learns during his “Slow Homecoming” and the subsequent Lehre der Sainte-Victoire will enable Handke to achieve his new vision of Austria in Der Chinese des Schmerzes.

Valentin Sorger, the protagonist of Langsame Heimkehr, is an Austrian geographer, or geologist, teaching at a California university. The first chapter introduces him conducting research in the far North, presumably in Alaska. He later flies to a city on the west coast and then to New York. He intends to spend a sabbatical year at home in Europe. The book ends with his arrival on the old continent.

The narrative is divided into three parts, each corresponding to a crucial phase of Sorger’s homecoming. Part One, “Die Vorzeitformen,” describes his reconciliation with physical space. Whereas Handke enmeshed his previous America traveller in the artificiality of film—the book culminates in an idealization of a cinematographic existence—he now confronts Sorger with a natural space, a terra incognita where primordial forms cry out for orientation. Bewildered by excessive travelling, the geographer seeks a stable place. Handke parallels Sorger’s physical orientation with his verbal orientation in the world.

The cultural bankruptcy brought about by the Third Reich is one component of Sorger’s rootlessness. He feels alienated from his central-European home country and its recent history. Descended from “aufgezwungene(n) Vorväter(n),” “die Völkermörder seines Jahrhunderts,” he too regards himself as a murderer (99). Emancipation from his forefathers is essential for his return to Europe. Homecoming entails a confrontation with the Third Reich’s verbal legacy.7

One imprint that National Socialism has left on the post-war era is its legacy of verbal taboos. Avoiding words that were abused by the Nazis, however, includes avoiding their neutral connotations. The taboo on the word “Heil,” for example, has deprived the German language of one word for “salvation.” Handke boldly ignores this taboo in a solemn opening sentence: “Sorger hatte schon einige ihm nah gekommene Menschen überlebt und empfand keine Sehnsucht mehr, doch oft eine selbstlose Daseinslust und zuzeiten ein animalisch gewordenes, auf die Augenlider drückendes Bedürfnis nach Heil” (9). Another emotionally laden word, “Heimat,” evokes the fanatic nationalism of the Third Reich and carries overtones of oppressive provincialism.8 Handke's Langsame Heimkehr can be read as a cautious reevaluation of these banned vocabulary items. Without once using the word “Heimat,” Handke insists on the existential necessity of a place to be home.

Sorger’s mapping of the Alaskan “Vorzeitformen” includes an experience of primordial naming. Unlike civilized spaces, the forms of the Alaskan landscapes are unnamed. “Nach Namen schreiende Einzelformen” (71) invite Sorger to approach this landscape as “his” (72). Because his experience of the unnamed landscape is not mediated by language, he has, like an explorer, immediate access to it and can see it for what it is. He now tentatively applies to these unnamed topographical features such geological terms as “Pferdehufseen,” “Quelltöpfe,” “Trogtäler,” and “Lavafladen” (72). Realizing that these terms fit the characteristics of “his” landscape, he shares the experience of other scientists who invented these names. Verbal conventions acquire new life for Sorger. The guilt of language, arising from the arbitrary relation between sign and signified, seems redeemed for him; objects and words appear to be one.

The “Heil” Sorger experiences in such “just” language enables him to overcome his feelings of alienation. Taken by a sudden affection for the river, he names it “Schönes Wasser” (73). This intuitive act of naming makes him confident because he is no longer doomed to be at the mercy of a language that is not his own. It has taught him that language, a “Friedensstifterin,” can reconcile the beholder with the outside world (100). Leaving Alaska, he is convinced that he will now be able to write a long-planned study on spaces “Über Räume.”

In the second chapter, titled “Raumverbot,” Sorger returns to a west coast city where his delicate sense of a personal space is radically shattered. Noticing his neighbor in a bus, he waves at her. Looking at him from top to toe, she fails to recognize him. This traumatic experience of invisibility annihilates Sorger’s newly acquired sense of place. He feels erased, excluded from space, an experience he names “Raumverbot!” (132). Even his voice seems to belong to someone else (133). The experience of this “lebensentscheidende Stunde” (131) is pivotal for Sorger’s life. He is confronted with the necessity of defining himself socially. Sharing the harmonious family life of neighbors, Sorger suddenly regains speech and proclaims a new life-plan. He intends to return to his home country and stop being an outsider:

Ich kann leben! Ich spüre die Macht, zu Sagen, wie es Ist, und möchte doch gar nichts sein und gar nichts sagen: allen bekannt sein und niemandem, durchdringend Lebendig. Ja, ich fühle ein zeitweiliges Recht auf den Weltraum. Und meine Zeit ist Jetzt; jetzt ist Unsere Zeit. Ich erhebe also Anspruch auf die Welt und dieses Jahrhundert—denn es ist meine Welt und mein Jahrhundert.


Sorger’s grandiose verbal claiming of the cosmos includes “his” century, which he had earlier defined as the century of “Völkermörder” (99). His confidence is inspired by the “lesson” he had learned in the Alaskan wilderness: if he can find a “true” name for an unnamed river, he can with luck extend this verbal appropriation to the entire universe.

Sorger’s verbal re-creation of his world is based on an old-fashioned vocabulary pervading the entire book. Capitalized verbs, adjectives, and adverbs (“Sagen,” “Jetzt,” “Lebendig”) indicate an enunciative act that aims at primordial creation reminiscent of the biblical creation of the world through the Word (John I, 1: “In the beginning was the Word”). Handke's ambitious literary project reclaims the “Heimatlichkeit des irdischen Planeten” (12) by the arrogation of the Logos. It aims to restore a “fallen” unity between words and things and sanctions this unity by the authority of a god-like author.

Speech act theory offers another approach to an understanding of Handke's solemn language. His use of language is performative rather than constative.9 Whereas constative language describes or reports facts (for example, “I am twenty years old”), performative language aims to do things with words (for example, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I apologize,” and so on). For performative utterances the category of verifiable truth is substituted for the speaker’s sincerity or good faith that elevates mere saying to “doing.” Only when spoken in good faith does the performative utterance “perform.”10 The same is true of religious language. Its “truth” is not the truth of a verifiable fact but is grounded in God’s authority and sincerity. Thus, both performative and religious language are ultimately rooted in a “sincere” unity of speaker and word.

In the context of Handke's work the use of a transparent or “true” language is grounded in the speechlessness of epiphanic experience.11 Since Der kurze Brief his protagonists have attempted to make their episodic experiences of otherness last. In Der kurze Brief the traveller’s experience of an “ANDERE ZEIT” leads to his acceptance of a “flattened” cinematographic existence. A similar solution is attained in Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975), in which the hero accepts an anonymous existence in the masses (Bartmann 192). Both a cinematographic existence in the plot of a film and the anonymity of city life are metaphors for a negated individuality. Erasure of individuality corresponds to the loss of the words Handke's heroes tend to experience in moments of epiphany.12

In Langsame Heimkehr, however, epiphanic experience becomes the negation of the negation of words: Sorger’s solemn enunciation paradoxically verbalizes his epiphanic speechlessness. Overcoming speechlessness in his neighbor’s company, Sorger experiences a metamorphosis of his former self. The language defining his new identity is solemn, untainted by nominalist guilt. In his previous epiphanies Handke faced the guilt of language by lapsing into the innocence of silence. Now he negates this guilt through a reinvestment in an innocent language.

Despite its pompous intransigence, Handke's arrogation of the Logos is relative. It is contextualized as a game. Sorger announces his new life-plan during a game of chess: “Sorger setzte sich wieder an den Tisch und fing, statt im Spiel die Schachfigur zu ziehen, zu reden an” (139, my emphasis). Sorger’s claim for the universe appears as a move in the “chess game of life.” This alignment of life and game relativizes his absolute claim. Perceived as a move in a game, the arrogation of the Logos is transformed into the mode of as if. This playfulness of Sorger’s existence is repeatedly related to hoax and counterfeit. The geographer is called the “Joker” (192) who regards the conventions of his science as a “fröhlicher Schwindel” (18). Suspecting the possibility of an entirely different schema for representing the correlation between time and geological formations, he sees himself “wie seit jeher die Umdenker …, der Welt seinen eigenen Schwindel unterschieben” (18). Accordingly, he can declare his study “Über Räume” to be both a gospel of counterfeit and an idea of salvation (191).13

The third and final chapter, “Das Gesetz,” brings Sorger to New York after a stop-over in Colorado, where he learns of the death of a friend. Realizing that his existence is governed by no law, he decides to establish a personal law for himself that he will have to observe. In a coffee shop he experiences a decisive legislative moment when history is revealed to him as more than a random sequence of evils. Its dominant lies in the tendency toward form, “eine von jedermann (auch von mir) fortsetzbare, friedensstiftende Form” (168).

The book’s epigraph (“Dann, als ich kopfüber den Pfad hinunterstolperte, war da plötzlich eine Form …”) proclaims as its goal the finding of a form. Having established a form of spatial orientation in the Alaskan wilderness and a form of social orientation in the city on the west coast, the narrator now realizes that the creation of a narrative can provide the form for an experience of continuity. Its accomplishment, directed against a “Groβe Formlosigkeit” (16), results from a conscious “Zusammenschau” (80) and depends on a constant creative effort which Handke names “freiphantasieren” (113).14

Sorger’s epiphany in the New York coffee shop is pivotal in Peter Handke's oeuvre. Langsame Heimkehr appeared two years after the fragmentary observations of the journal Das Gewicht der Welt. Fragmentation and the absence of a plot can be understood as an avant-gardist negation of the “false” linearity of narrative realism. With Langsame Heimkehr, Handke negates this negation of formalist avant-garde (Bartmann 6). In Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire he rejects fragmentation because it would have resulted not from a possibly unsuccessful striving for unity but from a deliberate method (“das Wohlfeile”) known in advance to be safe (100). Instead of subverting by fragmentation an exhausted law of narrative linearity, Handke aims in this novel to reconstruct narrative coherence through the recognition (“freiphantasieren”) of analogies that integrate the narrative (100).15 Following Cézanne’s “Lehre,” Handke perceives the French master’s paintings as constructions and harmonies parallel, or analogous, to those in nature. He formulates the ideal of a “Ding-Bild-Schrift” comparing the outline of an object before the background of the landscape to a Chinese character on a page (76).

Unlike Western writing, Chinese characters are (or more precisely: originally were) physically analogous to real-world objects, recognizable images of the things themselves. In terms of Western semiotics they inhabit a middle ground between the signifier and the signified. (The word for “sun,” for example, is a circle.) Michel Foucault has observed that in pre-Renaissance time Western perception of language was based on a similar merging of thing and script:

Ever since the Stoics, the system of signs in the Western world had been a ternary one, for it was recognized as containing the significant, the signified, and the “conjuncture” (the τνγχανον). From the seventeenth century, on the other hand, the arrangement of signs was to become binary since it was to be defined … as the connection of a significant and a signified. At the Renaissance, the organization is different, and much more complex: it is ternary since it requires the formal domain of the marks, the content indicated by them, and the similitudes that link the marks to the things designated by them; but since resemblance is the form of the signs as well as their content, the three distinct elements of this articulation are resolved into a single form.


Originally, when language was given to men by God, Foucault explains, it “was an absolutely certain and transparent sign for things, because it resembled them. The names,” Foucault continues, “were lodged in the things they designated, just as strength is written in the body of the lion, regality in the eye of the eagle … by the form of similitude” (36). This similitude is destroyed with the multiplication of languages at Babel making the relation between signs and things an arbitrary, nominalist one.16

Handke's ideal of a Chinese “Ding-Bild-Schrift” ties in with the religious and performative use of language we have aligned with his writing above. Handke attempts to reinstate as an aesthetic program a transparency of language in which thing and script are consubstantial and saying approaches doing. The imaginative act of “freiphantasieren” aims to decipher and recreate the language set down in the world. Writing becomes the attempt to copy (“um-schreiben” [Zwischenräumen 106]) this hidden script, containing the “Heil” that resides in the world.

In contrast to his previous revelations, Sorger does not vocalize his intuition in the coffee shop. Instead he turns it into script, “um das Geschehene, bevor es sich wieder verflüchtigt, rechtskräftig zu machen.” He concludes: “Ich glaube diesem Augenblick: indem ich ihn aufschreibe, soll er mein Gesetz sein” (168). Sorger’s writing is a paradox: he recognizes that there is no language for the visionary moment (“es gab für diesen Moment ja keine Sprache” [168]), and yet his writing transforms the present into history (“Gegenwart wurde Geschichte” [167–168]). The word “history” here unfolds the double meaning of “Geschichte” as both “history” and “narrative.” The legislative moment provokes Sorger’s feeling of contemporaneity in the twentieth century (“Zum ersten Mal sah ich soeben mein Jahrhundert im Tageslicht … und ich war einverstanden, jetzt zu leben” [169]). His historical self-definition depends on his act of writing a narrative which assumes ontological primacy over history. His being part of history is predicated on his recreating this world as writing, as “Geschichte.” In the creative act of “freiphantasieren” Handke reads the world as a texture of analogies that he re-creates as “parallel constructions” in the narrative texture of his book. For Handke, reading and “writing” the world are analogous.

In Langsame Heimkehr repeated allusion to a direct analogy between printed texts and the forms of physical reality points to a static, simultaneous existence of writing and the physical world. Looking through the window of his California house, Sorger watches the wind whirling through the trees; he sees an entire newspaper spin around among leaves and scraps of paper, opening and closing in its flight; “gefaltet kam es jeweils im Dunkeln auf das Fenster zugerast, drehte aber immer knapp davor ab und breitet sich im langsamen Wegflattern (‘für mich’) wieder auseinander. Dahinter schwankte das Gras wie Getreide …” (100). The text of the paper and the “text” of physical space are aligned in order to suggest a similarity between the forms of nature (grass) and the printed text.

After his annihilation through “Raumverbot” Sorger is picked up by his neighbor whose car appears to him as “Schrift” (135). Leafing through his notes “Über Räume,” Sorger sees himself disappearing in the writing. Anticipating his homecoming in a dream, he perceives Europe as a “Groβe Handschrift, in der sein Leben beschrieben wurde …” (191–192).

The Europe Sorger returns to is not geographical. It is Sorger’s inner Europe, a continent based on his imaginative verbal recreation. Affirmation of the narrative texture as form, retrieval of an ancient vocabulary, and the use of analogy make Sorger’s slow homecoming possible. Endowed with Sorger’s self-confidence in naming primordial forms and Cézanne’s aesthetics of a “Ding-Bild-Schrift,” Handke/Sorger approaches Austria as “das Reich der Erzählung … das Reich der Schrift … das einzig vernünftige und nicht metaphysische Reich” (Zwischenräumen 158).


The book following the tetralogy, Der Chinese des Schmerzes, opens by asking for a “Chinese” reading of itself. The letters on the page are not to be perceived as phonetic symbols but as formally akin to physical phenomena. Writing and the physical phenomena are presented as analogous: “Schlieβ die Augen, und aus dem Schwarz der Lettern bilden sich die Stadtlichter” (7). Representation of the world through language defies reconstruction through the temporal medium of narration. Instead, a direct similarity between the letters on the page and physical objects is claimed, a similarity which goes against the grain of Indo-European writing. This magic parallelism between represented phenomena and the characters on the page opens an aesthetic space: the reader is solicited to perceive the represented universe to be consubstantial with script. How does this transition from letters to lights come about? How are we to read this book?

When fiction denies a definition of its limits—here the limit between the letters and the lights—the definition of limits must resurface as a thematic structure within that fiction. In Der Chinese this thematic structure is the threshold theme. It allegorically indicates the limits from whence the reader can approach and understand the text. Andreas Loser, the protagonist of the book, defines himself as a “Schwellenkundler” or “Schwellensucher” (24). A teacher of classical languages in Salzburg and an amateur archeologist, he is on temporary leave to participate in the excavation of a Roman villa. He hopes to investigate thresholds in order to reconstruct the outlines of the ancient building.

Whereas a threshold is ordinarily associated with passage from one sphere to another, Loser recognizes it as a dwelling place in its own right: “Schwelle, das heiβt ja nicht: Grenze … sondern Zone” (127). For Loser, this spatial zone is also a “zone” of suspended time. Suspended from work, he is in a state of interregnum between two periods of social and biographical identity. This biographical suspension of time can be understood as a metaphor for an epiphany (which is also a moment of arrested time). In contrast to Handke's previous books, this epiphany is not psychological, a moment of privileged insight in the narrative process. Here the epiphany comprises the entire book. Der Chinese des Schmerzes is a direct expression of temporal “betweenness.” Loser’s “Stand der Schwebe” (19) corresponds to the “threshold” between the letters on the page and the “things” they represent. The threshold theme on the story level and the “Chinese” aesthetics of a “Ding-Bild-Schrift” interact.

The Austria to which Handke returns is associated with entropy. Although boundaries are on the increase, “Aufenthaltsort(e)” (126) between defined spheres are growing smaller and rarer. In new buildings thresholds are reduced to mere strips of metal or grooved hard rubber; for people even the threshold between waking and dreaming is barely perceptible. This lack of thresholds between defined spheres indicates a lack of neutral places that would enable Loser to approach Austria as Sorger approached primoridal Alaska: as a country outside human labeling by arbitrary names.

Handke's creation of his “written” Austria in Der Chinese des Schmerzes provides thresholds for both the protagonist and the reader. In a central scene of the book, the motif of life as game recurs. “A painter,” “a politican,” “a priest,” “the master of the house,” and Loser play a game of Tarock during which each player tells a “threshold story.” The evening concludes with a polyphonic narrative to which each “player” contributes a part. Speaking to his son toward the end of the book, Loser names his story a “Schwellengeschichte” (241). The epilogue, a description of a medieval bridge, represents both another physical threshold and such a threshold story. It is preceded by Loser’s telling a dream that culminates in the enigmatic sentence: “Der Erzähler ist die Schwelle” (242).

According to these allegorical definitions, the concept of “threshold” can be applied to physical thresholds, to narratives, and to a narrator himself. Read as an allegory, Der Chinese des Schmerzes itself is a threshold text. Der Chinese is located in the “dwelling place” between its letters and the phenomena signified by them. Handke's yet uncreated Austria, then, extends in the magical zone indicated by the first sentence of the book: between the black letters and the city lights. As we have observed above, the “Chinese” analogy of letter and object elevates writing from the vicarious/referential to the actual. Handke's writing of Der Chinese parallels its hero’s actions in Austria. Loser “edits” the “text” Austria: he crosses out a slogan on a church wall, removes trail marks from the willow trees, and disposes of signboards covered with posters of political parties. He tears down a birdhouse, destroys a theater showcase, destroys a poster advertising a hairdressing establishment, and sets fire to a sign saying “Land suitable to development” (65–68). In the second chapter, “Der Betrachter greift ein,” Loser takes action against a writer who represents an “evil” Austria. He kills a man who has just sprayed swastikas on trees and battlements. Reminiscent of the world of Sorger’s “aufgezwungenen Vorväter” (Langsame Heimkehr 90), the swastika symbolizes for Loser the cause of all his melancholy, and of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in his country (97).

Loser’s “execution” of the swastika sprayer has stimulated negative critical response. It has been interpreted as “moralische Skrupellosigkeit und richterliche Selbstherrlichkeit” (Dinter 277). Even Handke himself has commented about it negatively as a regrettable remnant of narrative plot (Zwischenräumen 19). On a realist level, Loser’s destructiveness can indeed be read as a rather crude literary reaction against Austria’s repressed confrontation with its Nazi past.17 On a more fruitful level, however, Loser’s destructiveness is elucidated by an observation Handke makes in Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire. He condemns the violence of a world that is reduced to “functional forms,” a world which is “bis auf die letzten Dinge beschriftet und zugleich völlig sprach-und stimmlos” (91). Loser’s destroying of labels, including one of the notoriously dangerous labelers, challenges the violence of the labeled world, a world which is like Austria without thresholds, without spaces spared from reductive, that is, arbitrary, naming. Loser’s actions tie in with the logic of the “Ding-Bild-Schrift” and form a part of Handke's editing, or “freiphantasieren,” of the “Groβe Handschrift” Austria. With Der Chinese des Schmerzes Peter Handke has accomplished the goal he set for himself in 1978: he has invented an Austria outside its definitions through newspapers, statistics, philosophy, and realist writing.

Located on the threshold between the letters on the page and the physical phenomena, the Austria evoked in Der Chinese can be aligned with a perception of space through slanted eyes. The scene that introduces the book’s title permits a phenomenological explanation of its enigmatic Chinese element. Loser’s woman-friend compares Loser to a man who, although very ill, went to visit a good friend. In leaving, he stopped at length in the doorway and tried to smile; his tense eyes became slits, framed in the sockets as by sharply ground lenses: “Auf Wiedersehen, mein Chinese des Schmerzes!” said his friend (217–218).

Several motives of this scene relate to other “Chinese” elements of the book. The existential situation of the last farewell is located in a doorway, a threshold. The “Chinese” Loser perceives the world through twofold slits: the “Türspalt” (218) and his “Chinese” eyes. The narrowing of the “doors of perception” accentuates the threshold between inner and outer world. European eyes forcibly “verspannt zu Schlitzen” (218) make physical objects appear blurred. As a result, the world and the strain of perception are perceived simultaneously. This looking through slanted eyes suspends the object of the exterior world from coarse physicality. “Chinese” perception can be interpreted as the perceptual analogy to the “Chinese” “Ding-Bild-Schrift” which merges object and its representation, “die Schrift,” toward a “blurred” middle between signifier and signified. The woman’s last remark, “Endlich ein Chinese—endlich ein chinesisches Gesicht unter all den einheimischen” (218), relates Loser’s Chinese-looking face to Austria, thus indicating his alienation from Austria and his existence “auβerhalb des üblichen Rechts” (217).

In both Der kurze Brief and Langsame Heimkehr an American sphere of alterity enables Handke's protagonist to emancipate himself from Austria and its history. In Der Chinese des Schmerzes the expatriate Handke has returned home as a Chinese of sorrow. He has prepared his homecoming through a purification of his language in the Alaskan wilderness and through the acceptance of Cézanne’s “Ding-Bild-Schrift.” Returned to Austria, Handke's literary self undergoes further metamorphosis in the direction of a “Chinese” existence. The “Chinese” Loser searches for thresholds within Austria, the most remarkable of them being the zone between the represented space (“Stadtlichter”) and the letters on the page. The “Zwischenräume” are the mental dwelling places of an internal expatriate; they represent hidden Elsewheres within Austria. In the “Chinese” ideal of a “Ding-Bild-Schrift,” aesthetic, political, and moral life merge toward a synthesis. Loser’s political action against the swastika sprayer has an aesthetic motivation in a disfigured “script” of Austria. An esoteric project, Handke's slow homecoming as a “Chinese” aims to reinstate in his home country the “Heil” his forefathers dispelled.


  1. Extreme forms of avant-gardist rebellion against tradition can be found in “happenings,” in random collage (as exemplified by John Burroughs), or in the aesthetics of the empty page, corresponding in music to the change from atonality to noise, or silence. For a more detailed discussion of this process, see John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion” and Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avantgarde.

  2. For a more detailed discussion of this problem in Peter Handke's work, see Christoph Bartmann’s introduction to his Suche nach Zusammenhang (3–23).

  3. The revival of the annual Frankfurther Poetikvorlesungen in 1979 entailed contributions by most contemporary German language authors of stature. This institutionalized investigation in aesthetics reflects a need on the part of both authors and readers to outline conditions and standards of post-avant-gardist literature. See Horst Dieter Schlosser and Hans Dieter Zimmermann, editors, Poetik.

  4. See Peter Handke, Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen: Ein Gespräch geführt von Herbert Gamper.

  5. Besides Langsame Heimkehr, the tetralogy includes Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, Kindergeschichte, and Über die Dörfer.

  6. “Et j’ai envie d’inventer un autre pays, une Autriche qui existe surement, mais qui n’est ni dans les journaux, ni dans les statistiques, qui n’est pas dans la philosophie, ni dans la manière qui ne soit pas réaliste; avec des détailes réalistes; mais une vision que j’espère acquérir à travers l’écriture” (Handke, “Voix de l’Autriche” 15).

  7. In 1986 Handke articulated his rage at continuing Nazi cultural influence in Austria: “Ich wüte und bin zornig über die Nachwehen des Dritten Reiches, die vor allem in Österreich noch fast ungehemmt weitergehen” (Zwischenräumen 116).

  8. Jürgen Koppenstein has traced an impulse against provinciality in Austrian literature of the 1970s. “Heimat” is also the title of a Nazi film glorifying Hitler’s annexation of Poland.

  9. See J. L. Austin.

  10. Austin emphasized that “a person participating in and so invoking the [performative] procedure must in fact have those thoughts or feelings” (15).

  11. Linda C. DeMeritt has defined Handke's moments of visionary insight negatively as “alienation” and “loss of context.” For a detailed analysis of epiphanic experience in Handke's work, see Bartmann’s Zusammenhang; for a more general discussion of the epiphany in modernist aesthetic, see Karl Heinz Bohrer’s Plötzlichkeit.

  12. Bartmann speaks of Handke's epiphanies as “unbegrifflich” (201).

  13. For an analysis of the “counterfeiting” element, see Cecile Zorach.

  14. The term recurs in Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (100).

  15. In his interview with Peter Gamper, Handke asserts his struggle to narrate. However, he rejects story-telling: “Ich mag schon erzählen, das ist das Problem—das schönste überhaupt ist der erzählende Mensch für mich—aber ich mag keine Geschichte erzählen. Dieses ganze Romanzeugs, das kann mir wirklich gestohlen bleiben, das ist eine Verirrung des 19. Jahrhunderts für mich” (Zwischenräumen 41).

  16. In the interview with Peter Gamper, Handke remarked that while writing Langsame Heimkehr it suddenly occurred to him that nothing like this had been written since the Middle Ages (Zwischenräumen 149). Such a reference can be taken as an indication of Handke's reliance on a prenominalist use of language.

  17. See footnote 7.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Atlantic Monthly (Aug. 1967); 29–34.

Bartmann, Christoph. Suche nach Zusammenhang: Handkes Werk als Prozess. Vienna: Braumüller, 1984.

Bohrer, Karl Heinz. Plötzlichkeit, Zum Augenblick des ästhetischen Scheins. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981.

Bürger, Peter. Theorie der Avantgarde. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974.

DeMeritt, Linda C. “Peter Handke: From Alienation to Orientation.” Modern Austrian Literature 20 (1987): 53–71.

Dinter, Ellen. Gefundene und erfundene Heimat: Zu Handkes zyklischer Dichtung “Langsame Heimkehr” 1979–81. Cologne: Böhlau, 1986.

Drews, Jörg. “Über einen neuerdings in der deutschen Literatur erhobenen vornehmen Ton” Merkur 8 (1984): 949–954.

Durzak, Manfred. Peter Handke und die deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur: Narziβ auf Abwegen. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1982.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

Handke, Peter. Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen: Ein Gespräch geführt von Herbert Gamper. Zurich: Ammann, 1987.

———. Der Chinese des Schmerzes. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983.

———. Kindergeschichte. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981.

———. Langsame Heimkehr. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979.

———. Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980.

———. Über die Dörfer. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981.

———. “Voix de l’Autriche et de l’Europe Danubienne.” Les Nouvelles littéraires artistiques. June 22, 1978. 22–27.

Koppenstein, Jürgen. “Anti-Heimatliteratur in Österreich. Zur literarischen Heimatwelle der siebziger Jahre.” Modern Austrian Literature 2 (1982): 1–11.

Manthey, Jürgen. “Franz Kafka, der Ewige Sohn.” Peter Handke. Ed. Raimund Fellinger. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985. 375–385.

Schlosser, Horst Dieter and Hans Dieter Zimmermann, eds. Poetik. Essays über Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Bichsel, Heinrich Böll (u.a.m.) und andere Beiträge zu den Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen. Munich: Athenäum, 1988.

Zorach, Cecile. “The Artist as Joker in Peter Handke's Langsame Heimkehr.Monatshefte 2 (1985): 181–194.

Eva-Maria Metcalf (essay date Autumn 1990)

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SOURCE: “Challenging the Arrogance of Power with the Arrogance of Impotence: Peter Handke's Somnambulistic Energy,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 369-79.

[In the following essay, Metcalf examines Handke's preoccupation with the aesthetic and contextual properties of language, particularly Handke's effort to purify language of its conventional meanings and associations in order to break free from “rationalistic discourse.” Metcalf writes, [Handke's] “impotent power is that of an alert dreamer, who reifies through illusion, who reveals by obscuring and enveiling words and concepts, and who gains in presence by withdrawing.”]


In 1967 Peter Handke built himself an ivory tower, and he has resided in it ever since. The theories about language and writing that he exposed in his essay “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms” have continued to serve as his guiding principles throughout his more than twenty years of authorship. During the last decade, Handke has drifted further and further in the direction of mysticism, which has become the ultimate consequence of his rejection of current nonliterary discourse.

Based on Herbert Gamper’s long interview with Handke, Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, and Handke's two most recent works, Das Spiel vom Fragen: oder die Reise zum sonoren Land and Versuch über die Müdigkeit, I will trace Handke's Nietzschean efforts to revalorize words and concepts and along with them the value scale of modern society. His attempts to reach out beyond the thoughtless superficiality of everyday language and the stale realism of the stories dominating modern fiction to a deeper or greater reality by means of a priestly, ecstatic, and often hermetic language have led to rather harsh criticism by those unwilling or unable to duplicate his efforts to rid himself of the shackles of rationalistic discourses. He has been reproached for conservatism and epigonism, and, indeed, the German literary tradition since classicism makes up much of the intertextuality in his works and guides his fundamental approach to writing. This orientation anchors him in modernism rather than in postmodernism.

Nevertheless, Handke's relationship with tradition is anything but imitative. Rather, it consists of a critical and creative adaptation of this tradition that is not altogether unambiguous. As I will show, Handke's desired manner of writing is an “Erzählen im Erzählstrom, der stets offen und ohne geschichtliche Determiniertheit ist,” for which he has created the imagery of somnambulism (Zwischenräumen 139). His aim is to approach writing in a postreflexive, spontaneous state of mind. Like the “Mauerschauer” in Das Spiel vom Fragen, Handke searches for the third path (“der dritte Weg”) beyond the either-or confinement of logocentricity. It seems a hopeless, impossible task, but therein lies the challenge, and Handke meets it head on. This paper will investigate what is at stake in Handke's attempt to counteract the arrogance of power displayed in the pervasive and ever-growing dominance of instrumentalized reason and functionalized logic by means of a self-empowering discourse of the powerless.

Like much of modern fiction, Handke's writing centers on the epistemological and ethical question of how the speaking subject can and ought to confront the world. As he turns to his own lived experience for the illustration and inspiration of the philosophical and theoretical discussions of language, writing, and communication, his insights are at once profound and accessible, self-centered and freehanded. Handke's thematic focus mirrors the essential crisis of the modern writer whose role in society has become marginalized. The disappearance of a universally valid, prescriptive formative paradigm uniting society and cultures has pushed the modern writer into an offensively defensive position from which he explores the theme of the alienated and fragmented subject. In the essay “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms,” Handke states clearly:

Ich habe keine Themen über die ich schreiben möchte, ich habe nur ein Thema: über mich selbst klar, klarer zu werden, mich kennenzulernen oder nicht kennenzulernen, zu lernen, was ich falsch mache, was ich falsch denke, was ich unbedacht denke, was ich unbedacht spreche, was ich automatisch spreche, was auch andere unbedacht tun, denken sprechen: aufmerksam zu werden und aufmerksam zu machen: sensibler, empfindlicher, genauer zu machen und zu werden, damit ich und andere auch genauer und sensibler existieren können, damit ich mich mit anderen besser verständigen und mit ihnen besser umgehen kann.


In order to achieve greater sensitivity and self-knowledge, Handke suggests a self-vivisection with the help of language and its signs. With their slippage of meaning, their contingency, and their connotations, however, signs are not sufficiently clean tools for this purpose, and Handke starts the cleaning and clarifying process by removing the words and concepts he uses from their “natural” context and by relocating them in an ahistorical setting. Handke calls this process “das bereinigende Mythologisieren,” which seems a paradoxical notion by modern commonsensical standards (Zwischenräumen 140). Similar to the act of purification in a religious ceremony achieved by burning incense, which enveils and hides and thereby dissolves and transforms the profane object, Handke purifies colloquial language, newsspeak, or scientific jargon reflecting an increasingly profane and demythified world by enveloping everyday concepts in a veil of myth. Once formed, this ethereal veil severs established ties and dislocates and decontexualizes words and concepts, which, transformed, arouse a mild alienation that will create the sense of newness Handke called for in his essay from the ivory tower. It is Handke's hope that this measure will prevent his literary language from being coopted by market forces and that his writing will become a counter-discourse of meaningful quietness within a sea of hollow noisiness of newsmedia language. The question remains, however, whether Handke's beautifully crafted, descriptive language—which cannot avoid being situated and read in a specific historical context despite Handke's efforts to cleanse the words of any infectious connotations—has the cleansing power he claims.

The myth Handke evokes is based on the materiality of language. He relies on the power of single words and the images they invoke. By “recycling” words and concepts, Handke attempts a new, fresh beginning, disregarding their connotative roots in a free play of words. Words such as “Segen,” “Fluch,” “Frieden,” “Krieg,” “Volk,” which have traditionally been endowed with an aura but have now been demythified and worn with usage, are reinstated to their old power but in a new framework. With “cleansed” words the world opens up to new insights, as it does for the protagonists in Das Spiel vom Fragen.

Kindergeschichte is just one example of the remythification of a demythified world by means of the remythification of words and concepts. In Handke's new yet very traditional terminology childhood, along with old age and insanity, represents a blessed state of closeness between the subjective and objective world. Childhood becomes the expression of his longing for rejuvenation, for imaginative power, spontaneity, wholesomeness, and wholeness. No concrete childhood is intended, least of all Handke's own, about which he relates much suffering. His concept of childhood is very similar in content and function to Hofmannsthal’s concept of Präexistenz. As do emptiness in Das Spiel vom Fragen and tiredness in Versuch über die Müdigkeit, childhood serves as a screen onto which hope, change, and possibility are projected. The child becomes “der Palast des Fragens” (Spiel 129), and Parzival, like Saint Exupéry’s little prince, finds fault with the poor, inhibited, and unimaginative way adults ask questions.

An ascetic purity of language also lies behind Handke's rejection of the story as a narrative device. Story, he argues, is compensatory; it disguises the sentences, merely entertains, and thus diverts attention from real life problems (“macht weltvergessen” [Elfenbeinturms 23]). Handke's dislike of stories has its roots in his desire to make visible that which exists behind the layers of cultural codes, poses, and conventions. It is at one and the same time demythifying and remythifying. But does myth not need the shroud of story or rituals to survive? Rejecting the story, Handke relies heavily on ritual. Ritual enters into the process of writing, for example, which Handke approaches with awe, as becomes apparent in the highly autobiographical Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, and which resembles the codification of a visionary’s divine inspiration because Handke barely ever revises or alters what he has written.

With the one possible exception of Wunschloses Unglück, none of Handke's writings have a storyline or any plot development imposed from the “outside.” As a rule, Handke's language imposes—he would prefer to say generates—its own structure. What this structure reveals over and over again is the fundamental conflict of the post-Romantic writer, the conflict between mimetic and nonmimetic communication. It is Handke's language that sustains the tension and inner logic of his plays and narratives. Handke still clings to his dictum from the sixties: language should reveal, not cover up the methods used. “Die naturalistischen Formen zerdenken, bis sich die didaktischen, zeigenden ergeben” (Gewicht 321) is a demand that Handke applies both to a single word or phrase he uses and to the whole structure of a work. Thus far, Handke joins with the structuralists and poststructuralists in the analysis and resulting demythification of language, the medium through which we perceive the world within and without us. But with his demand, “die didaktischen Formen zerdenken, bis sich die mythischen ergeben” (Gewicht 321), Handke does not uncover the mythical content of signs and second order signs as did Roland Barthes. Instead, he remythifies language and the act of writing, which to him has become a quasi-religious experience.

Handke disdains being swept along in the constant flow of things, and he persists in writing, “damit in dem formlosen Strudel der Welt irgendeine kleine Form entsteht” (Zwischenräumen 27). He is very ambiguous about the essence of this form, however. In his interview with Herbert Gamper, he confirms both his belief in the existence of a law behind appearances and in the fictionality of this law by conceding that his search for truth beyond historical contingencies, conventional language, and structural patterns may be self-deception. In his search for stability within eternal flow and relativity he admits to resorting to a lie or a fiction, just as Nietzsche had to do. Identifying with a man who desperately continued to search for meaning against all odds, Handke lets Nietzsche express the dilemma he himself feels: “Es gibt nur eine Welt, und die ist falsch, grausam, widersprüchlich, verführerisch, ohne Sinn. Das ist die wahre Welt.—Wir haben Lüge nötig, um über diese Realität, diese ‘Wahrheit’ zum Sieg zu kommen, das heiβt, um zu leben …” (Zwischenräumen 199). Handke fights the meaninglessness he perceives around him by means of illusion, that is, by means of language. Demanding of his language not only that it represent an object but also that it express its very essence, Handke the mystic reveals the patterns which Handke the writer generates. Or, as he states, “ich muβ mein Wesen durch die Form gelenkt und gereinigt wiedergeben” (Zwischenräumen 51). Truth and lie are intermingled as the illusion of truth in reality is confronted with the truthful illusion in Handke's writing.

What is the motive for this intermingling of reality and illusion? If not seen “with the simplifying eye of habit,” as Hofmannsthal has Lord Chandos observe, everything disintegrates into parts and does not let itself be encompassed by one idea (Hofmannsthal 134). Stemming the tide of total disintegration for Lord Chandos, as for Handke, is what Christa Bürger has called “intermittent mimesis” (Bürger 205). For short durations of time, relief is sought through a return to the Dionysiac spell of an archaic, ahistorical world of images induced and mediated by analytic thought and writing. But does this project really represent a counter-image to popular culture, as Handke would have it? It does in the slowness and awe-inspiring care devoted to the process of writing. Music videos, however, display the same spellbinding decontextualization of imagery that Handke evokes in print.

For Handke, conflation of truth and illusion, as well as total identification with the object, is brought on by approaching the object slowly and reverently, by means, for instance, of a special gaze (“Blick”) or a general openness and receptiveness to the world as it appears, devoid of signs and names. Coincidence and happenstance in the form of the right space or setting, as well as the right state of mind, play an important role for this moment of intense inspiration. Coincidence, now reinterpreted as fateful setting, becomes an accomplice in the subject’s striving for sense and aesthetic sensitivity. During certain moments, insignificant objects can form an image or a constellation which becomes the source of a mysterious revelation, as do the shining path of a snail and the markings like those of dice on the feather of a bird in Das Spiel vom Fragen. The objects seem carefully chosen despite an apparent randomness considering the symbolic value invested in them by our culture. Precious slowness and closeness to the earth, the sublime freedom of flight, and coincidence are brought together in this image. The revelation inevitably draws upon the writer’s and the reader’s cultural memory, that is, despite decontextualization and mythification, cultural knowledge is an inevitable source of the writing process, which Handke describes as a swinging back and forth between the objects of the world and their slow transition into text (Zwischenräumen 230).


The two fundamental experiences of the modern artist, that is, alienation and isolation, the feeling of not being able to span the gulf between one’s immediate presence to oneself and one’s indirect representational knowledge of everything else, are topicalized in Das Spiel vom Fragen and Versuch über die Müdigkeit. These two works can be seen as complementing each other. Each work comes to the problem from a different angle using a new set of images, although a basic core of reappearing images slowly unfolds with each new work by Handke. The figure of the outsider who simultaneously cherishes and loathes his or her challenging and painful state is one of the core images. Whereas these outsiders were presented as protesters and sufferers in Handke's earlier works, they are presented as preachers and prophets in the image of Zarathustra in his more recent work, thus reflecting Handke's own changing attitude.

Das Spiel vom Fragen gives us an introspection into the dilemma of the modern writer by way of a painstakingly detailed dramatization of Handke's literary creativity. The play is delivered with commentary, criticism, and self-analysis to give it openness and transparency and to preclude any emotional engagement that might cloud the issues. The self-critical (re)search culminates in a play within the play that unravels and replays its fundamental problematic in an argumentative fashion. The problem discussed among the performers is nothing less than how do we do the impossible? How can one perform and represent the nonperformable and the nonrepresentable? This paradox of the mimetic project has haunted Handke for a long time, and in this play it “dramatized itself” the way Handke described it to Gamper in 1987:

Mir kommt es eher darauf an, die richtige Frage endlich zu finden. … Also daβ aus einem Problem, das einem—was vielleicht auch zum Schreiben gehört—seit unvordenklicher Zeit beschäftigt, auf einmal die richtige Frage entsteht. Diese Frage kann ja sehr langwierig sein, auch sehr gewunden, das ist ja auch ein Merkmal einer dramatischen und sich selber dramatisierenden Frage.

(Zwischenräumen 107)

Das Spiel vom Fragen comprises a quest in the form of a journey in search of a new kind of question. The ideal kind of question Handke envisions should neither display the quality of the “previously-known” (das Vorausgewuβte”) of a “Lehrstück,” nor should it be a trap, as in the “Hereinlegefragerei” of a Socratic dialogue. Instead, the right kind of question presupposes a state of disinterested purity. Seven nameless people, one for each star in the constellation of the Pleiades, set out on a journey into the unknown. Their aim is to come upon the right questions, questions that do not already presuppose the answers, questions that are not caught within the confines of their own discourse, questions that can reach beyond the sphere of the cultural artifact of language. They do not purposefully and systematically pursue one road or direction that may lead them to their goal; their Holy Grail can only be reached by means of a slow, meandering, discursive journey.

Handke refers to the basic tenet of the play as that of a research trip and to the basic tone as that of a psalm (“Psalmenton”). He intentionally combines the modern and the medieval frame of mind or what Lyotard has termed scientific and narrative knowledge (31–37). The play opens with a suggestive image of isolation. Initially, the actors do not communicate with each other. Their meandering through space on the stage, sometimes together, sometimes walking in different directions, ends in a mutual understanding that reaches beyond language. The two main protagonists, “der Mauerschauer” (the mystic) and “der Spielverderber” (the sceptic) represent the two conflicting poles in Handke, whose love of mysticism is as strong as his love of form. In the search undertaken by these two protagonists as well as by the others, Handke retraces his initial reluctance and anxiety before the different conflicting tendencies become a harmonious whole.

At the point when the main protagonists call each other by their first names and when Parzival, who is the body of inquiry, is freed from his chains, the play assumes concrete shape both literally and symbolically. The stage is set for the expression of the ineffable in words. The sounds produced by the “Mauerschauer” find resonance in the sonorous country of the play’s title. As this final image vibrates and slowly fades away, a feeling of communion and of oneness with nature is conjured up yet remains caught in the fictionality of the play.

Handke uses both emotional and didactic theatrical tools to prepare the viewer or reader for the final moment of bliss. Mood shifts are induced by lighting and stage props. In his stage directions, Handke asks for a special “question light” distinct from the harsh light of inquisition, a glimmering shine to suggest that it emanates from the protagonists. Sound assumes a central function through the confrontation of “unmusikalische Fraglosigkeit” (Spiel 150) and “musikalische Fraglosigkeit” (Spiel 156) that dissolves completely into sound at the end.

In Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, it becomes clear that spatial relations are of utmost importance for Handke's aesthetic sensibility. His idiosyncratic experience of bare, open spaces as threatening and limiting, but small openings as liberating for the imagination and the soul translates into the sequence of stage settings. The action—paralleling plumbing the depths of the soul—proceeds in jolts from a next-to-bare stage, through territories with some vegetation and cultural artifacts, and down to a clearing in a lush virgin forest in the region’s deepest interior (hinterland). There, a collage of plants from different vegetative regions surrounds ahistoricized and decontextualized cultural props from different ages and strata and permits a partial view of the wall of questions, the end of the journey.

Parzival, who as the “body of questions” fulfills a didactic function, resembles Kaspar in his speechlessness (“Sprachlosigkeit”) and mute anger, but his fate is a reversal or continuation of Kaspar’s. Turned mute on account of his socialization, he learns to speak again as the searchers approach their goal. On the way, Parzival jerks off layers of acculturation while producing disjoined, incoherent phrases. Later, as the group approaches a more profound state of questioning, he recognizes correlations between words and objects, and his speech becomes meaningful. Whereas Parzival is freed from the leash that has chained him to muteness and cultural clichés, the group, now freed from the ballast of civilization, is ready to “think in question form,” and the play within the play commences in unbridled playfulness as the actors dance off in somber, Zarathustran joy. The play ends in a state of relieved questionlessness, a state of inner calmness, harmony, and fulfillment which comes very close to the state of tiredness in Versuch über die Müdigkeit.


“Nur mit der Energie eines Schlafwandlers kann ich mich auf andere übertragen,” wrote Handke in Die Geschichte des Bleistifts (132). Sleepwalking, a state of unconscious awareness and intuitively sure-footed competence, becomes the optimal state for artistic creativity and direct human interaction. Whereas Handke had dramatized his somnambulistic approach to writing in Das Spiel vom Fragen, he addresses the social and intersubjective aspect of communication in Versuch über die Müdigkeit. The story resembles a clinical self-analysis, patterned as a soliloquy and written in suggestively poetic prose in which Handke tries to come to terms with “das Versagen in der Gemeinschaft” (Versuch 9). Handke undertakes a classification of four states of tiredness, or “die vier Verhältnisweisen meines Sprach-Ichs zur Welt” (Versuch 56), which are closely interrelated to the individual’s ability to communicate and function in a social setting. In ascending order, these four stages are: 1) autistic muteness; 2) the ability to perceive voices from the outside, rudimentary emotion breaking through muteness as screams and fits of anger; 3) the ability to communicate with a child or a close friend; and 4) the final and optimal stage of alert and receptive tiredness.

These are the same stages Parzival and his fellow-travellers traverse. The predominant feeling at the three lower stages of abandonment, solitude, and senselessness vanishes on the fourth, as the world becomes epic and inscribes itself into the receptive and perceptive consciousness. The parallel to the self-dramatization of questions is apparent. The semantic field of the word “tiredness” at the fourth stage touches on and even overlaps with other antidotes to the fast-paced, logocentric, and technocratic societies present in Handke's fiction and that of many contemporary writers. It incorporates slowness, passivity, playfulness, and the search for closeness. Handke presents the reader with an array of situations dating back to his boyhood, his early work experiences, and his experiences on the road in which tiredness could be a destructive state of exhaustion, blank emptiness, insensitivity, and alienation. At times, however, it could be a constructive state of relaxed openness and satisfaction derived from a job well-done or occasionally from sexual intercourse.

The “good” tiredness associated with the smell of camomile is contrasted to the “bad” tiredness associated with the smell of carrion, and, as in Das Spiel vom Fragen, qualities of light and sound carry part of the message. One could be tempted to call Handke's method of creation a Gesamtkunstwerk of the senses. Handke experiences community—“Wir Müdigkeit”—after a hard day’s work of threshing in a barn in a light which is engulfing and soothing rather than blinding and glaring. This “stage-four” tiredness unifies and cleanses, as does the revelatory, mythical experience to which it is closely related. “Wir Müdigkeit” results in a feeling of relaxed, unquestioned belonging and of being able to take in the whole world. At this point communication turns into communion. Just as any profane object can be endowed with revelatory energy, any profane place or setting—a boulevard, a garbage dump, a jukebox, a Spanish field, or midtown Manhattan—can promote this specific feeling of tiredness. The theme of tiredness can be traced in Handke's earlier writings. Versuch über die Müdigkeit picks up a thread from Langsame Heimkehr, and even in Wunschloses Unglück, Handke experiences a pleasant, impersonal tiredness, in which the super ego is finally quiet, leaving a space of receptive, creative emptiness.

The process of mimetic experiences inspired by an inner stillness and preparedness and resulting in somnambulistic energy is eloquently described by Elisabeth Lenk in Die unbewuβte Gesellschaft, in which she equates dream states with the state of artistic creativity to which Handke also subscribes.

Etwas, was substanziell schien, wird in einen Schwebezustand versetzt. Alles, auch die normalerweise durch Arbeit zugängliche Normalwelt, wird für die ästhetische Subjektivität zum Gegenstand der Unmittelbarkeit und des Spiels. Sie entwickelt so etwas wie ein sakrales Verhältnis zum Nichtsakralen. Sie entwirklicht die Dinge, um sich selber an ihre Stelle zu setzen. Sie stellt nicht die Ereignisse selber dar, sondern ihre Auswirkungen, die Schatten, die sie ins Innere werfen und die auf einmal anfangen, sich wie von selbst zu bewegen. Im Ausdrucksakt wird eine Energie freigesetzt, die in der Welt der geronnenen Sozialfunktionen gebunden war.


In Die Abwesenheit, a fairy tale with neither fairies nor a tale, written in 1987, Handke portrays an age-old bard, a singer who has lost his voice and whose songs remain only in his seeing and hearing. This bard embodies Handke's view of literature and of his own role in it. Just like the bard, Handke can no longer communicate his thoughts and feelings in the traditional and familiar way. What remains is a faint hope that his fiction may stimulate and entice the sensibilities of his readers, because those with the heightened sensitivity to see emptiness and listen to silence can understand the bard. It is a select group, to be sure, especially as Handke explicitly excludes the bourgeoisie and the rich and powerful from the roster of people who are able to experience revelation (Versuch 43). They belong to civil society (Gesellschaft) and cannot participate in the aesthetic communion (Gemeinschaft) of the initiated elite. Just as the symbolists had reacted to the deconstructive and demythifying tendencies in art at the turn of the century by forcefully reinstating its aura, Handke reacts to the modern-day devalorization of literature by turning it into a sanctuary.

In spite of this elitism, or maybe because of it, Handke's basic dilemma remains—bridging the gap, that is, finding the means and methods to transpose his very personal, ephemeral revelations into a language that can be shared by his readers. How can the immediacy and fullness of experience be mediated in a language that lacks plenitude? One solution is the “recycling” of words and concepts, another is the rejection of words altogether and their dissolution into sights, sounds, gestures, and light in order to make the work of art into an awe-inspiring counter-world to, and refuge from, the “newsmedia word.” This is the problem of Handke the “Mauerschauer,” but the “Spielverderber” side of Handke makes formal demands which counteract such hopes and visions. Guided by these conflicting impulses, Handke seeks his “third path” between the Scylla of compensatory writing, in which a mythifying and entrancing text compensates for a demythified and disenchanted world, and the Charybdis of formalism and intentionalism. The ephemeral nature of the suspension bridge supported by the author’s inner tensions strung across the abyss connecting author and reader makes this path a hazardous one. Handke's tendency to intersperse revelations with polemical outbursts makes it uneven.

The “third path” Handke pursues is that of ambiguity, which he creates by using such literary tools and methods of Romanticism as paradox, the merging of reality and illusion, and the merging of narrative and scientific knowledge. His impotent power is that of an alert dreamer, who reifies through illusion, who reveals by obscuring and enveiling words and concepts, and who gains in presence by withdrawing. It is the difficulty of tracing the “third path” and of uniting his conflicting selves that makes the image of the surefooted sleepwalker balancing at the brink of an abyss so appealing to Handke.

By granting himself this subconscious and unquestionable competence, Handke succeeds in harmonizing his self through the process of writing. But can he reach out to others? In the play Das Spiel vom Fragen Handke provides an answer. Whereas the seven travelers—Handke's alter egos and members of the Gemeinschaft—reach the sonorous country, there are those who cannot be reached (presumably the uninitiated). In the first scene of the play the “Mauerschauer” reaches out to someone who is in danger of falling into the abyss of nothingness and meaninglessness. This gesture is unsuccessful.

Works Cited

Bürger, Christa. “Hofmannsthal und das mimetische Erbe.” Prosa der Moderne. Peter Bürger unter Mitarbeit von Christa Bürger. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988.

Handke, Peter. Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen: Ein Gespräch geführt von Herbert Gamper. Zürich: Ammann, 1987.

———. Die Abwesenheit: Ein Märchen. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987.

———. “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms.” Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972.

———. Die Geschichte des Bleistifts. Salzburg: Residenz, 1982.

———. Das Gewicht der Welt. Salzburg: Residenz, 1977.

———. Kindergeschichte. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981.

———. Langsame Heimkehr. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979.

———. Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers. Salzburg: Residenz, 1987.

———. Das Spiel vom Fragen: oder die Reise zum sonoren Land. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989.

———. Versuch über die Müdigkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. “The Letter of Lord Chandos.” Selected Prose. Trans. Mary Hottinger and Tania and James Stern. New York: Pantheon, 1952. 129–141.

Lenk, Elisabeth. Die unbewuβte Gesellschaft: Über die mimetische Grundstruktur in der Literatur und im Traum. München: Matthes, 1983.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Michael Hofmann (review date 24 May 1991)

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SOURCE: “A Superior Reality,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following review, Hofmann offers a positive assessment of Absence.]

Peter Handke's descriptions of reality are of two kinds: some are of superior accuracy, some describe a superior reality. After an initial struggle, Absence settles down as a book of the second type. In German, it was subtitled Ein Märchen. The English publisher’s blurb works out an ambitious platform for it as “a narrative scrutiny of the absence which lies at the heart of human identity and endeavour”, but to me it seems a book entirely without and against reason: it could have been any length, about any subject, under any title. Purely aleatory, it allows the author and reader the greatest possible freedom.

Handke brings together four protagonists—the epic trope from Homer to Westerns—and then takes them for a walk, a loop starting out from the city and returning to it. It is a kind of counter-epic, in which plot and character are practically excluded, but landscape and weather go through the most extraordinary and dramatic developments. The four figures, called the Old Man, the Soldier, the Gambler and the Girl, have no significant interaction with one another, and when the Old Man vanishes and the three remaining figures decide at the end to go and look for him, that is only the promise of a second epic trope, the Quest. The book is counter-psychological, magical, perception-led. It describes, and implicitly longs for, a world where human activity is reduced to seeing and speaking a world reminiscent of that of Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, for which Handke wrote the screenplay, at about the same time that he was writing Die Abwesenheit. It is their perverse and paradoxical combination of detachment from and attachment to the world that characterizes both works, and makes each of them uneasy within its own genre. It is extraordinary to read a sentence like the following in a work of fiction, especially when the work contains a good many such sentences:

And, indeed, the vapor trails in the sky are moving in a different direction, a cigarette butt is rolling in another, a young music student is walking in another with her instrument case, and a toy motorcar, controlled by an invisible hand, is careering across the asphalt in still another.

Such notations—simultaneous geometry—are close to the source of Wenders’s films, and reading them, one may well think they need a film editor rather more than a writer. Still, it is of such things that Handke's alternative construction of reality is made up. Absence is also a polemic against the judging and ranking of impressions. What is important? Everything except what you think is important.

In its freedom, its softness, its interpenetration of within and without, its improvisational quality, Absence seems to have taken up suggestions from other writers, the section “A Walk” from Kafka’s Description of a Struggle:

I walked on, unperturbed. But since, as a pedestrian, I dreaded the effort of climbing the mountainous road, I let it become gradually flatter, let it slope down into a valley in the distance. The stones vanished at my will and the wind disappeared.

or some lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”:

Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights.

The natural magic of such passages is very seductive, and reading an extended version of it in Handke is no hardship at all. Especially in the English of his regular translator, Ralph Manheim, who once again has done a polished and professional job of making his subject readable. Handke is not exactly unreadable in German but he is friendlier, more purposeful and less fatuous in English, though he has lost his pioneering awkwardness. With him, it is the original not the translation that reads like a translation.

J. J. White (review date 4 October 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Elusive Perfect Day,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1991, p. 34.

[In the following review, White offers an unfavorable assessment of Versuch über den geglückten Tag.]

Peter Handke's new prose-work is the third in a series of “Versuche”, essays-cum-experimental stylistic explorations of a theme, which have recently become his preferred mode. Versuch über die Müdigkeit (1989), on “tiredness”, marked a first flirtation with the form. An amalgam of snatches of recollected experience, reflective passages, random aperçus and tentative jottings about the nature and functions of tiredness, it involved both a new concentration on a circumscribed subject and a tendency to backwoods philosophizing. Addressing a less intractable subject than its predecessor, Versuch über die Jukebox (1990) registered the object’s importance for the central figure in a more controlled blend of narration and rumination. However, with his new book, Versuch über den geglückten Tag, Handke has taken on a theme so decidedly elusive that he even has difficulty pinpointing a terminology or a repertoire of images appropriate to his material.

The mystical notion of a “geglückter Tag” in the title signifies nothing so simple as what one might think of as a perfect or happy day, a day crowned with success or felicitous encounters: the narrator refers to such a time more portentously as the “achieved” or “accomplished” day. Whether such a day of days could ever be deemed to have occurred, and what features conceivably characterize it, remain tantalizingly at the centre of the text’s fluctuating deliberations.

Although Versuch über den geglückten Tag emphasizes that it is concerned with the idea of such a day—with its hypothetical possibility, rather than with chronicling actual experience—the work has much in common with mainstream mystical writing. Like many mystics before him, Handke frequently seeks to delineate his subject in terms of what it is not. For reasons never made sufficiently clear, his focus is on the day, not the successful life or simply the heightened moment. We are assured that such a notion has little to do with the familiar kairos of the ancients or of religious experience. And if earlier images of an entirely successful life centred on leaving one’s modest mark for posterity (a tree, a child, a book), there are evidently no such ready criteria for the phenomenon that this work postulates. The narrator has to content himself with recording mere intimations of such perfection in moments of only localized promise: sounds heard early in the morning, images of graceful movement, a detailed recollection of a time spent sawing wood or echoes from earlier culture, but these often simply serve to mock the inadequacy of the defining enterprise.

Invoked mystical experience has often been a problematic feature of Handke's writing, as precarious claims are advanced for ostensibly banal images and slight experiences, required to bear the weight of too much private profundity. Part of the problem may be that we live in a cynical world where, as the author once hinted in Das Gewicht der Welt, one person’s mediated epiphany can be another’s literary kitsch. There is also, perhaps, a certain archness to the narrator’s rehearsal of the problems of delimiting, locating and expressing his elusive notion of a day of fulfilment. One senses all too readily that the “Versuch” is being contrived to show that it cannot succeed, that the “expedition” in search of “der geglückte Tag” has been condemned to remain an incomplete journey from the outset, its goal being no more than a utopian idea, the subject of a literary “winter’s day-dream” (the book’s subtitle).

Versuch über den geglückten Tag begins with a reference to Hogarth’s famous Portrait of the Painter with his Pug, with its quasi-emblematic “Line of Beauty and Grace”, the S-shaped curve on the painter’s palette which furnishes the author with a symbol of the perfection he hopes to attain with his project. Yet Handke's work is knowingly blighted by a sense of the impossibility of the vision as more than day-dream. Symptomatically, we are reminded that bombers are taking off to fly to Iraq as the dream is being unfolded.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Autumn 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Versuch über den geglückten Tag, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 716-7.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive evaluation of Versuch über den geglückten Tag.]

Not one word on the dust jacket, not the merest hint tells the prospective reader what kind of book Versuch über den geglückten Tag is. There is no need, since Peter Handke presents us with his third Versuch. His two previous books, Versuch über die Müdigkeit and Versuch über die Jukebox (see WLT 64:3, p. 460, and 65:2, p. 301 respectively), have established a new dimension of literature’s realistic claim not just to describe but to change our world through the right word. In my earlier review of Versuch über die Müdigkeit I praised Handke's realization that there is no such thing as “everyday life” or “being tired” in favor of elevating fatigue to a universe in itself. Now that Handke has written his third Versuch on as elusive a theme as the title suggests, we are faced with a triptych on the unspeakable made language, the invisible made form. It is as if all the author’s prior writing were done to culminate in this trinity of texts, and we might worry how Handke can possibly continue from his current pinnacle, if we did not know that his strongest claim to eminence has always been his unmatched capability of change of existential venue as expressed through his writings.

Handke, after some years of wandering, has settled on the outskirts of Paris once again, but this time, as we can sense in his new book, in order to put down roots and to live with the soil. A quiet certainty of being in the right place flows through the prose here. Yes, of course the essay’s role is to raise questions, and Handke's Versuch asks some which defy answer. Still, we clearly feel the paradoxical: that answers, deeply formulated within ourselves, may well lead to the questions. Deadly serious matter presented as a game of suggestions, exclusions, insights—such is Handke's text. The author tries to define “den geglückten Tag,” untranslatable as the very term may be. Definition is a narrowing and a streamlining of the word. Geglückt does not mean “lucky” or “successful,” “happy,” “beautiful,” “worry-free,” “perfect.” Other languages may not even have a corresponding word.

The author remembers his (lifelong, so we learn) yearning for this special day when confronted with the “Line of Beauty and Grace” on a self-portrait of the eighteenth-century painter William Hogarth; this line then extends into a pebble once taken from Lake Constance and onward to the curvature of the River Seine in the west of Paris. We understand that the “method” of this highly metaphysical as well as poetically simplifying text is the fabric of loose associations while concentrating deeply. No logical thrust, no analytic advance is Handke's domain in this book, but a new and—I dare say—previously unattained virtuosity of controlled yet freely associative playfulness. Hence perhaps the subtitle “Ein Wintertagtraum,” as if this were a literary genre well known to anyone.

Handke, after much probing toward a definition, calls himself to order: “Wie stellst du dir einen solchen Tag vor?—Erzähl den geglückten Tag.” To narrate, we assume, is the narrator’s purpose, but Handke's narrative art has long since left (as well as rejoined) the traditional perception of how it is done. This may explain the frustration of certain readers with their formerly admired author; it also explains the constant source of wonderment, of miraculous surprise Handke instills in others, myself included. As it is, the third wing—or is it the central one?—of the triptych of Versuche speaks a hitherto unknown language in German letters, thus creating a new level against which future writing will have to be measured, like it or not.

There is no prescription for this geglückten Tag; however, there is enough menace and danger. A few cues may be derived: don’t hurry, make time, realize that “gerade ein Nichts an Tag” may promise fulfillment, don’t seek the evening in the morning, check whether you don’t live with the wrong inner order. I had better stop here, since Handke of course is not giving advice, has not written a how-to manual, and suggests nothing to the reader. The aforementioned ideas may be found or not in a poetic prose of haunting beauty. “Der geglückte Tag,” as Handke muses, may just be the search itself for such a day. He admits of having no idea except for the yearning. Thus we, the readers, have no precise idea except for the yearning. Thus we, the readers, come away “knowing.”

Gitta Honegger (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Seeing Through the Eyes of the Word,” in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1993, pp. 87-92.

[In the following essay, Honegger examines Handke's approach to the problem of language and verbal expression in his dramatic works and prose experiments, particularly the use—or absence—of words to reveal both the limitations and interpretative potential of language and its associated meanings.]

… As though everyone everywhere in the world, day in, day out, always had his pictorial mission: the mission to be a picture to others: the woman walks “past the train station, along a puddle collecting the falling rain, as ‘the housewife on her way to the market,’ and further in the distance someone walks by as ‘the man with the umbrella;’” thus, offering their pictures of themselves, they help one another (me, at least) …

—Peter Handke: Fantasies of Repetition, 1983

Peter Handke's most recent work for the theater, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, is a play without words. It takes place in a square, inspired by the piazza of a small town near Trieste. Handke had spent an afternoon there watching the goings-on, each passer-by suggesting the fragment of a story which takes its shape only in the context of all the preceding and succeeding moments witnessed by the spectator, who in turn entered his own associations. At one point a coffin was carried from one of the buildings. Then life went on as if nothing had happened. But those who came after would watch the ongoing movement in the square with different eyes from those who had seen the coffin.

In an interview, Handke talked about the play as a “sort of dream play,”

about what one might experience in the square beyond the natural phenomena which are there anyway, and what enters in terms of fantasy, myth, memory. One sits and watches and the longer one watches, the more pictures emerge from (one’s own) background, supplementing the pictures that are moving by. Personal experiences also enter the square. Imagined people move right along. The seasons change. Childhood returns. People one hasn’t seen in maybe 40 years are remembered and hallucinated. And then one wakes up, the dream is over. …

It is Handke's genius—and the greatest challenge to the director of the play—that he keeps the figures on stage open enough for spectators to enter their own associations, allowing them to respond to the “pictures” according to their experiences. The stories suggested on stage can be endlessly varied and expanded through each spectator’s imagination. A play without words turns out to be all about language—its possibilities contained in and released by images.

Always present in the square, though neither named nor suggested, is the challenging spirit of a figure who was crucial to Handke's innovative dramaturgy from the beginning: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Handke's early plays, notably Offending the Audience (first staged in 1966), Kaspar (1968) and The Ride Across Lake Constance (1970), can be seen as dramatic models of Wittgenstein’s investigations of grammar and speech’s traps and errors. Handke's later development also seems to parallel Wittgenstein’s: from the construction of a rather didactic model that exposes the abuse of language to a humble sense of wonder about its nature, possibilities, and even existence; from the famous dictum in Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus—“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”—to the moving remark in the lecture on ethics, nearly two decades later: “I am tempted to say … that the true expression, in language, for the wonder of the world’s existence is the existence of language itself.”

A silence that uncompromisingly delineated the limitations of language becomes the resonant silence of the square, which generates language in those who look and see.

Handke's shift from the skepticism of his early plays to the sense of wonder that permeates his later work coincides with his return to Austria after many years of living and traveling abroad. He moved from Paris to Salzburg with his daughter Amina, so that she could attend school in the environment of her own language. They stayed there from 1979 to 1988. His return is reflected in the tetralogy Slow Homecoming, consisting of the dramatic poem The Long Way ’Round (1982) and three prose texts: Slow Homecoming (1979), which follows an Austrian geologist working in Alaska on his gradual homeward drift, a process of inner separation from the vast expanse of the Northern landscape that finally takes him on a night flight back to Austria; The Lesson of St. Victoire (1980), an intensely personal meditation in and on the landscape of Cezanne’s paintings that leads the writer directly into the landscape near Salzburg; and finally Child (1981), which tells how the lessons he learned as a father expedited Handke's decision to return to Austria. In The Long Way ’Round, a successful man returns to his native village in southern Austria (also Handke's birthplace) after many years abroad.

The work is not only “about” a return home, it’s Handke's homecoming into the language of theater. Handke hadn’t written a play since They Are Dying Out, first staged in 1974 (American premiere, Yale Repertory Theater, 1980). After almost a decade, Handke now attempted to locate origin by reaching for his literary ancestors: the Greeks, and, closer to home, Hölderlin’s poetic reimagining of the power and magnitude of the Greek model. His native characters, “simple” working people, balance with dignity the demands of modern survival and of maintaining a connection to their ancestors’ wisdom. In their long ceremonious speeches, Handke seeks to restore to them the theatrical grandeur of Aeschylus and the visual power of Homer. (The loveliness of things in Homer: “The tripod on the fire,” the “well washed cloak,” “the sheath of freshly sawed ivory,” he writes in The Story of the PencilDie Geschichte des Bleistifts, a collection of notes, written 1976–1980.)

Handke's next theater work, Play of Questions, was first staged in 1990 by Claus Peymann, the Vienna Burgtheater’s controversial director, who also directed the 1992 premiere of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. Both productions are still running in the Burgtheater’s repertory. (Peymann started his career with the first productions of Offending the Audience,Kaspar, and They Are Dying Out). In Play of Questions, Handke further explores the game-like dramaturgy he had experimented with in his early plays: in German, Spiel means both play and game. A randomly gathered group of people sets out on a “Journey Into the Sonorous Land” (the play’s subtitle)—a fairytale childhood hinterland where they arrive, through liberating games, at the child’s capacity to ask “the right questions.” Wittgenstein, with his later explorations of language games in Philosophical Investigations, again seems to be the invisible guiding spirit. The participants are theatrical stock characters: an old rural couple; young lovers, both actors; and Parzival, a Kaspar figure, naked and in chains, speaking in disturbed slogans and commonplaces, afraid of the other speaking characters as carriers of the kind of language of commerce and control that has imprisoned him.

Few and far between as these theatrical texts are, they stand out as signposts pointing to the major departures in Handke's other works of this period, which take him further and further away from story and character in his efforts to restore language’s original sacred power of naming. “The most beautiful poetic imagination would be one that no longer creates images, rhythms, wordgames or stories, but where language itself comes to life and makes things nameable,” Handke writes in The Story of the Pencil.

Andreas Loser, the narrator of the novel Across (1983), is a high school teacher of classical languages and, like Handke himself, a confirmed walker, taking long hikes from the modern suburbs of Salzburg to its historic, castle-crowned Moenchsberg. The landscape envelopes the narrator in quietly perceived pictures that shimmer with its long history, from the present to geological times. During one of his walks he comes across a man in the act of spraying swastikas on beech trees and kills him with a rock. Although ostensibly the story of a murder, the work is a text about seeing. It introduces in the most concentrated way the raison d’être of all Handke's subsequent writing; and it leads directly to the theater as theatron, a place to look/see, of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, which challenges the audience to participate in the imaginative act of seeing. From the Greek verb for seeing, Loser learns about a gift perhaps lost to all but the ancient Greeks:

How can I give a more accurate picture of the sense that I lacked? Perhaps only Greek has a verb expressing that fusion of perception and imagination (which is essential). On the surface, this verb means only “to notice;” but it carries overtones of “white,” “bright,” “radiance,” “glitter,” “shimmer.” Within me there was an outright longing for this radiance which is more than any sort of viewing. I shall always long for that kind of seeing, which in Greek is called leuketin.

If Handke's works exposed the dangerous and misleading speech patterns induced by educational drill and the media, the German language continues to be shaken by its perversion through Nazi rhetoric, which still leaves its mutilating signs everywhere. Loser’s path, his sudden, inescapable confrontation with the instinct to kill, leads into the realm of Greek tragedy. As stand-in for the author—and the reader—he leads his witnesses towards earning language again through the gift of seeing: the pictures in the world around us, which have always contained the words, and, vice versa, the pictures contained in each word.

In this period, Handke was also preoccupied with translations as a way of expanding one’s capacity to experience and name the world. An ardent reader of Greek texts since his high-school studies of classic Greek, Handke has translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. He has also translated Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer; a novel by his French translator Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, Le miror quotidien; and works from Slovenian, his mother’s native language. Resonances from his encounters with these writers come into play in The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.

In his novel Repetition (1986), the Austrian narrator travels to Slovenia to trace his brother, who, like Handke's Slovenian uncle, had been missing in action in World War II. He brings along a Slovenian dictionary his brother left him. Through it he discovers the ways of the people who were his ancestors: peasants and farmers in the arid Karst mountains. Their vocabulary and idioms, passed on through centuries, reveal their intimate relationship to their native environment, their history and origin. Language becomes a celebration of survival. In the process of these discoveries the narrator becomes a writer.

It may no longer be possible to affirm continuity through writing new heroic epics; perhaps it can be accomplished by paying careful attention to the rich resonances in individual words and their idiomatic usage: they tell the story of a community, its perception of itself through generations deeply rooted in their native landscape.

The Slovenian word for village idiot is “he who stirs up wind while walking.” The same term applies to an arrogant person; in more practical terms, stirring the wind while walking is a necessary skill in the dry heat of the Slovenian Karst mountains. The expression found its way into The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.

His most recent prose text, Essay About a Day That Worked (Versuch über den geglückten Tag) is ostensibly an attempt to describe the kind of day where one lives fully in the present, in touch with the smallest, most trivial phenomena. For the writer this also means being completely open to words, that is, being able to receive them from the pictures through which the world (according to Wittgenstein) offers itself; yet what he receives are ultimately his own words, which made him see to begin with. The borders between his inner world and the outer world merge in what Handke, in the title of a much earlier work, called The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World. When this happens, the individual becomes one with the world, which constitutes a day that works. The challenge is “To look and to continue to look further with the eyes of the fitting word,” and to pass on to the reader not just the picture but the dynamics of seeing. Reading then becomes another way of looking, seeing. Seeing the picture contained in the words, the reader will then be able to transform the picture back into his own words and the story he tells will be his. “The best thing, story teller: get the others, gently, to tell stories—make it your goal; and do it in a way that afterwards they feel as if they had a story told to them (a wonderful one).”

Often foreign words cause the jolt (a favorite term that reappears in almost all later works) that opens one’s eyes. In The Afternoon of a Writer the narrator remembers that in French, his partner’s language, “now” literally means “holding hands.” And from the letters of St. Paul he learns that the Greek word for “moment” (augenblick in German, as in “the twinkling of an eye”) is literally “the throwing of the eye.” Also through St. Paul he discovers that “to read” literally says “perceiving upward,” a “recognition upward.” The narrator mentions in passing that he is working on a sketch about translating. In a sense the entire book is about translation, as all his writing is an act of translation, of finding the Urtext as Handke calls it on another occasion, the original text that is already and has always been there. In translations, according to Walter Benjamin, this Urtext is contained between the lines. In those spaces between, all translations of a given text merge and the Urtext reveals itself in their silence.

Emerging in the silence of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other are figures who have emerged time and again from the unspoken Urtext of many times and cultures, as the square itself in the Vienna production seemed to have emerged from an ocean. This Urtext can be sensed in the periodic surge of a mysterious roar encircling the stage, merging with the rustle above, like trees in the wind, which once carried the voices of the oracles. In this silence that can actually be heard like the silence in the desert, the spectator suddenly finds herself listening to her own words in response to what she sees. She is amazed at how clearly these words resound in herself, weaving her stories from and into the many fragments of possible stories suggested on stage. Thus the stage event becomes a continuation of the initial experience that inspired it, rather than its duplication. Handke's theater, in a reversal of the dramatist’s gift of appropriating other people’s speech, is returning the gift, so to speak, to his spectators: the gift of words, not as something drilled in from the outside, but as everyone’s own power of naming, which arises from learning how to look and see, schauen in German.

And the spectator suddenly remembers that in her native language the term for actor is Schauspieler, someone who plays to be looked at. The term for spectator is Zuschauer, a much more active word than spectator or onlooker; zu implies a movement towards, suggesting participation in what is being seen. The English place of action shifts in German to a place of seeing, a Schauplatz (the dramaturgical—and cultural—differences between German-and English-language theater surface in this subtle shift). Furthermore, the German word for square is Platz, place. For the patron of an outdoor cafe looking out on the piazza, it has already become a Schauplatz, a place to see. Transferred to the theater, there is no break in realities; they are contained in the same word. Handke doesn’t cheat when it comes to words. All the possibilities and limitations of any imaginative act, in this case a work for the theater, are already given in language. The “inner (imaginative) world” of the theatron—the theatrical space and its original function of presentation—merge with the “outer world” of the place of action and its function represented by the work. When Handke calls this work a Schauspiel, he means it, literally. It is a play of looking and seeing: what takes place.

Most figures entering this place are introduced as Einer als, literally “one as. …” The emphasis on the theatricality of the endeavor (there is always the actor entering as someone other than himself) is obvious. But Handke is far more consistent and rigorous in his honesty than that. The phrase also contains the original experience of seeing a stranger passing by in a square, and perceiving, imagining him as a certain person. At the same time it puts into question the possibilities of authenticating perception and—throwing the issue back to the theater—any attempt at authoritative “characterization.” The only figures who are directly introduced—e.g. a skateboarder, a jogger—are those who are identified simply by their activities. No further assumption is made about who they might be. The construction someone as is awkward in English, so in the translation the as often is replaced by a comma or a dash to indicate the moment of recognition.

A phrase often used in the text is im Ansatz (which has no English equivalent), meaning “only as a beginning,” not definite, not completely followed through. It points to the most difficult task for the director, who must introduce the figures as the personae described in the text and also leave them open enough to allow the spectator the imaginative process of seeing as. Handke's French translator once pointed out that his most recent prose works concern perception. No wonder he should return to theater, a medium in which the process of perception can be physically examined. His genius as a writer for theater has always manifested itself in his understanding and use of the stage as a model that makes visible. His plays, like all his texts, are not “about” something above and beyond themselves, they are; in the Wittgensteinian sense they are “pictures;” whatever is inside the picture shows, reveals itself through it; it cannot talk about itself in the language that constitutes it. “Do not betray what you have seen. Stay inside the picture,” says the “oracle” that introduces The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other—which Handke has invented, a modern oracle speaking of the limits and the power of language for those who have learned how to perceive it, be it as writer, reader or spectator.

Thus Handke's text isn’t merely a sequence of stage directions. Each passage contains a complete picture, an episode. The structure, rhythm, and tense chosen for each sentence, the pitch and tonality of each word also contain the movement of each scene fragment—that is, the movement not only as it happened, might have happened, or should happen on the stage but as it was perceived by the person watching. The sequence of details, the connections between two separate episodes, follow with painstaking precision the movement of an observing eye, which might first catch that someone’s hands are shackled and then that the person walks barefoot. In German, which allows the construction of many subclauses, each sequence is contained in a single sentence that moves on one breath, up and down a person, following around curves and corners, along circles, straight and zig zag lines, in leaps and bounds, at breathtaking speed, at a leisurely strolling pace, a jogger’s bounce, or a business-like gait. Magicians build their technique on playing games with the human eye. Those games are also a part of Handke's play with and of perceptions; they constitute an important—ancient—aspect of the language of the theater. Sometimes Handke seems to ask for impossible images, and, more practically speaking, impossible transitions and costume changes. But he isn’t telling us what to do, he is telling us what he sees. And what he is asking from a production, rather than literally to realize the impossible on stage, is to make us see the impossible. The English language reminds us that to realize also refers to seeing, to make real through the imaginative act of seeing.

Thomas H. Falk (review date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Die Theaterstücke, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, p. 604.

[In the following review, Falk assesses Die Theaterstücke and Handke's literary development.]

The meteoric ascent of the enfant terrible of the German literary establishment, Peter Handke, commenced in 1966. Only twenty-three years old in April of that year, he openly challenged the elite writers of Gruppe 47, then meeting at Princeton University. Their writing, he maintained, was an impotent literature of mere description; he would investigate all possibilities and types or forms of representing reality, contending that using the same form a second time would offer nothing new to the reader or audience, at best being a variation or unrealistic mannerism.

The iconoclast Handke now set off to demonstrate his revolutionary esthetic for the German theater. Not every play was totally successful, but audiences certainly took special note. Publikumsbeschimpfung was the much-debated sensation when it opened as the centerpiece of the “Experimenta 66” drama festival at Frankfurt’s Theater am Turm in June 1966. In subsequent years it seemed to be included in the repertory of most theater groups; the Forum Theater in Berlin, for example, performed it several thousand times in the next two decades.

In the fall of 1966 the Sprechstücke (speech plays) Weissagung and Selbstbezichtigung premiered at the Oberhausen Theater Festival. Here Handke created a “theater of immediacy” which concentrated on the theatrical event itself rather than offering a “theater of mediation” with a story, plot, or ideological message. Other Sprechstücke followed in rapid succession: Hilferufe at Oberhausen in 1967, Kaspar in 1968 and Das Mündel will Vormund sein in 1969, both at Frankfurt’s TAT, and Quodlibet in January 1970 at the Komödie in Basel.

Handke's initial investigation of the possibilities of the theatrical event was concluded with the highly successful and distinguished 1971 premier production of Der Ritt über den Bodensee, directed by Claus Peymann at Berlin’s Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer. Thus, in less than five years, the opponent of the naturalist theater tradition and Brecht’s epic theater demonstrated how language can actually establish law and order on spontaneity and illustrated how the theatrical event can make audiences “more attentive, keen on hearing, and wide awake.”

Having completed his linguistic and dramaturgic experiments in the early 1970s, Handke turned his attention in prose writing to an investigation of the conceivability of achieving self-realization in a society that is dominated by repression, habit, and a privation of true feelings. Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus premiered in 1974 in Zürich and concentrated on the mode of existence in an industrial society. Über die Dörfer, which was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1982 and directed by the filmmaker Wim Wenders, is a long “dramatic poem,” a mystery play with virtually no action. However, as compared to Strindberg’s Dream Play and Handke's prose works of that time, this drama is a document of a piety which attempts to survive and advance from a personal experience to a prophecy, “a moment of true feeling.”

The last two plays, Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land (1990) and Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wuβten (1992), premiered at Vienna’s distinguished Burgtheater with considerable acclaim. Handke seems to be returning to his earlier experiments in the theater, but now on a much more complex philosophical and sophisticated level worthy of a distinguished member of the German literary establishment. Readers and theatergoers can only anticipate further plays with great expectations from this “Ivory Tower Dweller.”

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Autumn 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Langsam im Schatten, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, p. 820.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of Langsam im Schatten.]

Peter Handke's most recent book, containing essays, speeches, reviews, and critical comments, is by no means a minor but a major work. Its richness, diversity, and depth confirm—differently yet almost more so than narrative prose publications of recent years—the author as one of the most interested, most informed, most concerned, most universal literary figures alive today. Needless to say, all these qualities mentioned are referred to as greatness when found in a writer. This assessment holds true all the more so when based on the reading of a collection of so-called peripheral or secondary works such as presented here, since subjective agreement or liking is not of the essence but much rather a growing awareness of where Handke's mind takes the reader. I, for one, could not imagine a guide I would follow more willingly if I were lost “in the dark forest” (and aren’t we all lost, more so than ever?).

Langsam im Schatten contains a good number of essays on various writers of various languages, most of them composed on the occasion of these very writers’ receiving the exclusive Petrarca Prize (awarded by a jury consisting of Alfred Kolleritsch, Michael Krüger, Peter Hamm, and Handke himself). The authors Philippe Jaccottet of France, Gustav Januš, a Slovenian poet whom Handke has translated into German, the Czech poet Jan Skácel, and the English-born writer John Berger figure among these recipients, and naturally Handke knows and reads their works (excluding Skácel) in their original languages. These essays (seeing them as mere lectures or laudatio texts would be grossly inappropriate), together with others on past writers such as the magnificent “Franz Grillparzer und der Clochard von Javel” or the pages (originally a French text written for Le Monde) on Adalbert Stifter or on the late Nicolas Born, are necessarily reprints of first publications in various media, most frequently from the German weekly Die Zeit. Only in their togetherness, however, can the spark ignite, and suddenly we are faced with one of the most complete poetics available from anyone writing today.

Handke never feeds his readers mere opinion or judgment; he takes them along on his adventures in reading and carefully develops whatever vision he presents. These poetics—I insist on the term—are always just and seeking the positive. Handke, quite alone amid a Kulturbetrieb of fads and fashions and the pleasure in playing down others’ works, exercises what I would call a healing if not redeeming hand. His text on Gerhard Meier (“Zeit für eure Toten”) or the small jewel “Über Lieblingswörter” may illustrate this contention. His Petrarca Prize speech on Gustav Januš, most amazingly, shows Handke speaking on the absurd contemporary German-language literary scene and the obscene ugliness of the critical press (we all know which German daily subtitles itself “Zeitung für Deutschland”) with a clarity and rage never found anywhere else. At moments the reader imagines this writer speaking with a “fiery biblical tongue,” so genuine is Handke's accusation, when he chooses, ever so rarely, to accuse.

The fourteen collected texts under the heading “Vom Übersetzen: Bilder, Bruchstücke”—Handke himself is a most distinguished translator from the English, French, ancient Greek, and Slovene languages—add to the aforementioned poetics and the most complete vision on art and life which Handke reveals in these collected works.

Finally, and equally important, Langsam im Schatten is, among many things, a wonderful rejection of the often-voiced opinion of Handke as being unpolitical, withdrawn, weltfremd in recent years. Such gossip is refuted by the book’s immensely contemporary, concerned, and political aspect. “Eine andere Rede über Österreich,” but most hauntingly “Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land,” where Handke voices his pain over the events in the former Yugoslavia and his utter disagreement with the new independent states of Slovenia and Croatia in the most intelligent, logical ways, are indeed ample proof that this author is, more so than most of us, part of our world and our times. This entire “world” package, moreover, is delivered in the most beautiful, impeccable German prose imaginable.

Richard Arthur Firda (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “New Prose: Meditative Fiction,” in Peter Handke, Twayne, 1993, pp. 121-41.

[In the following essay, Firda provides an overview of the major themes, narrative presentation, and artistic concerns in Der Chinese des Schmerzes, Die Wiederholung, Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, and Die Abwesenheit.]

Andreas Loser, the symbolic narrator-protagonist of Handke's 1983 novel Der Chinese des Schmerzes (Across) is a brooding, mediative teacher of classical languages at a school in the suburbs of Salzburg.1 Loser, as his name connotes in English translation, is an outsider and loner, a type familiar to readers of Angst and Stunde. Loser is also an amateur archeologist who spends his spare time uncovering historical and cultural artifacts. His specialty is finding thresholds of houses, churches, and temples in the vicinity of the city. He writes an occasional scholarly article on his researches for the Salzburg Yearbook for Regional Studies. Early in the text Loser explains that his passion for archeology and his unique approach to the study of ancient thresholds are a consequence of an observation once made to him by an older archeologist. This man told Loser that he only “wanted to find something, so that during our digs, I tried more to avoid what was there than what was not, no matter how it had ‘gone away.’ What was missing was in fact still there, either in ‘space’ or as an ‘empty form.’ In this way, I acquired skill in finding [thresholds], which are missed by trained archeologists” (Chinese, 24).

Handke's novel, 255 pages in its German edition, consists of three parts and a brief epilogue. Each part furthers the account of Loser’s spiritual and philosophical development as a “crosser of thresholds” and a storyteller, “threshold” signifying a moving over, a transition point, a rite of passage from personal isolation to social integration. Loser is his own narrator in the novel and is referred to by Handke as the “viewer” in each part title; he is initially depicted as a man in a state of existential suspension, a symbol of a contemporary Everyman whose fate has parabolic significance and narrative interest. As Renner states, “The story that Loser tells is not only his own, but is about the act of narration, too” (161).2 Loser’s storytelling in Chinese is thus intended by Handke as a confession of a life, as well as a way in which it can be told.

In the first part of the novel “Der Betrachter wird abgelenkt” (The Viewer is diverted), Loser is living alone in a functional suburban apartment, separated by choice from his wife and children. He is on a voluntary leave of absence from his teaching duties and spends a good amount of daylight time looking down onto the panorama of the landscape. Nature and objects interest him, and his nighttime reading of Virgil’s Georgics gives his “viewing” a purpose, focusing as it does on elements of nature. Virgil’s words and sentences bring Loser down to earth, into the realm of animals, horticulture, and the concrete details of life, those connections that Loser feels he has lost. Loser values Virgil’s account of the ancient world not only for the “living” adjectives that grace the poet’s nouns but also because he offers an accessible entry into another “story”: the one-on-one identity of the writing of poetry with things themselves. But Loser is also a connoisseur of privation; always aware of rifts and absences, he is a man who understands the fine distinction between “emptiness” and “being empty,” the latter being an “empty form.” In this sense, “being empty” affords Loser esthetic and spiritual possibilities: direct awareness of nature; insight into the naïveté of nature; and the recovery of a pastoral world in which civilization and nature are one internal experience (the classical dream of Arcadia). Hence Loser’s intense preoccupation with excavating and internalizing the threshold experience.

Handke points out, however, that Loser’s present reclusiveness began as a consequence of conflict between himself and the external world. As Loser recalls: “One afternoon in the Getreidegasse, less crowded than usual, a man overtook and ran into me. He turned toward a display window, and we both ran into one another. The truth is, this wasn’t a ‘real’ collision, since I could have stepped aside. I had given him a shove intentionally” (Chinese, 19).

Loser discovers within himself a facility for violence. This incident, however, occurring as it does on a not-so-busy street in Salzburg, is an acte gratuit, a gratuitous or inconsequential action performed on impulse, possibly to gratify a desire for sensation. It is the first of two such actions—the second happens in part 2—that lead to Loser’s insight that he is a “repository” of patent facts and unanswered questions. Loser is overcome by depression (Schwermut) over the incident in downtown Salzburg. He knows that his treatment of the stranger is morally suspect, and at the very least that he is someone vulnerable to becoming indiscriminately violent. Like André Gide’s young antihero Lafcadio in the novel Les Caves des Vatican (1924), Loser is willing to confront the fact of his impulsive action, but unlike Lafcadio, Loser moves at first into a state of moral and ethical indecision over the consequences of his act. He is not rendered entirely immobile by his action, however, and he ascribes his passivity to a state of “having time,” which he construes as a “state of grace.” In crossing this specific threshold Loser is neither guilty nor innocent, and Handke defers final judgment in this affair since Loser is destined to undergo another threshold crossing.

The second incident occurs in part 2, “Der Betrachter greift ein” (The Viewer takes action), during his walk to a monthly card game at the home of a friend on the Mönchsberg, mountains in the Salzburg environs. Loser picks up a stone and kills an old man who is busy painting a swastika on the trunks of birch trees. Loser’s discovery of the swastika had made him furious. The painted swastika for Loser symbolizes more than the survival of marginal politics, and certainly more than a prankster’s desecrating of the forest. Loser reflects that the swastika defines not only his special melancholy but all melancholy and artificiality in Austria (Chinese, 97). He must make a fast decision—another threshold crossing—and in doing so, he takes deadly aim at the head of the swastika painter. Handke, however, asks his reader to suspend credibility that Loser has committed murder, since Loser escapes an encounter with the law over the civil consequences of his act. While Handke does not ignore the legal or moral implications of what has transpired, he seems more interested in pointing out that the murder is carried out with a stone, not a gun or a knife. The episode, in fact, is an occasion for a visionary passage in which Handke transforms the setting of the murder (a forested, secluded area in the mountain) into a romantically inspired fantasy. For a moment, the killing is suspended between reality and esthetic feeling. Loser feels like an outcast, yet he is “transformed,” a witness to the world’s power and beauty. Strong wind on the mountain ushers in the “groaning” appearance of a “swan” flying above Loser and his victim. The scene is both magnificent and ambiguous (Chinese, 104). The murder of the swastika painter is placed by Handke in the context of spiritual and esthetic regeneration and thus becomes, through the image of the white swan, a positive sign, a symbol for Loser’s growth and change. Handke intends for the murder and its aftermath to function as a process of catharsis and regeneration. In this second key incident of the text Handke stresses the existentialist import of Loser’s act. In a 1987 interview with Herbert Gamper, Handke noted that Loser’s fury at the discovery of the swastika is not only anger at the continuous presence of past history in his homeland; for Loser the swastika is also a symbol of his personal depression (22). He has no other choice, he believes, but to kill the perpetrator. Loser finally throws the body over the mountain cliff, and for a moment, perhaps as a sign of “higher” justice, he is pulled downward with the falling body.

From this point on Loser is intensely preoccupied with the reconstruction of his life, an endeavor that requires both acknowledgment to himself that he is a murderer and the devising of a unique plan to reenter the world. He resolves to become a “listener” and attends carefully in part 2 to the wide-ranging explanations offered by his fellow cardplayers when, at the end of their game, the group is drawn by Loser into a discussion of “thresholds.” Loser is especially interested in the response of one cardplayer, a priest from whom he expects a moral and ethical exegesis on the pitfalls of crossing over onto the “wrong side.” The priest says no such thing, only noting that though religious tradition has little to say about thresholds as material objects, it does reflect on them as the symbolic passage from one “zone” to another. Thresholds, says the priest, exist in a state between waking and dreaming. Every threshold is both an instance of and an opportunity to achieve threshold consciousness. Finally, thresholds are a resource of inner powers for those who cross them. This episode is one of the most original and brilliant parts of the novel. Handke suggests that the priest’s ideas on thresholds are not entirely the author’s own thoughts; the priest refers to the ideas of an unnamed “modern teacher,” perhaps Heidegger (Chinese, 67).

Themes of rebirth and renewal are predominant in the third part, “Der Betrachter sucht einen Zeuger” (The Viewer seeks a witness). The epilogue’s closing image of Loser is no longer the mournful one of the “suffering Chinaman” alluded to several times in the text, and in the German title of the novel; now he is a contemplative and joyful man, standing on a bridge near his apartment, an observant figure watching the ebb and flow of daily life in Salzburg. The canal, the light, the willows will all “survive.” This final scene signifies both a spiritual and secular acceptance by Loser of the “real” world, however mundane or trivial it might be. Submission to the unnamed “giver,” however, is not achieved by Loser without struggle or cost, for at the beginning of the third part Loser is still depicted as a man living within the trauma of an experiential process. A crossing of thresholds has heightened Loser’s receptivity to change and metamorphosis, a process providing him insight that whatever was deadly or life-inhibiting within himself could be overcome.

Loser has lived between depression and cheerfulness. Reflecting that throwing a stone at the swastika painter marked the beginning of his own “death,” Loser, like Faust before his attempt at suicide, was plunged into another depression, fearful of dying without love or human contact (a witness). In an episode in part 3 reminiscent of Faust’s rebirth on Easter day, Loser is inspired by the sounds of ringing church bells inviting the citizens of Salzburg to celebrate the Easter feast. Loser is impelled to make a physical journey of renewal that includes visits to people and places bound to the shards of his former life. This journey not only bears witness to a previously unfulfilled life; it is also a seeking of witnesses—that is, a search for people who will listen to his story, the parts of which Loser is careful to recall in the right order. Loser, whose story is finally a meditative threshold story, and whose identity as a human being merges into that of a parabolic storyteller, begins to retrace his steps at the city airport, which is revealed as a barren place except for Loser’s unplanned sexual encounter. He visits his senile mother, an encounter that forces him to reassess their relationship. He makes an ex tempore flight to Italy and visits Virgil’s birthplace in Mantua; there he searches for the geographical sources of places mentioned in Georgics. He returns eventually to his teaching career. His principal cites Loser’s eccentricity and deviation from the norm as the reasons for his popularity with students. Most important, Loser visits his wife and children, but he moves among them only as a familiar face and a tolerated occasional visitor. He wins anew the respect of his son, who, when he hears his father’s story, is incredulous. The son relates to the meaning of his father’s rebellion: the redefinition of personal values and the rebirth of identity. Both Loser and his family are comfortable with this confession that portends hope and redirection. The final image of Loser in the epilogue, standing on a bridge, is thus an apt symbol to close with inasmuch as it portrays the dual functions of Loser as a doer and an observer. Doing and observing have coalesced at a transition point, at a threshold, strongly denoting that Loser might move in one of two directions; but he has learned to stop and reflect, to gather himself.

Chinese is clearly a novel that challenges conventional morality and ethics through its implied defense of heightened experience, but the finality of such a judgment is obviated through Handke's convincing portrait of a man in spiritual and existential crisis; or, as Renner has noted, the reader is confronted with the “apotheosis of the storyteller,” who, as it turns out, is equally the center of philosophical probity in the novel (172).


Handke continues his self-revelation in Die Wiederholung (Repetition), a 1986 text that expands the autobiographical themes first adumbrated in Brief,Unglück, and the Heimkehr tetralogy.3 These earlier works contain relevant details about the writer’s birthplace in Altenmarkt, the painful and agonizing trauma of economic privation, and, finally, the lingering specter of recent Austrian political history. Within this context of the unresolved cultural and social problems Handke is now integrating into the narrative structures of his recent fiction stands the question of ethnic identity. As an Austrian citizen of Slovene ancestry, Handke treats cultural issues related to home, family, and language. In Wiederholung Filip Kobal (the author’s mask), now a much older man, tells of a 1960 trip to Jesenice, a neighboring Slovene city, to search for his missing brother, Gregor. His classmates had set out for Greece, but Gregor went off to Yugoslavia by himself. Since he came from a bilingual area of southern Carinthia, he felt he had an excuse to cross the border.

Filip was searching for clues about his lost brother, but the facts about his brother’s disappearance were scarce. There were only the family’s memories, encompassing both reality and fiction, in which the truth was hidden by an adoring mother and a dour father in his role as a cruel paterfamilias. Gregor, about 20 years older than Filip, was once an agricultural student in Maribor, the capital city of neighboring Slovenia, the Yugoslavian republic south of Austrian Carinthia. Slovenia, with its own language and distinct culture, is regarded as the ancestral and linguistic home of those Austrians “confined” to Carinthia under the exigencies of twentieth-century European history. Slovenia and Carinthia once shared a common destiny under the hegemony of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. We learn that at the beginning of World War II Gregor was inducted into the Austrian army but went AWOL, probably to join a group of antifascist partisans. Filip, after graduating from a Gymnasium in Klagenfurt, decides only later to search for his missing brother, a quest that begins with little more than Gregor’s student copybook containing notes on horticulture and a Slovene-German dictionary. A genealogical and linguistic trek into the interior of neighboring Slovenia develops into a leading motif of Handke's book. Wiederholung emulates the framework of a bildungsroman, if only for its obvious borrowing of the prototypical protagonist’s journey into a wider world. In Wiederholung this is a journey into the meaning and pattern of ethnicity, Gregor’s family history, and the art of living itself.4 Feelings, thoughts, and memory—25 years have passed for the middle-aged narrator of Wiederholung—are the devices through which Handke develops the narrative. The style of the narrative is rhapsodic and epiphanal, secular and religious, singular and simultaneous in the expression of emotions and feelings, and never straightforward chronologically. For Filip, however, the quality of memory becomes most important, remembering being a more exacting activity than random thinking. Memory, he notes, is “work” and as such situates experience in a definite sequence. It is because of memory that Filip the older man can tell the story of his search.

In the first part, “Das blinde Fenster” (The Blind window), the narrator as a young man crosses the border between his country and Yugoslavia. The journey brings to mind the extended memory of local schools, the village of Rinkenberg, conditions in his father’s home, and his estranged feeling that he was not what he “purported to be,” that he was “only pretending” to be a viable part of village and family life. Part 1 sets the background and explains why Filip Kobal is the author’s ideal figure to begin this special journey into the linguistic and cultural elements of his ethnic past. The narrator reveals that his mother was a woman whom he remembers as a busy, running figure in the kitchen, where she showed her skills as a housewife; but she daringly intervened to save him from the tyranny of classmates and teachers at the Gymnasium as well as at the seminary. Handke includes an autobiographical episode in Wiederholung, told through his narrator. Filip recalls an especially mean encounter with a seminary teacher (without religious orders) who tried to define his young student and protect him from the mark of academic mediocrity: “I was driven to break the picture [das Bild] he had conceived of myself. I wanted to retreat, as I had hidden for sixteen years” (Wiederholung, 36).

Filip, gradually becoming an outsider in the village, haunts the streets and places where he can revel in his anonymity, longing for contact with buses, trains, and stations. His restlessness is reflected in, if not supported by, the discovery that his parents, like himself, were village “strangers.” This is a judgment, however, that the parents have made of themselves. Filip recalls the aberrant behavior of these self-styled exiles, with their brooding and fits of melancholia, as the result of a combination of factors—chiefly, those events surrounding the execution of a rebel Slovenian ancestor, the emigration of others into Austria, and the effect of this episode on Filip’s father. His father was obsessed by the execution and the forced emigration, which accounted for the family’s poverty, unemployment, and homelessness. Filip’s mother, taking her cue from her husband’s indignities over the course of his life in the Austrian village of Rinkenberg, lives with the dream that her two sons might reclaim “their place” in the southwest, over the border, though Filip notes that she never made a trip to Yugoslavia. Place names and ethnic conflicts over the years become lyrically and mythically embellished in young Filip’s imagination. He admits that the essence of modern Slovenia lies somewhere between his parents’ stories and those several letters from his brother in the years between the wars. Filip faults his father’s inability to live peacefully and harmoniously with himself and his family; this is an additional reason for Filip to search for a solution to the riddle of his marginal life at home and in the village. At best, Filip can only dream of a family reunion in the dark, Rinkenberg living room, with his brother reappearing in tears but thankful for his family’s lingering affection. This dream seems to be the prime reason behind young Filip’s decision to cross the Austrian border and begin his odyssey into the Slovene interior, a trip that is as yet neither defined nor clearly explicated. He finds inspiration, however, in a “blind window” set in a wall of the local train station, from which he departs for his short journey over the frontier. The window not only reminds him of the lost eye suffered by Gregor during a failed bout with ophthalmic fever but seems to him a portent of other “blind windows” that will accompany him as “objects of research” and “signposts” in the recovery of his past.

The full meaning of the second part’s title, “Die leeren Viehsteige” (The Empty cow paths), is revealed only at its end. In Jesenice, Filip finds the Slovene world awash with details of life presented to him as signs joining to form legible writing (Wiederholung, 114). If this is Handke's language to indicate that Filip, like the author, is preoccupied with the perception of signs and names, then Filip’s first hours are a deciphering, a “reading” of cultural differences between life in Austria and Yugoslavia. He feels that he has lived for almost 20 years in a country without a definite identity. On the other hand, Yugoslavia did not claim him for compulsory schooling or military draft. This was the land of his ancestors, and he therefore embraces it freely. Filip feels free because he is finally “stateless” (Wiederholung, 119).

Filip’s first morning in Jesenice is suffused not only with the rosy glow of youthful, impulsive sensation but with a feeling of liberation, which he ascribes to an unbelabored experience of congruence, to the simultaneity of two activities that are each voluntarily offered and accepted. Serendipity characterizes congruence, Filip notes, along with an absence of appraisal and judgment by the cultural majority. People on the street in Jesenice are, like Filip himself, “kingless and stateless,” members of a race of journeymen and hired hands. Pedestrians and objects suit one another. He breathes anew. He gets a second wind, an ability to “read” a Slovene newspaper whose headlines, he notices, are pure news, the opposite of his German-language newspaper back home. And he even understands the conversation of people around him (Wiederholung, 132).

Filip is thus not tempted to return to Austria on the morning train. Instead he buys a ticket to the southwest, the Bohinj region of legend and the subject of his mother’s prayers. There he goes to a hamlet named, appropriately, Pozabljeno (“the forgotten place,” or “the place of forgetfulness”). His being left alone is natural and of little consequence. He has his privacy.

Filip begins the job of reading and deciphering Gregor’s copybook and German-Slovene dictionary. In translating Slovene words from Gregor’s copybook, Filip moves from “blind reading” to “sighted reading,” a transference first into imagery and then into words, especially when Gregor’s way of explaining a simple matter leads him to imagine a tale out of fiction, a story of a hero’s attachment to a place. The memory of his brother’s “airy radiance” as opposed to his mother’s “heaviness” reveals Filip’s adulation and near worship of his brother. Filip’s discovery of the Slovene dictionary becomes an icon of his Bohinj stay and contributes to his understanding of the people and culture of that region, especially in their specificity and ahistoricity—timeless, yet living in seasonal time. Filip finds that the Slovene language has only a few borrowed words for war and authority, whereas his native German has many. Slovene excels, too, in the construction of diminutives. The Slovene dictionary is a portal into Filip’s memory of village life in Rinkenberg. Words in the dictionary communicate images of the long-forgotten childhood landscape: animals, food, grass, and trees. These words also give Filip “images of the world” for which actual experience is not a necessity. A world takes shape around any random word from the dictionary, such as a chestnut husk, or even the words for tobacco left in a pipe. Other words create circles and images from ancient times—that is, the era of Orpheus.

Wiederholung suggests that, for Filip, Gregor’s copybook, especially his dictionary, is an illuminating text allied to a special law of writing, evoking the breath of life. Specific words from the language of the Slovenes are signs or emblems of universal experience. Slovene words (Gregor’s words) free Filip from melancholy and depression. They are therapeutic. The dictionary teaches Filip that there is a word for everything and every situation. The copybook is likewise an educational device, containing the notes of a man about to embark on a project similar to Filip’s: research, reflection and mediation. The copybook, Filip notes early on, resembles a bildungsroman in instructing the reader on the cultivation and husbandry of apple trees. Gregor’s metaphors and allusions to human growth in the care of fruit trees actually relate to stages of the human condition. The story of a particular fruit orchard (described in Gregor’s copybook) is in fact Gregor’s in Rinkenberg, and it reveals Gregor as Filip’s doppelgänger in seeking wisdom for the meaning and pattern of life.

In the Bohinj, the dictionary as a revelatory text mystically directs Filip’s eyes toward the southern chain of mountains and an adjacent slope of pasture laced with “empty cow paths.” These cow paths, so integral a part of the regional rural landscape, inspire Handke to meditate on the symbolism of emptiness and annihilation, the image of a migration of unnamed people and animals reaching back to the origins of time. Now the cow paths lead to nowhere. As “stairs” they remain unused. Young Filip mourns and grieves, and he “reads” the paths as a metaphor linked to his missing brother, whose disappearance symbolizes the absence of all those who can no longer speak or even write with words.

In the last part of the novel, “Die Savanna der Freiheit und das neunte Land” (The Savannah of freedom and the ninth country), Filip is in the final stage of his genealogical and linguistic journey. This is played out in the coastland area of the Karst, a Slovene landscape that is physically and geographically similar to Gregor and Filip’s native village. The Karst is an archaic region. Its utilitarian simplicity is reflected in the style of its people and the architecture of their dwellings. Household furniture and implements teach Filip the heritage of his ancestors. The most outstanding image (and discovery) for Filip in the Karst, however, occurs in the context of a metaphorical vision. Believing himself lost in the wilderness, Filip arrives at the edge of a dolina, a deep recession in the earth. This bowl-shaped hole is lined with terraces covered with small fields and gardens being worked by an entire population. Their work is slow and graceful; the sound of a hoe working the ground characterizes and defines the Karst (Wiederholung, 287).

For Filip, this image is sensual to the point of rapture, a vision simultaneously of continuity and renewal on the one hand and a goal to strive for on the other. Filip comes to the point when he must admit that his motives for coming to Slovenia and the Karst were many, among them, to fulfill the gaps in his ancestral memory and earn the respect of his forebears. The meaning of Gregor’s passage through Slovenia becomes clearer to Filip. Here Handke shifts thematic direction on the unsuspecting reader, who, still concerned that Filip’s trip into the Slovenian interior may uncover traces of the missing brother, will have failed to notice that Filip has found the true object of his quest. He perceives that the best way to preserve his brother’s memory is not to “find” him but to tell a story about him.5 Filip will become a writer, a creator of word images. And the meaning of one of Gregor’s last letters to his family, sent from the World War II front, is also clarified—namely, that access to the Ninth Country, the legendary country of Slovenia and the collective ancestral goal of the Kobal family in Austria, can be gained through writing and through storytelling. Filip has found his vocation: he will be a storyteller. “Story,” says the middle-aged narrator at the end of the novel, “[is] the most spacious of all vehicles and heavenly chariots. Eye of my story, become my reflection” (Wiederholung, 333). Filip prays as an adoring worshiper before the statue of the storyteller’s muse. Had Filip chosen not to search for Gregor, the art of storytelling would never have changed the course of his life. Filip never finds Gregor in the Karst or in the whole of Slovenia. Only the letters of his name survive, carved into the face of a school chapel, a not insignificant reminder that Gregor, too, “passed” through the city of Maribor on a journey of self-discovery and revelation.


Both the title and content of Handke's 1987 novella Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers (The Afternoon of a Writer) allude to the American short story “Afternoon of an Author,” written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1936.6 “Author” is a fictional account of a day in Fitzgerald’s creative life, from morning to early evening. Arthur Mizener says that “Author” is a late work and that Fitzgerald makes the “tension of his feelings” the central focus of the reader’s interest (Mizener, 11). These tensions, it turns out, are strikingly similar to those of the writer-protagonist in Handke's book, a text actually dedicated to Fitzgerald. A key question in both texts is, How does a writer achieve sustenance and balance in the slippery relationship between life and art? For Fitzgerald, there is a writer’s ironic but “unquestioned acceptance of what he and his world are and an acute awareness of what they might be and, indeed, in some respects at least once were” (Mizener, 10). Handke's unnamed writer (probably Handke himself) is a European living in an unidentified European city that resembles Salzburg. Fitzgerald’s setting is Baltimore, near the campus of Johns Hopkins University. Both Fitzgerald’s story and Handke's novella track a complicated set of feelings and perceptions that mark the creative paths of their protagonists. Right at the start, both Handke's and Fitzgerald’s writers are confronted with a dilemma that reflects upon their future ability to continue writing. For Fitzgerald’s protagonist, “the problem was a magazine story that had become so thin in the middle that it was about to blow away. The plot was like climbing endless stairs, he had no element of surprise in reserve, and the characters who started so bravely day-before-yesterday couldn’t have qualified for a newspaper serial” (Mizener, 178). And for Handke's: “Didn’t the problem found in his craft parallel that of his existence, that he could not be consistent and disciplined? That is, a problem not of ‘I’ as a writer but rather, ‘the writer as I’” (Nachmittag, 5–6).

The two writers both stop working in early afternoon. Handke's protagonist declares that the day’s work has gone well; he can thus leave his house with a safe professional conscience. He hopes that a walk will open up his senses to sounds and sights, in short, bring about a restoration of the business of living. Fitzgerald’s author tears up everything he has written after “redlining good phrases in red crayon” (Mizener, 178)—there will be, he declares, no more writing today. Both men have a plan for their outing, and as Handke and Fitzgerald point out, that plan seems to validate an escape into the outside world, the realm of life beyond the seclusion of the writer’s study. Handke's writer will walk down a stairway into the city, then return to the suburbs. Fitzgerald’s character simply boards a city bus, from which there is much to see: a football field, pedestrian traffic, the entrance into downtown Baltimore. He will go to a hotel barbershop, and to that end he leaves home with a bottle of shampoo ointment in his hand.

A primary question for Handke, however, is whether his writer will gain anything from this decision to establish contact with life, whether it be crossing a bridge, eating a meal in a restaurant, or reading a postcard from a “lost” friend in America. He tries to overcome his basic fear that writing and the writer are anachronistic relics of twentieth-century culture. Observation and intuition emerge in Handke's text as the strongest tools of the writer’s vocation, and they are conveyed in several detailed encounters that the writer has with the “real” world, actual or imagined, fateful meetings between the creative personality and its fragile vision of the “other” environment. This vision, though eccentric, is shown to be relevant to the writer’s solitary life. Connections between life and art are made. For example, the squares of the unnamed European city, which Handke's writer is shown entering from the back, are a metaphor for the structural features of his writing. The texture and the composition of the squares are what intrigues him; he sees what the average viewer cannot discern. Their parts mirror the elements of his prose. Once he perceives this correspondence, however, he starts to run: “Even though the square [he had just crossed] was near the river and in the lowest area of the city, he made a diagonal as though it was a high plateau” (Nachmittag, 28). Reading a city paper, with the jealousy and feuding between critics and writers on its arts pages, is disorienting and depressing. Though the writer has now retreated from open controversy, relying on his own strength, the newspaper brings back the memory of his apprentice years as a younger writer.

Handke next sets his writer down on a crowded downtown street, in the midst of Christmas shoppers. The bends and turns of this street (Trossgasse) move along with the stream of perceptions that flows into the mind of the writer-protagonist. The street is not a guarantor of anonymity, and he tries to avoid recognition; yet he looks into bookstore windows to spot his books. He feels assaulted by stares from the public, since he embodies what it hates: dreams, writing, disagreement, and, finally, art. He is cornered into giving a stranger an autograph, an act he resents because it compels him to play the part of a writer. Any similar episode denoting confrontation or antagonism between the writer and his public is missing from Fitzgerald’s story, which conveys only a hint that the author questions the earlier adulation of the critics about his writing, who said that his artistic viability was “indefatigable” and therefore his writing career seemed full of promise (Mizener, 181). In fact, Fitzgerald’s protagonist, in contrast to Handke's, avoids bitterness when he reflects on the real state of his affairs. The reader’s walk with Handke's writer, on the other hand, seems like a stroll with a misanthropic bachelor who is ready for a confrontation over any imagined slight. Given the opportunity to begin again, there would be no more photographs, or even autographs, for the adoring public.

As an examination of the processes of artistic creativity, Nachmittag reveals that both the artist and the nonartist depend on experience, that both use experience as a primary point of departure. For the artist, however, experience is then transformed into the stuff of art, which is abetted by observation, intuition, and the related necessities of “namelessness” and “isolation” (Nachmittag, 49). A key comment in Handke's text is that loneliness and anonymity are catalysts to creativity (Nachmittag, 55). Nameless “things” can be reduced (as they often are) to bare objects and a sense of emptiness, even after the writer’s experience in the real world. Emptiness teaches the writer-artist that it is a source of inner richness and esthetic plenitude, the wellspring of true creative renewal. (Handke espouses similar ideas about the origins of artistic inspiration in Chinese.)

Nachmittag includes a telling episode set in a suburban bar. The writer decides to go there before he retires for the night. A drunk, suspecting that the writer is scarcely listening to him and that the writer is a “fraudulent” outsider in this environment, is almost successful in making the writer question his “business”—that is, he nearly gains an admission from the writer that he is a failure in the social community. The drunk calls him a liar and a weakling, words with which the writer seems to agree, for they appear to be true. This is a splendid opportunity for the writer to pity his abused and misunderstood state and to relish his morbidity. This incident is echoed in another key dialogue of the text, one between the writer and his translator, an elderly man who has come to the city to confer on a problem of translation. In a peculiar turn of events, the translator seizes the occasion to confess that, in years gone by, he had the wisdom to abandon plans to become a writer. Unlike a writer, he notes, a translator “knows he will be needed by society. Therefore I have lost any anxiety. … I have become relaxed in a superficial way. When I cover up your ‘wound’ as well as I can, I’m also hiding my own” (Nachmittag, 81–82). Handke's writer not only understands but assimilates the messages behind the translator’s speech.

After returning home, the writer wonders whether the experiences of his enervating walk were reality or hallucination. He feels as if he has been engaged in a personal battle with the outside world, yet he goes to bed intending to reclaim himself for the next day: “I began as a narrator. Endure. Let things be. Let them matter. Transmit. Let me be the craftsman of the most sensitive materials” (Nachmittag, 90–91). These affirming words answer those unsettling doubts that earlier challenged the stability of the writer’s vocation: he accepts his original decision to be a writer; he agrees to let the outside world go about its business; he has his place and a role in society. He manages to connect his art to his life. Fitzgerald’s writer, on the other hand, returns home from his excursion with a lesser sense of artistic and cultural mission. Fitzgerald says of him, “He needed reforestation and he was well aware of it, and he hoped the soil would stand one more growth. It had never been the very best soil for he had an early weakness for showing off instead of listening and observing … he was quite tired—he would lie down for ten minutes and see if he could get started on an idea in the two hours before dinner” (Mizener, 182).

Confrontation, bitterness, and paranoia can be the writer’s fate, but they are burdens that Handke's writer accepts in his persona as a hermetic, obsessed creature. For a solitary craftsman, there exists a singular reward. This reward, however, is centered on the answers found to those mysteries generated in a writer’s study whenever he begins to write. “Readership, a public, and public attention seem violations, embarrassments, beside the point,” noted John Updike when he reviewed Handke's novella. Aptly commenting on its implications for the writer’s craft, he added, “The Mysteries the writer nurtures in his or her study are beyond explaining. … The writer’s artifacts are like shoes that disdain actual feet.”7


The short text Die Abwesenheit (1987; Absence) is subtitled “A Fairy Tale,” the only one of Handke's prose writings with this distinction.8 Thematically, Abwesenheit is a meditative, philosophical tale that offers an Eastern solution to Western problems of aberration and social estrangement. In this sense, Abwesenheit is linked to Handke's other texts that focus on contemporary isolation and separation. Generically, Abwesenheit brings to mind the fairy-tale collections of the Brothers Grimm and related tales (Kunstmärchen) written by Ludwig Tieck, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Clemens Brentano, German romantics of the early nineteenth century. In its standard form, the German fairy tale contains experiences bordering on the supernatural and motifs of magic, metamorphosis, and witchcraft. They usually have a happy ending in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished. The primary setting of Handke's modern fairy tale is an unnamed European city from which four characters make a common journey to a desertlike plateau, “an oval reaching out to the horizon … its own kingdom, separated from reality, not a mere landscape, but a unique country, a continent above our continent” (Abwesenheit, 121). Journeys, dreams, and wanderings through paradisiacal landscapes are other common characteristics of the German fairy tale, yet these same devices have also been assimilated into Eastern fairy tales in which such traveling is often synonymous with inner development or spiritual roaming. The Eastern traveler becomes an adept, a potential disciple, and is accompanied through a higher world by a practitioner of mythic realization. The magician figure of the German (i.e., the Western) fairy tale thus becomes the wordless sage in the Eastern one. At the conclusion of their common adventures, the Eastern sage may abandon his disciple, leaving little trace of himself behind. Their journey finished, the sage intentionally dissolves the pupil-teacher relationship.

One can only speculate on the literary sources of Abwesenheit, but the text is preceded and concluded by two short excerpts from the writing of the Chinese Taoist master Chuang-tzu, from the fourth century B.C. His work is a sophisticated yet practical commentary on Lao-tzu, the patriarch of Taoism whose teachings (unlike Chuang-tzu’s) focused on the role of the Tao (the Way) in civil government. The singular message of the first excerpt relates to the central theme of Handke's book: “A horse of the kingdom—his qualities are complete. Now he looks anxious, now to be forgetting himself. Such a horse prances along, or pushes on spurning the dust and now knowing where he is.”9

This short parable says much about Taoism. According to Chuang-tzu, the “perfect horse” is the “perfect Taoist,” who is attuned to the Way and moves with the “imperceptible” and the “indiscernible,” accepting both the invisibility and the latent particularity of the Way. Abwesenheit proposes at the very least a similar religious or philosophical thought—namely, that man must learn to interact with the universe, which, in turn, contains a society functioning within a cyclical movement of time, rhythm, and the law of return. These fundamental Eastern (Taoist) concepts define the structure and meaning of Handke's book. All four parts demonstrate, in this sense, wider aspects of Eastern religious teachings; it is possible, however, to read Handke's text within Taoist terms alone.

The four characters in Abwesenheit are generic figures who typify segments of twentieth-century social and cultural alienation: an old man, a young woman, a soldier, and a gambler. The old man views the outside world with indifference; he lives in a sanatorium for the elderly. He is literally an observer and recorder of exterior activity: he spends days looking out the window of his room and encoding images, using mysterious symbols and signs, in a book. The young woman is also engaged in writing a book. She is imagined by the reader as defiant and despairing, a combatant, perhaps, for self-identity. Her lover has called her a bundle of contradictions and claims that she has no response to anything other than themselves, that she is unresponsive to work, nature, or history. He has accused her of being obsessed with love and thus failing to see that even lovers need something other than themselves. Introduced next in the first chapter of the text is the soldier, an unhappy man who is clearly in the wrong profession. In the text he is the subject of a stinging, vindictive attack by his mother who, on the point of his returning to duty, says that she had always hoped for a “different” son, a different person: “Instead of becoming someone else, you’re more removed than you ever were. After all this time in the service, you haven’t got any award. You have never claimed your ‘place,’ either in the military or anywhere. Your comrades treat you as though you were only air. Nobody looks at you” (Abwesenheit, 30–31). Finally, the gambler is introduced. He may be an “artist” at gambling, but he is so dependent on being “alert” that he is never, paradoxically, anywhere. He longs to begin a new life, to feel and grieve the loss of love, to know true danger.

These strangers will board a common train in the middle of the city. What they share is a sense of deeply felt exclusion in an interventionist society. Their community functions beyond the pale of the Taoist ideal, the ideal of the unselfconscious symbiosis of a society attuned to the cycles and rhythms of nature. Handke's characters in Abwesenheit choose to flee their society rather than remain; they opt for the life of the adept and the spiritual adventure into the unknown. They choose to renounce contrivances set up by their society for acceptance and recognition. The young girl gives up a lover, the soldier the ideal of military heroism. The gambler stops a roll of the dice before he joins the others on a special train for people like himself, emigrants from the culture, even pilgrims.

In the second chapter of Abwesenheit the old man, in his slowly emerging role as Chuang-tzu’s prophetic sage and teacher, offers an interesting parable to the assembled group on the “identity” of names and places. The theme of his parable relates to the unnamed destination of their unique journey. The landscape outside the train is increasingly charged with physical change and transformation—desert becoming forest, built-up cities, and abandoned roadsides. The landscape changes into cultivated land, the sea, and high mountains, all of which represent the visible world. Place names, the old man says, are only “apparently” real; they are temporary tags given by man to both real and fictional places in the present and past. The old man notes the unknown countries that must have existed, whose only reality was the name indicating their direction: north, south, east, west. Atlantis disappeared and became part of a legend. History, civilization, and cultures, the old man suggests, exist at the pleasure of the moment: “But I continue to believe that places have their own power. Those are places that are small, not large. They are unknown, abroad and at home. They have no name, distinguished only by their having nothing. Those places have power because nothing is there anymore. I believe in oases of emptiness” (Abwesenheit, 82).

Such an argument not only alludes to the spiritual nature of the group’s train journey into “emptiness”—or the nonspecificity of destination—but suggests that an empty place portends fullness. It is enough for an adept to have simply been “there” rather than “here.” The journey of the group is from “here” to “there.” Names and places are temporal, and in the Eastern religious concept of the universe, nothing is static. Change “there” is an illusion, and as the old man reminds the young woman, her wish to stay somewhere forever is an impossible one, for there is no permanence in fulfillment, here or anywhere. The old man’s point is, once again, that the fundamental nature of the universe is to avoid stability, that creation is renewal, a generative urge to shape and transform. The enigmatic meaning behind Handke's title Abwesenheit becomes clearer for the reader: in Taoism absence is a relative word, not a true opposite of fulfillment; it denotes fulfillment or a potential for fulfillment. This idea also seems to be suggested in a closing image of the second chapter—namely, the group’s arrival (on foot) at a military cemetery that “magically” appears as an element of the shifting landscape. Over the grave of each soldier is a marble slab with a name and the word present. Here life and death are not in opposition but merely two sides of the same reality. Man is no exception to this rule of duality. Soon after this encounter, the group leaves the flat plain and climbs to the threshold of a vast plateau, where a further stage of their spiritual journey will continue to unfold.

This is the group’s entry into a chimerical, illusory country. It seems to be a place of prehistorical beginnings as well as a place for the burial of cultures, an area of anticipation betraying shards of man’s past history. The area is described by the group leader as the goal, the ultimate destination of the journey. The presence of life in this land is nevertheless an illusion, for it is the stuff of man’s dreams and the instigator of “deceptive” images and perceptions. The old man intimates that if the group is “new” to this place, they are not strangers to it, since it defined them as “wanderers” in the conventional world. As “readers” they were “dreamers” and perpetual outsiders for whom this land was a goal (Abwesenheit, 134). Here Handke follows the Taoist precept that books finally fail to articulate and express the adept’s (and the teacher’s) felt desire for the achievement of mystic unity. Sages, even sustaining Taoist masters, prefer to teach through example and oral preaching. The old man decides to hide his “accursed notebook,” the arcane listing of symbols and ciphers he was compiling in the city before he undertook this journey. He leaves the group, retreating into the desert, into silence, the “source of images” (Abwesenheit, 179). Writing failed him in his effort to apply his insights to spiritual teaching. This is a reference to the Taoist teaching that the unity within the flow of life is impossible to learn as public, systematized knowledge. This sentiment is noted in a key line of Handke's text, when the old man says of himself that only in being alone did things become significant and communicable. The old man’s abandonment of the group, however, leaves them to their own devices as they make their way back to the European city. The soldier especially mourns the loss of a leader who led him like a magician into a “labyrinth,” the bearer of false information (Abwesenheit, 217). Within the context of Eastern mysticism, however, the labyrinth may be understood as a metaphor for the soul’s wandering, its longing for perfect unity.

The group’s journey, though in its final stages of realization, will last another year. Through consensus, the group will search for its absent leader. They will find his missing notebook, whose location is revealed to the young soldier in a dream, and they will attempt to decipher it. In Eastern religious and spiritual fables, an adept often begins his search for a divine teacher in a great country, enters a barren wilderness, and moves from there into the void, where he discovers that the teacher is within his head. The missing sage of Handke's fairy tale is of that very special class. He has turned invisible owing to his perfect evolution as a great teacher, and he gives the group the unfettered gift of spiritual liberty, which is a central theme of Abwesenheit. They are unburdened of estrangement and alienation. An excerpt from a text by Chuang-tzu concludes Handke's book: “Man’s life between heaven and earth is like a white colt dropping into a crevasse and suddenly disappearing. … Suppose we try to roam about in the palace of Nowhere, where all things are one” (Manheim, 119). Abwesenheit is an invitation to the reader to undertake such a journey under magical, fabulous auspices into a spiritual realm.


  1. Der Chinese des Schmerzes (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983); hereafter cited in text as Chinese.

  2. Renner’s chapter on Chinese is basic to my reading of Handke's novel.

  3. Die Wiederholung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986); hereafter cited in text as Wiederholung.

  4. David Pryce-Jones, review of Die Wiederholung, New York Times Book Review, 7 August 1988. The word bildungsroman is used by Filip in Wiederholung.

  5. Ralph Sassone (“Brotherland,” Village Voice, 14 June 1988) suggests that Wiederholung is ultimately as much Gregor’s story as it is his brother’s.

  6. Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers (Salzburg: Residenz, 1987); hereafter cited in text as Nachmittag. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Afternoon of an Author,” in Afternoon of an Author: A Selection of Unpublished Stories and Essays, ed. Arthur Mizener (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 177–82; hereafter cited in text as Mizener.

  7. John Updike, review of Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, New Yorker, 25 December 1989, 108.

  8. Die Abwesenheit: Ein Märchen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987); hereafter cited in text as Abwesenheit. Märchen translates as “fairy tale.”

  9. Absence, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), v; hereafter cited in text as Manheim.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 16 September 1994)

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 16 September 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, in Times Literary Supplement, September 16, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, the critic offers an unfavorable assessment of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.]

Edinburgh audiences have long since realized that the centre of energy and the avant-garde on the European stage is in non-scripted and often non-verbal performance. It is a lesson that could have been learned in recent Festivals from, for example, Els Comediants, or Teatr Nowy and a whole range of other Polish companies, or from the Compagnie Jerome Duchamps or any other of the former students of Jacques Lecoq’s theatre school performing on Festival or Fringe. The director of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, Luc Bondy, is one of these former students, also at one time much interested in Polish theatre. It is a background which no doubt helps him to cope with a stage-manager’s nightmare, a sixty-four-page script containing nothing but stage directions. Bondy managed to translate it into a beautiful, often absorbing spectacle on the huge stage of Edinburgh’s new Festival Theatre—big enough to contain what the programme triumphantly claims is “life … in all its infinite variety, joy, pathos, bathos, and despair”, presented by a cast of thirty-three who people the stage “in several hundred varieties of humanity”.

“There is no plot”, it adds, not quite accurately. A sand-coloured curtain swirls over the fore-stage to suggest the passage of time; characters who reappear usually do so aged and decayed; the action builds to a kind of apocalypse which provides the only moment any sense of community seems to exist on the stage, as though only ultimate disaster could create one. But in general, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is like a more than usually plotless Jacques Tati film. The characters who walk, cycle, jog, stagger or strut across a set loosely suggestive of a seaside town-square engage in inconsequential, cryptic, habitual or amusing action—occasionally, interaction—which sometimes build to a momentary climax but more often not. Even the set, like a Magritte painting, seems to represent several landscapes at once, the house at one side representing in quick succession a brothel, a hotel, a café, a barracks; eventually producing a trotting elephant back-projected on one of its previously solid-seeming walls.

Indeterminacy and disconnection is all. That curtain sweeps across like a caress; like a hand across sand, rubbing out any shapes that may have begun to form. Puzzled spectators may use the only fragment of text available, the title, to reflect that the characters on stage are apparently as randomly assembled as the audience, and as ignorant of each others’ lives as its members are of their fellows—a suggestion emphasized by the spotlit mirror which shines into the auditorium at one point. Or they are obliged to consider a stage—or a world—in which knowing or the shaping of meaning are impossible. This too, is a suggestion emphasized by some of the production’s more poignant moments; when a book is given to a blind woman, for example; or when—in one of several allusions to the Absurd, in this case Ionesco’s La Leçon—Handke has a post-apocalyptic orator produce only inchoate cries, the nearest to speech that we get.

Disconnective, and evacuating the stage of secure shape and sense, what is achieved by this company (the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz) is postmodernist performance at its zenith, or nadir. As many spectators observed, Handke's heap of bright, broken images is very much in the style of current television commercials; yet The Hour … has nothing to advertise but itself; little to reflect on but its own means of reflection—it even has its own self-reflexive little mise-en-abyme, a model stage, complete with its own sandy curtain, shown to the audience by a performer. Rather than showing “life … in all its infinite variety”, the production finds a variety of ways—of admirable technical sophistication—of suggesting that contact with life has ceased to be offered by the media once supposed to represent it; that it has fragmented and vanished behind a screen of Baudrillardean simulacra. Another Absurdist, Alfred Jarry, provides a kind of postmodernist parable when Ubu suggests that the only way to destroy the ruins of a civilization is to use them to put up some fine, well-designed buildings. The Hour … is such a building; an elegant but empty assemblage of cultural fragments and splinters. Other companies on recent festivals—Polish ones especially—have worked wordlessly without losing touch with politics or history, or confining themselves within the Schaubühne’s kind of swanky self-referentiality. This show is surely something to see. But an hour’s strutting upon the stage is time enough for Handke's walking shadows.

Gitta Honegger (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Language and Reality,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LXII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 314, 316, 318-20, 322, 324, 326.

[In the following review, Honegger analyzes Handke's literary and aesthetic preoccupations in The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling.]

Claude Lanzman, explaining his approach to filmmaking, quoted from an uncredited source: “When I have the answers, I write an essay, When I have the questions, I write a novel.” This in a nutshell sums up the problem with the English title given to three exquisite prose pieces by Peter Handke, presented in one volume as Essays about Story Telling: On Tiredness,The Jukebox, and The Successful Day.

In the original German editions, each piece appeared separately as a slim, handsome book, each entitled Versuch—a difficult term to capture in English without losing some of its resonances. Literally meaning “attempt,” the term suggests an experiment that implies a certain humility in tackling the given subject matter, an uncertainty about the outcome, a grappling also with the task and how to approach it, all of it pointing to what the author is after, which is first and foremost tracking the right questions. Two of the highly personal pieces were written as Handke's dialogues with himself. Here, he continues a kind of archeological dig for a lost art which he had taken up in his play The Art of Asking, just prior to the Versuche. And finally, the publication of his long awaited one-thousand-page novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (My Year in No Man’s Bay) last fall corroborates the above quotation: The three Versuche constitute a journey towards the questions that would eventually lead to the novel.

It is not easy at first to find one’s way into these texts. Like all of Handke's work, they are investigations into the possibilities and limitations of language, and in particular the German language with both its rich literary heritage and its legacy of political abuse. Handke's sentences unfold with deliberate slowness, as he unearths words, cleans off the dirt, polishes them, shapes them, and strings them in a syntax that reflects the movement of his world as he finds or remembers it. “Look and keep looking with the eyes of the right word,” the writer tells himself in The Successful Day. Accordingly, the doggedly minute observations and descriptions of the places chosen to pursue constitute the real challenge for the writer, for they provide the “real” pictures, a secure foothold in the “real world” against the dangers of abstraction inherent in the chosen motifs for his “essays.”

Each of the three pieces is written in countries where his native German language is not spoken. Tiredness and Jukebox were written in different parts of Spain, The Successful Day in Paris, where he now lives. Handke is also an obsessive translator, delving into Greek and Latin as readily as into French, English, and Slovenian, his mother’s native language. Through such extended sojourns into other languages, foreign idioms and etymological cues highlight the world presenting itself to the writer in his own language. Cut off from its habitual context, it suddenly yields its own surprising treasures. With the painstaking gentleness of an artist restoring ancient, damaged pictures, Handke strips German grammar, idiomatic compositions and compound words, so beloved to the German language, of the rubble of rhetoric and the tarnish of cultural processes and political residues. The reader has to move as carefully, paying meticulous attention to the elaborate curves and sudden corners of Handke's syntax, ready to stop suddenly at the discovery of a single word or idiom that emerges with fresh visual power and beauty. In his above-mentioned, not yet translated novel, Handke speaks of French children “who, before seeing the first picture, have already learned the words for it, so that there is no way, not even for adults, that any kind of perception could ever emerge.”

To add insult to injury, the Essays’ full English title includes the additional, footnote-like explanation that these are Essays About Storytelling. If anything, it might be suggested that they are exercises in reading.

“Translated literally, the Greek verb for ‘read,’ used in the Pauline epistles, would signify a ‘looking up’,” the writer reminds himself and his reader in Tiredness. His texts require that kind of reading: the sentences don’t pull the reader in and along; quite the contrary, they demand that one pause and look up from the page and out, open to see again with the freshness and excited surprise of the child at its first discovery of the possible worlds contained in words. Quite appropriately, each of the German editions are beautifully produced, in linen-wove covers lined vertically with the opening paragraphs from Handke's manuscripts, all handwritten in pencil: writing once again establishes itself as a handmade work. Both the cover and the finely textured, even weighty paper of the pages, rarely found in today’s publishing world, introduce the book itself as matter that counts, where reading begins as a tactile pleasure. Again, the child comes to mind, tracing the lines with its finger (in German, there is even a word for the index finger as “reading finger”), holding it tightly at the place where the child has stopped to see what it read.

Suddenly, it seems only natural that the difficulties encountered during a child’s first forays into literary works are also a part of the reading experiences of these texts. The long-forgotten childhood word Lesebuch takes on a fresh reality. Literally “reading books” (not to be confused with primers) these contain collections of poems, excerpts from epics and novels intended as elementary school children’s first introduction to literature. Traces of those first explorations that evoke even the children’s voice scanning the sentences, thereby indelibly imprinting their structures in the young readers, surface in Handke's landscapes—as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, Soria, Spain, Udine, and Paris, as familiar as Salzburg and New York—and miraculously reconnect me to the Austrian childhood we shared as members of the same conflicted postwar generation. “I have no desire to persuade, not even with images. I only want to remind each one of you of his very own narrative tiredness,” the narrator tells his readers in Tiredness.

Tiredness is recalled as a paralyzing experience of exclusion and separation, such as the child’s experience at Christmas mass, of being locked inside, cut off from the silent openness of the snow-covered winter landscape; later on that of the student, be it in a lecture hall or in the isolation of a rented room; or the lovers’ tiredness of each other, suddenly realized in a movie theater. But tiredness can also induce a state of heightened alertness reinforcing the experience of community, such as the exhaustion of (Handke's) extended rural family after the thrashing of the harvested grain in the home barn with the participation of all generations. The depiction of this event is one of the most moving “pictures” of a rural Austrian community, stripped of all nostalgia and sentimentality. It may be Handke's single most important service to the German language and aesthetics, in the wake of its nativist vulgarization by the Nazis and, nowadays, the tourist industry. Inevitably, the remembrance of origin and belonging—to the Carinthian community of Austrian and Slovenian descent in Southern Austria—lead towards other haunting images of a people incapable of a shared tiredness:

Then, in our shared midst of something resembling a “people,” such as I later looked for time and time again in my native Austria, and time and time and time again failed to find. I am referring, not to the “tiredness of whole peoples,” not to the tiredness that weights on eyelids of one late-born individual, but to the ideal tiredness that I would like to see descending on one particular small segment of the second postwar Austrian Republic, in the hope that all its groups, classes, association, corps, and cathedral chapters may at last sit there as honestly tired as we villagers were then, all equals in our shared tiredness, united and above all purified by it.

Gradually, Handke's calm, contemplative tone builds to a biblical wrath akin to another Austrian writer, the late Thomas Bernhard (which comes somewhat as a surprise, considering that the two writers were very distant from each other, both artistically and personally).

A criminal who has escaped scot-free may often manage to doze off, whether in a sitting or standing position. His sleep, like that of many a fugitive, may be prolonged, deep and sterterous, but tiredness, not to mention the tiredness that knits people together, is unknown to him; until the day he snores his last, nothing in all the world will succeed in making him tired, until perhaps his final punishment, for which he himself may secretly yearn. My entire country is alive with bouncy indefatigables of this breed, among them its so-called leaders; instead of joining the army of tiredness for so much as one moment, a swarming mob of habitual criminals and their accomplices, very different from those described above, of elderly, but untiring mass murderers of both sexes, who throughout the country have secreted a new generation of equally tireless young fellows, who even now are training the grandchildren of the senior murderers to be secret-police agents with the result that in this contemptible majority-country, everyone will remain alone with his tiredness until the end of our political history.

Tiredness, in all cases, involves overcoming a hardship; as an ideal state it creates an openness, “making room for an epic that will encompass all beings. …” Writing “about” tiredness turns out to be just the kind of hardship that leads toward that state: to the next, the real story? In the last exchange of tiredness between writer and his questioning self, the image of a jukebox, remembered in the Adalusian town of Linares, presents itself.

The only jukebox the writer actually sees while working on his piece about it is in an old English film shown in a theater in Soria, the small town in the Castilian highlands where he had settled in the dead of winter to pursue his work. The search around town for “the real thing” yielded one more, albeit concrete picture among the fragments of many others, retrieved from memory, of jukebox haunts and corresponding human habitats at home and abroad: in housing developments rather than city centers, in ferry stations as opposed to ocean resorts from England to Greece, to Alaska and Japan. These are laid out carefully, like archeological finds, in the wintery light of the sparse Castilian land—and cityscapes where he took his long habitual walks before and after writing.

The year happened to be 1989, and as Eastern Europe was opening up, the writer had been pushing West from his own Eastern roots in his beloved former Yugoslavia across his native continent, a strange sort of brave New Old World pioneer, a post-Berlin Wall Don Quixote chasing jukeboxes in the fragile dawn of a new Utopia, trailed by news of the Ceaucescus’ executions. A remembered Christmas night in an Alaskan bar takes him across the Atlantic and the continent of every European child’s dream of the “West” to the westernmost outpost, propelled by an imagination that had first been swept on the waves of the jukebox across the geography of its origins and glory.

His (Attempt About) The Successful Day constitutes another homecoming of sorts, to Paris, where Handke has lived on and off throughout his adult life. A few years ago the fifty-two-year-old writer settled there once again, on its outskirts, just beyond the city limits, with his second wife, a French actress, and their small daughter.

The repetition of activities embedded in the familiar geography of home allows for an almost serene distillation of forms. What emerges is a larger, literally “moving” picture of the tangential “line of beauty and grace” between the outlands and the city, a wide curve along which the railroad passenger on his way downtown embraces the metropolis below. The line was first encountered in a self-portrait by William Hogarth, an “eighteenth-century moment.” It reappears in a stone found at Lake Constance which the writer keeps on his desk. And it serves as the blueprint, as it were, for the balanced curve that would characterize the progression (as distinct from “progress”) of a “successful” day.

Here it is necessary to once again contemplate significantly different nuances in language. There is no word in English for the “geglückten Tag” as opposed to the “erfolgreicher Tag,” that is “successful,” indicating an accomplishment as the result of a clearly targeted effort. “Geglückt” connotes exactly the opposite. Implying an element of chance, such a day would fall into place effortlessly, with no other significance beyond the full awareness of its presence and gentle motion, not affected by personal interferences. From the writer’s pervasive, calmly comforting sense of being in the right place or, in his terms, of “fitting into the picture,” arises the next challenge, that is, living this picture, balanced on the line of grace and beauty. All he can do is, once again, write it as a picture, if only in fragments. In his final exchange with his probing alter-ego, the writer tells himself:

Go home to writing and reading. To the original texts, in which for example it is said: “Let the word resound, stand by it—whether the moment be favorable or not.” Have you ever experienced a successful day? With which for one a successful moment, a successful life, perhaps even a successful eternity might coincide?”

“Not yet. Obviously.”


“If I had experienced anything even remotely resembling that, I imagine, I should have to fear not only a nightmare for the following night but cold sweats.”

“Then your successful day is not even an idea, but only a dream?”

“Yes, except that instead of having it, I’ve made it in this essay.”

And if the reader follows the writer’s advice and goes back to the text, in the state of mind that permits him to linger in it, leisurely, looking up and around, yet staying connected, it may be the first indication of a successful day.

Peter Handke was fortunate that Ralph Manheim, one of the great translators of this century, translated most of his prose texts over a period of more than a quarter century. However, Manheim died after completing Tiredness and The Successful Day, and the final editing was done after his death. It is quite revealing to compare his approach to Krishna Winston’s translation of The Jukebox. Goethe, the difficult almighty father figure, always, overshadowing Handke's (as any other German language writer’s) aspirations, distinguished three kinds of translations: The first comparable to getting the reader acquainted with a foreign country, its prime purpose information rather than poetic vision. The second effort adapts and appropriates the foreign material. A quasi-naturalization process, aimed at eliminating cultural differences as much as possible, also seems closest to the American spirit. The third stage, further elaborated by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay on translation, creates a third work as it were, that stands on its own, with its own unique language and poetic sweep, thereby expanding both languages. Manheim, having accompanied Handke throughout his writing career, has been able to develop in step with the writer towards the third stage. There is a distinct Handke tone, a characteristic vocabulary in his translations, which are no longer just faithful equivalents, but literary works in their own right. As a brilliant thinker on his own terms—Manheim is the only translator of Heidegger who accomplished the task without footnotes—he could work with a completely self-assured ease shortening lengthy German sentences with complex philosophical propositions, simplifying idioms and rearranging secondary clauses without sacrificing their meaning or the overall rhythm—a lightness, so essential to Handke's aesthetics and ethics as a writer. He knows when to use holy and not sacred, when a Bote is not the messenger in the Greek tradition but a biblical herald, the (Kantian) Ding Tag appears philosophically not only correct but elegant as “the object named day.” A couple of substantial errors which reverse the intended meaning could be due to Manheim’s often radical transformation of syntax and idioms, in the interest of both precision and lucidity; in some instances they seem to have been perhaps misread or misunderstood in the process of the posthumous editing. Krishna Winston’s translation, by contrast, is faithful to a fault. Not a nuance in the winding sentence structure is missed. The result is oddly distanced and labored. Hers comes closest to an “essay” as a strenuous academic task, rather than the wonder-filled journey of a first reading adventure, comparable to a fiercely concentrating driver of a jeep across rough territory, as opposed to the open-eyed, gentle wanderer through undiscovered new land.

Handke is frequently remembered as the loud-mouthed, opinionated enfant terrible and cult hero of the sixties. About twenty years ago he withdrew from the fashionable literary scene in quest of origin, culture, and language, all taboos in the wake of World War II, he himself had helped to shatter. With every new publication he is accused by his former followers of withdrawing from the world. While his fellow German-language writers have been busy at present defining who among them are the fascists on the right and on the left, frantically adjusting their literary theories according to postwar realities, Handke continues to dig through the shards, across Europe and around the world, piecing together the words, in different languages, that do not prescribe but contain life as it is possible. So what does it all mean? Perhaps a pilgrimage of sorts, an attempt to earn the right of naming the world—in German—again.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Summer 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 572-3.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a favorable assessment of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht.]

It can be argued and readily proven on the basis of the available body of world literature that a writer’s or poet’s greatness lies in his ability to renew himself constantly, thus surprising not only readers but language itself with increasingly innovative ways to describe both outer and inner world, while the basic artistic and human vision remains loyally intact. Seen this way, the ever-surprising Peter Handke is one of the greatest living authors, and is recognized as such. He has just presented us with his major work to date [Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht], both in length and in scope. This magnum opus, while not called specifically a novel, is by no means a fairy tale either, as the subtitle would suggest. It is, as if to stress the aforementioned, altogether something new, and daring, yet by no means an experimental work; this expansive book, most rare in its breadth in contemporary European writing, reads and convinces immediately as a classic—it is here to stay. Its author is to be thanked and congratulated—since such things are so rarely said nowadays—for having given both to myth and to careful introspection, as well as to the forever renewable, transformable medium of prose, new form and new life.

Indeed, the text opens with a breathtakingly daring discussion of human Verwandlung or metamorphosis, and all readers familiar with Handke's production of the past fifteen years (beginning with Langsame Heimkehr) know this existential-mystical transformation to have been the writer’s chief concern since then. “1997” is the year which Handke, alias the very autobiographical hero Gregor Keuschnig (whom we know from earlier writing), describes for us in this book with acute precision. We are thus being moved into a future so close it is hardly perceived as such, yet we are unable to be there. What tremendous compositional courage and artistic mastery is furthermore needed to take the risk of writing a prose narrative in excess of one thousand pages in the highly dangerous, treacherous form of the “I” narrative and to get away with it victoriously! Of course, Handke neither wants nor needs to conceal his firm rooting in autobiography; clarity and self-scrutiny of sight and feeling are the trademarks of his art. Readers will “know” almost everything about the author after reading this book, yet they will not have found one sentence of indiscretion or tedium with his individual self: “Zu einem groβen Teil soll es eine Reiseerzählung sein. … Allerdîngs bin der Held dieser Reisen nicht ich. Ein paar meiner Freunde sind es, die sie, so oder so, bestehen werden,” we are told initially, yet, strictly speaking, the tales of these seven friends (including Keuschnig’s “son”) will take up only some two hundred pages in the book, while these characters are naturally omnipresent throughout.

Handke has been living for some years now in a quiet suburb of Paris, in an area that in his perception consists of a large bay, the book’s Niemandsbucht (No-Man’s Bay). Why he has chosen to live there, what it implies to have found and now to be himself, let alone to write—this is what we discover, and there is no other work of German-language (or any) literature comparable in frankness and lucidity. How clear and seemingly easy the unspeakable becomes here. How a text of such length avoids the slightest less-than-perfect sentence as well as any triviality. How Handke rises above all weight of matter and lifts his readers up together with him. How this book tells almost nothing in the sense of a story or plot to be recounted meaningfully (loyal in some way to Flaubert’s ambition to create a masterpiece out of nothing) yet possesses the powerful grip of total concentration. Mein Jahr must be read slowly to be appreciated. (Hardly any book could be more demanding, yet already it has met with huge public success in the German-speaking countries: this is cause for hope!) Handke has created new roads for myth, the novel, and unending connectedness with human expression. Here, more than in any of his previous works, he achieves what a literary text is meant to achieve: redemption.

Edward Timms (review date 26 April 1996)

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SOURCE: “Words and Serbs,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1996, p. 29.

[In the following review, Timms finds shortcomings in Handke's criticism of Western media coverage of the Balkan war in Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina.]

Peter Handke made his name in the 1960s through a critique of received ideas, deconstructing the cliché transmitted by education and the media in dazzling disquisitions like Selbstbezichtigung (Self-Indictment) and Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience). In his most recent book, he returns to these themes with a vengeance, focusing on the distortions arising from media coverage of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Eine winterliche Reise is an account of a journey in Serbia at the end of 1995, especially of the way the media have falsified perceptions of the war by casting the Serbs exclusively in the role of “aggressors” and emphasizing the sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims, while largely ignoring those of the Serbian communities driven from their homes in Bosnia and Croatia. The subtitle “Justice for Serbia” underlines his concern to redress the balance.

Rarely can such a slim volume have made such an impact. Handke has certainly succeeded in his primary aim of dramatizing the contrast between two modes of discourse: journalism, with its instant image-making and its tendency to reduce complex situations to sound-bites; and literary discourse, with its sensitivity to nuances and its self-conscious reflection on human dilemmas. The impact of the text has been reinforced by his decision to emerge from his habitual seclusion and undertake a series of widely reported public readings in German cities, culminating in a televised debate at the Academy Theatre in Vienna in March. Handke's claim, as his ally the Austrian dramatist Peter Turrini explained during the debate, is not that “literary” reflection is more truthful than “journalistic” reportage, but that poets acknowledge their subjectivity, while newspaper columnists claim an objectivity that is actually spurious.

For Handke, the “long-distance agitators” in their editorial offices in Frankfurt or Paris are just as much war criminals as the militia commanders who bombarded Sarajevo. The characteristic tendency of journalism, he argues, is towards a form of writing which is in every sense “fixed”—rigid and tendentious rather than open-minded and impartial. He discerns a close parallel between such verbal distortions and press photographs which are carefully “posed” in order to convey a preconceived meaning. For Handke, as for Flaubert, the greatest danger lies in the reliance on “received ideas” and “frozen imagery”.

This critique of the “labelling” tendencies of the media has paradoxically resulted in Handke himself being labelled—at best as “naive”, at worst as perversely “pro-Serbian”. For a commentator in Der Spiegel of March 18, 1996, this book marks “the beginning of the end of the writer Peter Handke”. Although such sweeping assertions are patently absurd, it cannot be said that the book is entirely convincing, since there is a lack of precision in Handke's focus on media distortions. When Karl Kraus, the pioneering Austrian critic of war propaganda, exposed the distorted coverage of an earlier Balkan conflict, he relied on a technique of quotation which gave his critique an unchallengeable authority. If Handke had been more firmly grounded in the Kraus tradition, his arguments might have carried greater weight. Instead, he tends towards polemical generalization, while his counterbalancing narrative of his encounters in Serbia has an impressionistic subjectivity which at times verges on the sentimental.

Only in the epilogue does Handke succeed in integrating the two strands of his argument, substantiating his attack on the “verbal poison” disseminated by the press through an eloquent defence of ordinariness—the mundane details which make up everyday life in remote communities on the banks of the Drina. His argument is most convincing where he portrays Western reactions to the war as a defeat for liberal values as a whole, including those of his own generation of cautiously progressive cosmopolitans. He identifies a constellation of failure, which is not to be blamed simply on “primitive hatreds” in the Balkans, but also on the arrogance of the Western world: its self-seeking diplomacy, its barely veiled economic imperialism, its attempt to impose on the complex tragedy of Yugoslavia the categories of “world public opinion”. It is this ideology which generated the headlines about Sarajevo as a “liberated” and “united” city, just as hundreds of Serbian families were being forced to leave their homes.

A book conceived in a spirit of enlightenment thus ends on a note of despair. As the “night of our century” closes in around us, the intellectual organization of ethnic hatreds is denounced for intensifying the darkness. Obviously, an individual author is scarcely in a position to counteract such pressures. But it is a sad commentary on the polarization of attitudes towards the former Yugoslavia that dissent from the consensus should bring such a sense of isolation. Handke's dilemma, made all the more evident by his public readings, is how to preserve his “literary” status while engaging in “journalistic” controversy. When challenged on this point during the debate at the Academy Theatre, he responded by actually insulting the audience—a curious echo of the literary motif with which his career began.

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 147-8.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski commends Handke's intent but finds his efforts to provide an impartial view of Serbia unsuccessful in Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien.]

Peter Handke's controversial essay [Eine winterliche Reise], which first appeared in January 1996 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, is yet another manifestation of his continuing fascination with the former Yugoslavia. Ten years ago, in his semiautobiographical fiction Die Wiederholung (see WLT, 61:2, p. 284), Handke, the descendant of a Slovenian grandfather, portrayed the intellectual awakening of a young writer in the course of a trip through that northwestern province. The present journey, undertaken in late October and early November 1995 with two Serbian friends, leads him to the other end of that disintegrating country.

The subtitle tells us why Handke wrote his book. Appalled by the anti-Serbian positions of the international press—Handke mentions Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Time, and notably the Frankfurter Allgemeine—and dismayed by the anti-Serbian animus of his own generation—here he singles out such French nouveaux philosophes as Alain Finkelkraut and André Glucksmann as well as writers like Joseph Brodsky and Peter Schneider—Handke wanted to see for himself whether the Serbs are as aggressive, vengeful, “heartless,” and above all “paranoid” as they were being generally portrayed.

Handke's plea for impartiality and objectivity is laudable. Unfortunately, his encounters in Serbia do not answer the questions he poses so provocatively in the first chapter and in his epilogue. Handke is perhaps the most brilliant travel writer in German today, and his descriptions of a wintry Serbia—a totally landlocked country, he reminds us, distinguished by its great rivers—are memorable. But the interviews with people are too few and too brief to be illuminating. The first part of the trip in and around Belgrade, following reflections on his own sense of alienation, describes meetings with a couple of Serbian writers and with the parents of one of his accompanying friends. The second part takes Handke and his friends to the border near Bosnia, where they visit the divorced wife of the other friend and gaze across the Drina River. But again we hear little about the thoughts and feelings of the Serbians and more about Handke's own impressions. To be sure, Handke encounters no bloodthirsty Serbs, lusting for Bosnian blood. But his conversations, usually conducted through interpreters, do not lead to penetrating political or social commentary. Even the poignant suicide note left behind by a former Tito partisan, which Handke quotes as his conclusion, is ambivalent regarding the present situation.

What we have, then, is a travel journal and not a political commentary. The large questions raised by international reactions to Serbian political leaders and military actions are not addressed by Handke's reflections, his landscape descriptions, and his accounts of sporadic conversations. His essay offers us a highly sympathetic view of the country and a few of its people, but hardly “Gerechtigkeit für Serbien.”

Tom Sellar (review date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Question Marks,” in Theater, Vol. 27, Nos. 2-3, 1997, pp. 161-3.

[In the following review, Sellar offers a positive evaluation of Voyage to the Sonorous Land and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.]

Thirty years after his disgust with the straitjackets of language and received ideas led him to write his polemic-based Sprechstücke, Peter Handke has arrived at a surprising paradox. Despite his enduring conviction that language is to blame for the narrow culture of his native Austria, Handke's own poetic gifts have multiplied. Now the most important European writer in any medium, Handke forges exquisite dialogue and turns of phrase, and crafts sensuous, evocative literature—while he continues to discredit language and deny the authenticity of words.

Since publishing The Long Way Round in 1981 (translated in 1989), Handke has produced little new work for the stage, making Gitta Honegger’s fine translations of these two 1992 plays [Voyage to the Sonorous Land and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other] welcome indeed. They reveal that Handke's dramatic sensibility has not softened since his early days: he’s only changed strategies to reflect his achievements in prose fiction.

Like his 1987 novel Absence,Voyage to the Sonorous Land follows a band of strangers who have joined together to take a journey (a theme with a long tradition in German literature, as Honegger points out in her introduction). The travelers include a young Actor and Actress, an Old Couple, a Local Man (who undergoes various transformations), Parzival (from the medieval epic), the Wide-Eyed man (playfully revealed to be Austrian playwright Ferdinand Raimund), and Spoilsport (later Anton Chekhov). Their journey develops into a mythic, abstract pilgrimage into the “hinterland” of their psyches as they search for a place where thought and feeling can coexist.

All seek passage out of the modern world—the set is littered with billboards, gutted parks, and sterile roadsides—into “the land of questions” situated somewhere beyond the steppes of an unnamed country. To get there, they must pass through the detritus of their homelands and their minds. The fragmented dialogue reveals their speculations and puzzlement as they seek this euphoric Wonderland: as the world around them grows stranger and stranger, are they moving closer to or further away from a putative “home”? What do they expect to find when they arrive? A child-like state of wonder? Mature wisdom? Completeness?

Like so many of Handke's characters, these figures travel listlessly, fueled mainly by their desire to know a single moment of true feeling. “The dialect spoken in our part of the world is called wonderers’ lilt,” observes the Old Man in an early scene: “our voices are pitched in perpetual wonder.” The Actor and Actress, too, want their self-consciousness to disappear and wish for a state where they won’t falsify their experiences by “naming” or “acting” them. Only then, they believe, can unfettered consciousness begin.

In one of his frequent pontifications, Spoilsport declares that “my affection, the fugitive’s affection, goes to people without destination, travelers forever in transition—the new humankind!” Handke's own preoccupation with travelers and strangers figures prominently in his recent essays and fiction; when immigrants, visitors, and tourists enter his field of inquiry, they pose problems about knowing an alien other, about how fully individual experience can be shared. Here Handke dramatizes that proposition; all these characters are strangers to us; though the character names suggest archetypes, nothing about them is finally “knowable.” Handke gives us glimpses of their relationships and psychology (the old man and woman finish each other’s sentences “sing-spiel style,” their age fueling their need for closures). The travelers’ most intimate wishes and thoughts are divulged as a matter of course.

But beyond all the wonder and transition, what is home? The Old Couple wonder if a “home” is really possible after encountering so much strangeness, and, if so, how one reaches it. They intuit that the discovery depends on questions, so they ask lots of them. “The older I get, the more questions I have,” they remark, “everything I think takes on the form of a question.” They wonder what their grandchildren—if they actually have some—are doing at any given moment at “home”; if the weather will be nice there; if they left the iron on; if a tornado has wrecked the house while they’re away; even if “the world outside our air bubble has long since perished, all breathing choked to death, all life extinguished.”

The literary duo naturally conduct their search for the Land of Questions on a higher plane of discourse. Spoilsport and Wide Eyes compete with rival sensibilities; hazy Chekhovian vistas of form and being tussle with Raimundian fairy-tale awe. Each character engages in self-fulfilling expectations; Wide Eyes imagines magical endings to the journey in a suddenly-discovered leafy clearing, Spoilsport always senses some nascent disaster or darkening mood around the corner, and each finds what they expect.

The solution to the travelers’ dilemma comes not from this pair but from Parzival, the boy who (in the original epic) failed to ask his dying king the “correct” question. In Handke's early scenes this Parzival writhes in anguish, naked, wild, and dumb (recalling the title character of Handke's Kaspar). His fellow travelers teach him to find experience in words, and when his speech is finally liberated so are the travelers. They all but evaporate in ecstasy, imagining that they have arrived in “the sonorous land” of rejuvenated consciousness. Though their happiness is real, their faith is misplaced; only the Local Man, left behind like Firs in The Cherry Orchard, understands that “the solution of the problem [is] in the disappearance of the problem.”

Wittgenstein, whose influence on Handke has become a matter of axiom by now, once wrote that “the aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.” In The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (first published in this magazine in 1993), Handke makes the familiar strange. His wordless play—the text consists entirely of stage directions—turns the stage into a public square, with an endless procession of figures crossing through it.

The drama consists entirely of entrances and exits, with more than 400 “actors and lovers” (as the playwright calls them) performing “aspects” of public life and private language. At first much of the action appears quotidian; thunder sounds and a moment later a woman runs across the stage carrying “a gigantic pile of unfolded laundry”—and the cause and effect seem clear. Later the sequences veer from the recognizable into the writer’s personal hallucinations. Aeneas puts in an appearance, as do Abraham and Isaac on their way to the chopping block, followed by Charlie Chaplin. Or so it is written; what Handke names in the script and what the spectator reads on stage may not line up. Even such readily identifiable icons as Charlie Chaplin may simply be “aspects” of Handke's description or our perception. What looks like Chaplin shuffling across the stage could actually be a character imitating the silent movie star, or an actor’s game, or an author’s fantasy.

Handke describes stage actions with terms like “as” and “as if” (a thorny translation problem Honegger has approached with apt sensitivity). In one sequence “someone paces as Peer Gynt, peeling an onion.” In another, “one man is terrified by another approaching him as his doppelgänger.” With this grammar of adverbs and conjunctions, the playwright insists that all acting (and all spectatorship) makes a speculative leap. Inside that “as,” Handke suspends empirical certainties and possibilities of authenticity for both actor and audience. Actions performed in the conditional “as if” force both parties’ hands. Surrendering our pretensions to answering reality in the theater, we’re left instead with our ability to perceive stage behavior as a question mark, to see (or perform) the multiple possibilities for meaning dramatized in the actor’s gesture “as …”

Wittgenstein famously proposed that all philosophical problems assume the shape of a single question: “I don’t know my way around.” In Voyage it’s the characters who don’t know the way, in Hour it’s the spectator. Handke brings this maxim alive on stage not as some kind of ideological exercise, but with singular grace and intelligence. He has written two plays in the shape of a question mark: curving around dense thematic turns, straightening into brief narrative strokes, and dotted with sumptuous poetry.

David Rieff (review date 12 January 1997)

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SOURCE: “Short Book, Long Apology,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1997, p. 12.

[In the following review, Rieff offers a negative evaluation of A Journey to the Rivers, which he calls a “contemptible book.”]

For all the divisions that became apparent between their nations once the former Yugoslavia descended into war in 1991, Western European and North American intellectuals were remarkably united in their responses to the catastrophe. In this way, as in so many others, the Croatian and Bosnian wars seem to have recapitulated the experience of the Spanish Civil War more than half a century earlier.

Then as now, the stances of the major outside powers were either frankly to side with the rebels (Franco’s Fascists in 1936; the Bosnian Serbs in 1992) or to remain formally neutral but interpreting that neutrality to mean that the government side (the Spanish Republicans; the authorities in Sarajevo) was to be prevented as much as possible from obtaining the weapons it needed to defend itself. All the while, most intellectuals in these same countries condemned their governments’ policies, taking sides in 1992 with Sarajevo as they had taken sides in 1936 with Madrid. And while there were, of course, no international brigades in Bosnia—perhaps it would have been better had there been—more than a few intellectuals made the dangerous trip to Sarajevo during the siege, and many more became active on Bosnia’s behalf at home.

To say that this was the position of the overwhelming majority of intellectuals is not to say that all writers and artists side with the Bosnian Republic any more than all had upheld the Republicans over Franco. T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound had, with varying degrees of ardor, favored the Fascists in 1936. In the early ’90s, though a certain number remained neutral or expressed indifference, the list of actively pro-Serb intellectuals was short in every major country except Russia. In the West, probably the best known of these was the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. For him, what crimes the Serbs had committed they had been provoked into committing. Germany, he argued, was the real villain of the crisis, with its premature recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence.

As the war continued, Handke, by his own account, grew more infuriated by what he viewed as the way in which journalists in newspapers like Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and his fellow writers had lined up against the Serbs. In the end, indignation turned to action, and Handke traveled to Serbia in the fall of 1995. The result is A Journey to the Rivers, a travelogue-cum-essay of 83 pages, whose subtitle, “Justice for Serbia,” makes its author’s ideological intentions plain enough.

When the book appeared in Germany last year, it caused a sensation. In the last year, Handke has exploited the ruckus to the fullest, engaging in endless polemics in the French and German press and lecturing and debating the book’s many critics (notably the German writer Peter Schneider, whom Handke singles out for attack in his text) in dozens of forums. As result, A Journey to the Rivers has acquired a renown that few travel books, particularly ones that are thin in their arguments and sparse in their reportage, ever receive. Handke's assiduous self-promotion (he has largely put on hold his other writing to argue his pro-Serb case) and the fact that, given the pro-Bosnian stance of most other writers of Handke's stature, there is something of a “man bites dog” quality to the book, doubtless help to explain the attention it has gotten.

And some explanation is certainly needed. For as the English translation, capably rendered by Scott Abbott, reveals, there is little in the book that is of much interest except that Handke wrote it and that it takes the Serb side. There is virtually no reporting and only the crudest sort of historical analysis. Although Handke seems disposed to believe the claim that the Serb secession from Croatia was absolutely justified, he never talked to a Croatian Serb leader, let alone attempted to visit the Krajina or Eastern Slavonia regions of Croatia on which the Serbs established their mini-state in 1991.

More astonishing, Handke, so full of opinions about the real nature of the Bosnian conflict about which, he states over and over again, he and not the various reporters who actually covered the war has the truest sense, declined to set foot in Bosnia itself.

Toward the end of A Journey to the Rivers, Handke does, indeed, go to the Serb-Bosnian border, but he chooses to stay on the east bank of the Drina River. When he gets there, for a moment his confidence in his view falters. “Isn’t it,” he asks himself, “finally irresponsible … to offer the small sufferings in Serbia—the bit of freezing there, the bit of loneliness, the trivialities like snowflakes, caps, cream cheese—while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihac, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing?”

“Yes” is the obvious answer, just as the question damns Handke's contemptible book more effectively than any critic could possibly hope to do. But he believes, as he puts it, that by recording “certain trivialities,” he is paving the way for reconciliation far more importantly than by what he calls recording “the evil facts.”

It is an assertion to take the breath away, coming as it does at the end of the book. For it becomes clear (as it has not been throughout the book) that Handke appears to believe that his aimless meanderings through Serbia, his splenetic assertions about the foreign press and his ill-informed assertions about the mentality of the Serbs he encounters (whom he caricatures as surely as he defames the reporters whose work he so completely misrepresents) are actually acts of peacemaking.

The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, except presumably, as he does throughout much of the book, when he’s talking about himself. He came to Serbia knowing nothing about its complicated politics and, to judge by the book, left knowing no more.

The obscenity of his portrayal of the Bosnia he never deigned to visit is clear enough, but what is far sadder is that the people A Journey to the Rivers defames most terribly are the Serbs. For as recent events in Serbia have demonstrated, the Serb people are anything but the monolithic nationalists that Handke portrays them as being. Many opposed the war and despised the Milosevic government. But they are nowhere to be found in Handke's book. He prefers his Serbs as he imagines them, not as they are.

Had Handke visited an opposition leader like Vesna Pesic or asked to have translated for him the broadcasts of the anti-government B-92 radio station, he would, of course, have discovered the complexity of what has been going on in Serbia throughout the war. Had he talked to any of the excellent foreign reporters he castigates in his book, they would certainly have explained just how nuanced and at odds with itself as well as with the outside world Serbia really is.

But since Handke chose not to inquire too deeply and to leave Serbia as he had come, a prisoner of the folkloric clichés about the place he had formed in irritation before he set out, he must have been astonished by the sight of young people demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis against the Milosevic regime and the dark prison that Serbia has become.

Justice for Serbia? Myopia about Serbia is more like it.

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 584-5.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski offers a negative assessment of Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise.]

Why did Peter Handke write this little book [Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise]? The controversial work to which it is a “summer supplement”—his Winterliche Reise … oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (1996; see WLT 71:1, p. 147)—had a stated purpose. It amounted to a plea for impartiality and tolerance toward the Serbs, who, Handke believed, were being treated unfairly by the international press. As an inspired travel report, it added a useful piece to the mosaic of that troubled land.

The same cannot be said of this brief new appendix. With the same two Serbian companions and six months after the first trip, Handke now ventures across the Drina River into Bosnia (into which they only gazed previously). The first third of the account is a concentrated repetition of the first trip: Handke corrects a few impressions from his November travels and gets reactions to the earlier work from several of his Serbian interlocutors.

Then they cross the river for one-day forays into Višegrad and Srebrenica. The first destination amounts to an homage to Ivo Andrić, and Handke constantly monitors his own impressions with reference to those of the Nobel Prize-winning Serbian novelist, whose fallen statue lies beside a river bridge. The Sunday visit features Handke's epiphany in a cemetery (the center of social life) and a soccer match. Then the travelers return across the Drina and drive upstream to make their second incursion into Bosnia—this time to a Srebrenica so utterly devastated that it is reduced in Handke's report simply to its initial (“S.”) and portrayed in a series of impressions to which the author attempts to give meaning by designating them as “arabesques.”

The author asks himself, near the end of his report, why he is writing this account. And one wonders. For all of Handke's virtuosity in landscape description, the book contains no revelations or even striking insights. When he talks to a Bosnian Serb accused of war crimes and asks him “Why?” the only response he gets is, “Es sei Krieg gewesen.” Elsewhere Handke stresses that the situation cannot be understood without its historical context (“Vorgeschichte”). Well, of course. But he makes no effort to provide that context.

Has Handke reached that stage in his celebrity that he now believes whatever he says is worth saying simply because he is saying it? Or was he encouraged in this effort by a publisher eager to capitalize on the success of the earlier report? In either case, Handke appears to be perplexed by his own undertaking and, symptomatically, ends with a quotation from Ivo Andrić, who did know what he was talking about.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Winter 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 123-4.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus.]

Each one of Peter Handke's books—or so it seems in retrospect—has taught its readers a lesson. Where the author’s youthful works contained lessons in a daredevil kind of genius, extending and jumping limits and borders of language, content and style, his later books offered firm proof of the possibility for renewal and transformation. Now, with his latest novel [In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus], Handke seems to be teaching his readership how to take wing and fly.

The recent completion of a thousand-page novel, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (1995; see WLT 69:3, p. 572) would leave any other author in a state of silence at least for a while. Handke, however, followed that book with an important theatrical play which premiered in early 1997 at the Vienna Burgtheater, and a mere few weeks later the novel under review was published. Still, there is neither a line that might sound reminiscent of the earlier magnum opus, nor a thought that would coincide with the play. Even though employing a first-person narrative form, Handke has written not an autobiographical text but rather a story, a “Rahmenerzählung” or frame narrative in the best old-fashioned sense. He seems to enjoy tremendously his new weaving of constellations and events; more than ever, he is a storyteller again. There is as much humor and positive superficiality as there is depth and seriousness in this novel with the unusual and long title (“On a Dark Night I Left My Quiet House”) that in itself calls for amazement and dreams before we even read. A certain nearness to medieval epics is evoked in the hero’s reading of the romance of Sir Ivain (Yvain, Ywain, Gawain).

Seemingly unimportant places such as the inconspicuous Salzburg suburb of Taxham are made central and are endowed by the author with magical centrality. Yes, Handke returns once again to the city of Salzburg, where he spent an important decade of his life and where his artistic self still seems to dwell quite substantially. The novel tells us the story of the pharmacist of Taxham—who may well exist in the flesh, even though the book’s initial remark denies it—a friend of the author and of course the one who will tell his “Sommergeschichte,” commanding Handke to write it down and doing so in a lovely, old-fashioned epilogue spiced with good advice: “Schreiben Sie nur noch Liebesgeschichten! Liebes-und Abenteuer-geschichten, nichts anderes!” The pharmacist does his job and otherwise seems to be a lonely man. His wife has gone on a trip, his daughter lives abroad, his son disappeared long ago. Frequently the pharmacist dines at the “Erdkellerrestaurant” near the Salzburg airport. There he encounters a former ski champion and a once-famous poet. The three get together without much discussion and set out on a journey across borders into wholly alien lands, where the pharmacist will eventually leave his two companions and embark on an adventure all his own, an adventure tinged with love or the absence thereof.

Nothing in this wonderful book can be anticipated or guessed; every page contains new surprises both in plot and in poetic style. It is of course, as always with Handke, the beauty of the singular image and sentence that transforms his prose into poetry or, to put it more aptly, shows the ultimate superiority of great prose. In this his newest novel, apparent ease, airy lightness, directness, and purity all contribute to make the reader dizzy with the pleasure of “finding” the right image and word, and eventually let us soar to new heights of sensation. There is much worldly concern, and many troublesome facts of our lives are touched upon in this weightless yet weighted story; there is much bitter truth brought forth, like the painfully relevant passage about the new relationships between men and women (“Zwischen Mann und Frau ist neuerdings Feindschaft gesetzt”), yet we find everywhere kind redemption of our common lot.

I think there is reason for gratitude as long as Peter Handke will write. Every book of his illuminates our growing confusion and makes me think of stained-glass windows in Gothic cathedrals: just as simple and yet complex are these stories, as readily available and healing to anyone stepping inside.

Thomas McGonigle (review date 20 September 1998)

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SOURCE: “On a Blue Note,” in Washington Post Book World, September 20, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following review, McGonigle offers positive assessments of My Year in the No-Man's Bay and Once Again for Thucydides.]

Peter Handke's literary career has a pleasingly ambitious feel to it, and over the years most of this Austrian writer’s many books and plays have been well translated and published in America.

Early Handke books such as the startling road novel Short Letter, Long Farewell, about a journey from Providence, R.I., to John Ford’s house in California, and A Sorrow Beyond Words, a meditation on the suicide of his mother, are impossible to forget. He captures the definitely modern feeling that something is wrong—a something freighted with words like “anxiety,” “tedium,” “despair.”

A new note of an acceptance of complex reality has gradually come to the fore in Handke's work (he is also the author of 14 other volumes of poetry, essays, fiction and nonfiction translated into English). My Year in the No-Man's Bay, first published in German in 1994, is a wonderful place to renew an acquaintanceship with him.

While labeled a novel, this new book seems in some mysterious way to be autobiographical in the manner of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. Gregor Keuschnig, an Austrian lawyer older than Handke but sharing many biographical details with him, has retreated to a nondescript Paris suburb in order to write what turns out to be the book we are reading:

And while “at bay” in this undistinguished place—it could be any suburb in the world—the lawyer lives a solitary life, trying to see where exactly he is by following a Pythagorean saying, “Every place demands justice.”

Handke's strength is to make the vague specific without too closely pinning it to a dissector’s table. The lawyer tries to make sense of both the isolation and connectedness he feels by calling to mind seven distant friends, including an architect who is traveling in Northern Japan, a priest in the lawyer’s Austrian village as he goes about his rounds, a singer wandering in Scotland, and the lawyer’s son on his way through Yugoslavia to Greece. He narrates their various journeys in a startlingly original manner, saying: “I could neither have recourse to my experiences, dreams, and facts nor invent action, plot or conflicts. The book, or whatever it would turn out to be, had to be created out of nothing.”

One among many themes (the book is so richly resonant that it seems unfair to single one out) is the lawyer’s struggle to recognize his son. “To be asked about my son,” he writes, “by anyone at all, has always put me in a bad mood, out of the clear blue sky; it has immediately destroyed the harmony between me and the other person. It was even worse when I was expected to tell stories about him.” But the lawyer insightfully illuminates the difference between his own and his son’s generation: “Again unlike me and many of my generation, being isolated, alienated, or dislocated did not give him a heightened sense of reality.”

Coincidentally, Handke's Once Again for Thucydides, which originally appeared a year after the wondrous verbal profusion of My Year in the No-Man’s Bay, has also been translated. It is composed of 17 short prose sketches drawn from observations of the natural world as experienced during the author’s frequent journeys in the late 1980s. The concision of each short piece is disconcerting yet necessary, for Handke's purpose is to reassert a primary function of the writer: to see. “Only one person was left on the pier,” he writes. “No one else was there to see off any passengers or the material for the island house well on its way. In the sky, blue above the noon emptiness, a seagull hung in the wind, bobbing its head. Below, a flock of sparrows in the recently formed puddle, their number caught at first glance. These were the events on the Dubrovnik/Dalmatia pier between noon and one o’clock on December 5, 1987.”

Upon finishing My Year in the No-Man’s Bay or Once Again for Thucydides, the reader is sure to feel a little more accepting of the world and grateful for the labors of Peter Handke.

William H. Gass (review date 29 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Drizzle, Birdcall, Leaf Fall,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 29, 1998, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Gass offers a positive evaluation of My Year in the No-Man's Bay.]

When the Seine leaves Paris for the Channel, it makes several large loops while being forced by physics to skirt high ground. The first of these “bays” contains the hills of the Seine, low waves across a crescent-shaped region upon which the suburbs have intruded, but where large forests still remain, and also an area that shelters an airfield frequently bombed during World War II, so that craters can be seen on its many wooded walks. La Hauts-de-Seine halfmoons a landscape that is historically layered, in touch with the city but almost country in character, neither entirely one thing nor the other, a condition that makes it attractive to this geographical novel, in which flora and fauna, climate and terrain, are traits like those ascribed normally to fictional creatures and are the environments that the narrator walks through, either by himself or in the guise of friends who become his surrogate travelers.

In this bay, an area withdrawn from the whole, the narrator has marooned himself, and his journeys are confined to rambles that the onset of suburbanism has reduced and circumscribed. They take place over a terrain where any hill higher than a building becomes a mountain, but a mountain nevertheless so puny it fails to roughen the map: a no man’s land where he—from January to December of 1993—will make his home and write this meditation on voyages once taken or presently imagined or repeatedly-dreamed.

A nomad is one who carries his home along with him on his journeys, but there is another sort of wanderer depicted here: a writer who lives in fear of definition, of being fastened by a formula of words, of being pinned down at one stage of his development, always at risk of inadvertently acquiring roots, losing his detachment and therefore the distance he believes is essential to the practice of his art, distance that is sometimes described as the space behind a mirror. He is searching for points of vantage from which to glance at, rather than scrutinize, the world, an angle from which he may take in the rest, as if it were being seen out of the corner of his eye, because sidelong glances (a repeated motif) suggest that the observer does not wish to be included in the scene, is in the wings, off stage, not even a gent with flowers waiting for the diva in her dressing room.

The narrator’s first name is Gregor, a name borrowed from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and his last name is Keuschnig, the K coming from The Castle, with the additional suggestion of purity through the meaning of keusch, which includes just a hint of virginity. There is an inviting but treacherous resemblance between Peter Handke's circumstances as we know them from news reports and books, and the novel-writing persona of the book he writes—not, of course, to him, a novel rather a meditation, a journal, a travelogue, an interrogation, an activity that becomes simply unaimed writing, unaimed in order that something fundamental may be struck. About time, too, for this is a millennial novel. Characters from other books will show up briefly; periods from the author’s career, scarcely disguised, will float like loosened leaves across the steady stream of this prose; difficulties wrestled with through several decades of public pronouncement, will be confronted again, especially thoughts preconceived and jotted down in a journal written in the ’70s during Handke's first “Paris period” (like the narrator’s own earlier sojourn near the city) and published in English as The Weight of the World.

The feeling that almost everything I have seen or heard up to now loses its original form the moment it enters into me, that it can no longer be directly described in words or represented in images, but is instantly metamorphosed into something quite formless; as though the effort of my writing were needed to change the innumerable formless pupae inside me into something essentially different … and to fashion them into something radiantly new, in which, however, one senses the old, the original experience, as one senses the caterpillar in the butterfly!

In this book, the anticipated metamorphosis will happen to Gregor Keuschnig himself, a name that seems strange for a reader to write or to say, it occurs so rarely. In these many rich pages, which we have to imagine in their original German (here transformed beautifully by Krishna Winston’s translation) dotted with ich-es instead of Is: ichichichich … I walked, thought, felt, saw, remembered, imagined, feared, sought … ichichich … like footsteps on sodden ground.

For a second time, the narrator retires to a Paris suburb, but on this occasion in order to encounter a self he feels may be emerging, to listen for the sound of his fundamental voice, to freshen his vision, to concentrate upon the Earth and his relation to it, to sit still and see—out of the corner of his eye—the wealth of the world in the cheapened metal of a local coin. He is to be, as Handke again writes about himself in The Weight of the World, “ … the private detective, with no need to notice anything in particular, but authorized to notice everything, the starting of last cars, the tenants talking as if already asleep … the sound of tearing Scotch tape; dot-like sounds in the vines on the garden wall. …”

At first his plan is to position himself by a single window and from that vantage point, improved by a bit of pruning, to perceive whatever odor, object, racket passes in the street, stirs the leaves, moves in the gardens below him. Weary at last of his self-absorption, his wife departs, returning occasionally to bedevil him like a bad conscience, actually lifting him, during one show of anger, like Antaeus from the ground, just as a fellow author has previously done. Keuschnig is in fact felt to represent, even to embody, the culture of a small country, as Peter Handke is required to be Austrian by many of his countrymen. They urge him to return from the odd wide world to his humble village beginnings, and to drink as before from the town pump, quaff a dipper once more with the boys, visit in their pub, listen to and learn from their native voice; however, that kind of local connection will, Keuschnig believes, deprive him of the strength he feels when he is able to escape such narrow and parochial relations, when he stands instead on foreign ground, as an altered self, and from that vantage can rescue from the obscurity of their neglectful familiarity the simple sensuous qualities that would make up life if such qualities were allowed to be themselves—cellophane tape tearing, coins shifting in a trouser pocket—and, so equipped with their realization, he could endeavor to answer the novel’s first question, put more than once: “Who can say, after all, that the world has already been discovered?” Or possibly its second: Is there anything or anyone with which one may appropriately identify?

We ought to know best our place of birth, but home is where the hardened heart is. The cliché tells us we are fed through our roots, that we are consequently plants, and that our accomplishments crown us as trees are crowned by spreading limbs and shading leaves and plentiful fruits. If our soul aspires to more motion than a plant’s, it should remember that the animal (who locomotes) has its tiny territory, its habitat, repetitive paths: familiar thicket, meadow, grove or stream. Yet the human soul imagines—places, times, scenes, feelings, thoughts that go far from its growth and hunting grounds, which it then marches toward and remains on ardent watch for, just as this novel, in the meditative tradition of fellow Austrians, Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard, marks and looks and listens, broods and ponders on the so-called small, the so-called habitual things of this world: drizzle, birdcall, leaf fall.

The closer I came to the stones in the suburban house, often bumping them with my nose, and examined them, the more I had an entire planet within my grasp, embodied in this one thing, as once before, in childhood, the sight of a drop of rain in a yellow-brown-gray-white bit of dust on the path had made the world open up to me for the first time.

If one is to see the world in a grain of sand, one must first see the sand.

I sat with my suitcase in an outdoor cafe by the Gare de l’Est, the asphalt at my feet showing the innumerable overlapping imprints of bottle caps from the hot times of year. …

And understand how patinas are variously made: by additions sometimes or by subtractions, while being similarly shaped:

[T]he trains whizzed through [a concrete cut] as if already out in the open countryside, and the air current they created always buffeted the luxuriant vegetation that hung down over the steep walls. … Time and again the vegetation was removed, and then, before new vegetation maybe took its place, a pattern of rough semicircles was revealed on the wall, often layered on top of each other, light patches scratched and etched in the concrete by all the bunches, fans, trailing streamers as they brushed back and forth.

Keuschnig’s son proceeds his mother in departure—tacitly agreeing with cliché—to search for his father, not at the sill of his father’s sightseeing, but on the Slavic home grounds where his father was himself once someone’s son.

Solitude, in this book, is a happy circumstance. The narrator begins to breathe, breathe words. But when he does, his mind takes flight. Through the agency of a friend, an architect who discovered a carpenter sawing away. Inside himself, he visits Japan and builds with another’s hands symbolic huts: using the limbs of a singer, he hikes in the Scottish Highlands, just as, with a painter, now filmmaker, he trudges over Catalonia. In the company of a willful former beauty and still longed-for lover, he explores coastal Turkey, and by means of his local priest does a round of visits in his native village. His son is in Yugoslavia where his father’s thoughts nose after him. Finally a nameless reader—bluntly named “Reader”—who is following, like a demented or faithful fan, the narrator’s authorial footsteps on a former trip through Germany, has his own feet observed as they stand in the tracks of that trail, marked and matched by the omniscient eye of the writer who first made them.

One ought to read this book the way one reads Walden, although the region in which it is set is not entirely unoccupied or wholly woodsy. It is, like Walden, the record of a single eye, a solitary soul and a lonely mind. What its remarkable, evenly toned though complex prose creates is a consciousness, a consciousness that will take in people occasionally, but much as it takes in a backyard bush, a consciousness that can sit in one place, its body’s back comfortably against a stump, to do nothing there but observe (and assemble sentences), because it has become a lichen on the stump itself and can consequently appreciate the way a turtle crosses a stillness, a muskrat sizes things up, a lizard passes weakly out of its slow life, or how the demonic energy in a sudden swarm of bees electrifies the sky, or why the softness of some doves disarms, or the shadows, like those from fire, of a few fish, fool the fisherman, or the reason the silhouette of the eagle signals the future path of its prey, or why the ripple of a water snake is the double of itself, why twilight bursts with bats.

Or why the sudden appearance of glorious mushrooms—king boletus—in the ruts of repeated cyclists, resembles the rise of something supremely fine, something worth sharing, from anyone’s earth, from the rot and dreary conclusion of a hidden life.

The reader should hang over this tent like a lover postponing the pleasure of full lips. The Reader, as the reader is called here, should be prepared to enter and reside in the province of a mind made powerful by solitude, a mind inventively and energetically cleared for development, dramatization and intensification, as Handke describes it, free of preconception; a mind that has held its torn-up roots in front of its eyes and watched the earth there dry to a dust that any forceful bit of breath may blow away: all in order to realize an epic unlike other epics, those histories which are always lamely over before they’ve begun, and instead to render “the epic tale of tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? It is gradually disclosed to us that this book was written during a single year, 1993 (Handke tells us by posting dates on the last page). Yet it is set in 1999—a year said by Handke to be one of civil war throughout the world, especially in Germany, and therefore a good year to retire to some no-man’s bay where one may freely sail and safely land. But the war, because it is a civil one, is a struggle against traditional ties by those customarily tied. It is fought by parrots, pairs of shoes, purses. Against their cages, their mates, their money. By the accouterments of rituals that rise up against the ceremony. By rain allowed only asphalt to fall upon.

Disconnection can scarcely be carried further. Friends need to be freed of friendship in order to become friends again. While the narrator is forming an attachment to a small boy he has by chance toddler-watched and is happy about feeling fatherly for the first time, his own son is in Yugoslavia dumping him off his back. That woman friend in Turkey, who went about hunting for talismans that would tell her of her fate (but, when removed from the site of their discovery, lost their charm the way colored pebbles or seashells do when, dry, they find they’ve been poured in a dull heap upon a kitchen table in the glare of kitchen light), had to learn to see the things of the world without their signs and her imputed portents. Artists had to leave their art, as one leaves someone beloved with regret and anger, in order to return and begin again. This author himself ultimately must. The Reader, deprived of books by the quixotic act of tilting at a line of cars, so that authorities quite predictably led him away to the pokey, ponders what reading really means. And then all head back to the bay from whence they were, on their wanderjahr, sent.

Having escaped from their cage into chaos (and it is only custom that describes chaos as frantic and noisy), objects, qualities, actions, relations even, find themselves free from one another, just as human beings may be, and can allow themselves at last to choose and be chosen instead of to be born and bound. For this narrator and this novel, a true place or a true country of connection—a no man’s land—occurs only through the mediation of a meditating mind, a mind bent over to inspect and to respond, to let things have their silent say. In short, place is a page.

Toward its close—although like all great books, My Year has no ending (“The omega, the last letter of the ancient alphabet, has the form of a jump rope”), the narrator addresses his tools, the implements he has used to record—or rather to transform—his year.

So many pencils have I used up in this one year that the drawer is already having trouble, closing from all the stubs stuffed into it, and from each I have taken leave, on another sheet of paper, in writing: ‘Thank you, Spanish pencil! Thank you, Yugoslavian pencil! Thank you, white pencil from the honeymoon hotel in Nara, Japan! Thank you, twenty-second black Cumberland pencil! Thank you, pencil from Freilassing in Germany, even if that is perhaps not a beautiful place! Thank you, pencil from the bookstore in the bay, even if your lead kept breaking during sharpening!’

This reader wants to thank them too.


Handke, Peter (Vol. 10)


Handke, Peter (Vol. 15)