Child Story, 1981
The adult, an Austrian man, a simple parent living in Paris with his young daughter. He is in his late thirties. After the birth of his child, the parents’ marriage breaks up, and the man and his daughter move to Paris. The adult constantly reflects on his relationship to his child and often tends to view her as a kind of symbol of the innocence and spontaneity that he has lost in his own life. One night, he loses his temper and strikes the child. He feels great guilt over his act.
The child, a girl around six years old. She is an average child and must deal with the consequences of her father’s move to Paris. She attends a special school and must learn to make new friends.
Slow Homecoming is the English title of a collection of three of Handke’s short novels, whose individual titles may be translated as The Long Way Around, The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, and Child Story. The three works feature separate plots and characters and different styles. Taken as a group, however, they represent variations on a common theme: the ways in which people view themselves and their place in the world around them.
The Long Way Around tells the story of Sorger, a geologist whose physical journey from Alaska, California, and New York to his home in Europe parallels an inner journey of discovery and self-awareness. At the beginning of the novel, Sorger is a loner who “had done no work expressly useful to anyone” and who “would not have been fit company for anyone”; he tries to comprehend the meaning of existence by obsessively describing the physical world. This approach fails, and Sorger nears a psychological collapse, but eventually he realizes that it is relationships with other people, not his science, that give life its significance. He leaves for home full of confidence and optimism.
The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire deals with art rather than science, relating the visual art of French painter Paul Cézanne to the literary art of Handke himself. Handke describes his visit to a spot in the Sainte-Victoire mountain range where Cézanne found particular inspiration and the effects that the experience has had on his own creativity. The “lesson” is that true understanding and insight can be achieved only through the synthesis of form and object, subjective perception and objective reality, the specific and the universal. Handke applies this knowledge in the concluding section, a description of the woods near Salzburg.
Child Story, the final novella in the collection, is Handke’s autobiographical account of his relationship with his daughter from her birth through age ten. For Handke, being a parent is both magically fulfilling and horribly trying, and he describes both feelings with equal clarity: His primitive urge to protect and defend his newborn child contrasts starkly with the anger and frustration that, years later, cause him to strike her nearly “hard enough to kill her.” Throughout Child Story, however, Handke shows the importance of the interaction of parent and child, as his daughter provides him with the same kinds of insights that science and art offered in the two previous novellas.
Slow Homecoming is one of Handke’s most complex and difficult works. Often abandoning narrative in favor of meditations on life, knowledge, and nature, the three short novels owe as much to philosophy as to fiction. In their unusual blend of fiction and fact, description and explanation, investigation and revelation, the three sections of Slow Homecoming represent some of Handke’s most creative, fully developed, and innovative work.
Slow Homecoming consists of three, very loosely connected texts—The Long Way Around, The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, and Child Story—which are veiled in fiction but remain strongly autobiographical. The various characters in the stories are stylized variations of the author’s persona. The three texts document a spiritual and artistic quest. The first work is a third-person narrative that treats the character of Valentin Sorger, a European geologist who is working above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It consists largely of reflections on art and existence. Sorger lives in a small, primitive Indian village and makes “sketches” of the wild and half-formed landscapes. He feels estranged from the reality of his past. One day, he decides that he must return to his home in Europe.
Sorger first goes to San Francisco, where he has a home. He enters a state of extreme alienation and can barely speak. He is deeply interested in the forms and colors of nature and meditates on landscapes. What he seeks is a vision of some eternal law, a salvation. His sketching becomes a way of orienting himself, of locating himself in reality.
Sorger then flies to Denver to visit a former schoolmate who is a skiing instructor. He learns, however, that the man has just died. After staying a few days, he flies on to New York. He continues to meditate on the eternal law or “Form” that he seeks. There he meets a man named Esch, with whom he has a long and intense conversation. The text ends as he flies back to Europe.
The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, the second text in the series, is a first-person narrative that concerns a writer who has returned to Europe. He wants to travel to Mont-Sainte-Victoire in the south of France, because he is deeply involved in the art of Paul Cezanne, who often used the mountain landscape as the subject of his painting. The text consists of the narrator’s aesthetic reflections as he wanders the countryside observing the landscape and the forms of nature. Cezanne was for him the great creator who could transform nature and the experience of life into the eternal forms of art.
The narrator has a bizarre experience on the mountain when he comes by a Foreign Legion camp and confronts a half-crazed guard dog behind the barbed-wire fence. The violent and insane dog brings him a revelation concerning all the hate, violence, and negative energy that surrounds each individual. He longs for the salvation of the aesthetic realm, for the nunc stans, literally the “static now,” the eternal moment captured in works of art. He also reflects on his past and on other writers and mystics. The work ends with his thoughts about a forest painting by a Dutch artist and with a description of a similar forest near Salzburg.
Child Story, the third text, is a third-person narrative concerning a single parent, a writer, taking care of his young child. The text chronicles the everyday interactions between the adult and the child and consists of reflections on the adult’s own childhood, art, love, loneliness, and the strains and joys of living with another person.
The narrative begins with the birth of the child—a girl—and the eventual breakdown of the parents’ marriage. The adult and child move to Paris and rent a house. The child must adjust to a new environment and a new language. She attends a sectarian school and must make new friends. The dramatic point of their relationship occurs when the adult loses his temper one night and strikes the child. He feels great remorse over his action.
The adult speaks against the modern world, its hypocrisy and false values, yet he tends, on the other hand, to idolize the child, with her innocence and spontaneity. The adult longs for a sense of transcendence, for a “law,” a “myth” that will transform his life, and he seems to see that in his child.