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Peter Handke, a native of Austria, is one of the most prominent, and at times controversial, authors writing in the German language. He has produced a prodigious amount of work, including plays, poetry, and a number of novels and essays. The Weight of the World is his first published diary journal. It is very much a literary text, written as an experiment in aesthetic form. The English translation represents an abridged version of the original German edition. In collaboration with his translator, Handke excised a number of passages—especially those concerning politics and those too difficult to translate—amounting to about ten pages.

The work consists of short entries which have the quality of random notes. Indeed, Handke composed it by writing in a small book which he carried around with him during the period of November, 1975, to January, 1977. At this time he was living with his young daughter in Paris. Some of the entries are noted by both day and month, others by the month only. They are, for the most part, not organized thematically. Interestingly, very few of the entries—with the exception of those pertaining to his daughter—deal with particular individuals or even public events. This is, above all, a journal of the author’s inner world, a kind of phenomenological diary: that is, a record of the phenomena of consciousness.

In the preface to the original German edition—which is not included in the English version—Handke indicates that he initially began the notebook with the thought of jotting down ideas for a novel or play he had in mind. He then realized that many of his notes did not seem to fit the plan or scheme for the particular literary work he planned to write. He decided that he wanted to attempt writing down his experiences with as little mediation as possible, without thoughts of some larger project or systematic organization behind the act of formulation. It would be a kind of experimental stream-of-consciousness note-taking, writing almost as a kind of reflex action. In an interview conducted in 1979, Handke said he considered it a kind of “novel” about everyday life.

With this attempt to transcribe his feelings and impressions in an automatic gesture of note-taking, Handke hopes to narrow the gap between experience and its formulation and to achieve thereby a more authentic level of aesthetic discourse. The truly creative and imaginative fictions of great literature originate in the immediate experience of the writer—in dreams, striking images, and random thoughts—which are then given a formal structure. These fictions generate, in Handke’s view, alternative visions of reality and thereby illustrate other possible modes of existence. Such visions allow the individual to achieve a momentary transcendence with respect to the inevitable estrangement of life, and they introduce the possibility of change.

This attempt to create a poetic discourse that liberates rather than alienates the individual represents the major dimension of the theme of language and fiction in Handke’s writings. The problem he seeks to address in The Weight of the World is a timeless one: that the attempt to formulate an experience often obscures or distorts the feeling that motivated it. The individual’s experience of his feelings then becomes inauthentic by virtue of the act of formulation. Every act of writing, especially personal ones, such as writing in a diary, seeks to overcome the distortions inherent in language.

The Weight of the World

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Peter Handke, the prolific Austrian writer whose works have been regularly translated into English since 1969, no longer needs an extended introduction to an American audience. It was in Princeton, New Jersey, in the mid-1960’s that he caused a small scandal by his irreverent disruption of the annual meeting of the Gruppe 47, a loosely bound association of the postwar German literary establishment. Controversy still accompanies the publication of his works, although he is no longer accused of the sensationalism and self-promotion that some saw reflected in the incident in Princeton. Literary scholarship has not only assigned Handke an honorable position in an Austrian literary tradition that includes Ferdinand Raimund, Johann Nestroy, Ödön von Horváth, Adalbert Stifter, and Franz Kafka, but also ranks him as one of the most significant German-speaking representatives of postmodernism in world literature.

The Weight of the World (published in Germany in 1977 as Das Gewicht der Welt), a journal that records Handke’s perceptions and reflections almost on a daily basis from November, 1975, to March, 1977, a period he spent almost entirely in Paris, is the first of three such diaries to be translated into English. In a short preface which is regrettably missing in the translation, Handke relates how he had originally begun his jottings with the intent to bring them into a coherent work of fiction. Experience and impressions were formulated in language and brought to paper only insofar as they seemed to fit a master design. As the project grew, however, Handke became increasingly aware of the events in consciousness which fell outside this frame and thus had to be discarded and forgotten. These experiential gleanings gradually shifted to the center of his attention until he finally dropped his original shaping intent altogether. Thus freed from an organization imposed by a given literary aim, Handke’s journal entries became an account of the linguistic reflexes to apparently random perceptions and feelings, a sort of running commentary on consciousness. What was lost in coherence and unity was gained in immediacy. The weight of an a priori system yielded to the weight of the world.

Unlike the otherworldly ballast of the German cultural tradition whose roots Milan Kundera finds in Ludwig van Beethoven and Friedrich Nietzsche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984; reviewed in this volume), the heaviness of Handke’s metaphor stems from this world, a perceptual rather than a metaphysical weight. He fantasizes about an escape from the mental systems and structures that absorb much of the world’s force and that dull awareness. The goal of his escape is what he calls an “era of consciousness,” in which the human perceptual apparatus would face a landscape of phenomena stripped of symbolic significance.

Taken as a whole, the unrelated single entries of Handke’s journal, most of them no longer than a few lines, often resemble a recurring situation in Handke’s writing. An observer is placed in a position in which he can see the reactions of a second person, yet the stimuli producing these reactions are blocked from the observer’s view. The person’s behavior can only remain a mystery to the observer, or at most take on a subjective significance for him, as long as he is unable to view it in the context that gives it its objective meaning. Handke’s journal repeatedly places the reader in a position similar to that of the observer. His fragmented notes rarely allow a glimpse of concrete events and people touching his life during the span that the journal covers. Few traces of even the most personally significant events remain beyond those left by the death of a friend, several sessions with a psychoanalyst, and a hospital stay. Clearly more pressing as stimuli are literature, films, dreams, fantasies, emotional states, physical sensations and the automatic patterns of everyday speech, gestures and behavior that he observes in himself and others. Handke proves particularly astute in recalling to consciousness these automatisms, thus providing evidence—as trite and banal as it sometimes appears—of what he calls his “passion for perception.”

The clearest human image to emerge is that of his daughter, whom Handke identifies like all others—only by an initial. Most of the notes sparked by human contact—those with his daughter are an exception—confirm Handke’s reputation as a loner who prefers hypnotic fascination with the self to superficial contact with others. The profound skepticism toward language which informs his early works also underlies his irritability with casual conversation, its vacuousness and enslavement to cliché. He prefers to be alone and declares at one point that once he had reached a state of self-awareness as a child, he knew that he had discovered an activity which would fill his life. Handke’s fictional works are as directly rooted in this self-exploration and expansion as his journal. They reflect a common desire for a protean self dislodged from a constant identity, a subject wandering through a multiplicity of predications. Handke’s search is not that of the Existentialists for the “true” self, but for the self as seismograph, infinitely sensitive to the profusion of earthly stimuli and weights. As with Kafka and Max Frisch, whose diaries are an integral part of their total work, Handke’s journal and his fiction are mutually illuminating. Keuschnig, the main character in the novel Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling, 1977), who finds himself inexplicably torn from the tangle of systems that defined his life, moves haltingly toward an idealized existence in which he discovers the world anew from moment to moment. Most lives, however, such as that of Handke’s mother in Wunschloses Unglück (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1974), become ensnared in familial and societal expectations and are brought to premature closures. In the preface to this book stands a line borrowed from Bob Dylan which expresses the tragedy of this arrested evolution: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

While all diaries and journals are generically tied to a preoccupation with the author’s private musings, Handke’s perspective differs by the radicality of its exclusion of a reality that is at any distance from his immediate surroundings. The reader will search these pages in vain for objective, considered judgments on any subject that was of widespread public concern to Handke’s contemporaries. When the work originally appeared in 1977, the reviewer for Der Spiegel magazine criticized Handke for his neglect of almost everything that had moved and affected him during that same period of time. Beyond a single sentence condemning his native Austria, he exhibits few sentiments which might by any stretch of the definition be labeled political. Even this comment is a highly egocentric view metaphorically couched in terms of physical revulsion.

Reactions to literature, the thematic center of Handke’s journal, are idiosyncratic responses to texts which he happens to hold in his hands at the moment. Personal encounters with other writers, literati or cultural luminaries, the stock in trade of countless diarists in the past, are here noticeable by their absence. With the exception of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Handke’s reading list during these months excluded contemporary writers, and scarcely a hint of literary animosity casts a shadow across these pages. Earlier sources of irritation and intimidation—concrete poetry, Andy Warhol, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and structuralism—are abruptly dismissed as empty catchwords of intellectual fashion. Of the writers Handke cites with approval, there are passages by Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Hebbel, Hermann Hesse, and Heimito von Doderer. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe towers above all the rest in importance, particularly his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, 1872) and the autobiographical Italienische Reise (1816, 1817; Travels in Italy, 1883). Recuperating in the hospital, Handke turns to Kafka’s diaries and later to those of Robert Musil. The sustaining fascination of these literary encounters is not with the text but rather with himself as a reader of texts. Fiction as well as autobiographical writing are sources of life-expanding possibilities, of novel predications for his own amorphous sense of selfhood.

Operating on the assumption of a fundamental and recognizable boundary between reality and art, critics have traditionally mined writers’ diaries for the elements of truth that lie behind their fictional works. Even though Handke casts himself primarily in a passive role in his journal, he, too, occasionally allows glimpses into the workshop of his own art. As in any modernist workshop, however, where reality has become a highly problematical concept, the stress is more on the tools than on the concrete phenomena of raw material and art. Handke’s observations are more closely akin to those of a poet concerned with the processing of experience than to those of a prosaist at ease with everyday notions of reality. As he himself freely admits, however, theoretical reflection does not rank high on his own list of intellectual interests or skills. The observations on his own writing are less important as the skeletal frame of a theory on literary creativity than as an indicator of personal values. If the writing of others enhances the richness of his own existence, Handke at times equates his own activities as a writer with life itself.

Personal journals, even those of the most famous and established individuals, must inevitably justify their publication either extrinsically, as a source of information about the author, his writings, the people and events in whose proximity he lives, or intrinsically, on their own merits as works of artistic value. In the original preface to The Weight of the World, Handke foresees the potential criticism which his journal as a commentary on consciousness might provoke, yet he describes it as a unique literary experiment. For the author, then, the work must stand or fall on aesthetic grounds alone. Some readers will miss that very organizing scheme around which Handke had originally gathered his thoughts and may find little literary merit in material that appears too random and too often out of any objective context. With more invention and greater selectivity, such readers may reasonably argue, Handke might have created a sequel to Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958), Rainer Maria Rilke’s autobiographical novel written in the form of a journal. Neither narrative completeness nor coherence, however, were part of Handke’s method of spontaneously reacting to events of the moment. If his journal can be granted the literary status its author claims, then it must be able on its strength to affect the reader.

Despite the appearance of being a very private work, The Weight of the World is in a very real sense the work of its readers. Handke judiciously addresses it “to whom it may concern,” and as it will certainly not concern some readers at all, it will concern others to varying degrees. For those in the latter group, passages with a latent personal significance will tap memories, experiences, emotions, and perceptions buried in a personal past and bring them to awareness in a moment of surprised recognition. The free associations of the author form the basis for the reader’s own freely associated response. The true pleasure in reading the minutiae which Handke records about his life is the pleasure of rediscovering a detail of one’s own life that larger matters have pushed from consciousness. Detached from the fictional thread as a source of textual coherence and intertextual significance, the fragments of Handke’s experience find an enriched resonance and meaning in the response of the reader.

The several works of fiction and the two journals which have appeared since The Weight of the World reflect a writer impatient with the status quo of his life and art. Movement and change have always had a value in themselves for Handke, although they are becoming less radical as he inclines increasingly toward Goethe’s classical and late works as models. In the later diaries, his emphasis has clearly shifted from the self as percipient to the self as literary creator. This finally represents not an essential change of focus, however, but merely a change of perspective, as Peter Handke continues to be his own most fascinating topic and richest resource.


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Book World. XIV, August 26, 1984, p. 7.

Booklist. LXXX, June 1, 1984, p. 1373.

Choice. XXII, November, 1984, p. 429.

Fothergill, Anthony. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. November 15, 1985, p. 1297.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, May 1, 1984, p. 440.

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1327.

Linville, Susan, and Kent Caspar. “Reclaiming the Self: Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman,” in Literature/Film Quarterly. XII (1984), pp. 13-21.

Locke, Richard. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (July 12, 1984), p. 10.

The New Republic. CXCI, September 3, 1984, p. 37.

New Statesman. CVIII, September 28, 1984, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 18, 1984, p. 138.

Schlueter, June. “The Forthcoming Handke,” in The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke, 1981.

Sharp, Francis Michael. “Literature as Self-Reflection: Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke,” in World Literature Today. LV (Autumn, 1981), pp. 603-607.

Sharp, Francis Michael. “Peter Handke,” in Major Figures of Contemporary Austrian Literature, 1987. Edited by Donald G. Daviau.


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