Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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The Weight of the World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.