The Peter Handke Controversy, Considered

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On December 10, 2019, the Austrian writer Peter Handke received the Nobel Prize in Literature. If he felt pride or triumph, he did not show it. His bow tie askance above an ill-fitting white dress shirt, his eyes unsmiling behind his trademark round glasses, Handke looked resigned and stoical, as if he were submitting to a bothersome medical procedure. As he accepted his award, some of the onlookers — not all of whom joined in the applause — appeared equally grim.

Handke embarked on his career, in the nineteen-sixties, as a provocateur, with absurdist theatrical works that eschewed action, character, and dialogue for, in the words of one critic, “anonymous, threatening rants.” One of his early plays, titled “Offending the Audience,” ends with the actors hurling insults at the spectators. In the following decades, as he produced dozens of plays and novels, he turned his experiments with language inward, exploring both its possibilities and its limitations in evoking human consciousness. W. G. Sebald, who was deeply influenced by Handke, wrote, “The specific narrative genre he developed succeeded by dint of its completely original linguistic and imaginative precision.”

Handke’s novels, which he has called “narrative excursions or one-man expeditions,” often feature a man who shares characteristics with the author as he reflects on what he sees while traveling through a landscape. Episodic, with long stretches in which there is little to no action, the narratives arise out of a series of encounters — with people, animals, or simply ideas — that gradually accrue meaning. In “Repetition” (1986), often considered Handke’s masterpiece, the setting is his mother’s homeland — Slovenia, then part of Communist Yugoslavia. In his latest novel to appear in English, “The Fruit Thief” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which was published in German in 2017 and has been translated by Krishna Winston, we are in the countryside just north of Paris, not far from the suburb where Handke has lived for the past thirty years.

These novels, in their microscopic focus on the vagaries of the narrator’s perception, are almost aggressively nonpolitical, but it is politics that has made Handke notorious, producing the frowns at the Nobel ceremony. In early 1996, six months after Serbs massacred more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica — the greatest atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust — Handke took a trip through Serbia. In his travelogue, which appeared in English under the title “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” Handke heaped scorn on the Western journalists who reported from Yugoslavia, accusing them of bias and corruption. In his account, the Serbs come across as charming, cultured hosts, their food delicious, their countryside pastoral, their political circumstances perplexing and unearned.

There was outrage from journalists and critics, but Handke doubled down. In the spring of 1999, as the US and NATO allies began a bombing campaign intended to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, he visited Belgrade to demonstrate his support for Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. A few months later, according to American journalist Peter Maass, Handke was granted a Yugoslav passport. When Milosevic died, in 2006, Handke delivered a eulogy at his funeral.

Twenty-three years after Handke first waded into these troubled waters, the announcement of his Nobel Prize brought a further chorus of denunciation. The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt expressed concern that the prize would give legitimacy to his false claims; the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who had reported on Srebrenica as a journalist, tweeted that the genocide was an “undeniable fact.” A member of the Swedish Academy announced that he would boycott the proceedings. Handke remained uncowed. When Maass confronted him at the Nobel press conference, Handke dismissed his questions as “empty and ignorant.”

Handke’s defenders argue that his Serbian adventure is essentially an excrescence, with little bearing on his work. The Austrian daily The Press opined that, as Handke’s work had “long been considered part of world literature,” the sad fact that he had “lost his way in the thicket of the Balkans” should not disqualify him from the Nobel. Yet perhaps the most distinctive quality of Handke’s art is that it has always been inseparable from the persona of its creator. A new collection of his essays, “Quiet Places” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), demonstrates that, regardless of whether Handke labels a work fiction or nonfiction, his technique remains much the same — the tone discursive, the narratives eddying and associative, the point of view inward and subjective. Indeed, Handke has said that he wrote about Serbia “exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar — of aesthetic veracity. ” Rather than a departure from his literary work, Handke’s position on Serbia may be of a piece with it — a logical consequence of the postmodern experimentation for which he has long been celebrated.

“The beginning of my writing,” Handke has said, was “the stories my mother told.” Born in 1942 in an impoverished provincial town in southern Austria, the illegitimate son of his mother and her married lover, he was raised by his mother and an abusive stepfather. His consolation as a child was her tales of people from her birthplace, known only as Stara Vas, or Old Village.

Handke likes to tell two of his mother’s stories as a pair: they show up in several of his works, including “The Fruit Thief.” In one, his mother’s younger brother runs away from a boarding school and walks home, a journey of some forty kilometers. He arrives in the middle of the night on a Saturday, which is the day that the courtyard gets swept. So the boy picks up a broom and sweeps until daybreak, when the family discovers him.

The other story concerns a baby boy, the child of a “retarded milkmaid” who works on a local farm and was raped by the farmer. The farmer and his wife adopt the child, and the milkmaid is told to stay away from the boy, who grows up thinking that the farmer’s wife is his mother. One day, the milkmaid hears the boy screaming for help: he has got tangled in a barbed-wire fence. She runs over and unhooks him. Later, the little boy asks his presumed mother, “Why does the stupid girl have such gentle hands?”

Both stories have the quality of a fairy tale: the boy who sweeps the courtyard at night by rote, as if bewitched; the foundling child who retains a connection to his mother even as others try to conceal it from him. And both are about the gulf between parents and children, and the often futile efforts to overcome that gulf — themes that haunt Handke’s work. Handke often emphasizes not an event but, rather, a seemingly minor moment, the significance of which the person who experiences it does not even recognize.

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