Saturday, April 25, 2009

Untimely

I was protective of my reading of Slow Homecoming. I'm protective of my reading anyway, but I knew I needed to not lose the oh so fragile thread here. For the book is quiet, read in spurts the prose doesn't gel, for me, it loses something. As Benjamin Kunkel puts it in his very fine introduction to the new NYRB edition of the novel, "you are asked only to pay attention", attention that is often difficult to give. Kunkel also says that it is "not an easy book to read on a subway or in an airport, or in a café where recorded music blares, or if you are anxious to check your e-mail" etc; sure enough, my reading, of any kind, of any book, is done primarily on trains and subways, amid crowds of people. It is all I can do to shut them out. (This is the main reason why I sometimes think that I have not done this or that book justice.) With Slow Homecoming, the Sebaldian second section "The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire"--Sebaldian because our narrator follows in the footsteps, for a time, of a famous artist, in this case Cézanne--perhaps suffered the most for this, but I was fortunately able to stay with Handke. (Meanwhile, I say "Sebaldian" knowing full well that this first appeared in 1979, well before Sebald's own fiction was first published.)

I like how Kunkel concludes his introduction (which can be seen online here; link via Twitchelmore):
Americans won't feel quite the same need as an Austrian of Handke's generation to wake from historical habits of mind and action into a patient, slow, form-discovering style of careful attention. But it does seem that such wakefulness grows at once harder and more valuable as electronic noise and communications crowd the margins of our thoughts—and here is a book, more untimely today than when it was first published, from which anyone might receive an image of what Handke calls "being able to live an acceptable life even at cross-purposes to the times."
It is often said that the novel, contemporary fiction, should reflect the time in which it is written, should rather be like the time, that the fast-paced novel, the information-rich novel, the post-modern novel in which everything goes, everything is, is more relevant, more necessary. I submit that a novel like Slow Homecoming, out of time, quiet, slow, and yet not old fashioned, is necessary for giving us the experiences of what is--or at least what might be--lost in the rush forward.

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