Friday, August 04, 2006

Across, Peter Handke

I've just completed reading Peter Handke's novel Across. It's a perplexing book. The narrator is Andreas Loser, a professor of foreign languages and something of an expert on thresholds. The book is divided into three sections, plus an epilogue, and is composed almost entirely of his observations of the world around him, combined with ruminations on existence and, for the most part, relatively brief snippets of conversation. These observations are detailed and seemingly random, moving from object to object, scene to scene. We learn that he participates as an amateur in archeological digs, learning early on to look for what is not there, for what has "vanished irretrievably". Thus he develops his interest in and knowledge of thresholds. Much hinges on this word "threshold".

At a regular meeting of card-players, asked by the narrator what the theological tradition has to say about thresholds, a priest says this:
"...According to an almost forgotten proverb: 'The threshold is a fountainhead.' And this teacher says literally: 'It was from thresholds that lovers and friends absorbed strength. But,' he goes on, 'where nowadays are we to find the destroyed thresholds, if not in ourselves? By our own wounds shall we be healed. If snow stops falling from the clouds, let it continue to fall inside me.' Every step, every glance, every gesture, says the teacher, should be aware of itself as a possible threshold and thus recreate what has been lost. This new threshold consciousness might then transfer attention from object to object, and so on until the peace relay appears on earth, at least on that one day--and on the day after and the day after that, rather as in the child's game where stone sharpens scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper wraps stone. Thus, thresholds as seats of power may not have disappeared; they have become conceivable, so to speak, as inner powers. If man were conscious of these thresholds, he would at least let his fellow man die a natural death. Threshold consciousness is nature religion. More cannot be promised."
These lines seem key to me, though they are, like much else in the book, mysterious. While reading, I was having a difficult time investing the word threshold with the meanings that seemed so important to the characters. I thought about the action that takes place when one approaches a threshold. One crosses from one space into another. A threshold within us might be crossed as we move from one decision to another, from one sense of time to another, from one idea to another, perhaps its corollary or opposite. Looking up threshold in the dictionary, I found predominantly everyday usages such as "door sill", "entrance", "doorway", or even "place of beginning". But then: "a minimum requirement for further action; specifically: a determination (as of fact or the existence of a reasonable doubt) upon which something else (as further consideration or a right of action) hinges".

As already mentioned, much of the narration is given over to serial observations of the narrator's world, natural as well as man-made, country and city, and the intersections of each. These observations appear to be filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, but many of them seem to be outside the narrator's possible view. We view them anyway. The narration is usually presented in the first person, with the word "I", but often the narrator refers to himself as "the runner" or "the guest" or "the cook" or, indeed, "the narrator", as if he is observing from without the events, however large or small, of his own life. He reports, generally without comment, the words of other people, including his family. The titles of the sections are "The Viewer Is Diverted", "The Viewer Takes Action", and "The Viewer Seeks a Witness". So the narrator, Loser (he identifies his name with a dialect verb losen, or "listen"), is explicitly observing his world, he is of it, but aloof, apart from others, even his own family and his work. He seems reluctant to disturb anything. When he finally does "take action" it is sudden, violent, surprising after the almost complete inaction leading up to it. He reacts to an infringement, a wound--he sees a freshly painted swastika on a tree: "this sign, this negative image, symbolized the cause of all my melancholy--of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in this country." This "minimum requirement for action", this threshold moves him suddenly, briefly, into a new mode of being--from inaction into action. The action having been taken, he returns to observing, though he seems more agitated. He talks of being exposed, though there is no way anyone could know of his action:
...I felt a strange satisfaction at "exposing" myself, just as there can be a certain satisfaction in exposing oneself to total darkness or a glacial wind--in laying oneself open to the worst sort of adversity. Satisfaction? No, pleasure. Pleasure? No, determination. Determination? No, acquiescence in the conditions of existence.
He feels that he is in perdition--he finds the word unavoidable, but then chooses to avoid it. He finds, rather, that there is an obstruction ("disillusionment", "falsification") in the center of his field of vision. He cannot properly view the world. He must then seek a kind of witness.

It could be said that Across is about storytelling. The narrator must get his story "across" to the reader? The narrator must move "across" a threshold in order to have experience of any kind to convey, however it must be conveyed? In the third section, he "seeks a witness" not, it seems, to the action he has taken, but to the telling of the story of the action. We may often hear of people having to unload some stressful account before they may finally rest. Here, the narrator seeks someone to hear his story. (To read it.) Having done this, he can move on. In the end he dreams: "The storyteller is the threshold." Then he returns to viewing. And is at peace?

Handke's prose (in translation, of course; Handke is Austrian) encourages the reader to slow down. Across is a short book--only 138 pages--but it took me the better part of a week to read. I began the book and was at first impatient--what was the point of all these disconnected observations? And what was the deal with this threshold business? The language, seemingly straightforward, resisted my attempts to read on. External distractions and lack of sleep prevented me from focusing on the words as well as the book needed me to. Another book, another perfectly fine book, I might have been able to continue reading in this vein without losing much. I put the book aside at a key moment in the narrative, so it turned out, and returned to it Monday of this week, beginning again. It was better going this time. Yet, by the end, the main action of the book remained mysterious to me, the narrator's motivation eluding my grasp. Not motivation; that's the wrong word. Explanation? Impetus? Yes, impetus is closer (but I suppose "threshold" is even more appropriate). And yet, again, this was my fault: I'd flitted right over a key word or two at the worst moments. Upon completion of the book, I returned to the several pages surrounding the action. In light of what came later, everything was much clearer now--as clear as it was going to be anyway. Then I re-read much of the conversation with the priest about thresholds, some of which I've quoted above. It was re-reading the pages featuring the action, and then re-reading the lines from the priest (remember: "Every step, every glance, every gesture...should be aware of itself as a possible threshold and thus recreate what has been lost") and pondering this question of thresholds that has moved me to write here about this novel, as part of my own attempt to come to terms with it.

This is the first Handke book I've read. At the same time that I acquired Across, I also found a used copy of what I believe was his next novel, Repetition, and I had earlier picked up The Left-Handed Woman. I gather (from frequent mentions by Steve Mitchelmore at This Space, as well as posts such as this one by Lars at Spurious) that much of his work addresses similar types of concerns. I'll be reading more of him in the future.


ajh said...

I recommend Left Handed woman - it's fantastic. Very different to 'Across' - and very easy to read...

Richard said...

Thanks. I actually have read it by now. I didn't like it as much as I did Across, but as often happens with Handke, I think, it seemed almost too simple. Worth a re-read, I'm sure.