Thursday, January 14, 2010

"May his embrace carry me through this story"

I've already suggested that this might be a big Handke year for me; so far it's proving true. Right now I'm in the middle of my third attempt at Repetition, originally published in 1986, in English in 1988. (Ads without products has been reading, and it seems lately channeling, Handke's aphoristic The Weight of the World; one to add to the list.)

I've written how, at times, I've been unable to read Handke well; something resisted my attempts, though the prose style itself isn't obviously difficult. I suspect it has something to do with the way the narrative shifts from moment to moment, scene to scene. It also has to be admitted that I've had the unfortunate tendency to begin reading a Handke book at the exact moment I'm about to go through a period of extreme sleeplessness. While any reading is affected by being overly tired, I think the deceptive simplicity of Handke's prose is especially hard to follow, at least for this reader, when in such a state.

There is often a distance in the writing. And I felt strongly while reading Slow Homecoming that I was experiencing thought, as it was happening, on the page. An admittedly vague way of putting it, but it's how the experience was for me. Towards the beginning of this pass at Repetition, which is going much better, thank you, there is a sentence that made me think of another, also hard to describe, aspect to Handke's writing. Here is the full paragraph:
Fully present to my mind, however—and still fully present today, twenty-five years later—was the morning of the same day, when I took leave of my father on the wooded hill from which the village of Rinkenberg took its name. With sagging knees, dangling arms, and gout-gnarled fingers, which at that moment impersonated furious clenched fists, the frail, aging man, much smaller than I, stood by the wayside Cross and shouted at me: "All right, go to the dogs like your brother, like our whole family! None of us has ever amounted to anything, and you won't either. You won't even get to be a good gambler like me." Yet, just then, he had embraced me for the first time in my life, and I had looked over his shoulder at the dewy wetness on the bottom of his trousers, with the feeling that in me he was actually embracing himself. But then in memory my father's embrace held me, not only that evening outside the Jesenice station, but down through the years, and I heard his curse as a blessing. In reality he had been deadly serious, but in my thoughts I saw him grinning. May his embrace carry me through this story.
There is often harshness and certainly sudden violence depicted in Handke's books, but there is a warmth there, and a gentleness. May his embrace carry me through this story. This is a sentence one would find nowhere else, I think. And yet Handke is full of such expressions. In Short Letter, Long Farewell, at one point the narrator is simply pleased to have successfully communicated with an elevator operator, with anyone really—to be blessed with the grace of a successful transaction can carry one through a day. There is, in this writing, a generosity of spirit, even as the writer searches for the right words, struggles with the appropriate way to embody the role of storyteller. It is at times an uneasy warmth—witness my past problems—but it is there, quiet and insistent.

[Previously, on books by Peter Handke: a post on Slow Homecoming, two on Across (1, 2), one on The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick...]


Andrew said...

I was coincidentally just reading Afternoon of a Writer today. I hope to have some reflections up soon, although I imagine I will only be able to recapitulate what you say here--my reading experience seems to resemble yours very closely, and you express it very well.


What is interesting about the quote you have from REPETITION is that it's a near word for word rewrite of a passage from the Adalbert Stifer story that Handke has a long quote from in the play THEY ARE DYING OUT. There factotum Hans reads it to his boss, the monopolist Hermann Quitt. It's a wonderful moment in the play and an announcement of the route into a classical direction that Handke will take. Aside being a re-creation repetition of the walking trip Handke took after graduating from High School [Gymnasium which may at least make you into a mental gymnast] is that its rhythm, at least in German, induce the kind of slow walking [Handke had become the "king of slowness"] or the syntax, at least it did in my case when I read it in the original in the late 80s in the St. Monica Mts. near LA, adjacent to the preserve where I was living, with time and patience on my hands and feet to walk the dusty paths in the Chapparel.
AFTERNOON OF A WRITER is not such a happy book! Salzburg had definitely gotten to Handke and he was about to flee to Paris.
michael roloff

Jordan said...

There's a quotation somewhere from Handke - I read it either here or This Space, I don't remember - where he talks about how the tranquility of his writing is deceptive, how he agonized over the process of it at every step. I always keep that in mind when reading his stuff - the concept that the appearance of extreme calm and exactitude comes at the price of the kind of difficult he describes.