Handke, Austria’s (arguably the world’s) greatest living writer, will probably never get the Nobel…and maybe he shouldn’t…or should…
For some readers of this piece, the name Peter Handke will probably suggest only controversy. Handke has spent the last two decades of his life under attack for his association with – and inexplicable defense of – the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. No less a personage than fellow Nobelist-in-waiting Salman Rushdie has called Handke a propagandist for the Milosevic government’s genocidal policies. When Handke received the International Ibsen Award earlier this year, Pen Norway called for the selection jury’s resignation and one scholar called giving Handke the award the equivalent of giving the Immanuel Kant Prize to Joseph Goebbels. Other important literary figures have defended Handke stating that he deserves the Nobel Prize – one claiming that she received the prize when Handke was the more worthy recipient.
All this comes as no surprise – troubling though it is – to me. I’ve been an admirer of Handke’s work since I was introduced to him in undergraduate school. What grabbed me initially was his “anti-play” Offending the Audience. The paperback edition we used for the class I took in German literature in translation featured a strip of film with multiple images of the author whose Keith Richards haircut immediately validated him as someone I could talk to and be understood by even as I understood him. He confirmed his “my generation” cred in the dedication of Offending the Audience where he lists John Lennon among his dedicatees. Finally, in his “Rules for the Actors” to that play there is this stage direction:
“Listen to ‘Tell Me’ by the Rolling Stones.”
How could I not embrace a fellow hip and happening guy like that?
Offending the Audience was, I discovered, a revolutionary piece of theater. The short version is this: the audience assembles and waits for the play to begin; unbeknownst to them, the actors (speakers, Handke would call them, I think), planted among the spectators, begin to insult the assembled group, demanding why they (the audience) expect to see a play and why they (the actors) do not accept responsibility for the play – the responsibility for the play lies with the audience. It’s a brilliant way of making audiences aware that they – must be aware.
Forcing his audience – whether viewer or reader – to be aware is a hallmark of all of Handke’s work. No writer of the past 50 years has engaged the reader in the act of communication as Handke has. Unlike Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthelme, or others of the Postmodern elite, Handke always makes sure that we understand that there is a story to be told – and that the struggle we will always have is the writer’s struggle to find words that convey meaning and the reader’s struggle to understand how the writer has used words – imperfectly, of course – to describe/explain/convey the experience of life. More than any other writer I can name, Handke has illuminated the dilemma of Postmodernism. Through a series of plays, novels, screenplays, and nonfiction or semi-autobiographical works – Kaspar, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The Left-Handed Woman, Wings of Desire, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Repetition, and The Weight of the World – Handke forces us to confront our struggle to use language to share our stories when language has largely been rendered meaningless by the debasing and bowdlerizing forces of politics, advertising, and facile, manipulative entertainments.
Nowhere is that struggle clearer than in The Weight of the World, an assemblage of journal pieces, aphorisms, and musings. Like any Handke, it is not an easy book to read. Like most Handke, it is not an easy book to describe. But like any Handke, it is a rewarding book to experience. As one reads through the brief observations and witticisms with which The Weight of the World is riddled, the cumulative effect is twofold: we begin to know Handke the person, mess that he is, even as we observe and admire Handke the writer. Perhaps the simplest way to suggest how the book works is simply to offer some of it.
Here he muses on his personal life:
I am usually too lucid to be sad.
By resisting her tenderness, I destroyed our beauty.
I was angry at her for not being what I wanted.
And in the end, of course, pity is unavoidable.
Here he is on writing and literature and the struggle to be an artist:
The trouble with great literature is that any asshole can identify with it.
Sometimes the feeling that all the advertising slogans and the inescapable headlines of the scandal sheets will someday club me to death.
How necessary art is to me day after day, if I am not to wish some of the people I love best would die, or kill them with my indifference.
From a book review: ‘This is more than a piece of great literature.’ What is more than a piece of great literature?
His observation of human foibles – including his own:
He isn’t in utter despair yet, he hasn’t begun to be thankful.
When Frau F. is out of sorts, she pulls the sleeves of her sweater over her fists.
People whispering in a waiting train.
When they all started telling jokes, I realized that hardly knew any; I was delighted.
What makes Handke resonate for me and many, though, is his uncanny ability to encapsulate our deepest held fears about our own worth:
And then again the thought that everything I think and feel is irrelevant.
Reading Handke is accepting the challenge of being human – and the challenge of trying to find an explanation for what being human means. But this line, one I love so much I used it in my most recent book, conveys his genius at pursuing those goals. And offers us all one last challenge to engage along with Handke in the business of living:
Really alive? A glance will tell you.