Sunday, October 13, 2019

Peter Handke is the ideal Nobel laureate

I've been reading Peter Handke for thirty years and have described before how a chance reading of the opening lines of Across in 1989 was a revelation. So when October comes around and speculation begins about who should receive the Nobel Prize, I remember this moment and Alfred Nobel's will stating the prize should be awarded to a writer who has produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, wishing only that the agitations about the race, gender or otherwise of the potential recipient could be replaced by a discussion of what this might mean and to which authors it might then apply. After all, as we have seen with Olga Tokarczuk receiving the 2018 prize, the agitations carry on regardless. Commentators want the candidate to be ideal rather than the work because the work...well, the work appears to be irrelevant.

As Kjell Espmark of the Swedish Academy shows, the interpretation of Nobel's 'ideal direction' has a history of its own. If the stipulation can be understood to be recommending those authors who investigate or whose work embodies the relation of the idealism of literature to the empirical world, then Peter Handke's work would be top of the list of those meeting it, with Across the Border, WG Sebald's stunning essay on Die Wiederholung, translated as Repetition, providing plenty of evidence. There are two more links on that page providing more.

I have written at length only twice about my years of reading and re-reading Peter Handke, with Sebald's profundity justifying my trepidation. Three steps not beyond is about Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, the three great novels of the 1980s, and Kingdoms of recurrence is about the book-length poem To Duration from the same era, which leaves the latter span of his career untouched. I have to admit that I found his subsequent novels very disappointing. As this article by Scott Abbott suggests, this may be due in part to the death in 1992 of Ralph Manheim who had translated all but one of the four books, but may also be due to his apparent ambition to produce an epic.

In the golden era of blogging, I quoted from interviews and briefly tried to explain why Repetition had such a unique impact on me, but many posts were short-order responses to the smear campaign against Handke and his lament over the destruction of a multi-ethnic socialist state (whose presence is discovered in Repetition) but his translators Scott Abbott and the late Michael Roloff, who wanted so badly for Handke to receive the Nobel, ought to be read instead. As Scott writes: "Peter Handke has spent a lifetime attacking the kinds of ideological absolutisms that produce nationalism, hate, and war" – an ideal evident in everything he writes.

UPDATE: Sunday, October 20th

An example of the smears is the Irish Times' editorial in which this is reported:
Two subsequent editorials in the New York Times repeated the line. The first from the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who at least is familiar with Handke's work, and Bret Stephens, who says he isn't:

This certainly presents an unpleasant person, and provoked handwringing from those open to alternative perspectives to that provided by corporate media. I hadn't heard the quotation before so couldn't say anything about it until Gerald Krieghofer's blog provided the detail of where the quotation was first uttered and then reported. He includes a video of the event. Someone in the audience suggested the journalists on the Bosnian side of the conflict were more dismayed by suffering than him, to which Handke replies: "Betroffenheit! Das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören. Gehen Sie nach Hause mit Ihrer Betroffenheit, stecken Sie sich die in den Arsch!". Which my limited German translates as "Dismayed! I'm not listening to any of that – go home with your dismay, stick it up your arse!" So no corpses (die Leichen) are mentioned. It seems to me to be a reasonable response to all these corporate commentators who can only repeat other corporate commentators.

Krieghofer has since replied to Hemon on Twitter:

As of today, it hasn't been corrected.  

The Guardian has now joined in and, despite being told, is also yet to correct the article.

Once again, to regain some sanity and more evidence of Handke's eminent suitability for the Nobel (for peace as well as literature), I recommend the work of Scott Abbott who has just posted his essay Peter Handke's Yugoslavia Work parts one and two, and Suhrkamp's detailed response.

UPDATE: Thursday, October 24th:

Some good news: the quotation has been removed or corrected in two of the above-mentioned articles, with only the Irish Times and the Bret Stephens article as yet uncorrected. 


  1. good words Stephen. Distinction between concerns and corpses is irrelevant? Please. And the link to the sources of the false citation is very helpful. Good clip from Corinne Belz's film

  2. Thanks Scott. This week I've been enjoying yours and Žarko's book Repetitions – facilitated by a secondhand tablet. Better late than never.

    1. good to have a reader of you quality. i think our second book with punctum, Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, reflects, in its quality, things we learned writing Repetitions, and our third book, also with punctum, even better, I think, will be out next spring: We: On Friendship



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