Sunday, August 19, 2007

More Handke nonsense

In this weekend's NY Times, Neil Gordon says he lost faith in the work of Peter Handke from the point his career at which mine was discovered (albeit retrospectively as I began in the late 1980s). From Slow Homecoming onward, his novels illuminated a world darkened by the ordnance of a wrongheaded war against cliché. The earlier works seemed dated in comparison.

Gordon complains that since then "his exacting gaze, with its strange combination of compassion and accusation, turned on and began to consume itself." Yet the only evidence he supplies for this is a negative review of his latest novel in translation. He bypasses Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, which just happen to be the soaring highlights of Handke's career, if not the newsworthy ones. As William Gass (correctly) regards Repetition one of the great novels of the past hundred years, you might expect at least a mention. Has Gordon read them?

In keeping with his role as literary editor of the Boston Review, Gordon soon brings up Handke's distance from the party line and spins his attempt to amend western perceptions of the Balkans conflict as a "baffling defense of — or, at least, unwillingness to condemn — Serbian atrocities". Handke has stated regret for all atrocities in a war that destroyed a country he loved, which includes those committed by official enemies. Gordon's focus on "Serbian atrocities" suggest he is himself unwilling to condemn as many as Handke. Who's baffling now?

We needn't be surprised as the Boston Review has a history of apologetics for terror; witness the the contortions over Iraq by Susie Linfield.

However, I have to say, after reading the first 120 pages of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, I share his feelings about the book if not the reasons for them ("Perhaps Handke believes that only scholars and specialists should be allowed to share his secrets" - perhaps Handke writes in good faith and we should read the book itself rather than confect intentions?). Where the three great novels of the 80s were driven by the movement of patient investigation and epiphanic discovery, this novel (and to a lesser extent My Year in the No-man's Bay) is, at best, loose and unfocussed, at worst pointless and boring. Spurious has a post mitigating the book's apparent faults.

Another thing the three novels have in common is an evocation of the rhythm and wonder of walking across a landscape, and it's for this reason Michael Roloff calls Handke "the last great walker on the earth". Crossing the Sierra de Gredos is more like an interminable, fevered dream of a journey. I can only hope that Handke's recent, shorter novels - Don Juan, Kali and the forthcoming Samara - mark a return to form. And that they don't take an age to appear in English.

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