Friday, December 03, 2010

Then the controlled letting go: Peter Handke on American literature

Peter Handke has given a wide-ranging interview (in German) to Die Zeit prompted by his latest book Ein Jahr aus der Nacht, made up of 365 "dream notes" written upon waking, and the play Immer noch Sturm (Still Storm, apparently alluding to King Lear) "concerning the USA's disputed commitment in Bosnia". He also has much to say about contemporary US literature. To the latter I shall have to limit this post. What he says is worth comparing it to the critique offered by Gabriel Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism? which, as if it were idiosyncratic, has been placed in quarantine by UK literary gatekeepers.

As the interview has yet to be translated, we will have to rely on web translations. (Were he only a mediocre Peruvian neo-conovelist instead it would be on the Guardian Books pages tomorrow!). I shall update the translations should anyone be so kind enough to correct or explain (ij. van den berg of boeklog has already helped me so far).

Speaking about witnessing domestic abuse as a child, Handke says it did not take it too badly:
The sorrow of people is so great! If you could only hug them all! But there is no one to embrace them all. We are talking only about my stepfather, and so on: One of the most beautiful sentences I've read is by John Cheever: telling is not retelling. To tell a story is a revelation. In every story, even if it is very real (i.e. avoiding the word 'realistic'), there must be a revelation. You have to be able to see something other than the canonical. The  reader must discover something of the human what he may have known yet was not clear. Otherwise there is no book, no story. I am telling you this because I have the feeling that you're leading me down the trail of retelling. Revelation is telling, even for one who tells. He, too, must be surprised by what he says.
He goes on to say "There is nothing as intimate as the religious prose of John Cheever in his diary."

Die Zeit then asks whether he likes American literature.
Not the younger writers. Again and again I think: How nice literature would be without all of these journalistic, family and society novels. Fontane was perhaps able to do these, but today it is a sunken form. I have translated Walker Percy's novels The Last Gentleman and The Moviegoer; he is a great author. And I love Thomas Wolfe's novel Look Homeward, Angel. These books have something lyrical, which is essential. In Jonathan Franzen's novels, however, it does not happen at all. He follows a knitting pattern. Even Philip Roth is ultimately only a funny MC. Reading should still be an adventure. In a book, even in a social novel, the language must be the movement in search of it. Epic literature needs a lyrical element. But that has totally disappeared from American literature. Eruptions are needed, a controlled letting go, not this prescription-like writing. It must come from the author, whether from his fornlorness or from his pain. When you see the author do this only to avoid word-mongering, it is not enough.
A curious coincidence is that another Austrian great Thomas Bernhard was, in his youth at least, greatly impressed by Thomas Wolfe and even translated a play.

Finally, Handke responds to the interviewer comparing the humour of the dream notes to that of Kafka, an author to whom Handke has not always been sympathetic.
It is always said that Kafka's readers laugh because his prose is so humorous. No, they laughed not at the joke, but at the truth. If something is striking, then one laughs. Humour is, after Goethe, an indication of a declining art. Kafka's art is so pure that it is true. At this, one must laugh.
For Handke, a paragraph is enough. Worth bearing in mind when enduring the hair-raising wrongheadedness of Prospect Magazine on the same subject.


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