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.


  1. I wonder if it isn't it misleading to translate Immer noch Sturm as Still Storm? Wouldn't a word like like 'always', 'continuing', 'another' or 'again' be better suited? I can't say which of these I'd choose yet as the first sentence pulled me up temporarily.
    'Still Storm' to me implies silence, placidness and so on, a space in the storm, the contrary to the German.

  2. Michael Roloff translates it as Still Storm and offers suggestions from others that it is from various Shakespeare plays, with King Lear's "Storm still" perhaps the clearest, as can be seen in the hyperlink.

  3. I saw in Die Zeit link that it's "Storm still" in his 20-year old notebook - that word order, for me, makes all the difference.
    I was amused to read on the link(s) the following (or something like it)-
    H: The Light should make all the people calm as with Chipa Dakota
    Z: Who is that?
    H: I don't know.

    (I imagine it's a reference to Deepak Chopra. I suspect he may have been reading Chopra in connection with his dreams - perhaps to get some insight)

  4. i imagine i could translate the interview if someone paid me. i left a comment at DIE ZEIT to the effect that we get yet another version of his relationship to his stepfather, bruno, who as far as i am concerned set the example for handke's extremely violent side, and for the violence that also erupts in his texts, for handke's psychopathology. Herwig's pretty lousy but for description of handke's childhood and the wealth of documents from the archives and some he has legged himself, and interviews with his friends and the beaten ex-lover marie colbin
    drive the point home how dynamitic the family relations were. handke sought out his real father and seemed to get along with him, but then put this business which never happened, about their going off together after his graduation and the father always afraid that they might be regarded as gay couple into SORROW BEYOND DREAMS, whereas the whole kit and caboodle had gone on a trip. thus the details of SORROW cannot be trusted. he later regretted
    looked down on him as a "savings and loan creature" [what if Schoenemann had been T.S.Eliot during his banking days?] now calls him a would be "Frauenheld" [womanizer] - well he succeeded in impregnating Maria Sivec and as a matter of fact they staid in touch and he helped with Handke's education. As we find out from Handke's 2007 MORAVIAN NIGHT he left his first girlfriend in Krk/Cordula where he wrote his first novel, and which he revisits in MORAVIAN trip around Europe, with child - uncared for, that is a great section in the novel because the old g.f. [Herwig has a pic of her's in the book, but fails to inquire about the child] haunts him there in the same pubs as an ancient crone, very Dostoyevskian dramatic and Greco pictorial! With the stink of fish and the animals! STORM STILL is a quote from a direction in LEAR. I was sure it would be from THE TEMPEST, but no. Kastberger another Austrian Handke expect said Macbeth, where the word "storm" appears just once! When Handke writes that writing was his salvation, no truer words were ever spoken! Salvation from long jail terms, too. as he himself also knows only too well. - i feel frustrated by the NIGHT BOOK - no association, no analysis whence the dreams they derive. It's one of those Handke coynesses. Handke has the Dakota Badlands a lot on his mind. I don't know if he has a T.V. at preeent. He claims never to want to use a computer, so he is not online, but sometimes people read things to him.
    The last time Greiner interviewed him, Handke cussed him roundly and justly for being this dreadfully superficial reviewer of DEL GREDOS.

  5. The chances of Peter Handke reading Deepak Chopra to get insight into his dreams are zero. Peter absolutely hates "thinking" of that sort.

  6. deepak chopra is a t.v. personality, a physician i believe. i recall him as being a good one. but that is long ago. i tossed me t.v. about 7 years ago. who needs it with the web. "the physicians do not stand with us." i think is how a line in WALK ABOUT THE VILLGES GOES. Not the fairest line Mr.Handke ever penned who after all was prescribed medicines during critical periods in his life. I had Dr. Mar Vechsler in NY who kept the artistic community alive, with prescriptions on which he might have elaborated on occasion as to what these goodies can do in conjunction with alcohol! I have not the faintest whether Chopra appears on French TV - does Peter have a sattelite dish or a line feed. I suspect he turns on the TV when he is in the US and staying at one of his five star hotels, say the DRAKE in Chicago... xx michael r.

  7. Anonymous4:52 pm

    I am assuming "American Literature" is understood as a generalization. I hope so.

    I like this: 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.

    Thank you so much, Stephen.

    Meg Sefton


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