Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Three steps not beyond: Peter Handke's trilogy of thresholds


Ever since the time when he lived for almost a year with the thought that he had lost contact with language, every sentence he managed to write, and which in addition left him feeling that it might be possible to go on, had been an event. Every word, not spoken but written, that led to others, filled his lungs with air and renewed his tie with the world. A successful notation of this kind began the day for him; after that, or at least so he thought, nothing could happen to him until the following morning.





The opening paragraph of Peter Handke's Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, as translated by Ralph Manheim, is a marvel in a book of marvels. Even in English, or perhaps only in English, the sentences, not written but spoken, verify their meaning by enacting the same experience of renewal in the reader. The Afternoon of a Writer is only 85 pages long and not a great deal occurs in terms of narrated event, yet the same can be said of the whole. It is a clearing in a forest of books.

When the novel was published by Methuen in 1989, with the paperback of the translation following two years later in the superb Minerva imprint, it completed a series of three consecutive clearing novels: it was preceded in 1986 by Across and by Repetition in 1988. All three are long out of print and a new work by Handke has not been issued by UK publisher since Absence in 1990. Perhaps this fact explains the reason for my sudden need to revive attention for these books and this particular moment twenty years on. The more likely reason is that I want to understand how a quiet, reticent book like The Afternoon of a Writer can mean so much more than the overtly worldly and eventful novels that are published instead. How is literary renewal possible?

Until now I have not written about this unofficial trilogy because their significance to me at the time of reading was apparently held in suspension beyond the expressible content of the narrative. I returned to them recently only out of nostalgia and regret following the uncertain disappointment of each subsequent novel, with only My Year in the No-man's Bay (1998) coming close to air. Like the three other novels, the opening passage is one of the greatest in European literature. This is not to say the novels since – On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000), Crossing the Sierra de Gredos (2007), Don Juan: His Own Version (2010) (all published by FSG in the US) – have been anything other than unique, virtuosic even, except that they seem too novelistic, fixed in facility, admirable certainly, yet only in a rhetorical understanding. And if this response appears excessively personal and limited, it is only because the trilogy appears more personal and limited itself, formed of brief moments from outside a career, moments in which the promise of a magnum opus is a threat.

Across is the testament of Andreas Loser, an amateur archeologist and translator of ancient poetry who, while estranged from both his job and his family, begins to see images in nature, beginning with a "warming emptiness" rising from an Austrian swampland plain surrounded by mountains and low-rise housing developments which prompts him to discover what that emptiness allows:
Under its impulsion, everything (every object) moved into place. "Emptiness!" The word was equivalent to the invocation of the Muse at the beginning of an epic. It provoked not a shudder but lightness and joy, and presented itself as a law: As it is now, so shall it be. In terms of image, it was a shallow river crossing.
Successive images are then witnessed of the primordial given form in a language otherwise saturated by artificial light. Against the resistance of habit, he expresses anger at the casual, careless repetition of words bleeding images of enchantment, contrasting them to Virgil's Georgics, the ancient poems he translates in his rooms above a supermarket. It leads to a violent encounter, but this is a novel of attention not action. Loser's patient narrative leads him to the threshold of a new knowledge of reality. He wonders if one could speak of "the possibility of repetition" as opposed to its danger:
Shine for me, hard hazelbush. Glide hither, lithe linden tree. Rounded elderbush, prosper under the protection of the willows. Here is my other word for repetition: "rediscovery".
Across is full of such epiphanies and one can certainly caricature the affectations of Loser's attention to nature, yet the novel and our reading of it is a means to fuse perception and imagination without yielding to the expedience of language as public utility. To do so it must risk disdain to reach that threshold.

Die Wiederholung continues such a quest and is perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable of his novels. The connection with Across is explicit in Manheim's translation of the title: Repetition. Filip Kobal travels across the border from Austria into Slovenia to find his missing brother Gregor, whom he has never met. He travels light and often sleeps in the open, living close the landscape of the Karst region. In his rucksack he carries two books his brother owned, a notebook from agricultural college and a German-Slovene dictionary and, instead of a person, Filip discovers a language and through it a means to write about the land in which his brother lived. By acknowledging and including the experience of absence (his brother is never found), he recovers what had apparently been lost forever. The Guardian's reviewer called it "one of the most dignified and moving evocations I have ever read of what it means to be alive". This is no overstatement.

The inherent paradox of storytelling – a gift dependent on withdrawal – is a dynamic throughout the trilogy. Loser’s journey in his encounters with images is his narrative description of the images themselves, and Kobal ends his narrative with a song of praise to the "all-appeasing And then ... " of storytelling, thereby confirming that there is no crossing of the threshold if that threshold is a portal to a transcendent realm – such as one in which his brother is brought back to physical life – but the patient response of helplessness before evanescence. So, even if both novels imply that storytelling is immanent to a disenchanted world, it at least offers an acute awareness of what may have disappeared. “Long live my storytelling!” Kobal writes. “It must go on.”

It’s ironic then that Handke has become the focus of disapproval from literary conservatives for whom impatient grasping is the sole gift of writing. They share an intolerance of reading attentively, or even fairly, with his politically conservative critics. The Afternoon of a Writer risks reinforcing prejudices because it is explicitly metafictional; a novel about an unnamed writer living in an unnamed town. The caricature of metafiction as self-regarding, self-obsessional is countered here by an obvious but subtle moment: the use of the third person; not “Ever since the time since I lived” but he. By virtue of writing, the writer is already distant and so is his success. This gives this opening paragraph a peculiar status. If the notation that began the writer’s day is a success only because this distance is recognised and the writer is able to maintain awareness of the apparent disjunct of imagination and life, then the metafictional step is the first toward genuine fiction. The alternative is "straying beyond the frontiers of language" into a realm where the figures of the imagination maintain their power only in a perpetual, award-winning illusion of presence.

This latter condition forms the nightmare from which Handke’s writer suffers: that what he had written  was "irrelevant and meaningless" and, as a result, "he had been banished from the world for all time", a nightmare shared earlier in the century by another great poet of alienation, Franz Kafka. The task of both writers then becomes an exploration of the withdrawal of writing, how it may enable a fuller life without delusion. It is a task shared by Enrique Vila-Matas who has received similar critical disdain yet, as Nick Caistor writes, for him too "the quest to create literature is a metonym for the ability to live a life that has some meaning". They begin by raising the issue.

As Handke’s writer soon realises, writing is, after all, a part of our lives as much as anything else – “loving, studying, participating” – only less subject to the utile words of which it consists, a contemporary no-man's land that, for us, is redeemed only by a relation to chronology; otherwise, it disappears into a common void. Even as we seek that relation, writing escapes and opens into a timeless solitude. Writing is something whose elements, the writer reflects, "hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use". The utility of writing is gifted, uselessly. The dynamic of the paradox can be witnessed every week in the popular book review pages: a perpetual motion between celebrating the "imagination run wild" of consumer escapism and solemn concern for "state of the nation" realism. Handke’s writing is a voice from elsewhere. In this light, the kneejerk timidity and intolerance directed toward him and Vila-Matas is less a rejection of solipsism than a fear of an uncanny force. Writing remains taboo, and recognition of the direction in which it moves is an unspeakable danger only very few writers dare pursue.

Despite this, the mystery has been acknowledged in the general current of literature in "the recent rise to prominence of the biographical-novel-about-a-writer". As the review of A Man of Parts, David Lodge's novel about the life of HG Wells, explains, Lodge himself has attempted to identify the reasons why this subgenre has produced fine novels from, for example, JM Coetzee (Dostoevsky), Penelope Fitzgerald (Novalis) and, Lodge's own nemesis, Colm Toibin (Henry James). They are mixed:
Some ... echo the rationale behind the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s; they also echo David Shields’s assault on the novel in Reality Hunger (2010). The turn towards the biographical novel ... could be a symptom of a “declining faith” in “purely fictional narrative”; or “a characteristic move of postmodernism” in its assimilation of past art; or “a sign of decadence and exhaustion” in fiction; or “a positive and ingenious way of coping with the ‘anxiety of influence’."
All are certainly plausible, particularly given that each of these novels is founded upon the recovery of the author, his time and his company, and thereby accommodate and veil the secret of writing in more writing. The recent rise in such fiction would then be a repressed return of the repressed. The Afternoon of a Writer fits into this subgenre but also escapes because of the writer’s mysterious namelessness. Here the secret is pursued even as the work frees itself from the "purely fictional" by describing the washing on his roof terrace, the cat looking for food, the smell of sweat in his study.
[He] told himself ... not to lose himself in his work the next day, but on the contrary to use it to open up his senses. Instead of taking his mind off his work, the shadow of a bird darting across the wall should accompany and clarify his writing, and so should the barking of a dog, the whining of a chain saw, the grinding of trucks shifting gears, the constant hammering, the incessant whistle blowing and shouts of command from the schoolyards and drill grounds down in the plain.
No matter what he experiences, the shadows, the movement, the noises, writing takes possession of it, and so Handke’s framing of the writer’s story in the third person is necessary in order to begin an exploration of the paradox. By beginning with a celebration of writing and, at the same time, questioning its success, Handke is literally making a move to leave the house much as Descartes’ Cogito leaves unreflective being. What the writer finds then is perhaps more disturbing than failure.

Beneath his letterbox he finds "advertising circulars, political flyers, free samples and invitations to art galleries or so-called town meetings", a postcard from a friend and "grey envelopes all addressed in the hand of the same unknown individual". The envelopes contain fragmentary sentences referring to a private life with no apparent relevance to the writer's. He regrets having answered the first ten years previously but had done so for a strange and telling reason: "he had mistaken the stranger's handwriting for his own". He dumps the letters unread in a wastebasket and leaves the house. But it follows him through the door. Walking by a riverbank, he bumps into an old man who introduces himself as a fellow writer and, unbidden, begins to recite a poem at loud volume. The writer endures it and moves on. He passes a road crossing at which a man sits haranguing the traffic, his words drowned by the noise. In both cases we're reminded of Kafka, his dissimulating letter writer Georg Bendemann throwing himself from a bridge in an attempt to bind himself to the continuous stream of traffic passing overhead. The poet and shouting man, however, are indifferent to the outside; their words are of desperate opposition not approach. A driver asks the writer for directions then, at the roadside, he discovers an elderly woman trapped amongst branches. She can't remember her name or address but, as paramedics place her in an ambulance, she gabbles her life story "in a few fragments, unintelligible to the others".

It is as if everyone he encounters is dealing in their own way with the polarity of dream and world. The writer’s initial impulse to reply to his correspondent is a possible clue that the author of the letters is a doppelgänger, the writer-as-stranger, the person our writer is in danger of becoming. Perhaps he was initially drawn to replying to the correspondent because he felt it might begin contact with the other writer, the “he” left at the desk. But he didn’t need to go that far. On the other side of the threshold, he witnesses many writers straying beyond the frontiers of language, working deeper grooves of an infernal circle.

Seeking relief, the writer takes the postcard from his pocket but is unable to decipher his friend's writing. It is covered with blots, dots and wavy lines, a "mutilated cuneiform" suggesting “the writer had repeatedly and vainly assaulted the paper". So he takes refuge in a bar and drifts off into imagining a joyful summer of writing, and so once again risks becoming one of the wandering doppelgängers imposing his fantasies on the world, except here the third person intervenes to offer rescue: “Did such imagining in a procession of forms take him out of present reality? Or did it, on the contrary, disentangle and clarify the present, form connections between isolated particulars, and set his imprint on them all, the dripping beer tap and the steady flowing water faucet behind the bar, the unknown figures in the room and the silhouettes outside?” Yet even this doubt becomes a circular daydream as he is interrupted by a drunk who sits next to him, rambling incoherently and grabbing the writer’s notebook to scrawl more dots and wavy lines over the pages.

Finally, he meets a translator of his own books, an elderly ex-writer with advice for his client. He explains how he turned to translation after suffering the same nightmare that his writing was meaningless and, worse, that his magnum opus, “the Ur-text of his innermost being”, was original sin. By translating, however, he feels part of the world. "Don't cross the threshold" he cries.

Even back at home indoors the writer cannot escape the presence of those on the other side. A newscaster reading the midnight news breaks down mid-report as if despairing of anonymous language. The writer wonders what could possibly have afflicted the poor man but the answer can only be withheld. In seeking it, the writer risks the siren call of imagination, so instead he merely airs possibilities. Except, of course, in inventing the newsreader he has already succumbed to the call. Handke’s writer began with the joy of having written, having renewed his tie with the world, only to find when he leaves his house that the world itself is populated by other solitaries with the same delusion and imposing it on the outside. Worse, we realise by necessity that all the doppelgängers are mere characters too, workroom fantasies, and the writer is the deviser devising it all for spurious company. And he too is a fantasy. That initial separation of the time of the writer and the time of narration is a sleight of hand; renewal is a fantasy like any other work of fiction, meta- or otherwise.

The illusion of separation is exposed on the penultimate page on which the writer described retreating to his bedroom and gazing at the stars through the window. “What am I?” a voice cries:
Why am I not a bard? Or a Blind Lemon Jefferson? Who will tell me that I’m not nothing?
The words appear without introduction. No "he says", no quotation marks. Who has spoken and who is asking these questions? We may answer: the writer of Handke's story, or we may go further and assume: Peter Handke himself breaking through the façade. This may take us one step closer to the aim of allowing experience to accompany and clarify writing. And as if suddenly aware of this possibility, the speaking voice regains confidence or resignation.
I started out a storyteller. Carry on. Live and let live. Portray. Transmit. Continue to work the most ephemeral of materials, my breath; be its craftsman.
Perhaps this is how literary renewal becomes possible, but this is where the story ends.

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