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. 

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A unique and solitary home: Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte

The French for lighthouse is phare, so the title for this novel is a witty pun. It takes the form of a journal written by Geoffroy Lefayen, a French lighthouse keeper. It was first published in 1998 as Vincent de Swarte's first novel and in 2013 Nicholas Royle chose it as the first in a top ten of first novels, adding that it was his ambition to translate and publish it, in part "to honour the memory of De Swarte, who died in 2006 at the tragically young age of 43". Now it has been translated and published by Cōnfingō Publishing, Royle's faith in the book has been bolstered by an admiring foreword by the celebrated 'gothic novelist' Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore who, of course, has written a celebrated novel called The Lighthouse. The object attracts writers, it seems.

Perhaps it attracts writers because they identify with the apocryphal story of lighthouse keepers going mad because of the isolation, monotony and constraints of the role. Lefayen himself is not immune to the threat of madness and Patrick McGrath observes nicely that Geoffroy is "a keeper of no kind of light, but of a great darkness", even if the origin of the psychological disturbance we learn about through his journal precedes the lighthouse, and indeed the prospect of isolation led him to become a lighthouse keeper in the first place. But, wait, pharricide means lighthouse-killing – what could that mean for the novel? Curiously, neither foreword nor afterword address the significance of this odd title.

In mitigation, it goes without saying that a lighthouse in a novel acts a metaphor for the novel itself: an imaginative work shining a light into an expanse of night, perhaps as a warning of its dangers, but also illuminating the allure of the unknown, while also being a beautiful and impressive object in itself, as beautiful and impressive as the Cordouan lighthouse in which Pharricide is set undoubtedly is. But both novel and lighthouse can also be places of interminable solitude and disarming silence, in which those drawn to them are both released from the gravity of the land and held captive by an unbound sea. Moreover, while both lighthouse and novel are regularly celebrated for their gift of light and beauty, they are regularly suspected of dubious practices concealed by their public values, suggested by, among other things, the phallic profile of a lighthouse and the novelist's profile as a caddish seducer of minds. So the title remains ambiguous, as it could mean either Geoffroy wishes to kill the bright side of the lighthouse or the dark side. His dubious practice might give us an answer: we might call it proactive taxidermy. The journal describes in detail how he captures creatures to stuff, decorate and stage in tableaux vivant. Alison Moore says this may be a wish to bring his victims back to life and fill the void of his existential solitude, without mentioning that this is also a novelist's modus operandi: for a character to live, the novelist must first kill it. Anyway, the answer remains elusive.

While Geoffroy's tales of isolation and evisceration evoke the taste of the salty sea, the pressure of gale force winds, the stench of bodies, blood and entrails, the form it takes is comparatively mundane, which might be seen as a generic cop out – a found-text acting as an alibi for otherwise impossible access to a character's thoughts. Except the journal form serves two functions: for the reader it makes the development of Geoffroy's hobby even more surprising and disconcerting when it happens, and, for the lonesome lighthouse keeper, it represents a natural recourse: a beacon to cast light over his own expanse of darkness, a stuffed creature able to listen to his innermost secrets and accept without resistance that he may indeed be the kind man he claims to be. Even when it tells of the arrival of a woman who promises to break the vicious circle of Geoffroy's solitude, she turns out to be a mirror image, both of Geoffroy and his journal, which cannot tolerate the third person. The answer still remains elusive.

The answer comes when we recognise that, if the lighthouse is a metaphor for the novel in which it is housed, the lighthouse keeper and his journal stand for the novelist free to do as he pleases and miserably alone in his freedom – devising it all for company – which is indeed what Geoffroy may be doing, not killing and stuffing anything at all; and his mirror image does call him an artist. (We're all artists nowadays.) The wish then appears to be the wish to kill not the good side of the lighthouse or the bad side, or even the lighthouse, but the metaphor; all metaphor. The wish of the novel is the ultimate possibility of the novel: to kill the novel. And if this sounds like an excessively literary reading, both McGrath and Moore place Pharricide in a literary pedigree with uncomplicated comparisons to Poe, Melville and Lawrence which only emphasises the despair of the writer in his lofty cell as once again he lights up the unbound sea in all its violent glory wishing only that for once he could be a sailor plotting a course for the rocks. 


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