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Monday, August 6, 2018


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By Peter Handke
Translated by Krishna Winston
Seagull Books, distr. U. Of Chicago Press

Has there ever been a writer like Austro-German-Slovenian author Peter Handke? Or one approximating him? Since 1964 Handke has published  three dozen  works of prose, two dozen on the shorter side compared to half a dozen of epic-length; as well as two dozen plays, and a few films, most of which work is available in translation - yet Handke does not repeat himself.  He has won just about every prize for prose expect the Nobel and for the theater the Ibsen Prize, the prize for drama. During the course of these fifty plus years the great walker that Handke has become has explored landscapes as varied as the French Picardie, the Spanish Del Gredos, the Slovenian Carso and the region near Paris where he has lived the past twenty five years and that he calls „No-Man’s-Bay”; and a burgeoning self. The act of reading his oeuvre provides a unique experience, that differs from work to work; reviewing Handke thus is demanding, an effort that repays itself, most times, in the form of great pleasure.
However, if you did not know identity or nationality of the author of the just published The Great Fall, chances are, reading its first chapter, you would say that it was of French origin; if truly well-read you might even consider that its hyper-observant, finely detailing author might be Peter Handke, and not a French wench. For, The Great Fall has a most  misleading first chapter: a man wakes up in a bed not his own,

"That day, the one that ended with the Great Fall, began with a morning storm. The man, the one who is to be the subject of this narration, was awakened by a powerful thunderclap. The house, along with the bed, will have trembled and for a long moment will have continued to shake. Moment: that had no connection to the man lying there. Frightened out of his sleep, he kept his eyes closed and waited -- how would the event continue."  {scott abbott’s tranlsation]

it is that of a long-time - it turns out - sleeping buddy whom he claims not to love, and which seems fine with her; she is already off to work; but, though the house still holds a few mysteries for its long-time visitor – he busies himself putting it in order as though he was the woman’s man-servant-house-husband.
  It’s a wonderful chapter with a Handkean thunderstorm and rain, and fantasy can imagine all kinds of erotic complications, especially if you know of the then aging layabroad’s perhaps still complicated erotic life. – Great Fall’s completion date is 2011, Handke was a nearly 70 year young daily walker who is having fun claiming that the book was written in the redneck town of Great Falls, Montana, a town that the world traveler visited once when his friend Wim Wenders was filming there.
    His chores completed, the protagonist – an actor,  a star actor, is Handke’s personae this time around – not an archaelogist or geolgist - a fact that ought to alert the reader that more than the usual sleight of hand business might be afoot - sets out on a big walk from its outskirts to Paris, and he has the characterist shoelace problems of Handke’s protagonists-personae; and, those familiar with Handke’s immense and varied walking oeuvre, will not be surprised to have the surrogate Handke walk backwards a few times, even up an incline this once. Moreover, the symbol hunters among the readers will notice any number of minor mishaps, a lemon seed becomes frustratingly lost under a bed, a coffee mug falls and shatters – ah premonitions of a „big fall” – well let me clue you in right now, there is no „great fall” as little as the books was written in „Great Falls” Montana.
 However, for the next seven of its nine chapters – that is not until near the end - there is really no mention of the house or the woman, although she enchants him at an eatery in Paris without his recognizing her at first – one of the actor’s numerous foibles being the inability recognize those closest to him in an unfamiliar setting. By the end of the book - that cuts short the imminent consummation - great love it seems has set in for that woman. „The face of a beautiful woman is a gate to paradize” the hater of veils states at one point.
The Great Fall is one of Handke’s many walking books, but a walking book of slow progress with many halts for fine and thorough and succinct exploration of a dozen or so extraordinary incidents, and near endless self-interrogating dialogue with himself, as he wends walks hops gropes slithers his way in truly adventurous and at times near animalistic fashion from the Paris outskits to the center of town – the book could lop off the first chapter and substitute the wonderful opening of Alexia, the Fruitthief

 - with the protagonist’s bare foot receiving the first bee-sting of the year - written six years later, also a summer book, that has for its narrator Peter Handke as dweller of the Noman’s-Bay of My Year in the Noman’s Bay and which refers to The Great Fall at a significant moment. Would anyone object to Handke titeling Great Fall „A Peter Handke Walk to the Center of Paris”? This strikes me as a summa of Handke Paris Walker’s best! The strongest experiences not necessarily the most pleasant of course. And if you want to interpret that walk – overll - as one to hell, or yet another of his trek’s to Golgotha, don’t let me stop you.
  Readers of Afternoon of a Writer,
 Handke’s short projection-drenched projection-screen walking novel of 1988, will be intrigued yet disappointed in the matter of Handke projecting in Great Fall, but for a few moments; doing so especially with the theme of helping and saving; that is, obviously, the actor being in need to be saved himself, as has been the case for decades, or at least since Tilman Moser noted as much in his piece on the 1974 A Moment of True Feeling.

Not that Handke had more but the briefest truck with the Tilman Moser’s of this world as you can note in his Weight of the World.  
Nor does the incremental walk that is The Great Fall, - unlike e.g. The Repetition
 - induce any kind of walking pace in me, but is an instance of Handke stringing together fascinating - initially unrelated - incidents and observations accumulated during those many walks, and whose cumulation as he penetrates further into Paris become darkly visionary. There is a streak of violence and sense of a deeply frayed society running through the incidents that culminates in a presidential address and mass demonstration in the center city, but for an extraordinary lunch that the actor – accidently, courtesy of a chapel’s oddly attractive one-note tolling - shares with a working class mechanic priest. That scene itself is worth the price of admission as is each of these self-contained and sufficiently dramatic portraits. However, as one of Handke’s walking books – 60 k words long or short - it therefore makes slow progress, and the progress - when described - can be astonishingly grueling - unimaginable so to railway, plane or bus visitor.
As the actor leaves the house he first has to work his way through a forest that has a „forest madman” who will remind the Handke reader of a similar creature in Handke’s great play Voyage by Dugout – The Play abobt the Film about the War [fn] who stinks like a cadaver and emits vile curses for everyone to shut up – I recognized him as one of these dispersed by the Yugoslav wars living in a reconstituting prairie here in Seattle, a big Slavic guy, scared like the proverbial little girl. „Where are you from?” – I wanted to know his tribe - „Here, Seattle.” He and his single blanket wouldn’t even let me buy him a cup of coffee. What those people did to each other! Civil wars seem indeed to be the worst.
He comes on the once refugium of a once carpenter apprentice, aged 16 like his own son. He notes the changing sky. It is a transitional chapter and nature appears to be in transition too. He also engages in some truly odd asides or mental speculations, perhaps just to keep himself from being bored: various items are transformed into what one would generically call "fools gold" of every kind, meant to trick potential fellow walker into being educated and accurately informed. Our actor has a fine way of working his way directly over just about any kind of obstacle. The immigrant he calls the last man on earth, but then forbids himself such grim thoughts. This chapter, that contains no end of beautiful observations of nature, ends on this fairly somber note.
Once out of the forest the actor encounters, in one outlieing region numerous of the aging demented being taken for their daily shuffle. He comes upon an old acquaintance, once neighbor friend in a different country, who too has lost his marbles, on the Gobi desert – but The Great Fall, for those in a comparing frame of mind, is nothing like that projection screen for readers Afternoon of the Writer where ample room is left for the reader-writer to imagine himself on such an walk and where Handke projects so much of his innerworld – his fears, his wishes, murderous impulses, inverted grandiosity, very much in the subtly ironic manner of his favorite Goethe’s Elective Affinit;, justfied satisfaction, as well of course as the finest lyrical description of a walk down the Salzburg’s Moenchsberg and through town and time spent in a grim dive and back up-hill – an account of just a few hours.
There are the juvenile gangs in districts closer to town. At a huge deserted railway yard the actor is waylaid by two cops who pounce on him as only cops with too liitle work can and who suspect and treat him, a foreigner, as a terrorist and to the third degree – I have had similar encounters in the most deserted strethes in an over-policed world – but the mere show of my out of date and possibly fake – how could they tell?  NY City Press I.D and they are gone like the wind that brought them, no apologies.
The star actor is on his way to Paris to receive an award from the nation’s president [during the course of his ruminations he decides to skip the ceremony] and to play, in a film, an amok-running madman - a beserker character out of Handke’s psyche from as far back as the three long fuguing poems in Nonsense & Happiness [fn]
 and recurring ever since, if you are familiar with his texts and their marvelous surfeits, of the affinity Handke feels with the idiots he runs into – a high end autist’s affinity it is. - At a significant moment, the actor – described as being on the order of a DeNiro who „becomes the raging bull” – sees an amok-runner staring at him from the Metro window and then realizes that that amok-runner is a reflection of himself! It is one of those great instances of Handke’s projecting, and realizing it, and perhaps merely playing - though in a superbly convincing manner - will then extirpate that impulse once and for all? - and Handke leaves it at that and does not, as he has not in the past fifty plus years that I have been translating and reading amok-running texts of his, seek to fathom the origin of or persistence of that impulse. At another point,  Handke’s supremely sensitive antennae project world-wide imminent road-rage breaking out as even the closest of neighbors turn on each other and Handke makes it a point to discount what he terms the suggestion of „psycho-physicists” that the explosion of aggression is due to a lack of inter-European wars during the past 75 years. Well no, „pscho-physicists” in the form of those educated by Kohut in Self Psychology - which meanwhile has indeed defined the quarks of the self to the same degree that modern physics has sub-atomic particles - has far more refined notions why generation upon generation of psychic deprivation in a world of capitalist competition and the culture industry and political falsehood and the false promises of advertising  and their consequences have a dire effect on the emotional household of the individual, creating powder kegs – across all class lines! Handke, great activist writer, and descriptor, continuous developer of the capacity of prose narration, one of the best antennae, once again shows his backwardness in matters state of the art of psychology; it persists since it manifested itself in some incredibly backward comments on narcissism in the otherwise great One Dark Night I Left My Silent House. Adorno, in other words, too would disapprove!
The actor is a moody fellow. At one point a starvation artist’s hunger seizes him – ‘Hadn’t he had breakfast among all the stuff he was doing at that house?’ occurred to me – as well hunger to consume his woman whom he must have consumed to previous night to wake up so well-disposed. All around horny fellow you conclude. But soon enough there will be a down moment.
Great Fall being the account of a single day’s walk one is tempted to compare it to The Afternoon of the Writer. Moments of misanthropism
to be sure as the sight of mindless groupings; wonderful long descriptions of the light and dark of the sky as the day progresses and the actor enters an equally light entrancing Paris and the heat-lightning provides premonitions of a second thunderstorm. The actor’s maddening walkabout there - after a frightful mass assembly that viewed the president’s declaration of war has broken up - will remind all those who have wandered about at night in a heavily peopled megalopolis and without a clear goal and too much time on their hands - a sequence rendered in an astonishingly film-like intense manner - I can’t summarize in any other way but to say that it becomes an extraordinary experience for the reader; Handke at his best.
The novel’s last sentence „and then there was the Great Fall” – as the actor is about to I suppose marry this woman – the same woman as the previous night!- seven years later in the Fruitthief Handke is – hear hear! – starts to fancy the „marriage sacrement”! – is  a true puzzle; until you realize that  Handke likes to sign off with „infinitely mysterious,” as he does his Fruitthief and some other titles, and I think this final sentence is just another most intriguing way of doing so – no need for a fall of any kind.
Seagull, now Handke’s second English language publisher have done a bang-up job with a book on the same high order as all of Handke’s shorter novels.
 Krishna Winston’s translation is a true delight; and I only wish that Seagull issue some of the other importat titles that Farrar, Straus has neglected. Handke’s second novel Der Hausierer, the nearly socialist realist portrait of a saltworks Kali; and a number of all important notebook condensations Geschichte des Bleistift’s, Gestern Unterwegs [avaiblable in translation into Romance languages], along the line of its sole exmaple that exists in English, the so revelatory Weight of thre World.



Fn] That forest madman is also a real person and has become a Serbian facebook friend of mine and is an instance where Handke’s impulse to „save” was successful. Novo was arrested in Germany for having failed to prevent a human rights violation during the Yugoslav wars  - imagine that, the successors of the Nazi Reich will arrest a foreign national for not stopping a war crime! Handke, hearing of the case, managed to get Novo released and then was best man at his wedding.

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