March 9, 2013
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day.
W.G. Sebald’s essay Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition has just been translated for the first time into English and is now posted as a downloadable PDF over at thelastbooks. The essay, on Handke’s 1986 book Die Wiederholung, was originally published in Sebald’s 1991 anthology of literary essays Unheimliche Heimat under the title Jenseits der Grenze. This translation of Sebald’s essay is by Nathaniel Davis and is apparently to be included in a forthcoming reissue of Ralph Manheim’s 1989 translation of Handke’s book, which is currently out-of-print. As a bonus, thelastbooks also includes a PDF of Gabriel Josipovici’s review of Repetition. Josipovici called the book “one of the most moving evocations I have ever read of what it means to be alive, to walk upon this earth.”
I have not read Repetition, so I can’t say much about Sebald’s commentary on Repetition, but Stephen Mitchelmore calls it a “remarkable essay, and he links to a post he wrote several years ago on three of Handke’s books, including this one. I also recommend taking a look at Lars Iyers lengthy essay on Repetition at Ready Steady Book.
The novel meant much to Sebald, whose essay, somewhat uncharacteristically for him, contains unrestrained praise for what Handke achieved in this book.
What I want to do now is not to discuss the particularities of this distancing from Peter Handke – nor do I want to be tempted by the considerable task of sketching the psychology and sociology of the parasitic species that takes literature as its host; instead, I simply want to experimentally process a few things regarding the book Repetition, which upon first reading in 1986 made a great and, as I have since learned, lasting impression on me.
And here’s a nice comment by Sebald on the mysterious nature of the act of writing:
I don’t know if the forced relation between hard drudgery and airy magic, particularly significant for the literary art, has ever been more beautifully documented than in the pages of Repetition describing the roadmender and signpainter.
Sebald wrote about Handke several times: first in an essay that appeared in Literatur und Kritik in 1975 and which is translated in Campo Santo as Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar; and again in his 1985 anthology Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke, where he reprinted an essay on Handke originally published in 1983. He writes at some length about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in the latter essay, which is, unfortunately, not translated into English yet. I’ve done several posts about Handke over the years.
Jo Catlings catalog of Sebald’s library, published in Saturn’s Moons, demonstrates how much Sebald admired Handke; the catalog lists nineteen books by Handke and one book about him. Only a few German-language authors had more books in Sebald’s library, notably Goethe and Thomas Bernhard.
For yet another look at Handke’s book, head over to the great site Handke Online where there is an essay about Handke’s notebooks for Die Wiederholung, along with images of the notebooks.
June 11, 2010
In honor of the opening of the 2010 World Cup.
“The goalkeeper is trying to figure out which corner the kicker will send the ball into,” Bloch said. “If he knows the kicker, he knows which corner he usually goes for. But maybe the kicker is also counting on the goalie’s figuring this out. So the goalie goes on figuring that just today the ball might go into the other corner. But what if the kicker follows the goalkeeper’s thinking and plans to shoot into the usual corner after all? And so on, and so on.”
Bloch saw how all the players gradually cleared the penalty area. The penalty kicker adjusted the ball. Then he too backed out of the penalty area.
“When the kicker starts his run, the goalkeeper unconsciously shows with his body which way he’ll throw himself even before the ball is kicked, and the kicker can simply kick in the other direction,” Bloch said. “The goalie might just as well try to pry open a door with a piece of straw.”
The kicker suddenly started his run. The goalkeeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball into his hands.
From Peter Handke, the closing paragraphs from The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.
January 31, 2008
I’m still thinking about Peter Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which I wrote about recently. At one point, Bloch, the narrator, has become so estranged from language that he begins to think in pictures.
Handke’s critique of language seems so utterly final that I started wondering how he resolved this issue. Gabriel Josipovici suggests that “to destroy language is to give oneself up to silence, another form of death.” But clearly Bloch carries on for the rest of the novel and Handke writes more books. So I went to my bookshelf and scanned the titles of the dozen or so books by Handke and finally pulled down The Afternoon of a Writer (1989), a brief novel about a nameless writer who lives with a nameless cat in a nameless city, which opens like this:
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.
Two points jumped out immediately. First, he has made his peace with language through writing, not speech. Speech was the downfall of Bloch in Goalie: “It seemed uncanny to him how someone could begin to speak and at the same time know how the sentence would end.” And everything that Bloch says seems to be misunderstood. In Afternoon, however, even though the writer encounters several people – including a drunk and one of his translators – he never utters a word.
Second, the value of language is in its ability to connect the writer with the world. The writer has found a kind of Zen-like peace that Bloch could only blindly sense in Goalie.
As [the writer] was crossing the open fields by his usual diagonal path, his just acquired namelessness, favored by the snowfall and his walking alone, took on substance. This experience of namelessness might at one time have been termed a liberation from limits or from the self. To be at last wholly outside, among things, was a kind of enthusiasm…
Instead of being viewed as liberating, the writer’s diagonal flow through the unnamed objects of the world instead unifies him with the world. The writer connects to things, but not to people. People create anxiety. I’m tempted to say that in Goalie that Bloch held language responsible for the anxiety which other people created in him, although language was just the messenger.
Josipovici ascribes the desire to destroy language to a Romantic impulse, a “form of revolt against the restrictions of language, which comes to be seen as a screen keeping reality at bay.” It seems to me that Handke (a Romantic if ever there was one) pierces this screen by taking control of language. Whereas all Bloch “can ever do is react,” the writer can transform his experience.
I started out as a storyteller. Carry on. Live and let live. Portray. Transmit. Continue to work the most ephemeral of materials, my breath; be its craftsman.
January 26, 2008
Reading a book like Peter Handke’s 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, with its frontal critique of language, makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the writing of W.G. Sebald. It is often remarked that Sebald’s structurally complex and word-dense sentences seem to leap right out of the nineteenth century, and in many ways he wrote as if modernism and post-modernism had never occurred. Sebald was exuberant about words and treated them the way a curator in a natural history museum might handle a collection of stuffed birds, many of them rare and extinct. He admiringly took them out of their glass-fronted cabinets, gently dusted them off and caressed them back to life momentarily.
Here’s just one of countless examples that could be found in Sebald’s books. There is a point in The Rings of Saturn when the narrator is pondering the silk industry and the terrible plight of weavers at the peak of the Industrial Age. At the same time he can’t help but be struck by the sheer beauty of what they produced:
… silk brocades and watered tabinets, satins and satinettes, cambletts and cheveretts, prunelles, callimancoes and Florentines, diamantines and grenadines, blondines, bombazines, belle-isles and martiniques – were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds. – That, at any rate, is what I think when I look at the marvelllous strips of colour in the pattern books, the edges and gaps filled with mysterious figures and symbols, that are kept in the small museum of Strangers Hall, which was once the town house of just such a family of silk weavers who had been exiled from France.
I hadn’t read Goalie since it first appeared in English while I was a graduate student, but it still has a shocking intensity. The book opens with a nod to Kafka: “When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he had been fired.” Before he even fully realizes it, Bloch has become unhinged from language. “Everything seemed to have been newly named” and Bloch no longer knew what anything meant. “Every word needed an explanation.” Irritated, he suddenly and inexplicably strangles a woman he has just spent the night with and flees to a small town near the Austrian border. In a casual conversation, a customs guard unwittingly describes Bloch’s problem (and the problem every goalie has anticipating a penalty kick): “You’re always at a disadvantage… All you can ever do is react.”
There are moments in Goalie when Bloch finds temporary relief. On several occasions he manages to lose himself in the moment and he finds he has become articulate. For a second, he’s his old self again: “One sentence yielded the next sentence. And then, and then, and then… For a while it was possible to look ahead without worrying.” At other times Bloch finds himself going in the opposite evolutionary direction, toward a pre-linguistic state: “He saw and heard everything with total immediacy, without first having to translate it into words… He was in a state where everything seemed natural to him.” It is this state of being vis-a-vis language that Handke explored in his play Kaspar, written the year before Goalie. In Kaspar, an uncivilized pre-linguistic being is transformed into a civilized, articulate human. Sebald, who wrote about Kaspar, explains that at the outset of the play “we suspect that the speechless creature, as yet entirely untaught, is in possession of a secret of his own, if not actually in a state of paradisal bliss.” But as soon as Kaspar begins to communicate as a result of “speech torture,” “he loses what might be called his sound animal reason.” The gift of speech, Sebald senses, provides Kaspar with “an arsenal containing a cruel set of instruments.”
This set me to thinking about a pair of post-1968 films that attacked the civilizing impulse, notably François Truffaut’s Wild Child (1970) and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). At the time when they came out, the context in which I saw those films was that of a student whose deep distrust of language originated mostly in politics. Like many of my generation, I blamed the doublespeak of politicians and the “military-industrial complex” for leading the US into its disastrous escapades in Southeast Asia. It’s tempting to think of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now as something of a critique of the wild child/Kaspar Hauser syndrome as we watch Kurtz’s attempt to reverse the civilizing process by “going native” go so completely wrong.
By the way, Sebald wrote about Handke several times: first in an essay on Kaspar that appeared in Literatur und Kritik in 1975 and which is translated in Campo Santo as Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar; and again in his 1985 anthology Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke, where he reprinted an essay on Handke originally published in 1983. He writes at some length about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in the latter essay, which is, unfortunately, not translated into English yet. And in Unheimliche Heimat there is an essay Jenseits der Grenze on Handke’s book Die Wiederholung (translated as Repetition in English).