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.