Friday, July 5, 2013

Writers and Offensive Opinions

Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke, and a thought on extra-literary matters

Back in the 1970's, Avon Books--a great source for European and Latin American literature in translation, now, of course, defunct as a literary press--issued an inexpensive paperback entitled Three by Peter Handke.  The volume contained two novellas (or novels, I can never tell the difference) "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick"; "Short Letter, Long Farewell"; and "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams," a memoir of Handke's mother, an "invisible woman," who committed suicide in 1971.  I reread "A Sorrow" a year ago at this time, right after my mother's death, and I was stirred again by the beauty of Handke's prose and the depth of the feeling he conveys for his mother.  "Short Letter, Long Farewell", an off-kilter meditation on a marriage, 70's-style angst, and American culture has been a favorite of mine since I first read it, though it is, I'm sorry to say, rather dated in its view of the United States. Especially off-putting is the hipster sensibility of the narrator and consequent naive nature of his view of Americans: he's no Tocqueville or Harriet Martineau* but a visitor more in the mold of Dickens or Lorca--collecting impressions rather than forming judgments.  "Short Letter" turns on the narrator's pursuit of his wife across the interstate highway system from Boston to LA, and on his encounters with what I guess Handke thought of as "authentic" Americans: workers and students and Negroes and, at the climax, the director John Ford (by no means an ordinary man, but a chronicler of America and, given Handke's involvement with film, an apt figure to provide the choral wrap-up to the journey and the novel).

Handke, born in 1941, has been a great traveler--his collection of essays Once Again for Thucydides is surely one of the better representatives of this genre--and always both a poetic and dramatic writer.  "Short Letter" is full of gems like this one:

"They [two lovers] were so engrossed in each other that the most trifling objects that had accumulated in the course of their life together became as precious to them as the parts of their own bodies."

One of the narrator's acquaintances says, "I'm completely cut off from life...It exists for me only in comparisons with my inner states. I haven't seen a fish being scaled for years, but last night when I woke up in a state of anxiety, I saw glittering scales all around me. I haven't been exposed to nature for ages, but when I reach out my hand for my glass, I feel like the body of a spider that's just been killed and is slowly, as though still alive, sinking to the ground on its thread. I've stopped noticing the commonplace acts of life, like putting my hat on, riding on escalators, or eating a soft-boiled egg; but later they come back to me as metaphors of my situation."

Legend has it that when he was just twenty-two, starting out as a writer, Handke proclaimed that he was the next Kafka.  Reading his plays and short novels, the comparison to Kafka seems inaccurate.  More apt would be to think of Handke as a German  Beckett, but then only as an approximation.  Handke is a unique figure, not exactly like anyone else, a writer whose concern with human identity, personal authenticity, the shallowness of Western culture, and the problem of communicating one's inner life through language (hence, his collaborations with Wim Wenders) remind me, loosely, of Max Frisch and Thomas Pletzinger (whose Funeral for a Dog has Handke tones and narrative misdirection).  It's not that these themes aren't common enough in contemporary fiction, nor is it true that Handke's loose (or non-existent) plots are atypical; but Handke has a style--poetic and vernacular, visually detailed and yet elusive, hip and cerebral--that is all his own. 

One cannot speak about or read Handke these days without mentioning his unspeakable comments on Serbia both during and after the genocide in the former Yugoslavia. He has defended Serbian atrocities against Croatians, Muslims, Bosnians and others and, in 2006, eulogized Slobodan Milosevic. I'm often embarrassed by the callous disregard of history evinced by certain writers--Brecht's defense of Stalin, Celine's anti-antisemitism and general bigotry, Knut Hamsun's Nazism, and so forth--it's as if some writers' imaginations cannot extend to actual human beings--this was certainly the case with Brecht, a revolutionary who had no feeling for people.  Handke has always been an iconoclast and something of an outrider, and one enjoys the spectacle of a writer challenging the tedious status quo; however, there are limits to one's toleration of cruel political views. Unfortunately, this time around I found myself losing patience with passages in "Short Letter" that never bothered me before, no doubt because I was recalling Handke's support for Milosevic, a man who was guilty of (at least) facilitating genocide.  My reaction to Handke upset me if only because it meant I would never be able to recapture the pleasure I had once taken in his books.  I loathe censorship--and am sorry that Handke has suffered suppression of his work since 2006.  But as important as art is in helping to define a life worth living, no art, or artist, transcends the boundaries of ordinary decency, and no reader should overlook an artist's complacency in the face of  cruelty. 


*Why Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837), roughly contemporary with Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835), isn't more popular is a mystery to me--it's an insightful book by any standard.

Handke's Short Letter, Long Farewell has been published by New York Review Books.  One can still find the old Avon Three Novels for pennies.  

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