Taking Refuge in the Loo

Leland de la Durantaye

  • Versuch über den Pilznarren: Eine Geschichte für sich by Peter Handke
    Suhrkamp, 217 pp, £14.70, September 2013, ISBN 978 3 518 42383 7
  • Peter Handke im Gespräch, mit Hubert Patterer und Stefan Winkler
    Kleine Zeitung, 120 pp, £15.36, November 2012, ISBN 978 3 902819 14 7

Peter Handke began his career insulting his audience, and it long seemed that he would end it with his audience insulting him. In Insulting the Audience (1966), the play that brought him fame at the age of 23, he called the audience ‘dirty Jews’, ‘Nazi pigs’ and many things besides. Thirty years later, after he took up the cause of Serbian independence, condemned Nato intervention in the former Yugoslavia, compared the Serbs to Jews under the Third Reich, doubted the authenticity of reports of massacres in Srebrenica and elsewhere, received various honours from the Serbian government, and gave a eulogy before a crowd of 20,000 at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral, the vector of insult was mightily reversed. It seemed that all the warmth and admiration that had fallen to Handke over the course of his career had disappeared into thin air. Alain Finkielkraut called him an ‘ideological monster’. Salman Rushdie nominated him ‘International Moron of the Year’ for 1999. Susan Sontag said that there were many many people who would never pick up one of his books again. Presenting the matter in the starkest possible terms, the human rights worker and novelist Jonathan Littell remarked in 2008:

When a family is sitting in its house in Foca and suddenly someone bursts in with a machine gun, chains up the daughter to the radiator and rapes her in front of her family, this is no laughing matter. Okay you might say, the world is like this. But you don’t have to go up to these criminals and start shaking their hands. This is obscene and yet it is precisely what Peter Handke has done … He might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy. You have to keep things separate. You can be immoral as long as you keep to art. But as soon as you leave it and start talking politics, other rules apply. If you compare Handke with Céline, a fascist who wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets, you will understand what I’m talking about. Céline was a wonderful poet, and I can say today that I value him greatly, because he’s dead. But had I lived in the 1930s, I would have tried to kill him. Okay, Peter Handke is not killing anyone. But he’s an asshole.

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