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.
Keeping things separate is harder with a living writer, and yet another difficulty is introduced when the writer’s work is as close to life as Handke’s is. The line separating fact from fiction often disappears in his books. The blend of fact and fiction is confounding by design, as it was with his fellow countryman, contemporary and sometimes rival, Thomas Bernhard, and as it was with one of his finest critics, W.G. Sebald. In Essay on the Jukebox, the second volume in the series Handke has recently finished, he, or a narrator quite like him, tells of how, in writing, he moved a cypress he’d seen in Cologne to Indianapolis, and a stable he’d visited from Salzburg to Yugoslavia. But, he tells us, these changes from fact to fiction were nothing in comparison to the shifting of ‘the whole place of writing’ into the background of the book. Just as his early dramas – Insulting the Audience is just one example –tried to pull down the curtain separating the audience from the actors, his later experiments attempt to bring ‘the whole place of writing’ into the story. None of Handke’s more than fifty works draws this line between fact and fiction to greater effect than the Versuchen, begun in 1989 and now just completed.
Handke’s five Versuchen present a problem of translation. It stems from how exceptionally literal a writer he is. His finest work, Wunschloses Unglück (1972), is an account of his mother’s suicide. The German title is hard to translate but easy to explain. It takes very literally an everyday expression, wunschlos glücklich, which means to be so happy one wants for nothing, and then upends it. The unhappiness is so profound and present-devouring that no room is left to want or wish for anything (in Ralph Manheim’s translation it is rendered as A Sorrow beyond Dreams). The translational trouble created by the cycle of books Handke has just completed is less dramatic, but no less central. The German term they all share, Versuch, means ‘experiment’ or ‘attempt’. In this it resembles the term essai before Montaigne gave it a new literary function. The problem with translating the first three volumes as Essay on Tiredness, Essay on the Jukebox and Essay on the Successful Day, as was done in 1994, is that it can give rise to misperceptions: the books are in some very literal sense essays, but they aren’t what essays are expected to be. They are fictions, but of a strange and intermittent sort.
Handke’s work of the 1960s had a single, all-encompassing theme, one very much of its time: the coercive force of language. Frank Kermode wrote of him in 1975: ‘language, as game or disease, dominates the entire enterprise.’ At the outset of his best-known play, Kaspar, Handke tells the reader ‘the play might also be called “Speech Torture”.’ The figure of a young, solitary man of uncertain origin and means – a fictionalised version of the historical Kaspar Hauser – clearly appealed to the young Handke. His Kaspar has a problem (speechlessness) whose only solution is a still greater one (speech).
The central theme of the early work has since ceded to the two themes that dominate the final instalments in the Versuchen series: solitude and form. Solitude is an easy enough theme to find in Handke’s writing, form is not. Nietzsche wrote that ‘one is an artist by virtue of experiencing what non-artists call “form” as content.’ This is literally true of Handke: the search for form, both in literature and life, is the explicit subject of a great many of his books. The five books in the series present a stark contrast between how casual they seem in telling their stories, and how precise they are in the construction of their sentences. Each tells at least two stories – about fatigue, jukeboxes, happy days, still places, mushroom hunting – and the story of the telling of the story. Some are written in the first person; others introduce an unnamed ‘he’ around whom the story revolves. All digress continually, and often enchantingly. Essay on Jukeboxes really is about jukeboxes. The unnamed protagonist, a ‘he’ who has much in common with Handke, pursues his fascination with them largely in solitude. He says a lot about the history of jukeboxes and where they were once found. He discusses the role of ‘juke joints’ (although he calls them ‘juke points’) and the way artists such as Louis Armstrong could be heard mostly on jukeboxes because radio stations in many places wouldn’t play the music of a black man, no matter how gifted. But there are many things in the Essay on Jukeboxes that don’t seem to have anything to do with jukeboxes: ‘the curious role of hearsay in dreams’ (‘it is neither said nor heard, it simply presses forward through the air’) and the nightingale-filled ‘singing trees’ of the Spanish town of Soria. In Soria the unnamed ‘he’ sees a strange light that seems ‘as though it were shining up from the earth’. It’s arresting enough to make him want ‘immediately’ to ‘go off somewhere and write and write and write – without a subject, or, as far as I’m concerned, about something like a jukebox’.
The difficulties of translation don’t end with the first word of the titles. The fourth book, published in 2012 and coinciding with Handke’s 70th birthday, Versuch über den Stillen Ort, ‘Experiment on the Place of Stillness’, sounds reflective and removed, serious and even spiritual. And so it is. But it’s about going to the bathroom, about visiting what, in an antiquated euphemism, is sometimes called in German ‘the place of stillness’. The narrator’s trips to the bathroom aren’t to use the facilities, at least not in the habitual sense. The book is about a lifetime of taking refuge in the loo as though it were an ever-present panic room where he can wait out the storm of unhappiness, annoyance and anxiety that comes from being with others. ‘Were my searches for those places of stillness,’ he asks, ‘in the course of my life, all over the world, so often without any special need, perhaps an expression if not of a flight from society, at least of a resistance to society, a social exhaustion?’ The question is not purely rhetorical; there’s more to the story. He seeks shelter in the loo out of insecurity and boredom, and to wait for his powers of speech to return. He needs to regain the desire to speak. In Slow Homecoming (1979) the protagonist, again sharing much with Handke, sees ‘a danger in his inner muteness – as though he were an inert object whose sound had died away for ever – and he longed to have back the suffering of speech’. The narrator of Versuch über den Stillen Ort feels the same danger and longs for the same suffering. He finds himself struck dumb by social pressure, social tedium, by boredom and distraction, arrogance and insecurity. But in the stillness of the bathroom something special can happen, and ‘the desire for speech’ can return.
In other words, it’s a private tale about the need for privacy, about the forms this search for solitude has taken, and about the forms seen in different places of stillness. And yet this very private book has a public and political element. In the long list of bathrooms recalled – in Handke’s childhood home in rural Carinthia, in Berlin, in Paris, in Nara, Japan; one with a view of the Yukon river; one overlooking Central Park – a nondescript Balkan loo which Handke photographed is given pride of place. Studying the image, he recalls the spiders and flies and the straw broom used as toilet brush, finding it ‘strange’ that it ‘didn’t bother me – on the contrary’. A few pages later he will turn to pictures taken by others, one of which contrasts with the themes of peace and solitude elsewhere in the book. It shows ‘a young girl in a rented home in the city of Batajnica north-west of Belgrade who, in the spring of 1999, during the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia’, was killed by shrapnel. It’s the only story of death in the book. Handke has said he wants to have done with people asking him about Serbia, but remarks of this kind are hard to take seriously when he’s consistently sought to have the last word on the matter. But this isn’t the last word. That’s reserved for the final volume.
We have no reason to distinguish the ‘I’ of the bathroom book from Handke himself. But the last volume presents a character who isn’t the speaker, a specialist in international criminal law who defends individuals accused of human rights violations. Handke isn’t a lawyer (though he studied law). But if we take this job description a bit less literally, and recall Handke’s public defence of, say, Milosevic, then the role of fact in the fiction changes. The book’s main concern, however, is mushrooms. Or, more precisely, another literally untranslatable figure: the Pilznarr. Pilz means ‘mushroom’ and narr means ‘fool’, and the term is hard to translate because Handke wants us to take it literally: his lawyer goes mad in his search for mushrooms. Like the earlier novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, the book is, among other things, a descent into madness. Mushrooms become an all-estranging passion as wife, job and almost everything else is abandoned in the search for them, or in the solitude the search affords. Mushrooms can’t be cultivated. They are truly wild, and more than a little mysterious, so there are no limits to their pursuit. The balance between what Handke has called ‘introversion with its free, form-creating thought and formless extroversion’ is lost, and what he has called ‘the great formlessness’ threatens to engulf the mushroom hunter. We follow him deeper into the forest, and see a snake’s skin hanging from a winter branch, the remains of bunkers deep in the forest, and ‘the serrated maple leaves that begin in a diving fall before levelling to glide gently onto the ground’. He warms up by walking through an area that’s unlikely to have any mushrooms to sharpen his vision. He reflects on his passion and on passion in general; searching for the ‘foreign form’ of the mushroom becomes an occasion for reflecting on the search for form itself. We may know that a particular passion comes at a price, that it has negative consequences for us or those around us, but it’s hard to say a passion is all bad, or even bad at all. The mushroom hunter has ‘a feeling that was at once also a certitude, that through such actions he was doing good to those entrusted to him (including the accused he defends), he was doing his own good, and doing good itself’. The sense that he’s doing not only the right thing for himself, but the right thing in general, is part of the power of passionate obsessions, and it’s rendered with rare conviction here. But his solitude isn’t without the ghost of a desire for company. The mushroom hunter, like Beckett’s Murphy, dreams of a social connection in the form of disconnection; he dreams of a ‘society of the different – the fundamentally different’. What he finds is something else.
In 1991, Sebald wrote that ‘the particular storytelling genre which Handke created consisted in the completely new linguistic and imaginative precision with which, in stories such as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and A Sorrow beyond Dreams, Handke reports and reflects on the silent catastrophes that ceaselessly follow one another deep within us.’ Like Sebald, and like most Austrian and German writers of his generation, Handke has uneasy feelings about his homeland. In the first book of the series, he writes of not feeling part of a people, a Volk, like the one he glimpsed as a child, on trips to Slovenia, ‘which I always in later years wished for in my own country of Austria, and which I increasingly missed’. In The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980), he writes that Austrian politicians, ‘like all artists engaged in politics’, appeared to him when young as nothing more than ‘ham actors’; he listened to them, and his ‘only thought was of “failure to atone”’. In a later work Handke says of his own child that she is ‘by birth and language a descendant of murderers who seem condemned to flounder for all time, without aim or joy, metaphysically dead’. In Essay on Tiredness he calls the Austrians ‘the first irretrievably rotten, the first unbetterable … the first irreversible people in history’. It’s not hard to see in his idealisation of the Serbs a longing stretching into his unheimliche Heimat.
Handke has proudly maintained his position on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. After the facts about the massacres in Srebrenica and elsewhere became clear, he kept calling them the ‘so-called facts’. With a few exceptions (the comparison of the Serbs to the Jews during the Holocaust), he wasn’t inclined to amend his remarks because of new facts; they were made with professional precision, with casuistic distinctions that were essential to him and meant little to his detractors. For many, like Littell, the fundamental distinctions were the only ones that mattered: you either speak at the funeral of a man you know to have ordered the murder of innocents or you don’t.