Winking at myself

Michael Hofmann

  • The Weight of the World by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Secker, 243 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 436 19088 5

The Austrian writer Peter Handke is so successful and so prolific that, reviewing one of his recent novels, his arch-enemy Marcel Reich-Ranicki, literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, ended by crowing at the fact that Langsame Heimkehr bad failed to make it onto the best-seller list. ‘Let no one say there’s no such thing as progress,’ he concluded. But it has been a long time coming. In 1977, when Das Gewicht der Welt was published by Residenz in Salzburg, it went through two editions and 50,000 copies in a year. By now, with the Suhrkamp paperback thrown in, it must have exceeded a million. The figures are sufficient to dispel any notion that in reading this ‘Journal’ one might be doing something private or privileged.

The book has little merit. Its success must be attributed to the phenomenon of Peter Handke. The key quality is integrity, a kind of shocking unimpeachability, with a dash of outrageousness. ‘I am accessible to criticism only within the limits of my ideas of myself,’ he says in The Weight of the World. It’s as though the fearless child had been chosen to succeed the naked and discredited Emperor (the young Handke first came to attention by his attacks on the Gruppe 47). A logical choice, perhaps. Handke has remained visibly true to himself: tall and lean and unhappy-looking; the glasses, the moustache, the dark clothes; the astonishing rate of output and the permanent availability for a few bilious words on the media or on der Kulturbetrieb in general; hatred of contact, compromise, society, nations, glitter – a sort of vengeful, principled, aggressive self-absorption. The two titles Abusing the audience and I am an in habitant of the ivory tower give an idea of the stance. And what could be a more authentic product of this privacy-cultivating outsider (and face of the ‘me-generation’ of the Seventies) than his diaries, where he is able to express himself without any truck with the hated conventions of story or description, without catering for anyone’s tastes or preconceptions except his own? The Weight of the world carries the s’enfoutiste ‘dedication’: To whom it may concern’. And of course the public loved it – or anyway they bought it. Even the critics loved it. Apparently there were only two dissenting opinions, and one of them, I guess, will have been in the FAZ.

The Weight of the World is a journal kept by Handke from November 1975 to March 1977, when he was irving mostly in Paris, with his young daughter. Its two or three thousand entries or items vary in length from a few words to almost a whole page – with the longest one, symptomatically, devoted to an encounter with a journalist. A typical entry will be a short, sour sentence with a colon and without a full stop: not unlike a nasty haiku. The blurb describes the book as ‘a complete offering of Handke’s moods and insights, ranging from the outrageous, sarcastic and bitter, to the humorous and gentle. It is not, in the end, a retreat into himself, but a gesture of friendliness towards the world.’ This is, I think, overstating it. It is not the range of the moods that strikes one, but their severe limitation: querulousness, irritability, disaffection and contempt make up the bulk. And then ‘humorous’. Admirers and detractors of Handke must be agreed on one thing: their man has no humour – nothing is so inimical to Handke as laughter. Whatever looks like humour in The Weight of the World isn’t. Perhaps these items appear funny: ‘Sense of doom at the sight of rubber plants’; ‘Driving through a dreary suburban countryside on a Sunday afternoon: think a somersault into it and it becomes bearable.’ I assure you they aren’t meant to be, and that it’s only in English that it looks as though they were. The German is far stodgier and more cumbersome: ‘das Gefühl der Henkersmahlzeit’ instead of the lively, hyperbolic ‘sense of doom’; ‘bei der Vorstellung eines Purzel-baums in ihr’ for the graceful, un-English cookery-book sparkle of ‘think a somersault into it.’ The two items were formulated as grunts from Handke’s unremitting and grindingly earnest struggle with the world. Handke’s opinion of humour is clear enough: ‘What some people call funny is only a letting-go when one ought to remain serious.’ The Handkean joke can take only one, metaphysical form: ‘The interviewer said to the “lonely man”: “Tell me about loneliness!” No answer.’

As for ‘friendliness to the world’, the only evidence I can see is the act of publication. And no doubt it is friendlier to sell 100,000 books than 50,000. But as far as the content of these diaries goes, Handke always seems to be arguing against any sort of affect he may notice in himself. The only attitude in which he is happy is strict non-compliance – anything that sweeps him up out of himself and disturbs him in his I-am-an-island-unto-myself position is greeted with disgust: ‘I lose patience with someone – because I’m not following his movements’; ‘Involuntarily, with a look of disgust, I beat time to the march music with my foot.’ Hatred and resentment for any sort of contiguity – physical, intellectual, or even temporal – surely preclude anything as muddy and open as ‘friendliness to the world’. The entry, ‘The film moved me. Then on the way out I was sidetracked by the soft behind of the woman ahead of me,’ is motivated, not just by Handke’s occasional misogyny and general hatred of bodies, but by his sense of outrage at any unsolicited sense-impression, and ultimately by the failure of a chosen moment to last for ever. Elsewhere, however, he is only too ready to do away with moments. His version of the diary-process seems less a way of preserving time than of abolishing it. His habit of entering the date is not historiographical (more entries document his hatred of history), but another facet of his technique: precision without specificity. Daily writing without names or events. Monitoring himself, as though in a desert. It is either an oddly conventional irrelevance, or a final humbling indignity to write the date over such barren notations as ‘I’m so fond of you today,’ ‘I believe that my eyes lit up once today,’ ‘I’ve already had a few moments today of feeling benevolent towards the sunny world.’ This can’t, surely, have much to do with keeping a record? Or with ‘friendliness to the world’? It looks more like quarantining, isolating the day and the month, as his formulations isolate moments, and his writing isolates feelings by anchoring them to their stimuli: ‘Write down every trifle at once – to find out what calmed me.’ The disruptive form and the often glib and stupid selfinvestigations – ‘I notice that in my mortal Tear I move with upraised hands and outthrust behind, like some kind of homosexual’ – are there to oppose the involuntary and the impulsive. Under these circumstances, ‘friendliness to the world’ would have to look like a fixed grin.

The characteristic movement of the entries in The Weight of the World is of ‘discovery’ followed by disappointment, satisfaction or Schadenfreude, depending on the circumstances. It is like the child watching a whole procession of ‘Emperors’, many of them self evidently nude, others no emperors at all: ‘My disappointment when the roar I took for the wind turns out to be something else (cars)’; ‘Sex: the ultimate enmity’; ‘What looks to me like a malignant glitter of machines among the people in the park is baby carriages.’ The simplicity and repetition of this movement becomes thoroughly wearying. Even Handke’s real insight s seem accidental: be is just as right when he’s wrong as when he’s right (see the last example) and vice versa. One very soon ceases to trust his observations and inferences: ‘A blind man was walking very slowly and awkwardly in front of me, and I thought: Only someone who went blind recently would walk like that’; That woman wheezes white eating, and splutters at the mouth, as women do who have been living alone a long time.’ Such possible interpretations have to co-exist both with astonishingly banal acts of ‘knowingness’ on Handke’s part, and with fickle and disturbing acts of imaginative murder, usually (perhaps unsurprisingly in his black-and-while world) on policemen: ‘So lively, that policewoman regulating the traffic, putting her white gloved fingers to her lips and blowing kisses at a baby – and yet it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see her stone dead the next minute.’ And Handke’s perceptual armour has some alarming chinks. What is one to make of the gullibility of this debunker in the face of two of the oldest myths in existence: ‘In the moment of wanting to love her, I bent over toward her and was really filled with love’; ‘Organ music: this music, it seems to me, must have a source; it cannot have come into existence by and for itself; it arouses the thought of a higher being, something I cannot conceive of in any other context’?

One lapidary entry goes simply ‘My greatness: being alone,’ and Handke makes much of his solitude. But his being alone is a state of mind as much as anything else, and a lot of the book consists of dubious aspersions on other people: ‘I don ‘t feel at home in illness (as many others do)’; ‘With me, all duties demand an exertion, a decision – I can’t just do them like other people.’ Handke is simply giving in to his exalted sense of himself, and using other people as punchballs. The theory behind his solitude is this: ‘My feeling of self, which isolates my own self, is also the source of my feeling for others, whom I see as equally isolated, and that in turn brings me close to them.’ There is pitifully little in the book to back this up. Handke’s solitude is narcissism and self-conceit: ‘Full or fortitude and self-assurance, I dropped gently off to sleep’; ‘Alone in the night I winked at myself.’ It is only in the last few pages that anything resembling self-criticism creeps into the Journal: a warning against ‘first glance opinions’ and this sorry entry: ‘Failing to understand someone. I tell myself that he’s stupid; but when I fail to understand a second person. I’m afraid it’s the world that I don’t understand.’

As autobiography, as writing and as wisdom, The Weight of the World is a failure. Occasional entries have some spark of life and originality (‘Tiredness – the water level drops and the objects on the riverbed are uncovered, sheet metal with sharp rusty edges’), but on the whole the standard is depressingly low. At the same time, it is possible to discern that the straw of this book has made the bricks of others. At the opening of Handke’s best book, A Sorrow beyond Dreams – about his dead mother – the conditions of irritation, dedication and numbness are encapsulated In a single imaginative flight: Handke sees himself repeatedly tapping out the same letter on his typewriter. All these conditions can be found in the Journal. But they aren’t enough to make a book, and they come closest to being satisfactory when they are closest to becoming elements in a fiction – in the notes on gestures with which this whole misguided venture began.

Then there is the fact that the English version is different from the original. Handke and his translator Ralph Manheim say in a note that about ten pages’ worth of entries have been dropped – and some of these (oyez!) because the author ‘didn’t like them any more’. As a procedure for dealing with a journal which has already appeared in full in another language, this seems to me quite extraordinary, especially from Handke with bis outsider’s integrity. And it makes reading what has been ‘passed’ a bizarre experience: I’m sure I’ve quoted items at least as uninteresting as a sneer at ‘techniques’ in sex, or the dada suggestion that one keep the paper and throw away the contents. But the translation has its impact. Ralph Manheim’s English is lighter, more reasonable and personal, in tone than the original. Time after time, he introduces a personal pronoun where the German avoids one. And he avoids Handke’s rather heavy ornaments: the ‘rabbits’ paws’ of the homosexuals, the ‘St Vitus’s dance’ of the mania for communication. On one occasion, he has put a unicorn in a tree-top, instead of a squirrel.