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.

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.

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