His Own Version
by Peter Handke
Translated by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 112 pp., $22
In 1996 the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who had been living near Paris for several years, raised eyebrows with his travelogue A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia because he appeared to diminish Serbian war crimes. In 2005 Handke visited Slobodan Milosevic in prison in The Hague, and at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006, delivered an oration in Serbian. This is the only political position he has ever taken in public.
Handke was born in 1942 in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia. His mother was a 22-year-old Slovene, his father a married German soldier stationed in a Carinthian village. Handke grew up poor but managed to get an exquisite education at a Catholic boarding school that was a conduit to the priesthood; later he switched to a secular high school in Klagenfurt. He was an excellent student. He went on to study law in Graz but quit in 1965, just shy of a degree, when his first novel appeared with a prestigious German publisher. A year later Handke gained both admiration and notoriety when, at a meeting of the fabled Gruppe 47 in Princeton, he insulted the assembled German postwar literary elite as unliterary blockheads suffering from “descriptive impotence.”
Handke’s massive oeuvre consists of some 90 publications by now (novels, plays, essays, poems, travelogues, diaries) of which about a third are available in English. His work became more complex and refined over time, but did not change radically in its central concern: It is quintessentially Flaubert’s—finding le mot juste—but with an Austrian twist, derived from the Sprachbezweifler (language skeptics) Hugo Hofmannsthal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, and Robert Musil. Handke’s goal is to circumnavigate the inadequacies of language and capture in his prose the more complex sensual experiences of the world: the sensing of space and time, of visual beauty and intellectual surprise. His language appears to be concrete, if slightly stilted and precious, but the concreteness is an illusion. The language is packed with metaphors that function as trap doors from immanence into transcendence. For Handke, living means to be in transition, to cross boundaries of space and time.
This 2004 “novel,” now published in a serviceable if uninspired English translation by Krishna Winston, is a perfect case in point. Here is how it opens:
Don Juan had always been looking for someone to listen to him. Then one fine day he found me. He told me his story, but in the third person rather than in the first. At least that is how I recall it.
The narrator lives in a former gatekeeper’s lodge “near the ruins of Port-Royal-des-Champs, which in the seventeenth century was France’s most famous cloister.”
Even if you know nothing about the place, your literary receptors should be sensing pleasure ahead. Here is a man poised on a threshold. He inhabits the gatekeeper’s house at a religious place that is itself a royal gate to heaven, perhaps, or only into nature. He is recalling a visit from a 17th-century literary character who talks about himself in the third person. The narrator’s imagination becomes physical reality in the narrated story, just as the reverse is true in the phrase translated by Winston as “how I recall it”—which, in the German, reads: wie es mir in den Sinn kommt (“as it/he walks into my senses”).
The metaphor indicates that a phenomenon from the sensual world walks into a brain to become a concept. What Handke conveys here is the permeability of the border between the physical and mental world. Language itself is the shunt, or gatekeeper.
Now we understand why we are in the vicinity of Port-Royal-des-Champs, an elitist nunnery dedicated to Jansenist ideas and the centrality of grace. Grace is a sudden manifestation of transcendence in immanence. The nuns argued that only God’s grace can redeem, and it cannot be earned, neither through faith nor good deeds: Either you receive it or you don’t. So it’s perfect for Don Juan, the moral transgressor par excellence. But Handke’s Don Juan crosses more than moral boundaries; he moves through time and space, and after he installs himself in the narrator’s hortus conclusus, whether his brain or the actual garden surrounding his house, he begins to narrate his transgressions of the past week: six women in six countries. Don Juan’s ingress into the narrator’s domain is sudden and violent, as the advent of grace can be. Again, the German phrasing shows Don Juan’s double nature: er fällt ein. He takes the garden by storm (falls in) but is also the narrator’s idea or conceit (Einfall).
Handke’s fanciful play with the metaphorical nature of language, and his enjoyment of hidden literary allusions (he shares biographical features with both Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine, both of whom had female relatives living at Port-Royal) keep the reader alert and pinned to the pages just as the plot becomes so boring that even Don Juan loses interest in it.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.