The two books by Peter Handke reviewed here appeared in the original German in 1986, and their appearance marked what in hindsight might be regarded as a mid-point in this writer’s wide-ranging and voluminous list of published books. Handke began his career with staged dramatic works in the early 1960s. By 1986, he had published over 35 volumes of plays, poetry, fiction, travel books and memoirs. Since that date an equal number of volumes under his authorship have appeared ranging over multiple genres.
The year 1986 is also memorable for Handke in part because he extended his writing activities into film by co-writing the script for Wim Wenders’ movie Wings of Desire. Over the following years he wrote and directed other films, but none more than Wings of Desire so effectively presented the shattered physical and emotional state of Berlin two decades after the Second World War’s conclusion. Generally speaking, Handke’s work is identified with the post-Second World War’s lingering shadows of devastation.
The better known of Handke’s two 1986 books is Repetition, a memoir which provides a vivid picture of the family and societal stresses that he lived through in Austria during and following the Second World War. Repetition appeared in English translated by Ralph Manheim in 1988 and it has been reissued by The Last Books, a publishing house located in Amsterdam initiated in 2012 that is interested in the spaces between different artistic fields—literature, performance, theory, etc. The second book, To Duration, is a longish poem, translated by Scott Abbott, which in 30-plus pages explores various extraordinary moments in Handke’s life—moments that other writers might readily term as “timeless” or “eternal.” Handke, however, is not at all at ease with the otherworldly or perhaps religious aspects of such terms, thus his title’s word choice:
For a long time I have wanted to write about duration,
not an essay, not a play, not a story—
duration calls for a poem.
Want to question myself with a poem,
remember with a poem,
claim and reclaim with a poem
what duration is.
Here, a brief listing of four separate instances of duration later explored in the poem. Then:
This duration, what was it?
Was it an interval of time?
Something measurable? A certitude?
No, duration was a feeling,
the most fleeting of all feelings,
more swiftly past than the blink of an eye,
But is this poetry? In general, despite the range of genres covered by Handke’s work there is throughout always a family resemblance to memoir in his work’s pacing, detailing and depth of inquiry. And Handke’s readership, which particularly for his many novels is extensive, are clearly taken with his relaxed approach. It is not far from the degree of specificity each of us employs in private moments. And this fact is, I think important: Much of Handke’s appeal to readers is that the surface of his writing echoes the intimacy of an inner voice.
In many respects throughout his writing career, Handke has followed his own course by employing this inner voice. Firmly fitting any single work into a particular genre’s traditional ploys has never been his focus or objective. Always the written word has involved an exposure of his—and when successful, also the reader’s—perception of the inner self: the experience of being that we each endure alone other than when touched by love.
The slowness of Handke’s approach to his true subject matter in To Duration involves preparing the ground that will allow the inner self to speak, as if it were both the self and an other, the latter being a presence only able to speak through the writer. Much of the preparation involves telling us what duration is not. At best, the early mentions are mere finger pointing gestures directed inward.
The poem of duration is a love poem.
It is about love at first sight
followed by many such first sights.
Only as he nears the poem’s end does Handke attempt a direct statement, and even there his success is questionable:
And this love,
its duration not in any deed,
much more in a before and after—
through love’s altered sense of time
the before was also after
and the after also before.
We had become one
before we had become one,
continued to become
after we had become one,
and lay that way for years…
This litany continues until the reader realizes that Handke is possibly not speaking of love with only a single other lover, nor even with a series of them, but with what might be termed an other. A blurring of some sort regarding the identity of the other occurs in the poem, a blurring that Handke does not risk giving a name to.
hip to hip, breath to breath,
side by side.
Your brown hair reddened
Then turned blonde
Your proliferating scars
Your straight hair curled,
your bright eyes darkened,
your large teeth grew smaller,
the taut skin of your lips
developed a fine, lightly drawn pattern…
Not only is the reader made aware that the poet appears to be serially sleeping with a series of lovers but that under the aegis of duration he is moving from place to place, continent to continent:
there was a shadowy shifting of European shrubs,
the shadows of American trees,
the shadows of nightbirds from everywhere.
Finally, Handke moves on to present three moments he associates with places. The presentations are, I believe, likely to awaken the reader to reflect on similar moments that were unbounded by a clock’s hands, moments that were and that remain somehow fitting to term as timeless. One such moment Handke situates at Fontaine Sainte-Marie located near Paris in a suburban forest where
If I approach it,
never by car,
always on foot,
I can hope, even on the threshold of the wood,
for an attraction
that will cleanse me of my usual brooding
and that my thinking will become pure
contemplation of the world.
In place of the chatter in me,
of the torment of many voices,
a kind of salvific silence
from which then, on arrival at the place,
an explicit thought, my highest thought arises:
rescue, save, rescue!
With a jolt as gentle as it is powerful,
my eyes round
and my ear-passages rustle,
and I celebrate, in the clearing,
the thanksgiving of being here.
Handke is unable to directly present what he means by duration. Yet, his insistent presentation does awaken us to a particular plateau from which we recall that we too have at some earlier moment or moments perceived within ourselves what he has in mind.
Early on in To Duration we are told of a highly charged moment that occurred “just yesterday.” While Handke walked amid the crowded streets of Salzburg
I heard a voice call my name
as if from far across the city
and the voice somehow evokes both the timeless moment he thinks of as duration but it also reminds him unaccountably that he left the manuscript of Repetition at the post office and he thinks of this voice and runs back to retrieve the manuscript.
For some readers Repetition may dispel certain questions raised by To Duration: Having in hand biographical data often can satisfy wondering how and why certain points of view held by an author came about. Handke’s memoir presents many chilling images of the severe buffeting that he, while growing up, experienced from others, not only from other youths, but also from certain adults, including his parents. It is presented as a fiction but its background details the harshness of rural life in an isolated corner of Austria, bordering on Yugoslavia. The book spans the early years through his teens and is told in a manner backgrounded throughout by a definite yet modest poetic glow, a glow akin to that we might ordinarily associate with folk and fairy tales.
It is this last aspect of the fairytale which I find of utmost significance: Handke writes as might a literary archeologist on a dig searching the dim and befogged landscapes of the imaginal world, that intermediate sector perceived as the border between the spiritual and the material. It is the borderline that mystics speak of as shared potentially by each of us. It is the world we inhabit in our individual aloneness.
The reader of Handke regularly encounters and re-encounters structural incidents and landscapes that much resemble those found in folk-based sources such as those gathered together by the Grimm brothers. The resemblance is particularly evident in the aspect of beginnings wherein families, communities, even nations choose the youngest child to deal with the threat of calamity. The prototypical dire situation in Handke’s Repetition takes narrative shape with the youngest brother sensing the inner necessity to set off on a journey to find and perhaps aid a mysteriously missing older brother.
Handke’s often unnamed protagonists wander through fairytale backdrops modernized into the labyrinthine flourishing and chaotically active presences of urban streets inhabited by bystanders many of them strangers, yet somehow familiar. This aspect of Repetition was particularly noted by W. G. Sebald in his 1986 review of Repetition. There he discusses how Handke’s use of repetition involves “difference…not…the same. This difference, this repetition is the life of Handke’s book.” Thus motifs are enunciated and “made to reverberate around an absence whose mystery the narrator will not solve by finding his brother.” In other words, as the reader fits him or herself into the space created by the author, the story makes no more sense than does one’s life. At best there are the resonances of fairy tale and poetry.
We note also in reading that the repetitions presented in the book as motifs resemble pieces that never quite fit together, as for instance they do in a crossword puzzle. The reading of Repetition is actually about journeying to the places we as children dreamt of as if out of a longing to return to those places. But the originals of those places were unnamed and we are without maps or other clues to trace their whereabouts. From what and when and where did our longing originate?
Religions traditionally have spoken of this longing as edenic or paradisical. Today’s skeptics have a strong argument on their side when they ask “Where? When? Show me.” The reply from those such as Handke is that the longing lives within each of us. The related question from Handke is left unasked: “Is the existence of this longing without meaning?” Repetition points out that the longing began when we were at an age too young to consciously devise or fabricate. What does it mean to long for a home we cannot situate on earth? What lies behind that question informs the searching implicit in both books discussed here.