8 April 2009

On Slow Homecoming

Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming has just been reissued by New York Review Books, with the following introduction by Benjamin Kunkel.

One of this novel’s minor but telling peculiarities is the narrator’s extreme reluctance to resort to proper names, and to describe the book in its own preferred style would be to avoid for as long as possible any mention of the author’s name or the title of his book. True, we learn (or seem to learn) from the first sentence that the main character bears the last name of Sorger, but in German this is as good as allegorical—Sorger means one who takes care or has cares—and the man’s given name in any case doesn’t come up for some fifty pages. The place in which the man is working will elicit a description of almost naturalistic precision, but its name is likewise withheld for many pages, as is the disciplinary title attached to his work: a patient and reverent bestowal of attention that involves, above all, “the search for forms,” and resembles geology.

We are simply set down, as the book begins, on the outskirts of an as-yet-unnamed Indian village “in the Far North of the other continent.” Here Sorger has come, for reasons more stirring for being unspecified, to pay close attention to the natural world, until one day something prompts him to return to Europe. And the novel’s curious reticence obtains as the narrative follows him homeward. Sorger passes some time in unnamed city on the West Coast of the US, and alights for a few days in a densely vertical American metropolis familiar to us from a thousand books and movies as New York. From his hotel room, he can see what the narrator will only call “the reservoir in the great mid-city park.” Later on, in the novel’s third and final movement, the story dwells on the main character’s relationship with his daughter, a girl known only as “the child.” Friends and acquaintances likewise go unnamed, along with foreign languages and whole peoples. Indeed by the time the main character is living in Paris (or “the beloved foreign city”) and attempting to enroll his Gentile daughter in a Jewish day school (not that these terms are used), the author has long since stopped calling him Sorger. That name—as has been revealed in the autobiographical and apparently non-fictional middle movement of the book—was just a device of convenience.

Peter Handke’s chariness of proper names can at times be irritating. He has always been a stubborn, never an ingratiating writer. The 1966 play with which he achieved a youthful fame was called Offending the Audience, and as a novelist Handke no more indulges the audience’s expectations regarding plot, scene-management, and characterization than he spares the reader his willful eccentricities (alongside his stinginess with names is an insistence on placing overfamiliar expressions inside quotes). Postmodernism has accustomed us to authors breaking in on their narratives far more often than they did during the nineteenth century and the first two-thirds of the twentieth; even so, Slow Homecoming is the rare book that begins to tell a fictional story, drops it halfway through so that the author may reveal what prompted that story—this part of the book is explicitly concerned with “the problem of transition”—and then resumes the original story with the fictional backdrop rent in two. Handke’s search for forms entails the waiver of all prefabricated shapes, and Slow Homecoming hews, like a stream, very much to its own course.

It’s in this sense that Handkes unwillingness to succumb too readily to “the world of names” points to something important about his work. A name (including that of an author or a country) implies that we already know what the named entity is; at a minimum, it implies that we can know. So do the conventions of story-telling suggest we have already grasped the archetypes of experience, along with the set-ups, meet-cutes, reveals, and recognition scenes that chart the way. Handke wishes to undo the spell of names and generic forms, and in their place establish not so much a moral or an idea or even a story as an image of experience. And if the quest for the image (or Bildverlust, as Handke calls the process) has more than anything else defined his later work and animated recent novels like On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House and Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, that quest has its foundation—or, thinking of the quasi-geologist hero, its bedrock—in Slow Homecoming, where the task Handke has set himself is first distinctly undertaken.

The word “image” needs to be qualified. Mostly today we use it in a narrowly visual sense, with an implication of stasis; an “image” suggests a mental photograph. (The same is true in German, where Bild can mean “picture.”) Handke is after something different, and something different too from the controlling image or symbol sought by many of the Romantic poets whom he otherwise resembles in respect of his solitariness, his questing impulse, and his attention to natural beauty. In the middle section of Slow Homecoming, Handke essayistically takes the painter Cézanne as a model maker of images. He is interested above all in Cézanne’s paintings of that massive geological fact, Mont St. Victoire, in Provence. (The homecoming to Europe is also a homecoming to certain kind of art.) For Handke, a Cézanne painting is a lesson as well as a picture; and though the lesson has something to do with peace, responsibility, and joy, it must retain its form as an image and avoid being reduced to a homily or maxim. Handke asks himself about the experience of Cézanne’s paintings: “What do they propose to me? Their secret lies in producing the effect of proposals.”

A Handke image is evolving and complex, and verges on the ineffable more often than it seeks to fix a meaning. The best example is the book as a whole, but something of Handke’s method can also been glimpsed in miniature. Here Sorger, standing alert in a flat wilderness just below the Arctic circle and absorbing an impression of the water and land, acquires the feeling that “the planet earth was a civilized, homelike, intelligible place”:

This state of mind was favored by the fleeting thought that while poplar seeds were drifting through the air, the pebbles on the riverbed were at the same time shifting unseen, rolling or slowly leaping over one another, enveloped in clouds of mud and propelled by waves deep below the surface which he could sense rather than infer. Wherever he was, Sorger tried to experience minute burlesque processes of this kind, which sometimes merely amused him but sometimes aroused him and filled his whole being.

Handke’s descriptive exactitude is as plain here as his luminous vagueness; the true image is both a description and a mood of promise. And even after Slow Homecoming has traded the protagonist’s solitary attentiveness to forms for his unfolding relationship with his young daughter, one comes away from the book with something like the feeling gained from a brilliant day in nature: throbbing images are imprinted on the sensorium; there is a sensation of having come nearer than ordinarily to the sources of life; a sensation of momentousness has been fused with one of peace; the self has seemed at once more surefooted than before, and more null; and you possess a feeling of wisdom that crumbles the moment you attempt to specify its directives. On the last page of the novel, father and daughter “combine to form a single, one and only, flaming, eye-catching inscription that remains to be deciphered.” For the adult as for the child, education has just begun.

Slow Homecoming is not an easy book to read on the subway or in an airport, or in a café where recorded music blares, or if you are anxious to check your email or follow some newsworthy development. First published in German in three parts between 1979 and 1981, it is a document manifestly produced before the flood of text and talk released by answering machines, mobile phones, and the internet, and, more than that, the book seems somehow to have acquired a bit of the solidity, the ancientness, and the indifference to human eyes displayed by the geologic forms that preoccupy Handke. The novel seems less postmodern than antediluvian. This makes it difficult in an unusual way. It is not demanding in its ideas or vocabulary, and the reader has no trouble keeping track of the few important characters and events. It is difficult mostly in the way of sitting zazen: you are asked only to pay attention.

From the title onward, Slow Homecoming does little to dispel the prejudice that German-language literature is a slightly solemn affair. Think of the sport an American Jewish novelist—Bellow or Roth, say—would have had with an earnest Austrian’s effort to get his daughter into Hebrew day school! But cultural difference cuts both ways. Patient receptivity as a faculty developed against the distracted and fragmentary consciousness of modernity has been a theme and, especially, a mode of much important twentieth-century German literature and philosophy, and, by contrast with a writer like Handke, English and American writers can seem suspiciously eager to accommodate themselves—and their prose styles—to the rush and dazzle of perpetual modernization. Patient surrender was what Adorno recommended before the work of art, just as Adorno’s bête noir Heidegger (whom Handke seems to have read closely) presupposed slow and patient attention when he wrote of “openness to being.” The specially German theme of patience may be most classically expressed in the lines from Rilke’s poem beginning “I live my life in widening circles”:

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
or a storm, or a great song.

In Slow Homecoming, Handke circles around a cat, a mountain, a child. Rilke sonorously affirms the passionate patience involved in not-yet-knowing-what-one-is, but Handke can show what such a vocation feels like day to day. Among his most beautiful works is the novella The Left-Handed Woman (1976), in which a woman leaves her husband and then—waits. She waits to see what she will do next. At the end she is still waiting.

When in Slow Homecoming the return to German-speaking Europe finally takes place, it is without the kind of decisive development that normally concludes a novel. Most important of all, and still enigmatic enough, would seem to be the main character’s glimpse of a father and son on a train who “sit still and very straight, attentive and awake.” Seeing this in a German family appears to offer some grounds for hope to a character who for unspoken and perhaps unspeakable reasons has been “rendered incapable of tradition.” Americans won’t feel quite the same need as an Austrian of Handke’s generation to wake from historical habits of mind and action into a patient, slow, form-discovering style of careful attention. But it does seem that such wakefulness grows at once harder and more valuable as electronic noise and communications crowd the margins of our thoughts—and here is a book, more untimely today than when it was first published, from which anyone might receive an image of what Handke calls “being able to live an acceptable life even at cross-purposes to the times.”

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