Friday, June 19, 2009

Peter Handke's Best Book?

Welches empfinden Sie als das beste Buch von Handke? Okay, blöde Frage. Die besten drei!
Which book do you think is Handke's best? Okay, stupid question. The best three!

This challenge is from the Peter Handke translator and psychoanalyst Michael Roloff, sent to several of us who like to converse about the work of the Austrian author whose novel title (in Roloff's translation) is the title of my blog.

Michael suggested we think about the best book of the various periods and genres.
The German literary critic and blogger Lothar Struck wrote that he thinks the recent Moravian Night is one of the best books, if not the best book. "Almost any other writer would receive the Nobel Prize for that book alone."  

Michael responded to that assessment: "Wonderful, of course, I shall read it at least three times before writing on it. The bastard has become better and better and deeper and deeper." 

I've hesitated to join the conversation, and only this morning realized why. I've got a complicated and sometimes troubled and always thankful and deeply personal and often quirky relationship with these books. I don't know if I can do this. But I'd like to find a way.

So my divisions and choices and equivocations are as follows:

1. The group that Suhrkamp Verlag published in paperback. I love to see the colors and uniform size on my shelf: See a photo of some of them above. I've arranged my books in various ways over the years, but keep coming back to color and size and publisher as a reasonable and aesthetic way to make words and things correspond. My favorite of this rainbow of books may be The Goalie's Anxiety. When Joseph Bloch finds that his map doesn't exactly correspond to the landscape, he and I breath deep sighs of relief. The authorities may not be able to find us after all.

2. The essays and play about the former Yugoslavia have shaped me and my thinking, have measured and cut and sanded my thoughts after providing possible blueprints. They affect me so much, in part, because I worked (am working) hard to translate them, and translation is, perhaps, the most intensive kind of reading. Because people comment on these Yugoslavia books, especially, without having read them, they have been controversial. Language is critical as we move toward or away from war. That's Peter's point. Journalists and politicians and commentators don't like to be reminded that they are sloppy with language. So they attack the messenger. And finally, these books remind me of the trip my friend Zarko and I took with Peter along the Drina River. It was one of the defining weeks of my life. 

3. The big novels, written after criticism that Peter couldn't write big novels. Peter showed me a letter from Robert Straus, the American publisher, to Siegfried Unseld, Peter's German publisher, that opened with the sentence: "We've got a big problem. His name is Peter Handke." Straus' problem, of course, was that Peter had started to write a new kind of novel. And it wasn't selling. Selling lots of copies isn't one of my criteria, however, and each of these novels has given me hours of sanity and careful form and slow perception in a precipitous and unperceptive world. For my favorite of these, see my final entry.

4. Translations. Peter has made a lot of literature accessible to German readers through his translations from Greek, French, English, and Slovenian. Although I can read the English, I love his translation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I told Peter that I laughed when I came to the scene where Autolycus was selling ballads and found that one of them was Dylan's "Stuck in Mobile singing the Memphis blues." Yes, he said, I allowed myself that. Peter's little German/Croatian dictionary (he had added "Serbian" to the title so it accurately reflected the dual nature of the language) was well worn. I'd love to see the shelf of his dictionaries. Perhaps they would be my favorites of all his works.

5. Although I can't read them, Zarko Radakovic's translations of Peter's work have to fit in here somewhere. I first heard of Peter Handke in conversation with Zarko in Tuebingen, Germany. Zarko is an active and even bold translator. He sees his work with Peter's works as part of his larger creative project, which includes performance art, jazz criticism, novels, creative biography (Julija Knifer), and thematic editing. For instance, at the back of his translation of Peter's Kindergeschichte, Zarko presents a separate section featuring texts and works of art about childhood by the likes of Michael Hamburger, Braco Dimitrijevic, Ilma Rakusa, Tomaz Salamun, David Albahari, Martin Kippenberger, and yours truly. From Peter Handke's German to Serbo-Croatian. From Peter Handke's childhood to our own experiences. A fine textual textile.

6. This interweaving of texts makes it productively difficult to decide where to quit expanding the discussion of which of Peter's books have influenced me the most. Zarko's and my books: the first following a character from Peter's Repetition into Slovenia, and the second an account of our trip with Peter up the Drina River in the former Yugoslavia, would never have been written if we hadn't been reading Peter Handke.

7. Peter has written a lot of notes in the notebooks he carries everywhere with him, words and drawings to help him remember what he has seen. He also has reviewed the work of other writers, teaching me in the process that while it makes good sense to write about how a work works on the reviewer, its never even interesting to pronounce judgments on works of art.

8. And there are Peter's plays and poetry. Although it's not in this photo, but rather in the rainbow one, I'll choose the early Kaspar as especially important for me, a riff on Herder's claim that we don't speak language but that it speaks us. Kaspar, by the way, was wonderfully translated by Michael. The much later play, Voyage by Dugout, whose premiere I saw in Vienna, left me, as I stumbled out of the theater, with a fierce resolve to return often to Peter's work as a powerful antidote to what ails me (and the worlds I live in).

9. Peter wrote a children's book, which I include here as an excuse to reproduce my friend Thomas Deichmann's photo of Peter and his daughter Leocadie.

10. And finally, because I don't know which of Peter's works is the best, because I can't know, because I'm not smart enough to figure that out, I have to say that the book I like the best is the one I've worked hardest on, the one I've spent the most time with, the one that bears my marks, the one that I've written about critically ("Postmetaphysical Metaphysics") and personally (Zarko's and my Repetitions) -- Peter's novel Die Wiederholung / Repetition.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

barbed wire

Not much difference, we're finding out as we work on our "barbed and dangerous" article, between what we do with animals and with the human animal, although the human picture, of Bosnians in Trnopolje, is problematic, as my friend Thomas Deichmann has pointed out, because it's the ITN crew that is in the area enclosed by barbed wire, and the emaciated men have been called up to the fence for the TV footage. But that's another story.

Coyote near Lipan, Texas, Photo by Ken Kuhl