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.



Let me comment on your comments, point by point, Scott. but in a disorderly manner!

10] The Repetition being the Handke book that you can do least without! [there's the formula, the right approach! ] I can see. Just coming off a three months involvement in Del Gredos, reading it for the third time, and in a great translation, which also contains perhaps the best five thousand words I have ever read anyone write - the section of the destruction of the Forét de Chaville after that hurricane hit northern France around the year 2000 - I will read it once more for sure... not that I don't have a quibble here and there. Recall the monstrous
review by that non-reader Neil Gordon, how nice that Frank Wood agreed with my letter to the bloody NY Times Book Review which of course they never publish when you take one of
their regulars apart; or that compleat and total idiot Michael McDonald's [of "The Amurrican Interest" and "The Weakly Standard" inability to read, and mutton dennis dutton only linking to McDonald and not the fine review in WaPo or the L.A. Times, such shits all around, who fancy themselves "conservatives"] I would also have a hard time living also without Hausierer, Short Letter, the two diary volumes Die Geschichte des Bleistifts - for its showing how what thoughtfulness he devotes to his works, chiefly VILAGES in this istance + Gestern Unterwegs, Left Handed Woman, Absence, Juke Box, [Tiredness as an analyst for being told my chap's uncomprehended merely described symptoms!Zvi Lothane, a fine analyst with lots of life experience thinks I'm on the right track analytically with Peter's traumas], No-Man's Bay, and of course sections from many other books... so if you left me on a desert Island with nothing but
handke's works... I'd be fairly happy this age... not missing the pony tail parade all that much...

1] Since I translated GOALIE, perhaps it ought to be one of my favorites...
but wonderful book though it is, I think the preceding DER HAUSIERER
which is not in English [but in the Romance languages, i.e. "L'histoire
de crayon"] is by far the better, formally, and in the
depth of its accomplishment of being a wholesale victory over fear,
than GOALIE which derives from one sliver of it.

2] Among the Yugoslavia titles, my preference is for the first,
Abschied vom Traum des 9ten Landes, because it goes to the
heart of the contradictory matter: peace, federation, individuation
of the tribes... with hints of US National Security Directives under Reagan and West European capitalist economic
warfare which threw those tribes back into a regression of
fraternal strife... the opposite of Philadelphia.
However, his involvement in those matters
then made also for a great play, which I think of
whose translation you are completing. A play very much
in the tradition of Brecht, Grass, Kipphardt, Weiss, Hochhut, Heiner Mueller...
the great Post WW II German historically oriented enlightenment tragedies...
with Peter's invariable Slavic/ Austrian twist.... and awareness
of media... I have written about his involvement extensively...
to clarify that for myself, on the part of someone who is
also very much of an exhibitionist and became part of the story....


3] It's "Roger" Straus not Robert and he was a shit in many
ways, stingy, a gossip, a clothes horse who was afraid of the
slightest speck showing on his vest; and a brute; Peter took
instant dislike to him; not an independent thinker,
thus he went along with the humanity hyenas latching on to the Serbs
and Milosevic as the cause of the wars, and of course would
never have published JUSTICE FOR SERBIA; a "taker," he took you
the way a pretty meat eating flower eats flies;
in the sense that he posted that sign "Nobel prize winners wanted",
but no number of such winners would ever ennoble him; and tried
to get it for free, or kicked those he took from...
My friend Christopher Lehmann-Haupt who wrote the
NY Times obits for both Straus and Robert Giroux
quotes Giroux [go on line at and learn how to "read" obits]
as saying he could never complete
his history of the firm because thought of Straus
was just too distasteful; totally dishonorable bastard
he turned out be be. I was with him at Frankfurt
Book Fairs , I turned out to have been his pipe line into postwar
German publishing while I was still feeling my way, but
I found it pretty quickly. Roger's troubles were many fold:
primarily that he was not an obsessive publisher the way
Unseld, or Ledig-Rowohlt, or Wagenbach or Gallimard
or any number of Brit editor-publisher's were, that he was
not sufficiently well read, that he felt inferior to the editors
around him, gays most of them at that time, except for Henry Robbins, the only
one I really got along with, not that I have anything untoward to say
about Robert Giroux and Hal Vussel, but Roger happened to despise
gays, I couldn't care less as long as they left my ass alone,
and so many of my closest friends, such a robert phelps
and michael lebeck happened, by the pure accident of sensibility
and sensitivity to language and overlaps of taste, to be gay...

Fortunately Roger had the good sense to make the pretty much first rate
Jonathan Gallassie his successor... though who knows how
his son Roger III would have turned out had he not got into the
same kind of row with his dad as Unseld did with his son Joachim who, however,
then started a firm of his own, The Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt.
Farrar, Straus did 11 printings of KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS but
never made good on the promise to put in my final changes
on the KASPAR translation - however, they do exist in the Methuen Volume I
of Handke's Collected Plays. I made those changes several dog ages ago at the behest of
Peter Brook. More on Kaspar anon. FS+G sold the first half a dozen
books to various paperback publishers for reprinting, over and over,
and so certainly did not lose any money. However, in all these
years I have never seen an ad for a Handke book in this country.
Roger was a heavy duty socializer and arm twister and if he had
wanted to make sure that novels as of A SLOW HOMECOMING got
sound reviewers he was quite able to arrange matters of that kind.
I knew Henry Raymond of the Times, too.
First mistake of his was to publish A SLOW HOMECOMING jointly
in one volume with LESSON OF SAINT VICTOIRE and A CHILD'S STORY [to save money
and also on the individual presentation which these three very different books deserved, Peter evidently agreed, it's weird but he does have an obliging side in those matters, also in accommodating to the stupid American title ACROSS for CHINESE DES SCHMERZENS because the FSG editor thought "oh we got a handle on how to sell the book,
an old Nazi get's tossed!]
So what Roger is complaining to to Unseld is something that was easily remediable
by him. Handke has had about ten different editors
assigned to him since I left there in 1969. Some first rate, the first several,
some not, but each of course incapable or unwilling to construct the
history of publication... Handke's current wonderful prose translator


Krishna Winston is way behind, too! And often as I have pointed out to
her that at the very least she ought to read WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES...
the groundbreaking richest work of his whence most of what followed was
whelped.... she has not.
Farrar, Straus, or rather its playwriting division Hill + Wang then also passed on the other great plays,HOUR, ART OF ASKKIG while the allegedly good editor Steve Wasserman ran that subdivision and the quality paperbackdivision Noonday Books, prior to becoming editor of the L.A. Times book review. He and I had a recent brief e-mail exchange where he held i didn't know my ass from any old hole in suggesting that maybe Noonday Books, FSG's paperback
division ought to have put out some of these titles in quality paper - well, Handke had a good record in paperback and New York Review of Books Books is doing so now, and with a total of three titles to date, Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and a fine intro by
Greil Marcus to SHORT LETTER, and a so so by a postmodernistically confused fellow from N+1 for the A SLOW HOMECOMING compendium, Kunkel.
Straus and I then we got into a row over what Peter regarded as the best translation
he ever saw at that time [mid 80s] of WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES, Straus welchedon a written promise, and in the to and fro, I then showed him up to be a liar, besides, he'd managed to screw me out of half of my editor's royalties, I'd made millions for the bastard, couldn't get a break when I actually needed one for a change, and all because a man I think of as "an asslicking envious little stiletto man", a certain michael dicapua, who had already ruined a lot of my projects there -- Adorno, Fichte, Hugo Ball - in the late 60s happened to be briefly, but just long enough, to be FSG editor in chief. Had it not been for the estimable Robert Giroux, my bringing Handke
to FSG around 1967 would never have succeeded, Susan Sontag backing and
all. So Roger Straus both published stupidly and failed to render the support
a publisher can render. And with all the alleged great friendship between Susan and Roger you don't see any I don't think of authors she must have suggested on the FSG list. Not on the cutting edge intellectually.
All the publisher I worked for were crooks with one or the other
degree of legitimacy! Unseld was a Grossgauner for Kultur! It was my tough luck of not knowing about "dark" and not knowing Peter long enough to trust him when he pointed out that the man who would become the other working partner in Urizen was "very dark" or at least very German. I didn't know about "dark" back in 1971, boy do I ever know now!Including my own dark sides! My favorite publisher was Ledig-Rowohlt, you signed contract on a napkin at Harry's bar, and if it didn't work out, you dipped the napkinin a whiskey soda where ever. and never mentioned it again. The way Amina Handke dips the napkin on which her father has written "Amina has been a bad girl again" into a glass of water back at Rue Montmorency! [The little charmer had learned to survive her daddies rages!] More on the fall out from all this in the memoir.
Not that I didn't meet some fine people in that world, Mike Bessie of Atheneum,Bill Koshland at Knopf, Sam Lawrence at Atlantic Monthly Press, Martin Kessler and Arthur Rosenthal at Basic Books... among other.Meanwhile I've become a semi-tough old tomcat meself!
4] Ditto for the Slovenian/ German dictionary he created for himself
while writing The Repetition. I happen to really like his translations
of the ancient Greek dramas, but remember that that's what you have to do
to be a German classic in your own lifetime! What surprises
me is that he's not translated anything from the Latin! Or Spanish


5] Re Kindergeschichte/ A Child's Story. Peter was a
hideous father to his first daughter, he even admits
as much in that book; also if you read Weight of the World
you can see that... and then felt hugely guilty once he woke
up to what he had wrought! I get into that as well as some other
of the matters in necessary detail in Part II of the nearly
completed Psycho-Biographical Monograph and Memoir
that will appear at the handke-discussion blog

in another week or so [the opening resumé of the case history is already on
line. Mr. Handke is quite dark fellow as he himself knows
only too well and as he the great exhibitionist shows us
in Villages and in Del Gredos. What makes him so unique
is his wild desire to be healed, for peace from those monstrous
childhood wounds, and the only thing that does the trick for him is
by writing, and so reading him closely, his best things,
Absence, The Repetition, No-Man's Bay, Del Gredos,
Jukebox, Morawian Night now... have a healing effect
on me. Go pick a mushroom in honor of Peter Handke.

7] In my experience, Peter is pretty judgmental of other, especially
competitors for the Laurel Wreath!

8] re kaspar: let me quote myself from the memoir:
"Rather quietly, it seemed out of the nowhere, [1980 Moenchsberg/ Salzburg] Handke mentioned that his play Kaspar was a mistake, a piece that he regretted; an instance that left me speechless, not just not wanting to say what was on my mind: “So I went trough all that trouble and those aches and pains for that great play” and now it’s author regrets authoring it,” something to that effect whooshed through my head. And so I was too stunned to ask why. Later I speculated about why he might feel that way, and what could be held against the piece, and concluded: well, you could say that it was in some ways noisy, the way Oedipal neuroses tend to be; too harsh though I wish all the sheeples saw it at least once to get a faint notion of how they’ve been brain washed! It could be said to be nihilistic I suppose… and as we found out later - since his homecoming had changed Handke and meaninglessness had been at least assuaged if not overcome, mostly… and since Handke had gradually approached and was about to or was already writing W.A.T.V. [the thought of my then impetuous and nonchalant and thoughtless behavior made me feel pretty uncomfortable when the time came to translate the piece! queasy!]. Anyhow, since he had definitely changed …he was no longer the same person the same Kaspar - it is also a self portrait that piece - who had wanted me to make the main sentence of Kaspar more abstract about ten years before… we were in some respects not in tandem… at that time… "

9] Well, LUCIE IN DEM WALD MIT DEN DINGSBUMS,[Lucie in the Woods with the Thingamajigs] what you call a children's story, is also one further chapter of No-Man's Bay and his obsession with mushroom picking , allegedly because these are the most peaceful of
beings and then he turns into delicious mushroom stew. You have to be as obsessed with violence as Handke to be so crazed for peace and quiet!

deutschlehrer said...

Scott, you took my answer. My relationship with Handke is not nearly as complicated as yours, but Die Wiederholung is definitely my favorite of his works--although Der Chinese des Schmerzes is close behind..

But the work I keep finding myself coming back to, and that neither you nor your commentors have mentioned, ist Noch einmal für Thukydides. Together, the essays in this little volume seem to sum up so much of Handke's narrative experiments--making them accessible in ways his novels do not. For me, the novels are work--a real effort to slog through, even if that effort always gives results. But "Die Stunde zwischen Schwalbe und Fledermaus" or "Kleine Fabel der Esche von München" are pure pleasure while still possessing all the complexity and subtlety of the other works.

Scott Abbott said...

Jeff, you're right. I didn't even include a photo of Thucydides, and, like you, I think it is one of the very best. I even translated the whole thing at one time, only to find that New Directions was publishing another person's translation. It's such a fine set of small and beautiful essays.


I too translated a piece from Thucydides, was never going to translate after doing Villages, but then the piece struck me too beautiful to resist and friend Jim Krusoe published it in the St. MOnica Review around 1990. Have either been blocking the name or Mr. Alzeimer has come acalling this morning.. it's the one with the grain of soot in the snow and the falter... These pieces have a mutual favorite standing careful watch, Ponge stands "Pate", and to some extent "Robbe" too. I've said how I feel about the rest of the work already, am reading MORAWISCHE NACHT right now, very slowly, section by section twice, it has perhaps the greatest of Handke's openings! Does he ever put everything and one in order! And the syntax is entirely virtuoso. m. roloff

deutschlehrer said...

The Essay you are refering to is the first in the book: "Für Thukydides" also very nice.

And Thanks Scott for introducing me to Handke's work when I was a student.