Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Biography, Celebrity, and Identity

Above: Peter Handke, Luc Bondy, and in the mirror, Malte Herwig
Below: Peter and I in the woods outside Chaville
I wrote earlier about Malte Herwig's new biography of Austrian writer Peter Handke, Meister der Daemmerung. In general it was a disappointing book, at least for me, in large part because it basically ignored the literary work and the ideas it manifests.

Since then, I've been struggling with some disquieting memories awakened by the book. This photo especially, reproduced in the biography, has had me squirming.
Here's the problem: the biographer sits opposite the writer and the director/writer Luc Bondy in a brasserie and photographs them. Repeatedly. You can see his head and little camera in the mirror behind the writers. This image haunts me with possibilities of my own stupidities. I too visited Peter Handke at his home in Chaville, outside Paris. I too had my photo taken with Peter during a long walk through the woods near his home.

It was exciting for me to talk with, to walk with a famous writer, a man whose work has been important to me as I've thought how I might best live my life. His dialectical, self-questioning, and powerful sentences, his ways of seeing the world through words, his thoughts about human beings as creatures of language are deeply important to me.

Years ago my friend Zarko interviewed Peter in Salzburg's Sheraton Hotel. The recording he brought back was full of stimulating and important and sometimes funny conversation (like when Zarko mentioned what a sensitive writer Peter is and Peter replied that "sensitive" is a word for condom wrappers). Later Zarko and I followed a character in Peter's novel Repetition across the Austrian border into what is now Slovenia, traveling also to the Tanzenberg school where Peter got an early education and then to his birthplace Griffen. We described ourselves (in the book Ponavljanje -- Belgrade: Vreme knijige, 1994) as giggling schoolgirls looking for a rockstar.

In that self-irony was a nervousness about what we were doing. If it was the work that was important to us -- and it was -- then why the biographical interest? Why the excitement that bordered on silliness?

Later we traveled with Peter up the Drina River, a trip that changed many things in my life. As I wrote about that trip (and here's a photo Zarko took of me writing notes while Peter seems to be thinking), I worried about myself as a possible sycophant, as someone who only has an identity through proximity to someone else.

Peter appears in my text, "A Reasonable Dictionary," but -- at least I hope so -- only because we were traveling together through war-torn Yugoslavia. He is not the focus of my story. Rather, I'm describing events that move me, that teach me, that transform me.

Zarko felt strongly enough about that same question that the text he finally produced to be paired with mine in the book Vampire + Razumni recnik (Belgrade: Stubovi kulture, 2008) doesn't mention Peter once.

The photo of Malte Herwig, however, bordering on the sycophantic, has reawakened fears in me. I try to counter them with thoughts of my work: I translated Peter's Journey to the Rivers, or Justice for Serbia and I have published a dozen articles about his work in various scholarly journals and books and encyclopedias.

Whatever the photos of me with Peter mean, whatever they reveal, aren't they firmly within the context of my scholarly work? Maybe not, and that's what has me worried.

Finally, for now, they're in the context of an event that leaves me as the butt of the joke, not as the image with camera in the mirror (at least I hope so):

9 June 1999, Vienna, before midnight, Žarko’s birthday

I ought to go to bed, but I'm still reeling from the events of the day.

Several hours ago NATO and the Yugoslav Parliament came to some kind of agreement ending the bombing after 78 days.
And, I'm just back from the world premiere of Peter's "The Play of the Film of the War," directed by Claus Peymann. I’ve never attended the world premiere of a play of this magnitude; and I’ve seldom been this moved, this challenged, by a work of art.
Peter has filmmakers John Ford and Luis Buñuel in a Serbian town ten years after the war trying to decide how to make a film of the war. Characters who appear before the directors tell conflicting and complex stories as the play feels its way to questions about war and its aftermath. The really bad guys of the play, three "Internationals" who know all the answers, who dictate all the terms, who can think only in absolutes, appear on the stage as follows: "Three mountainbike riders, preceded by the sound of squealing brakes, burst through the swinging door, covered with mud clear up to their helmets. They race through the hall, between tables and chairs, perilously close to the people sitting there. 'Where are we?' the First International asks. 'Don't know,' the second answers. 'Not a clue,' the third says."           
American and European moralists, functionaries with no hint of self-irony or humor, absolutists who run the world because of their economic power – these sorry excuses for human beings were depicted this evening as mountainbike riders.
            Žarko, I said, Don’t you ever tell Peter I ride a mountainbike.
            No, he whispered, I’d never do that.
            The play drew on several incidents from our trip, including when Peter put his coat around the shoulders of the OSCE woman in Višegrad. After the performance, flushed with enthusiasm and insight, I told Peter how well he had integrated that real event into an imaginative play.
            “Dr. Scott,” he chided. “Always the professor.”



ah, two more photos to steal for the
main collection!


i rather like that photo malte took, we get to see him and the camera in the mirror and also the back of handke and bondy's heads. it's a neat photo, for the efficiency of all that and being in an enviable brasserie, i guess handke's favorite since that is where he and bondy and semin and jungk discussed whether he should publish what you ended up translating, the journey to the rivers, justice for serbia. they advised against. a "hornets" nest was the result. x m.r

Malte Herwig said...

I like the photos, Scott, especially the last one, because you appear unselfconscious and authentic.

Your commentary, by contrast, is self-congratulatory and glib. Charging others with sycophancy is a curious move for someone who never dared to write a critical word about his "friend" Peter Handke.

Time to rename your blog something like the "goalie's anxiety at the own goal"...

Scott Abbott said...

Malte, it's exactly an "own goal" that I'm worried about. The fears are all mine; and I only kept going back to the photo because it awakened, reawakened my anxieties about my relationship with Peter, about my motives, about possibly being subsumed by a stronger personality. I did use the word sycophant in regard to your photo; but the context, I hope, shows that I mostly fear sycophancy myself. If that's self-congratulatory and glib, then I'm guilty.

And, of course, my reactions to your book are largely a matter of taste. I haven't ever said it's a bad book, just that I personally would rather see a different book.

Anonymous said...

Is Scott Abott, maybe, little jealous on Malte Herwig?

Scott Abbott said...

could be, he's got a book, i don't.

but Malte's "own goal" theory is more like the truth, i think.

michael morrow said...

I read your writing scott, and caldiero, countless others.. important and insightful....all well spoken individuals...all I can do is pant for more...til my head feels hallow...although I know things too, I retreat into safe haven yoga, searching for thoughts unstuck from the inside of my head, thoughts ready, willing to mean something, anything..