What a beautiful evening it was! Utah Valley, as seen from our deck over the course of several slow and swiftly changing hours.
The actor is leaving the clearing while walking backwards. "I had often noticed that about him," the narrator writes, inserting himself into the story again. The actor, the narrator says later, “expressed all of that only with his walking, as his walking was in general a variety [Spielart] of speaking. His walking, it spoke, it narrated.”
I finished the chapter and then headed up the mountain on my bike, trying to beat the heat. Just as I left the house the first rays of light slipped up from the notch in the mountain to the east.
The first 20 minutes are on the asphalt streets of the town that lies up against the mountain, nothing technical, just a steep set of streets that finally lead me to the tangled trees still down after the avalanche of several years ago. From here the switchbacking trail is dirt, cut by the rains of many years. There are sometimes walkers on the trail, and once or twice a year a motorcycle or an all-terrain vehicle, and in the winter people on snowshoes. The only other mountain bike I’ve ever seen here was ridden by my son Ben. He made the ride look effortless. I ride this trail; but the years are adding up (or perhaps it’s simply the geological upthrust that makes the trail a little harder each year).
There’s a first climb to the first switchback, not too hard. Around that switchback is one of the toughest stretches, hard because it climbs quickly and is steep for a long time. I ride it carefully, paying attention to the one place where I can ease off for ten seconds and get my breath back, making sure I don’t hit a root or rock that will stop my momentum.
But today, before I even note that I’ve started that climb, I’m past it and breathing harder than usual. What happened?
What happened is that I had Peter’s book in my head. I was thinking about the backwards-walking actor and the man he comes across. He has seen the man before in these woods. He counts him among the homeless woods dwellers, although he has always worn bright white shirts and creased pants. On this day the man is sitting at the edge of the woods next to an exercise path [Trimmstrecke]. He looks terrible, so ragged and bedraggled that it seems clear that “he would never stand up again by himself.” Besides that, he stinks to high heaven.
The “actor crouched down to the man who had been his friend, let himself fall down next to him, took on his posture. . . .” As this man succumbs to entropy, as he falls from an ordered life, the actor joins him in solidarity, acting as if he is falling as well.
The man, it turns out, is responding to every noise – human noise, machine noise, even the noises of nature – with shouts of “shut up!” The narrator says he is shouting in his native language and late in the description alternates the French “Ta gueule!” with the German “Halt’s Maul!” As far as I remember, this is the first reference to the fact that the city must be in France. All along, I’ve seen the actor walking through the woods outside Paris, the same woods feature in “Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht,” so this is no surprise.
The actor understands, after a while, that the man is trying to scream himself to death. He tries to be an audience for the man (Der Schauspieler neben ihm gab den Zuschauer.”). The man doesn’t notice him.
I think the following: 0) Peter Handke is writing a story about 1) the narrator who is writing this story, 2) the actor is the story’s hero and performs/acts the thoughts and actions of the story, 3) the shouting man is performing his own thoughts, 4) the actor is acting like an audience for the shouting man, 5) I’m reading, as a kind of audience, this story.
To say that this story is about an actor who wanders through the woods having some experiences misses the point entirely. This is a story about the narrator, about narration, about the construction of a story that in turns reconstructs the narrator.
Although he assumed the man would never again stand up, suddenly the opposite is shown to be true: “What, the actor’s visual acquaintance would never again stand up from his place in the middle of the exercise path? He was already standing, and that was no standing up but a snapping up.” The man has stood up, it turns out, to attempt to destroy the exercise device next to him on the path. It is the peeled trunk of a tree that rests on supporting posts and meant to act as a balance beam. The man has no chance of doing it any harm whatsoever, especially, the actor thinks, because he is in no way a violent man. But the act of attacking the device results in a change in the man’s face. The actor sees a child’s face. The narrator writes: “There he stood and let himself be seen.”
There’s something odd about trying to topple a tree trunk that is lying horizontal. But the earlier tree trunk that turned out to be a man (p. 66), and the fact that men and trees stand erect against the falling, felling forces of entropy, makes this, I think, an attempt to do what has been done to the man: to bring him low.
So that’s why I suddenly found myself at the top of this section of the trail breathing harder than I usually am at this point. I was thinking about the book and didn’t slow down where I might have.
Riding this trail is a variety of speaking. My riding, it spoke (and has spokes), it narrated.