Book Review: Peter Handke — A Writer At War With Himself

The imperative to engage with landscape and thus leave or at least minimize the self, has become of great importance to Peter Handke.

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke. Translated from the German by Krishna Wilson. Farrar Straus Giroux, 320 pages, $27.

By Kai Maristed


In an 2008 interview filmed while walking in a French forest, the year The Moravian Night came out in German, Peter Handke tells an old friend a saying: “ ‘Wars are everywhere, but the greatest war is that of a man against himself.’ ” An Islamic aphorism, says Handke — thin-faced, his white wool cap like a war bandage, hands thrust into pockets of a dark jacket, eyes roving into the woods. The adage might be an epigraph for this dense and elliptical novel, roughly Handke’s thirtieth book and, like all his oeuvre since the early plays, a ‘literary event.’

Handke has always attracted ferocious supporters as well as detractors, beginning with the plays Offending the Audience (1966) and Kaspar (1977). Controversy—and condemnation—reached fever-pitch with his, to many shocking, defense of Serbian nationalism and convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in the period following the Kosovo war. The Moravian Night, although drenched with nostalgic love of his homeland, leaves that disaster behind. In fact, inters it. There are new forces and phenomena, Handke seems to be saying, that one needs to keep an eye on, that call for fresh witness.

One midnight in April, near Easter, certain inhabitants of the Balkan village Porodin are summoned, either by a single ring on the cellphone, or pebbles on the window. Quickly responding, a nameless collective narrator (sic) strikes out to meet their/his unnamed friend—called ‘the boatman’ or ‘boatmaster’, or ‘the former writer’—who lives reclusively, ever alert for danger, on a small vessel called The Moravian Night. Moored in the eponymous river, the boat is identified by flackering neon lights as a hotel—yet there are no rooms to let, and it’s nearly impossible to get there by any route.

“It was impossible to make headway in the increasing tracklessness, with more and more drainage ditches and thorny thickets…we merely seemed numerous as we made our way across the river valley by night. There were no more than six or seven of us, corresponding, so to speak, to the hours stretching ahead, the episodes, the chapters of the night, until morning.” And thus, until morning, which is to say until the novel’s conclusion, the boatmaster will tell of his experiences and adventures on the idiosyncratic ‘tour’ of parts of Western Europe he began on…how long ago, exactly? “Some of us felt that his absence had lasted far too long. Others, however had the sense that hardly a month had elapsed… To me, for instance, it seemed as though both his departure and his return had occurred only yesterday. I, on the other hand, felt the former writer had left me alone all winter, while to me, yet another friend, it seemed a whole year.”

I chose the quotations above both to set the scene and to give the flavor of Handke’s use in this book of a circuitous voice, his manipulation of uncertain perception. Nothing is definitive, every observation suggests a variant, or even the opposite. So many sentences end in question marks! To further illustrate the slipperiness of the boatman’s world, here is another random quote from a random page: “A mistake… his search for the wide horizons…. a sickness… How could he have forgotten that the Great Horizon never let itself be seen from the outside, from way out there, even at the most distant distance? And above all never when he intentionally looked for it? That it emerged at most in a particular proximity and then took shape internally, and often could remain there long after the moments of proximity, as Goethe had reputedly continued to see certain afterimages on the inside of his closed eyelids months later.” But suddenly, dear reader, your critic perceives that the selection appears in retrospect not at all random: for wouldn’t this self-reproach have been among the boatman’s motives—supposing he needed any—for setting out “steadily westward”? (Handke’s questioning stance is infectious.)

And so the boatman, on his lightly swaying vessel, recounts aloud his tour (of inside the horizon?) in fits and starts, with interruptions (the loud spring frogs, the noise of truck traffic between Europe and Turkey, the mysterious, beautiful woman who serves these male guests a sustaining meal, not least his own silences and absences) and with occasional help from his guests—each of whom, Rashomon-like, was briefly along on the tour with him.

Having renounced writing—surely a kind of antechamber to Nothingness for Handke’s alter ego—the former writer desires to revisit certain marker-places of his past. He traverses at risk the trashed landscapes and shattered, still hostile borders of the Balkans, visits the island where he wrote his first novel (Handke’s was The Hornets, written on the isle of Krk) and betrayed his first girl. After hiking across hallucinatory, often perilous stretches of the continent, always avoiding the cities, sinking deep into a solitude that is opposite of loneliness—except when, starved for a human face, human touch, it isn’t!—he seeks out his childhood home, a brother who at first doesn’t recognize him, and the grave of his mother. Handke’s own mother committed suicide in 1977. The deeply moving novel Wunschloses Ungluck, English title A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, was his attempt to enter into her despair.

The imperative to engage with landscape, and thus leave or at least minimize the self, has become of great importance to Handke. Landscape as brute matter—iron rotting in the river, hazardous underground tunnels, above all as the protean karst of the boatman’s homeland—and landscape as ephemera. Last year, Handke’s journals from the past eight years were published in German. Short sketches, aphorisms, exhortations, by turns lyrical, self-critical, humorous. One hopes for a translation soon. Not a few of the 2007-2008 entries seem to reflect the book he was then writing. “It’s not easy to travel. To begin and end as No-one. Yes, it’s not easy to travel—but one has time.” And “Always again. In the dust of the field path, that’s where you belong, that’s where your gaze belongs.” And, “The daily Lucifer rising in me, and his daily little fall into hell. But without a usurping bearer of light, no day?”

In addition to key places, the boatman’s tour agenda includes a trio of oddball conferences: a congress of experts on noise sickness, an international gathering of Jew’s-harp virtuosos, a dwindling, death-stalked group “who clung to the idea, or the pipe dream, of a large unified country in the Balkans, in a different kind of Europe.” While the last and the first speak to major tropes in the novel—the former writer has become so sensitized that even the scratching of his pen on paper became torture to his ears—I must admit the Jew’s harp section left me lost.

What kind of story is The Moravian Night? Possibly a love story? The boatmaster would have us think so. “The prophecy [by a fellow hiker] about [my writing] a love story would eventually turn out to be true.” This is hard to agree with. True, there is a love-object: the woman we glimpse on the boat, a nameless, Beatrice-figure whom he encountered mid-journey. They meet lyrically, portentously, and share rare but wonderful nights. They soon part, to meet again only near the end. At that point, afflicted by repeated bouts of paranoia, the former writer confuses her with (or recognizes her as?) the virago stalker who used to loath his writing, and him, and swore to kill him. “During his creative period, he had suspected an enemy in every woman.” Escape from her was even at one point suggested as the ‘real’ reason for his tour. Alas, neither woman (or one and the same) ever fogs the page with the slightest breath. Set against the real drama of the former writer’s history of tortured, failed relationships and fear of foundering, they are allegorical figures that take up little space. The Moravian Night is no more a love story than is the Divine Comedy.

A contemporary ghost story? There’s certainly a hefty supernatural element. In addition to the shape-changing Woman, other characters encountered on the tour turn out to be not at all who or what they first seemed, from the dog (calf? crow?) that crops up beside him throughout, to the truly frightening figure who begins as an “amiable fellow walker… a sonorous voice with a confidence-inspiring timbre” and whose company the quite lonely former writer on occasion welcomes. This Melchior, a sort of cross between Berlusconi and (insert your least favorite popular writer here) morphs into a devil of derision and destruction, ridiculing the former writer’s existence—“the dream of the writer as originator is dead…The book about your European tour: I’m going to write it.” At one point he reveals the secret of his own mega-success: “I lost my soul in midstream, don’t ask me how. …no more problems.” After more of this snappy nihilism, “He shrank instantly into a hedgehog…, whose spines shot off in all directions as poisonous arrows, and his face became a grotesque caricature among the grotesque graffiti faces on the wall of an old barn out in the fields.”

Peter Handke Photo: T. Deichmann.

Peter Handke’s new novel, like all his oeuvre since the early plays, is a ‘literary event.’ Photo: T. Deichmann.

Oddly—or not—the former writer’s tale reminded me at certain points of A Pilgrim’s Progress. That echo (and this book is all about echoes) was reinforced by the many Catholic references. Visits to chapels and, most strikingly, a series of changes rung on Christ’s last words according Matthew. “Make God leave me in peace… God, my God, when will you abandon me?”

Like Bunyan’s 1648 allegory, The Moravian Night is first and foremost a journey novel, albeit one told with a modern, time-rippling twist. But, to be more than a mere travelogue, doesn’t a journey novel turn into a quest, with success after trial and doubt providing catharsis and resolution? A Moravian Night is silent on the subject of the boatman’s Grail (to question incessantly, that is what seems be what matters) and, while there are moving, even redemptive encounters toward journey’s end, they don’t lead to a traditional discovery, nor a resolution. In fact, the mystery is: what is this driven wanderer in search of?

The subtitle of A Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream’ suggests another parallel. For Handke, at novel’s end (without revealing here how that ending unfolds) commits—or perhaps does not?—the narrative ‘crime’ that drives modern editors to defenestration. However, the alert reader was gently forewarned: “All his life the writer had worked on a book at night. And it was during the night that he had always finished it. Except that in the morning the book was no longer there.” Speaking of editorial issues, the translation by Krishna Wilson is heroic, blurred for me only by a few idiomatic grammar choices (e.g. “if indeed it was him”) that don’t sound like Handke’s diction.

There are two sorts of writers who become famous in their own time. Those whose remain somewhat hidden behind behind their art: say, Balzac, Goethe, Shakespeare. And those who—not always willingly—give rise to a cult/structure/myth of their life, a ‘work’ existing alongside the work. Rimbaud. Hemingway. Nabokov. In France, Michel Houellebecq is rapidly becoming such a figure. In the German-speaking world, Peter Handke has long stood out, the life inextricable from the oeuvre. (Back in the year 2000, in a review for the New York Times, I wrote: “Handke makes no bones, never has, about the permeability of the membrane between his life and his fiction.”) For this reason, I suspect that the full richness of The Moravian Night can only be mined by readers already reasonably familiar with his life and work. But that is simply a reason to read other Handke books along with this one, and submerse one’s mind in observations, sensations, illuminations, and insights that take their own road and time.

Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other papers. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, set in Berlin. Recent pieces are The Toubaab, in Consequence, and Tyger, Tyger in the Southwest Review. Read Kai’s Paris-centric take on politics and the arts here.

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