IS PETER HANDKE WORTH A NOBEL PRICE
The Swedish Academy decided to award the Austrian author Peter Handke the Nobel Prize in Literature for ”an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience." I do not understand what they mean by exploring the periphery of human existence – the suburbs, Antarctica, mental diseases? And what is the specificity of human existence? What is a the non-specificity of human experience? Spiritual experience? To me, it sounds like pretentious mumbo-jumbo. However, no one seems to have reacted to the motivation’s peculiar wording, but no amazement and protests have generally revolved around why the Swedish Academy has rewarded a writer who "took the side of Serbia" during the so-called Yugoslav Wars between 1991 and 2001, Europe's deadliest conflict after World War II, during which approximately 130 000 people were killed and four million fled their homes. Before commenting on Handke's literary output, I should probably provoide a simplified summary of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The devastating wars began after the 14th Extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990, when the Serbian-dominated assembly agreed to abolish the one-party system. Slobodan Milošević, who was in charge of the Serbian branch of the Communist League, used his influence either to block either all proposals from the Croatian and Slovenian delegates, or made sure they were voted down by the Serbian majority, this made the Croats and Slovenes to leave the Congress and thus give the death blow to the basic idea of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia – Brotherhood and Unity.
In 1991, all Yugoslav sub-republics, except Serbia, carried out referendums on independence. The central government in Belgrade responded by deploying the Yugoslav army against Slovenia during a ten-day war and after that war was declared against Croatia. These conflicts were followed by the so-called Kosovo War in 1998, when two Kosovo Albanian guerrillas fought the Serbian-Montenegrian army until NATO launched a bombing campaign against Serbia and Montenegro, forcing the Serbian forces to leave Kosovo. Over 10,000 people were killed during the Kosovo War and over a million to fled their homes. Since the end of the war in 1999, most of the Serbian and Roma population have fled Kosovo due to terrorist actions by Albanian extremists Of the estimated 120,000 Roma living in Kosovo when the NATO troops arrived, less than 30,000 are believed to be left in the region.
Kosovo's bloody history may be considered as a microcosm of the entire Yugoslav tragedy. After 25,000 people had been killed in bloody fighting, the Ottoman Empire left the area in 1913. As a result of post-World War I peace negotiations, Kosovo was incorporated with the newly established Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but the region was between 1941 and 1943 subordinated by Italian Fascist forces, and after that for a year controlled by Nazi Germany, which was allied with Albanian fascists. The Albanian SS Divsion Skanderbeg did during a few months slaughter 10,000 Serbs, while 100,000 fled into the partisan controlled Yugoslavia. When the province the same year had been conquered by Yugoslav partisans, between 3,000 and 25,000 Kosovo Albanians were killed, while 400,000 were deported to Turkey.
Even before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions between Croats and Serbs had been inflamed by unrestrained propaganda divulged by both Croatian and Serbian ultra nationalists. Old wounds from the merciless civil war during World War II were ripped open. For example, the fascist organization Ustaše had during the war years been allied to the Nazis and ruled Croatia as their puppet regime. Under the utterly ruthless Catholic Croat jingoist Ante Pavelić, a policy was implemented that aimed at exterminating one third of the Serbs living in Croatia (approximately 200,000 to 500,000 Serbs were systematically murdered), while one third would be expelled and the other third converted to Catholicism - the majority of Serbs were Slavic Orthodox.
The murders, insanity and persecution were brought back to life during the Yugoslav wars when a multitude of religious, national and ethnic groups spread uncontrolled violence throughout the former Yugoslavia. Murderous militia forces raged freely. Officially, they were members of various political-ethnic factions, but often they were composed of gangsters who were inspired by personal hatred and/or unlimited desire for profit.
The largest and most effective army belonged to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), which consisted of the former sub-republics of Serbia and Montenegro. FRY was dominated by Slobodan Milošević and his political allies, who wanted a united Yugoslavia under Serbian domination. Such a solution was not recognized by the international community, which preferred that former Yugoslavia irrevocably remained divided between separate states. In Muslim-dominated Bosnia, Bosnian-Croatian and Bosnian-Serb militias fought against each other, supported by the regular armies of Croatia and FRY. Sarajevo, the joint capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, became at the focal point of the conflict, surrounded by Bosnian-Serbian militia, the city was bombarded while snipers targeted those who were within their reach. In this wasp nest of death and destruction Handke gave his support to FRY, while washing his hands when it came to the militia groups' activities. When the war had ended he declared:
– You should not be fooled, they were all villains.
Now let me return to the ongoing debate about Handke's Nobel Prize and revisit what I know about the Austrian author's writings. In announcing the Nobel Prize decision, the Academy's permanent secretary, the poet and historian of literature Mats Malm, stated:
– The Nobel Prize in literature is awarded on literary and aesthetic ground. It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.
A cocksure statement. However, the question remains whether Malm gave an entirely correct interpretation of Alfred Nobel's will. When living in Paris, I used to at the Cercle Suédos, the Swedish Club, sometimes glance at the desk at which Nobel wrote his will and on which a copy of its had been placed. Ever since the will was published, it has been disputed what the inventor and millionaire, whose Swedish after several years abroad were fairly wobbly, really meant when he wrote:
All of my remaining realisable assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital, converted to safe securities by my executors, is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. […] one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.
What did Alfred Nobel really mean by idealisk, the original Swedish wording which actually is quite difficult to interpret. It may mean ideal, in the meaning of “as good as it can be”. However, in what sense? Stylistically? As regards to content, or message? Perhaps it could just as well be idealistic, as in the official English translation, and could thus be interpreted in accordance with the stated intention of all five prizes, namely that the literary work should have been of ”the greatest benefit to humankind”. Anders Olsson, another historian of literature and member of the Swedish Academy, firmly claims
– This This is a literary prize, not a political one.
Well, simple-minded as I am, I have assumed that all artistic activity is a stance, a positioning vis a vis human existence and as thus it is also politically motivated. After all, a literary work is written to be passed on to other people and in that sense authors actually have a public responsibility. The Greek word for politics, πόλις, originally meant ”state art” and meant all the actions connected to ”public life”. Accordingly, does literature; novels, short stories, poetry, drama and film, constitute actions directed towards members of a certain society, i.e. public life. Literature requires its readers, drama its spectators and is thus a political activity. In defense of the price awarded to Peter Handke Anders Olsson added to his statement about the task of The Swedish Academy:
– Peter Handke has is the author of about eighty titles, and we have not been able to find anything in these works that violates the basic values we [the members of the Swedish Academy] are obliged to adapt. He is a great writer and should be judged as such.
”The basic values” that the Academy members, according to Olsson, must adhere to are those really identical to Alfred Nobel´s will, his intention to promote ”an idealistic direction that would benefit mankind”? Is Handke's authorship idealistic? Like so many other defenders of Handke's originality and literary value, Anders Olsson ties himself in knots by claiming that
there is a very wide range of freedom of expression. An author may have made provocative statements, but that does not affect an assessment of the literary output. By stating that, I assume we have to look at what Peter Handke has really said. […] We must have the courage to invest in literary quality, nothing else. Otherwise, we might as well abandon the price.
Now it is becoming is far too convoluted and complicated for me. So - the Nobel Committee has not been able to find anything among Handke's eighty published works that is not in harmony with the Swedish Academy´s ”basic values”. However, at the same time this ”great author” had apparently made ”provocative statements”. Are such statements compatible with the Academy's ”basic values”?
Who is this Peter Handke? What is he actually writing about? My confusion increases when I read the opinions of another Nobel Committee member, Rebecka Kärde. Namely, that Handke's great value lies in the fact that he, like the members of the Academy, believes that the task of literature is something quite different from ”affirming and reproducing society’s mainstream opinion believes is morally right.” Well, and what in the world does that mean? Perhaps we should not accept Kant's categorical imperative that we humans should ”act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”? I wonder if the idealistic Alfred Nobel would be willing to follow Rebecka Kärde on her beaten path.
Of course, no human being is entirely perfect and good literature should probably reflect the human dilemma, meaning that each individual is forced to choose between good and evil. If literature in a true and open manner is striving at depicting human existence, it should not refrain from describing uncertainty, evil and fragility. But why defend Handke's sometimes morally dubious writing with such fierceness if neither you, nor he, in the name of ”good literature” do not worry about ”society´s mainstream opinion”?
According to Rebecka Kärde, good literature should not be limited by any adaption to ”an estblished program”. It should accept fragmentation and dissonance. A truly great writer should not hesitate to ”throw a spanner in the works”. Her/his art should provide movement and change where apathy, uniformity and routine reign. Not bein a great writer myself I can nevertheless not avoid throwing a spanner in the works of the Academy.
Rebecka Kärde claims that Handke's texts use his exquisite language to complicate things and ”making sense of existence”, while he also ”does violence to intellectualism.” I don't understand what she means by that. That he makes himself stupid? She adds that Handke has always hated generalizations and been fighting for ”the integrity of particularity.” Big and dangerous words, nor entirely lucid. As a matter fact, I think Handke quite often falls victim to generalizations. For example, according to Handke, criminal acts committed by Serbian leaders, militia and soldiers have inspired the media to create a vicious caricature of the ”murderous” Serbia, an image Handke defines as ”a banal tale of good and evil.” Handke argues that the reality is far more complicated than that. Of course, it is, I fully agree that prejudices and propaganda immolate entire nations and groups of people. Distortions and denigration are unacceptable and Handke is quite right when he tries to establish a common respect for Serbs, but combining such a beneficial enterprise with a relativization of crimes against humanity and genocide is also despicable, these are reprehensible crimes, whoever is guilty of committing them.
Evil cannot be defended with evil. Maybe Handke does not do that, though his acts and intentions remain somewhat opaque. With his book Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Danube, Save, Morawa and Drina or Gerechtigkeit für Serbia, Wintry Travel to the rivers Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina, or Justice for Serbia, Handke war-torn areas of former Yugoslavia in an effort to counter the hostile image of Serbs, which he accuses the media of propagating.
It was primarily due to the war that I wanted to visit Serbia, the country so generally labelled as the country of the so-called ”aggressors”. However, I was also interested in seeing the country, which of all the countries of Yugoslavia was the least known to me, and I was possibly also influenced by all the reports and opinions about it, yes … that was at moment the reason that exercised the greatest allure, that in conjunction with the alienating hearsay were, so to say, the most interesting.
I can understand him. Like Handke, I have had several good friends who are Serbs and as a teacher I have also among my students had students of Serbian origin. I appreciate Kusturica's films, am fond of Balkan folk music and its modern variant like Balkan beat, soul, crossover and funk. I have read and been impressed by novels written by Ivo Andrić, Danilo Kiš and Miodrag Bulatović and am fascinated by naivistic artists like Ivan Generalić, Franjo Mraz and Mirko Virius, though I am not quite sure if they were Serbs, I assume they were Croats.
In my youth, I visited Serbia and Bosnia before the wars and was always treated with respect and kindness. However, Serbian culture and nice people are not reasons enough for not noticing the violence and mass murder committed in the name of culture and ethnic belonging. Handke's blend of personal experience with general assumptions and determinate positions, the mixture of subjectivity with politics, is a generalization as good as any. I am skeptical about his declarations that what he has seen and heard is a sufficient basis for his appreciation of a man like Slobodan Milosović and his relativization of violence perpetrated in the name of Serbian nationalism.
Rebecka Kärde claims that many of Handke's critics have not read his texts, and she is certainly right about that. She writes that Handke might have exposed an ”injudiciously” relativizing angle of a mass murder
Maybe it's true. However, in spite of that the Nobel Committee must read the texts he wrote about Yugoslavia, apart from another 70 works written over a period of fifty years. Which we did and concluded that the author of books such as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story, Repetition, Slow Homecoming, The Road to Sainte-Victoire, My Year in the No-Man's-Bay and The Fruit Thief preeminently deserves a Nobel Prize.
To me, the four novels by Handke I have read appeared to have been written for and appreciated by writers; readers who are able to become fascinated by the writer's craftsmanship, how he overcomes challenges entailed in an in-depth and varied depiction of external and internal landscapes.
Handke's novels are often deal (maybe all of them do?) with pen craft, i.e. observations of one's own and other people’s actions to exploit and transform them into literature. Landscapes seen through a temperament. Handke's subjective approach makes his novels and plays appear as if they had been written by a voyeur. An outsider who looks at and comments on a landscape/a scene/a person, or a course of events. It is not astonishing that Handke all his life has been fascinated by film, has written screenplays and collaborated with film directors, as well as he has directed a few movies himself (The Left-Handed Woman and The Absence).
Handke seems to aim for a Verfremdungseffekt, Distancing Effect, similar to what was recommended by another theatre writer - Bertolt Brecht, who in his essay Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting, described the phenomenon as playing
in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance of rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.
Even if Handke describes in depth a landscape, or a person's appearance and might also step into a person's thought life, he creates in most of his readers a sense of distance from what is described and told. Handke's characters also seem to struggle with their own alienation. Sorger, the protagonist of The Long Way Around, wants to come back to his roots. He is a geologist and seems to strive to anchor himself in a landscape, by becoming part of it he imagines that he might free himself from a stifling feeling of rootlessness. In one of the novel's scenes he visits a couple of neighbors in California, Germans like him, who provides him with a sense of security, to them he suddenly confesses his despair and inability to maintain a close contact with people:
Listen to me. I don't want to perish. At the moment of losing all that [he had just returned from research in Alaska where he had begun to feel as part of the landscape and included by the surrounding people]. I longed to return, not only to a country, not only to a certain region, but to the house where I was born. And, yet I wanted to go on living abroad, in the company of a few people who are not too close to me. I know I'm not a scoundrel, I don't want to be an outsider. I see myself walking in the midst of the crowd, and I believe I am just. I have friendly dreams, even about people who have wished me dead, and I often feel the strength for lasting reconciliation. Is it presumptuous of me to want harmony, synthesis, and serenity? Are competition and perfection an obsession with me? I regard it as a duty to become a better man, a better myself. I would like to be good. Sometimes I feel the need to be wicked, and then I am pursued by the thought of punishment, but then again I feel the need for eternal purity. Today I thought of salvation, but it wasn't God that came to mind, it was culture. I have no culture; I shall continue to have no culture as long as I am incapable of crying out loud; as long as I whimper my complaint instead of shouting it out loud. I don't want to languish with my grievances, I want to be mighty in my outcries. My cry is: I need you!
Surely this can hardly be characterized as ”the integrity of particularity.” Rather, it is a cry for help, an attempt to be liberated from alienation. The early Handke, whose writings I have to a certain extent acquainted myself with, seems to be preoccupied with the interaction between the group and the individual. He intersects the dynamics between the audience and the actor, between the manipulator and the manipulated.
If Brecht wants to achieve his Verfremdungseffekt by staging epic dramas about crime and resistance, injustice and integrity, Handke provokes his audience by engaging in close combat with it. In his play Die Publikumsbeschimpfung, Offending the Audience, from 1966 he breaks down the distance between audience and performers. Four male actors enter through the auditorium and the performance begins by an actor addressing the audience:
You will hear nothing you have not heard before.
You will see nothing you have not seen before.
You will see nothing of what you have always seen here.
You will hear nothing of what you have always heard here.
You will hear what you usually see.
You will hear what you usually don´t see.
You will see no spactacle.
Your curiosity will not be satisfied.
You will see no play.
There will be no playing here tonight.
You will see a spectacle without pictures.
The unnamed actors, who carry no make-up, nor any theatre costumes, address the audience directly. The scene is in darkness, while the auditorium is lit up. The actors do after the prologue declare: “We are not acting. We speak directly to you. It is you who are the defendants.” They randomly address individuals in the audience, as well as the entire congregation. The spectators are forced to participate in what happens on the scene. They are accused and insulted by being reminded of pleasantries, embarrassing events, taboos, crimes and other fledgling offenses that have taken place in Germany and what Germans have inflicted on their surrounding world from 1933 onward. Germany's contemporary history is excavated, exposed and thrown into the faces of the spectators. It all ends with the actors applauding the audience, and not the other way around.
In another play, Kaspar from 1967, Handke does in his original way portray the case of Kaspar Hauser, which movie director Werner Herzog retold seven years later in his film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, in my opinion the best he has done. It is the story of the lost child who at about the age of sixteen alone, helpless, without any language and skills suddenly appeared in Nuremberg on May 26, 1828, and then learned to speak, read and write, before he was murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Handke’s Kaspar is about language as an important means of communication, but also as torment and torture. Handke says he wants to show that it is possible to change our way of listening, so we can learn to reflect on how our language has been forced upon us by a society where conformism is the norm and language is transformed into an almost tyrannical exploitation of the individual.
Kaspar Hauser is destroyed by society's enforced language which limits his expressiveness and forces him to adapt to suffocating conventions. Ultimately, the play is about the inherent power of language to shape, twist, expand, delimit and convey human experience. Language as a carrier of socialization and how it thereby changes our character in accordance with the society and context in which are forced to live. The message of Kaspar seems to be in accordance with some theories of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially his ideas about Sprachspiele, language games, indicating that our thinking is characterized by our language and not the other way around. The Norwegian success writer Karl Ove Knausgård excellently summarizes the play's action and message:
Kaspar Hauser enters the stage, he has no language, no history, only a presence. Three anonymous voices start talking to him. They teach him language, behavior, culture. The voices are ”we” and what happens is an illustration of what happens to all of us when we are socialized into society. In this play, it becomes equivalent to giving up one's self, one's individuality and become submitted to power.
The two plays, or perhaps rather Sprechstücke, Speak-ins, as the genre is often called in Germany, point to something I think is Handke's main theme - the author's role. It is possibly this that fascinated the academics, translators and lawyers of the Swedish Academy and made them feel that Handke is ”a great writer”, well worth his Nobel Prize. Handke´s fascination with language as a manipulation and communication tool that the lone author (writing is a lonely business) uses to reach his audience, whose favor he depends on, both financially and for his self-esteem. Accordingly, language is also extremely central to an academic, a translator, a lawyer.
Another aspect of Kaspar and Offending the Audience is the German perspective. These plays are apparently alluding to German philosophy traditions, where language often is at the center, and are also a kind of settlement with the country's regrettable contemporary history - mainly the all devastating Nazism, with its nationalism, racism, its language abuse, its worship of violence and profound disdain for all divergent thinking, the hate for ”other” people. Trying to understand and heal this deep wound has been the self-imposed task of many of the German writers who lived through Nazism and/or were forced to drag its suffocating heritage. Writers who were young during the war and who lived on in the post-war period have impressively managed to tell us about and analyze this abhorrent time. I think of master storytellers like Fallada, Koeppen, Böll, Grass, Lenz and Kempowski. What, in my opinion sets them apart from Handke is that they usually tell exciting, engaging stories, filled with life and presence.
Handke, as belonging to a somewhat later generation, and as an Austrian, has more come to be compared with compatriots and writers with a ”drier” more abstract way of expressing themselves, like Elfriede Jelinek – who I find unreadable, not least through her recurring depictions of violence that make me think of the in the midst of his violent perversity, extremely dry and boring Marquis de Sade – and the much better and more interesting Tomas Bernhard. An author who may not have such riveting stories to tell, but who surprises the reader and makes him/her ponder about human existence. Like Beckett, Bernhard uses an original language to convey subtle and at the same time profound observations of the essentials of life. He is as the title of one of his plays, Simply Complicated, but in a more lively manner than Handke.
Handke also tells stories. In The Long Way Around, we follow the geologist Sorger from Alaska, over Los Angeles, a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains, New York and finally to an airplane on its way back to Austria. An external and internal journey during which the surrounding landscape reflects and influences the protagonist's rhetoric and self-perception.
In great detail Handke describes and Arctic river landscape and its slow changes throughout the year and even through aeon, as well as the poor semi-civilized small town on the river´s shore, largely inhabited by suspicious, difficult-to-communicate, poor and perhaps even hateful and oppressed Native Americans.
Handke also describes in depth Sorger's colleague, the jovial Lauffer with whom he shares a log cabin and a laboratory. Sorger has sympathy for Lauffer, he may even like him, but at the same time Sorger characterizes his friend as a liar, without really explaining why he considers him to be one, though he suggests that Lauffer’s ”lies” consists of the ease with which he adapts himself to others. Handke also describes Sorger's mistress, a Native American nurse; her gentle openness and serene personality. However, he does not provide her with a name and Sorger obviously leaves his tender mistress without any major concerns and regrets. Lauffer and the Native American lady actually remain as anonymous and difficult to understand as the surrounding landscape, which nevertheless attracts Sorger’s intense interest and fascination. From time to time, he is overwhelmed by strong feelings of security and even joy at having had the privilege of living in Alaska's wilderness and close to people like Lauffer and the Native American nurse, who demanded nothing from him.
In Los Angeles, Sorger also finds warmth and some security together with his neighbours. The landscape that surrounds him there is both artificial and natural, constantly threatened and altered by recurring earthquakes. Even there Sorger is affected by a strange ambivalence towards everything and everyone. A ”distancing effect” that makes him a stranger and eventually forces him to leave Los Angeles as well. In a ski resort he looks for an old friend, like Sorger a stranger in his time. However, he finds that his friend has just died, seeks out the funeral home where his corpse is laid out to be seen by his very few mourners. In New York, Sorger is having dinner with a casual acquaintance from the flight there, a certain Esch whose business card gives the impression of belonging to ”a sad businessman”. Esch stands on the slope of the ruin and is full of self-contempt. Sorger is unable to feel engaged in his temporary acquaintance’s sad story. After dinner, they stroll together through a New York silenced by a massive snowfall and is then met encountering several strange sights, such as a billowing, white cloud of compact smoke on which the intricate shadow of a bare tree is projected by a street lamp. Reading this I remember my own walks through a nocturnal New York. The novel finishes with Sorger sitting on a plane on its way back to Europe.
In The Road to Sainte-Victoire, the second part of his romance trilogy Slow Homecoming, Handke takes his point of departure in paintings by Cezanne, especially his views of the Sainte-Victoire massif in Provence. I find it remarkable that a writer who obviously appeals to other writers chose to write about Cezanne, an artist who has often been described as ”a painters´ artist”. He was for example by many Cubists worshiped as a deity.
I recall a scene in Diego Rivera's autobiography where the young and then unknown Mexican artist ends up standing as bewitched in front of the store window of Ambroise Vollard's gallery on Rue Lafitte in Paris, where one of Cezanne's landscapes is put on display. At eleven o'clock, Rivera ends up standing in front of the gallery window. At twelve o'clock, Vollard leaves for lunch and locks the door after a glance at the shabby-dressed Rivera. At one o'clock, Vollard returns and discovers that Rivera is still standing in the same position, looking at the Cezanne painting. Who can this strange man be? A presumptive burglar? After sitting at his desk inside the gallery, Vollard finds that Rivera is still standing out in the rain. The gallerist becomes fascinated and picks one after the other of his Cezanne from the walls and places them in the shop window in front of Rivera. Who watches them
Eenraptured, oblivious of a hard rain which had begun to fall and was now drenching me to the skin. Finally, coming to the doorway, Vollard shouted, ”Vous comprenez, je n´en ai pluis.” (you understand, I have no more.”) When at last I started to leave, Vollard walked to the door, obvioulsy untending to tell me something. But afraid he was angry, I hurried away.
With a similar reverence Handke describes in-depth Cezanne's paintings and also in a similar manner describes how he on two occasions visits Sainte-Victoire. Into the smallest detail he depicts his walks through a carefully described landscape. At the same time, Handke gives us some impressions from his childhood. For example, memories of the hatred he harboured towards his violent and alcoholic stepfather, as well as a deeply felt disdain for his homeland, felling which occasionally overwhelmed him during his childhood:
Then I understood violence. This world with its ”functional forms,” labeled in every detail, yet totally speechless and voiceless. Was not in the right. Maybe it was pretty much the same somewhere else, but here I saw it naked, and I wanted to knock someone, anyone, down. I hated this country, with as much enthusiasm as in my childhood I had hated my stepfather who I in my imagination often hit with an ax.
Already in these relatively early texts there are traces of Handke's search for his roots, his identification with his mother's family, which were so-called Kärtner Slowenin, Slovenes living in the Austrian province of Kärtnen.
All my mother’s forbears were Slovenes. In 1920 my grandfather voted for the inclusion of southern Austria in Yugoslavia […] The Slovenes have indeed been said to lack a sense of nationality, because unlike Serbs and Croats they never had to fight for their country; and indeed, many of their songs are sadly introverted. I´m told that Slovenian was my first language. Later, the local barber told me over and over again that when I came for my first haircut I hadn´t known a word of German and our whole conversation had been in Slovenian. I don't remember that, and at any rate, I've almost forgotten the language. (I'd always had a feeling that I came from somewhere else.) At the country school in Austria I was sometimes homesick of Germany [he had spent part of his childhood there] – which to me meant postwar Berlin. When I heard about the ”Third Reich” I knew there had never been anything more evil, and when possible I acted accordingly.
In the third part of his trilogy, Child Story, Handke obviously writes about himself in the third person and his interaction with his daughter, as well as the prehistory of a marriage that led to divorce and how in Paris he could often be alone with his daughter. Like the Native American nurse in The Long Way Around, he provides no name to the daughter, but only calls her”the child”. She thus also becomes a projection of Handke's own childhood, her upbringing serves as an illustration of what Handke seemed to want to express in his play Kaspar, namely how an innocent being through language, rules and examples is educated, or even forced, into a society, sometimes under resistance, sometimes with acceptance and joy.
Handke's distancing way of writing about a child who is obviously his own daughter made a rather unpleasant impression on me. Admittedly, Handke's love for her girl is evident, but the presentation is nevertheless coolly detached. I came to think of how the in Sweden well-known author Jan Myrdal in one of his autobiographies Childhood described how his mother Alva (she is called that throughout the book) sits behind him scribbling notes about her the son's behavior, notes she intends to use in her studies of pediatric psychology.
In Child Story, Handke also mentions en passant how he in Paris tried to get involved in politics and dutifully participated in various gatherings ”where every sentence was like a soul-killing crime.”
Once, he even attached himself to a demonstration, but vanished after a few steps. His main feeling in the new social grouping was one of unreality, more painful than before in the old ones.
Is Handke an unpolitical writer, something that several academy members have argued? Is his artistry above politics? Knausgård writes about Handke's position:
“We are against it. We are for it.” However, you have not been there, you have not seen it, you rely on a “we”, something Peter Handke conceives with skepticism. How can we respond to totalitarianism? By relying on the individual conception, the unique. Then totalitarianism dissolves into pluralism. Everyone is responsible for her/his own opinions and cannot, must not, hide her/himself behind a ”we”. Then you cannot claim ”we mean this and only this”, ”our conviction is this and only this”, "the world looks like this and only like this”. How does such an attitude function in reality? Read Handke and realize how it works: his writing deals with first-hand experiences, not any secondary experiences. He is what he sees, what he hears, what he feels, what he thinks. In his books he rarely describes what other books describe. He seeks out those areas of reality that are neither perceived as beautiful, nor valuable.
Well, maybe you can read Handke in that manner and Knausgård has certainly read more by Handke than I have. Handke, the man who like Ibsen´s Per Gynt går udenom, walks on the outside. As Nietzsche writes – If God is dead, each and every one of us human must take full responsibility for our own acts. We cannot put the blame on anyone else. It is we who make our choices, no one else. It sounds good and nice, but it also means we can make wrong choices. For me, Handke is not at all an unpolitical writer. In the books I have read he appears as a seeker, someone who tries to find goals and meaning in his life. Maybe he, like Nietzsche, despises the masses, people who thoughtlessly turns their s after the wind and like other herd animals follow their leader's demands. But even subjective resistance is a choice and even that might lead the one who ”walks on the outside” into a fenced pasture where s/he grazes with other cows.
Nietzsche has by several Fascists and Nazis been hailed as a predecessor, though I wonder if he would appreciate it. Handke has, through his conscious choices, found his roots among the Serbs. Who ever they might be? In a protest against the Pope's criticism of the warfare carried out in the name of the Serbian state, Handke did in 1999 leave the Catholic Church in and became a member of the Serbian Orthodox faith. He proudly received the Order of Njegoš, first class, from Republika Srpska, the Serbian enclave in Bosnia-Herzegovina which military forces committed the massacre in Srebrenica. He has also been decorated by the Serbian Writers' Association with Prince Lazar´s Order in gold and has been awarded the Order of Merit in gold by the leadership of the Serbian Republic. Although Handke is said to pay tribute to ”the integrity of particularity”, he gave a definite support to the Serbian Government´s stance during the Yugoslav Wars, something that can hardly be considered as an unpolitical position.
Admittedly, Handke's opponents, like all convinced people, have a tendency to depict him much worse than he really is. I agree with Knausgård when he states that Handke has never defended ethnic cleansing and/or mass murder, thogh he has undoubtedly supported Slobodan Milošević. During the funeral of the Serbian leader in his hometown of Požarevac, Handke gave an emotionally charged speech to 80,000 mourners.
The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth. This is why the so-called world is absent today, and not only today, and not only here. I don't know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.
To me it undeniably sounds like a political stance by someone who not only trusts his own judgment but also relies on the opinions and opinions of others. What does Handke remember? What does he know? What has he seen? Was he possibly present in Srebrenica in July 1995 when about 8,000 Bosniaks, men and boys, ages 13 to 78, were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces under the leadership of Ratko Mladić?
Sure, I am well aware that of the fact Croats and Bosniaks also committed atrocious crimes, but the mass slaughter in Srebrenica was an unusually well-planned operation that would not have been possible without logical support from the Serbian army and without Slobodan Milošević's previous knowledge. Sure, Milošević sent messages indicating that he was against Srebrenica being captured from the UN troops stationed there, since this could result in a ”bloodbath”, but at the same time he pointed out that he was unable to influence Mladić. On the day before the mass murders began, Milošević asked The Swedish Lieutenant General Lars-Erik Wahlgren to send ”UN observers” to Srebrenica, but the request was delayed and the observers did not arrive on time.
After the mass killings had been proved without a trace of doubt, Milošević did nothing to make the guilty answer to their crime and refused to confirm if Mladić had been responsible for the massacre. A month after the mass murder, General Wesley Clark asked Milošević if he had allowed Mladić to carry out the massacre of the Bosniaks captured in Srebrenica, he replied: ”Well, General Clark ... I warned Mladić that he should not do it, but he did not listen to me.”
One thing is certain and that is that Handke never has defended the slaughter in Srebrenica. Immediately after the announcement that Handke was going to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the world press spread the news that when Handke many years ago had been interviewed by The Irish Times and the interviewing journalist had pointed out that the large number of bodies found in the mass graves of Serebnica proved the Serbs' atrocities, a violently upset Handke responded that ”You can put your bodies up in your arse!” However, this was fake news, such an interview has never been published in The Irish Times, but this does not contradict that Handke is from being a stranger to express similar vulgarities.
The origin of the rumor of Handke's non-existent Irish Times interview is a 1999 intermezzo Frankfurt am Main. It was after the premiere of Handke's play Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder das Stück zum Film vom Krieg, A Journey through the Trenches, or a Piece about the Film about War, which dealt with one-sided interpretations of the Yugoslav War that the author volunteered for a public hearing. The journalist Karl Wendl wondered if Handke was not appalled by all the suffering that had occured in Bosnia. Handke replied: ”Place yourself here in front of me and stick your concern up in the arse!” The shocked journalist replied: ”But after all, there are still 330,000 dead.” Handke replicated:
– You speak as if you were the owner of the 300,000 dead, as if you were the owner of suffering. Your hypocritical speech gives that impression, as if suffering belongs to you. That's the worst. Did you enter it in the Land Register, the suffering, or what did you do? Miserable cry babies! [...] I'm not talking to you. Go away!
Handke's outbursts against media has been interpreted as his disdain for one-sided and generalizing sob stories based on a bogus outrage about human suffering. But… I say like Karl Wendl – the Yugoslav Wars actually concern 330,000 dead (certainly a quite exaggerated, number, but the number of casualties is nevertheless staggering) and all the suffering behind the numbers. Is Handke, this master in the expressing ”the integrity of particularity,” of placing the thoughts and experiences of individuals above mass generalizations, really incapable of detecting and acknowledging the individual suffering of all those who were affected by abuse caused by persons he respects and values? Probably. Nevertheless, to me several of Handke´s texts seem to speak to the contrary, not least since they tend to emit a sense of abstract distancing to human suffering. How did I get that idea? Well, by Handke I have been unable to encounter much of the lushness, humour, suffering, dirt, blood, sweat, tears and all that which provides life and presence to so many other stories about human existence. Handke is a sharp critic of perfunctory generalizations, but he himself expresses similar platitudes, perhaps not explicitly perfunctory, but many of them undoubtedly remain generalizations.
Handke states he met with the man Milošević, a human being. He has listened, known and remembered. That was is one reason to why he was speaking at Milošević's funeral, ”near Yugoslavia, near Serbia, near Slobodan Milošević.” To me, the speech appeared as rather presumptuous, it certainly gave the impression of being composed of ”hypocritical formulas”. Who was Milošević? I do not know. I have to rely on the generalizations of the press and various books. Perhaps I can find something there that may have contributed to Handke's sympathy for Milošević.
It was only when Milošević was imprisoned in The Hague that Handke met him. Handke assumes that Milošević's crimes have not been definetly be proven, especially since the Serbian leader died before he was convicted, or absolved. The direct reason to why Milošević ended up in prison was that when he after the 2000 general elections refused to acknowledge opposition leader Koštunica's victory, violent riots broke out in Belgrade. Milošević was arrested in 2001 and charged with abuse of power and corruption, but when the court proceedings failed due to lack of evidence, Milošević was by the Serbian government handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague to answer charges for crimes against humanity.
Milošević has been described as a colourless ex-communist careerist and a pragmatic former banker who seemed to live far away from the terrible carnage that was going on around him. His opponents generally blamed his worst attributes on the influence of his wife Mirjana Marković, his schoolmate and youth love from his childhood town of Požarevac. Mirjana became known for his outbursts of anger, strange new age ideas and old hard-line Communism. She was by the opposition often described as a powerful ”surrogate mother” for a sensible Slobodan, disturbed and hampered by an unhappy childhood - both his parents committed suicide while he was still a young man.
There may be some truth in that view, but Milošević turned out to be an enterprising person and an exceptionally astute politician. With the support of his mentor Ivan Stambolić, who became his friend during their joint law studies, Milošević worked his way up through the party hierarchy. When Stambolić in 1972 left the chairmanship of the state-owned energy company Technogas, Milošević inherited his position and when Stambolić in 1975 became the prime minister of Serbia he made sure that Milošević became head of Beobanka, Yugoslavia's largest state-owned bank. During recurring and often prolonged business trips to New York, Slobodan learned English and came to appreciate comic books, Disney films and Frank Sinatra. However, he remained well-informed about Yugoslav domestic politics and held important positions within the communist nomenclature. In 1987, Milošević contributed to Stambolić´s loss of power as Serbian prime minister and did himself one year later obtain this position. Stambolić´s political career was over and in 2000 he was murdered under mysterious circumstances. In 2005, twelve former members of the Unit for Special Operations were convicted from fifteen to forty years imprisonment for planning and committing the murder, they put the blame on Milošević, who died in The Hague the following year.
During his time in power, Milošević wanted to promote a transition from planning economy to a more liberal policy, meaning an increased private ownership under strict state control, However, he was repeatedly accused of financially favouring friends and close party mates. He surrounded himself with a tightly-knit group of close friends and preferred to give orders and instructions instead of engaging in any longer discussions.
Someone who has provided interesting insights into Milošević's character is Walter Zimmermann, who for several years served as the US ambassador to Yugoslavia. He perceived the Prime Minister of Serbia as more of a political opportunist than a genuine nationalist. In Zimmermann’s presence Milošević never exposed any contempt for or hatred of ethnic groups. He often expressed his desire for Yugoslavia to remain a multi-ethnic entity. This was entirely different from the views of Croatia's prime minister, Franjo Tjuđman, and the Serbian-Bosnian leader Radovan Karadžić, who both had a tendency to erupt in prejudiced harangues directed towards the ethnic groups they despised. According to Zimmermann, it was only when Milošević tried to mobilize general support for his politics that he asserted a nationalist agenda.
According to Zimmerman, Milošević's political manoeuvres and manipulations occasionally made him appear as being almost schizophrenic. He could at one moment behave extremely arrogantly, stubbornly and aggressively, only to quickly change his behaviour by becoming very polite and prove himself to be a good and cooperative listener, anxious to find peaceful solutions to the Yugoslav conflicts. According to Zimmerman, Milošević was hopelessly caught in his own political game.
When Handke spoke to Milošević while he was imprisoned in The Hague, it was apparently the conciliatory Slobodan he met, not the powerful despot Milošević. They may have found several common interests and experiences that could have created a mutual sympathy. Both were used to being altered and attacked by their enemies. They were at the same time seclusive and open, with a temperament which meant that they could quickly change from anger to consensus. They had both studied law and their mothers had committed suicide. As a politician and public figure, Milošević often felt misunderstood and so did Handke in his role as an opinionated author. In their public activities, both acted as if they were on a stage, they were actors. Perhaps Handke did not ask the right questions to the former decision-maker Milošević, questions that might have revealed him as a skilled, political manipulator who for his own gain had chosen to close his eyes to crimes committed by his military and allied politicians. I do not know.
Once, I met a mass murderer and dictator, Ríos Montt, who when he had the power in Guatemala ordered mass murders of innocent people. He was charming and friendly, invited me to dinner and called me his ”brother in spirit”. I found him more sympathetic, more open and nicer than the international human rights icon and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, whom I met the day before. But, I could not for a moment forget that Ríos Montt was a mass murderer and despite his charm he remained completely crazy in my eyes.
After being buried in my thoughts and reading about Peter Handke and the former Yugoslavia for several hours, I saw the movie Falshe Bewegung, False Movement, which Handke in 1977 made together with Wim Wenders. I recognized a lot what I assumed I had encountered in Handke's books and quite a lot that irritated me.
The film presents a gray, rainy Germany, the soundtrack is most of the time dominated by monotonous piano music, half-whispered dialogues and a deadly serious narrative voice. Boring, empty landscapes; dirt roads, bushes, naked trees, dilapidated houses - gray, hazy and empty, far between people. The protagonists walk around, talk and talk.
Certainly, I recognize some mood from the time when I with Interrail traveled by train through Germany, or when I worked as a waiter on the ferry between Trelleborg and Sassnitz and often went down to Berlin to spend a few days there. Accordingly, I am acquainted with long train journeys through anonymous landscapes and with random meetings. The film has some cleverly constructed scenes, such as the narrator's train journey, filled with interesting angles and dynamic cuts, but it also contains quite a lot of filmed theatre, for example long monologues in which the protagonists recount their dreams. A lethargic emptiness.
Any action? Yes, more or less. A young man watching – pondering. He wants to become a writer. Actually he assumes that he already is one. He observes, registers, but does not write. A beautiful actress who no longer plays theatre. A chubby Viennese who wants to be a poet and occasionally recites his not particularly bad poems. A child of nature, i.e. a naïve and beautiful girl, a street artist who juggles, stand on hands and is in the company of an elderly gentleman who plays harmonica and occasionally bleeds from his nose. All personalities are strangely anonymous, dangerously close to clichés
The film begins with the young narrator who after desperately breaking the window in his room, leaves his mother and leaves on a trip to Bonn across Hamburg, the reason for his travel remains unspecified. On the train he meets the young street artist and her older companion. Without questions, without asking permission, they accompany the prospective author. Soon the actress shows up. Maybe she knows the storyteller from before, maybe not. The Viennese poet joins the company. Suddenly all of them are in the actress's car. The Viennese says his uncle, an industrial owner, lives in a large house along the way. They can all sleep over at his place.
It turns out that the industrialist's big house is hopelessly dilapidated. The owner does not know the Viennese fellow. His young wife has recently died, but he allows everyone to sleep in his house. The prospective writer, the Viennese poet, the actress, the street artist and the older gentleman, who turns out to have been a commander in Wilna, there apparently was responsible for the extermination of Jews, do the following day take a long walk together. When they returned to the dilapidated house they find that the owner has hung himself. They immediately leave the place in the actress’s car. The Viennese poet leave them at a roadside bar.
The rest of the company moves into the actress’s flat, located somewhere among the ugly high rise buildings of a dreary, cement suburb. The aspiring author makes an attempt to drown the old Nazi, who, escapes. The narrator leaves the street artist and the actress to travel to a mountain peak he claims to have always wanted to visit. However, when he reaches his goal he acknowledges that it was also a means of escape. What he really wanted was to be alone with his apathy and wait for a miracle. When he stands alone on Die Zugspitze looking out over the mountains below, nothing happens: Es war als hätte ich etwas verloren und mit jeder neuen Bewegung – falsche Bewegung. It was as if I had lost something and with every new movement – a false movement.” Thus the movie ends.
For sure, it is a depiction of the feelings of hopelessness of a lost post-war German generation, those who were born in the forties, who had not participated in the war. Who had been unable influence any of the misery and barbarity of the war. Those who had fallen victim to their parents' crimes, and/or their helplessness and apathy. However – how sad and boring it all is. The intellectualizing, the half-whispering narrative voice – milling on and on about anguish, writer’s block, meaninglessness, hopeless love, nature and politics, dreams and dreariness – becomes increasingly irritating, especially as the whole is accompanied by monotonous piano strumming, occasionally accompanied by some muted saxophone whining and gray pictures.
It is declared that the film's model has Goethe's Bildungsroman, novel of formation, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship though I do not think it can have contributed with much more than the story's thin shell, as well as the names of the characters. Although it must be acknowledged that both Wenders and Handke sharpened themselves up in Wings of Desire, a far better movie than Falshe Bewegung and Wim Wenders eventually has developed into an engaging director and sympathetic person.
Back to the question that made me write this far extensive essay. Is Peter Handke an author who ”preeminently deserves a Nobel Prize”? Personally, I do not think so. He is too boring, to much of an elitist, and above all self-absorbed. A writer for other writers, but not for me. As Rebecka Kärde rightly pointed out in her defense of Handke:
It is tempting to flatter oneself with by declaring you are being beyond politics, to put aside personal sympathies as long as a writer is good enough. But I think that is impossible, because the rating ”good” is too subjective.
OK, let me be subjective. I do not think that Peter Handke is a ”good” author and thus I do not appreciate the Academy's choice of him as a literary award winner. Not because of his political stance, nor because I doubt the Academy's judgment. As I wrote above, the Academy’s members are writers, translators, academics and lawyers and as such I understand they appreciate Handke's language and thoughts about manipulation, as well as his ”exquisite” style. The choice is bad because I assume there are so many other writers who could have been rewarded in his instead of him. How many Europeans have not received the Prize? Especially Englishmen, Frenchmen, Poles, Scandinavians and Italians.
Undoubtedly, some linguistic areas and countries have been steadily favoured. When some other European country have come into the literary searchlight, it is not always it's best writers who have received the award. For example, I would rather have seen António Lobo Antones get the prize than his more boring compatriot José Saramago. And why has a rich literature like the Romanian been bypassed? I do not count Hertha Müller, which I am not particularly fond of and who furthermore writes in German. I think, as an example, of Mircia Catarescu, a worthy representative of ”intellectual” central Europeans like György Konrad, Peter Nádas, or why not the exciting Lázlo Krasznahorkai? But why not, in the name of justice, leave Europe behind and search among other authors outside that continent? Yes, it has happened that others than U.S. citizens have received the prestigious literary award, among them two Japanese authors, though Mishima was bypassed, two Chinese, four from the South American continent, one Guatemalan author, one Mexican, one Canadian (if you do not count Saul Bellow as Canadian), though I would have preferred Margaret Atwood, instead of Alice Munro, one Australian (if you do not count Coetze as Australian).
Political sensitivity was certainly the reason for the oversight of a world champion like Jorge Luis Borges, but it could not have been the reason for other great Argentines like Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sabato to be forgotten. The list of worthy Latin- and Central Americans can be made long. Politics is perhaps the reason to why Shmul Yosef Agnon is the only Israeli author who has received the award, a genuinely sympathetic writer like Amos Oz was was at least as worthy of the award as Handke and so are Yoram Kaniuk and Avraham Yehoshua. There are for certain more Arab greats than Naguib Mafouz worth rewarding. The Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean is completely bypassed, excellent Haitian writers such as Jaques Roumain and Marie Vieux Chauvet were far beyond the Academy's radar, and so was apparently the great Cuban Alejo Carpentier. I would rather have liked to see a storyteller like Maryse Condé from Guadalupe as an award-winner than Peter Handke.
And where are the African writers? White South African authors have received the award, Natalie Gordimer and John Coetzee, but where is the rest of Africa, apart from Wole Soyinka? As a young man, I was thoroughly taken by the storytelling and mystique of writers like Camara Laye and Amos Tutuola. And now there are plenty of heirs to the rich African storytelling tradition, in Nigeria we find for example Ben Okri and new talents are constantly emerging, for example the exciting Chigozie Obiama with his The Fishermen. Africa has also produced a host of exciting young, female writers, while older representatives of East African storytelling continue to be overlooked, like Wa Thiong´o and Nusruddin Farah.
And where are the Indians? The old and feel-good Rasipuram Narayan was forgotten, but there are plenty of young talents, such as Rohinton Mistry with his mighty Dickensian A Fine Balance and several other excellent writers writing in English, like Amitav Gosh. And why not award an exquisite female stylist like Anita Desai? There are certainly also a number of exciting writers outside Europe who write in languages other than English.
Yes, yes, I know that is an impossible task the Swedish Academy has taken upon itself, but why not try to lift the focus from European navel-gazing and take a swim in the beautiful narrative sea that can be explored in the so-called Third World and seek out its treasure islands, hiding much more interesting finds than the alas so gray and serious Peter Handke.
I conclude by repeating that ”good literature” for sure is a subjective phenomenon. A good book is like a nice and respected friend talking to you. What I have tried to do in his far too long essay is to venture some of my frustration with the Swedish Academy's self-congratulatory view of what good literature is. What I wrote was based my personal taste, which I am sure differ from that of many others. It is entirely subjective.
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