If the story with Serbia hadn’t intervened, Peter Handke’s reputation would probably have soared in France from the enfant terrible of German-speaking literature to a universally recognized fount of knowledge. “Après la révolte, c’est la sagesse” ran the headline in the French press following the publication of his novel Die Abwesenheit (Absence). Yet, back in 1996, his pro-Serbia stance, which he didn’t differentiate from his support for Slobodan Milošević, made him a persona non grata in France. That was the verdict of Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, his friend, translator and, until then, a tireless advocate.
Did this mark the end of an unrivalled success story for a German-speaking contemporary writer in France?
When Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) appeared in 1968 as the first French translation of Handke’s work and was performed in Rennes, the writer was already a star in the German-speaking world because of the Princeton scandal. His general attack on the Gruppe 47 literary establishment also earned him enduring respect in France, although the long-haired rebel only followed May ¢68 as an onlooker. The publisher, Christian Bourgeois, who had introduced Handke to Goldschmidt, had quietly withdrawn. In 1969, Gallimard therefore published Handke’s novel Der Hausierer (The Door-to-Door Salesman). His publisher emphasized Handke’s close affinity with the nouveau roman, skilfully carving out a niche for the unknown writer in the then popular French literature movement – and the critics took the bait. A “prophetic writer who radically breaks with all traditional forms”, wrote the Nouvel Observateur. That’s why in 1972 Handke’s Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) also became a bestseller in France because the critics compared his protagonists with Camus’ Étranger. Indeed, it was true that Handke had a close affinity with the French nouveau roman and OuLiPo writers on grounds of his linguistic and formal enquiries. In 1974 Goldschmidt wrote, “Handke is fascinated by the French language; I believe that in the end he will write in French himself.” However, even if some critics temporarily regarded Handke as a French writer he never managed – with one exception – to make the language switch. Yet this has not put a stop to his celebrity in France.
The collaborative work with Wim Wenders, who produced Handke’s film version of the Linkshändige Frau (The Left-Handed Woman) in 1978 and presented it in Cannes, made the writer even more popular in France. Le Monde wrote, “One of the most talented and most original in recent decades.” When the duo won the Palme d’Or for Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) in 1987 Handke was also respected as a filmmaker; and two years later he received the honour of becoming a jury member in Cannes.
On the other hand, Claude Régy’s Handke productions made a substantial contribution to Handke’s success as a playwright in France. Régy’s legendary production of the 1974 Der Ritt über den Bodensee (The Ride across Lake Constance) with Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Depardieu made Handke an instant hit in the French theatre world. Until his return to Austria in 1978 at least one of his works was translated every year. Régy also stayed loyal to Handke when the media hype died down in the 1980s. Handke also enjoyed a successful collaboration with theatre director, Luc Bondy. Alongside Patrick Modiano, Emir Kusturica, Paul Nizon and the actress Bulle Ogier, Bondy was among his supporters after the Yugoslavia scandal.
In 2012, Bondy made his debut as director of Théâtre de l’Odéon with Peter Handke’s Die schönen Tage von Aranjuez : Ein Sommerdialog (The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez: A Summer Dialogue). No doubt this was to make amends for the Comédie Française’s Handke boycott six years earlier. The critics reacted modestly, though positively to Die schönen Tage von Aranjuez. The same applies for regular translations of Handke’s works since 2006. However, the ice doesn’t break quite so easily. Historically, the writer was on the right side with his criticism of Kurt Waldheim and later of Jörg Haider. Yet even in his adopted home Handke is still regarded extremely critically because of his close support for Milošević – and while he never called this into question, the Serbian people already rejected Milošević 16 years earlier.
By Katja Petrovic
Other ELit blogs on Peter Handke
Peter Handke and His Reception in the German-speaking world
Peter Handke. A Reception of a Literary Controversy world
Peter Handke and His Reception in the English-speaking world