Peter Handke and His Reception in the German-speaking world by Peter Zimmermann

Idiocy and the Audience

First, somebody has to match his record: Peter Handke has been in the spotlight of German-speaking literary criticism for fifty years. For every book, every play and every interview, even. That’s amazing considering that Handke never attempted to form alliances even just with sections of the audience that are aware of him. He was never a spokesperson, a poster figure, never a master of public speaking, of quips and witticisms. For all the clarity of the language there is something remote about his texts, something searching and never entirely anchored in the present. If he once comments on political events, which he did mostly in the 1990s in view of the Balkan wars, he spreads confusion, misunderstandings, reacts offended and gives offence. It seems as though the writer and audience were talking different languages. Yet, initially, while Handke doesn’t even attempt to become more comprehensible – in other words, to take a step closer to the public – this audience (primarily represented by the media) tenaciously doesn’t turn away from him. Instead, they constantly try to adapt to his unpredictability. Put another way: every review of a Handke book, every critique of one of his plays, every interview with him resembles intent to understand. One might venture even that it is not the writer courting the love of critique, but the critics wanting to create and confer with the love of the writer. And they will never attain it. That’s what you call ‘lust and pain’. And this is how both grow older together.

Editors and publishers naturally have a closer relationship with the writer than critics. The stories of literary commercial relationships with Peter Handke are associated with pain, humiliation and human disappointment – Siegfried Unseld, Raimund Fellinger and Jochen Jung can tell a thing or two about this. In Jochen Jung’s recently published book, Zwischen Ohlsdorf und Chaville, he described this ‘lust and pain’ in dealing with Peter Handke that can be released from the working relationship and be superimposed on the story of the relationship between writer and audience. With regard to Jung’s observation that the educated classes, who are not exactly held in high esteem by Handke, are still the ones buying and reading his books, Handke became enraged that he, Jung, was a parasite, a speck of dust, a beneficiary, a tick. Firstly, Jung wrote, this affected him, and later he interpreted Handke’s outburst of rage as a rebuke. That is, the offended party accepted the insult and ultimately legitimized this. Thus, initially, it seemed fair to him and secondly it can be interpreted as a form of proof of esteem. A reprimand is not given if one is indifferent to that person or they are hateful.

The imploring and withdrawing of esteem are constant elements of the Handke reception in the German-speaking context – one has to say this with pathos. When as yet the virtually unknown young writer performed in 1967 before the older grandees of the Group 74 in Princeton – and they genuinely didn’t lack vanity and self-assurance – this resulted for some of them in a courtship sequence. Milo Dor has reported all this. Handke’s early plays, starting with Publikumsbeschimpfung (“Offending the Audience”) were form and language experiments, though more than this, they inverted the power relationship between writer and audience. The writer declared to his audience: I don’t accept you, or I accept you on my terms. And the audience played along – yet here one echoes Jochen Jung: this is an educated middle class, urban audience. This is an audience that, like in a flirtation, can get involved in a role reversal that, at least momentarily, eagerly surrenders to the writer’s moods. For all the self-staging as a simple fellow countryman, walker and mushroom collector, Handke has never been a writer for a wide audience who might have gained resonance with his writing across all social classes. Where he likes to position himself, among the simple people, he is a stranger because they exist as little as the Neunte Land (“Ninth Country”), this southern Slavonic place of yearning, which was repeatedly conjured up in his writing, and where he would gladly have his roots (although it definitely doesn’t exist). Here, Handke is the victim of an unrequited love because the myth does not respond. It is no use wanting to make oneself receptive as an idiot for the lower layers of reality – a reality that is overwritten multiple times by counterfeiters and swindlers from politics and the media. In Handke’s writing the idiot is the contrast to the normal, that is, standardized individual. He sees and hears what others no (longer) see and hear. The feeling of having to become an idiot to be able to sense the joys of childhood again, as one diary entry reads. This repeatedly expressed retreat to the position of the idiot, who cannot actually act politically, because he doesn’t take note of politics as a superficial phenomenon, is probably the rupture point between him and the audience. The idiot intends to fuse with the myth, yet this undertaking is verging on Don Quixote style – and causes the incomprehension, mainly with respect to his politically misunderstood treatment of Serbia, which he was shown by the media, predominantly the German media. Idiocy, even in Handke’s sense, is no objective category. The idiot is right because he is entitled to his truth. He must not defend it. This doesn’t fit so easily with the Protestant ethic, which is why the critique of Handke in Germany is not comparable to that in Catholic Austria where the dreamer is not denied his entitlement to his dream.

Handke’s Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (“Justice for Serbia”, 1996) and his subsequent texts and public addresses were alleged in Germany to have a political line of attack that they simply didn’t possess. Handke’s Serbia was never the country of post-Communist nationalists in the entourage of Slobodan Milošević. Similarly, Yugoslavia as the “Ninth Country” had little to do with the structure of states collectively formed, and probably also forcibly so under Tito. Serbia and Yugoslavia are no national entities for him; they are myths that the idiot interprets as a paradise background. It is as if the adult would like to return to the mother’s body. In Austria this also seems to be better understood than in Germany. For some people this questionable, though intrinsically sacrosanct attitude at the time of NATO’s attacks on Serbia and a media-induced and politically largely and evidently indirect perpetrator-victim theory made a pariah out of Handke. At least in Germany. In view of his literary support for Serbia and his refusal to understand Serbia as a synonym for a politically acting elite, the media failed across the board, since suddenly and without reason they degraded the writer to a political commentator. Now Handke was no longer merely a case for literary criticism, but for the editors-in-chief, star columnists and a continuing line of politicians of all persuasions who depending on the degree of indignation made out of Handke a fervent nationalist, an ignorant total fool, an aging agitator, an apologist for dictators and even a Holocaust denier. And as is customary for him, Handke did not allow himself to be deterred from his entitlement to be right.

Back in the 1990s it seemed as if the German public had read enough of the writer. As a matter of fact one wondered how he was going to be published again, how he could even release a single text without reaping any malice. Handke did nothing to patch up the rupture. Slightly aggrieved, he certainly announced that in future he would be avoiding public appearances, yet then things turned out differently. He wrote and published more than ever before; he received prizes and honorary doctorates were awarded. He allowed the hated media to approach him. He turned seventy and he was celebrated. It was the public that approached him, journalists, politicians and commentators who continued to allow his rebukes, if necessary. It is slightly reminiscent of a long marriage. Every quarrel is the end; every end brings reconciliation because one prefers to avoid looking beyond the end. In 2007, Handke wrote Hinaus böse Geister (“Evil spirits out”) in a spirit of reconciliation and once again with persistence. Leave language once and for all. Let’s learn the art of the question. Let’s make a trip to the sonorous land, in the name of Yugoslavia, in the name of another Europe. Long live the other Europe! Long live Yugoslavia! Who would want to contradict that?

By Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 22 March 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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