Are there two parallel tracks to Austrian Nobel Prize winner Peter Handke’s career, or only one, complex and difficult one? When Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019, the prize jury stated that he won it ‘for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience’. The jury rightly noted his immense influence on Austrian and European literature since the 1960s.
Handke is known as a poetic innovator, from his 1966 ‘anti-play’ Offending the Audience, to his moving reflection on his mother’s suicide A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, to the series of intensely poetic meditations on landscape he produced through the 1980s, along with the screenplay to Wim Wenders’ cult 1987 film Wings of Desire. Always in touch with the literary Zeitgeist while always apart from it, Handke’s work tried to push at the limits of language to explore extreme states, such as psychosis (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972). He also pioneered a form of ecopoetics, testing the boundaries of human and non-human organisms, as in Versuch über den Pilznarren (‘Essay on the Mushroom Hunter’; 2013).
But the Nobel citation also nodded, in an oddly euphemistic fashion, to a darker aspect of Handke’s writing: ‘He distanced himself from prevailing demands on community-oriented and political positions.’ That’s an evasive way of saying that Handke moved from studied aloofness and from fashionable leftism in the 1970s, to apologism for the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević, in the 1990s. He has produced reams of text expressing an affinity with Yugoslavia, and demanding ‘justice for Serbia’. Notoriously, Handke even spoke at Milošević’s funeral in 2006. Indeed, in an unauthorised interview in 2011, he cast doubts on the status of the genocide of Srebrenica. On being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019, he refused to qualify his position on Serbian history, snapping ‘I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions like that’ to Austrian journalists.
Somehow, Handke’s reputation has run on two almost parallel tracks since he first spoke out for Serbia in the 1990s. An affirmative Handke scholarly industry still works on, producing edited collections and conferences in the author’s honour, diligently digging into his copious notebooks and archives to produce renewed literary interpretations. Meanwhile, and particularly since 2019, Handke has been vigorously condemned for his pro-Milošević apologism by, among others, the German-Bosnian writer Saša Stanišić, as well as a wide range of critical academics and journalists. When these two reputational tracks collide, uncomfortable questions about Handke’s work emerge. Do Handke’s deeply problematic views retrospectively cast a shadow on his earlier works? For instance, does his masterpiece Repetition (1986), tracing the footsteps of his lost brother who fought in Slovenia in the Second World War, now read more like a partisan defence of Yugoslav nationalism? How woman-centred can his exploration of his mother’s ‘sorrow beyond dreams’ really be, when we consider that it was written by an author apparently untroubled by a regime that systematically deployed rape as a method of genocide? Do the multitudinous works stand independently of their now extremely elderly author? Some brilliant, some turgid, some hopelessly outmoded, but all of them a significant part of 20th- and 21st-century Austrian and European literature.
Perhaps, instead, Handke’s lifelong aloofness from ‘community-oriented positions’ – his genocide-denying insult to his audience – is in fact inseparable from his hyper-subjective poetics. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek provocatively suggests that Handke’s cherished stance that a poet can be apolitical is ‘the stuff ethnic cleansing is made of’. If this is so, what does Handke’s canonisation within Austrian literature and by the Nobel committee say about the global institutions of literature in the past sixty years? A critical reading of Handke’s work in the context of other, less canonised and more critical voices – Balkan voices, feminist voices, decolonial voices – is therefore urgently important. Reading Handke in context will help us to understand not just what remains of Peter Handke, but what effect his canonisation has had on Austrian and world literature for sixty years.
By Helen Finch
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