On December 10, 2019, Austrian writer Peter Handke received the Nobel Prize for Literature. If he felt pride or triumph, he didn’t show it. His crooked bow tie over an ill-fitting white shirt, his unsmiling eyes behind his signature round glasses, Handke looked resigned and stoic, as if undergoing a boring medical procedure. As he accepted his award, some of the onlookers – not all of whom joined in the applause – looked equally grim.
Handke began his career, in the 1960s, as a provocateur, with absurd theatrical works that eschewed action, character and dialogue for, in the words of one reviewer, “anonymous, menacing rants.” One of his first plays, entitled “Offending the public”, ends with insults hurled by the actors at the spectators. Over the next few decades, as he produced dozens of plays and novels, he turned his experiments with language inward, exploring both its possibilities and its limits for evoking human consciousness. WG Sebald, who was profoundly influenced by Handke, wrote: “The specific narrative genre he developed succeeded through its utterly original linguistic and imaginative precision.
Handke’s novels, which he called “narrative excursions or individual expeditions”, often feature a man who shares characteristics with the author as he ponders what he sees while traversing a landscape. Episodic, with long periods in which there is little or no action, the stories flow from a series of encounters – with people, animals or simply ideas – that gradually acquire meaning. In “Repetition” (1986), often considered Handke’s masterpiece, the setting is his mother’s homeland, Slovenia, then part of communist Yugoslavia. In his latest novel to be published in English, “The Fruit Thief” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), published in German in 2017 and translated by Krishna Winston, we are in the countryside just north of Paris, not far from the suburbs where Handke has lived for thirty years.
These novels, in their microscopic focus on the quirks of the narrator’s perception, are almost aggressively apolitical, but it was the politics that made Handke notorious, producing the frowns at the Nobel Prize ceremony. In early 1996, six months after Serbs massacred more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica – the greatest atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust – Handke took a trip through Serbia. In his travelogue, published in English as “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” Handke scorned Western journalists who reported on Yugoslavia, accusing them of bias and corruption. In his account, the Serbs appear as charming and cultured hosts, their delicious food, their pastoral countryside, their disconcerting and undeserved political situation.
There was outrage from reporters and critics, but Handke doubled down. In the spring of 1999, when the United States and NATO allies launched a bombing campaign intended to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, he traveled to Belgrade to demonstrate his support for the regime of Slobodan Milošević. A few months later, according to American journalist Peter Maass, Handke obtained a Serbian passport. When Milošević died, in 2006, Handke delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
Twenty-three years after Handke first plunged into these troubled waters, the announcement of his Nobel Prize brought a new chorus of denunciations. Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has expressed concern that the award lends legitimacy to her false claims; former UN ambassador Samantha Power, who had reported on Srebrenica as a journalist, tweeted that the genocide was an “undeniable fact”. A member of the Swedish Academy announced that he would boycott the proceedings. Handke remained intimidated. When Maass confronted him at the Nobel Prize press conference, Handke called his questions “empty and ignorant.”
Handke’s defenders argue that his Serbian adventure is essentially an outgrowth, with little bearing on his work. The Austrian daily Die Press was of the opinion that, as Handke’s work had “long been considered part of world literature”, the sad fact that he had “lost himself in the thicket of the Balkans” should not disqualify him from the Nobel Prize . Yet perhaps the most distinctive quality of Handke’s art is that it has always been inseparable from the personality of its creator. A new collection of his essays, “Quiet Places” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), demonstrates that whether Handke calls a work fiction or non-fiction, his technique remains much the same – the discursive tone, the narratives whirling and associative, the interior and subjective point of view. Indeed, Handke said he wrote about Serbia “exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: slow and curious narration; each paragraph dealing with and telling a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar – of aesthetic veracity. Rather than a departure from his literary work, Handke’s take on Serbia may be in one piece with him – a logical consequence of the postmodern experimentation for which he has long been celebrated.
“The beginning of my writing,” Handke said, was “the stories my mother told.” Born in 1942 in a poor provincial town in southern Austria, the illegitimate son of his mother and her married lover, he was raised by his mother and an abusive stepfather. His solace as a child was his stories of people from his birthplace, known only as Stara Vas, or Old Village.
Handke likes to tell two of his mother’s stories as a couple: they appear in several of his works, including “The Fruit Thief”. In one, his mother’s younger brother runs away from boarding school and walks home, a journey of about forty kilometers. He arrives in the middle of the night on a Saturday, when the yard is swept. So the boy picks up a broom and sweeps until daybreak, when the family finds out.
The other story is about a little boy, the child of a mentally retarded girl who works on a local farm and who was raped by the farmer. The farmer and his wife adopt the child, and the milkmaid is told to stay away from the boy, who grows up thinking the farmer’s wife is his mother. One day, the milkmaid hears the boy screaming for help: he’s gotten tangled up in a barbed wire fence. She runs to him and picks him up. Later, the little boy asks his alleged mother, “Why does that stupid girl have such soft hands?”
Both stories have the quality of a fairy tale: the boy who sweeps the courtyard at night by heart, as if bewitched; the foundling who maintains a connection with his mother even when others try to hide it from him. And both deal with the chasm between parents and children, and the often futile efforts to bridge that chasm – themes that haunt Handke’s work. Handke often emphasizes not an event, but rather a seemingly minor moment, the significance of which the person experiencing it does not even recognize.