As always, I’m writing for anyone willing to take the time to read. But in this instance, I’m chiefly writing for those who haven’t read Peter Handke or who have read only a little of his work—readers who might have been inclined (after the Nobel Prize in Literature announcements last week) to give him a try, as I intend to do with Olga Tokarczuk, but who have been dissuaded by the flood of articles and “statements” denouncing Handke as a fascist and an apologist for genocide.
The statement issued by PEN America was typical: “We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnia Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.”
You are busy; you may feel that life is too short for you to plunge into investigating the merit of such charges. (“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” etc.) Understood. Then again, you may want to read a bit more before simply accepting the judgment of the angry chorus. This column offers a reading list for you. I will not rehearse potted biographical information easily found on Wikipedia.
The best place to start is Handke’s short book (83 small pages) published in 1997 in English as A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. It first appeared in German the year before. This book in particular has been accused of offering “public succor” to Serbian perpetrators of genocide. I myself went to Croatia in 1998 (not long after the conflict with Serbia ended), and visited Vukovar, the site of a massacre conducted by Serbian paramilitaries. I am not at all tempted to excuse or explain away such atrocities. But that was not Handke’s intention in writing this book. Don’t take my word for it (or someone else’s word for it); read it yourself. True, in the ensuing controversy, after the book was published and Handke was widely attacked, some of his own responses were irresponsible. I think that to a significant extent, the criticism of Handke was motivated by his own scathing and largely justified criticism of the debased language of the media.
After reading A Journey to the Rivers, turn to an interview with Handke, published in November 2011 (which my friend Bruce Wiebe was kind enough to send to me). Warning: There are a few typos and other anomalies here. This is a rare occasion in which Handke talks about religious faith (there is a brief mention of his conversion from Catholicism to Orthodoxy), a subject about which he is usually very reticent. It gives a sense of how his mind works.
Then try this piece by a writer, Scott Abbott, who knows Handke’s work well and has translated him. He wrote this a day after the Nobel Prize announcement, in response to the criticism it provoked. I urge you to read Abbott’s follow-up pieces on his website as well. His is the fullest response by a knowledgeable reader of Handke I have seen to date.
But, you may say, why should I invest time reading about a controversy involving a writer whose work I know only slightly or not at all, especially when it sounds rather murky? That’s a good question. I think the intention of those who have denounced Handke is to surround him with a toxic smell, so that readers who might otherwise have been tempted to pick up some of his books will be discouraged from doing so. That seems wicked to me, especially when it is cloaked in moral trappings.
I have no desire to insist “You must read Handke!” I’m a firm believer in the irreducibility of taste, and (setting slanderous judgments aside) he’s not to everyone’s liking. But if you do want to put a toe in the water, here is one suggestion. The novel Repetition, published in German in 1986 and in English translation in 1988, is a first-person narrative set in 1960 (though the narrator is recalling these events many years later). The protagonist is a young man from southern Austria; like Handke himself, he comes from a family with roots in Slovenia, where his brother, Gregor, disappeared during World War II.
What I have just said is accurate, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the flavor of Repetition, which can be hinted at by mentioning one of the two books (once belonging to Gregor) Filip brings along on his journey: a German-Slovenian dictionary in which his brother had underlined certain words. That sounds pretty unremarkable. But this dictionary, regarded as “a collection of one-word fairy tales,” plays an important role in the novel, in which little that is typically “novelistic” occurs.
Maybe that will be enough to convince you that Handke won’t be your cup of tea. In which case, I will have provided a service of sorts. But if it entices you to track down the novel and read it, I will be very happy.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.