Peter Handke | A Revolution in Language

Criticized for his politics, the Austrian Nobel Laureate has been a transformative voice in 20th century literature.

An Essay

In a highly controversial decision, Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature on October 10. The citation lauded his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Handke is the second Austrian literary laureate in 15 years, following Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 – a record matched only by the United Kingdom. That’s after a decade where Oscars had also been handed to Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (die FälscherThe Counterfeiters), to actor Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained), and director Michael Haneke (LiebeAmour), and a nomination for Best Foreign Film to director Götz Spielmann (Revanche). This, in a tiny country of eight million that many still accuse of living in the past.

On the merits, the Nobel is well deserved, and many expected it sooner: Handke’s transcendent mastery of language and penetrating, tender honesty – revealing layers of perception often lost in shadow – is widely admired by those who know his work.

The brilliance of his writing is not what the controversy is about.

Handke and the Balkan Wars

At issue, critics say, are his sympathies with Serbia during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, an affinity, perhaps springing from his Slovenian heritage, that took him on a journey deep into the former Yugoslavia, and resulted in the 1996 book Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina, oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia). First published in two parts in the German magazine Der Spiegel, this richly-told, literary travel log describes everyday life in the countryside, the seasons, the culture and people of Serbia far from the brutalities of war. He challenged the labeling of the Serbs as war criminals in the wake of the butchery at Srebrenica and was widely condemned. In 2006, he spoke at the funeral of convicted war criminal Slobodan Milošević.

“I don’t know the truth,” he said in his eulogy. “But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.”

At the time, Handke seemed astonished at the criticism: He could understand that people might not be pleased, he said, but he had assumed that reactions to the book would, overall, be positive. “How can people only read this into it?” he asked an interviewer for Die Zeit in 1996. Others wondered how he could be so naïve.

Critics and defenders

Still, he has many defenders:  “Great art,” wrote Austrian novelist Eva Menasse in a recent essay, “assumes that a fallible Menschlein has created something whose meaning and enduring power transcends him. This is the secret of art, and is non-negotiable. Art is not created by good people, but by brilliant ones.”

In all the uproar, the media – particularly outside the German speaking world – has all but lost sight of Handke the writer, whose inexhaustible freshness and linguistic virtuosity helped reinvent the art of narrative in post-war Europe. In a world increasingly shaped by the dark arts of propaganda and manipulation in public life, Handke had released the power of words to describe and deepen our capacity for human experience.

“Handke, it is easy to forget, is the child of a philosophical revolution,” wrote Thomas Assheuer in Die Zeit – “the greatest of all those of the 20th century – a revolution of language.”  Its guiding insight: ‘Words make the world.’ Words are not windowpanes, the young Handke wrote in 1966. Words organize what we perceive as real, even smell and taste. Words train people, they enrich our fantasy, or impoverish it.

Superb works came out of the critical spirit of the Language revolution. Theater pieces like Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience, 1966) and Kaspar Hauser (1968), about the omnipotence of language in the hands of the powerful. These were books of razor sharp accuracy, in a clear, illuminating German that is dazzling even to a non-native speaker, of which Handke was a master and that many say is unsurpassed. But Handke never seemed to want to master language so much as “set it in motion (zum Schweben bringen),” Assheuer wrote, so that it would take flight, with a life of its own.

Handke writes in a hesitant, questioning prose, as in his masterpiece, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Unglück) a loving portrait of his spirited mother, whose deeply disturbing suicide he sets out to try to understand. He reconstructs as best he can her tragic life, crushed again and again by disappointment, by the privations of war and economic collapse, the inescapable, choking pettiness of working class pride. Part memoire, part essay, he finds a way to talk about another human soul from the inside, affected by sweeping events and suffocating expectations too enveloping to resist.

The epiphany of the world

It is in the natural peacefulness of language, he once wrote, that the epiphany of the world happens. It transforms itself, it “allows itself to see”. No longer are human beings master of themselves and others. The stones begin to talk, and under the glance of the poet, “the rain falls upward.”

Sometime in the 1980s, Handke went through a creative crisis, and his revolutionary lens became a romantic one, infused in the natural world as a corrective to the imaginative impoverishment of contemporary life. He embraced the language of myth as a kind of artistic religion, railing against the rationalized West that he saw as threatening the habitat of the human spirit – where the languages of “the people” are crushed under a thoughtless universalism and the curse of “real time”. So he always was on the lookout for remote, unspoiled, places, where true experience could still be found.

It was in this mood, that he travelled to Yugoslavia.

The controversy has deeply frustrated Handke, who, at least for now, has closed the door to the media. “I’m standing at my garden gate and there are 50 journalists – and all of them just ask me questions like you do,” he told the ORF.  “And not a single person …has read any of my works.”

Maybe now they will.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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