Saturday, June 20, 2009


I've hesitated to join the conversation, and only this morning realized
why. I've got a complicated and sometimes troubled and always thankful
and deeply personal and often quirky relationship with these books. I
don't know if I can do this. But I'd like to find a way.

So my divisions and choices and equivocations are as follows:

1. The group that Suhrkamp Verlag published in paperback. I love to see
the colors and uniform size on my shelf: See a photo of some of them
above. I've arranged my books in various ways over the years, but keep
coming back to color and size and publisher as a reasonable and
aesthetic way to make words and things correspond. My favorite of this
rainbow of books may be The Goalie's Anxiety. When Joseph Bloch finds
that his map doesn't exactly correspond to the landscape, he and I
breath deep sighs of relief. The authorities may not be able to find us
after all.

2. The essays and play about the former Yugoslavia have shaped me and
my thinking, have measured and cut and sanded my thoughts after
providing possible blueprints. They affect me so much, in part, because
I worked (am working) hard to translate them, and translation is,
perhaps, the most intensive kind of reading. Because people comment on
these Yugoslavia books, especially, without having read them, they have
been controversial. Language is critical as we move toward or away from
war. That's Peter's point. Journalists and politicians and commentators
don't like to be reminded that they are sloppy with language. So they
attack the messenger. And finally, these books remind me of the trip my
friend Zarko and I took with Peter along the Drina River. It was one of
the defining weeks of my life.

3. The big novels, written after criticism that Peter couldn't write
big novels. Peter showed me a letter from Robert Straus, the American
publisher, to Siegfried Unseld, Peter's German publisher, that opened
with the sentence: "We've got a big problem. His name is Peter Handke."
Straus' problem, of course, was that Peter had started to write a new
kind of novel. And it wasn't selling. Selling lots of copies isn't one
of my criteria, however, and each of these novels has given me hours of
sanity and careful form and slow perception in a precipitous and
unperceptive world. For my favorite of these, see my final entry.

4. Translations. Peter has made a lot of literature accessible to
German readers through his translations from Greek, French, English, and
Slovenian. Although I can read the English, I love his translation of
Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I told Peter that I laughed when I came
to the scene where Autolycus was selling ballads and found that one of
them was Dylan's "Stuck in Mobile singing the Memphis blues." Yes, he
said, I allowed myself that. Peter's little German/Croatian dictionary
(he had added "Serbian" to the title so it accurately reflected the dual
nature of the language) was well worn. I'd love to see the shelf of his
dictionaries. Perhaps they would be my favorites of all his works.

5. Although I can't read them, Zarko Radakovic's translations of
Peter's work have to fit in here somewhere. I first heard of Peter
Handke in conversation with Zarko in Tuebingen, Germany. Zarko is an
active and even bold translator. He sees his work with Peter's works as
part of his larger creative project, which includes performance art,
jazz criticism, novels, creative biography (Julija Knifer), and thematic
editing. For instance, at the back of his translation of Peter's
Kindergeschichte, Zarko presents a separate section featuring texts and
works of art about childhood by the likes of Michael Hamburger, Braco
Dimitrijevic, Ilma Rakusa, Tomaz Salamun, David Albahari, Martin
Kippenberger, and yours truly. From Peter Handke's German to
Serbo-Croatian. From Peter Handke's childhood to our own experiences. A
fine textual textile.

6. This interweaving of texts makes it productively difficult to decide
where to quit expanding the discussion of which of Peter's books have
influenced me the most. Zarko's and my books: the first following a
character from Peter's Repetition into Slovenia, and the second an
account of our trip with Peter up the Drina River in the former
Yugoslavia, would never have been written if we hadn't been reading
Peter Handke.

7. Peter has written a lot of notes in the notebooks he carries
everywhere with him, words and drawings to help him remember what he has
seen. He also has reviewed the work of other writers, teaching me in the
process that while it makes good sense to write about how a work works
on the reviewer, its never even interesting to pronounce judgments on
works of art.

8. And there are Peter's plays and poetry. Although it's not in this
photo, but rather in the rainbow one, I'll choose the early Kaspar as
especially important for me, a riff on Herder's claim that we don't
speak language but that it speaks us. Kaspar, by the way, was
wonderfully translated by Michael. The much later play, Voyage by
Dugout, whose premiere I saw in Vienna, left me, as I stumbled out of
the theater, with a fierce resolve to return often to Peter's work as a
powerful antidote to what ails me (and the worlds I live in).

9 Peter wrote a children's book, which I include here as an excuse to
reproduce my friend Thomas Deichmann's photo of Peter and his daughter

10. And finally, because I don't know which of Peter's works is the
best, because I can't know, because I'm not smart enough to figure that
out, I have to say that the book I like the best is the one I've worked
hardest on, the one I've spent the most time with, the one that bears my
marks, the one that I've written about critically ("Postmetaphysical
Metaphysics") and personally (Zarko's and my Repetitions) -- Peter's
novel Die Wiederholung / Repetition.

[for the photos that accompany these somewhat random thoughts, see




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