Sunday, November 22, 2009


 A Few [really, just a few?] Comments on Handke’s 2007
KALI, eine Vorwintergeschichte.
[KALI, a Fore-Winter Tale]
[Description of a Film might be a useful subtitle, too - for those in need to be clued in how to read and experience this book.]

If you wanted to condense what is a description of a film or filmed opera into a story outline for Columbia Pictures, as I once did  in the mid-60s prior to filing a book report for Publisher’s Weekly who supplied the galleys, to its simplest essentials, you would write:
“Note: No need to produce a treatment in this case, the noted author Peter Handke has written what is in fact a description of what in many respects is a filmed opera: might need to be turned into shooting script if the director cannot follow what’s written.  Strictly for the art house market, Wagnerites, medievalists and some ‘religious’ will love it. Bressonish.”

We [via a narrator who has to jog his memory about a past to make it PRESENT] follow a middle aged woman singer give her last concert [lots of “close ups”, all “very close”] doesn’t even change her clothes back stage before taking a taxi to her hotel. Taxi driver obvious groupie. The soulful kind. Exquisitely detailed! But can’t quite tell what city this is actually set in. - Then she takes the train to her mom’s place back in some village, she and the bus driver used to go to school together, they chat about having been fanatical readers. She’s on some kind of search. She and her mom, an ex-movie star, mope around a bit about the lousy childhood the singer had; there a sequence with a mopey woman pastor that needs to be cut at once, a real downer! All about what a dreadful world this is. The singer – nameless throughout - takes off across the water, in a boat full of workers from all over the world, to the “out of way place,” [tote Winkel] a island of sorts, which has a big salt mountain. She gets together with the manager of the salt works [there has been an intimation shot of him, she dreamt of him?] who is living with his son – the wife died a few years back – it all seems very formal, nearly as in an old knight’s tale. We who have paid close attention notice that the narrator and the salt man, let me call him Salt Master, seem to be one and the same, an ingenious segueing ploy that the real author Peter Handke performs, who sees a film of a past event [?]. Salt Master is forced to face her, which seems to mean that he has to submit to his desire, overcome his fear that that she is the flesh-eating spider! to give in to her, something that initially fills him with fury. The guy thinks about beating the devil out of his son, as a prophylactic. Very Old Testament this. The next morning they descend into the salt works and after running around its tunnels in a jeep for a while [there’s a cathedral dome room, but Christ what an opportunity for a great car chase was missed, white tunnels! The salt makes lots of crinkly sounds, lots of subterranean compression going on, author very good on details of that kind] they seem to do the beast with two backs at the pit of the mine, but the damned narrator suddenly goes blind [what a spectacular sex scene was left to the imagination instead of doing an exotic graphic, screwing in the womb of the earth, so close to the core and the heat, magma fluid and beasts in heat! - Maybe some consultation with a Jungian, to ascertain symbolism? - But you can fix that.] They ascend, the narrator suddenly looses his hearing when they are about to screw again on the top of the hill, and won’t tell us what they say, there’s a feast, some kid that was lost that the singer, a real searcher and finder she is, of wedding bands and contact lenses, is found, great feast a real rainbow coalition of workers from around the world. A bit preachy at the end, also the other time that this woman pastor appears, but it’s a blessing. Keep for the religious market. Futuristic, time is meant to be after a third world war. No mention or sign of radiation though. No one dies. Suggest the studio passes, though it might be something for Mr. Spiegel’s artsy daughter and the classic library that she is building. Author also tosses in some old French and German poetry to age this commode. Auteur movie all the way.” - 

And you notice how many more details it would have been suggested to me to leave out of this attempt to condense the narrative – that exists sentence by great sentence, one of Handke’s best narratives  - into a “story.”

Handke writes great openings, and the opening to Kali - why isn’t it called Saltz/ Salt? well its setting towards the end becomes what is known as a Kalibergbau in German but is called a Salzwerk as well -  is one of his most extraordinary because it is not merely filmic but also operatic in the kind of grandeur that he enables, forces at least this reader to respond. [This in many ways interests me far more than anything Handke has to say here, the extraordinary development of what for short I call technique in making narrative powerfully communicative, an operatic film obviates some of his inner outerworld technical achievements such as writing in dream images, as he does in the “wounding” section of THE AFTERNOON OF THE WRITER - 1987, or writing in “dream syntax” as he does – even  more extraordinarily – in ONE DARK NIGHT I LEFT MY SILENT HOUSE- 1994]. As we read on, there are  stage directions such as: “Off with you.” It is all very momentous and operatic indeed as is what immediately follows.

“Gradually recollecting set in, and I can hear her without seeing her. And without do I hear of her? Is that her voice? Or an instrument? The tone or rather the sound has something of both. It is a kind of together sound, of instrument and voice…”

Those who know their Handke openings will be reminded of the opening of RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTNACE where Emil Jannings wakes up after the maid has vacuumed the stage, “Was I dreaming?”

I have written about the filmic element as it is introduced into sleight of hand magician Handke’s prose procedures as of the fable The Absence [1989] and is there every moment in the consciousness of the ex-Bankieress in Del Gredos; and thus the attentive experiencing reader will also experience KALI not only as the description of some reality out there, but as the description of a filmed reality, operatic here, and also with references to enough music to make it into its ow kind of Gesamtkunswerk, which via Howth’s castle, impresses far more powerfully than the more customary description would. This has been Handke’s fundamental stance, since his inception as a novelist with Hornissen in 1966 [the publication date, written, summer of 1964 I think, on the Island of Krk]. Thus KALI needs to be presented differently to the reader as the experience the reader has in this case of a text that is experienced as a film and so you need to let the experience sink in in that fashion, which is more than that of a reading of an ordinary text. For as slow as the film moves, and as slow as some other Handke texts since The Repetition have moved – the text actually moves at what I think is a very normal reading pace [I had occasional possibly entirely inappropriate déjà vues also of LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD type of pacing and mysteriousness, i.e. is she sleepwalking] - however I never felt that, as odd as some of our heroine’s behavior may be judged by the standard of what is regarded as normal - I was bored, or put into a particular state of mind, as many Handke books – one of Handke’s probably inadvertent achievements is how his work can induce states of mind, or/ and slow your heartbeat and the pace at which you walk [The Repetition, the king of slowness’s best in that respect]. Here one terrific simple sentence links up with the other.

p. 65 [ on the boat to the island].
“On the ship. Far and wide nothing but water. Each of the passengers appears to be a master of his own fate. There are no couples, no groups. At the same time a lively open mood, as at the start of a trek during which for a while it seems natural to turn to even a complete stranger and to entrust yourself to him. A kind of general trust reigns throughout the ship, as though it were emigrants standing there at the railing.”

Or [p.18] “Then the child follows her glance and eyes, to the left and right, and behind its neightbors, and then turns back to her. Would I be able to follow her glance in the same way? Is that meanwhile a complicitious glance between the two of them? If yes, it is anything but a furtive glance –a serious, a distinct, perhaps even amused one. Additionally, her voice, as the first breath of sound for a song…”

Only in this subjunctive “as if” fashion is the reader’s imagination, on the one hand left free, but also drawn in! Compare the generosity towards the reader of this way of narrating to the usual rat tat tat of American naturalism. E.G. this piece of unrelieved idiocy, this piece of merde by bête noire, Neil Gordon:

          "Dexter, Michigan. A booth at the back of the Sportsman bar... Life, I was thinking, sitting in the furthermost  booth in the dark bar, drinking more beer... I, Jason Sinai, in a bar... I, Jason Sinai, alone in a bar... Isabel, should I try to describe that day in the Sportsman's bar, Dexter, Michigan?, in a bar in Dexter, Michigan... There in that bar in Dexter, Michigan... drinking beer... ...Sitting there, drinking... I, Jason Sinai, your father. Forty-six years old.  In a bar in Dexter... Sitting at the bar in Dexter, drinking too much... I saw them suddenly... I saw them then: big-hearted, articulate, brave, beautiful. Billy Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Ellen Radcliff, Bernadine Dohrn. Suddenly I could vividly see each and every one of them, their names, their aliases, the actions they were in. Catherine Wilksonson, David Miller, Nancy Ruth, Paul Millstone, Marsha Cole, Richard Rudd, Lou Cohen. Michael McGinn, Sharon Gresh, Judith Dreed, Ann Delaney. Their names flooded into my consciousness... I had been drinking too much... sitting in this bar in Dexter..." [from The Company You Keep, Viking Press.]

Let me also remind Handke readers that the “ex-bankieress” of Crossing the Sierra del Gredos - as she proceeds toward the place where her narrator lives who is narrating each and every moment during her trip - sees herself filmed - as I think Handke does much of the time, the so highly self-conscious exhibitionist, addressing the world or engaged in some kind of conversation with the world inside his head.   

Here, in KALI, the narrator starts off in a first person, that subsequently intrudes occasionally, these are the first words, and you can hear them being spoken, too! rather ominously: She also made me afraid, instills fear. However, I would like to face her.” [moechte mich ihr mir stellen], which facing is then done by the Salt Master, thus narrator and master would seem to be one [???] since this plus quam perfect is retrieved in the present film, about halfway through the book: and thus what the Salt Master recounts, in such a pressing immediate presentness is actually a past event, as having been filmed, he is actually describing a film [in his mind?] of something that is past. But as film opera it is of course very much present tense. The necrophiliac that I think dwells resides is part of all great artists. How you must love what you produce to death. The ending of Del Gredos shows that Handke loves writing more than anything else, and if you love that well, and are that fanatical about it, and have such talent… only the Neil Gordons and Michael McDonalds and their large ilk won’t get it. Locked out of the logos forever, not even a glimpse which is all I lay claim to.

However, as you come on this first sentence, naively, you may wonder: Is he, the narrator, who keeps intruding throughout in the first person, going on a boar hunt? To war, facing a great moral quandary? A psychoanalytic quandary? Is he about to go to war with an Amazon? It is one of Handke’s drum roll, get the reader with the first paragraph beginnings the way we have had them since Goalie. After all, Handke’s works have musical forms, prescribe ascensions and denouements, and the melody he sings is not all that awkward; and there are some things that turn out well if you are a control freak like Handke.  Rarely has the present been more present than here, by way of Handke’s “the as if made real procedure”

Not only is this an operatic film, it relies on reference to mediaeval legend and poetry, Sir Lancelot and Iseult, German and French to historical depth, and perhaps to teach manners again? And wonderful to run into the brass that is still part of medieval French:

Tant mar i fustes, biax dolz sire,
Tant es granz dommages des vos ;
C’o seroiz aussi come nos
Et en servageab essil… »

Although the book is rich in cultural reference as say WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGE or THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER or THE ART OF ASKING are too, there is absolutely no need to know these references in scholarly fashion [say that maybe the Salt Mountain might be the Venus Mountain, since it becomes that anyway, the references, the fairy tale motifs are alive in themselves. But if you would like to pursue the references Eleonora Pascu’s Zu Peter Handkes Theaterstücken Das Spiel vom Fragen und Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten mit Blick über die Postmoderne will knock your socks off: as a transmitter Handke does an unusually good job in that respect.

Now that I have read the book twice, some sections thrice, I have also looked at the German reception - posted in near entirety, as is this piece at:
which reception is by and large favorable and perceptive and knowledgeable and for once I learned a few things from reading the reviews. One reviewer - Ina Hartwig in the Frankfurter Rundschau - actually noticed KALI’s operatic nature; another notices that, though pregnant with ancient and archaic matters, KALI is cut like a film. So does Udu Marquand:
One might keep in mind that Robert Bresson is one of Handke’s favorites and that Bresson not only made Mouchette [which Handke quotes in WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES], Pickpocket, Condamné etc. but also Lancelot du Lac
and that the mixing and transposition of media of communication, visual, aural, has been one of his modernistic [?] endeavors since the very beginning, for didactic as well as artistic purposes: so as to make contact, to refresh, break through the numbing out of his especial lockedupness in himself. Especially Andreas Isenschmid of the NZZ’s comment “Die realistische Genauigkeit steht in «Kali» oft neben traumhaft Undeutlichem und Rätselhaftem wie Büschen, die sich ohne einen Windhauch wiegen. Und manchmal gehen die verschiedenen Sphären auch direkt ineinander…” could not be more to the point and
is one that I could not have put better myself, and Ben Hutchinson, of the Times Literary Supplement makes life easy for me by translating Isenschmid and passing it off as his own [!]: “Handke contrives simultaneously to evoke a sense both of descriptive precision (through his eye for detail) and of enigmatic uncertainty (through his use of narrative questions, through what he does not say)." He leaves out the Isenschmid example “like bushes that move without a breath of wind.” I could add no end of them: A book whose pages are singed from a fire – surrealism is very much integrated, or perhaps it’s a good thing to re-experience all of it as surreal via Handke’s lens?
The reviews range from the ecstatic: Handke’s friend, the fine writer Weinzierl to whom Handke gave the money from the Buechner Preis way back in the 60s and who now edits the literary pages of Die Welt, pays back generously with: "Wie bei seinem Don Juan, als er die mythologische Figur nach seinem inneren Bildnis umformte, ist dem Traumrealisten Handke abermals ein veritables Kunststück geglückt: Er hat den mittelalterlichen Lancelot-Roman, den "roman de la quête" vom ewig Suchenden, ins Heute übertragen. Mit all seiner Unbedingtheit der Leidenschaften und seiner archaischen Abstraktheit. Wer es fassen kann, der fasse es, würde die Pastorin sagen." – [„As in his DON JUAN, as he reconfigured the mythological figure according to the image he himself had of him there, the dream-realist Handke has been fortunate to succeed to transfer the medieval Lancelot “roman de la quête of the eternally searching, into the present day. With all the unconditionality of his passions and of his archaic abstractness. As the Parsoness would say: ‘Those who may grasp it, let them do so.’”

Some are utterly disgusted with or at least upset by the occasional high Hoelderlin tone and the appearance of the preachy woman Parsoness, as am I at the end who agrees with one reviewer who could well do with that ending, though it is formally necessary. What bugs me is this “child business”, but that may have more do with knowing what a hideous father Handke was to his first daughter, and knowing how guilty he feels or at least felt about that at one time: whereupon his works start making this huge fuss about “the child” as though no one had ever heard of them or “it.” The Parsoness blesses us at the happy end – [despite the threat of all consuming love death between The Singer and the Salt Master, they do not; and a lost child is found. Hints of love death are quite sufficient.]   „You really need to tremble more than usual,“ it says in Kali, “if it is lost a second time, it is lost for good.”

Let me also say the things that KALI is not and does not do: Kali does not really induce a state of mind in me, or very differently, as Handke has communicated so often and so powerfully, indirectly possibly – the very formal manner of the book and its narrative are prohibitive of that in this instance. KALI, also, is devoid of the kind of ecriture pure as we have stretches of it in Del Gredos and at its very best in parts of Moravian. Yet it is, save for the several preachy addresses, as straightforward a narrative performance as he has accomplished. If autobiographical as so much of Handke’s work is [in the sense that at the very least creates personae prism through which to filter the state of mind he happens or happened to have been in [Innerworld of the outerworld of the Innerworld],  most famously in A  Moment of True Feeling and Across and The Afternoon of a Writer, A Slow Homecoming [the novel part of the American Edition] but also in the diary which reads like a novel Weight of the World - it is here in KALI so indirectly autobiographical – although fantasies are easier to analyze than dreams - that even though I know the fellow’s proclivities most intimately, my only speculation along those lines is that KALI is the first testament [there will be a second, more realistic and autobiographically tinged one in MORAVIAN] of our once lay-a-broad Don Juan, the coldest of Salamanders to live with, singing the praises of co-equals living in a tense form of high class marriage [Handke is in need to mythify the ordinary, and in the particular redeems it, renews it].
Of greater pleasure to many of his readers of his recent work is that KALI does not play or is set in any kind of Balkan and Serbia or surrogate Balkan Spain, unless the out-of the way island – Handke is a lover of the out of the way as readers of his Three Essays [Lineares, Soria] and of No-Man’s Bay and One Dark Night know only too well - where the salt mine is located is Tusla [Turkish for salt] in Bosnia, but I don’t think it is. This first rate descriptions of the interior of the salt mine, and the general feeling of expertise that transfuse this section are an imaginary based no doubt on Handke’s familiarity with the like in the vicinity of Salzburg; and he draws on his capacity as a geologist: sections inside the Salt Mountain are as matter of fact as a first rate literate geologist would write. The only reference to Yugoslavia is the Einbaum  in which our heroine, a singer on a quest, paddles around a bit: this KANU is called a DUG OUT that appears as a symbol of individual Serbian [?] orneriness in THE PLAY ABOUT THE FILM ABOUT THE WAR whose translation Scott Abott completed a short while back. I can see our author smile just a tad as he worked in that reference.

The language overall, too, is cast in a fairly high, but not too high a mode, as we would accept in an opera. The word “Knappe” appears a number of times, “knights attendants” – yet we are transported to a future in this film opera that assumes a completed globalization, a new Babel of languages among the workers in this salt mine. Dorothea Gilde at:
addresses the attempts to retain a level of communication as language breaks down very interestingly. I am not convinced by her taking the referentiality of Kali all the way to “kahle” [bald] Saengerin/ [Cantatrice Chauve] Soprano of the Ionesco play, formally one of the few models for Handke’s early Sprechstuecke, Self-Accusation, Public Insult, etc.
  This is one instance, a fable, rejuvenated knight’s tale, where Handke’s vision of a future in the present can be entertained [previous attempts and hints in that direction go back not just to Del Gredos and Noman’s-Bay, or recur at the end of the subsequent Moravian Night with the outskirts of his home village Griffen turned into a Samarkand, but as far back as the 1986 The Repetition, at one moment in a Doline, a lime stone cave or hollow, there I had the distinct feeling that Handke was foretelling a return to the bloody sacrifices among the Maya; can be entertained because of the manner in which it is presented. [One of Handke’s needs is to transpose his novel into another time, i.e. the present reality is always too much of a weight for our born depressive, and also for fundamental artistic reasons for him to be able to write at all, thus it seems to be a bit of make believe that he needs to play with himself]. What functions did operas serve prior to film? This opera is both quite grand and extremely intimate at times. It is film dream nightmare quite surreal – entirely integrated into the apparently real! - vision with a happy ending, of a different kind than Brecht would supply. And as it proceeds, no end of items from the “image collector’s” trove appear, as a kind of matter of course.

An operatic film will also allow an author a bit of editorializing, as Handke has done in most of his books since A Slow Homecoming and occasionally also in a play; brief recits, some quite objectionable and bereft of all intelligence such as the ones on “the modern woman” or on “narcissism” [both in ONE DARK NIGHT]. Here a character, who incorporates two past characters, both the Old Woman and the Site Mother, from WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES, appears as a Parsonnes, and grumbles, to put it succinctly instead of two whole pages she is given, about “absence of being.” True enough in some ways of course. However the contrapuntality that drives VILLAGES, confined here to one voice, one person, strikes me not as ambiguous making as it ought to be. No yapping for oxygen as at the end of VILLAGES in Nova’s speech.

At one point, someone says that it looks as though “the third world war” has already begun.  KALI, though our experience of it as an operatic film is very much in the present, or a kind of plus quam perfect, plays in an odd out of the way place where nearly all workers are from all corners of the world, a post or entirely globalized world where impoverished workers stream to work at what here is presented [by the Salt Master] as the last working salt mine that is sunk deep into the earth; scarcely any of the former miners are still around. As of my writing these comments, there however seem to be quite a few vertically sunk working salt mines around the world:  you can ascertain by googeling:
and then following the various links. I expect Handke at the very least familiarized himself with the no longer working now tourist salt mine in
or the one in Berchtesgaden

There are also salt mountains of various kinds all over the world:
Though none that I found with the kind of cap that keeps it from being ruined by the rains.

Handke is quite a fine geologist, and does a wonderful job of objectively describing a trip to the bottom of such a mine, in this case the Salt Master, head honcho, drives a jeep. So the idea of using a salt mine instead of a coal mine somewhere down the line may go back as far as his Salzburg days, 1979-1987, at which he appears to have abruptly fled, even leaving two m.s. behind!
I imagine, quite aside Salzburg getting to him, as you can read in ACROSS [Chinese des Schmerzens] and AFTERNOON OF A WRITER, the fury of furies Mari Colbin had something to do with this departure, she haunts ACROSS, NOMANS-BAY, and very much so seems to lie in wait for the now justifiably paranoid author at his houseboat on the MORAVA in MORAVIAN. No haunting here between singer and salt master, except that he realizes that she poses a danger, but he is now willing to chance it. As mentioned previously, the narrator closes his eyes when they evidently do the beast with two backs in the pit of the salt mine, and closes his ears when something along the same lines occurs on the salt mountain top once they are back out. I recall a Handke’s comment that the only way to write about love making at this point – I imagine he had the pornographication of sex in mind – was simply to say “they embrace.” [“All our embraces.”] And lets the wind howl and scream to make their words inaudible, leave them as mysterious as the inarticulatible ought to be.

Kali among the several matters it is, is also a fable; say the way Lefthanded Woman and Absence are fables, the latter Handke mentioned recently was his way of retelling the Parsifal saga, a theme he also takes up in the great play The Art of Asking. And so one reason I like Absence and Kali and Lefthanded so much is because, whatever its autobiographical significance and basis this novella may have, it is not directly autobiographical, it involved more of Handke’s imagination which, if it does not exactly fly at the speed of the electron or as heatedly as it might when he was a young lay-abroad, is in a sufficiently transformative mode, and yet sufficiently concrete and detailed as not to broach what Hegel used to call “the bad abstract.” Also, like Absence it is devoid of irruptions of Handke’s psychotic side.

Wringing a change on the German expressionist poet Hans Johst’s phrase, made famous by being attributed to Goebbels, “when I encounter the mythic [Kultur] I reach for my gun, I want to point out that my man’s going mythic goes back at the very least to the 1976 Left Handed Woman, although Handke’s liking for the mythic John Ford Film can be found already in the 1971 Short Letter Long Farewell, and psychoanalytically speaking I would say that the predisposition to transfiguring denial, and to the “as if” state can be traced to young Handke’s pulling the covers over his eyes during his decade long exposure to violent primal scenes [the worst fears come true, from age two until age 12]. It goes nearly without saying that however suspect the mytho-poeic may be, you can do it well or do it badly, and on the sheer level of writing I posit that no one has really done it better, or perhaps had so much at stake for doing it better and better, to the sufferance of those closest to him. However, when we come to the moment of the mythic meeting of the “the singer” and the, let me call him, “Lord of Salt” I become a bit queasy for several reasons. One is that I have never cottoned to Wagner and the other is the knowledge that now that our aging lay-abroad Don Juan and frequent combatant of women [not to put it as crassly as maybe it should be] is beginning to sing the praises of co-equals, and if he were an opera composer might try to equal Straus great aria in Arabella “Will’st though marry me.” A similar though less directly straightforwardly theme pervades the subsequent novel Moravian Night which also has that “mythic moment” … necessary myths so frequently to conceal baser motives. The old bone with so much foresight in him may be looking forward to having a care taker, and the idea of building  small hotel for himself and his friends as we get on in years and then watch the pony tails prance by may be fading. Michael Roloff, November 2009, Seattle.

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MICHAEL ROLOFF exMember Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website