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What Does Handke Demand?

In response to:

The Stranger in Love from the February 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Adam Kirsch’s review of Peter Handke’s The Moravian Night [NYR, February 9], like Joshua Cohen’s review of the novel in The New York Times, rightfully relates it to Handke’s previous work set in the former Yugoslavia, but (like Cohen) Kirsch is so obsessed with reading through that lens that he pays scant attention to other aspects of the novel at hand.

Kirsch’s case against an author he describes as a self-righteous, obstinate, proud nationalist and as an anti-Semitic Serb lover leads him to misread a scene at a world convention of Jew’s harp players during which each musician plays his or her national anthem. Because he wants to brand Handke as a nationalist, Kirsch doesn’t quote the rest of the section in which the performances of national anthems raise the protagonist’s ire: “abusing the jew’s harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible”; the national anthems are a kind of “melodic demagoguery.”

With a defamatory purpose that veils other aspects of the text, Kirsch ignores the language of a novel that is about language (Handke describes his work, all of his work, as “a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar—of aesthetic veracity”). Let me give just one example of Kirsch’s blindness in this regard. When describing the work’s search for narrative experience that manifests itself in seconds rather than in minutes or hours, Kirsch quotes this sentence from the translation: “The seconds that mean both what comes after something, what follows it, as well as the primary thing, the thing that precedes it, that combines what precedes and what follows.” The translation makes little sense as it misses the fact that it is the seconds that combine (unify) the before and after, not the singular “thing that precedes.” Kirsch quotes the mistake without batting an eye. The translation, as a matter of fact, is riddled with mistakes and awkward phrasing, but that is uninteresting to a reviewer intent on castigating a writer for attending the funeral of Slobodan Milošević. (For specific examples of problems with the translation, see my review of the translation in the December Open Letters Monthly.)

Kirsch marshals his case with great certainty, claiming that Handke defends Austrians and Germans and Serbs as “great peoples” scorned by others for their war crimes. Because Handke works dialectically, critics like Kirsch easily find objectionable statements in his work. That they settle on the problematic statements without the dialectical context marks them as ideologues rather than readers. “Austria,” Handke once wrote, “the lard that chokes me.” Critics who don’t have the patience or capacity to read give me that same feeling.

Scott Abbott
Professor of Integrated Studies,
Philosophy, and Humanities
Utah Valley University
Woodland Hills, Utah

Adam Kirsch replies:

Scott Abbott criticizes my reading of The Moravian Night as ideological, but it seems to me that the novel demands to be read in such terms. It is hardly possible to understand Handke’s book, which is primarily set in Serbia and advances an unmistakable critique of liberal European modern life, without reference to Handke’s past interventions in Yugoslav politics. If Mr. Abbott and other admirers of Handke object to a reading that attends to the ideological dimension of the book, perhaps that is not because the ideology isn’t there, but because they would be hard put to defend it?