Nonsense and Happiness
A Moment of True Feeling
Three by Peter Handke
We have heard a good deal, from Thomas Mann as well as from John Barth and Harold Bloom, about the lateness of the modern artist, and no doubt the sensible response to such a proposition is to ask who is holding the watch. Who sets the time for these feasts or lessons or performances which are always ending just when our representatives arrive? But there is a form of lateness which is familiar to us all. It is possible, for example, to fall in love and find the language you need already in use, shabby and dog-eared from misapplication, and there is a celebrated passage in Madame Bovary where Flaubert, irritated by a character who doesn’t understand that clichés may reflect the most passionate sincerity, allows himself the sort of complaint we normally see only in his letters:
He could not distinguish, this experienced man, the dissimilarity of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression…. As if the fullness of feelings did not sometimes spill out through the emptiest of metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, or ideas, or sorrows, and since human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to attract the sympathy of the stars.
Cliché has colonized quite a bit of new territory since Flaubert, and the most eloquent language will become tired if it is made to travel all over the place. A great part of the gift of Peter Handke, a much-acclaimed young Austrian novelist and playwright, lies in his sensitivity to this situation. Yesterday’s lyrics are today’s advertisements, and when the central character in Handke’s novel A Moment of True Feeling crosses the Pont Mirabeau in Paris, he recalls the obligatory line from Apollinaire: “Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Et nos amours / Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne….” But he is too late. A poster describing high-rise apartment buildings is there before him, saying: “Seen from the Pont Mirabeau, Paris is a poem.” Even the small, strange details of a surrounding scene, the working materials of an observant writer—a woman wearing odd shoes, another woman carrying a cocker spaniel and crying—evoke in this novel only a feeling of déjà vu—déjà vu in an old movie. “He felt,” Handke says of his character, “like the Prisoner of Disneyland.” When someone suggests that a writer might escape from this Disneyland by concentrating on the “inexhaustible riches of everyday life,” the suggestion itself can be made only in a cliché: the inexhaustible riches of everyday life.
“We behave as if being alone were a problem,” Handke says in Nonsense and Happiness, a book of rambling meditative poems. “Perhaps it’s an idée fixe.” Perhaps it is the idée fixe of a culture which has managed to package even alienation, to turn it into the necessary accouterment of any educated, self-respecting, disaffected middle-class life. “Hey,” Handke says in another poem in the same book,
Hey, you at the street corner:
In the meantime we know all about
the loneliness of modern man….
In the meantime: somewhere between Dostoevsky and Midnight Cowboy, between Kafka and Last Tango in Paris. Nausea travels fast, and indeed A Moment of True Feeling is so blatant a remake of Sartre’s La Nausée that I wonder whether even Handke knows quite what he is doing.
He knows, of course, all about Flaubert’s cracked cauldron. His great successes—A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Short Letter, Long Farewell, both reprinted, along with the more programmatic and less satisfactory Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, in Three by Peter Handke *—are the crisp and mournful tunes he gets out of it. He knows that one can exploit a packaged despair even as one complains about the packaging. “I had been enjoying all the poses of alienation available to me,” he has a character say in Short Letter, Long Farewell. And in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams he writes,
Ordinarily, I start with myself and my own headaches; in the course of my writing, I detach myself from them more and more, and then in the end I ship myself and my headaches off to market as a commodity….
But in spite of this knowledge and these successes, there is a lot of flat and unreconstructed existentialist orthodoxy in Handke, a whole world of threadbare thought which he is not attacking but merely bathing in. Life is absurd, and we know this because at certain moments its consolatory fictions of meaning splinter, and senselessness is everywhere. Senselessness, Sinnlosigkeit (and occasionally Unsinnigkeit), which Michael Roloff translates as nonsense and Ralph Manheim translates as inanity: the condition of not making any sense.
So you don’t take yourself seriously in company
but the nonsense is too real,
and therefore unbearable.
The face turns ugly with non- sense…
“Don’t wake up now!” I thought
and held my breath
But it was too late
Nonsense had struck again….
A bombing attack of nonsense on the world:
right behind the housewall the earth breaks off into whirlpools of
Gregor Keuschnig, in A Moment of True Feeling, has a bad dream one night and stumbles excitedly through the two following days, feeling both violent and vulnerable, exposed to life’s inanity: “nothing made sense.” “How steadfastly they go through with it,” he thinks of other people. And at another point: “How human they all seemed in comparison with him.” His own life now appears to him as a complicated fraud:
From today on, he thought, I shall be leading a double life. No, no life at all: neither my usual life nor a new one, for I shall only be pretending to live my usual life, and my new life will consist solely in pretending to live as usual…. I can’t conceive of continuing to live as I’ve lived up until now, but no more can I conceive of living as someone else lived or lives…. I can’t live like anybody; at the most I can go on living “like myself.”
He worries about death and his dwindling future, and at one point he wants to “howl with hopelessness.”
The name Gregor, like the name Joseph in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is no doubt meant to recall Kafka, and we may remember that Gregor Samsa, who woke up one morning to find he had turned into a cockroach, had passed, like Gregor Keuschnig, a night of “unquiet dreams.” There are enough mentions of nausea in A Moment of True Feeling to indicate Handke’s awareness of his other major predecessor in the exploration of this treacherous and alarming ground. Handke has made Sartre’s lonely protagonist a married man, with a child, and a job at the Austrian embassy, and he has placed him in 1970’s Paris; takes him to a press conference, has him give a dinner party for an Austrian writer, where he cracks up, takes off his clothes, and smears his face with stew.
But the sense of Sartre revisited seems more powerful than Handke wants it to be. Kafka is alluded to, but Sartre is systematically echoed, and I wonder whether in fact Handke has not read La Nausée lately, and is for that reason borrowing from it so freely, with reckless and not very conscious abandon. Or it may simply be that Sartre has covered this ground so well that every excursion into it will look like an imitation. The discovery that life doesn’t make any sense, while not exactly a piece of historical news, may still be an intense private experience, and an experience of this kind appears in all of Handke’s works that I have read. He often motivates it by a plot, gives it an objective cause or correlative—the loss of a job, the death of a mother, a fear that your wife is out to kill you, and even, in A Moment of True Feeling, a prehistory of fits of terror—but the experience really seems prior to these occasions, a form of anxiety or metaphysical unease simply waiting for its chance to spring out into the world and devour everything that looks like a meaning.
The trouble with this experience for a writer is that, authentic or not in life, it has been worked over in literature, and not only by Sartre; and this literature in turn has been raided by the various agencies of our culture, so that it would not come as a surprise to see references to Kafka or Sartre on posters advertising the delights of Prague or Le Havre. Get away from it all. Visit the scenes of two of modernity’s most famous losses of meaning. Play it again, Franz…. None of this diminishes anyone’s actual, lived anxiety, of course, but it does make the experience harder to write about.
There are intelligent and lucid passages in both A Moment of True Feeling and Nonsense and Happiness. Gregor’s breakdown is described as “a complicated fracture of the mind,” a medical metaphor for a spiritual disaster: you can break your soul (Handke’s word is Seelenbruch) as easily as you can break a leg. In the poems flies die “obtrusively” and cats sniff in mausoleums, activated, it seems, by a complementarity in the words themselves (Katz and Maus). But the poems generally are pretty slack and meandering, and they tend, unfortunately, to rob the novel of some of the benefits of doubt. Gregor seems less a character than a prolongation of the poems, a man who is being indulged rather than examined. Nausea here is a little too comfortable, and neither Handke nor his protagonists seem to care very much how cracked the cauldron is as they rattle out a handful of established existentialist tunes: “I’d like to be a character in a novel”; “This face is not mine”; “Words don’t mean a thing”; “Isn’t this an ugly day?”; and “How long has this been going on?”
Still, the cauldron is cracked, and apart from the infinitely variable strategies of self-consciousness—all those plays and poems and novels about cracked cauldrons which make up so much of modern literature—there appear to be only three things we can do with it. We can play very modest tunes, quiet and careful numbers which the cracks in the cauldron can’t really spoil; we can play whatever we feel like playing and hope something will survive the cacophony; and we can try to make the cracks themselves sing in some way. Peter Handke exercises the first and the third of these options with great skill—frequently in Short Letter, Long Farewell, consistently in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
Handke’s modest tunes are those of a patient, stylish observer of the world. Here is a piece of displaced autobiography from Short Letter, Long Farewell:
It occurred to me that for a long time my own vision of the world around me had been twisted: when I tried to describe something, I never knew what it looked like; I remembered only its anomalies, and if there weren’t any, I made them up. All the people I described were giants with birthmarks and falsetto voices….
Only later, Handke’s character continues, after he “really experienced something,” did he “begin to see the world with something more than a malignant first glance.” What takes the place of distortion and malignance is a very simple and direct form of care for small gestures and traits. A poem in Nonsense and Happiness remembers that Handke looked askance at his mother because she moved her head in time to a Beatles record, and the precision of the memory catches a whole dimension of a relationship: a movement and a response to that movement are all that is needed, and we are out of the Disneyland of merely bizarre details. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a brief memoir recounting the life and suicide of Handke’s mother, is full of discreet, slightly eccentric, always sharply focused lists—lists, as if shedding a more complex syntax would help to stave off lying and allow the world as experienced to speak for itself:
Was there, then, nothing more? Had that been all? Masses for the dead, childhood diseases, drawn curtains, correspondence with old acquaintances of carefree days, making herself useful in the kitchen and in the fields, running out now and then to move the child into the shade….
She indulged in the following luxuries: a seat in the ninth row at the movies, followed by a glass of wine and soda water; a one- or two-schilling bar of Bensdorp chocolate to give the children the next morning; once a year, a bottle of homemade eggnog; on occasional winter Sundays she would whip up the cream she had saved during the week by keeping the milk pot between the two panes of the double windows overnight.
Here is Handke’s record of his mother’s leaving home, quite young, to work in a hotel; it is a rich miniature of social and linguistic history:
No other course was open to her; scullery maid, chambermaid, assistant cook, head cook. “People will always eat.” In the photographs, a flushed face, glowing cheeks, arm in arm with bashful, serious-looking girl friends; she was the life of the party; self-assured gaiety (“Nothing can happen to me”); exuberant, sociable, nothing to hide.
City life: short skirts (“knee huggers”), high-heeled shoes, permanent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of admirers, kept at a distance! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (“They weren’t my type”). Work, pleasure; heavy-hearted, lighthearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio. The homesickness of those who can’t afford anything; back at the Hôtel du Lac (“I’m doing the bookkeeping now”); glowing references (“Fräulein…has shown aptitude and willingness to learn. So conscientious, frank, and cheerful that we find it hard…. She is leaving our establishment of her own free will”). Boat rides, all-night dances, never tired.
This last quotation also illustrates Handke’s other option, or at least one way of getting some music out of the cracks in the cauldron. Like Flaubert, Handke collects quotations (“People will always eat,” “They weren’t my type”) and italicizes clichés (admirers, distance). Unlike Flaubert, he does this out of affection for his subject, as a means of approaching a life that will be lost if you don’t write about it (because it will simply be forgotten), but may also be lost if you do write about it (because you will dress it up in fine, self-observing phrases).
Cliché, frequently the writer’s most recalcitrant enemy, is seen as a form of memory, what Handke calls “the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience.” It is important, of course, to avoid fussiness or parody in the use of such language. “The essential is to avoid mere quotations; even when the sentences look quoted, they must never allow one to forget that they deal with someone who to my mind at least is distinct.” To his mind; and to our minds. The individual shares a history with others, and can be remembered through this communion.
When Handke’s mother, in postwar Berlin, becomes “a city person, adequately described in the words: tall, slim, dairk-haired,” she has stepped into a stereotype, and of course she is all but imprisoned in it. A life of her own, adjectives of her own, would be better. But how many of us really rise to that, and how often? Handke shows us how to find the glitter of truth in dull-looking commonplaces, and his tall, slim, dark-haired mother is more alive to me than countless well-described figures in more “original” novels and biographies. She becomes an emanation of the Forties without ceasing to be a private, if scarcely visible, self.
It is late, then; and language regularly falls short of our needs. But we should be careful not to pretend that it is later than it is, and even the weariest language will point us back to the world if we know how to read it. Naïve and old-fashioned as the thought may seem, Handke’s best writing appears when he has patently “really experienced something”: the break-up of a marriage in Short Letter, Long Farewell, the death of his mother in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. In these cases, a general metaphysical anxiety not only finds an objective correlative but is refined and specified by a demanding reality. I interpret this to mean not that Handke is sincere in these works and half-faking in the others, or that the others don’t rest on experience at all, but that his more urgent and more localized experiences caused him to put a pressure on his language which he does not always apply. Language points to the world, and the world begs for language. If you have any talent you will get some sort of tune out of the cracked cauldron; but beyond that, the quality of the tunes must depend on the depth of your need for the music.
All three of these books were reviewed by Frank Kermode, NYR, May 1, 1975.↩
All three of these books were reviewed by Frank Kermode, NYR, May 1, 1975.↩