Handke in Another Tempo
Peter Handke breaks the long silence he began after taking a controversial position with respect to Serbia. The Austrian author, a convert to the Orthodox faith, speaks about the freedom of travel, literary inheritance, including that of his own language, and the Balkan tragedies.
El País: Handke en otro tiempo
Peter Handke interviewed by Cecilia Dreymüller, literary critic and translator of some of his works, November 5, 2011
In his home surrounded by chestnuts, situated between Paris and Versailles, Peter Handke (born in Griffen, Austria in 1942) welcomed me [Cecilia Dreymüller]. His humble aspect and barely audible voice were contrasted sharply with his fae as a media star, combative man, and defender of controversial causes. Three of his books have been published in Spanish: his collected travel diaries in Gestern unterwegs (Travelling Yesterday) (Alianza), his notes about “Yugoslavia under the bombs” in Unter Tränen fragend (Asking Through the Tears) (Ediciones Alento y UDP), and his conversations with Peter Hamm recorded in Es leben die Illusionen (The Illusions Are Alive) (Pre-Textos). After declaring solidarity with the Serbian people during the Yugoslav wars and attending the burial of ex-president Milosevic in 2006, he was the victim of a media campaign that not only condemned his political posture but also disqualified his literary work from consideration. In the texts collected in Asking Through the Tears he describes the process and clarifies the motives for his commitment. The travel diaries in Traveling Yesterday, in turn, capture the era just before explosion of war in Yugoslavia. He has just returned from a trip to Slovenia, after passing through Salzburg, where his most recent theatrical work, Immer noch Sturm (Still Storm), just debuted.
Q: What brought you to take such a long trip between 1987 and 1990?
A: Simply put, I didn’t have a place to say. I’d just left my home in Salzburg, and my daughter, my first one, went to Vienna to study. That permitted me to realize a dream I’d had for a long time, which was to travel from one place to another for years on end. It was two and a half years altogether.
Q: Reading this book, one perceives a strong desire to seek peace and calm. How did you find tranquility on your journey?
A: There’s a famous story about the treatment of mental patients during the Middle Ages: that when they became aggressive, they were put on a boat, and the movement tranquilized them. In this sense, travels and tranquility can be perfectly compatible. For me, at least. Traveling on my own dime, you understand. There is no contradiction in terms.
Q: The observations you made in Romanesque churches and monasteries in Italy, Spain, and France are important. This trip also seems to be a journey toward spirituality.
A: Spirituality is a word we should not use too often. But toward the spirit, yes. I have always thought it strange that Goethe, in his Trip to Italy, speaks with horror and rejection of the Romanesque figures in Verona and San Zeno, for example. He calls them caricatures. The spiritual attracts me, the dreamy spirituality of Romanesque figures, their postures, how they are placed between each other without twisting. Not like Gothic art, where everything leads to a point, to the sky, like an arrow; in Romanesque art, everything stays on the ground, and even so one feels the roundness of a head in the sky, the heavenly firmament, no? In Santo Domingo, in Soria, the facades were pure music for me.
Q: In relation to the contemplation of Romanesque figures, there are many annotations in the book with Biblical citations, reflections about God and the divine. Was this trip something of a religious search for the roots of Catholicism?
A: No. The search was for how to describe a person, how to relate to a person. I don’t like realistic and natural descriptions of people, even if they are magisterial like those of the 19th century, in Stendhal and Flaubert, or in a different form, like Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s. It’s alien to me. I like strong outlines, like in Romanesque art. That is to say, the outline gives form, and inside the form, the reader or observer can come to meet the person. I was searching for a different epic, for what I found as a reader of Medieval epic poems; they let me live in the personalities. I intended to contemporize them as well in My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, and in At Night Over the River Morava. These, at their core, are medieval novels, epic poems more than novels. In this sense, I don’t believe as much in the novel as in the epic, the story that comes from afar and is balanced toward the distance. In other words, I am an enemy of psychological writing.
Q: I’ll quote a sentence in Traveling Yesterday: “When you move in adequate spaces, in adequate time, in adequate light, the world still becomes a story.” Are you a Romantic?
A: I don’t know if I’m a Romantic. I also have to be a Classicist. But a permeable one, not like Goethe. Although Goethe was lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – to live in a time in which this was generally accepted. I’ve just finished reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and it’s a horrifying book. I’ve realized that it has assembled, has managed a cohesion that does not exist. In this moment I understood that the Romantics, with their fragmentary writing…the explosion of Romanticism had to happen: Novalis, in another way Kleist, or Eichendorff, who left so many things open and didn’t try to unite them by force. But they passed over him from above. In this sense, I’m happy to live now, because not everything is accepted without more…and I don’t, either.
Q: In the book you say you wish for humanity to rise to a traumbarke, a boat of dreams. If this isn’t a 100% Romantic thought, then I don’t know what you could call Romantic.
A: I sometimes have Romantic moments, but I don’t abandon myself to them. Although sometimes one should abandon them. I often say that truly good literature seems like a beautiful popular song.
Q: In these entries, you open a process of apprenticeship which is very demanding.
A: Yes. I go at the world’s beat. I don’t march to the beat if my own drum; I adapt to a rhythm. I go with the things I see. Whatever penetrates me, I transmit. That’s what’s appropriate. I learn from what I read, and I would be lacking more.
Q: In the first part of the book, you seek tranquility; after that, the goal is permeability.
A: Permeability is what’s decisive. What it says is that the writer converts into a figure in transit, through which many things pass. But who has achieved that? I don’t know; Homer sometimes, and Georges Simenon (laughs). Sometimes William Faulkner. Literature, in reality, does not progress; it has variants. To write like Simenon now cannot be done. Once I said, a long time ago, “sigh…if only I learned how to write like Chekhov, stories like that, theatrical works like Anton Chekhov’s. Then someone said to me, “But that already exists! It’s not lacking. Write what Chekhov transmitted to you, about his world, his movement and rhythm, his quality, and above all about his shaking.” One time I said a great writer closes his path to his successors, but only so they can find their own. Or he is the opposite of someone like Thomas Bernhard, who is easy to imitate, really. A writer who is easy to imitate, deep down, does not deserve to be called a writer.
Q: From whence did this expansive worldliness, this oriental and occidental wisdom come?
A: Foolishness. I’m not an international writer. I’m from the countryside. In the town where I time from, there were Buddhists as well, but no one called them that. There was a muezzin, a minaret, although naturally they weren’t there. There were Indians, all that a kid would want. It all comes from my place of origin, from my parents, from my ancestors. Naturally, one also has to make oneself, though no one can completely do that. In any sense. No, it’s all there. Before I often thought, Oh my God, why wasn’t I born on the banks of the Mississippi like William Faulkner? But now I know that the brooks of my childhood were the Mississippi. Or I thought, when I was twenty years old and read Thomas Wolfe or Sherwood Anderson or Dreiser or John Steinbeck, hey, this world is so big, and my home is so small. Now I know that it was them, the writers, that created it. And I have to do it too, make the rhythm I know, that I can make; that wide world was already here. It was just that I ignored it, with my partially obtuse mind, because the dream of a great man always existed in me and I saw the people in my town as little. Now I know.
Q: Your childhood in a border region was also branded by language.
A: Yes, yes. In the hoe, we spoke the Slovenian dialect of Carinthia. My mother spoke pure Slovenian. I spoke less. Yet in our town, just a mile away, speaking Slovenian was frowned upon. During the Third Reich, the people there were strictly National Socialist. Slovenian was prohibited, and in my village there was the risk of deportation. Some farmers were evicted; they were taken to Germany, to the caps, and German or Tyrolese farmers took their place.
Q: In your theatrical work Still Storm you pay homage to your ancestors. Few people know about the only armed resistance to the Nazis inside the Reich, which was lead by Slovenian-speaking Austrians.
A: Yes, so it is; it occurred in the mountains of southern Carinthia. And it’s something that people only began to speak about a few years ago. Probably because inside the families, the pain was too great. And their supporters do little help by labeling them bandits, just like the followers of Hitler did. And the fissures went right through the middle of families. In Carinthia as well, the ones who were tortured the ost by the Nazis were the locals. In this they were very skilled: Slovenians, Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, and French all did the dirty work. And some of the Slovenians in Carinthia killed their own brothers and sisters. It was a tragedy.
Q: Surely these ancestors have affected your relationship with Yugoslavia?
A: Naturally. My mother spoke often about her older brother, who was a fruit farmer. I’m completely soaked in love stories because my mother talked about her two brothers who had to die for Hitler and who in reality favored Yugoslavia. And as for this older brother, who went to Maribor in Slovenia, to the closest Yugoslav city, there is much proof that he tried to convince my family to take the side of the Yugoslavs.
Q: In Traveling Yesterday you comment in 1989: “no other country which has the death penalty is questioned. What’s happening with your Yugoslavia?”
A: In 1989, the death penalty still existed in Yugoslavia, although after 1980, when Tito died, not a single person was executed, which I learned. In that tie, there was a call by the newspapers to abolish the death penalty as had been done in France. The same France which launches bombs at other countries – another form of death penalty, but that’s considered a different kettle of fish. The democracies of today permit it; outside their borders, they comport themselves like dictators. The democracies of today, in reality, are the new dictatorships, the humanitarian and economic dictatorships, the most hypocritical countries in existence. We live in an era of total hypocrisy. Pure and brutal violence reigned before, but now we have sugar-coated violence which is no less brutal.
Q: Have the Balkans been demystified for you?
A: No, not at all. The countries so hideously labeled ex-Yugoslavia continue to be the last and most terrible of beloved countries. I intend to represent them as Stendhal would have: with lightness, with grace, and without a doubt with a certain pain, a certain consciousness of loss. They are tragic peoples: the Albanians are, and the Serbians and Bosnians as well, the Muslims; the Croats less and less (he laughs bitterly). The tragedies are moving, and all deserve to be told. In “The Tablas of Daimiel” (in Asking Through the Tears) where I tell what happened in the refugee camps. There were more than one million refugees then; Serbia was full, and its situation was scandalous, and Croatia’s as well.
Q: Do you still think Milosevic was a tragic figure?
A: I don’t want to say anything else about this topic. Every time I open my mouth, words and intentions are attributed to me that I’d never expressed. I’m tired of it.
Q: In your book, there is a continuous exposition and reflection over religious questions, especially of the New Testament. What does the figure of Christ signify to you?
A: The Gospels are marvelous stories.
Q: Allow me to cite another passage: “the story of Jesus is like a dramatic history of discovery. The discovery of the divine in itself.”
A: Yes, Hölderlin could have said this. He spoke of the “poor god inside of a person.” We have to do everything possible so he doesn’t stay poor and abandoned. It exists, it’s substance! We could be much better. But this matter, which is at the same time spiritual – that is no contradiction – is fought by the pace we run and by ourselves.
Q: And why did you convert to the Orthodox Church?
A: Because the hierarchy isn’t as strong or as palpable. I once visited a patriarch, a diminutive man in Serbia who didn’t seem anything like the head of a church. On the other hand, the people sometimes need to have a head, like the pope; the general abandonment of the people leads the to search for a substitute for a father figure. In any case, I’m not a proselytizer for the Orthodox faith. But I’m not interested in people who boast of being atheist; they seem silly. I have more confidence in someone who says he believes in something. There could be another tempo than the one we’re passing through so profanely, another light. This other tempo has driven my books ever since Short Letter, Long Farewell. Although we don’t have to speak so much about it, we have to practice it.
Q: But, to convert to the Orthodox Church because the structure is less hierarchical, though it is also such a conservative faith…this couldn’t be the reason.
A: My other reasons aren’t important to anyone else.