Finishing Peter Handke’s Across three days ago has not ended my engagement with the novel. As in The Weight of the World, what emerges is the writer’s gentle attentiveness. There is a dreamlike quality to the writing, but I cannot be certain what gets lost in translation. As far as I can decipher Handke is scrutinising the nature of fiction, of storytelling.
My forehead no longer needed a supporting hand. It wasn’t exactly a warmth, but a radiance; it welled up rather than spread; not an emptiness, but a being-empty; not so much my being-empty as an empty form. And the empty form meant: story. But it also meant that nothing happened. When the story began, my trail was lost. Blurred. The emptiness was no mystery; but what made it effective remained a mystery. It was as tyrannical as it was appeasing; and its peace meant: I must not speak. Under its impulsion, everything (very object) moved into place. “Emptiness!” The word was equivalent to the invocation of the Muse at the beginning of an epic. It provoked not a shudder but lightness and joy, and presented itself as a law: As it is now, so shall it be. In terms of image, it was a shallow river crossing.
That paragraph is followed by, “The emptiness became peopled with figures.” The title of the chapter is ‘The Viewer is Diverted’: is the Viewer the narrator, writer or reader, who collaborate to tell a story? What are we to believe from a narrator who asks, “I haven’t been teaching lately. Have I been dismissed or given a vacation or granted sick leave, or temporarily suspended?”
The spare narrative is interwoven by an attentiveness to nature; the narrator reads daily a few lines of Virgil’s “poetic treatise on agriculture”, The Georgics.
On the sloping meadows above the stairs-the archers now inaudible-the densely growing dandelions, interlocking like small cogwheels, had closed with the onset of twilight, and their diurnal yellow gave way to the dark enamel-yellow of the buttercups (more thinly spread, because their flowers were so tiny) on their tall, thin, ramified stems, which, though there was hardly any wind, swayed all along the slops, accentuating the “evening” character of the scene.
The violent central action is quickly over. As in the chapter title, ‘The Viewer Takes Action’, but I am left wondering the nature of the fictional violence. Who took action? Did the narrator write or fantasise the action? The narrator, an amateur archaeologist, studies thresholds, saying:
The only threshold still remaining to us, says one of our modern teachers, is that between waking and dreaming, and nowadays little attention is paid to that. Only in the insane does it protrude, visible to all, into daytime experience, like the fragments of the destroyed temples just mentioned.
The sense of perplexity never leaves. It could be irritating but I find it deeply satisfying. I don’t want linear narrative and tidy plot lines. I want to engage with the irrationality and surreality of life. In Across Handke provokes engagement with a novel at its profoundest level, the nature of fiction, of narration.