Across by Peter Handke

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.

Paddy Leigh Fermor

With a few hours to spare I indulged one of my favourite pursuits, scouring the shelves of secondhand bookshops for surprises. My targets were Slightly Foxed and Heywood Hill. I stumbled upon 3 first editions: The Woman Who Was God by Francis King, The Haunt by A. L. Barker (both writers advocated by Rebecca West) and a rare Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A few hours later, to my surprise, I learnt of Leigh Fermor’s death. His travel books are outstanding examples of the genre. We shall see if there is a third volume, long promised, of his legendary walk, as a teenager, from Holland to Constantinople.

The Weight of the World by Peter Handke

From the pages of Peter’s Handke’s The Weight of the World appear a isolated narrator, with fears that some of us probably share. A loose structure carries us forward through one or more difficult relationships, a separation, a suspected heart attack, the fear of death, and the anxiety of raising a child. Though there is no narrative, by the end of the November 1975 to March 1977 period there is a sense of redemption, of coming to a close of one demanding period: ‘Last night: so happy that I lost all sense of place.A feeling no longer of omnipotence but oneness with the world’.

The collection of overheard conversations, dreams, banalities and attentive observations eventually coalesce into twin themes: a fear of love, and separation from others: ‘Which is worse: anxiety or people?’, or the Other as Sartre would have it. This next sentence is not from Handke (it is vintage Russell) but I suspect it would meet his approval:

Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.

Being an assemblage of aphorisms and fragments, it is tempting to sample at length, but I shall indulge the temptation just once more with a single moving anecdote:

The old man in the shop today, who wanted to buy salt. They were out of the small-size box he usually bought, so he took a large one, remarking that the small box had lasted him three years. Eerie silence in the shop. Everyone realised that the old man had just bought his last box of salt.

Though the narrator’s anxiety is his own, the power lies in Handke’s observing and attending those sentiments and thoughts that usually go unvoiced.

Reflections on The Weight of the World

The beauty of the world today is unbearable for one person alone, even for two; possibly three might endure it

One after another flow Peter Handke’s formulations in The Weight of the World, described as a combination of professional notebook and personal diary. Suggestive of Kafka’s diaries, but also of the Twitter timeline or Tumblr blog of a disturbed genius (surely complementary terms).

The danger of being alone, of all this thinking, pondering, “soul-searching,” etc., is that one loses one’s capacity for opening up to others

But how trustworthy is the description on the jacket cover of this edition? We are wired to look for narrative, to detect a sequence behind Handke’s attentive noticing. Can we accept these fragments as merely ‘details of Peter Handke’s daily life in Paris from November 1975 through March 1977’? Why this particular period? Inevitably the book raises unanswered questions.

In talking with this woman, I must take care not to think, after every sentence, that I’ve told her off again! ( I must take care that our conversation doesn’t become a duel)

These fragments insinuate themselves into sleep and waking thought. Handke observes moments of infinitely small detail, reflections on individuality and authenticity. How do we live with others? How do we live with ourselves?

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

There is an almost Sebaldian seriousness to Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, also like Sebald is the preoccupation with memory and mortality. This being Dyer’s non-fiction, this haunted exploration of remembrance is loosely interwoven with the road-trip Dyer and his friends make along the Western Front: ‘None of us is quite sure whether we’re on a gloomy holiday or a rowdy pilgrimage’.

We lie on our beds, half pissed. Mark is reading Death’s Men; Paul, They Called It Passchendaele; I read The Challenge of the Dead. Eventually, the other two drop off to sleep. I go on reading. I ‘lie, sleepless, with Ypres on the heart, and then suddenly a grand tumult of explosion, a sound as of the tumbling of heavy masonry’. [..] Paul snoring.

Explaining why he chose to write a ‘war book’ Dyer explains:

And this book? Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea [of the War] on my generation.’ Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance . . .

Beginning with a meditation on old black and white family photographs, Dyer presents brief ‘notes’, on the Great War as presented in poetry, memorials, architecture, prose, film, photographs and visitors’ books. It might not be the first Geoff Dyer book you should read, but if his writing speaks to you deeply you will want to get to it sometime.