The Afternoon of a Writer
Quite late in Peter Handke's The Afternoon of a Writer, the central character's translator explains that he would have the same nightmare every evening: "I'm on a stage with a group of others, facing a big audience; all the others knew their lines, I was the only one who didn't. At the end I broke off in the middle of a sentence without feeling, without perception, without rhythm." "That sentence" he says, "hit me like a verdict: you are forbidden to write." He gave up writing after that and became a translator. "Only as the translator of a reliable text - can I enjoy the workings of my mind and feel intelligent...a translator has the certainty that he is needed." Handke has always been a writer simultaneously interested in trying his hand at numerous forms (fiction, plays, screenplays, memoirs and translations, even film direction) while also proving the opposite of a hack. Born in Austria in 1942, he first became well-known for his play Offending the Audience, wrote a memoir about his mother's death called A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and the script for Wim Wenders' adaptation of his own The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. He also wrote the screenplay for Wenders' Wrong Movementand co-wrote Wings of Desire, as well as adapting The Left-Handed Woman from his own short novel. It is as though he has tried so many different forms to escape from the inertia that awaits the writer wondering if he has the certainty of feeling needed.
This pressing and hardly unproblematic question of who one writes for, and from whence does the writing come, many writers feel under no obligation to address, but does that make them translators rather than writers, translators in the sense that the words come too easily because the writer feels needed? Does much real contemporary writing come out not of a public's need, but a writer's sense of necessity? And would it make sense that certain writers, like the translator here, become terrified of that place from which one must write? Shortly before the above statements, the translator says he believed that a kind of Ur text "had been given to me in my innermost being, a text even more reliable than any interior image because the passage of time had no effect on it, because it was always there, identical with itself. I was convinced that if only I immersed myself in it in disregard to everything else, I would have no difficulty in transferring it to paper." The translator adds, "my attempt to decipher a supposed Ur-text inside me and force it into a coherent whole struck me as original sin. I dreaded the moment when I would have to sit down and write." So he eventually stopped writing altogether, saying "that was the beginning of fear. More and more."
Few critics more than Maurice Blanchot seem concerned with the problem of writing, from where it comes and to whom it is addressed. "To write every day under the guarantee of that day and to recall it to ourselves is an easy way to escape from silence, as from that which is extreme in any speech. Each day gives us something to say. Each day jotted down is a day preserved. Thus the act has a double advantage, since it allows one to live twice over: one keeps oneself from forgetting and from the despair of having nothing to say." It is a passage Gabriel Josopovici quotes in The World and the Book when saying: "Anglo-Saxon criticism does not start from as far back from the work as this. It takes the work for granted in the way Blanchot is unwilling to do...like Barthes, he starts with the question all the great modern writers have struggled with: why write at all? What justification can there be for my act?" Consequently, the works Blanchot "admires most are naturally those which have been written out of the fullest awareness of the implications of such a question."
Handke can be seen as one of those writers. He is someone for whom the work is never given but must always be found. What do we mean by this? Perhaps partly that a book must ask a question it cannot hope to answer. "The "not yet" of thought," Blanchot says, "this failure of the present in regard to what there would be to think, always implied in every presence of thought, the ambiguity of such a "not yet" could not distribute its resources, once it is a matter of writing." (The Step Not Beyond)
What happens in such a work isn't only that the writing has a surplus of meaning, but that the surplus is not some easily containable sub-text but a pressing problem that can't readily be answered; it instead forces upon us the most troublesome of questions. "To write at the limit of writing" Blanchot says in The Step Not Beyond. The opposite of writing at the limit of writing could take many forms, whether it be the commissioned book or the journalistic piece required by the next morning. However, it can also be the work whose conclusions can be easily met by its premises. If the writer opens with a murder being committed, the obligation rests on the writer to answer that question and stay well within the limits of writing. But if a writer asks at the opening of his book whether he can go on with the very process, how can the question find an answer? Handke starts The Afternoon of a Writer by saying "ever since the time when he lived for almost a year with the thought that he had lost contact with language, every sentence he managed to write, and which in addition left him feeling that it might be possible to go on, had been an event."
Some may find this highfalutin' language for writer's block, but the blockage comes from what Josipovici has talked of elsewhere, in On Trust, when asking questions about the writer and trusting language. "Beckett thus tries to use the imagination against the imagination, writing against writing. But each time we grasp this point, each time we say. 'I see', he has failed." Josipovici goes on to mention that Beckett can do "the conventional thing better than any of his contemporaries", and offers a Beckett simile. "Graham Greene and PG Wodehouse would go on polishing such similies all their writing lives. Beckett wouldn't." Ditto Handke.
The book's second paragraph opens with the narrator saying, "perhaps this fear of coming to a standstill, of not being able to go on, of having to break off forever, had been with him all his life, in connection not only with writing but with all his other undertakings: loving, studying, participating - everything, in short, that called for perseverance." What he is looking for from the work is a new feeling, perhaps. "And now, thanks to a few lines that had clarified a state of affairs to his satisfaction and given it new life, he had the impression that the day had gone well, and stood up from his desk with the feeling that it was all right for the day to be over." Such writing comes not from the external demands of an editor or a perceived public, but perhaps from a sort of 'internal self', a writerly self that turns as far away from the external expectations and tries to create something like the ur-text the translator talks about.
Indeed does Handke not suggest this in his comment in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams:"the utmost need to communicate comes together with the ultimate speechlessness." To wrestle a few words of communication from this speechlessness is the achievement of the writer as internal self, and yet not at all selfishly so. W. G. Sebald, in an essay on Handke in Campo Santo, quotes not only the comment from A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, but also prefaces the article with a passage from Michel Foucault. "We must therefore listen attentively to every whisper of the world, trying to detect the images that have never made their way into poetry, the phantasms that have never reached a waking state." Does the writer as internal self try and listen to every whisper of the world, producing work that is simultaneously utterly internalised and also thoroughly external; in the sense of working from the very edge of oneself?
In The Afternoon of a Writer, the central character prepares to go out and says, "the house seemed uninhabited. He had the impression that, dissatisfied with being only worked in and slept in, it would have liked to be lived in as well. Of that the writer had probably been incapable from the start, as of any family life." Any signs of domesticity he finds "upsetting". He is a man where the internal impetus seems so much stronger than external demands, and at one moment notes, "perhaps because his profession did not impose a hard-and-fast schedule, he seemed to need an idea to carry him through the most trifling daily movements." But he also acknowledges, "hadn't he, while still at his desk, felt the need to be among people?" Central we might suppose to the writer as internal self is the problem of emotional paradox, and Handke's works are abound with them.
In the first book in Slow Homecoming, the central character says "...it had surprised him now and then to see how easily others could be happy with him; for a short time this had given him the certainty of being able to live an acceptable life even at cross-purposes with the times, but aroused guilty feelings because he made no attempt to make anything last." He adds that "in his thoughts seeing the woman and himself nodding to each other and going their way; being together as they were now was to be united forever." In Across, a priest says, "by our wounds shall we be healed." In A Moment of True Feeling, a character bends over a woman "and caressed her, himself trembling and without ulterior motive. How cold she was all over! He grew excited and lay on top of her. At that she kicked him off the bed and he fell on the floor. Almost contentedly, he left the room." Later the character says "the room was so impenetrably dark that in his thoughts he groaned with hate, disgust, rage - though he didn't utter a sound."
One can see in such paradoxes how the work inches along without the momentum of the readily articulate. The characters in Handke's books are not generally doers but thinkers, trying to wrestle from their consciousness thought that can move them forward, however slowly. Handke clearly wants to create fiction that is the antithesis of the journalistic. In one passage in The Afternoon of a Writer, the central character observes that "...it became apparent to him that in merely glancing through it [a newspaper article] he had taken in the entire content; but, alas, the story did not, like certain poems, "end deep in his soul."" Handke's work wants to end deep in the soul, to drag from the core of the self some true thought, some true feeling. Many writers are not concerned with such truths; their narratives are not so much truth telling as problem solving, and usually the more narratively inclined the writer, the further the truth recedes and fictive elaboration takes place. If one sometimes questions the over-inflated reputations of anyone from Martin Amis to Ian McEwan, it lies in the fictive elaboration imposing itself to the detriment of soul depth. When Amis carefully arcs Money so that John Self realises the selfishness of his actions, or McEwan utilises the intruders in the house plot for Saturday, the narrative mechanics impose themselves on the paradoxical singularity of character.
Even when Handke does utilise a murder in The Goalie's Anxiety of the Penalty Kick, the motive remains superficially inexplicable. After finding the actions of a waitress he sleeps with irritating, the central character saw that "suddenly he was strangling her. From the start his grip was so tight that she never had a chance to think he was kidding. Bloch heard voices outside in the hall. He was scared to death. He noticed some stuff running out of her nose." This isn't murder as an opportunity to instigate a chase, but to explore the anomalous action, and how it affects his perception thereafter. "Bloch, who was not used to noticing so many details, had a headache, perhaps also because of the smell of all the newspapers he had with him."
What fascinates Handke aren't events, but their perceptual impact on the very marrow of the person. In The Afternoon of a Writer, the narrator mentions how a fellow writer he visited on his deathbed was obsessed by the opinions of people in the newspapers. The central character insisted after watching the dying man that "never again would he involve himself in this circuit of classifications and judgements, the substance of which was almost exclusively the playing off of one writer or school against another. The mere thought of returning to the circuit or to any of the persistently warring cliques made him feel physically ill." The other writer's illness, rather like the murder, allows for new perceptions rather than the illustration of a dramatic event, and such an approach consequently takes us closer to the centre of the character.
One can now return to Handke's interest in Blanchot's problem of how to write without ease, without the writing taking care of itself, but instead where the writing must constantly be taken care of. As Blanchot says, "dread, dread there anew, he had to write this word that did not let him write anything else, and even this word, all of a sudden forbidden, unpronounceable, so excessive that there was nothing in his life vast enough, vain enough, to contain it, and so he had - there was the catch - to enlarge this life even to the false consciousness that he was not living, that he was dying." (The Step Not Beyond) Early in The Afternoon of the Writer, the central character on his way out, "suddenly turned round. He rushed into the house and up to his study and substituted one word for another." Is it perhaps this word, whatever it may be, and with no possible readily available justification, that allows for soul depth not so much to be expressed as explored, to release blockages that cannot be contained by the usual notion of writer's block?
© Tony McKibbin