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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

“Who could possibly tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of?”

The particular draw of Handke, what was so strange in that first book, Slow Homecoming, that I could not put my finger on, is that Handke’s protagonists are not subject to the inertia that most literary characters are.  It seems that, compared to Handke’s, most protagonists are sinking stones, solid objects, and any change of emotion or action comes only as the result of some mythically proportioned event, or else the stone just settles, eventually, at bottom.  These characters have an awareness of their context, an awareness they’ve reached through a sort of unacknowledged, static relationship with their author, who knows who they are, what they eat for breakfast, what their face looks like when they come, what childhood secret they have, etc.  But Keuschnig, for example, in A Moment of True Feeling, is only ever deeply aware of, and only ever capable of reacting according to, his immediate feeling.  Handke even embodies this sort of queer relationship with context in the composition of his sentences (assuming, as always, good translation).  The first sentence in A Moment of True Feeling:

Who has ever dreamed that he has become a murderer and from then on has only been carrying on with his usual life for the sake of appearance?

Not only are we not sure whether the life ‘carried on’ is within the dream or without it, the peculiar passiveness of the action makes one question how valid an emotional reaction this is.  He did not murder—he became a murderer, but whether this becoming a murderer has a dreamed effect or real effect, its effect is already in effect, and the stark separation of reality and dream is undermined.  The next sentence offers little purchase, beginning “At that time, which is still going on…”  The time in which this event has its effect is simultaneously distant (“that time”) and present (“is still going on”). Whatever the relationship presently is, however unstable it is, we can be sure that there is something back there with which we have a relationship (and I’m tempted to say that our relationship to the book is like Keushnig’s relationship with his dream, but I think that’s another post).

This type of dream-logic relationship comes up several times.  One of the more easily excerptable ones:

As he ran up the stairs, he was surprised to find himself reenacting a run that had happened in a dream.  Then, for the first time in a dream, there had been actual motion in his running.

What does “then” do?  Does it mean he now realizes that, more than just the abstract concept of “I was running,” he actually remembers the dreamed, physical sensation of running? Or does it mean that, with Keuschnig’s realization of this conjunction of real activity and dreamed activity, the dream motion takes on significance as a simulated “actual”?  What does sequentiality mean here, where what happens as a consequence is a relationship between the present and the past?  And what does the relationship between reality and dream mean for either?

I haven’t read as much Kafka as I should have, certainly, but even someone who hadn’t ready any, I think, could figure out that dear Gregor K. has taken a lot from him.  His story is, in a way, more unsettling than waking up as an insect, though, which we can safely assume will never happen.  Where Kafka begins from a strange place and proceeds apace, Handke is constantly reinjecting the uncertainty that starts this story, and that monumental, grounding uncertainty that makes Kafka’s narratives so shockingly stable pervades Handke’s throughout.

He sat in the square for a long while, one among many, with no thought of the future.  He expected nothing; just once he had a vision of all these people taking on a strange look and beginning to sob heartbreakingly, but all the while excusing themselves on the grounds that they hadn’t slept the night before, that the sun didn’t agree with them, and that their stomachs were empty.  Who could possibly tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of?—When for once he turned away from himself and looked up, he was at a loss to understand why everything hadn’t changed in the meantime.

It could be a weakness, that its method is more apparent—Slow Homecoming is certainly the stronger one—but the ephemeral nature of our position in reality Handke portrays like no one else I’ve ever read, if a bit too hamfistedly in this book.  (Though I still think it does Remainder better than Remainder.)

Filed under: Handke

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