http://www.handkeprose.scriptmania.com/Sunday, November 29, 1998
Section: Book Review
Drizzle, Birdcall, Leaf Fall
MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY; By Peter Handke ; Translated from the German by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 356 pp., )
By: WILLIAM H. GASS
William H. Gass is director of the International Writers Center at Washington University, St. Louis. His most recent book is "Cartesian Sonata."
When the Seine leaves Paris for the Channel, it makes several large loops while being forced by physics to skirt high ground. The first of these "bays" contains the hills of the Seine, low waves across a crescent-shaped region upon which the suburbs have intruded, but where large forests still remain, and also an area that shelters an airfield frequently bombed during World War II, so that craters can be seen on its many wooded walks. La Hauts-de-Seine halfmoons a landscape that is historically layered, in touch with the city but almost country in character, neither entirely one thing nor the other, a condition that makes it attractive to this geographical novel, in which flora and fauna, climate and terrain, are traits like those ascribed normally to fictional creatures and are the environments that the narrator walks through, either by himself or in the guise of friends who become his surrogate travelers.
In this bay, an area withdrawn from the whole, the narrator has marooned himself, and his journeys are confined to rambles that the onset of suburbanism has reduced and circumscribed. They take place over a terrain where any hill higher than a building becomes a mountain, but a mountain nevertheless so puny it fails to roughen the map: a no man's land where he--from January to December of 1993--will make his home and write this meditation on voyages once taken or presently imagined or repeatedly dreamed.
A nomad is one who carries his home along with him on his journeys, but there is another sort of wanderer depicted here: a writer who lives in fear of definition, of being fastened by a formula of words, of being pinned down at one stage of his development, always at risk of inadvertently acquiring roots, losing his detachment and therefore the distance he believes is essential to the practice of his art, distance that is sometimes described as the space behind a mirror. He is searching for points of vantage from which to glance at, rather than scrutinize, the world, an angle from which he may take in the rest, as if it were being seen out of the corner of his eye, because sidelong glances (a repeated motif) suggest that the observer does not wish to be included in the scene, is in the wings, off stage, not even a gent with flowers waiting for the diva in her dressing room.
The narrator's first name is Gregor, a name borrowed from Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and his last name is Keuschnig, the K coming from "The Castle," with the additional suggestion of purity through the meaning of keusch, which includes just a hint of virginity. There is an inviting but treacherous resemblance between PeterHandke's circumstances as we know them from news reports and books, and the novel-writing persona of the book he writes--not, of course, to him, a novel rather a meditation, a journal, a travelogue, an interrogation, an activity that becomes simply unaimed writing, unaimed in order that something fundamental may be struck. About time, too, for this is a millennial novel. Characters from other books will show up briefly; periods from the author's career, scarcely disguised, will float like loosened leaves across the steady stream of this prose; difficulties wrestled with through several decades of public pronouncement, will be confronted again, especially thoughts preconceived and jotted down in a journal written in the '70s during Handke's first "Paris period" (like the narrator's own earlier sojourn near the city) and published in English as "The Weight of the World."
"The feeling that almost everything I have seen or heard up to now loses its original form the moment it enters into me, that it can no longer be directly described in words or represented in images, but is instantly metamorphosed into something quite formless; as though the effort of my writing were needed to change the innumerable formless pupae inside me into something essentially different . . . and to fashion them into something radiantly new, in which, however, one senses the old, the original experience, as one senses the caterpillar in the butterfly!"
In this book, the anticipated metamorphosis will happen to Gregor Keuschnig himself, a name that seems strange for a reader to write or to say, it occurs so rarely. In these many rich pages, which we have to imagine in their original German (here transformed beautifully by Krishna Winston's translation) dotted with ich-es instead of Is: ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . I walked, thought, felt, saw, remembered, imagined, feared, sought . . . ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . like footsteps on sodden ground.
For a second time, the narrator retires to a Paris suburb, but on this occasion in order to encounter a self he feels may be emerging, to listen for the sound of his fundamental voice, to freshen his vision, to concentrate upon the Earth and his relation to it, to sit still and see--out of the corner of his eye--the wealth of the world in the cheapened metal of a local coin. He is to be, as Handke again writes about himself in "The Weight of the World," ". . . the private detective, with no need to notice anything in particular, but authorized to notice everything, the starting of last cars, the tenants talking as if already asleep. . . the sound of tearing Scotch tape; dot-like sounds in the vines on the garden wall. . . ."
At first his plan is to position himself by a single window and from that vantage point, improved by a bit of pruning, to perceive whatever odor, object, racket passes in the street, stirs the leaves, moves in the gardens below him. Weary at last of his self-absorption, his wife departs, returning occasionally to bedevil him like a bad conscience, actually lifting him, during one show of anger, like Antaeus from the ground, just as a fellow author has previously done. Keuschnig is in fact felt to represent, even to embody, the culture of a small country, as Peter Handke is required to be Austrian by many of his countrymen. They urge him to return from the odd wide world to his humble village beginnings, and to drink as before from the town pump, quaff a dipper once more with the boys, visit in their pub, listen to and learn from their native voice; however, that kind of local connection will, Keuschnig believes, deprive him of the strength he feels when he is able to escape such narrow and parochial relations, when he stands instead on foreign ground, as an altered self, and from that vantage can rescue from the obscurity of their neglectful familiarity the simple sensuous qualities that would make up life if such qualities were allowed to be themselves--cellophane tape tearing, coins shifting in a trouser pocket--and, so equipped with their realization, he could endeavor to answer the novel's first question, put more than once: "Who can say, after all, that the world has already been discovered?" Or possibly its second: Is there anything or anyone with which one may appropriately identify?
We ought to know best our place of birth, but home is where the hardened heart is. The cliche tells us we are fed through our roots, that we are consequently plants, and that our accomplishments crown us as trees are crowned by spreading limbs and shading leaves and plentiful fruits. If our soul aspires to more motion than a plant's, it should remember that the animal (who locomotes) has its tiny territory, its habitat, repetitive paths: familiar thicket, meadow, grove or stream. Yet the human soul imagines--places, times, scenes, feelings, thoughts that go far from its growth and hunting grounds, which it then marches toward and remains on ardent watch for, just as this novel, in the meditative tradition of fellow Austrians, Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard, marks and looks and listens, broods and ponders on the so-called small, the so-called habitual things of this world: drizzle, birdcall, leaf fall.
"The closer I came to the stones in the suburban house, often bumping them with my nose, and examined them, the more I had an entire planet within my grasp, embodied in this one thing, as once before, in childhood, the sight of a drop of rain in a yellow-brown-gray-white bit of dust on the path had made the world open up to me for the first time."
If one is to see the world in a grain of sand, one must first see the sand.
"I sat with my suitcase in an outdoor cafe by the Gare de l'Est, the asphalt at my feet showing the innumerable overlapping imprints of bottle caps from the hot times of year. . . ."
And understand how patinas are variously made: by additions sometimes or by subtractions, while being similarly shaped:
"[T]he trains whizzed through [a concrete cut] as if already out in the open countryside, and the air current they created always buffeted the luxuriant vegetation that hung down over the steep walls. . . . Time and again the vegetation was removed, and then, before new vegetation maybe took its place, a pattern of rough semicircles was revealed on the wall, often layered on top of each other, light patches scratched and etched in the concrete by all the bunches, fans, trailing streamers as they brushed back and forth."
Keuschnig's son proceeds his mother in departure--tacitly agreeing with cliche--to search for his father, not at the sill of his father's sightseeing, but on the Slavic home grounds where his father was himself once someone's son.
Solitude, in this book, is a happy circumstance. The narrator begins to breathe, breathe words. But when he does, his mind takes flight. Through the agency of a friend, an architect who discovered a carpenter sawing away. Inside himself, he visits Japan and builds with another's hands symbolic huts; using the limbs of a singer, he hikes in the Scottish Highlands, just as, with a painter, now filmmaker, he trudges over Catalonia. In the company of a willful former beauty and still longed-for lover, he explores coastal Turkey, and by means of his local priest does a round of visits in his native village. His son is in Yugoslavia where his father's thoughts nose after him. Finally a nameless reader--bluntly named "Reader"--who is following, like a demented or faithful fan, the narrator's authorial footsteps on a former trip through Germany, has his own feet observed as they stand in the tracks of that trail, marked and matched by the omniscient eye of the writer who first made them.
One ought to read this book the way one reads "Walden," although the region in which it is set is not entirely unoccupied or wholly woodsy. It is, like "Walden," the record of a single eye, a solitary soul and a lonely mind. What its remarkable, evenly toned though complex prose creates is a consciousness, a consciousness that will take in people occasionally, but much as it takes in a backyard bush, a consciousness that can sit in one place, its body's back comfortably against a stump, to do nothing there but observe (and assemble sentences), because it has become a lichen on the stump itself and can consequently appreciate the way a turtle crosses a stillness, a muskrat sizes things up, a lizard passes weakly out of its slow life, or how the demonic energy in a sudden swarm of bees electrifies the sky, or why the softness of some doves disarms, or the shadows, like those from fire, of a few fish, fool the fisherman, or the reason the silhouette of the eagle signals the future path of its prey, or why the ripple of a water snake is the double of itself, why twilight bursts with bats.
Or why the sudden appearance of glorious mushrooms--king boletus--in the ruts of repeated cyclists, resembles the rise of something supremely fine, something worth sharing, from anyone's earth, from the rot and dreary conclusion of a hidden life.
The reader should hang over this tent like a lover postponing the pleasure of full lips. The Reader, as the reader is called here, should be prepared to enter and reside in the province of a mind made powerful by solitude, a mind inventively and energetically cleared for development, dramatization and intensification, as Handke describes it, free of preconception; a mind that has held its torn-up roots in front of its eyes and watched the earth there dry to a dust that any forceful bit of breath may blow away: all in order to realize an epic unlike other epics, those histories which are always lamely over before they've begun, and instead to render "the epic tale of tomorrow."
Tomorrow? It is gradually disclosed to us that this book was written during a single year, 1993 (Handke tells us by posting dates on the last page). Yet it is set in 1999--a year said by Handke to be one of civil war throughout the world, especially in Germany, and therefore a good year to retire to some no-man's bay where one may freely sail and safely land. But the war, because it is a civil one, is a struggle against traditional ties by those customarily tied. It is fought by parrots, pairs of shoes, purses. Against their cages, their mates, their money. By the accouterments of rituals that rise up against the ceremony. By rain allowed only asphalt to fall upon.
Disconnection can scarcely be carried further. Friends need to be freed of friendship in order to become friends again. While the narrator is forming an attachment to a small boy he has by chance toddler-watched and is happy about feeling fatherly for the first time, his own son is in Yugoslavia dumping him off his back. That woman friend in Turkey, who went about hunting for talismans that would tell her of her fate (but, when removed from the site of their discovery, lost their charm the way colored pebbles or seashells do when, dry, they find they've been poured in a dull heap upon a kitchen table in the glare of kitchen light), had to learn to see the things of the world without their signs and her imputed portents. Artists had to leave their art, as one leaves someone beloved with regret and anger, in order to return and begin again. This author himself ultimately must. The Reader, deprived of books by the quixotic act of tilting at a line of cars, so that authorities quite predictably led him away to the pokey, ponders what reading really means. And then all head back to the bay from whence they were, on their wanderjahr, sent.
Having escaped from their cage into chaos (and it is only custom that describes chaos as frantic and noisy), objects, qualities, actions, relations even, find themselves free from one another, just as human beings may be, and can allow themselves at last to choose and be chosen instead of to be born and bound. For this narrator and this novel, a true place or a true country of connection--a no man's land--occurs only through the mediation of a meditating mind, a mind bent over to inspect and to respond, to let things have their silent say. In short, place is a page.
Toward its close--although like all great books, "My Year" has no ending ("The omega, the last letter of the ancient alphabet, has the form of a jump rope"), the narrator addresses his tools, the implements he has used to record--or rather to transform--his year.
"So many pencils have I used up in this one year that the drawer is already having trouble closing from all the stubs stuffed into it, and from each I have taken leave, on another sheet of paper, in writing: 'Thank you, Spanish pencil! Thank you, Yugoslavian pencil! Thank you, white pencil from the honeymoon hotel in Nara, Japan! Thank you, twenty-second black Cumberland pencil! Thank you, pencil from Freilassing in Germany, even if that is perhaps not a beautiful place! Thank you, pencil from the bookstore in the bay, even if your lead kept breaking during sharpening!' "
This reader wants to thank them too.
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.
To make a permissions request, please visit http://www.lats.com/rights/ for information and an easy request form. The rights having reverted to the author, permission for further use will have to be obtained from William Gass at the Writer's Center, address at top of this page.
|roloff on no-man's-bay|
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MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY
by Peter Handke
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Pub. date: August 1998
My Year in the No-Man's-Bay
By PETER HANDKE
Translated by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 1998 Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.. All rights reserved.
There was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point it had been only a word to me, and when it began, not gradually, but abruptly, I thought at first it meant the end of me. It seemed to be a death sentence. Suddenly the place where I had been was occupied not by a human being but by some kind of scum, for which, unlike in the well-known grotesque tale from old Prague, not even an escape into images, however terrifying, was possible. This metamorphosis came over me without a single image, in the form of sheer gagging. Part of me was numb. The other part carried on with the day as though nothing were amiss. It was like the time I saw a pedestrian, who had been hurled into the air by a car, land on both feet on the other side of the radiator and continue on his way, as cool as you please, at least for a few steps. It was like the time my son, when his mother collapsed during dinner, stopped eating only for the moment and then, after the body had been taken away, went on chewing, alone at the table, until his plate was empty. And likewise I, when I fell off a ladder last summer, immediately scrambled up it again, or tried to. And likewise I myself again, just the day before yesterday, after the knife blade snapped back and almost severed my index finger, revealing all the layers of flesh down to the bone, while I held the hand under the stream of water, waiting for blood, methodically brushed my teeth with the other hand.
That era of my life was marked by a daily back-and-forth between feeling trapped and serenely carrying on. Neither before nor since have I had hours of such complete peace. And as the days went by, and I, whether panic-stricken or serene, remained focused on what I was doing, in time the "end" that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing. Metamorphosis of whom? What kind of metamorphosis? For now I know only this much: at that time I experienced metamorphosis. It proved fruitful for me as nothing else has. For years I have been drawing nourishment from that period, with ever-renewed appetite. For me, nothing can sweep that fruitfulness from the world. From it I know what it is to exist.
But for some time now I have been waiting for a new metamorphosis. I am not dissatisfied with the shape of my days, am even pleased with it. By and large, what I do or leave undone suits me, likewise my surroundings, the house, the yard, this remote suburb, the woods, the neighboring valleys, the railroad lines, the hardly visible and all the more palpable proximity of the great city of Paris down there in the Seine basin beyond the wooded hills to the east. I would like to stay as long as possible in the exquisite stillness here.
With my work, too, my writing, I should like to continue as long as I can, but with a different point of departure. Never again will I return to the law, to which I remain grateful, for the problems it poses have often stimulated my mind, and its thought patterns have in many respects paved the way for the profession of my dreams. I shall go back neither to that water tower in New York, the United Nations, nor to my partner's office, with its view of the vineyards along Austria's Southern Railway.
I would be more likely to put a sudden end to everything here, my living, my writing, my walking. As always, I am tempted not to go on, to break off the game from one moment to the next, and let myself tumble, or run head-on into a wall, or hit the next person I see in the face, or not lift a finger ever again and never speak another word.
My life has a direction that I find good, lovely, and ideal, yet at the same time my ability to get through a single day can no longer be taken for granted. Failing, myself and others, even seems to be the rule. My friends used to comment that I took small things too much to heart and was too stern with myself. I, on the other hand, am convinced that if I had not found, time and again, a new way of covering up my lifelong pattern of failure, but had admitted to it even once, I would no longer exist.
I was already failing long ago, as a young man, whenever I slipped away early from all those social gatherings to which I had looked forward more than anyone far and wide, and my ultimate failure grew out of the notion that my work and my life with others--why do I shrink from using the word "family"?--not only could be integrated with each other but actually belonged together in the best interest of my undertaking. Meanwhile, my house is empty once more, probably for good. I accepted everyone's leaving me, and at the same time I wanted to punish myself. I failed yet again because I did not know, or had forgotten, who I am. Almost fifty-six now, I still do not know myself. And at the same time the wind off the Atlantic has just sliced into the damp winter grass outside my study, which looks out on the yard.
This new transformation should come without the misery. That gagging, two decades ago, which went on for a year, with moments now and then of blinding brightness, should not be repeated. It also seems to me that something like that occurs only once in a lifetime, and the person involved either perishes, body and soul, or shrivels into a living corpse, one of those not uncommon desperadoes--I recognize them by the language they use, and they are near and dear to me--or, of course, he is transformed by it.
At times back then I thought all three had happened to me. After that year I could taste the light as never before, yet I also no longer felt my body, at least not as mine, and I still terrified the world with my old rages, which now, unlike earlier, were ruthless, and at the same time unfounded.
I was afraid the added light had made me lose my diffuse love. On my own I could certainly still be swept with enthusiasm, again and again, helped along by stillness, nature, pictures, books, gusting wind, as well as the roaring highway, and most powerfully by nothing at all, but I no longer took much interest in anything except certain thousand-year-old stone sculptures, two-thousand-year-old inscriptions, the tossing of branches, the gurgling of water, the arch of the sky, or at least I felt it was far too little interest, and far too infrequent.
I hardly lived in my own time anymore, or was not in step with it, and since nothing disgusted me as much as smugness, I became increasingly irked with myself. How much in step I had been earlier, what a fundamentally different sort of enthusiasm I had felt, in stadiums, at the movies, on a bus trip, among complete strangers. Was this a law of existence: childlike being in step, grown-up being out of step?
I enjoyed this being out of step yet longed to be in step; and when the former pleasure actually fulfilled me for a change, I found myself aglow with passion for those who were absent: to validate the fulfillment, I had to share it with them at once and widen it. The joyfulness in me could find an outlet only in society, but in which?
In keeping to myself, I risked withering up. The next metamorphosis was becoming urgent. And unlike that first one, which had sneaked up on me, I would set this one in motion myself. The second metamorphosis was under my control. It would begin not with a narrowing but with my purposeful and at the same time prudent effort to open myself wider and wider. I wanted nothing dramatic, simply a steadiness of resolve that would dictate one step after the other.
Wasn't what I had in mind a simple opening-up? Didn't I see in my imagination a series of doors, which, though closed, would be child's play to open? But easy for me, with all my years?
A scientist has described the state of certain living beings on the verge of their metamorphosis more or less as follows: they stop eating; attempt to hide; rid themselves of all wastes; feel restless.
All that has been true of me, more or less, for quite some time. Disorder and dirt in the house literally bombard me; I hardly get hungry anymore; I no longer merely play at living in hiding; for the time to come, it seems absolutely appropriate. But above all I am restless. In anticipation of that effortless opening of doors in the offing I am strangely restless.
Thus I become aware that my planned undertaking is dangerous. If I fail at widening myself, I will be finished, once and for all. That would mean the end of my homey seclusion; I would have no choice but to get out of here. I would have freedom of movement, of course, but I would no longer have a place of my own.
On the other hand, I have always felt drawn to failures and the down-and-out--as if they were in the right. I see them, from a distance, as positively ennobled; or as if today they alone among us were figures with a destiny. And thus I travel in my dreams to the harbor farthest from the world, dissolved into thin air as far as the others are concerned, a mere breeze brushing their temples.
This morning there was a constant whirring up in the cedar, as if it were already early spring, and yet winter still lies ahead, with its rigid cold, with the pinging of small stones skidding over the frozen woodland ponds, with flashes from the belt of Orion, sweeping all night across the hills of the Seine; though snow would be eventful for this area--the occasional overly thin icicles, with not a trace of snow far and wide, usually congeal from frost on the roofs.
I am determined to pursue this new metamorphosis here, in this landscape, as a permanent resident. I do not know what I need specifically for this enterprise, but certainly not a journey, at least not a long one. That would merely be a form of escape now. I do not want to forget how close beauty is, at least here. This time the departure will be initiated by something other than a change of place. It has already occurred, with the first sentence of this story.
As I turn from the cedar back to my desk, I have before my eyes the empty, creased outline of my rucksack in the corner of the room, almost close enough to touch. But for as far into the future as possible I want it to remain empty; at the very most I may sniff the inside now and then, trying to pick up, for instance, the scent of that trail that led from the Julian Alps all the way across Yugoslavia to the bay of Kotor. And the sturdy shoes left outside around the house on the stone, wood, and concrete thresholds must weather there, unused, getting stiffer and more brittle with every downpour and drying wind. The laces have long since disappeared, or when I pull on one of the remaining ones, it breaks off. The dead leaves that the wind still stirs up in the middle of January tend to accumulate around the shoes left out there. Their insides are also filled with leaves, and sometimes, when I reach into them or step into them for a short walk through the yard, I expect to find a hibernating hedgehog. Occasionally I go around the house and rub polish into my worn-out mountain, valley, and highland shoes, deep into the cracks, and then make a second round to polish them.
But this story is supposed to focus on me only as one subject among several. I feel compelled to affect my times by means of it. As a traveler today, unlike earlier, I could no longer affect anything. Just as one can exhaust the possibilities of places, regions, entire countries, I have exhausted the possibilities of being on the road, of traveling. Even the idea of roaming, no matter where, without an agreed-upon destination, which in a transitional period offered me something tangible, has closed itself off to me with the passing years. A kind of openness beckons, and not only of late, in the form of staying here in this region.
That does not mean that no reference to travel will be found in my notes. To a great extent this is intended to be a tale of travel. It will even deal with several journeys, future ones, present ones, and, it is to be hoped, still journeys of discovery. True, I am not the hero of these travels, it is several of my friends who will endure them, one way or another. They have already been on the road since the beginning of the year, each of them in a different part of the world, one often separated from the other, as also from me here, by entire continents. Each knows nothing of his comrades, making their way through the world at the same time. Only I know about all of them, and my spot, downstairs in the study, with the grass almost at eye level--a moment ago, in the mild air, a January bee buzzed over it--is where the news from them comes together and is collected.
Nor do my friends know that I have plans for them; they do not even guess that the fragments from them that find their way to me from time to time, and in the course of the year are supposed to keep flying in this direction, will create news, connections, transcendences, yes, for moments at a time, actual vicarious participation. My friends do not guess that they are on the road for me--one of them does not even know that in my eyes he is on a journey at this very moment--and that I am traveling along with all of them, from afar.
Such vicarious traveling forms part of the widening that I, while remaining a permanent resident here, have planned for myself and for this region. A conventional rally brings people from all directions to a central point at a specific time. This will not be that sort of rally. And yet I have in mind for my undertaking a kind of rally that will reveal itself as such in the end. This is to be a story about my region here and my distant friends. Yet I am not even certain whether this is my region, or whether those travelers are my friends.
As a rule, in the past I was able to accompany in my thoughts only those distant friends who were off on a journey, preferably a crucial one. Seriously intending to reach a destination was what I considered a journey, and only that. The person in question could not simply take off; he had to set out. Being on the road this way could be replaced only by work or activity. Engaged in any other way, at home, in their accustomed routines, my people could easily cease to exist; I lived pretty much without them. If I was still their friend under such circumstances, it was an unfaithful friend. And I hardly ever saw the other person surrounded by the aura of adventure if, instead of staying behind and watching from afar, I actually set out with him, even if to the islands at the end of the world. So doesn't my gift for sympathetic vibration at a distance actually result from an incapacity for presence?
What a pleasure it is at any rate: while I sit here at my desk on yet another new morning, watching the droplets of rain from the night before on the needles of the spruce outside my window, at the same time I am on the road in northern Japan with my friend the architect, who calls himself a carpenter, after the trade he learned first.
He got up very early and, the only foreigner in the hotel, like the other guests ate dark soup and a piece of greasy eel down in the labyrinthine basement. Out on the streets of Morioka, which stretched across the broad valley ringed by hills, there were large hummocks of glare ice, old and black with dirt. The snowy massif, visible in a gap between the hills, rising in one fell swoop from its base to its peak, looked in spite of the distance somewhat like a city on a hill.
The architect walks along without a plan; one will take shape in the course of the day and with the still-unexplored environs. He is merely flirting with getting lost, as he did yesterday farther south in Sendai and a week ago on the mountainous paths of the national park south of Nara, and the sight of this urban area, in which even here in the desolate north every corner is built up (passages of only a hand's breadth, hiding places for cats, have been left between the houses as earthquake protection), gives him the first impetus for this day's excursion or for the rest of his journey: to find a no-man's-land, however tiny, in this Japanese plain, linked together into an unbroken surface for habitation or cultivation. A no-man's-land could comfort him as the rising of the moon might comfort another.
It is easy to get lost in a Japanese city, even in Morioka, which is not exactly old, and with this in mind the architect moves with increasing zest through this regional metropolis in which suburban street follows suburban street, and I accompany him. I can feel him better from afar. If I were eye to eye with him, his appearance and his manner would perhaps distract me from him. In his absence I forgot every time what he was like; only his essence counted, free of characteristics and idiosyncrasies.
If he then appeared in flesh and blood, I was distracted as always--in the meantime I had merely forgotten it--by his skimpy mustache, which drooped over his lips; I was shaken out of my equanimity by the way he walked a few steps ahead of me; it even took my breath away that he was next to me, around me, present.
Was I better off altogether at a distance? Was this the only way I could save my breath for the others?
Alone with a friend, unlike with a woman, I often felt out of place, seven if I had been full of pleasure when I set out to join him. At the sight of him, I looked in another direction. Something jolted me out of my enthusiasm for the other person and turned my head. (According to one of her friends, the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, whose home in exile during the thirties I recently passed on a side street in this area, is supposed to have shown him only her profile when he was around.)
In the other person's company it seemed to me time and again that our friendship had no basis. Maybe love was also a swindle, but a tangible one, whereas friendship was an illusion? After talk of friendship didn't one often hear, from a mouth that spoke the truth, the observation that he had no friend: "My only friend is dead," or "My best friend was my father;" to which the others had nothing more to say?
I, too, was so overwhelmed at some moments by the thought that twosomeness among friends rested on complicity and was sheer illusion that I had to pull myself together so as not to see grounds for a squabble or even a schism in every comment made by the person I happened to be with. One time I let something of the sort slip out, and a friendship ended on the spot. If it had been love, the end would at least have been drawn out. Here there was not the slightest hesitation. We immediately burned all bridges. It was as if we had both been waiting for a sign before putting an end to our game of lies. Enmity broke out between us like that between two leviathans, even more powerfully from his side than from mine.
But wasn't it more than simply our loneliness that had previously attracted us to each other? And why did this kind of falling-out never threaten us when we were in a group? Why, when it detoured through other people, did our friendship cease to be something flimsy, proving instead heartwarming, cheering, for instance in a glance exchanged over the shoulder of a third party, in our simultaneous noticing of the same detail, in a common determination to overlook or overhear something unpleasant? Also, when in the midst of hustle and bustle one merely sensed the presence of the other person, an exchange would take place between us friends, by roundabout ways, past the heads and bodies of the others, of events, sights, sounds. Such experiences helped me grasp Epicurus' epigram, "Friendship dances rings around the human world."
In this connection a little parable(which does not quite fit, and is not meant to): In the forest that extends westward from Paris over the hills of the Seine to Versailles, there used to stand, in the clearing of the Fontaine Ste.-Marie, an old dance hall from the turn of the century, where, in cages stacked one on top of the other, the proprietor of the inn next door raised birds for participation in international competitions. While their singing and their colors were of great importance, it was primarily the bearing of these altogether tiny creatures, particularly that of neck, head, and beak, that counted. The most showy color, the finest voice was not enough; what made the difference was the way the bird turned its head. A bird could be considered for a prize only if its body, neck, and beak did not form a straight line, and also only if it did not suddenly break into song. Singing to another bird could not be done directly; a crook, a bend, a curve, was required, and one that aimed slightly past the other, out into space. Deviation, along with this slight oblique turn, was right, and also beautiful. As he showed me through the shed and explained the rules of competition, the breeder pointed out to me the many incorrigible birds who burst out in song, and their directness actually did strike me as crude and inappropriate. It was unacceptable. Then my patron removed the cloth from his champion's cage. The bird was no larger, more colorful, or more elegant than his fellows. But when his master positioned himself in front of him, he stood up straighter, and his neck and head formed a bent arrow, with the beak as its point. The arrow was aimed a few degrees away from the man, and at the same time slightly upward. Although the bird, unlike those around him, remained silent, he seemed to be singing. Or is it only my imagination that now makes it so?
The older I became and the farther I moved from my native region, the more it meant to me to be among friends now and then. The clan from which I come has almost completely died out, and my own small family, which the dreams of my youth conceived or conjured up for me, has fallen apart; at the same time I cannot even muster the certainty that I have failed.
To be united with my friends, not merely with one of them, but with several at the same time, preferably with all those who have been scattered to the winds, has meanwhile become my highest goal, aside from reading and writing. But I must not be the focal point; none of us should be that, and this also entails meeting in a place equally familiar or strange to each.
In poem after poem, Friedrich Holderlin, in an era that was probably not much rosier than mine, could as a rule call as many as three things "holy." In my story that adjective would have a place at least once: for our rare celebrations of friendship. Each time--and often years intervene--I feel more moved by such gatherings, most of which have a prosaic purpose. Earlier, when I still felt attention directed at me, I would acknowledge it with an abnegating gesture, breaking the existing harmony by employing a counterspell. Now, when none of us any longer is at the center of attention, I gaze into the circle and would like to lift up my voice when the moment comes.
I would probably have less to say explicitly than any of the others. I would begin humming, would fall silent in the middle, and, like one of the singers from that flamenco family on a street corner in the mountains of Andalusia, gaze about wordlessly. And like that time in Baeza, someone else would take up the arabesque and carry on the sound, narrating more thoroughly than I, and more sonorously, for the continuation would issue from the throat and thorax of my friend who is a real singer (at the moment on his way through the wintry darkness of Scotland, by the bay of Inverness, where the buoys bobbing up and down are the heads of a herd of seals, he is trying out the lyrics of what he calls his "last song").
Yet as of today the proper moment for me to lift up my voice has not come; or I have missed it every time. And later the sense of being deeply moved left me. Things between us could even become dangerous again?
The earth has long since been discovered. But I still keep sensing what I call in my own mind the New World. It is the most splendid experience I can imagine. Usually it comes only for the flash of a second and then perhaps continues to glow dimly for a while. I never see visions or phenomena with it. (Inside me is distrust toward all those vouchsafed illumination without its being a necessity.) What I see as the New World is everyday reality. It remains what it was, merely radiating calmness, a runway or launchpad from the old world, marking a fresh beginning.
"The swamps of mysticism must be drained!" someone said in a dream. "And what will we do without the swamps?" someone else replied. That new world may have appeared to me earlier as a revelation, as a second world, the other world. Meanwhile, now that I am waiting for that moment, it brushes me almost daily, as a particle of my perception, and its space flight, followed by stocktaking and reflection, merely indicates that for the moment I am in a good frame of mind. Birds flying in a triangular formation can thus become two airy balls in my armpits.
Often the New World reveals itself in an optical illusion, which makes me perceive this mast not as an object but rather as the space formed by it and the other mast. And the New World wafts toward me less from nature than from a place with human traces. No-man's-land, yes: yet as I pass by, a brush fire is burning there, the branches freshly shoved together. A plank on a garbage heap. A ladder leaning against an embankment. A spanking new house number on a shanty. A stack of abandoned beehives on the edge of a forest in winter.
The special thing about such a New World is that it presents itself as completely, unmistakably there, and at the same time as not yet entered by anyone. But it can and will be entered! The New World has simply not been penetrated yet, made known, has not become general property. And one person alone with it does not count. And at all events access to it must be created, and is sorely needed. The New World can be discovered. Why else did I see those who would bring it to light neither as dreamers nor as fantasts but as craftsmen and engineers? What was keeping them?
Sometimes I am on the verge of saying that this pioneer world that reveals itself to me, more and more as I get older, glimpsed in passing and even more often in a glance over my shoulder, ready for my, and our, breakthrough, is not new, but rather the eternal world.
If indeed eternity, however, it would not be something that is always the same. It would have changed over the course of history, would have become more inconspicuous, would no longer form a consistent whole, would instead be taking place somewhere off to one side, more distinct in its remoteness--though not too much so--than in the middle of things. It seems to me as if the New or the Eternal World has its history as well.
I do want to stick with "new" after all. I had my New World experiences in the last few years not only with pieces of equipment and no-man's-landscapes but also with people. But there they occurred less often and also took a different course. They began splendidly like the other kind, yes, even more splendidly, and in the end they made me miserable. I learned that it was both natural and right to be with certain other people. I had already had this thought earlier: with my wife, with my son. (The former has disappeared, the latter has become a distant friend, just now on the road between Yugoslavia and Greece.)
In every case it had been a single person, or a twosome. It was true that mankind had always counted for me, yet never as a belief, rather as a source of powerful emotion that could not be eliminated by any rational measures. In the meantime it has ceased to be a question of any sort of belief in mankind. It is that rational New World of which I become aware in glancing over my shoulder.
From an exchange of glances a couple of weeks ago with a cashier at the shopping center up on the plateau I learned how extraordinary it was to be fond of someone else, an unknown person--and how natural it seemed at the same time. In harmony with oneself, with a thing, with a space, with an absent person: that's fine with me. But nothing could surpass the harmony I was feeling now with the person across from me. The difference was that, in contrast to perceiving the New World in a landscape, I now went on without air in my armpits. To be sure, I viewed permanence with one person and another as the ne plus ultra, and that no longer merely moved me. It was overwhelming. But the experience tore me apart. For one side of me felt excluded from something at which quite a few apparently succeeded. I shied away from happiness in a communal setting, out of a sort of fear of annihilation. Hence also the rareness of such New World moments with my contemporaries and the lack of consequences, because they occurred not with my friends but almost exclusively with unknown passersby? I began to wonder whether this meant that my end was near.
Didn't I decide to be a marginal figure in this story?
The heroes were supposed to be the others, the architect, who, searching in Morioka in northern Japan for an unbuilt-up piece of land, slithers over the hummocks of ice; the singer, just now caught in a winter storm that keeps flipping over the map in his hands as he makes his way to the prehistoric stone monument in a meadow behind a farm up in the hills to the south of Inverness; my son, who just came of age, and, after his year as a volunteer with the Austrian mountain troops and after soon-interrupted university studies in history and geography, is working at odd jobs, the day before yesterday as a builder's helper, yesterday morning as a language instructor, last night as a tile layer in a Viennese cafe, this morning, on his first journey undertaken alone, sitting on one of the limestone blocks that line the harbor basin in Piran, Slovenia; the woman I consider my special friend, who set out a week ago, unaccompanied as usual, on an excursion that will take her on foot and by boat from bay to bay along the southern coast of Turkey; the priest from the far-off village where I was born, who still makes his rounds in that same area, a traveler only in my eyes; my friend the painter, about to shoot his first film on the meseta, in Spain; and that is not quite all of them.
Die beiden Textausschnitte aus Handkes Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht stellen eine Moeglichkeit zur vergleichenden Beschaeftigung mit Handke und Stifter - in inhaltlicher und sprachlicher Hinsicht - dar.
Viele Strassen in diesen Vororten hatten die Namen der von den Nationalsozialisten umgebrachten Widerstaendler oder Gegenmenschen. Bei einer solchen, der rue Victor Basch in Arcueil, kannte ich dann einen besonderen Baum. Es war ein Kirschbaum, der nicht in einem abgeschlossenen Garten stand, sondern in einer Ausbuchtung der Strasse vor einem Mietblock, gleich an der Bahn. Zuerst kam die Bluete, noch ohne ein gruenendes Blatt, wobei der Stamm umkleidet wurde von einem einzigen, so dicht wie leicht gebauschten Weiss, himmelhoch getuermt und dort oben heller strahlend als je eine Fruehlingswolke. Dann stoben die Blueten weg, an einem Tag mit dem Aprilschnee oder -hagel, am andern mit den Vorstadtschmetterlingen. Anfang Juni waren die Fruechte reif, keine winzigen wie bei einer Wildkirsche, vielmehr von einem biblischen Volumen, und wo frueher alles weiss gewesen war, war jetzt alles hochrot. Und unversehrt stand die Frucht mit jedem neuen Tag, da ich in jener Woche davor ankam. Keine Amseln fielen ueber sie her (ob die Zuege, die pausenlos an dem Baum vorbeiblitzten, sie abschreckten wie sonst die Stanniolfetzen?). Und auch die wenigen Passanten dort, obwohl die untersten der Kirschen ihnen beinah die Koepfe taetschelten, bedienten sich nicht; es bueckte sich nicht einmal jemand nach den im Wind abgefallenen, zum Teil geplatzten prallen Kugeln auf dem Asphalt, der von dem zertretenen Fruchtfleisch dunkel und dunkler wurde. Nur ich ass und ass, zuerst die vom Boden, da ich nicht wissen konnte, ob nicht doch von irgendwoher ein Eigentuemer dazwischentraete, spaeter die in Zehen- und Fingerspitzen-Reichweite.
Es war dann klar, der Baum war Gemeingut, und einmal, als ich in dem sperrangeloffenen Flur des Mietshauses eine Malerleiter sah, lieh ich sie mir kurzerhand aus und stieg hinauf in die Krone, wo die Kirschen bekanntlich munden wie nirgends sonst (und das bewahrheitete sich dann auch).
In dem Dorf Rinkolach hatte es einen ebensolchen allgemein zugaenglichen Kirschbaum gegeben, mitten im Ort, oder eine Mitte ergab sich umgekehrt erst durch ihn? Nicht allein den seinerzeitigen Geschmack, sondern auch jenes besondere Wipfelgefuehl staerker als auf einem Berg hoch oben in den Lueften zu sein, samt dem der Kirsche wohl eigenen Schwanken fand ich in dem auslaendischen Vorort wieder; wiederfinden? nein, es geschah ueberhaupt erst einmal das Innewerden des Vergangenen: ein Bedachtsamwerden, Erkennen des Frueheren,dessen Ermessen, eine Art von Genauigkeit - das Gedaechtnis! Es war der Halbschatten, in dem ich die Welt so viel klarer und erstaunlicher sah (und das hat sich dann von Vorstadt zu Vorstadt, bis hinein in die Waldbucht hier, weiter bewaehrt).
Wir hatten die Kirschen daheim mit den Lippen gepflueckt, auch weil bei dem heftigen Hin und Her der Zweige keine Hand frei war... Und selbst ausserhalb der Fruchtzeiten hatte jener Baum fuer uns etwas bedeutet, indem er stillschweigend als Asylstaette galt: Dem, der sich zu ihm fluechtete, durfte in seinem Bereich nichts angetan werden, und sowie die Verfolger mit hineintraten, hiess das, dass die Versoehnung stattfinden musste. Und den oeffentlichen Kirschbaum von Rinkolach gibt es immer noch, ich gehe mindestens einmal jaehrlich an ihm vorbei und um ihn herum, er lebt, traegt Frucht, etwas saeuerlich und waessrig gewordene, trotz einiger Blitzschlaege, nur wirkt er ein jedes Mal verwaister (oder wer ist der Verwaiste?), keine Kinder mehr, weder um ihn noch in ihm, und wenn inzwischen woanders eine Ortsmitte ist, so entdecke ich diese nicht, bleibe dazu vielleicht auch nicht lang genug.
Und nun sass ich, wer?, in dem Baum von Arcueil, verborgen, in meinem Massgewand mit Krawatte, spuerte bei der blossen Vorstellung der Bievre unten in dem Tal, mochte diese auch laengst unterirdisch fliessen, den Kirschdurst gemildert, rauhte mir an der aufgebrochenen, speziell scharfen Rinde des alten Kirschholzes die Fingerkuppen auf und roch daran, um mich empfaenglicher, empfaenglich, zu machen, ebenso wie noch heute an meiner hoechsteigenen, bis auf einen einzigen Ast schon abgestorbenen Kirsche hier in der Bucht zwischen den Seine-Hoehen, in der Befuerchtung, taub und tauber zu werden, von den Raendern meines Koerpers her.
Ich glaubte damals, nicht anders als jetzt, jedem muessten ueber dieselben Dinge die Augen und die Ohren aufgehen wie mir, und so lud ich anfangs gelegentlich den und jenen aus der Metropole, dem ich einen Sinn fuer Orte zutraute, ein, mit ueber die Raender zu pilgern.
Entweder wurde das gleich nicht ernst genommen, oder bei dem gemeinsamen Unterwegssein stellte sich dann kaum etwas ein, was mit der eigentuemlichen Gegend zu tun hatte. Diese verlor da ihren Wert; zeigte ihn erst gar nicht. Zum einen hatte ich, wie seit jeher, kaum war der andere an meiner Seite, mich einer Missstimmung zu erwehren, als verdraenge er allein durch seine Anwesenheit den Raum, und dann erschienen die meisten nicht nur die eingefleischten Stadtleute, nach hoechstens einem kurzen Aufmerken, nicht mehr bei der Sache, mit den Gedanken ganz woanders, und auch was sie redeten, handelte weder von der Landschaft, die wir miteinander durchkreuzten, was mir beinahe recht war -, noch wurde es (was mich dann gegen meine Begleiter ergrimmte) im geringsten von dieser bestimmt, geleitet, befluegelt.
In meiner Phantasie haetten diese sich aufrichten, als ganze sich bewegen, um sich blicken, eine ruhigere und tiefere, eine gruendliche Stimme bekommen sollen, und statt dessen fielen sie in sich zusammen, stolperten in einem fort, hielten den Blick gesenkt, manch einem stockte sogar sein hauptstaedtischer Tonfall, es zeigte sich, dass dieser gekuenstelt war, und er sprach gepresst, ohne Nachdruck, und Nachklang, wie man sich eben einen lebenslaenglichen Vorort-Insassen vorstellte.
Und ich wurde davon angesteckt, murmelte, ruckelte, hampelte genau wie der Nebenmann, und wir zwei bildeten ein Paar nicht nur lachhaft wie Bouvard und Peccuchet, sondern auch fehl am Platz.
Aus: Peter Handke, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht. Suhrkamp 1994. Seite 282 - 287
Anders als frueher oft kam ich auch nicht mehr ins Stocken, sowie ich merkte, dass etwas, das ich da gerade aufschrieb, schon laengst gesagt war, von mir oder sonstwem. Wenn ich zwischendrin mich oder einen andern wiederholte, so sollte mir das recht sein, und natuerlich stockte ich jeweils doch, nur dass ich die Wiederholung dann mit einem zusaetzlichen Schwung anging, von der Aussicht darauf geradezu am Schopf gepackt.
Ebenso in die Luft auf loesten sich meine Bedenken, in der Geschichte von der Bucht und von meinen fernen Freunden ereigne sich so wenig, die Handlung komme nicht von der Stelle,die Saetze seien fuer ein Buch von heute zu lang. Ich liess sie so lang werden, wie sich das aus dem Bild, welches in mir war und mich antrieb, eben ergab; es musste nur so ein Bild in mir sein. Und wenn Langatmigkeit, dann spuerte ich diese im Einklang mit dem Hin- und Hergefinger der Windrillen auf dem Wasser, um saemtliche sieben Ecken des Weihers herum, und mit dem vielen Nichts-und-wieder-nichts zwischendurch, einem kleinen Zittern weitwo, dem Sich-auf-der-Stelle-Drehen des Flaumvogels mit der roten Kehle im Totholz, der beim naechsten Augenblick, mit seinem Bauch im Tiefflug, unvergleichlicher feiner Platschlaut, ein Sekundenbad nimmt. Mir war, solch ein Miteinander wirke auf mein Erzaehlen als eine Beglaubigung; vor allem das Wasser in seiner Eigentuemlichkeit da, sei es, das meine Arbeit - Arbeit? da mehr ein blosses Mitatmen bekraeftige.
Ungleich leichter als sonstwo wurde es mir zudem hinter jenem Namenlosen Weiher, in meiner Sache, seit je in Gefahr, sich zu verschraenken, bis keine Luft in ihr bleibt, Absaetze zu machen, oder, statt unbedingt einen triftigen UEbergang und eine zwingende Folge herbeizuphantasieren, unbekuemmert irgendwo weiterzutun. Absaetze machen hiess dabei, mittendrin auch nur so zu pausieren, fuer ein bei dem Innenraumschreiben mir in der Regel unmoegliches Atemholen, fuer ein Weggehen vom Blatt, damit dieses einmal seine Ruhe habe.
So blieb ich dann gelassen, wenn ein Regen, stark genug, dass er durch das Laub drang, mich unterbrach. Ich barg die Mappe zwischen Rock und Hemd, setzte den Hut auf, eher mitgenommen fuer die Pilze, und wartete.
Je wilder es um das Wasser herum zuging, desto heiterer, auch geduldiger wurde ich. Sturm mischte sich in das Regenprasseln, Sand schlug mir auf die Finger, eine Endfinsternis brach herein, dicke AEste krachten zu Boden, wieder ein Baum platzte aus der Uferboeschung, kopfueber, in den Weiher, die vielen Wildvoegel der Gegend, gross und klein, stoben, gerade dass sie nicht gegen mich stiessen, unter Zetern und Quieken kreuz und quer, und ich sass zurueckgelehnt, mit meiner Handschrift, und betrachtete ohne ein Wimpernzucken, warm ums Herz, die panische Welt, klar und ganz hervorgetreten hinter der ueblichen, der bruechigen, schimaerischen, und in der panischen Welt jene Durcheinanderschoepfung - kein Chaos -, worin ich seit jeher meinen Platz fuehlte. Jetzt ist es richtig.
Mit dem Taetigsein dort an dem Wasser zeichnete sich die Umwelt auf ganz andre Weise ab, als wenn ich nur muessig davorgesessen haette. Ohne dass ich sie eigens wahrnahm, ging sie, nebenher, auf mich ueber.
Und wieder treten in meinem Gedaechtnis zuerst die Tiere auf. (Dabei denke ich nicht an die Stechmuecken, die ueber mich herfielen, scharweise jedoch erst in der Daemmerung, wenn ich meist schon fertig war.)
Das fing damals an mit der Wanderung der bis dahin voellig unsichtbaren Kroetenvoelker huegelab durch die Waelder zu den Laichplaetzen. Der Namenlose Weiher, hinter dem ich sass, war Hauptziel, und zwar, schien mir, selbst der Kroeten aus den entferntesten Seine-Hoehen, obwohl doch alle anderen Gewaesser mehr Platz boten.
Aus: Peter Handke, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht. Suhrkamp 1994. Seite 826 -829
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