me and Peter Handke

Friends — This is a rough, inelegant attempt at a bundle of issues that I’m trying to grapple with vis a vis this author. I wish I could say what I want to say better. But here it is.

Long before I became a creative writer, in another life I was a comparative literature scholar who wrote a great deal about a weird Austrian writer, whose work from the 1970’s and 80’s I studied and admired.

This writer came to my attention as a beleaguered graduate student in the mid 1970’s attempting to gain enough mastery of German to use it as the third language in my Ph.D. dissertation. I already spoke French, but my German was always a distant third to French and English. I worried about my German competency constantly, and when my very messed up Program Director told me he was “worried about me and my job prospects,” I spent a summer in the grad program at Middlebury College in Vermont, studying intensive German. It was there that a kind and elegant Austrian professor taught a class on Austrian drama, and I read plays by both Arthur Schnitzler and the weird dude — Peter Handke. The Handke plays were nuts; one was called OFFENDING THE AUDIENCE and it consisted of a play where 4 actors declaim horrible insults at the audience. I heard a possibly apocryphal story that for an early performance of the play, Handke actually had the theater doors locked so no one could leave. Reportedly the audience rioted, and Handke said he was happy about that reaction. Those of you who know me just a little can imagine my smile growing wide at that story. It’s so punk rock! The other play, KASPAR, spoke to me even more because it’s about a character trying — over and over — again to say the same sentence. The play was about language learning and the ways in which education masks power-struggles. Great stuff.


A year later, I was prepping for my Ph.D. comprehensives and I thought I would give the Peter Handke’s novels a try, because my bff in grad school Robert Gross had liked them. And this was where I truly fell in love with the work of this author. The slim novels were understated, wry, ironic and philosophical almost stories. If you know the films of Wim Wenders, you’ve seen one of his film adaptations of a Handke novel: THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY. But my real favorite from these books is SHORT LETTER, LONG FAREWELL, which is probably the strangest, saddest, funniest, oddest novel about a USA road trip that I’ve ever read. SHORT LETTER tells about an Austrian writer who goes to the US to either chase his wife or flee her (you decide), and along the way he goes and visits his lumberjack brother, goes to an Abe Lincoln festival, and ends up talking to the director John Ford in Los Angeles. I’ll never forget reading it and for the first time ever, reading a German book seamlessly and joyously without the need for a dictionary. I’ll always be grateful to Handke for somehow teaching me the flow of German. He wrote other amazing books, most of them connected in some way to writing and the writer’s life, as well as one incredibly intense memoir about his mother’s suicide.

Then, I think it was during the early 90’s, I noticed that his books were becoming longer and more abstract, and since I was doing research in other areas at that point, I kind of forgot about Peter Handke, although I admired the books I just mentioned as well as the beautiful screenplay that he helped Wenders write for WINGS OF DESIRE.

At some point, I remember reading in the early 00’s that Handke had turned up at the funeral for  Slobodan Milošević, who was the President of Serbia, and who had been accused of serious war crimes in Bosnia, during in 1990’s. I remember thinking “what the heck is Handke doing at that funeral?” but then I remembered vaguely that his mother was Slovenian, and that perhaps Handke felt some connection to the country because of that.

Now, it turns out that Handke (who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature) not only spoke at the funeral, but considered Milosevic a friend. And it seems that he became a Serbian apologist. Although there is some debate about what Handke was actually saying, and now he’s so mad, he says he won’t do any more interviews.

The Milosevic thing makes no sense to me at all. Because the Handke that I knew about wrote an incredible article in French called “Pourquoi j’ai quitte L’Autriche,” which talked at length about the Holocaust and how Austria had not come to grips with its role in the Third Reich. I can’t find it now online, of course, but I remember it pretty clearly. So how in the world is he NOT taking the Bosnian genocide seriously?

So what’s with the obsession with Milosevic and the determination to somehow say the Serbs are good guys?  The closest I can come to a psychological explanation is as follows. Handke’s books — or the ones I have read —  focus on incredibly messed up, passive-aggressive, disconnected young men, who are unmoored from family and who are quietly desperate for connection and meaning. I can’t help but wonder if the imprisoned Milosevic somehow represented some kind of weird father stand-in for Handke, and if the lost Serbia became a stand-in for the fact that Handke himself is really devoid of national affiliation. He has lived in France for years, and really doesn’t identify as Austrian.

I don’t defend these ideations. I’m just wondering if that’s how they are working.

Why am I bothering? I’m trying to understand because the whole thing makes me really sad and angry. It makes me sad and furious that someone as brilliant as Handke has done and said such stupid destructive things.

What should he do now? Well, he should stop yelling about how he won’t do any more interviews and he should take a leaf from Daniel Handler, and he should apologize.

You may remember that a few years ago Daniel Handler made a racist joke about fellow writer and National Book award winner Jaqueline Woodson, and he almost immediately apologized and said he had been a jerk. Which he had been.

Handke is also being a racist jerk. He should apologize. And say he was wrong and he has hurt alot of people, and he feels badly, and he’ll try to do better. And if he still has these obsessions with scary father figures he should go see a shrink.

For starters.

But there’s also a big take away for me and for other writers like me. This whole thing has gotten me thinking about my responsibilities as a privileged, highly educated white writer. That I need to think about what I say. Think about what I write. I maybe will make a stupid mistake someday; I’ll support a politician or a cause that is completely misguided. And when that happens, I’ll need to get called out and I’ll need to say “I’m sorry,  and I’ll try to do better.” And then I’ll really need to try to do better. Writers need to get their shit together, and Nobel laureates are no exception. And neither are we.


PS — Two of my scholarly articles on Handke appeared in the wonderful magazine Postmodern Culture. They are very strange and abstract and I share them just so you can see what a big deal he was for me, back in the day, when I started moving into more creative forms of literary criticism.

Here is the one about Eddie Vedder and Handke!

Here is even stranger one about autobiography

One thought on “me and Peter Handke

  1. This was great timing. I just taught, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke” by Jacqueline Woodson on this incident in my ENG1A. Thanks, I’ll be able to share more insights when we meet tomorrow 🙂

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