Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peter Handke--The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Peter Handke is an Austrian modernist writer, primarily known as a playwright and the author of several novels. His name came to my knowledge after reading an interview with Don DeLillo (whose Libra I just finished). The book is actually mentioned by his anonymous questioner, who puts it in a short list of "slim but seminal European works of fiction" that also includes books by Albert Camus and Max Frisch. At about 130 pages, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is indeed pretty slim, and I have to take my source at his word that it is a seminal text. The book is not an enjoyable read in any usual way. It is not full of poetic language or a gripping plot or beautiful description or inspirational themes. I read it rather as a case study in the style and the concerns of modernism.

Stylistically speaking, Handke's prose is rather flat and tightly controlled, his descriptions minimal, and the pacing very fast. Large chunks of time are given one or two sentences, and surroundings are either barely described or described as almost barren. A few days go by in the course of the novel. Bloch gets on a few trains, picks up a few women, watches some movies, goes to an unnamed "border town" to look up an ex. Each of these incidents is described quickly as with no suggestion of importance. At one point--over the course of two sentences--a girl is choked to death and the story simply moves on. There is little attempt to explain anything to the reader, as though to illustrate protagonist's own lack of comprehension of his own world. Bloch seems to distrust his own perception and therefore very little weight is put on his observations:
In the middle of the night he was briefly awakened by a quarrel in the adjoining room; but perhaps his ears were so oversensitive after the sudden waking that he only though the voices next door were quarreling.
This bare style is subordinate to the thematic concern of the book. One has the feeling in the book that nothing is actually happening, but the world, or perhaps literature, exists in such a way that even it must have a visual appearance. Words are not real yet people talk and people write. Objects are not real and yet we see them and name them. All we actually have, Bloch seems to feel, is disjointed sensations that occasionally and without reason cohere. It is nice when they do, but there is no reason to think it means anything:
Everything had gone well for a while after that: the lip movements of the people he talked to coincided with what he heard them say; the houses were not just facades; heavy sacks of flour were being dragged from the loading ramp of the dairy into the storage room; when somebody shouted something far down the street, it sounded as though it actually came from down there. The people walking past on the sidewalk did not appear to have been paid to walk in the background; the man with the adhesive tape under his eye had a genuine scab; and the rain seemed to fall not just in the foreground of the picture but everywhere.
Their is a deep distrust of his own thoughts at the heart of Bloch, and yet he is trapped inside them, unable to get any information about the world that is has not been filtered his senses, even including his sense of language. He begins to feel that there must be something behind the meaningless jumble of words he is hearing, and then is struck that he cannot get past meaningless jumble in his own thoughts:
All at once the fact that it was in a post office that he "couldn't reach anybody any more" seemed to him not like a fact at all but like a bad joke, like one of those word games that, say, sportswriters play, which he always loathed. Even the mailman's story about the gypsy had seemed to him crudely suggestive, a clumsy insinuation, like the birthday telegram, whose words were so commonplace that they simply could not mean what they said. And it wasn't only the conversation that was insinuating; everything around him was also meant to suggest something to him. "As though they winked and made signs at me," thought Bloch. For what was it supposed to mean that the lid of the inkwell lay right net to the well on the blotter and that the blotter on the desk had obviously been replaced just today, so only a few impressions were legible on it? And wouldn't it be more proper to say "so that" instead of "so"? So that the impressions would therefor be legible. And now the postmistress picked up the phone and spelled out the birthday telegram letter by letter. What was she hinting at by that? What was behind her dictating "All the best," "With kind regards": what was that supposed to mean? Who was behind the cover name "your loving grandparents"? Even that morning Bloch had instantly recognized the short slogan "Why not phone?" as a trap.

It seemed to him that the mailman and the postmistress were in the know. "The postmistress and the mailman," he corrected himself. Now the loathsome word-game sickness had struck even him, and in broad daylight. "Broad daylight"? He must have hit on that phrase somehow. That expression seemed witty to him, in an unpleasant way. But were the other words in that sentence any better?
Here Bloch, assuming that no one could mean to say things that had no meaning, is scared that he is being left out of something, that others are "in the know." I can see here the connection to DeLillo. The belief that when people are bombarded with meaningless information, they will imagine that there is a deeper meaning. People cannot comprehend meaningless events. For Handke (as least as far as I can tell from this book) the barrage of meaninglessness comes from the nature of existence and of language, while for DeLillo it comes from certain quarters that produce meaningless information, such as the media or intelligence agencies or paranoid individuals. But they agree to some extent that the human mind revolts against meaninglessness and umimportance. “…Every child probably wishes that his village was a kingdom,” says Handke, while DeLillo's statement (form the interview quoted above): "Distrust and disbelief are centered in a deep need to raise individual discontent to an art form, often with no basis in fact."

The trouble I have with this book is that while it is, to some extent, an interesting look at the impossibility of comprehension in this crazy modern world, it reads very much like a condemnation of ordinary middle-class life. He is bored by the mindlessness of the postmistress and the security guard and the cashier and the maid. Of course, there is plenty to criticize in middle-class provincial life, and no middle-class provincial would deny that. Making the fact of being bored by such life into an existential statement prevents the development of real sympathy with it. There is a sarcasm and a hostility detectable in the above quotation, when Handke writes that the postmistress and the mailman were "in the know," that prevents one from learning anything from them. There is a fine line between believing that life is empty and believing that other people are empty, and I fear that in this book Handke might occasionally step over that line.

No comments:

Post a Comment