Another mostly mild winter of herky-jerky temperatures encapsulated New York in January, but Peter Handke—whose literary star has been in eclipse since his 1990’s political statements on Bosnia and Serbia—aided my quest to return to something stern, reminding me of old times and harder winters and the limitless innocence of childhood and its golden days.
My lament for winter was not just for weather, but a way of life grudgingly on its way towards a quasi-extinction even before the pandemic. My romanticized memories of New York City are of it in winter, being packed in at cafes or bars with others and acting as carefree and unpolitical as possible—people didn’t hold their phones like power packs back during Bush II. The current freeze on routine relations might last two years, maybe more, but it has driven me deeper into the aesthetic experience in complexifying ways. I now get my weather from books and films, but I not only get their weather, I get the weather they remind me of when I experience them and that of the past.
Handke’s book My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay is a pastoral novel like few others. In a 1998 review, William Gass wrote of reading it like Thoreau’s Walden and how it is 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)…” This is apt, but Handke’s narrator is also a modern man, given to great fantasies of violence toward the people who disappoint him, most especially his ex (often called “the woman from Catalonia”) and son, who also carry vitreous feelings for him—a family circulating their darkness as if they were trapped in a figure-eight—leading to a Tennessee Williams-esque scene, hewn with coarsened antinomian strain, when the narrator’s ex appears before him:
And on a spring day she appeared in the backyard and pounded her fists on the study door. I went out to her. She had the ability to acquire tremendously broad shoulders all of a sudden, and with these she rammed me to the ground. I stood up, and she rammed me again, except that this time I was ready and stayed on my feet. I would have defended myself, but then I would have lost the sentence in the middle of which she had interrupted me…And what finally did happen: as old as I was, I began to cry, and in the process became as old as I was.
Things were, of course, not all chipper at Walden Pond, either (“Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts…”) but Handke embosses this man’s deficiencies with a sovereign pride, strafing into the war of the sexes by invoking the mess relationships are almost destined to become, while holding an interest in the ancients that the book takes as kindling for its blaze, with appearances by Horace, Heraclitus, and others, who for all their ancientness, certainly understood spirit better. And perhaps this is why Handke’s later work is so eschewed—it’s turned away from pop culture to medieval architecture and is in conversation with olden times and ancient eras, as a number of speakers in a recorded NYU symposium professed to prefer the early work.
But I do understand, My Year is a type of inscrutable and inconsolable text, abjuring the reader looking for standard arc and epiphany to go elsewhere, as it readies for something at odds with our indelicate moral ordering—there will be no incredible insights, but a nestled luminous documentation of “drizzle, birdcall, leaf fall” as Gass writes. More than anyone writing fiction now, except J.M. Coetzee and Gerald Murnane, Handke embodies Geoffrey Hill’s gloss on Yeats’s criticism of a young poet: “It is the being forced down under the surface by the resistance of technique that inaugurates a self-alienating process which, as it drives down into strata that are not normally encountered, may produce alien objects.” Page after page of just this type of creation, and, seemingly, improvisational formalism, color the book and spread over so many characters, including The Reader, the Singer, the Painter, the Architect and Carpenter, and the Priest, plus the woman. The young among us will cry, Autofiction! But a pox on such a flying quiver, these alien objects are cribbed from Tudor morality plays and allegories, but also the shards of ruination following almost thirty years of a literary life at that point of composition, 1993.
Set in the mostly cold weather hills about the Seine just a few miles from Paris, where Handke does now live, the novel conjured my year and a half in Europe, mainly two bone-chilling German winters. And though they were Handke’s words (translated by Krishna Winston) they had eerily become the heartbeat of my mottled past—years when I would have been looking at the world more like the younger Handke, a time of impecunity and awkwardness, but also the season of truly trying to hone the perceiving eye. No pictures were taken at this time and the vault of film canisters in memory is quite full up from age twenty-six to twenty-seven—and maybe this is why that time is so readily commandeered into double and triple existences. The intensity of that living in Europe probably will never dim—it’s often present, ready to be mined in fictional and non-fictional ways. Handke had his rich critter-filled and mushroom-clad Seine hills, but I had the crest of the Schwartzwald in Heidelberg and those I would cross the river from the old town and again zig and zag though the network of winding paths, coursing over the Schlangweg (a byway of the Philosophenweg) up through terraced vineyards to wander a concentration of well-maintained trails. I circled and reconnoitered before rising into land all forest and eventually locating the lookout towers, the Celtic remains, the Thingstätte (an amphitheater created by the Nazis), climbing and gazing, waiting for breath to escape my nostrils and mouth and let me know I was alive. The hills weren’t the only conjunction with Handke’s novel, there were also the craters in the forests from WWII bombs—sparse, but regular enough. This process, the interlacing of someone’s art with the experiencer’s life is much more intricate than any virtual reality video game or cinematic experience because it is our pulsating shape-shifting consciousness redoubling on itself and its own memory bank with another’s spark. The reversibility of the writer/reader relationship is at stake. The process gels with what Hans Blumenberg called “the essential ambiguity of the aesthetic object,” as he further added:
the coincidence of the allocation of writer and reader rests precisely on the alleged independence of the work from the subjectivity of its author: they are not invented, but rather found; they have the inner necessity of their being-this-and-nothing-else. They lie, as it were, by the wayside, and it is a matter of pure contingency who finds them there. They are just as foreign or familiar to the subject of the reader as to that of the author.
Our urges define what we want to read or see, why we might pick up a Hardy, Beckett, or Danielle Steel. Our moods might not believe in each other, but sometimes the primary one demands fine-lined appeasement—the decision of what to read is as important to me as a hedge fund manager’s choice about where to shift a billion dollars.
Argentinian Ricardo Piglia, whose work I just happened to pick up at the same time, articulated something similar, through an amanuensis Emilo Renzia:
The value of reading does not depend on the book in itself but on the emotions associated with the act of reading…What is fixed in memory is not the content of memory but rather its form. I am not interested in what can obscure the image, I am interested only in the visual intensity that persists in time like a scar.
“The visual intensity that persists in time like a scar.” This is an off shoot of a man born two years before Piglia and about 8000 miles away in the antipodes: Gerald Murnane, who summarized his “fictional” enterprise in A Million Windows: “We sense that true fiction is more likely to include what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence but comes continually to mind ten or twenty years afterwards not on account of its having long ago provoked passion or pain but because of its appearing to be part of a pattern of meaning that extends over much of a lifetime.” I want to explore my consciousness (and others’—via intimacy and writing fiction), then penetrate it and find the different colorations, the ways time and space can crystallize or fool—the pictures we construct of ourselves. The best way to propel this is by the aesthetic experience.
The endpoint is—and Murnane and Piglia are two proponents who have written “fiction” detailing this—coming up with a program for how one can live in memory. Had enough of politics, of news, of hype, of disingenuousness? Then unplug—go on a walk or sit in a chair to think, and, inevitably, to remember. As Henry James wrote “To live in the world of creation–to get into it and stay in it–to frequent it and haunt it–to think intensely and fruitfully–to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation–this is the only thing,” but everyone creates his or her reality. This concept can no longer be dismissed as too new-agey in our era of QANON and fake news. One doesn’t even need the book or the said art, but the ambrosial essences leaking from them, as, for instance, when we walk in on someone we love or see some schlump arguing at the grocery store over a dime. Now, I don’t even need Handke’s book because I have read it, lightly in some places, but I have the experience of the first read—mostly in stolen pandemic moments while stuffed alongside my family in a small apartment and, in newer stolen pandemic moments, while stewing that I couldn’t get anything done, in a disabused huff before a snowy street (yes, real winter did come). I can also key into the winter of 2001 (a time I breathed in more fully because younger and less accountable), trudging the streets of Heidelberg’s Alt-stadt or taking a series of trams and trains to get to a thumping party in the suburbs where I searched for something to jolt me, unman me—make me shine and cry. So art has the ability to put us in touch with the very vividness that might not have been before one’s eyes the first time because we were too busy living life. Viewed in this way, art can be the most powerful humankind-constructed object, much more valuable than most have reason to believe. One often hears of older people who start relationships and say, I feel alive again (as I fall in love again). Maybe art, besides the rarity of unconditional love, is the best thing to give other people. The desire to create art, according to filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, comes out of a restlessness, and he says “….to add something to yourself to counter your deeper feelings of inadequacy.” Someone’s inadequacy can become someone else’s salvation, since in art there is the possibility for unconscionable time-travel, to paint our memories as exquisitely as Vermeer, as chaotic as Pollack.♦︎
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and, Especially the Bad Things, stories were both published by Splice in 2019. Zerogram Press released a new and expanded version of See What I See in 2021.