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Book Review : Poised on the Threshold of Reality, Redemption

June 25, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Across by Peter Handke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $14.95)

Peter Handke, the Austrian writer, is a literary master of estrangement, but lately he has been working on reconciliation. He works by contract. In an icy framework, the warmth ravishes. In a framework of stylistic difficulty, the sudden clarity startles.

"Across," a brief and beautiful novella, has its obscurity, but essentially it is very clear indeed. Set in Salzburg over Easter week, it is a parable of redemption.

Its narrator, who sometimes writes of himself in the third person--for example, in a moment of depression, as "the bundle on the bed"--is a schoolteacher and an amateur archeologist.

He is adrift; his bonds to the world around him have loosened; the emotional equivalent of connective tissue has shrunk. He is not, at present, working at his teaching job, though he is not actually on leave. He is not living, at present, with his family though there is no definite split. He has more or less finished a paper on Roman thresholds, but has neglected to send it in.

He wanders endlessly around Salzburg outskirts: the housing development in which he lives, a canal that runs nearby, and the foothills beyond.

Minutely Detailed

Everything is noted minutely. There are the patterns of grasses and shrubs, the angle of the light, the striations of the rocks. It is more geology than nature. The detail is abundant but desolate. The narrator does not accept what he sees as reality, but as isolated and baffling clues to a far more sinister reality he does not see. Precision is necessary, as it is in archeology, because it is the only hope for assembling an elusive picture.

Violence is building up in him. A pedestrian jostles him; he knocks the pedestrian down. Enraged by some posters on a woodland path, he tears them down. And so, one evening when he comes upon a freshly sprayed swastika on a beech tree, he is prepared. He grabs up a stone, sets out on a run, comes upon an old man with a spray can, and kills him.

It is the nadir, this Good Friday killing, in the cycle of alienation, violence and retribution that has gone on over our centuries. The old man reasserts his old loathsome creed, which the Good War, in Studs Terkel's phrase, sought to destroy. The narrator reasserts this Good War. And yet--again, the Easter symbolism--the killing is the beginning of redemption.

"This is my history now. Justice had been done and I belonged to the nation of criminals," the narrator tells himself with dreadful clarity. The cycle must be broken and, an intellectual, he seizes upon a word to do the breaking.

Considers Thresholds

The word is threshold ; the subject, precisely, of his archeology. The narrator goes to a regular session with a group of card-playing acquaintances--that most elusive and least compromising form of companionship. He launches "threshold" into the desultory conversation, and lights it up. Everywhere in our world, there are boundaries: between the good guys and the bad guys, between human reason and human instinct, between man and nature, between the ugly and the beautiful. Wars, material or psychological, are fought across them.

Instead, the conversation goes, consider the threshold. The card players recall their own images. It is a place you pause over, when you come from the world into your home. A man will sit on his threshold in the evening, and it invites passing neighbors to stop and chat. When you sit on a threshold, the door cannot be closed.

One of the card players, a priest, reflects that a threshold is not merely a passage from one place to another, but a precinct of its own, "a place of testing or of safety." Thresholds stand for a relationship of mediation and transformation among people, instead of a relationship of confrontation.

Real and Surreal

It is a philosophical conceit, but Handke's grace of language and richness of association make it work. The narrator is real and surreal at the same time; and it seems perfectly natural when his life changes drastically after that single, giddy conversation.

He goes home and lies down. It is still midway in the Easter weekend; there is silence outside, and hardly a movement. He is inert, almost without existence. And suddenly, he notices the flaring color of a hibiscus flower in the window. It is like an Easter bell. He mails off his manuscript; an affectionate letter from the school principal brings the idea of teaching back into life.

He dresses himself with fastidious care, and begins a hallucinatory pilgrimage and ramble through a world that is suddenly many-splendored. At the heart of every German and Austrian writer, it seems, there is an innate capacity to be ravished by nature. Suddenly, the grass, the mountain, the light, are no longer foreboding symptoms, but an abundant reality. They overcome us, in Handke's scintillating evocation, as they overcome the narrator.

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