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Of What, Then, Shall He Write? : THE AFTERNOON OF A WRITER by Peter Handke translated by Ralph Manheim (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $14.95; 86 pp.)

July 16, 1989|Ursula Hegi | Hegi is the author of "Intrusions" and "Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories." She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. and

Language functions as barrier and bridge in Peter Handke's "The Afternoon of a Writer," a fascinating exploration of a man who has distanced himself from his life and, therefore, from the material he draws from in his writing. Though aware of sensuous details in his environment, he remains emotionally detached. His major connection to the world is through language, a sequence of words which--he reminds himself frequently--he has lost contact with before.

Handke's nameless writer, who lives with his nameless cat in an unnamed German city with many bridges, believes he wants to be with people; yet, he cannot even tolerate a superficial encounter. In a restaurant, he notices the waitress' little boy at a table next to the kitchen door. "Instead of looking at the child for any length of time, he had intermittently registered its presence. And now the place at the table was empty." This sense of loss is repeated throughout the novel, a loss of something that never was real to begin with.

The writer wants anonymity, not the terrible intimacy with the public who feels it owns him, who can take his photo, stop him, demand an autograph. "He was no longer a writer as he had been during the hour after work, but was merely playing the part of a writer in a forced, ridiculous way."

His house is a place to work and sleep--no more than that. He can't picture a home, just as he can't picture a family for himself. His connections to people are wordless--he imagines himself into their lives, surrounds them with his compassion. The first explored human relationship in the novel is the writer's bizarre link to an unknown correspondent who showers him with cryptic letters in gray envelopes, often several a day.

Stunted in his human interactions, he moves in a compulsive pattern of actions that defines his days, pacified by superstitious rituals he sets for himself to assuage his doubts and nourish the hope that words will be there for him the next day. His moods change swiftly, ranging from childlike joy to anguish. He has frequent nightmares that "what he had written that day was irrelevant and meaningless . . . for to write was criminal; to produce a work of art, a book, was presumption, more damnable than any other sin."

Rescue is the only direct human contact he feels comfortable with: Once he saved a child from drowning, and during his afternoon walk he rescues an old woman who has collapsed along the side of the road. In a brief, moving scene, her tragedy connects him in "inspired namelessness" to others who assist him in helping the woman.

Aware that he has shut himself out from society, he analyzes his reactions and his responses to these observations, turning in a tight circle within himself that is only relieved when he makes a journey of imagination into someone else. Like a voyeur, he walks past houses and looks into lit rooms--an outsider who subsists on unfocused desires, who sees and hears in a unique way, who is alive to outside impressions, but who--ultimately--cannot connect. While the people he observes become catalysts for his writing, he stays detached--a choice that preserves his solitude but, at times, fills him with despair. "Why was it only when alone that he was able to participate fully?" The one thing worse than this kind of despair is the abyss of not writing, of being cut off from the one connection he has left.

In his youth, literature meant freedom to him; now he is cynical at the insights of critics and refuses to be one of them. One of the best scenes in "The Afternoon of a Writer" is his meeting with his translator who used to be a writer, who believed in his own vision until he was crushed by the belief that the attempt to express that vision was sin, who spiraled into a fear that finally released him from the need to write his own material. The old man has found freedom in translating the words of others, and he has become the rescuer of literature, carrying his manuscript bag like the "basket in which Miriam entrusted the infant Moses to the river Nile."

Handke's new novel poses interesting questions about the balance between the nature of solitude and the nature of writing. At what point did the writer's isolation start to get in the way of his writing? What came first for him--the isolation that drove him to write or the writing that demanded this isolation? Is it his connection to his words that made him flee from humanity, or did he find a sanctuary in writing because it was the only safe bond for him?

Handke never indicates whether his writer's work is of significance. People recognize him on the street; he has published several books; he meets with his translator; he owns a large house with a view. . . . But those are external successes--and the question that remains concerns the value of the writer's work. And perhaps that's evident without further details. How can a writer, who withdraws from life, render a whole vision?

"The Afternoon of a Writer" is the 12th book by Austrian-born Handke and, as his previous works, written in lean and clear prose. As in his novel, "The Left-Handed Woman," also translated by Ralph Manheim, Handke makes deliberate omissions that force his readers to seek their own conclusions. Both books are extremely short, fewer than 90 pages, but they deliver the essence of much longer works.

In some of his plays, Handke likes to develop language as if it were a character: In "Offending the Audience," he insulted his audiences to the point where they stormed the stage; in "Das Mundel Will Vormund Sein" ("The Ward Wants to Be Guardian"), he left his audiences stunned by the total absence of spoken words.

One of the strongest contemporary authors to emerge from German-speaking countries, Handke continues to probe the role of language: its inadequacy, its seduction, its integrity.

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