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Drizzle, Birdcall, Leaf Fall

MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY;\o7 By Peter Handke\f7 ;\o7 Translated from the German by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 356 pp., $30)\f7

November 29, 1998|WILLIAM H. GASS | William H. Gass is director of the International Writers Center at Washington University, St. Louis. His most recent book is "Cartesian Sonata."

When the Seine leaves Paris for the Channel, it makes several large loops while being forced by physics to skirt high ground. The first of these "bays" contains the hills of the Seine, low waves across a crescent-shaped region upon which the suburbs have intruded, but where large forests still remain, and also an area that shelters an airfield frequently bombed during World War II, so that craters can be seen on its many wooded walks. La Hauts-de-Seine halfmoons a landscape that is historically layered, in touch with the city but almost country in character, neither entirely one thing nor the other, a condition that makes it attractive to this geographical novel, in which flora and fauna, climate and terrain, are traits like those ascribed normally to fictional creatures and are the environments that the narrator walks through, either by himself or in the guise of friends who become his surrogate travelers.

In this bay, an area withdrawn from the whole, the narrator has marooned himself, and his journeys are confined to rambles that the onset of suburbanism has reduced and circumscribed. They take place over a terrain where any hill higher than a building becomes a mountain, but a mountain nevertheless so puny it fails to roughen the map: a no man's land where he--from January to December of 1993--will make his home and write this meditation on voyages once taken or presently imagined or repeatedly dreamed.

A nomad is one who carries his home along with him on his journeys, but there is another sort of wanderer depicted here: a writer who lives in fear of definition, of being fastened by a formula of words, of being pinned down at one stage of his development, always at risk of inadvertently acquiring roots, losing his detachment and therefore the distance he believes is essential to the practice of his art, distance that is sometimes described as the space behind a mirror. He is searching for points of vantage from which to glance at, rather than scrutinize, the world, an angle from which he may take in the rest, as if it were being seen out of the corner of his eye, because sidelong glances (a repeated motif) suggest that the observer does not wish to be included in the scene, is in the wings, off stage, not even a gent with flowers waiting for the diva in her dressing room.

The narrator's first name is Gregor, a name borrowed from Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and his last name is Keuschnig, the K coming from "The Castle," with the additional suggestion of purity through the meaning of keusch, which includes just a hint of virginity. There is an inviting but treacherous resemblance between PeterHandke's circumstances as we know them from news reports and books, and the novel-writing persona of the book he writes--not, of course, to him, a novel rather a meditation, a journal, a travelogue, an interrogation, an activity that becomes simply unaimed writing, unaimed in order that something fundamental may be struck. About time, too, for this is a millennial novel. Characters from other books will show up briefly; periods from the author's career, scarcely disguised, will float like loosened leaves across the steady stream of this prose; difficulties wrestled with through several decades of public pronouncement, will be confronted again, especially thoughts preconceived and jotted down in a journal written in the '70s during Handke's first "Paris period" (like the narrator's own earlier sojourn near the city) and published in English as "The Weight of the World."

"The feeling that almost everything I have seen or heard up to now loses its original form the moment it enters into me, that it can no longer be directly described in words or represented in images, but is instantly metamorphosed into something quite formless; as though the effort of my writing were needed to change the innumerable formless pupae inside me into something essentially different . . . and to fashion them into something radiantly new, in which, however, one senses the old, the original experience, as one senses the caterpillar in the butterfly!"

In this book, the anticipated metamorphosis will happen to Gregor Keuschnig himself, a name that seems strange for a reader to write or to say, it occurs so rarely. In these many rich pages, which we have to imagine in their original German (here transformed beautifully by Krishna Winston's translation) dotted with ich-es instead of Is: ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . I walked, thought, felt, saw, remembered, imagined, feared, sought . . . ich . . . ich . . . ich . . . like footsteps on sodden ground.

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