I spent the past week introducing myself to the writings of Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel laureate in Literature. I didn’t know what to expect, as I was unfamiliar with his writings, especially in translation.
I read his novel, “Absence”, published in 1992. I had mixed feelings within the first few pages, for I found myself lost in details. I generally do not start well when there is extensive description of the setting at the very beginning of the story. However, some of the greatest books I’ve read started out in such a fashion.
WHY SO ABSENT
One thing I loved about the story was the perspective, not only of the four main characters individually, but also from the moment they formed a group. Even so, the main character was neither of them, but the Absence they all shared within their own existences.
“Knowledge would destroy me the same as work, it would make me cold and stupid.” (Absence, 30)
Each was detached from reality. By focusing on the vivid scenery of their ever changing surroundings, the author showed me that these four personalities may not have even noticed these details. As they travelled further from their origin city, the environment became the obstacle against which they struggled, ultimately uniting them, however briefly, in the Presence of the struggle. It almost gave them a reason to live.
“They call me the freest of men, but I’m just indifferent, volatile. I say what I like and go where I please, but it gives me no feelings of freedom; I feel only the injustice and privation I’ve suffered…
They call me a king, but I’m just a liar and a hypocrite. My generosity is really condescension, my indulgence and attitude of live and let live is disloyalty, my aloofness contempt.” (Absence, 23)
Throughout the story, each of these personalities (the old man, the soldier, the gambler, the actress) spoke aloud their internal dialogue which granted us an understanding of the conditions that created these lost souls. When they do speak, it’s as if they each talk at the group and rarely engage in dialogue with one another.
”Only for love would I leave here; only for love would I travel day and night, climb mountains, ride horseback, swim, always in a straight line, straight ahead, without any of your detours…” (Absence, 31)
WHERE THEY ARE NOT
In the last half of the story, after a bivouac of the old man’s choosing, three of them embark on a quest to rejoin the one gone missing. They believe in their souls they will be reunited, as they follow a map that may bring them all together.
”I believe in places, not the big ones, but the small, unknown ones, in other countries as well as our own.” (Absence, 43)
In the end, they do not know or recognize each other, nor are they happy to be in one another’s company any longer. They share a table and express their anger in unique ways. They’ve all lost something by leaving their former lives and embarking on this journey. Not to mention, someone is still missing.
”I believe in the oases of emptiness, not removal from fullness, but in the midst of it.” (Absence, 43)
Boom. That last quote, in my opinion, perfectly captures this amazing story by Peter Handke.
So, my reading of Handke for this week has ended. (I’m actually a little behind posting this due to unexpected damage from a flooding toilet!) I’ve finally received another of Handke’s works, The Moravian Night, which I will read as the year progresses.
Remember, my plan is to read the works from 42 different Nobel laureates in 2020. Given the legos in my toilet, I’m glad I have a buffer!
Do you have your own reading goals for 2021? Please share them below so!
The next author is the 2018 Noble laureate, Olga Tokarczuk. I’ve purchased her book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and I’m starting it today. So excited!