Peter Handke: The Weight of the World; Translated by Ralph Man heim; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York.
This combination of writer’s notebook and personal diary by the German novelist, playwright, poet, film writer and director Peter Handke is 243 pages of random perceptions, most of them just a few lines long. They were written between November 1975 and March 1977 while he was living in Paris with his daughter. He aims to capture with all their nuances the fleeting thoughts and impressions of daily life and human relationships. He admits to being weak er in knowledge than other writers but prides himself on his “poetic penetration of the world.” He has “a passion for perception” which impels him to note evanescent feelings and impressions that ordinarily go unrecorded. As one of the entries reveals, his notion of the ideal human being is “someone who can repeat for the benefit of others a feeling which, if only for a moment, he has had quietly and privately.”
There is a certain genius in his per ceptions. He avoids repetition, and al though the observations are usually of commonplace things, he generally manages to express them with more than commonplace skill. The reader derives a certain pleasure from the articulation of familiar but unremarked impressions: “Looking around in the dark movie house: so many glittering eyeglasses!” “How often when talking about celebrities people pretend, before naming them, to cast about fort heir names.”
But reading so many pages of brief, discrete perceptions is somehow oppressive, especially when the mood of so many of them is angry or melancholy. The author is shy, self-conscious, and uncomfortable around others and flees to solitude: “When I think I recognize someone on the street: a moment of terror.” But in solitude he feels forlorn, bored, and superfluous: “More and more, when I’m alone in a room, I lose the comforting feeling of synchronicity with many other lives and events; more and more, I feel excerpted, totally on my own.” “Which is worse: anxiety or people.” His principal satisfaction lies in his thoughts, and yet the only joys some days hold are moments devoid of thought. Many of the entries are preoccupied with fear, death, guilt, anxiety, panic, and aimlessness.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the book is not the observations themselves but the self-conscious intensity that produces them. Writing perceptions of life seems to take the place of living it: “I am sometimes active, but active life does not come natural to me; I can manage it only now and then.” He sometimes cuts short an experience in order to record it in his notebook, and many entries suggest that such writing is an evasion of the responsibilities engagement with life inevitably en tails. He seems to recognize this at one point when, after striking his daughter, to whom he impersonally refers throughout the book as “A” or “the child,” he turns to his notebook to record the appearance of footprints in dewy grass: “After my unwarranted treatment of the child, such perception strikes me as hypocritical, an attempt to mollify myself by taking an attitude of perception.”
To be so obsessively oriented toward recording impressions can be oppressive: “All things that do not interest me but that I am nevertheless forced to notice are trying to kill me.” Reading this book reminds one of the unsettling and sometimes frightening and incapacitating experience of becoming acutely self-conscious of one’s own breathing or heartbeat. cc