30 / CHRONICLESnThe Great Spirit ofnFormnby Stephen TannernSlow Homecoming by Peter Handke,ntranslated by Ralph Manheim,nNew York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux;n$16.95.nMalcolm Bradbury describes PeternHandke as “unmistakably one of thenbest writers we have in that selfdiscoveringntendency in contemporarynwriting we have chosen to call postmodernism.”nAnd, true enough,nHandke is eminently skillful at whatnhe sets out to do. Poet and playwrightnas weh as novelist, he is concernednabove all with exploring the alienatednindividual’s struggle with the externalnworld, his hope being that the individual’sndiscovery of “form” in that worldnsomehow reduces the alienation. Bornnin Austria in 1942 and plagued by ansense of guilt concerning the Germannrole in World War II, he believes innwriting as artistic and philosophic inquiry,na search into forms in pursuit ofnindividual inner peace divorced fromnthe chaotic realm of human history.nSome might view this inquiry more asna retreat than a search, for Handke isnexplicit in identifying such “formcreatingnthought” with introversionnand withdrawal from human interactionnand conflict.nFor example, during a moment ofnillumination in the first of this book’snthree stories, the central character realizesn”that history is not a mere sequencenof evils, which someone likenme can do nothing but despise—butnhas also, from time immemorial, beenna peace-fostering form that can benperpetuated by anyone (includingnme).” Formlessness (later equated withnextroversion) inspires guilt, he concludes;nbut meticulous observationnand articulation of the present mo­nBOOKSHELVESnment’s forms, no matter how insignificantnthe situation, is a purposeful,nsatisfying end in itself “I believe innthis moment,” the character says; “innwriting it down; J make it my law.”nHandke, as demonstrated particularlynin this book and his earlier The Weightnof the World, a collection of notebooknentries, has a remarkable ability tonarticulate impressions of the immediatenmoment, an ability obviously generatednby a conviction that such formulationnis a primary goal of literarynart.nIn the first story, “The Long WaynAround,” Valentin Sorger, a geologistnwho is “nowhere at home,” tries tonfind a saving sense of home in thenpatterns of landscape near a remotenAlaskan village. The isolation and tediumnof his situation force him “tontake the environing world seriously innthe least of its forms.” His observing,nnote-taking, and drawing save his souln”by differentiating him from the GreatnFormlessness and its dangerous moodsnand caprices,” a formlessness henequates with death, evil, and weightlessness.nHe realizes that he is “tonsome extent practicing a religion,” butnit is not a nature religion because hisnfaith is “directed at nothing.” He isnseeking neither God nor any kind ofnsupernatural fulfillment, but rather ansalvation through form, wrought bynattempting to “project a vision of ordernand clarity.” He wants “to teach thenlandscape to be rational” and surroundnhimself with “the worldly-heavenlyncharm of things.” In short, he wantsn”the outside world [to] become a livingndynamic space behind his forehead.”nUltimately, however, he feels compelled,nthough reluctant, to return tonthe familiar environment of his nativenEurope.nThe narrator of the second story,n”The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire,”nis the author of Sorger’s story.nHe has learned from Gezanne’s paint­nnning or realisation of simple earthynforms that reality doesn’t have to benhard and evil. Catching simple realitynor the form in common things cannproduce peace. Gezanne’s reality, henbelieves, “became the form henachieved, the form that does not lamentntranseience or the vicissitudes ofnhistory, but transmits existence innpeace. Art is concerned with nothingnmore.”nThis secular aesthetic religion has ancertain appeal in an alarmingly disorderednmodern world, but seeking salvationnsolely in feelings for colors andnforms and the spacing and arrangementnof objects has a price. This pricenbecomes clear, without the author intendingnit to do so, in the third story,n”Child Story.” The narrator resemblesnboth Sorger and Sorger’s creator. Divorcednfrom his wife, he immersesnhimself in the life of his young daughter,nstruggling to find a place for thentwo of them: a home. It becomesnclear, however, that his introvertednattempts to find a “home” in then”realm of forms” militate against hisnattempts to find a literal home bynadjusting to the unsettling realities ofnactual life. Being so intensely aware ofnthe formal impressions of the momentnseems to lead to neuroticism and awaynfrom the common sense that allowsnone to understand children and meetnpractical problems. The situation isnepitomized on a page in which he bothncontemplates the beauty and sanctuarynof his religion of forms and strikes hisndaughter in the face with all his might.nThis book is characteristic of a currentntrend of self-reflexive fictionnwhich, displaying remarkable technicalnskill, would confine literary art tonmatters of style and form as ends innthemselves.nStephen Tanner is professor of Englishnat Brigham Young University.n