Malcolm Bradbury describes Peter Handke as “unmistakably one of the best writers we have in that selfdiscovering tendency in contemporary writing we have chosen to call postmodernism.” And, true enough, Handke is eminently skillful at what he sets out to do. Poet and playwright as well as novelist, he is concerned above all with exploring the alienated individual’s struggle with the external world, his hope being that the individual’s discovery of “form” in that world somehow reduces the alienation. Born in Austria in 1942 and plagued by a sense of guilt concerning the German role in World War II, he believes in writing as artistic and philosophic inquiry, a search into forms in pursuit of individual inner peace divorced from the chaotic realm of human history. Some might view this inquiry more as a retreat than a search, for Handke is explicit in identifying such “formcreating thought” with introversion and withdrawal from human interaction and conflict.

For example, during a moment of illumination in the first of this book’s three stories, the central character realizes “that history is not a mere sequence of evils, which someone like me can do nothing but despise—but has also, from time immemorial, been a peace-fostering form that can be perpetuated by anyone (including me).” Formlessness (later equated with extroversion) inspires guilt, he concludes; but meticulous observation and articulation of the present moment’s forms, no matter how insignificant the situation, is a purposeful, satisfying end in itself “I believe in this moment,” the character says; “in writing it down; I make it my law.” Handke, as demonstrated particularly in this book and his earlier The Weight of the World, a collection of notebook entries, has a remarkable ability to articulate impressions of the immediate moment, an ability obviously generated by a conviction that such formulation is a primary goal of literary art.

In the first story, “The Long Way Around,” Valentin Sorger, a geologist who is “nowhere at home,” tries to find a saving sense of home in the patterns of landscape near a remote Alaskan village. The isolation and tedium of his situation force him “to take the environing world seriously in the least of its forms.” His observing, note-taking, and drawing save his soul “by differentiating him from the Great Formlessness and its dangerous moods and caprices,” a formlessness he equates with death, evil, and weightlessness. He realizes that he is “to some extent practicing a religion,” but it is not a nature religion because his faith is “directed at nothing.” He is seeking neither God nor any kind of supernatural fulfillment, but rather a salvation through form, wrought by attempting to “project a vision of order and clarity.” He wants “to teach the landscape to be rational” and surround himself with “the worldly-heavenly charm of things.” In short, he wants “the outside world [to] become a living dynamic space behind his forehead.” Ultimately, however, he feels compelled, though reluctant, to return to the familiar environment of his native Europe.

The narrator of the second story, “The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire,” is the author of Sorger’s story. He has learned from Gezanne’s painting or realisation of simple earthy forms that reality doesn’t have to be hard and evil. Catching simple reality or the form in common things can produce peace. Gezanne’s reality, he believes, “became the form he achieved, the form that does not lament transcience or the vicissitudes of history, but transmits existence in peace. Art is concerned with nothing more.”

This secular aesthetic religion has a certain appeal in an alarmingly disordered modern world, but seeking salvation solely in feelings for colors and forms and the spacing and arrangement of objects has a price. This price becomes clear, without the author intending it to do so, in the third story, “Child Story.” The narrator resembles both Sorger and Sorger’s creator. Divorced from his wife, he immerses himself in the life of his young daughter, struggling to find a place for the two of them: a home. It becomes clear, however, that his introverted attempts to find a “home” in the “realm of forms” militate against his attempts to find a literal home by adjusting to the unsettling realities of actual life. Being so intensely aware of the formal impressions of the moment seems to lead to neuroticism and away from the common sense that allows one to understand children and meet practical problems. The situation is epitomized on a page in which he both contemplates the beauty and sanctuary of his religion of forms and strikes his daughter in the face with all his might.

This book is characteristic of a current trend of self-reflexive fiction which, displaying remarkable technical skill, would confine literary art to matters of style and form as ends in themselves.


[Slow Homecoming, by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $16.95]