Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review: A Slow, Inquiring Narration

This morning Open Letters Monthly published my REVIEW of The Moravian Night. It is one of the most difficult reviews I have ever written, difficult in part because I wanted to get at the important ideas and forms of what I think is a brilliant novel, in part because the translation blocks access to those ideas. See what you think.



​Let me start with minor and end with my major quibbles to my good friend Scott Abbott's piece on Peter Handke's MORAVIAN NIGHT. 

1-I did did not just translate Handke’s early plays -   the Sprechstuecke of the 60s - but two volumes: KASPAR & OTHER PLAYS + RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE & OTHER PLAYS + the 1981 WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES, 10 plays over the course of 15 years;  in addition, two volumes of poetry, INNERWORLD OF THE OUTERWORLD OF THE INNERWORLD + NONSENSE & HAPPINESS. 

2- The 8 year delay in the publication of MORAVIAN has to do, in large part, with Krishna Winston, FSG's translator of choice, being backed up with work as I might have mentioned in my 

which Scott has had for some time and where he might have discovered that the reasons for Handke's waning sales are at least threefold: an EIGHT YEAR and not a four year break between the extremely successful publication of LEFT HANDED WOMAN & the collection of three different books of Handke's under the title of the novel contained therein A SLOW HOMECOMING, a lapse that sapped the great interest also manifested in mass paperback sales of the early books as TWO BY HANDKE, THREE BY HANDKE. I was no longer Handke's editor at FSG [of which Handke must have had at least ten during the nearly 50 years of his publication history with the firm] - but, working as an editor in New York, stayed well informed & advised against that delay.     

which Scott has had for some time and where he might have discovered that the reasons for Handke's waning sales are at least threefold: an EIHGT YEAR and not a four year break between the extremely successful publication of LEFT HANDED WOMAN & the collection of three different books of Handke's under the title of the novel contained therein A SLOW HOMECOMING, a lapse that sapped the great interest also manifested in mass paperback sales of the early books as TWO BY HANDKE, THREE BY HANDKE. I was no longer Handke's editor at FSG [of which Handke must have had at least ten during the nearly 50 years of his publication history with the firm] - but, working as an editor in New York, stayed well informed & advised against that delay.     


However, there are not only the enumerated grave mistakes that Handke's publisher made but    

where you have one single solitary review by a true peer in all these years and can find but a single reprintable review among the whelm of shlock from the New York Times Book Review. - And faithless directors and producers in the matter of the later plays. 

If you want an example of what this country does when someone of a truly higher order appears - artistically that is as well as autistically are the two orders I claim = Handke became exemplary in one manner he certainly did not want to be. And then there is a fickle public made even fickler by the aforegoing.

3-I happen to like Krishna Winston’s translations a great deal

no matter that I, too. find the occasional significant error - very occasional - that if Ms. Winston had sound editors at FSG would have been corrected. When the going gets tough Krishna needs to consult! Scott is entirely unfair. I, too, find one or two sentences to quibble with, as I do in Sott’ work, as I do in my own when I look at older stuff. Quibbling provincial professors of Germanics among the marmots in Utah tend to be particularly myopic. Thus the quality of the translations would seem to be the very least of matters militating against the reception of the work of the mature Handke.     


And now to serious disagreement on a few points of Scott’s reading of MORAWIAN NIGHT, a book we like equally well, it has become my second most favorite Handke:

“Peter Handke’s The Moravian Night is a novel about storytelling,” Scott writes & mistakes, speciously, effort - a craftsman’s lifelong consideration - for the result  which in the instance produced some of the finest realistic , graphically, painterly  and playfully inventive work that Handke has done. If Handke, a considerable essayist  - note  his THREE ESSAYS - had wanted to write on “story telling” he would have done so in that form and not at epic 150,000 word length and forced Scott’s tiresome iteration of Handke’s thoughtfulness on the matter each time that Handke is thoughtful prior to the demonstration of the result of thoughtfulness, which after all is what manifests itself to readers and provides their experience of the text.

Handke is a slight of hand artist - an artificer par excellence in Joyce’s sense - who can make a text read as though you are experiencing a film, he does here briefly once at the opening of a long marvelous wandering section along the Danube flood plains. 

“Perception,” of  which Scott makes serious fuss, is influenced - also deceived - by any number of matters, including the unconscious, as we have know with some finality; particularly in an instance of a writer like Handke who is hyper-super sensitive to the inside and the outside of the inside - to put it this way and not address the matter in a psycho-neuro-physicist fashion. Just one example: The section set in Corduba/ Krk, which Scott cites, strikes me, the reader as though narrated against a backdrop of a dramatic El Greco painting - Glackens also comes to mind -  corposcular crepuscular - that is the created suggested mood, and appropriate to the grim subject at hand that Handke’s painterly craft achieves. Handke does not “modulate” experience verbally, that would be naturalism, he creates experiences, he is an inventor so as to communicate, to dominate, to play, to make aware & has developed the means to do so. If the book is ABOUT narration it is so only as yet one other virtuoso performance of all or many of the ways that Handke can do so.

MORAVIAN NIGHT is not any kind of ordinary novel or saga but a collage whose slithers are stitched via a narrator who reports an ex-author’s experiences - the slithers if they fit anywhere overall do so in what I call Handke's grand display of his Yoknapawtaka self, in analogy to Faulkner's county where all of that great writer’s books are set. Perhaps Scott can show how these and the other slivers are to be read a part of a novel or saga or whatever you want to call MORAWIAN NIGHT, which is so different from Handke's other books, where Scott's imprecation would make sense. My experience of these great books is of their being unitary experiences that alter my state of mind, kinethetially, analogous to what some of his plays do in inducing catharses, I feel healthy as a consequence, healthier. Here in MORAWIAN NIGHT, I have this sensation only on a few occasions where there is a continuous narrative, the Galicia tunnel section, the wandering around the Danube flood plain - I certainly do not have this sense  during the narrative stitching of these episodes to the evening on board the ship. I maintain that MORAWIAN NIGHT is a collage, a portmanteau for all kinds of things that Handke had not accommodated anywhere else, and for subjects he chose not address in one of what I call his Assayings, those probing essays. If the subject interests your readers they may want to join me and Scott in our ongoing discussion of any number of aspects of this book at:

Sincerely Michael Roloff




4:21 PM (32 minutes ago)

to Scott

MORAWIAN NIGHT just is not a novel, or of a kind that Handke has written peviously. It is a grab bag of experiences of his own kind, some of which are altered some of which are not altered. It is a collage. You don’t really give examples except to quote Handke saying he thinks about these matters, I happened to find that the result of the dwelling & the manner in whch this disparate material is sewn narrated together fascinating and impressive but not the subject. The book has a variety of subjects, one major one I think is Handke’s feeling about Yugoslavia/ the Balkans, you notice this toward the end especially after the ex-author after his roundabout ends where he started off & he is rather sad about a lot of the changes that the disintegration has brought, although he does not name these events in those words but refers to the last war.Perhaps his feelings about nationality is even a subject since he fee4ls far more positively about the younger generation than he use to. germany is given that very short negative shrift. handke is a true “central european’ a term he evidently hates and derides, in thinking in terms of nationalities, plus ca change la meme chose in that respect. perhaps paranoia when it comes to women is a subject, it certainly is a poweful theme that keep cropping up in a variety of ways. i don’t think that asking for forgivenes is as tht cornila cheuse woman suggests whose paper i uploaded.
as to the transaltion, to cite a few major mistakes in a work of 150,000 words is quibbling, and i define where i agree with you: when truly challenged Ms. Winston is not up to th the task. But overall she has given me real pleasure over the years, more so than Handke’s previous chief prose translator did. To be fair would mean to cite the overwhelming number of sucessful paragraphs.


A few further thoughts on our disagreement, which I think comes down to those famous words: “the” & “about”.

I might just agree with you if we substituted “a” for the “the” & “theme” for “subject.”

If you look at the book, as I suggest, as a collage - how do folks go about “reading collages”? Not like ordinary paintings, although the overall of course leaves an initial usual puzzling, as here, impression - ‘how does all this fit together’ ? and then you notice the threads, the heavy Balkan thread that starts with the location of the narrative, that takes over with the bus ride, moves on to Krk.... keeps being tied, all those disparate stories, observations, this and that, Handke knick-knacks, to the boat where this is being narrated, and ends with very heavy emphasis back in the Balkans... If you look at this picture from the writer’s view who had this wonderful conception of creating a collage and unloading a lot of stuff you can see why it got him hot...though what it amounts to in the altogether?? Perhaps if Handke had not just invented but written straight autobiography? But that would have bored him I think, even though he seems to be exquisitely aware of his life’s progress; there is the love story buried in the book, which may be Peter’s way of indicating how happy is to have regained the second run-away bride, and so he is quite willing to have her [and how many others?] call him as cold as a cadaver as a cold-blooded salamander. There is a lot of mystery in the book, especially of course regarding the situation aboard & that is just as well. Is there the “story” , the one story it appears you find, in the book? In the development and denouement of the Balkan theme perhaps, in Handke’s humorous letting go of it, his making fun of himself as having been one of the last fanatical defenders? Overall it’s a pot pouri & I wonder what if any serious critics tangle with it here will do with the beast.

In the bye and bye it occurrs to me that Scott has smoked Melchior's incense, and I will leave it at that right now.,


Franz Angst said...

I have now finished reading also the translation of MORAVIAN NIGHT and have had some time to think about it and Michael Roloff and Scott Abbott’s different responses - the NY Times reviewer Cohen, Joshua I bet is as awful a novelist as a reviewer.

I love the Frenon quote that Abbott puts ahead of his piece -”He said: to tell stories is to ratify the social... To take part in its game. Since childhood we have been constituted by stories that we have to believe in.. .” But I don’t see this kind of existential need for story-telling as a social fabric in MORAVIAN, or sense at any moment an extreme need on the writer’s part to convey this elaborate tale of tales. Nor do I see that lying or falsification is a necessary part of story telling, if an existential need existed for the narrator to tell this sequence of stories, and the use of the quote strikes me as yet another form of speciousness.

The mention of Samarkand very much puts me in the mood, in an anticipation of a “thousand and one night” and, initially, the first, the invitation section, reinforces that expectation, anticipation, and is one kind of story telling, it creates an “as if” state that is then realized or not... and “not” is my over-all sense despite or perhaps because the numerous so widely differing stories and events that are recounted - one year in the life, or what easily could be one year in that writer’s, in Peter Handke’s life since the book’s stages correspond to Handke’s, but my feeling is that it is the different kinds of subjects and events are what make for the different kinds of telling these stories, or afford different kinds of forms of narration, including all that narrating and what Roloff calls stitching splicing, you sort of get the bottom part of a basket woven if you see what I mean or half weaver bird’s bower to use Roloff’s amusing metaphor for the whole.

Samarkand and Numancia - their both having been forts, strongholds, conquered by very different armies is one commonality - if Handke had that commonality in mind? Numancia as a story telling venue comes as news - however, in MORAVIAN it is the location of the Noise Symposium, an imaginary event created for this novel, but growing out of, so I gather, Handke’s frustration, and not just his, with the intrusion of all kinds of hideous noises even into his fairly pastoral suburban retreat; and the writer’s acquaintance with this odd poet Pablo, Handke himself wrote one of his essays in nearby Soria, one of the fording points of the Duero. What shocks me is Handke’s brutality to women - here he assaults an unsuspecting -former lover? - is that part of “story telling”, all that paranoia about women or a woman lurking in the reeds in the Morava, no wonder is all I can say! Or the abandoned girl friend on Corfula, now a vengeful crone. These matters are told, but not resolved, or understood. It might be true, it might not be, it’s just a tale told by an idiot writer! With a lot of time on his hand for sure. I don’t know gospodin Handke, we were in contact just once, when I sent him Roloff’s first essay on the his first books on the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Handke refused to accept Roloff’s mail, but then had no objection to Roloff’s essay, but for one point where Roloff had misread a passage as being anti-Croatian, yet asked me in his reply whether I thought Roloff was a socio-path. Not only did the question take me aback, since after all Handke and did not know each other, but Roloff had informed me why Handke was not replying to his mail, and I knew quite a bit about Handke personally at that point, and why there was bad blood between them, not Roloff’s doing best as I could tell, and so I concluded that I might be correct in my feeling that Handke had a schizophrenic streak, in addition to his autism, later sent him the then bible on the subject, but did not hear back, or that he was just too brilliant to be socially aware; thus in some way Moravian Night is a deeply troubling book, and not in the way that that idiot Joshua Cohen means.


Let's not get into that "bad blood",my friend, it has little relevance here. However, I agree that Scott's use of the quote is specious, too. For what is "social" in this monologue? with very beautiful and amazing writing but also quite a bit of self-serving self-justification. It is an autistic, self-enclosed fantasy.