A Slow, Inquiring Narration
The Moravian Night
By Peter Handke, Translated by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2016
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, take part in, that we have to reproduce, mimic. A cunning joining of stories fabricates the temporality into which we are thrown and gives to the arbitrary or sleight of hand the semblance of natural causes. To shatter narration is to kick against this, he said.
-Jean Fremon, The Botanical Garden, translated by Brian Evenson
Peter Handke’s The Moravian Night is a novel about storytelling. Its first words declare that “Every country has its Samarkand”; on this night, the Samarkand of The Arabian Nights has a Balkan counterpart. A former writer has summoned several visitors to his houseboat on the Morava River in what is now Serbia and over the course of a single night he tells them about the journey from which he has returned. Readers have access to his account through a narrator who describes what he hears, who comments on the story as it progresses, and who sometimes simply repeats what the former writer says. Several audience members recount events they witnessed personally and the host listens eagerly to their versions of his experience. The novel’s ending calls the night’s stories into question and story becomes the story. In his preface for the American edition of A Journey to the Rivers, Handke explained that narration has always been his subject: “I wrote about my journey through the country of Serbia exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar—of aesthetic veracity; that has always been the case in what I have written, from the beginning to the final period.” This brilliant novel by one of the world’s most intriguing storytellers is, once again, a slow inquiring narration.
Peter Handke grew up in the village of Griffen, Austria, the son of a Slovenian-Austrian mother and of a German soldier. He attended a boarding school that trained future priests and for a short time studied law at the University of Graz. Suhrkamp, Germany’s premiere literary publisher, published his first and subsequent novels. His early plays, including “Offending the Audience” (four actors on a stage with no set directing epithets at the audience), drew considerable interest. In 1966 he attended the Princeton meeting of the Gruppe 47 and excoriated the august body for what he saw as “a kind of descriptive impotence in contemporary German prose. Unembellished description has become the answer. That is, of course, the cheapest thing literature can be made of.”
Handke’s third novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, was filmed by a young Wim Wenders, as was Handke’s Wrong Move (author and director discovered the young Nastasia Kinski playing pinball and cast her in the lead). Handke filmed his own The Left-Handed Woman and then his Absence (with Bruno Ganz, his wife Sophie Semin, and his former lover Jeanne Moreau). After his mother committed suicide he explored her life in what many feel is his most moving work, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Handke’s novel Repetition takes a young gymnasium graduate across the Austrian/Yugoslavia border in search of his brother lost during the war. Additional plays and novels and collections of aphorisms and essays appeared in quick succession along with translations from English (Walker Percy and Shakespeare), French (Bove, Ponge, Analis, and Modiano), Slovenian (Januš and Lipuš), and Greek (Euripides and Aeschylus). German literary prizes came one after the other and Handke was often spoken of as a good bet for a Nobel Prize.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia (as Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks pursued their nationalist interests in what had been a multicultural country) was a turning point. In a series of long essays Handke argued that Serbia was being portrayed as the sole aggressor in the civil wars and that the language of journalism was itself a tool of aggression. He traveled in Serbia and described it in language he thought more conducive to peace. (A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia is the only one of these essays in English translation; the German title, Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Sava, Morawa, und Drina, suggests a geographical connection with The Moravian Night.) Critics were merciless, attacking him with the same either/or language he was determined to replace with thinking marked by the conjunction “and.” Literary prizes were withdrawn and when a French writer published an essay interpreting Handke’s Yugoslavia work (and his attendance at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic) in the worst possible light, Handke’s The Play of Questioning was withdrawn from a planned production in Paris. Defenders of Handke, of which I was one, pointed out that the critics were inventing the supposed transgressions and that a reading of the essays revealed a thoughtful dialectic rather than a single-minded denial of Serbian guilt.
When Handke received the Norwegian International Ibsen Prize for Drama in 2014, there were protests. Karl Ove Knausgaard responded to the protests in an essay called “Handke and Singularity”, arguing that Handke’s Yugoslavia works are “another form of history-writing, about what goes on outside of public attention, the entire political-historical and generalizing system of concepts that has filled ‘Serbia’ with a whole bunch of fixed notions, unalterable and unshakable.” As it meanders through possibilities of narration beyond fixed notions and forms, The Moravian Night continues to call the unalterable and unshakable into question.
The stories told through the night place the former writer in Kosovo, on a Croatian island, in Spain, Germany, and Austria, and finally back on the Morava River. His first story is about a bus ride with emigrants travelling to a cemetery in a Kosovo village from which they have been exiled. In the bus he both experiences events and thinks about how he might transform them into a story. There is always tension between experience and narration and he is not happy that the comportment of his fellow passengers clashes “with his conception . . . his sense of a narrative based on all he had just witnessed.” In the story the bus is pelted with rocks thrown by people lining the streets and the bus driver responds by opening his window to blast out the pounding guitars of “Apache.” The driver compels the Steyr diesel engine to speak for him, to “howl . . . bellow, screech, drone, spit, grind its teeth, howl, sing off-key, growl, threaten (yes), threaten.” He launches an angry tirade against the rock throwers, against ethnic cleansers, against hate-filled nationalists, against nations in general. The story of the bus ride concludes and the former writer falls silent, the narrator reports, this kind of storytelling having put him “at risk, now as always before, of losing consciousness of others, and the result, instead of speech leaping across the gap to us, was his solitary murmuring and final falling silent.”
The next station of the former author’s journey is an island in the upper Adriatic where, as a young man, he had written his first novel. Peter Handke wrote his first novel on the island of Krk and the reader assumes that much of this story, as of the stories that follow, is drawn from Handke’s own experience. Still, this island visit, like the bus ride and each of the following “stages or stations” are not occasions for Peter Handke to examine himself nor to ask forgiveness (for abandoning an early girlfriend, for beating up a Salzburg lover, for his life-long estrangement from his biological father, for his having abandoned Austria for France), as several German critics have asserted. Handke draws on personal experience to have something to narrate, something to anchor his thoughts about narration. This novel is phenomenological in nature, its content provided by the former writer’s perceptions. Perception is in part determined by structures of space and time, as Kant argued, and by the structures of language through which we make sense of things. Those interactions have interested Handke from his earliest days. In his story about the island, the former writer thinks about his experience and about how narration affects his experience. He attends mass in the island church and then steps out into the night to witness the island corso around the square by the harbor, a walking circuit that seems to include everyone on the island. He wonders whether “without the succession of words, images, and actions from earlier in the church . . . would this movement have seemed as harmonious, flexible, inviting, inclusive?” The ritual narrative of the mass thus gives meaning to another ritual. As always in this novel and Handke’s work in general, the meaning is contingent, “the Mass just another movie,” and violence overtakes the corso.
Each chapter of the novel is an occasion to explore the ability of language adequately to represent perception and to question and enhance perception through narration. Close attention to butterflies and to people and to love and to violence raise narrative questions. Is a story best told as in a film? On canvas? Through political rhetoric? With the magic of fairy tales? In the rhythms of music? With the attention to language that is poetry? The former writer attends a convention on noise in Spain where, among other things, he comments on the disturbing voice of the conference center’s facilitator: “obviously trained, sonorous, mellifluous, and deliberately calming . . . the facilitator’s voice was torture to them.” Some forms of language, in this case rhetorically calculated facilitation, are anathema to the former writer. He walks with a local poet who explains that “descriptions, dialogue, stories mean nothing to me, not to mention plots, action, dramatic events, conflict, problems—yes indeed. Language alone means something to me.” The two men walk and talk and find refuge in their storytelling, which is “an alternative present. Who had had the insight at one point that ideas were deeds and should be treated as such?”
The next station of the journey will involve a love story, the former writer reveals, “in the form of ‘a literally unheard-of occurrence,’” citing Goethe’s famous definition of the novella and thus situating the experience firmly in the narrative possibilities of fiction. He approaches the love story slowly, detouring through descriptions of “quivering moments” of rapture, dangerous moments of absolute experience that so threaten his existence that he keeps moving until, finally, “enough delays,” he meets the woman. But how to tell a story of love? The woman is present during the Moravian night and she and the former writer both address what happened between them. There was a new time calculus, they agree, and as they search for words to describe their experience they turn to love stories for inspiration. Perhaps it was like “the iris shot in a film, blacking out everything around the two of them.” “Momentous things must have occurred.” Every place and every time begin to blend together in their love story and they reference William Faulkner’s feebleminded hero who fucks his beloved cow and cite Madame Bovary and Josef K. and Faust and Lady Macbeth and many others. The story ends with a cliché and with a question: “God protected the lovers, and for their part the lovers . . . protected: whom? Yes, whom?” All stories are true and all stories are fictions.
The two lovers separate and the former writer moves on to visit the place of his father’s birth and death in Germany. He relates his ongoing experience in the past tense and offers the narration to his absent lover. Old novels and paintings and the Noh theater provide possible narrative structures for his experiences in the Harz Mountains. In Austria the former writer happens on a gathering of jew’s-harp players whose simple music with limited means reminds him of his own craft. Imagined performances of national anthems raise his ire: “abusing the jew’s-harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible.” Each note should emanate from reflections, he thinks, should avoid “any kind of melodic demagoguery.” On a crowded train he is mesmerized by the sight of a girl reading, “visibly living in the book, spelling it out, interrogating it, interrogating herself.” The beautiful scene will mesmerize readers of The Moravian Night as well.
Concentrated solemnity radiated from her brow, her lowered lids, her flattish nose, her full lips, which at times seemed to be humming along with what she was reading. A solemnity that radiated—really? Yes, Mr. Know-It-All. And although he was gazing down at her as she sat there, legs crossed, it seemed to him, the more he immersed himself in this reader, that she was floating, weightless, above the ground, and he with her. Part of her solemnity was that now and then, even though she was clearly not reading anything comical, let alone humorous, she would smile or grin (quite a rarity, a grin on such a young face), or, most frequently, would shake her head after every paragraph—indicating her astonishment, her surprise, her inner eye-opening, venting itself in a barely audible sighing and/or giggling. Everything, everything about her, no matter how still she sat, harmonized with the book, and if the book facilitated such opening-up and becoming beautiful (but wasn’t openness already in itself beauty?). . . .
The former writer visits the city where he was a student and then, in a sequence trembling with apprehensions and misapprehensions, he walks through the night to his hometown, mistaking one person for another, meeting two characters from Peter Handke’s novels, staying the night with his half-brother and sleeping with the woman he was planning to meet at this stage in his journey but whom he had struck down in a fit of paranoia. Obsessed with narration, he realizes he cannot describe the night walk as do “classic on-the-road stories” and he searches for a more suitable form. He meets a man he calls “Melchior,” a genial figure who gradually reveals himself as his narrative nemesis. Melchior says he has followed the former writer and his literature for a long time, but that that kind of literature has had its day: “Poetic language is dead. . . . Only my language, the language of journalism, still lives. It alone hits the target, nails down the facts, doesn’t put you to sleep.” Melchior claims he has almost finished his own book about the former writer’s journey, a very different story from the one being told on the houseboat:
the plot, which is different from the one you just hinted at to me, the situations, dramatic in a different way, the characters, yes, real ones, not the stuff of dreams, and also the way the characters are characterized, their psyches and also the way their psychology is worked out, the current reality, and also the way it is realized, the climaxes and the elements of surprise, and also the way the ground is laid for them—all that can be learned in any creative-writing program.
Morning finally breaks over the river and the houseboat but the river and the houseboat and the guests have disappeared. Stories are not real. And nothing is as real as a story.
That this translation of The Moravian Night appears eight years after the novel appeared in German is troubling. For two decades, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published translations of Handke’s work like clockwork. Kaspar and Other Plays (1969), The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), Short Letter, Long Farewell (1974), A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1974), The Left-Handed Woman (1978), Across (1983), Repetition (1988), and Absence (1990) all reached the American public within two or three years after they were first read in German. Slow Homecoming (1985) was an anomaly, appearing four years after German publication of the last of its three parts. Then the pattern changed. My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay (1998) appeared after four years, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000) after three, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos (2007) after five, Don Juan (2010) after six, and now The Moravian Night (2016) eight years after its German publication. While Handke’s work continues at a remarkable rate, while he is honored with the Ibsen Prize (2014), while Philip Glass premieres his opera based on Handke’s play Spuren der Verirrten (Footprints of the Lost) to inaugurate the new opera house in Linz (2013), while the Salzburger Festspiele celebrates Handke’s play Still Storm (2011), while Claus Peymann premieres Handke’s play Die Unschuldigen (The Innocent) at Vienna’s Burgtheater (2016), while Wim Wenders films Handke’s Die schönen Tage von Aranjuez (The Beautiful Days of Arajuez, 2016), and while Corrina Belz’s documentary about Handke, Bin im Wald, Kann sein, daß ich mich verspäte (In the Woods, Might Be Late) plays in German theaters (2106), American readers must wait eight years for a translation of a major novel.
Twenty years ago I visited Peter Handke at his residence in Chaville, between Paris and Versailles. We talked about his travels in the former Yugoslavia with my friend and co-author Žarko Radaković. He sautéed mushrooms and served them with dark bread and Portuguese white wine. He showed me a recent letter from Roger Straus to Siegfried Unseld, Handke’s German publisher: “We have a problem, and his name is Peter Handke.” The books weren’t selling as they once had.
Why are the books not attracting larger audiences? For one thing, they are not being written by the journalist and creative-writing expert Melchior whose facile denunciation of poetic literature features so prominently in The Moravian Night. Another answer may lie in the American translations.
That day in Chaville Handke handed me a manuscript of the American translation of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay) and asked for an evaluation. I read a few pages and then pointed out an early sentence that, in the original, ended with “. . . an der Stelle des zwischendurch mich weiterwürgenden ‘Ende’ das Ding Verwandlung.” The translation rendered this as “. . . the ‘end’ that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing.” With the throwaway silliness of “this metamorphosis thing,” I told Handke, “Das Ding Verwandlung” (the thing that is metamorphosis) has lost its philosophical tension. And
the carefully wrought, eleven-word original phrase has been bloated to nineteen flaccid words. Your sentences have been flattened, the nuance is gone. How is it possible, I asked, that an editor with Straus’ reputation has no idea what this translation will do to your work?
Translation is risky business, a largely thankless enterprise. Even the best translators make mistakes. Ralph Manheim, for instance, who became the primary translator of Handke’s works after Michael Roloff’s translations of early poetry, plays, and the novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, misread the word “Feind” (enemy) as “Freund” (friend) near the beginning of Handke’s novel Repetition. (Nathanial Davis noted the mistake while translating W. G. Sebald’s essay “Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition.”) When Manheim died, Krishna Winston stepped in to translate the third of the essays published as The Jukebox & Other Essays on Storytelling and she has, in sequence, translated Handke’s My Year in the No-Man’s Bay, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, Don Juan, and now The Moravian Night (while also translating work by Günter Grass, Werner Herzog, and others). Weighing every word and every sentence that comprise the pages of these substantial and demanding works, she has brought into English some of the most important prose written in the last twenty years. The results are mixed, at best.
In his 2010 New York Times review of Don Juan, Joel Agee wrote that “Krishna Winston’s translation faithfully conveys what is said, but she tends to simplify and generalize how it is said. This is not a trivial subtraction. Like God and the Devil, Don Juan is in the details.” When the subject of a work is language, when the form of its sentences is the work’s content, when the possibilities of perception as mediated through and affected by language is a theme, simplification and generalization are death-dealing. Agee gave no examples of what he meant. At the risk of alienating readers who will be well rewarded by reading this translation despite its problems, I will point out several troubling passages. Much of Winson’s translation conveys the meaning of the original dutifully and sometimes it does so delightfully. Too often it leaves me scratching my head.
First, a sentence about the experience of time that is all but incomprehensible in the English translation, although it makes clear sense in German:
“Die Sekunden, die sowohl das Zweite, das Folgende bedeuteten als auch das Primäre, das Vorausgegangene; die das Vorausgegangene und das Folgende in sich vereinten.“
In Winston’s translation:
“The seconds that mean both what comes after something, what follows it, as well as the primary thing, the thing that precedes it, that combines what precedes and what follows.”
The translation pays no attention to the semi-colon of the original, and as a consequence misses the fact that it is the seconds “that combined” in the final phrase, not the thing “that combines.” It also misses the past tense, appropriate here as what is called narrative past in German. Here a translation that makes more sense:
“The seconds that meant both the secondary, what follows, as well as the primary, what precedes; that united what precedes and what follows in themselves.”
Sentences often lose their muscular shape in Winston’s translation. Compare this sentence of ten words that expands to eighteen in the English: “Dazu paßte, daß er in eine mir vertraute Spielhalle verschwand.” The translation: “What seemed to confirm this supposition was that he disappeared into an arcade with which I was familiar.” With a little attention to the spare nature of the original (a single prepositional phrase, no passive “to be,” no reference to a supposition), a better translation would be: “No surprise that he disappeared into a familiar arcade.” Handke’s sentences can be long and they are often complicated. They are never flabby. The translation is replete with sentences that feel like early drafts.
There are simple mistakes. This sentence, for instance, about the threatened violence at the cemetery visited by the bus-riding pilgrims and the military police there to protect them: “Die Ansammlung da blieb in Distanz ohne eine gezogene Waffe.” Translation: “The gathering kept its distance without even one weapon’s being drawn.” The ‘s is a simple typo that a good copyeditor should have caught. And why not translate the sentence more directly as “The crowd kept its distance with no weapon drawn”?
A more serious problem appears a few pages later when people lining the road begin to throw rocks at the bus:
Dazu ließ der Fahrer, der, so als sei nichts, das Fenster zu seiner Seite aufgeklappt hatte, inzwischen Musik hinausschallen, eine laute, die freilich, ganz unbalkanisch, wie sie war, ohne Harmonika-Klirren und Kurzrohrtrompeten-Schmettern, niemand provozieren konnte—es waren die weithin hallenden Gitarren des Instrumentalstücks „Apache“. . . .
In addition, the driver, who had cranked up the window on his side as if for no particular reason, now turned on music, loud, completely un-Balkan music, without rattling harmonicas or short-tube trumpet blasts, music that could not possibly provoke anyone; instead it was the long-distance echoing guitars from the “Apache” instrumental piece. . .
The first problem is with “In addition.” The driver’s action is no addition to the silent, rock-throwing crowds but a response to them. “Response” is a good translation of “Dazu” (as would be “in addition” in another context). Because she understands the word “aufgeklappt” as shutting the window, Winston misses the fact that the bus driver is blaring the aggressive rock music out of his window in response to the attack. The word “aufklappen” can mean “to fold up,” which may explain the mistake, but in this case it means to open. That misunderstanding leads her to settle for simply turning on the loud music rather than blaring it out. The “long-distance echoing guitars” make only awkward sense of “weithin hallenden Gitarren.” A reader would be better served by “it was the guitars of the ‘Apache’ instrumental resounding into the distance. . . .” And finally, because of its common use in Balkan music, flugelhorn is a better translation than the too literal rendering of the German “short-tube trumpet.”
Handke is precise in his word choice, and repeated words bear close scrutiny by a reader intent on understanding him. A translation should preserve such repetitions. This one often fails to do so. For example, the former writer describes a state he falls into now and then, a state he can almost summon at will, a state in which the silent world shows itself to him as a whole, a seductive and dangerous state that cannot be described. The word used repeatedly for this state of being is “Entrückt” (past participle) or “Entrücktheit” (noun) and it appears in at least five important parts of the novel. The verbs are translated as “carried away” or as “transported.” The nouns become rapture, reverie, fugue state, and rapture again. While “reverie” and “rapture” are possibilities, the specificity of “fugue state” is a clear overreach. For the nouns I would use rapture rather than reverie, which is much too passive for the experience. And for the verbs, either carried away or transported, but not both. Another example of varying terms for a single word—this one a mistake that shows a simple lack of concentration—has a character throwing “darts” at a dartboard, but later we are told that “the arrows did not stick.” Arrows?
Finally, an example of an especially troubling paragraph, a beautiful description of a mountainous border crossing the former writer knows through his mother’s stories. In her telling, there were “huckleberry bushes wet with dew.” The “Heidelbeeren” in the Harz Mountains are Vaccinium myrtillis. Huckleberries, if they are a species of the Vaccinium family, appear only in the American west. Blueberries would be a better choice here. In memory, the former writer sees his mother with her dew-softened cardboard suitcases and smells what the translation calls “pine pitch.” These are fir trees and “resin” would be more correct. He hears, in the translation, “a plane’s engine”; the German describes a “Fahrzeuggeräusch,“ the sound of a vehicle. He hears a cry he identifies as a pheasant. A semi-colon follows, but the translator ignores it to place the pheasant “rustling high up in the crown of the pines.” The rustling, or better “soughing,” is not the sound of the pheasant but of the tops of the firs. That comforting sound creates the illusion that she is safely beyond borders, and then “at home, near a village,” as the translation says, “near a village” being a rendering of “in Dorfnähe.“ The sentence moves his mother ever closer to the safety of home, but ending it with “near a village” is an afterthought. “Comforted by the village” would be a less literal but more thoughtful end to the sentence and it repeats an early deliberation on closeness, familiarity, and the close horizons of village life.
This novel deserves a more accurate and more nuanced translation. Having said that, I will add that The Moravian Night deserves readers like the young woman on the train. They should be solemn readers, concentrated readers, readers who can grin at the former author’s attempts to get things right (“or better said”), who can smile at his self questioning (“A solemnity that radiated—really? Yes, Mr. Know-It-All.”), who are astonished, surprised readers opened and made beautiful by the book. In The Moravian Night, passages of lyrical beauty alternate with, or better said, are themselves profound explorations of the possibilities of narration, of perception refined through language and of language transformed by perception. Through his meticulous and searching and sometimes inspired storytelling over the course of the night on the Morava, the former writer transforms himself and, the narrator reports, becomes “the writer” once again. Reading Peter Handke’s novel, I have become a reader again, am grateful to be his reader.
Scott Abbott is the translator of Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers, Voyage by Dugout, and To Duration. His fraternal meditations on the death of his brother of AIDS, Immortal for Quite Some Time, appeared this fall.