Peter Handke: ‘I really wanted to kill the one who invented that my mother was from Nazi youth’

A man storms out of his house, his mother has been slandered! He’s Peter Handke, the avenger, and is ready to lash out at the world. Anger dominates him and he will kill anyone who stands before him.

Don’t be scared, it’s not the real world, but something much better: the new novel of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2019, the second swordin which, inspired by real calumnies, and by an angry feeling that dominated the author, that narrator so similar to him he moves through the Parisian region in a way that is both wobbly and steady, coming into contact with all kinds of situations and people. In Argentina, the book is available, for now, in ebook format.

The Austrian author (Griffen, 1942) lives in Chaville, a small town 5 kilometers from Versailles (his wife, Sophie, is French) but the environments in which he moves are not at all palatial. In fact, “I have never been to the Palace of Versailles, why do I have to go? the character of the castle from Kafka never reaches the castle.

As in his books, he Handke real knows the homeless people in the neighborhood, talks to them; he frequents the kebab and the modest restaurants; and the newsstand, Michel, a former bookseller, throws him, as soon as he sees him, a copy of L’Officiel des Spectacles, the Paris film, theater and exhibition guide.

“The second sword”, by Peter Handke (Alliance, 11 euros in ebook format).

Our appointment is at noon, in the garden of his house, where he appears dizzy, as if in a trance state. He has been writing all morning and it is difficult for him to return to the real world. “Give me some time, we’ll walk to town and I’ll tell you when we can talk,” he says, as if he had just walked through Alicia’s mirror.

Thin, with a certain quixotic air, he passes by the settings we know from his latest books: the forest, the station, the bar, the square, the school… “These are my domains, the timeless kingdom that I have created. It is not a democracy, it is mine, but I try to make beauty prevail, that good prevails”.

One feels as if one has fallen into his recent works (The Big Fall, The Fruit Thief, The Second Sword) and also, by all accounts, in which he is writing these days, since they all happen around here, in the Parisian suburbs and in other regions to which that narrator so similar to him travels on commuter trains, alone or with his ghosts, building what he calls “an epic”, book by book, creating a universe that can only exist in literature or in the human mind.

The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian Peter Handke, Nobel Prize winners for Literature 2018 and 2019, respectively. Photo EFE/EPA/Henrik Montgomery / POOL SWEDEN OUT

The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian Peter Handke, Nobel Prize winners for Literature 2018 and 2019, respectively. Photo EFE/EPA/Henrik Montgomery / POOL SWEDEN OUT

“There is no need to go to Africa to tell stories – he tells the photographer – the important thing is to narrate things, whatever they are, moving away from clichés”. The wonder of everyday life? “Let’s not be idiots, there are no small things or minor issues. There is no difference between small and large.” His books put the drunks at the station bar on the same level as Homer.

“It is as I tell it: I travel through France, I walk through the woods and, suddenly, I meet a man who has been through two world wars or a pizza delivery man who is looking for his father, they are apparitions. Literature is not journalism, it is not dedicated to current affairs, literature is what persists. There are more and more writers, even good ones, who use journalistic language, that can’t be! Reading is a great adventure.

The revenge

The feeling of revenge dominates his new work. “The fact that I explain is real, but I turn it into fiction. The truth is not a game but only playing it appears to you. I really wanted to kill that journalist who invented, in an article, that my mother was part of the Nazi youth in Slovenia. There was even a photomontage in which my mother appeared mixed with a Nazi demonstration. In the end, I said to myself: you’d better write a book, it’s the way out of this darkness and into the light. And not even in the book am I capable of killing, you can’t imagine how much relief it was to write it, it made me get out of a negative spiral. I can say that, today, that hatred that I felt no longer exists.

His character also wants to kill the neighbors’ noisy dogs, the person who runs the local yoga club… “My wife calls me out when I scream guillotine! for all these people. But she knows that I’m not really a dictator.”

– You are an artist.

-Well, an artist is basically a dictator. Maybe not seriously…

“And have you really felt like killing?”

Yes, sometimes, and I also feel a lot of shame for it.

Peter Handke was born in Griffen in 1942. Photo Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

Peter Handke was born in Griffen in 1942. Photo Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

The real story of his mother is told by himself in always storm where you see just the opposite of the slander that outraged him: how Slovenians – including his maternal family – oppose the Nazi occupation and how the Slovenian minority in Carinthia was the only resistance in Austria to the occupation by the III Reich.

Besides writing, Handke he acts as a “babysitter” (because he has just become a grandfather), he goes out to look for mushrooms, “there aren’t many yet”, he frequently goes to the movies in Versailles, does not have television and watch the football matches at the bar in the station square “because I like to watch it with people”.

The Nobel has invited us to lunch but remember that does not grant interviews. How are we going to proceed, then? “We can maintain a dialogue, to get to know each other, in which we both speak and give our opinions equally, not a one-way interrogation.”

Sometimes, it is he who asks, in effect, especially about aspects of the private life of his interlocutor. “As I get older,” he says, “I open up more to others. When I was young, I thought that there was only me, that everything I needed could be found within me. Now I see the others, I can talk to them for the first time.”

Peter Handke is a popular neighbor in the neighborhood, and is treated without reverence by his acquaintances. Photo KIM MANRESA / ALLIANCE / La Vanguardia

Peter Handke is a popular neighbor in the neighborhood, and is treated without reverence by his acquaintances. Photo KIM MANRESA / ALLIANCE / La Vanguardia

He shows his notebooks, which he always carries with him and in which he takes notes and makes natural portraits of people he meets: a nun celebrating her birthday in Toulon (“her name is Sister André and she is the oldest in the world, 118 years old” ), a group of Portuguese who work in the neighborhood (“see? We have greeted this one”), the rose window of Notre Dame before the fire, a rack full of coats in the restaurant, his hat, the roofs and chimneys of Paris, a mailbox, a black bird by the Seine…

Some of these small drawings are material painting, with textures, for example he has painted over a bird feather stuck to the page. His notes are written in German and some in ancient Greek, a language he knows, as he has translated several classics.

It is nothing mystical or metaphysical but “I like the mass, the ritual of the Eucharist, the reading of biblical passages, especially from the Old Testament, it is a wonderful rite, which marks existence, in which one must participate. You don’t have to go into churches just to see the building.” Do you consider yourself a Christian? “I don’t dare to define myself, in any case I would say that I am a ‘foreign Christian’, I said that to the priest and he replied: ‘We are all foreigners, strangers’”.

He prefers long sentences to short ones “because the latter cut the truth into a thousand pieces, sometimes some are magnificent but you don’t have to try, you don’t have to look for them. Flaubert was very good at short sentences. I am a fan of literature. I daydream and explain. Long sentences are more epic.” He tells, for example, that on his walks and train trips he is accompanied by a daydream, a woman who is a fruit thief.

-Who is she?

–Is that a question? If it’s a question, I don’t answer, I don’t give interviews.

We then commented that we see her as a ghost, a symbol, which leads her to say: “I know many people who don’t know where she is but who notice her, so full of energy and sorrow. A bit of my daughter also emerges, she is an experience, a figure that comes from another era and is integrated into history, she does not want to belong to anything, to any sect or ideology, but how can she do it? I am a bit like that. I was a megalomaniac, you know? He believed that she was going to do something great, change the world. Not anymore, although one can never be cured of self-centeredness…”.

Appearance of one of his notebooks. Photo KIM MANRESA / ALLIANCE / La Vanguardia

Appearance of one of his notebooks. Photo KIM MANRESA / ALLIANCE / La Vanguardia

While snacking on Iberian ham, he says that “sometimes we develop great theories, we make long arguments, especially when we are not right, to justify ourselves. It’s what politicians do. We writers must go the other way, use words to create a new epic for today, that’s what I’m looking for, those who come after me will do it, I don’t know if better but they will create it, they will move the world, I’m just trying to pave the way for them ”.

The non-interview takes place a few weeks before the war in the Ukraine breaks out, so we don’t talk about it. Yes, from his vision of the Balkan war, about which he has published the book asking through tearswhere does not avoid facing facing the two questions in this regard that most persecute him: his long interview with Slobodan Milosevic in the maximum security prison of Scheveningen (Holland) (“I felt like a sparring partner, he talked and talked…”) and his attendance at the funeral of the Serbian leader, that he was being tried in The Hague for his crimes.

As happens to the narrator of his books, in none of the writings of Handke we are going to find justifications for no war atrocity but, in this case, denunciation of the manipulation of the Western media that became complicit in, for example, the NATO bombing of the civilian population of Belgrade in 1999, ordered by Javier Solana (JS, in the book).

The writer disassembles “the absurd concept of humanitarian war” and maintains that “Commander Wesley Clark was responsible for the death of more than a thousand civilians, and should also have been tried, if justice was to be dispensed.”

He believes that the media have constructed a caricature of his position, taking his sentences out of context and taking advantage of his character traits: “I’m angry, what am I going to do to him? My grandfather was too. Sometimes there was violence in my words but never in my writing. It’s like when I talk to you now about beheading people, I don’t say it to be taken seriously.”

Of course, when the Polish Olga Tokarczuk – with whom he shared Nobel ceremonies – told him, during the long days in Stockholm, “I can’t take it anymore, Peter, I can’t take it anymore!”, he replied: “Yes, Olga, I’m a soldier of my own”.

He is furious about an advertising campaign by Abbé Pierre’s NGO that uses famous phrases from writers to cross them out and rewrite them in such a way that they look like slogans in favor of the association. Example: Sartre’s “Hell is others” becomes “Hell is oneself disconnected from others”. There are others by Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Marcel Pagnol… “Terrible! An attack on literature! I almost threw a rock and broke those panels!”

–Well, now we know that, deep down, he wouldn’t.

– I have stopped myself from ending up in jail, that would damage my image as a Nobel Prize winner.

Later, at the train station, he encourages us to sneak in with his season pass: “I always pass young people or people I see around here without paying. At first, they asked me and now I’m the one who gets ahead of myself, I’m an illegal”.

What if the inspector comes? “Do not be afraid!”. To get out, at the destination station, we do the same and he looks at us, proud: “Sometimes, if the turnstiles are very narrow, you have to jump. This is better than an interview! truth?”.

Definitely, this Nobel is not like the others.

The vanguard. From Chaville, France


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Peter Handke: ‘I really wanted to kill the one who invented that my mother was from Nazi youth’