COMPETENT LIVING entails inattention to things no doubt worthy of scrutiny, such as gradual changes in clouds, foliage, the texture of one's skin, the apparent slow wheeling of the night sky around us. Yet only when bored, convalescing, or doomed do most folk register much of life's gamut in all its intricacy and shading. A pity: the good citizen stands a good chance of dying back into a universe that's gone largely unnoticed.
You do not have to be a glutton for phenomena to discover this. You only have to realize once, like Gregor Keuschnig in Peter Handke's new novella, that perceivership is a boon, the key to the One's many-sidedness, the basis for dying not wiser, perhaps, but better informed, more abundantly attuned, or fatter-souled. What Keuschnig, for a bizarre reason, sees all of a sudden is that his life as press attache to the Austrian embassy in Paris is both automatic and null. Awakening from a nightmare in which he has murdered an old woman, he abruptly opens up, seeking "a moment of true feeling," and rejects his sham self.
The ironically banal title thus signals his aspiration to join the twitchy revulsed or alienated protagonists of absurdist literature from Jarry to Gide, from Kafka to Camus. Against the conformisms that stunt you, the formulas that deny you, there is only the resolve to put yourself at your own disposal all over again, or for the first time, which sounds just fine -- graced with overtones of rebirth and with doors of perception opening up all over the place -- until the crunch.
Which comes when you swap cozy anesthesia for the desolating sense that nature too is automatic and heeds you not. The facts have not changed, but you have become more aware of their fabric, and that is all. You can regale yourself with a richer sum of phenomena, but you cannot add it up. You are using your sensory equipment better, but it gives no answers. All this Keuschnig finds, moving at speed as he does from a compulsive Rousseauistic otherness to sensuous glut. "What a lot of things there are," he says aloud), and from that to a resolve "that he would not go on living," thence to a randomly made assignation, in his new cheap light-blue suit and yellow shoes, at the Cafe de la Paix. His wife has left him. He has left his mistress. He has actually lost his daughter in the street. And, suitably enough, the fat writer who's been dogging his steps all day (and has found the daughter) has walked away from him, saying, "I have no further use for you." Instead of a bang or a whimper, a dying fall or an uplift valediction, Keuschnig just dwindles, via three terminal dots. . . into a flux of mere chronicity which has no seasonal or meaningful times, and in which "events" merely occupy a blank.
Yet Keuschnig never quite reconciles himself to the sameness of things. He goes on believing in the one "insignificant detail which would bring all other things together." So he's a choosy epiphanist, willing to scale a pyramid of data, weathercock in hand, and this makes him interesting beyond measure, a person who, like all of us, evinces the ingenuity of matter, but keeps a warm place by his mental hearth for a sign that life, having taken him thus far, might take him further. The long-term gist is that the mind fudges up its own miracles, for which, according to our degree of insecurity, we credit other sources.
Everything in turn becomes a salience, from the flannel smell of suits hanging in a sunny open-air market, to the puckered skin on his mistress's elbow, from the vapor forming in cellophane packages of crepes outside a bakery, to hazelnuts in their "rufflike carpels." But a salience of what? Thingness? The "seductive taboo" of materialism, or selfishness, or indifference?All four form his mood, make him strip naked in front of company, copulate with a secretary -- a total stranger -- on the floor of her office, and conclude at the outset that, "To be initiated had become absurd, to be taken back into the fold had become unimaginable, to belong had become hell on earth." In the end, though, choosing to live absurdly in an absurd world, he baas his way back into the hell of other people. One, as he finds after Brecht, is none. A full head can be an empty gesture.
It's an elegant, solid story, underpinned with wit and loaded with the pageantry of everyday. Maybe it's too short, as if Handke had lost interest; but to track Keuschnig further would be redundant. Doing whatever, Keuschnig, "panoramic coward with the eyes of a glider pilot," encompasses "the down-ward-curving surface of the earth in a single glance" and makes "the kind of sound one might make to frighten an animal, but now it was addressed to everything in the world." Bah, maybe, instead of baa. The rest is resilience. A portrait of the press attache as sacrificial lamb gives way to a glimpse of him as the high priest of his own impermanence.