SLOW HOMECOMING. By Peter Handke. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 279 pp. $16.95.
BACK IN THAT busy springtime of 40 years ago when Hitler cheated the hangman, Peter Handke -- now a leading literary figure in the first generation of Germans to grow up after the war -- resided in Austria and was precisely three. He is now 43 and presumably getting familiar with the graying caresses of middle age. Stepping out of the shadow of the Adenauerian fathers, Handke came of age with the internationalized protest generation of the '60s. Like that of many in his generation, Handke's writing is programmatically modernist in ways not seen in German since the crumbling of Weimar. His politics were formed less by the threat and taint of fascism than by the communist and anti-communist establisments of his childhood. Slow Homecoming is his ninth book to be translated into English. At this muddled moment of German-American relations, he is in mid-career, and this may be the time to consider why he turns out to be less interesting than everything about him makes him appear.
He looks wonderful. He is a man of real intellectual power and sometimes visionary insight. His fingers are never far from the pulse: From beginnings in the vanguard German theater of the '60s, Handke has served as an (almost) unfailing bellwether for the highbrow esthetics the '60s protest generation (almost) invariably preferred: i.e. dissociation, a distaste for realism, and a half- moralistic, half-snobbish contempt for any conventional (save lowbrow) narrative style. Thus, Handke's plays of the '60s are more or less standard neo-dada, filled with lots of very cooled-out classroom Artaudian "madness" and pro forma "contempt" for the audience. Their leading idea is a tarted-up but familiar Rousseauism (one play, inevitably, is about Kaspar Hauser) -- all about the pathos and purity of the solipsistic mind and the corruptions of that evil adversary, human society.
During the '70s, Handke expanded to novels and memoirs, and neo-dada gave way to what that decade so often misnamed "linguistics": the prose began to fill with talk about codes, sign-systems, deconstruction and demystification. Handke's obsession with the solitary, autistic, wordless purity within thereby maintained a certain patina of radicalism, though all his claims to be unmasking the bourgeois lie could not prevent a number of Brecht-besotted lefties from reviling Handke as a "privatist" (remember privatist?) bird-of-paradise, an imperialist lackey shacked up in his ivory tower. Tiptoeing through the murderous Baader-Meinhofized minefield of '70s literary-political chic, Handke has emerged into the '80s seeming to reconsider (the terms now seem rather neo- Kantian) his shaky grip on the question of the self and liberty.
Slow Homecoming contains two long essays (one on fatherhood, one on Cezanne) and one near-fiction, tracking a Handke stand-in's trip home, from Alaska, across America, to Germany. The "slow homecoming" in question is therefore a difficult, contested, intellectual and spiritual journey which it is impossible not to respect and honor.
AND YET, and yet -- I find it almost incredible that a man of such gifts can make such rich material so stupendously dull as Peter Handke does in this book. He had everything -- just look at his subjects: art and ethics in post- war Europe; a new German's dream of peace; the terror generation. There are philosophy and home, parenthood and desolation. Slow Homecoming is about exile and America; about father-love and mother- tongues; about landscape from the tundra to the South of France; about -- not to skip the isms -- solipsism, radicalism, modernism. In short, it presents a trayful of the prime hors d'oeuvres of life in our merry post-modern age.
How can such a selection fail? Well, Handke brings to each new luscious bit the same clotted, undramatic, entirely self-obsessed intelligence that spoiled the last. In each case, the thinking wearies even as it impresses. This book bores with a tedium so uncanny as to be almost interesting, numbing the mind almost exactly to the degree that curiosity is piqued. This sado-masochistic transformation of interest into ennui is echoed throughout by the prose itself, which the unresponding intellect vaguely senses growing more gorgeous and confident as it sinks deeper into unreadability. How, one asks (lips stiff with intellectual Novocaine) how can such intensity produce -- this?
The answer lies in the solipsism that has been essential to Handke's artistic indentity since day one. Handke has, in truth, only one subject, and it is not Cezanne. It is his own splendid self, or more precisely, his splendid self-absorption. Lesser issues merely test the staying power of this subject of subjects. True, he worries about his solipsism on almost every page, rather like the bore who keeps asking, "Am I boring you?" He abuses the tar-baby of his self-obsession endlessly. Nonetheless, that obsession is all that really interests him. Handke may slap and beat the tar-baby with self and other, ego and object, ecstasy and history. No matter. They all sink into the gloppy tar of Peter Handke, and there all interest, absurdly misfocused, dies. The tar-baby of the self may absorb everything, but as Uncle Remus pointed out, it don't say nothin'.
In one of his more memorable nasty phrases, D.H. Lawrence abused the poor, horny Bloomsburies for their "sex in the head." I submit that Peter Handke suffers from "self in the head." (Or to wax neo-Kantian myself, "history in the head"). The affliction was common to many of the '60s generation, on both sides of the Atlantic. Solipsism and dissociation have been, despite all their treachery, fonts for many a wonder in the arts of our time. These wonders have held an almost hypnotic power over that generation raised on academic modernism and the politics of the post-war world. It is inevitable, of course, that so isolating a source of energy will come in time to seem like an evil. It has come to seem so to Handke, and he rails against it here. Railing, however, does not help. The only way out is of course a surrender to community and culture; for the writer, it consists of some human vision of the reader -- which for any writer, must be the unseen presence that is the Significant Other. The tar-baby of self-obsession is no substitute for this encounter. Slow Homecoming reveals it, instead, as the unconquerable simulacrum it is -- just another tarry scarecrow on the wide road to dullness itself.