Life, Growth, and Reflections

Each of us goes through individual journeys which uproots us. Like birds in the sky, we soar towards different directions. Our individual journeys bring us to places we never thought we’d ever go to, makes us experience things we never thought we’d ever experience. These journeys are not always pleasant nor are they comfortable but they bring along with them lessons and morals that make us grow better as as individuals. As we reflect later on in our journey, we realize that had we been shackled to the ground, we would have never learned these seminal lessons.

Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, meditates on his personal journey in his novel Slow Homecoming. Slow Homecoming is comprised of three novellas – The Long Way Around, The Lesson of Mont Saint-Victoire, and Child Story – which were originally published in German from 1979 to 1981. Each novella captures a seminal and critical phases in the Odyssey of the book’s primary character and narrator,Valentin Sorger.

The reticent Sorger left his native Europe and settled in an unnamed Indian village “in the Far North of the other continent”. A geologist by profession, he wanted to be absorbed by his work, to be immersed in the world of nature. However, his quotidian life was disrupted when an unlikely development prompted him to return to his native Europe. Sorger’s journey meanders across the American continent, towards the general direction of his European homeland, passing by unnamed towns and cities.

“Conscious in his sleep of being wrenched out of place, he never, though years had passed since his change of continents, enjoyed a quiet, homelike sleep; immediately on closing his eyes (a moment against which he invariably struggled), he began to gravitate, growing steadily heavier and more clodlike, toward a magnetic horizon.” ~ Peter Handke, Slow Homecoming

The three novellas strikingly underline the progression of Sorger’s personality and growth. Also central to the narrative and in understanding Sorger’s personality is the exploration of the various definitions of home, the dichotomy of which was vividly captured in each novella. In The Long Way Around, home was defined as a feeling, and not as a physical destination. Sorger deserted his homeland because of his innately peripatetic nature and restlessness. By being constantly in motion, he feels more at ease, more “at home” than when he is static.

In “The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire,” Sorger’s Odyssey next brought him to a mountain in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France. Mont Sainte-Victoire is a mountain that has been the subject of many of French artist Paul Cézanne’s oil paintings. In his solitary retreat, Sorger wants to draw inspiration and wisdom that only the tranquility of mountains and nature can offer. By walking down the path which Cézanne once straddled, he hopes to be guided by the artist’s philosophy in his journey to recapturing his own art.

The third novella, Child Story, ushers in a different subject and a different definition of home. A seemingly anonymous young father’s endless adventures and searches finally culminates in an unexpected twist – with a child on his hand. The novella chronicles how the young father navigates the path and the struggles of fatherhood, on his own. With intricate details, Handke captured the growing bond between father and child. The lush and nostalgic text vividly painted these tender moments.

The swirl of home and sense of belonging brings to the fore a theme that is central and seminal in the narrative and Sorger’s personality – that of profound existentialism. In his Odyssey, Sorger laid out the mantle upon which several encounters with questions of existence surfaced. “Moving on the concrete slabs of the sidewalk intensified his conquest of space and gave it permanence. He experienced the subsoil of the city, which only a short while before had risen into the air from the lifeless pavement.,” went one line. Nonetheless, Sorger’s remained resolute on his resolve; for most of his journey, he kept a hopeful demeanor. His deep ruminations on existence, nature, and home  gives the narrative a deeply reflective and philosophical complexion.

“It was nearly winter. I had just seen a friend die, and was again beginning to take pleasure in my own existence. This friend, who thought of himself as the “first man to experience pain”, had nevertheless tried up to the last moment to wish death away. I was thankful for all things and decreed: Enjoy yourself, take advantage of your days of good health.” ~ Peter Handke, Slow Homecoming

A significant portion of Slow Homecoming is propelled by the prevalence of  observations on daily life made by Sorger. On the surface, it appears that these different observations – such as a homeless cat that does not want to be carried around or how the humped sidewalk extended the coffee shop floor – are bereft of context. The loose associations make the reader experience disorientation. But as the readers are nudged deeper into the story, the invisible thread that links these observations together start start to surface.

Slow Homecoming is a short book but it has a slow-developing prose that make it appear longer than it really is. The slower pace is owed to the nature of the text – it requires reflection. It is rife with various questions that explore “home”. What is home? Is it a physical destination or a feeling that emanates from within? These are interjected with questions of existence which rendered the story a realistic atmosphere. The realistic prose establishes a connection between the readers and the text.

With the novel’s primordial conflict involving Sorger and himself, Slow Homecoming is the product of postmodernism. Handke breaks conventions by relating Sorger’s story through a nonlinear plot. He also has the proclivity to let people and places be unnamed. Sorger’s story was meant to be deconstructed and, from the dust that has settled, the readers are coaxed to derive and build their own meanings and interpretations. Handke offers a unique reading experience, commencing the story as a work of fiction before dropping the pretense abruptly midway in order to reveal the motivation for the story.

Despite the reticent narrative and the enigmatic Sorger, Handke’s prose flourishes. He has a canny ability of painting, with sharp strokes, a wonderful and reflective tale. His lush and closely-observed text complimented Sorger’s story, filling the voids with vivid and intricate details. Slow Homecoming was written with a lyrical and poetic language that blossoms along with story.

“I have learned (yes, I am still capable of learning) that history is not a mere sequence of evils, which someone like me can do nothing but despise – but has also, from time immemorial, been a peace-fostering form that can be perpetrated by anyone (including me).” ~ Peter Handke, Slow Homecoming

The slow in Slow Homecoming is no misnomer. The story, propelled by subtle but rich observations, moves forward in a snail-pace but it is one of the novel’s charms. It was not meant to be zoomed past by. Crafted with acuity, it is a story that was meant to be digested slowly, consumed leisurely. Dealing with profound subjects about life, nature, and  art, the narrative requires deep introspection and meditation to appreciate the story of Sorger, and on some level, Handke himself.

Ratings:

82%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Peter Handke is a name that never rung any bell to me until his name was announced as the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. My curiosity about him and his works made me purchase the very first Handke book I can lay my hands on. Unlike most books in my bookshelf, it didn’t have to suffer the process of waiting in anticipation. Slow Homecoming is a challenging read despite its short length. It is very complex and compact but Handke’s disrespect for literary conventions make it a memorable experience. It made me want to explore more of his works, even though they generally have a low Goodreads rating. Maybe I have to learn speak and read German as well?

Book Specs

Author: Peter Handke
Translator: Ralph Manheim
Publisher: New York Review of Books
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 278
Genre: Post Modernism, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Provocative, romantic, and restlessly exploratory, Peter Handke is one of the great writers or our time. Slow Homecoming, orginially published in the late 1970s, is central to his achievement and to the powerful influence he has exercised on other writers, chief among them W. G. Sebald. A novel of self-questioning and self-discovery, Slow Homecoming is a singular odyssey, an escape from the distractions of the modern world and the unhappy consciousness, a voyage that is fraught and fearful but ultimately restorative, ending on an unexpected note of joy.

The book begins in America. Writing with the jarring intensity of his early work, Handke introduces Valenditn Sorger, a troubled geologist who has gone to Alaska to lose himself in his work, but now feels drawn back home: on his way to Europe he moves in ominous disorientation through the great cities of America. The second part of the book, “The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire,” identifies Sorger as a projection of the author, who now writes directly about his own struggle to reconstitute himself and his art y undertaking a pilgrimage to the great mountain that Cezanne painted again and again. Finally, “Child Story” is a beautifully observed, deeply moving account of a new father – not so much Sorger or the author as a kind of Everyman – and his love for his growing daughter.

About the Author

Peter Handke was born on December 6, 1942 in Griffen, Austria, then part of the German Reich’s Gau Carinthia province. He never met his biological father, Erich Schönemann until he was an adult; he adapted his stepfather’s last name.

The Handkes lived in the Soviet-occupied Pankow district of Berlin from 1944 to 1948 before moving back to Griffen. In 1954, Handke was sent to the Catholic Marianum boys’ boarding school at Tanzenberg Castle in Sankt Veit an der Glan where he also published his first writing in the school newspaper, Fackel. He pursued his secondary education at Klagenfurt. in 1961, he commenced his law studies at the University of Graz.

In 1965, he abandoned his law studies after Suhrkamo Verlag, a German publisher, accepted his novel Die Hornissen (The Hornets, 1966). His second novel, Der Hausierer, (The Peddler) was published in 1967. Some of his renowned novels include  Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972), a semi-autobiographical novella based on Handke’s mother who took her own life a year before the book’s publication; and  Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1970), a short novel that was adapted into film of the same title in 1972. He has also published a score of poetry and short story collections.

For his literary works, he has earned several accolades such as the 1973 Georg Büchner Prize, the 1987 Vilenica International Literary Prize, the 2008  Thomas-Mann-Preis, and the 2009 Franz Kafka Prize. The biggest triumph of his literary career is the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Whilst Handke is widely regarded as a prolific writer, he was also successful as a playwright, screenwriter, and movie director. His first play,  Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), which premiered in Frankfurt in 1966 established his mettle as a playwright early on.

Handke lived in various parts of the world, including  Düsseldorf, Berlin, Kronberg, Paris, the US, and Salzburg.