Peter Handke: The Nobel prize-winning author accused of praising war criminals

Following Handke’s controversial win, Alex Marshall and Christopher F Schuetze look back at the writer’s life and times

Sunday 15 December 2019 09:38
The Austrian writer at his home in Chaville, in the Paris surburbs, on 10 October 2019
The Austrian writer at his home in Chaville, in the Paris surburbs, on 10 October 2019

Peter Handke, the Austrian author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature on Tuesday, said recently that he hated opinions.

“I like literature,” he added, in a bad-tempered exchange during a news conference in Stockholm last week.

Unfortunately for Handke, 77, many people have opinions about him. Some see him as a genius who has pushed the boundaries of what novels and plays can be. But others are far less positive.

Handke has been accused of genocide denial for questioning events during the Balkan wars of the 1990s – including the Srebrenica massacre, in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered. He has also been criticised for delivering a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian politician who was tried in The Hague for war crimes.

Since 10 October, when the Swedish Academy named Handke the 2019 laureate, there has been a storm around him.

Sava Stanisic, a Bosnian-German author who fled the war as a child, said in an email that the decision was “a punch in the gut” for the conflict’s victims. It was “an aesthetic and moral failure”, he added.

Even a member of the Swedish Academy, the organisation that chooses the Nobel laureates for literature, has protested. On 5 December, author Peter Englund said he would not participate in any of this year’s events. “This is a matter of conscience for me,” Englund said.

But some literary heavyweights see no better choice. “I can’t think of a more obvious Nobel laureate than him,” Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard said, adding that Handke had written masterpieces in every decade of his career.

“The great poet Handke has earned the Nobel prize 10 times,” Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian author who received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, said in a statement.

But few have had the chance to ask Handke himself in detail about his writing, or motivation. On 10 October, he met reporters at his home near Paris, but he ended the impromptu news conference after being asked about his writings on the Balkan wars. “I am a writer. I am rooted in Tolstoy, I am rooted in Homer, I am rooted in Cervantes,” he said. “Leave me in peace and don’t ask me such questions.”

At the news conference in Stockholm on 6 December, Handke singled out a letter from The New York Times requesting an interview for this article; he declined the request, saying he did not want to answer “empty and ignorant” questions. (His publisher had already turned down several other requests.)

Handke was born in 1942 in Griffen, a small town in Austria. His mother was of Slovenian descent, and his father was a German official, with whom she had an affair. Until he was 18, Handke assumed his stepfather – a man who got violent after drinking, Handke has written – was his biological father.

“He grew up in very poor conditions, in a remote provincial region,” said Malte Herwig, a journalist who wrote a biography of Handke. “It was dirt hard. He was the only one who went to college and so on.”

“He still has this air about him,” Herwig added. “If you look at his fingernails, there’s usually dirt underneath them.”

The family lived briefly in Berlin, but then returned to Griffen in 1948. During the journey, Handke’s sister was carried in a shopping bag, he wrote in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a stark account of his mother’s life and suicide that was published in 1972.

The Second World War and its aftermath had a clear effect, Herwig said. “He was a highly sensitive kid,” he said of Handke, describing him as “nervous, easily aroused with anger, or easily startled” and “totally a square peg in a round hole”.

Handke made his childhood a focus of his Nobel lecture, saying that his mother’s stories – about the tragic life of an “idiot” milkmaid, and the death of her brother – had “provided the impetus for my almost lifelong career as a writer”.

Handke in 1979: conservative literary figures disliked his avant-garde tendencies (Getty)

Almost from the start, Handke pushed the boundaries of literature. He wrote a wordless play – The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other – whose text consists almost entirely of descriptions of the characters walking across the stage. (“Someone as a WAITER, appearing briefly, empties a bucket of ice cubes which crackle and bounce all over.”)

Handke’s breakthrough 1966 play, Offending the Audience, ends with the actors throwing insults at the crowd. (Audiences seemed to enjoy it, sometimes throwing insults back.)

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, much of Handke’s work was praised. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called him “the darling of the West German critics”.

If Handke was criticised before the 1990s, it was generally by conservative literary figures who disliked his avant-garde tendencies. When he published two essays in January 1996 about a trip to Serbia (released in book form as A Journey to the Rivers, Justice for Serbia), his detractors came from beyond the literature pages, with denunciations from politicians, journalists and human rights groups.

Herwig said that during the Balkan wars, Handke read news reports at his home in France, and became annoyed that they overwhelmingly portrayed Serbia as the conflict’s villain, without discussing its complex causes. Handke’s first instinct was not to accept those reports as accurate, Herwig added: “It was to say, ‘OK, but this can’t be the whole truth’.”

“I want to ask how such a massacre is to be explained, carried out,” Handke wrote about Srebrenica. He went to Serbia and Serbian-controlled parts of Bosnia and spoke to locals. The resulting essays, filled with slights against journalists, seemed to many to go beyond seeking context, and, instead, to play down or question the facts through literary games.

Herwig said that Handke had been insensitive to Bosnian Muslim victims of the war, and allowed himself to be instrumentalised by Serbian nationalists – but nonetheless deserved the Nobel prize

Scott Abbott, an American translator who accompanied Handke on a visit to Serbia, said in a telephone interview that the author was drawn to the country because of his family’s Slovenian heritage. (Slovenia and Serbia were both part of Yugoslavia until 1992.)

Handke travelled throughout Yugoslavia, and wrote “several wonderful essays” about those trips, Abbott said, such as one about a shoe-shiner in Croatia, and another about the variety of head coverings he saw in Macedonia.

“He had the sense for Yugoslavia as this incredible, rich multicultural state that lacked the kind of nationalisms that he saw in Germany and Austria,” Abbott said. “It was almost a utopian place for him.”

When Yugoslavia collapsed, Handke saw that utopia disappearing, Abbott said.

Zarko Radakovic, a friend who has travelled in the region with Handke, and who has translated his work, said in a telephone interview that “Yugo-nostalgia” was central to the writer’s worldview.

“Of course it is very difficult to write about civil war,” Radakovic said. Handke, he added, “just wanted to be a counterweight to everything that had been written and said in the media. He went there and walked and described.”

Radakovic and other Handke supporters believe that the critics had focused on a few controversial passages in Handke’s works, but had not read enough to judge the author’s motives.

“Handke is such a complex, difficult author,” Radakovic said. “All of his 87 works are somehow connected.”

“I trust somebody who is so completely free of clichés and just sees the world and reacts,” he added.

Herwig said he had no problem with Handke’s criticism of journalistic language, but added: “He eventually did some of the things he accused journalists of: false bias, false contextualisation.”

Investigators and forensic experts excavate a mass grave outside the Serb village of Pilica in September 1996. The remains were of Muslim men who had fled Srebrenica after the Bosnian enclave fell to Serbs in July 1995

“His friends told him straight away, ‘If you publish that, that’s going to get you into hot water,’” Herwig added. “And he continued.”

But even many of Handke’s most ardent supporters have difficulty explaining why he spoke at Milosevic’s funeral. “I look at those photos of him, against that huge photo of Milosevic, and I just think, ‘What the hell?’” Abbott said.

He added that Handke has insisted his funeral speech was not an endorsement of Milosevic, but a lament for Yugoslavia. “But what he’s stepping aside from is that if he stands there, that means something, too,” Abbot said.

Other writers would have backed down in the face of such condemnation, but Handke has not. “I need not defend or take back a single word,” Handke wrote in the preface to the American edition of A Journey to the Rivers. “I wrote about my journey through the country of Serbia exactly as I have always written my books, my literature.”

Herwig said this was not arrogance; “It’s defiance,” he said.

Shortly after Handke spoke at Milosevic’s funeral, the storied Comedie-Francaise theatre in Paris cancelled one of his plays. In 2006, Handke declined a German literary award after politicians in the city of Dusseldorf threatened to revoke it. Others preferred to focus on his writings: in 2007, the Austrian national library bought Handke’s archive for around $750,000 (£569,000).

Clearly, for the Swedish Academy, the work takes precedence. Rebecka Karde, a journalist who advised the committee that awards the prize, said that Handke had “said, written and done things I find hard to stomach”. But, she added, that did not mean he did not deserve the award.

Handke went to Serbia “trying to unlock the world through his unique, idiosyncratic, literary presence”, Knausgaard said. “But the ambiguity and complexity that language offered, charged with Handke’s sympathies, unlocked a Pandora’s box of grief, anger and despair instead.”

Viewing Handke as some sort of diabolical figure, Knausgaard added, was the opposite of the people in his writings. “The world and the people in it never are black, never are white, never are good, never are bad,” he said, “but all these things combined.”

© New York Times

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