Word-Mongering, Pain, and the Lyrical Element in Fiction

The following remarks are from Peter Handke’s interview (in German) in Die Zeit, offered in web-translation via “a mediocre Peruvian neo-conovelist” [correction: Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space book blog]:

“I have translated Walker Percy’s novels The Last Gentleman and The Moviegoer; he is a great author. And I love Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. These books have something lyrical, which is essential. In Jonathan Franzen’s novels, however, it does not happen at all. He follows a knitting pattern. Even Philip Roth is ultimately only a funny MC. Reading should still be an adventure. In a book, even in a social novel, the language must be the movement in search of it. Epic literature needs a lyrical element. But that has totally disappeared from American literature. Eruptions are needed, a controlled letting go, not this prescription-like writing. It must come from the author, whether from his fornlorness or from his pain. When you see the author do this only to avoid word-mongering, it is not enough.”


  1. Stephen Mitchelmore says

    The web-translation isn't via "a mediocre Peruvian". I was alluding the likelihood of its immediate translation into English by corporate newspapers like The Guardian if a much-lesser writer and thinker, i.e. Maria Vargas Llosa, had given the interview.

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Interesting stuff, thanks for posting. I read A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and a couple of other books by Handke after Percy spoke so highly of him – I enjoyed them quite a bit. But I disagree when it comes to Roth, who has written some fine novels – Operation Sherlock has the very searching quality that Handke says he is looking for, and I can't think of a recent American novel that combines "lyric" and "epic" so well as Sabbath's Theater. And what's with the reference to "a mediocre Peruvian neo-conovelist"? That could be jealousy, or politics. Vargas Llosa is a fine writer.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Stephen: Thanks for the clarification. Sloppy reading on my part. Now I get it.

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    Hot damn! He actually used the term "word-mongering," and called Franzen out for working with cold steel needles!

  5. barbara memphis says

    …and they say poets are confusing!

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