Peter Handke’s Homage to Percy?

In 2019, Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize. I think we reported this already, maybe not — but he’s been kovered by the Kollekitv before at any rate, so let me quickly et to the good part.

Apparently, as already noted, Handke had translated The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman into German. As Mr. Barker noted to me once, “Percy must have been tickled pink to receive such careful attention from a Teutonic existentialist, what with his not-so-sneaking admiration for the German temperament.”

Well, I went ahead and read Handke’s parabolic Absence (2000) and was struck by its patina of lucidity and simplicity overlaying a complex web of symbiotic intricacies. Here, clearly, is a writer concerned about the meaning and state of language in the 20th/21st century…

I was so taken by the novel that I decided to begin at the beginning, and work my way through his other novels. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is the first of his novels to be translated into English. It came in the mail yesterday; I finished it this morning. It tells the tale of Joseph Bloch, a goalie-turned-construction-worker-turned-murderer who attempts to — well, what? Throughout the novel he is trying to assemble some sort of meaning out of the slippage of words with things and things with ideas and ideas with words and ideas, trying to address and perhaps even korrekt the postmodern hash of things… You know, “Like Percy do!”

Much of what Bloch does in The Goalie, not surprisingly, is couched in the tropes of football — for example, his habit of mind is to see telos (i.e. “goal”) without knowing the causes which have led up to the things that happen — including the apparently senseless murder he commits — or even how these causes can be derived from language which has slipped from things which have slipped from ideas which have slipped from… ad infinitum.

And then, look at this! In the midst of the novel, we find a sideways homage to Percy, or at least it sounds like one:

“When [Bloch] stopped and then walked on, the pictures seemed to dim from the edges: finally they had turned completely black except for a circle in the middle. ‘Like when somebody in a movie looks through a telescope,‘ he thought.” [emphasis added]

Is that Handke channeling the ghosts of Binx Bolling and Will Barrett?

As the Jstor abstract notes, Handke didn’t get around to translating Percy until the 1980s, but who’s to say he didn’t have Percy banging around in his imagination even as early as 1972?

Handke is a controversial writer, to say the least, and when he won the Nobel Prize, it was seen by many among the literati as a let down by the Academy. (We all may have our views on this point — but apparently what’s good for the Rushdie goose is not necessarily good for the Handke gander…. Or maybe I should be using metaphors about gored oxen and sacred cows…) But I think Handke rewards study – at the very least as someone carrying the torch for language as the most human of (pre)occupations…


  1. Rufus McCain says

    This is marvelous, JOB, good work. I’d forgotten about that post from 2010, glad you dredged it back up too. I loved what he said about a “controlled letting go” as a descriptor for one element of Percy’s greatness that is rarely recognized.

  2. Louise Orrock says

    The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penality is a well known film by – yes, I was going to say Wim Wenders and looked it up. I didn’t see it I don’t think but it was quite vogueish at the time. At the time I was not old enough so it was also shown in the 80s quite a bit at independent cinemas. Not a boring sentence.

  3. Louise Orrock says

    I do think a German would prefer Wenders’ translation of the title but I might be wrong and perhaps the writer didn’t.

  4. Louise Orrock says

    From the Guardian newspaper:

    Tt is now sadly stuck with the clumsiest and most tin-eared translated title imaginable, terrible compared with The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, which was what Handke’s book was generally called for English-speaking audiences.

  5. Whoa.

    I read the Guardian piece.

    The movie is quite different in key ways from the book. The murder in the book, for instance, has no explicit BSDM context (although hinted at, perhaps…) – to provide the reader an “out” for Bloch’s motives; it is rather more senseless – and banal – in the novel (much like the murder of the Arab in The Stranger.)

    The novel version of the murder also demonstrates Bloch’s inability to understand anything but telos – his struggle in the book is trying to figure out how things happen – the effects are always plain to him, but he cannot get to causes – which is kind of a backwards nihilism of sorts, I suppose. I can see how this might not be as easy to communicate in a movie – although it sounds like the image of the spectators keeping their eyes on the goalie instead of the kicker might be trying to do something like that…

    Second, we never find out why Bloch is no longer in football – in the movie he’s still a player; in the book he’s a construction worker who once played but doesn’t anymore, etc. He gets fired from his job (again, the cause is not really made clear) and we take that as the reason for his depression, alienation, what-have-you…

    Also, there was some sense of the American theme in the book, but it was more subtle than it appears to be in the film (which I haven’t seen, by the way). Also, I don’t think Handke is as cynical about America – given the other novels I’ve read – although I could be wrong about that. I think he would agree with Solzhenitsyn’s diagnoses of America’s spiritual malaise, but he also points, for instance, in his novel Short Letter, Long Farewell, to the blessings, albeit mostly squandered, that America has had. (Another possible Percy nod: the novel ends with a fictional visit with the director John Ford!)

    At any rate, even Wim Wenders (who I understand to be a topnotch filmmaker) seemed to have a hard time with turning that kind of novel into a movie – that is, the kind where the character is drawn from his psychological outlook more than from his actions. The ambiguity effectively provides enough but not too much, etc.

    (Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen works off this same principle, I believe.)

    One wonders if a Terrence Malik would have had the same kinds of challenges with turning The Moviegoer or Love in the Ruins into cinema…

    Thanks, Louise – and good to hear from you again! JOB

  6. I too like the simpler English translation of the title for the novel. It also more clearly intones the theme of the novel.

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