(Hugo Hamilton’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/10.)
Since his 1966 debut The Hornets, the Austrian playwright and author has tested, inspired and shocked audienceshares
It was, undoubtedly, Peter Handke’s years as a law student in Graz that made him such an adversarial talent. Instead of pursuing those petty courtroom battles, he broke off his legal studies and began a literary career full of confrontation. His generation had so much to argue with. Unlike German language authors before him, such as Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll – the latter Handke vehemently spoke out against when he burst onto the scene with his 1966 debut novel The Hornets – Handke seemed to pick a fight with language itself. For him, and his contemporaries Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, the entire German language bore the stain of Nazi abuse and needed to be recovered, word by word.
Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke win Nobel prizes in literature
I still remember the experience of seeing his 1966 play Publikumsbeschimpfung, in Berlin in the seventies. In English translation it was called Offending the Audience – though the word “berating” seems more appropriate for a play made up of actors doing nothing but shouting at shocked and inspired audiences. He followed it up with Kaspar, a 1967 play based on the legend of Kaspar Hauser, the man who stumbled onto the streets of Nuremberg without any grasp of language. Handke’s characters attempt to speak, but their fight with words make them even more mute; it is as though they have become part of a post-Holocaust condition in which the world must rebuild everything, even linguistics, from scratch.
His striking titles have always pointed inwards at his own tumultuous, hugely original, and fearless literary force, like his more recent play, 2010’s Immer noch Sturm (Storm Still). His characters are often brought into the psychological laboratory to be tested for emotional inhibitors: like the central figure in 1972’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, who descends into a traumatised moral vacuum to coldly murder a cinema cashier. (The novel was later filmed by Wim Wenders in 1975; Handke’s own film career would begin in three years after that, when he directed an adaptation of his own novel The Left-Handed Woman.)