Provocative, romantic, and restlessly exploratory, Peter Handke is one of the great writers of our time. Slow Homecoming, originally 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 Valentin 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 by undertaking a pilgrimage to the great mountain that C?zanne 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.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 01, 1985
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Excerpt from Slow Homecoming by Peter Handke
The Long Way Around
Then, as I stumbled headlong down the path, there was suddenly a form ...
The Primordial Forms
Sorger had outlived several of those who had become close to him; he had ceased to long for anything, but often felt a selfless love of existence and at times a need for salvation so palpable that it weighed on his eyelids. Capable of a tranquil harmony, a serene strength that could transfer itself to others, yet too easily wounded by the power of facts, he knew desolation, wanted responsibility, and was imbued with the search for forms, the desire to differentiate and describe them, and not only out of doors ("in the field"), where this often tormenting but sometimes gratifying and at its best triumphant activity was his profession.
At the end of the working day, in the light-gray gabled wooden house at the edge of the mainly Indian settlement in the Far North of the other continent, which for some months had been serving him and his colleague Lauffer as both laboratory and dwelling, he slipped the protective covers on the microscopes and binoculars he had been using alternately and, his face still distorted by the frequent changes from short view to long view and back, passed through the episodic space created by the sunset light and the hovering woolly-white seeds of the dwarf poplars, an after-work corridor, as it were, to "his" beach.
A clay platform so low that he could have jumped off. There began the immense realm of the glittering river, extending to the whole circle of the horizon, flooding the continental shelf from east to west and at the same time meandering northward and southward through the sparsely settled but to all intents and purposes uninhabited lowlands. Narrowed, because it was the dry season and the glaciers had stopped melting, behind first a broad bank of gravel and shale and then a muddy slope, the river at Sorger's feet sent long, light sea waves beating against the land.
Another thing that made the valley look like a body of standing water was that it reached out to the horizon on all sides but that, because of the river's meanderings, the lines of the horizon were formed not by streams flowing from east to west but by dry land, by the banks of that bend in the river surmounted by dwarf poplars and the tops of primeval conifers, which, though in reality sparse and stunted, seemed from a distance to form serried files.
True, this apparent lake, bounded on all sides by land that looked to be flat, flowed at a speed hard to estimate, silently and quite smoothly except for the bathtub-like lapping of the waves on the muddy beach--one might have said a foreign body, filling the entire plain, mirrored yellow by the sunset sky, perceptible at first glance only as wetness, dotted here and there with island specks and sandbanks, they too lying flat in the hazy evening air. Only the eddies that formed over unseen depressions in the sand-and-gravel riverbed, swiftly circling funnels in the otherwise metallic yellow surface, were not yellow but, because of their sharper angle to the sky, a remote daylight blue from within which, amid the almost silent flow, soft brooklike gurglings could be heard.
Sorger was buoyed by the thought that the months he had spent observing this wilderness, learning (approximately) its forms and their genesis, had made it his own private domain. Destructive as they may have been (and still were) in the objective world, the forces that went to make up this landscape, in becoming present to him along with the great flowing water, its eddies and rapids, without mental effort, through the perceptive process alone, were transformed by their own laws into a benign inner force, which calmed him and gave him strength. He believed in his science, because it helped him to feel whatever place he was in; far from putting him off, his consciousness of standing on a flat beach while the opposite shore, miles away and scarcely visible through the islands, was slightly steeper, and of being able to attribute this strange asymmetry to the rotation of the earth, gave him the feeling that the planet earth was a civilized, homelike, intelligible place, a feeling that made his mind playful and his body resilient.
This state of mind was also favored by the fleeting thought that while poplar seeds were drifting through the air, the pebbles on the riverbed were at the same time shifting unseen, rolling or slowly leaping over one another, enveloped in clouds of mud and propelled by waves deep below the surface which he could sense rather than infer. Wherever he was, Sorger tried to experience minute burlesque processes of this kind, which sometimes merely amused him but sometimes aroused him and filled his whole being.
For some years--since he had been spending most of his time alone--he had felt the need to sense the place where he was at the moment: to know distances, apprehend angles of inclination; to gain some idea of the composition and stratification of the soil he was standingon, at least down to a certain depth; to supply himself, by measurement and delimitation, with spaces which were hardly more than "forms on paper" but which, for a short while at least, enabled him to construct himself and make himself invulnerable.
Sorger needed nature, but not only in its "unspoiled" state; in big cities, for example, he was satisfied to gain awareness of scarcely perceptible asphalt-covered humps and hollows, gentle rises and falls in the pavement, of church floors or stone stairs, worn with the steps of the centuries; or, visiting an unknown high-rise building, to fancy himself passing vertically through all the floors from roof to basement, and, finally, to daydream its granite foundations--until, in the end, orientation and the breathing space (and hence self-confidence) indispensable to life engendered each other.
He had the ability (not constant, to be sure, but sporadic and accidental, though his profession made the accident possible and gave it some constancy) to call upon those parts of the world to which he had become accustomed in his work for help, or merely to conjure them up for the entertainment of himself and others, with all their specifications, their degrees of longitude and latitude, their light and wind conditions, their planetary conjunctions, as eternally peaceful images, belonging to everyone and no one, and betokening events still to be imagined.
In every new scene, which might at first sight seem surveyable in its uniformity or picturesque in its contrasts, but in either case intelligible, this moment of naive familiarity was followed, often definitively, by a bewildered sense, akin to a loss of balance, of once again confronting a mere stage set, and a familiar one at that, further intensified by a sense of guilt at being, here too, "out ofplace." In the course of time, it had therefore become a passion with Sorger, while enduring this first feeling of emptiness, to win back these quickly squandered places by observing and taking notes. Unable, because he had long been nowhere at home, to recapture his self within his own four walls after such touristic humiliations by regions of the earth, he saw each new place as his only hope; if he did not (often reluctantly) commit himself to it through hard work, there would be no refuge for him in the scenes of his past--but then with luck, in times of exhaustion, all his localities joined together, the particular, freshly conquered one with those that had gone before, and formed a dome encompassing heaven and earth, a sanctuary, which was not only private but also open to others.
After his initial irritation with a nature too quick to promise itself and even quicker to withdraw, Sorger was obliged, on pain of losing himself, to immerse himself in it. He was obliged to take the environing world seriously in the least of its forms--a groove in the rock, a change of color in the mud, a windblown pile of sand at the foot of a plant--as seriously as only a child can do, in order to keep himself, who scarcely belonged anywhere, who was nowhere at home, together, for whom he had no idea; there were times when this cost him a furious effort at self-conquest.
For whom was he keeping himself together? Sorger knew that in devoting himself to his science he was to some extent practicing a religion. It was his work that enabled him, time and again, to enter into relationships, to choose and be chosen. By whom? No matter, as long as he was choosable.
Indeed, his study of the earth's forms, carried on without fanaticism but so intensely that little by little hegained awareness of his own form in the process, had thus far saved his soul by differentiating him from the Great Formlessness and its dangerous moods and caprices.
And what of others? Thus far in his profession Sorger had done no work expressly useful to anyone, let alone benefiting a community; he had neither drilled for oil nor predicted an earthquake nor even contributed to a construction project by testing the solidity of the subsoil. But of one thing he was sure--without the effort he made to endure the strangeness of every region of the earth, to read the landscape with the available means and give an orderly account of his reading, he would not have been fit company for anyone.
He did not believe in his science as a kind of nature religion; on the contrary, his always "measured" practice of his profession (in the eyes of the chaotic and often charmingly erratic Lauffer, Sorger's work was always "made to measure") was at the same time an exercise in trusting the world, for the measured quality of his technical manipulations but also his personal, everyday movements resided in his constant attempt at meditation, which sometimes made him fumble majestically about in such places as bathrooms, kitchens, and tool sheds. Sorger's faith was directed at nothing; when successful, it merely enabled him to participate in "its object" (a stone with a hole in it, or perhaps only a shoe on the table, or a thread on the lens of his microscope) and endowed him, who at such times was able, despite his frequent anguish, to feel like a real scientist, with humor. And then, caught up in a gentle vibration, he would simply look at his world more closely.
At such times of selfless tenderness (in his fleeting moments of hope he thought himself a fool) Sorger was not godlike; he just knew, for a brief moment--but onethat could be perpetuated with the help of forms--what was good and beautiful.
He longed, it is true, for a faith directed at something, though he could not conceive of a God; but in moments of distress he noticed that he positively thirsted--an automatic compulsion?--to share in the thought of God. (Sometimes he tried to be pious--he did not succeed; but then he was sure that "the gods" understood him.)
Did he envy the unflagging believers, the hosts of the already saved? In any event, he was touched by their freedom from moods, their easy transitions between gravity and good cheer, their enduring, benevolent, good extroversion; often enough he himself was simply not good, and to this he could not resign himself; too often he greeted some new object with loquacious enthusiasm and almost immediately thereafter turned away from it in silent revulsion--instead of responding to it once and for all with overarching humor.
Nevertheless, he could not hobnob with believers. He understood them, but he could not speak their language, because he had no language or because in his exceptional states of credulity he would have spoken a language foreign to them; in the "dark night of their faith," where there was no speaking in tongues, they could not have understood him.
On the other hand, for all his conviction, Sorger never ceased to regard the linguistic formulas of his science as a hoax; the rites in which it apprehended the landscape, its conventions of description and nomenclature, its conception of time and space, struck him as dubious. Having to use a language that had grown out of the history of mankind to describe the different movements and formations of the earth still made his head swim, and often he found it quite impossible to take account of time alongwith the places he had set out to investigate. He suspected the possibility of an entirely different schema for representing the correlation between time and geological formations, and saw himself smiling craftily, as the over-turners of systems have always done (that had struck him in all their photographs), and he foisted his own little hoax on the world.
And so Sorger, his thoughts made playful by his after-work elation, was able, while contemplating the yellow wilderness, to sense the desolation of a man who, without faith in the power of forms or rendered incapable of such faith by ignorance, might find himself, as in a nightmare, confronting this part of the world alone: his horror face to face with the Evil One at the irrevocable end of the world, unable to die of loneliness then and there--since there would no longer be a then and there--or even to be carried off by Satan--for even such names would have ceased to exist--but doomed to die of horror, for time, too, would have ceased to exist. The fluvial plain and the wide, flat sky over it suddenly looked to him like the two shells of an open bivalve, emanating the terrible, the poignantly voluptuous seduction of those who have died since the beginning of time.
Involuntarily, wrenched away from his play, Sorger--as though he had been his own double, as though exposed for all time to whirling emptiness on his outcropping of clay, marl, and possibly gold dust--turned toward the civilized hinterland, where the bushy light-colored tails of watchdogs could be seen wagging in the shrubbery, where tufts of grass growing on the earthen roofs of Indian huts glittered, and where the "eternally other"--his name at the moment for his colleague Lauffer--in mud-caked high boots and characteristic multi-pocketed jacket, a sparkling magnifying glass hanging from his neck (hehad just come in from his fieldwork), was standing on the topmost wooden step outside the gabled house, his face and torso still in the sun, in the first perplexity of return to a place where he only happened to be living, for a time stiffly and awkwardly imitating Sorger's stance, like Sorger looking out over the great fluvial plain, smoking a cigarette--a strangely helpless figure, with the same pinched look on his face as the row of Indians lined up outside.
The familiarity between these two friends expressed itself not in chumminess but in a politeness that was almost diffident. Subject as they were to moods, the outburst of moodiness that might occasionally have done them good was not possible. Though they were obliged to share their workroom, it was only at first that they felt in each other's way; in the bedroom as well--the house consisted only of those two rooms--each had his place without need of planning. A certain neighborliness was taken for granted, yet it seemed accidental when they did anything together; each went about his own affairs and even in the house each had his own itineraries. They didn't really eat together; one might be eating a regular meal; the other would sit down with him, and the first would issue an invitation: "Won't you have a glass of wine with me?" If one wanted music, the other wouldn't leave the room; he would stay, showing no express interest and gradually perhaps begin to listen, or even ask to have a piece repeated.
Lauffer was a liar; Sorger, for all his impenetrable calm, was unstable to the point of indifference or even disloyalty. Both suspected, or tacitly recognized, what was bad in the other (sensing it perhaps more uncannily than the person against whom it was directed), both were shrewdly aware that they were capable at any time of behavinglike scoundrels to someone else, but--so precious had their companionship become to them over the years--never to each other. Each with his friend thought of himself as kindly, never as wicked.
They were not "a couple," not even by contrast; but in the course of time, even when separated, they had become partners, a team, though not unconditional allies; each remained capable of friendship with the other's enemies.
True, Lauffer, the liar, had no enemies; his lying was noticed only by occasional women, who then, however, as though privy to a tragic secret, would ally themselves with him to the death, claiming him exclusively for themselves and excluding all others from their relationship.