Peter Handke's reputation as the ultimate aesthete of German letters came to an explosive end in the 1990s. Best known for his collaborations with Wim Wenders and his book "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams" (1975), about his mother's suicide, the Austrian writer first became famous by attacking more political writers, such as Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. he believed the postwar generation put political righteousness ahead of artistry.
Mr. Handke kept out of politics until 1991, when Slovenian statehood, of all things, drew him in. He resented that this overlooked people would now form their own state, separate from disintegrating Yugoslavia. The residents of Slovenia preferred political independence to his idealized notion of a forgotten landscape. Although not Slovenian himself, he referred to the country as his Heimat, a loaded word that loosely means "homeland" in German.
Quixotic, condescending, but not fatal, this episode lead to something truly scandalous. In 1996 Mr. Handke visited Serbia and published an essay that portrayed the country as a misunderstood folk territory — he went out of his way to apply the word Volk to the Serbian people. Meanwhile he attacked the journalism that reported Serbian atrocities, questioning their very veracity.
In the ensuing controversy, Mr. Handke stuck to his guns. In interview after interview, he gave the impression that his own subjective experience was more reliable, and more important, than Western journalism. In 2006, he took part in the public funeral for Slobodan Milosevic.
It was late in the day to perform a perfect caricature of 19th-century German Romanticism, but this is just what Mr. Handke did. Whether Mr. Handke's career as a strictly fictional writer would survive the scandal remains to be seen. His first major novel since, "Crossing the Sierra de Gredos" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $26) has now been translated into English.
Although the plot concerns an unnamed woman banker who leaves her north European home in order to visit her biographer in Spain's La Mancha region, Mr. Handke's romantic preoccupations are not too far away. The banker owes her phenomenal success to sudden inspirations, or "images," that visit her and give her the "powerful sense of being alive." She believes she owes her radiance, as a negotiator, to these images. But, "Everywhere under the sun the images were dying out." In German, the book's alternate title is "Bilverlust," meaning "loss of image." The culprit seems to be the Western press: A reporter joins the banker on her voyage and proceeds to misunderstand all that is fleeting and subjective in her odd, unexplainable vision quest.
To a less than sympathetic reader, this novel is all but unreadable. Long, hair-splitting sentences that owe little to lived reality suggest that Mr. Handke's distrust of reported fact has led him to disregard his contract with the reader. This writer once wrote a play called "Offending the Audience" (1966), and it would be easy to underestimate him. But "Crossing the Sierra de Gredos" will not convince his detractors.
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American readers know Robert Walser (1878–1956) is a neglected writer, but how many knew that we in particular were neglecting him? Until now, Walser's very winning second novel, "The Assistant" (New Directions, 304 pages, $16.95), first published in 1908, has gone untranslated in English.
Equipped with only his shorter works and the wonderful but very eccentric "Jakob von Gunten," (NYRB, 200 pages, $14), published in 1909, Walser appeared memorable but somewhat crabbed, like a smaller, Swiss Kafka.
But "The Assistant" contains a living, breathing world, with personalities and a long, fully-functioning plot. Walser himself seems to be relishing a fresh access of space: "And with your naked, sensation-filled arms, you slice into this wet, clean, benevolent element," he writes of the assistant's swim.
Legions of young New Yorkers will recognize themselves in Walser's protagonist, Joseph Marti, an intimidated young man performing rote work for his supposedly creative boss, an inventor. Walser's tale, like much of his work, concerns itself closely with archetypes, but this one manages to be personable, at the same time. Joseph, possessing more sense than he realizes, blunders into deadpan brilliance again and again: "Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice," he observes, noticing the inventor's children. And when the inventor runs out of money: "Alas, it was the twentieth century, the age of moonlit robberies was over."
Like "Jakob von Gunten," his novel about a school for servants, this is ultimately a story about humility. Walser always saw that respect, the tissue of society, consists of hate as much as of love. But in this truly social novel, he seems surprised by his insight, and proud of it.