A friend who went to college in the early ’80s tells me that in those days Peter Handke was the rage, something that is now hard to imagine. Maybe it was the in-your-face anti-theater of his plays, or the profound and surprising feminism of his two best books: the raw memoir of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and the elegant nouveau roman, The Left-Handed Woman. In any case, most American editions of his books have since fallen soundlessly out of print. Things are different in Europe, where Handke is a scandal: Possibly the greatest living German prose stylist, he is also possibly a denier of Bosnian Serb atrocities, therefore possibly exhibit A in the case for the moral irresponsibility of postmodernism, and possibly—to read the Austrian press—just a lout in general.
His obscurity here is thus in many ways a good thing. Those wishing to dip into the Handke controversy may cf. a long essay by J.S. Marcus in the September 21 New York Review. Meanwhile American readers can and should forget, for now, all of the above. Lots of art gets called dreamlike, but Handke’s tale of a country doctor—a pharmacist, precisely—proceeds in as truly dreamlike a fashion as I can remember having encountered, and it should be approached with all the trusting innocence of one falling asleep.
This requires not asking too many questions. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House is narrated by a writer to whom the pharmacist has told his story. Pressed on details, the pharmacist will tell the writer to “Leave it vague.” Might as well cross-examine a dream. Still, this is a book review, and some journalistic questions are in order.
Who? Mainly the pharmacist himself, never named, a man either not recognized in public or mistaken for a celebrity, presently estranged from his wife and their vanished son and occupied with gathering wild mushrooms (he favors “the ‘dream-expanding’ ones”) and reading medieval epics. What? A mysterious blow to the head (“A person usually remembers how a dream ended. Almost never how it began!”). Loss of the ability to speak. Road trip with a former skiing champion and a once-famous poet, both of them garrulous. A beating administered by a strange woman who later explains she had resolved, “If I should ever be inflamed with love for someone, the first thing I would do is beat him up, at first sight!” Festival in a village in Spain where vanished son is glimpsed playing accordion in a gypsy band. Later, wanderings on the steppe—but the “steppe”? in Spain? When? Apparently there are no more borders, and the homogenization of Europe proceeds apace: therefore, approximately now. Where? The “almost forgotten” town of Taxham occupying a “spandrel” of space bypassed by contemporary Europe. Then that impossible Spain with its impossible steppe, where the language is not Spanish and the bars are all “out-of-the-way.” Such unreal places, at any rate, as the cultural standardization of Europe has spared and where therefore a dream may assemble its necessary features. (Such are this novel’s only politics, despite Handke’s public romance with Serbia.) Finally Taxham again, home. Why? Well . . .
Does the dream—with its impeccable and unspecifiable logic and its dream debility of speechlessness—finally dissolve without signifying anything? Able to talk again, the pharmacist says, “The only thing about me that seems to have changed is that my feet are bigger.”
In addition to being a dream, On a Dark Night is a road movie, a metafiction, a mushroom trip, a Romantic quest poem, and an abortive love story. That is to say, it’s a tease. It brims with withheld significance. The danger is that its run of implausible events will come to seem merely arbitrary, always leaving things vague when one asks why. And it is true that for all the novel’s final air of achieved wisdom and restored peace it would be hard to define, exactly, the wisdom or the peace. But the book enjoys the visionary authority of its descriptions (“When a breath of wind passed through the dry vegetation, it produced a slight ringing, like the sound of onionskin pages being turned”) and of its inexplicable dream rightness, such that while there is no saying why, for instance, the pharmacist and his wife should be unable to occupy the same room at the same time, the fact feels uncannily correct. When at last the pharmacist is recognized by a child on the street, it seems to be because he has had the right adventure, the one identifying him as himself.
Handke has elsewhere confessed that he prefers, to being moved by art, being “almost moved.” I suspect that the emotions almost induced by On a Dark Night, and the sense it almost makes, will prove more durable than being affected in the usual way. Interpretation, after all, is a type of banishment, and this is a novel calculated to linger unresolved in the mind. “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” warned Gertrude Stein, but Handke has made a career of breaking the rules—from Offending the Audience to defending the Serbs, the caption of a photo might run—and he deserves to recover with this told dream the readers lost since the short-lived Handke boom of approximately 1983.