We had planned to spend Memorial Day weekend in Bayfield with some friends, but I had a nagging cough and we rescheduled the trip, which left us with a pleasantly vacant stretch of days. The mornings were cool and sunny, and we made our way to the farmers market three days in succession, coming home with impatiens, “Martha Washington” geraniums, browallias, and other shade-tolerant plants along with the fixings to enjoy lots of grilled bread topped with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic out on the deck.
With oceans of time in front of me, I scanned the shelves and came up with Across (1984), a short novel by the Austrian writer Peter Handke.
Handke may be best-known to American audiences as the author of the screenplay to Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, though he received a mild degree of international notoriety with his recent book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. In Europe he’s well-known as an aging infant terrible of the literary scene. When Elfriede Jelinek won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2004 she is reported to have said: “They made a mistake. Peter Handke should have won it.” She’s probably right.
The critics, with their perchance for schools and categorization, have put Handke into the German Neoromanticism pidgeonhole, and Across definitely fits the bill. It’s the personal narrative of a man who’s left his family and his job as a teacher to work out some things in an apartment above a supermarket in a village on the outskirts of Salzburg. A good deal of the book consists of minute and exacting descriptions of the buses arriving and departing at the village station, the noises arising from the street, the character of the light that glances through the apartment at various times of the day, the quotidian activities the narrator witnesses on his incessant walks, and the shifting appearance of the nearby mountains. For example:
I sat in my usual corner, with a view of the two small groups, and also, through the cleft of the curtains, out into the open. There in the northern sky gleamed the gray prison wall of the castle, toward which the canal flows in gentle meanders, in the foreground traversed by one of its many bridges. Two cars were standing side by side on the hump of the bridge, the drivers talking to each other through open windows as if they had just met. Between them slithered a moped, whose rider’s body while on the bridge seemed airier for a moment. The bridge was empty. An old man and an old woman sat on a bench on the embankment, which oddly enough, like all the benches along the canal, faced away from the water….
One long section deals with a card game. But the central event is this: the narrator, while walking in the nearby mountains, comes upon an old man painting a swastika on a tree trunk. He kills him with a stone and tosses the body off the edge of the nearby cliff.
Near the end of the book, the narrator receives a kind letter from his former mentor and current headmaster reqesting that he return to his post at the school.
The reader of the letter sat down and wept; not over the praise, but over the salutation, "Dear Andreas." for it seemed to me that for years no one had called me by my first name.
By the end of the book…but I don’t want to give away the ending! I’m sure that before long everyone will be scouring the stacks of the local branch library for a stray copy. Suffice it to say that Across is strange, poetic, engaging book.