Storm Still by Peter Handke (trans Martin Chalmers). Seagull Books. 112 pp. $21.00
Nearly a quarter of the way into Peter Handke’s dramatic work Storm Still, the narrator, designated merely as “I,” conducts a quiet conversation with his long-dead mother. This tender re-encounter, like the rest of the play’s action, takes place in the narrator’s memories of the bucolic Jaunfeld Plain of Carinthia, the southern Austrian province where he spent his childhood and which he now attempts to reconstruct. But the meeting itself is not a remembrance. The elderly narrator, whose proper temporal context is the present, speaks with a much younger woman from the past. And when his mother asks whether her now gray-haired son still watches soccer, his formerly beloved pastime, the narrator drearily responds:
I don’t watch whole games any more, not even the finals, at most one half, usually the second. And I still shout when I’m watching, except no longer in the house but somewhere in a cafe, with strangers, they’re good for me, that does me good. And I still stick with the losers.
Readers familiar with Handke’s oeuvre will be little surprised by this last statement, delivered by a figure bearing an undeniable resemblance to the writer himself. The oft-lauded and equally oft-censured author has spent the better part of his lengthy career attacking the cultural, political, and editorial establishment while simultaneously speaking out for individuals and communities seldom granted voices in the larger European public sphere. His breakthrough onto the international literary scene in 1966 with his highly publicized polemic against the Gruppe 47, an eminent league of acclaimed German-language authors including Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, firmly inaugurated his status as yet another Austrian literary bad-boy within a long tradition of Nestbeschmutzer (“nest foulers”). In the nineties during the Yugoslav Wars, his criticism of the German media’s coverage of the events, as well as his own proximity to Slobodan Milosevic, provoked a wave of scandal that continues to hang over the author’s publications and public statements.
Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s own matrilineal forebears—whose members are either driven from their home, psychologically traumatized, or killed during the agonizing events of the Second World War. The central action of the story is concerned with the family’s involvement in the Slovene Partisan resistance to the Nazis. But the plot largely plays a secondary role, serving as a background against which the family’s endeavor to maintain its ethnic identity takes precedence. Though this text is his first to deal almost exclusively with the resistance, Handke had already offered a moving portrayal of his relationship with his Slovenian mother in the 1982 novel A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Unglück), and the political repression of the Carinthian Slovenes had already been touched on several times in earlier works.
The text itself, like many of Handke’s works, is a hybrid form; it is neither entirely a prose composition nor is it exclusively a stage play. In the three years since its 2011 world premiere at the Salzburger Festspiele, the play has enjoyed a multitude of productions on various European stages. With an average running time of over five hours, a staging of Storm Still offers the audience ample opportunity to appreciate firsthand the narrator’s immersive dreamscape as well as the tactility of the language itself, the materiality of which Handke has foregrounded since his early Sprechstücke (“speaking plays”).
Yet a stage production also potentially detracts from the author’s subtle and pleasingly disorienting manipulation of narrative focus and tense. Handke, like his contemporary Elfriede Jelinek, eschews the traditional dramatic format, utilizing a poetic prose that tentatively suggests stage directions but leaves the director or reader much interpretive leeway. The text opens with what appears to be an extra-diegetic description of an image fogged by poor recollection, and the story itself only begins once the narrator has hesitantly waded into this imagined setting, beckoned into the depicted space by his familial forebears. Throughout the play, the writer-protagonist describes the actions and utterances of the other characters with a halting ambivalence that matches his failing memory, the narrative perspective continually slipping in and out of focus like a defective camera lens. And his scenic descriptions continually cycle between the past, present, and future perfect tenses, so that the dramatic action appears to play out in a kind of historical echo chamber.
This temporal tinkering constitutes a crucial element of Handke’s artistic strategy. Contrary to expectations, the antagonists of this play are not the Nazis themselves, nor do any of the narrator’s family members—such as his mother, who abandons the Jaunfeld Plain in search of her German lover—necessarily take on the role of the traditional adversary. Rather, the central conflict of this drama is a formal one, and the form the writer-protagonist wishes to combat is tragedy. On principle, Handke has always been resistant to what he deems formal “recipes.” But the deployment of tragedy in this context would bear more than mere aesthetic consequences. Following the defeat of the Nazis, the Carinthian Slovenes, whose participation in the sole military resistance within Nazi territory later ensures Austrian sovereignty, are once again relegated to the sidelines of history. In an outburst of hopeless vexation at the occupiers’ destruction of his family orchard and the ongoing repression of his native language, the narrator’s sole-surviving uncle Gregor declares,
How I have always resisted any notions of the tragic. Tragedies in Ancient Greece, if you like, or for the American Indians—but not here with us! Even the word itself is a foreign word in our language, and not only in my father’s house. . . . But this now . . . It cries out, shrieks, whimpers, trembles for the word “tragedy”—against my will, against our nature, against my heart.
Himself a close reader and translator of numerous Greek tragedies, Handke is keenly aware of the form’s ideological implications. Not only would the implementation of tragedy amount to the imposition of an alien form onto this community, it would also indicate a helpless resignation to the steamrolling effects of history, much as the heroes of Attic tragedy must invariably succumb to the will of fate.
Starting with the opening, the author seeks to frustrate the tragic form: “A heath, steppe, a steppe-like heath, or wherever. Now, in the Middle Ages, or whenever.” Unwilling to confine his story a single tragic figure, Handke disperses it among an ensemble cast, and the plot evolves cyclically rather than linearly, unfolding in seemingly unconnected episodes and corresponding with the circular, dance-like movements of the figures themselves. The formal antidote, as elsewhere in Handke’s oeuvre, is the epic, here interwoven with the folk songs of the Carinthian Slovenes in which Gregor claims to hear traces of a time outside “the real time . . . historical time, the shitty time.”
This stationary conception of time, freed from the relentless progression of history, exhibits manifest similarities to the critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s idea of a messianic Jetztzeit (“now time”), an infinitely elongated present spanning all epochs. In his screenplay to Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), Handke makes several nods to Benjamin’s theoretical work; here, one feels that the storm invoked in the work’s title naturally calls to mind Benjamin’s iconic interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in the theorist’s final essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel of history] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. . . . This storm is what we call progress.
To oversimplify, Benjamin’s essay represents a proto-version of the now stale truism, “History is written by the victors.” Cognizant of both tragedy and historical writing’s unavoidable complicity with the winners, Handke opts for the form of an epic chronicle in his depiction of this family of historical “losers”, to which he himself belongs. Together with his narrator, he resurrects the forgotten dead in the construction of a monument to their memory.
Taking into account the ongoing subjugation of the Carinthian Slovenes, an ever-dwindling ethnic minority still residing in Austria’s arguably most conservative state, the message of the text is a pressing one. In its strongest moments, such as the climactic contretemps between the protagonist and his deceased uncle, the play forcefully evinces this sense of urgency. The protagonist’s (as well as, presumably, Handke’s) conflicted ambivalence about his own writerly passivity is firmly impressed upon the reader in such scenes. Yet in others, the play’s tautness slackens, and the lyrical allure of the individual monologues sometimes fails to endure their slightly tedious length. Greater linguistic variety between the individual characters could have perhaps enlivened these long speeches, but the figures largely employ the same elevated verbal style and rhythm—a consequence of the writer-protagonist’s acknowledged idealization of his forebears. Ultimately, however, the play’s poignancy effectively overpowers these moments, and the net result constitutes one of Handke’s most personal and touching works to date. As the protagonist’s mother indicates in one of the opening scenes, it’s the family drama he’s been working toward for some time.
Xan Holt is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic Languages at Columbia University. He is particularly interested in contemporary theater and performance.
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