A little while ago I was having an discussion-slash-argument with a friend at work about whether painting or literature is the greater artform. My friend was convinced that painting is superior, because, I think this was his point, it is in some sense a more primordial, or at least purer, mode of expression. I, however, believe that literature is superior, because we wouldn’t even be able to have the discussion at all without language, that every painting is actually understood, is processed by us, via language; indeed our every thought is filtered through language. In order to ‘understand’ a painting one needs language, one needs to think about it, to discuss it perhaps, maybe even write about it. By simply looking at a painting one may have an emotional response, one may recognize the image[s] as something, but to express this feeling in detail one needs words.
I hadn’t read Repetition at the time of the argument, but Handke spends much of it making a similar point. The central section of the novel almost entirely consists of a young man reading a Slovenian dictionary; Handke uses these passages to explain how the young man discovers the world through language. So, once he discovers the Slovenian word for, say, freshly cut grass, he can then visualize it, he can see and make sense of what Slovenian freshly cut grass is. This may seem inane, or trivial, to some, but I found it not only intellectually engaging, but really quite moving. Being an Austrian with Slovenian heritage, Slovenian is a foreign language to him to a large extent, and he sees in this naming, this being able to put a name to an object or experience, as a way of understanding it. Furthermore, this new knowledge acts as the bread crumbs he follows back to the culture of his father, his ancestors, and, he believes, his true self and birthright.
This is a novel, then, about heritage, about one’s place in the world, about family etc, but most of all it is about us, the human race, and the way we interact with, and make sense of, what is around us. The process of discovery that Filip goes through in Slovenia is a process we all go through. Think about how your mother or father would point at that black and white animal in the picture book or in the field and enlighten you with the single word: cow! There is a wonderful moment in the book when Filip is discussing the wind and how it allows us to identify new things as it moves around the landscape, how it draws our attention to the world around us, things that we ordinarily may miss, how it makes us focus on the world, and how language, words, spring up from this. For example, the way the wind moves the grass, the sound of the wind through the trees, these things, these particular sounds and sights, can, once discovered, be named and subsequently shared. He asks himself do the Slovenians have a word for these things, for the particular way that grass moves when touched by the wind etc? Beautiful.
I am concerned that a lot of my rambling here in this review may not make a great deal of sense, but this book is an esoteric one and so that perhaps cannot be avoided. I felt throughout my reading as though I was trying to catch a fish with hands smeared with vaseline [do the Slovenians have a word for this?]. There is a framing storyline around Handke’s musings and that helps to ground the narrative, to move it along, to give you a modicum of momentum. Filip is on the trail of his long-lost brother, a deserter from the army, who he believes may be in Slovenia, or who he knows at least was there at one stage. The earliest part of the book is the most straightforwardly novelistic, is essentially a Bildungsroman, and there are some lovely passages about his mother and father and his own school-life, but Repetition, even in these sections, is deeply ruminative.
One of the recurring themes of the novel is that life is a fairytale. Handke uses this word, fairytale, regularly and it wasn’t always clear to me what exactly he meant by it. An acquaintance of Filip’s, a teacher, is said to write them, and yet what he writes are single scene, single event, stories that do not contain any darkness [no witches, death, lost children etc], because, and I’m making a stab at this, the world is still a fairytale without them, that the fairytale aspect is in the lightness, that, for example, the beauty of a field or the sun is strange, is bewildering, and potent enough on its own. What I can say with certainty is that Handke’s novel is fairytale-like, there is even a woman who awakens from a spell after a significant number of years. This is his sister, long considered to be an idiot, a woman who at the end of a love affair was said to have lost her mind, but who suddenly after 15 years recovers and becomes active. There are numerous references to apples [which as we know were Snow White’s downfall] and the orchid maintained by Filip’s brother. This brother, it is also worth noting, only has sight in one eye, which is a glimpse of the grotesque.
As for rating this, well, it is nearly impossible for me. This is a profound experience, and you can’t rate something like that. As a novel, as a pleasant reading experience from cover-to-cover, it has its flaws, however. It is difficult, it is tiring even, it is wholly without humour, and it does lack a conventional narrative. Indeed, it is no surprise that W.G. Sebald and William Gass raved about it, because it has the ruminative power of Sebald and the poetic sensibility of Rilke [one of Gass’ great heroes]. So, I’ll call it brilliant, for what it’s worth, which is nothing.