Peter Handke: Das Gewicht der Welt

Das Gewicht der Welt is the first volume of Peter Handke’s journals (he published several more since then) spanning the time from November 1975 to March 1977. The term “journal” might be somewhat misleading, however – these are not day-by-day entries following the incidents and thoughts in the author’s life; according to Handke’s foreword, the book started out as a collection of notes for a novel but then changed in character, disentangling themselves from the novels and turning into ad-hoc observations and the authors reactions to them, gradually  metamorphosing into general process of perception becoming writing.

I had a quite specific idea what this book would be like before I started reading it, but soon discovered that it was not like that pre-conceived notion at all. From works of Peter Handke I had read previously (most notably Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht) I was expecting paragraphs, even pages of long, dense descriptions. But just as Das Gewicht der Welt is not what you’d normally expect from a journal, i.e. a recounting of day-to-day to events or an exploration of the writer’s subjectivity, it also contains no long, in-depth descriptions of and mediations on the author’s environment. Instead, it offers lots and lots of short notes, most of them just one or two sentences long and quite often even shorter than that, of random stuff the author noticed and wrote down.

Except of course that the reader soon notices that things are not all that random as they appeared on first sight, but that there are a number of recurring themes and images, mostly connected to immediacy (and the loss of it) and distance (between people, between people and their surroundings, between people and their own selves) – which, finally, connected me back to the Handke I know who seems obsessed of the correct way to the describe the world and of the correct attitude the writer must assume to correctly describe the world which tends to involve a certain distance, a relaxedness, a diminishing of tension that lets itself be surprised by objects and people – hence the importance of tiredness and boredom in Handke’s work in general as well, as in this volume. (It also goes some way to explaining the way he looks on many of his picture – I mean, just look at the cover of tis volume, the downward curved lines of eyebrows, eyes, moustache and mouth, and that crumpled-up chin: Impossible to tell whether he’s struggling to stay awake there or observing you intently. Or, precisely, both.)

Das Gewicht der Welt (and do note how only a single letter divides “Gewicht” – weight – from “Gesicht” – face) presents a kind of physiognomics of the visible, with the writer attempting to decipher the surface the world turns towards him, translating sensory impressions into writing to give them meaning. There is the occasional trite remark here, and sometimes the writer is just being cranky, but for the most part there is a wealth of very perceptive observations here, from natural phenomena to human behaviour and everything in between, and for all the brevity of the majority of the entrances (there are some longer ones later on) they are all beautifully written (something one would of course expect from Handke), somehow managing to combine the freshness of immediate reactions with a carefully crafted prose without seeming in the least bit contrived.

The book, however does require a bit of effort on part of the reader – or maybe “attitude adjustment” would be the better term. Das Gewicht der Welt is not a book to read in go, but has to be taken in small doses. It requires a certain rhythm for full appreciation, one that involves frequent pauses to let what you just read settle down and maybe ponder it for a while. Personally, I found that placing oneself in certain surroundings also helps – this book is best read out in the open, while you’re walking or sitting on a bench in a park or on a square, while waiting for your train or even in a queue in the supermarket, or at least while sitting at the window – anywhere, in short where you can lift your eyes towards the world. And sometimes – this happened to me more than once -, when you do look up from the book, blinking at your surroundings, when they do slide into focus it may seem like the world is approaching your differently, or maybe you have become differently accessible to it after reading a sentence from Das Gewicht der Welt. It is that kind of book that opens itself to its outside, and there is a reason that none of the entries ends with a period but that they are all left open, open to continue somewhere else than themselves. And it is even less of a coincidence that the book ends with precisely that gesture – the writer lifting his face.

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2 comments

  1. Oh yeah! Another blogger who writes about German books in English. High fives. I haven’t found many of us, and for some reason, though I like reading in German, I rarely like reading blogs in German. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Thank you for commenting! – I wasn’t sure what language to use when writing about German books myself at first, but then I decided that I’d rather not scare away the few readers this blog has. Also, if I wrote in German about German books, I’d have to write French about French books which… would not be a good idea.

    Hope you’ll find soemthing to like here, there should be a post on Reinhard Jirgl’s first novel coming up soon. Well, soon-ish, anyway.

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