Book designer and publisher Philip Baber on Peter Handke. With an excerpt from Handke’s long poem To Duration, translated by Scott Abbott and published by The Last Books, Amsterdam, in 2015.
Ostensibly, Peter Handke’s 1986 novel Repetition [Die Wiederholung] is a fairly conventional Bildungsroman: the middle-aged narrator, Filip Kobal, recounts a journey undertaken by his twenty-year-old self a quarter of a century earlier, from his parents’ home in rural southern Austria into the Slovenian Karst, where his older brother Gregor disappeared during WWII. But it is also a book about language, that is, about how an altered perception of language can deepen our encounters with the world, ourselves, and others. Filip takes with him on his journey two of his brother’s books – a copybook from agricultural college, written in Slovenian, the language of his ancestors, and a German/Slovenian dictionary, which was bequeathed to him as a »baptismal present.« And through reading these books, through translating and deciphering their foreign words and phrases, he does indeed receive a baptism of sorts – that is, a moment of radical communion, not only with his missing brother and Slovenian forebears, but with the world in the widest sense: »Then, flinging myself upon the ground, I discovered once and for all what the spirit is.« 
To enter into a more conscious engagement with language is to undertake a journey in which we leave ourselves and go to meet another. Reading, writing, listening are essentially kenotic in their movements, leading us from the solipsism of the encapsulated subject into an openness where the world can be, if not known, then perceived more directly, unobscured by the veils of the self. And Handke’s novel doesn’t merely describe this movement, but rather, through the very rhythms and forms of its syntax, embodies and enacts it.
There’s something oddly out of time, anachronistic even, about the tone and imagery of this book, especially from a writer known for his explicitly »avant-garde« and experimental early work. Yet, as W.G. Sebald suggests in his long essay on Repetition,  those early texts, »though doubtlessly formed from high artistic understanding and true feeling,« nonetheless conform to certain expectations of what Modernist literature should be, especially in their conception of language as something inherently alienating and coercive. Indeed, I believe it is Handke’s later work  – calmer, quieter, more attentive and hopeful (though never, I think, naive; always maintaining a dialectical tension) – that is more truly subversive. Every sentence in Repetition is an implicit rejection of modernity’s destructive and dehumanizing drives, if not in what it says then in how it says it – slowly, precisely, heedfully, with an intensely serious and loving care. This shift in Handke’s work – from absence to presence, from meaninglessness to the hope of meaning – recalls a passage from a letter by the American poet Hart Crane, written in 1923:
»[T. S. Eliot’s] pessimism is amply justified, in his own case. But I would apply as much of his erudition and technique as I can absorb and assemble towards a more positive, or (if I must put it so in a skeptical age) ecstatic goal … Certainly the man has dug the ground and buried hope as deep and direfully as it can ever be done … After this perfection of death – nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind … All I know through very much suffering and dullness … is that it interests me to still affirm certain things.« 
The significance of Handke’s novel lies in this – in its overcoming of skepticism and alienation, not by denying or turning away from the human condition, but by entering into and thus transfiguring the infinite distance between word and world, I and Thou.
To Duration [Gedicht an die Dauer], begun on March 2, 1986, one day after the manuscript of Repetition was submitted to its publisher, is a book-length poem exploring what Handke, in reference to Henri Bergson, calls »duration.«  To attempt a necessarily approximate description, duration refers to those moments of intense being in which we find ourselves briefly liberated from the constraints of the self and linear time. This kind of »unselfing« has of course been explored by many mystic writers from many different traditions, but Handke refuses any quasi-religious or »spiritual« reading of duration by rooting his poem in the objects and events of everyday life. Duration is encountered not »in that ›sitting still‹ / through which one is supposed to become ›holy,‹« but »while cautiously shutting a door, / while carefully peeling an apple, / while crossing a threshold attentively, / while bending down for a thread.« And though it could well arise in a church (why not?), it has also been known to occur »on a sports field« and »in many a pissoir.« 
Tellingly, Handke never attempts a systematic description of duration, which would not only be futile but, in reducing it to an »experience,« to something accessible to the self-conscious mind, inherently contradictory, for it is precisely the self-conscious mind that is elided in such moments. Instead, he performs a kind of linguistic dance around it, hinting at it, gesturing at it, allowing it to reveal itself as much as possible (or as much as it wills). His poem makes it clear that language will never apprehend duration in itself. But language, and poetry in particular, can perhaps, by opening us up to what lies beyond ourselves, bring us to its threshold – to that place where the broken self begins its healing.
»With duration’s laying on of hands
the wound closes
that I am first aware of
as it closes.« 
To Duration (excerpt)
By Peter Handke
For a long time I have wanted to write about duration,
not an essay, not a play, not a story –
duration calls for a poem.
Want to question myself with a poem,
remember with a poem,
claim and reclaim with a poem
what duration is.
Time and again I have experienced duration,
in early spring at the Fontaine Sainte-Marie,
in the night wind at the Porte d’Auteuil,
in the summer sun of the Karst,
on the way home before dawn after love.
This duration, what was it?
Was it an interval of time?
Something measurable? A certitude?
No, duration was a feeling,
the most fleeting of all feelings,
more swiftly past than the blink of an eye,
And yet, with its aid
I could have smiled at
and disarmed any foe at any time,
could have transformed the opinion
that I was an evil person
into the conviction:
‘He is good!’ –
would have, if there were a God,
long been the child of the feeling of duration.
Just yesterday, on the Waagplatz in Salzburg,
amidst the crowds and clatter of the everlasting shopping day,
I heard a voice call my name,
as if from far across the city,
realised in the same moment
that I had left
the text of Repetition –
I was on my way with it to the post office –
at a market stand,
heard, while running back, that other voice,
the one that came to me a quarter-of-a-century earlier
in the night stillness of the outskirts of Graz,
solicitous as well, as if from above,
from the distant end of the empty long straight street,
and could, there, describe the feeling of duration
as an event of attending to,
an event of contemplation,
an event of being embraced,
an event of being caught up,
by what?, by an additional sun,
by a refreshing wind,
by a silent delicate chord
moderating and uniting all dissonances.
Duration cannot be relied on:
not even the pious
who attend mass daily,
not even the patient, the masters of waiting,
not even the loyal
who will always, steadfastly, be yours,
can be assured of its lifelong presence.
I know, perhaps,
that it becomes possible only
when I am able
to stay at my task
and to be vigilant at it,
presence of mind to the tips of my fingers.
And what is the task
that demands my persistence?
It will manifest itself
in affection for the living
– for one of them –
and in the awareness of an attachment
(even if only imagined).
This task, it is not large,
not special, not unusual, not superhuman,
not war, not a landing on the moon,
not discovery, not the work of a century,
not the scaling of a peak, not a kamikaze flight:
I share it with millions,
and with my neighbour as well as
with the dwellers at the ends of the earth
where, through a common task,
a world-centre arises identical
to my own.
Yes, this task from which, over the years, duration springs,
it is fundamentally inconspicuous,
not worth talking about
but worth holding on to through writing:
for it must be my main task.
It must be my true love.
And I must,
if the moments of duration are to spring from me
and give my stiff face a form
and insert a heart into my empty breast,
practise, year in and year out,
Staying at the task,
the one dear to me, the chief one,
impeding, thus, its obsolescence,
I feel then, perhaps,
the shudder of duration,
incidentally each time,
while cautiously shutting a door,
while carefully peeling an apple,
while crossing a threshold attentively,
while bending down for a thread.
The poem to duration is a love poem.
It is about love at first sight
followed by many such first sights.
And this love,
its duration not in any deed,
much more in a before and after –
through love’s altered sense of time
the before was also after
and the after also before.
We had already become one
before we had become one,
continued to become
after we had become one,
and lay that way for years,
hip to hip, breath to breath,
side by side.
Your brown hair reddened
then turned blond.
Your proliferating scars
Your voice trembled,
became firm, whispered, quavered,
fell into singsong,
the only sound in the worldwide night,
was silent, next to me.
Your straight hair curled,
your bright eyes darkened,
your large teeth grew smaller,
the taut skin of your lips
developed a fine, lightly drawn pattern,
on your always smooth chin
I felt an unfamiliar indentation,
and our bodies, instead of wounding,
joined playfully into one,
while on the wall of the room
in the street lantern light
there was a shadowy shifting of European shrubs,
the shadows of American trees
the shadows of nightbirds from everywhere.
is not only a matter of sexual love.
It can, similarly,
embrace you in the persistent love for your child,
not so much in caressing,
stroking, and smothering with kisses,
but once again via peripheral things,
on the Royal Road by way of a third thing!,
the labour of love
through which, serving the child,
you leave it in peace:
duration with your child,
it stirs perhaps
in the moments of patient listening,
in the moment when
– with the same attentive gesture
with which, more than a decade ago,
you draped the blue hooded ‘child-sized’ coat
over a hanger –
you now drape the brown suede ‘adult-sized’ jacket
over a very different hanger in a very different city;
duration with your child,
it can overwhelm you
when, working in stillness for hours on end,
useful work, it seems to you,
still lacking that final touch
to lend it a sense of the whole,
you hear the sound of the opening front door,
sign of homecoming
that for you, there,
most noise-sensitive of the noise-sensitive,
even at the very moment you are finding your way,
sounds like the most beautiful music.
And duration alongside your offspring,
you experience it most powerfully, perhaps,
when you become invisible:
secretly watch him on his daily route,
go ahead of the bus he has climbed into,
to see, as it passes by,
in the row of strangers at the windows
the one familiar face,
or just imagine, from a distance,
seeing him in the crowded subway,
among the others, protected by the others,
respected by the others.
Peculiar as well the feeling of duration
in the presence of some small things,
the less conspicuous, the more poignant:
that one spoon
that accompanied me through all the moves,
that one hand towel
that hung in the most disparate bathrooms,
the teapot and the wicker chair
set aside in a basement for years
or stored somewhere,
and now finally in place again,
to be sure, a different place than the original one
and nevertheless their own.
fortunate all who have places of duration;
even displaced forever,
with no prospect of return to familiar environs,
they are never exiles from home.
Translated from the German by Scott Abbott
Published by The Last Books, Amsterdam, in 2015, with the support of Akademie Schloss Solitude and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts and Culture.
Translation © 2014 by Scott Abbott. First published in 1986 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, under the title Gedicht and die Dauer.
- Peter Handke, Repetition. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. Amsterdam: The Last Books, 2013. Translation © 1988 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., New York. First published in 1986 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, under the title Die Wiederholung.
- W.G. Sebald, »Across the Border: on Peter Handke’s Repetition.« Translated from the German by Nathaniel Davis. Amsterdam: The Last Books, 2013. First published in 1995 by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt, under the title »Jenseits der Grenze« in Unheimliche Heimat, pp. 162–178. This essay can be downloaded as a free PDF: http://thelastbooks.org/pdfs/sebald-across.pdf
- From, say, Langsame Heimkehr, 1979 up to and including Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, 1994, with Repetition, 1986 as the midpoint and apotheosis of this »period.«
- From a letter to Gorham Munson, January 5th, 1923, in Hart Crane, Complete Poems & Selected Letters. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2006.
- Cf. Henri Bergson’s theory of time and consciousness, la durée, first introduced in his book Time and Free Will. To Duration’s epigraph, which well describes Handke’s approach to the writing of this poem, is taken from Bergson’s »Introduction to Metaphysics«: »No image will replace the intuition of duration, but many different images, taken from the ranks of very different things, might, working together in their movements, guide consciousness to the very place where a certain intuition is conceivable.«
- Peter Handke, To Duration. Translated from the German by Scott Abbott. Amsterdam: The Last Books, 2015 with the support of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Arts and Culture and Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart. Translation © 2014 by Scott Abbott. First published in 1986 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, under the title Gedicht an die Dauer.