Why Trolling Can Win You a Nobel Prize for Literature

Peter Handke’s greatest aesthetic strength is his biggest intellectual weakness: the absence of all political and psychological depth.

The Austrian writer Peter Handke poses in Chaville, in the suburbs of Paris, on Oct. 10, after he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature.
The Austrian writer Peter Handke poses in Chaville, in the suburbs of Paris, on Oct. 10, after he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

Even Peter Handke thinks that Peter Handke shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. “I’m not a winner,” the Austrian writer said in an interview posted by Bloomberg last week. “They chose my work, but my nature is not the nature of a winner. Always, they say, ‘He won the Nobel Prize.’ I don’t like this expression.’” Instead of talking about winning, Handke spoke of a temporary reprieve from a lifetime of feeling guilty, about a “strange kind of freedom” that left him tired but, for the moment, content.

Condemnations of Handke’s prize have been harsh, perhaps most notably that issued by the Bosnian German author Sasa Stanisic, who, in what is widely seen as a rebuke to the Nobel Committee, was this week awarded the German Book Prize for his novel Herkunft. “I had the luck of escaping that which Peter Handke doesn’t describe in his texts,” he said in his acceptance speech, referring to Handke’s controversial support of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic: “[Handke] doesn’t describe the militias,” inveighed Stanisic, “he doesn’t describe their leader, who is called Milan Lukic and is serving life behind bars for crimes against humanity. He doesn’t mention the victims.” Instead, according to Stanisic, we get a blank denial of the possibility that the crimes took place. The Bosnian American writer Aleksandar Hemon, meanwhile, has said that Handke’s is “a literary project whose value should dissolve like a body in acid before the magnitude of crimes its author repeatedly denied and thus endorsed.”

Even some of Handke’s harshest critics, however, cede that his poetic gifts are enormous. Indeed, the sheer force of Handke’s linguistic facility has always overwhelmed every aspect of his work: “No one has ever read Handke for his ideas, but for his hostility to ideas,” wrote the novelist Joshua Cohen while reviewing Handke’s 2016 novel The Moravian Night for the New York Times, though it isn’t as though there aren’t plenty of big ideas in Handke’s work. It’s just that those ideas are always motivated in service of a poetic posture that directs Handke’s attention and limits the scope of his engagement with grand theories and historical investigation. Transported through time to one of Hegel’s lectures, Handke would, one feels, focus his attention on the sound of the philosopher shuffling his papers, the scuffling of his leather soles against the floor. The miraculous thing about Handke is that he might well convince us that his attention was properly directed.

For people who love Handke, this singularity of focus redeems his other shortcomings. Even his tacit endorsement of Serbian war crimes is forgivable; it merely testifies to the intensity of his poetic engagement, the singularity of his vision. It’s the same argument that was levied in Handke’s favor after he let loose an invective at a conference of the powerful and influential Gruppe 47 in Princeton University in 1966. Handke, then 24, had recently published the Faulknerian novel The Hornets and the short play Offending the Audience. The audience he insulted in Princeton contained some of the most powerful voices in German literature—Heinrich Böll, Martin Walser, Günter Grass, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Alexander Kluge, among others. Handke was unhesitating and universal in his condemnation. The works presented at the meeting were “laughable,” “dull,” “conventional.”

Whether Handke was speaking truth to power, simply seeking attention, or, perhaps, lashing out after acquiring the nickname “the girl” during the conference is an open question. What’s clear is that the invective made Handke the enfant terrible of German literature—a position he’s now held for more than 50 years. Unsurprisingly, it also made him enemies, perhaps most notably the enormously influential critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who wrote that “Handke’s image was always more powerful than his literary achievements” and said that the fascination with him could be compared to the enchantment with “pop stars and some movie actors, cover girls, and models.” Handke never was a literary genius, in other words. He only played one on TV.

Handke always fought back against his critics—sometimes literally, such as in a 1987 fistfight with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist Jochen Hieber. His response to Reich-Ranicki’s negative reviews might be even more distressing—in a 1980 story, “The Teachings of Sainte-Victoire,” Handke imagines Reich-Ranicki, who was Jewish, as a kind of dog who during his time in the Warsaw Ghetto had “lost every characteristic of his own race” and had become “a shining example of the race of executioners.” An author less skilled at controlling his own image would likely have been ostracized for such behavior. Handke’s literary reputation remained unimpaired.

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain also crafted their public faces with enormous skill. That an author who came of age in the late 1960s should have adopted the trappings of pop seems anything other than suspicious. Indeed, one might wish that more literary figures were so skillful in directing media attention to their work. Still, an important difference separates Handke from Twain and Dickens. Whereas those authors understood themselves as powerful members of a literary establishment, Handke has always presented himself as an outsider. “I’m not a winner,” Handke says, and though he doesn’t explain his aversion to the word “winner,” it seems a natural concern for an author who has always positioned himself as an outsider. How can you speak truth to power when you are the power? How can you shake the establishment out of its complacency when the establishment is lifting you up as an example? We know what happens when rock stars and actors are elevated from countercultural status into the pantheon. Handke’s beloved Beatles can go on speaking truth to power—but they’re also damn good at selling products. What happens, though, to a writer like Handke, whose work so often has sought to resist easy digestion?

This tension lies at the heart of Handke’s work. The many doppelgangers he has introduced in his work over the years can be seen as an attempt to imagine different relationships both to his creative practice and his fame. So, too, can his many peripatetic figures, who spend long passages searching for a standpoint from which they can speak and understand the world through which they are compelled to travel. Handke seems to be unendingly creative when it comes to shifting rhetorical positions. At the level of the sentence, as well as in the structure of his narratives, he constantly discovers new means of interrogating the relationship between the speaker and the spoken. These formal innovations are the heart of Handke’s work, the thing that make it so exciting, despite its many shortcomings and not inconsiderable difficulty.

If Handke is constantly probing the limits of form, it may well be because he so thoroughly rejects another kind of inquiry. When the journalists Mladen Gladic and Jan C. Behmann asked Handke what he thought about psychology in an interview, he replied that he thought it was, “an amusing game, like the horoscope.” The comment is only the latest in a long line of disparaging comments that Handke has made about psychology in general and psychoanalysis in particular. Sigmund Freud, one feels, would more likely have been intrigued than offended. How can Handke not see that his comment, since retracted, that the “Serbs were bigger victims than the Jews,” can only be true if it refers to the confines of his own psychology and biography? How can Handke not see that his quest for “Justice for Serbia” must in some sense be a quest for justice for his Slovenian mother, who killed herself in 1971?

Maybe we shouldn’t complain too loudly about Handke’s blind spots. After all, his particular means of avoiding the traumas that formed him have given us works such as Slow Homecoming, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Short Letter, Long Farewell. They’re rich gifts, containing more than enough linguistic inventiveness and formal innovation to justify all of the accolades Handke has received. For all of their beauty and all of their insight, however, they don’t change what Handke fundamentally is—a provocateur who gleefully sets his moral vision to the side so that he can delight in his audience’s outrage. Even if he had never published a word on Serbia—even if he had restricted himself to the standard old man provocations (a younger woman here; a questionable comment about homosexuality there)—it’s hard to imagine that this desire to insult his audience would still be as interesting as it was in the ’60s and ’70s. The instinct that once animated a young Handke has spread to Reddit and from there to the White House. We’re used to being insulted by now, and trolls are ubiquitous. But only one of them has a Nobel Prize in literature.

Peter Kuras is a writer, translator, and editor living in Berlin.

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