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Drizzle, Birdcall, Leaf Fall; MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY; By Peter Handke Translated from the German by Krishna Winston (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 356 pp., $30)
[Home Edition]
Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles, Calif.
Subjects: Books-titles; Books-authors; Novels
Author: Gass, William H
Date: Nov 29, 1998
Start Page: 6
Section: Book Review; PART-; Book Review Desk
Abstract (Document Summary)

When the Seine leaves Paris for the Channel, it makes several large loops while being forced by physics to skirt high ground. The first of these "bays" contains the hills of the Seine, low waves across a crescent-shaped region upon which the suburbs have intruded, but where large forests still remain, and also an area that shelters an airfield frequently bombed during World War II, so that craters can be seen on its many wooded walks. La Hauts-de-Seine halfmoons a landscape that is historically layered, in touch with the city but almost country in character, neither entirely one thing nor the other, a condition that makes it attractive to this geographical novel, in which flora and fauna, climate and terrain, are traits like those ascribed normally to fictional creatures and are the environments that the narrator walks through, either by himself or in the guise of friends who become his surrogate travelers.

The narrator's first name is Gregor (Keuschnig), a name borrowed from Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and his last name is Keuschnig, the K coming from "The Castle," with the additional suggestion of purity through the meaning of keusch, which includes just a hint of virginity. There is an inviting but treacherous resemblance between PeterHandke's circumstances as we know them from news reports and books, and the novel-writing persona of the book he writes--not, of course, to him, a novel rather a meditation, a journal, a travelogue, an interrogation, an activity that becomes simply unaimed writing, unaimed in order that something fundamental may be struck. About time, too, for this is a millennial novel. Characters from other books will show up briefly; periods from the author's career, scarcely disguised, will float like loosened leaves across the steady stream of this prose; difficulties wrestled with through several decades of public pronouncement, will be confronted again, especially thoughts preconceived and jotted down in a journal written in the '70s during Handke's first "Paris period" (like the narrator's own earlier sojourn near the city) and published in English as "The Weight of the World."

At first his plan is to position himself by a single window and from that vantage point, improved by a bit of pruning, to perceive whatever odor, object, racket passes in the street, stirs the leaves, moves in the gardens below him. Weary at last of his self-absorption, his wife departs, returning occasionally to bedevil him like a bad conscience, actually lifting him, during one show of anger, like Antaeus from the ground, just as a fellow author has previously done. Keuschnig is in fact felt to represent, even to embody, the culture of a small country, as Peter Handke is required to be Austrian by many of his countrymen. They urge him to return from the odd wide world to his humble village beginnings, and to drink as before from the town pump, quaff a dipper once more with the boys, visit in their pub, listen to and learn from their native voice; however, that kind of local connection will, Keuschnig believes, deprive him of the strength he feels when he is able to escape such narrow and parochial relations, when he stands instead on foreign ground, as an altered self, and from that vantage can rescue from the obscurity of their neglectful familiarity the simple sensuous qualities that would make up life if such qualities were allowed to be themselves--cellophane tape tearing, coins shifting in a trouser pocket--and, so equipped with their realization, he could endeavor to answer the novel's first question, put more than once: "Who can say, after all, that the world has already been discovered?" Or possibly its second: Is there anything or anyone with which one may appropriately identify?

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