those ignorant questions

Peter Handke went to university in Graz to study Law, and I went to university in Graz to study Peter Handke. Well, among other things, but Peter Handke and the theory of the Periphizierung are the two subjects I remember best from my semester there. It was 1992, the siege of Sarajevo had started months before, but the massacre in Srebrenica was still three years away. Even so, the international students in Graz were already whispering ‘genocide’ in astonishment at the daily news feeds.

When I arrived in late September, Steirischer Herbst, the month-long Graz arts festival, was about to begin, and one of the stars of the show (and why not?) was das Enfant terrible of German literature, Peter Handke. Handke was turning fifty at the end of that year and this was something of a retrospective, an examination of his development from his early days in Graz in the 1960s. A series of talks and discussions taking place over three very full days, (without the writer), it was titled Die Langsamkeit der Welt, the ‘slowness of the world’. Three days. Perhaps they could have got through it all in a well-planned afternoon. The proceedings were later published under that title and it’s still available, if you have a spare twenty-three euro.

I knew of Handke from his play, Offending the Audience (Publikumsbeschimpfung), although I had missed the chance to be offended myself when the work was offered in Australia. The idea was very attractive to a sixties’ mindset, and (I realised later) it was also very ‘German’. Middle-class people abusing other middle-class people in a theatre for going to a theatre. You can throw in a generation gap there, too, if you like. It was theatre and it was anti-theatre. The intention, Handke explained, was to make the audience conscious “of the fundamentally arbitrary connections between words and things”. (Word and things: there’s an impressive list of theorists who were saying the same thing back in those days.)

It was the rather benign Kindergeschichte (Children’s Story) that was my introduction to Handke in Graz, the story of a young man rearing a girl as a single parent. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It stretched my language capacity almost to breaking point but that was a large part of the pleasure. I loved the way he would sometimes encourage the German sentence to go on and on and on until, exhausted, you finally arrived at the end, only to find the operative verb was not the one you had expected. So back to the beginning it was to read the whole sentence again, trying to work who had done what to whom. In my essay, I couldn’t help but draw attention to the misogynistic sub-text, a response that bewildered my Austrian friend, K, but earnt me a big tick from the literature professor.

I consumed more after that — Kaspar, Der Ritt über den Bodensee, Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers — but I didn’t go on to more serious study of Handke. I had discovered the German writer, Christa Wolf, by then and the scruffy Austrian with his apologetic moustache was left in the shadows. In the years since I have not thought much about Handke or about my time in Graz, but now I do. For this I am indebted to the Swedish Academy for choosing Peter Handke to be the Nobel Laureate for 2019. The idea that academicians in an obscure institution in Stockholm could sit around at eighteenth century writing tables and decide who in the world is ‘the greatest writer’ has always seemed to me ridiculous, even if a number of these learned people are bilingual. It is ludicrous arrogance, surely, although the same could be said of the whole Nobel Prize, for that matter. It would make much more sense if they just restricted the field to Scandinavians, or better still, used Alfred’s money to pursue world disarmament.

It’s not going to happen. What is happening is outrage at the Swedish Academy’s choice of Handke, because of his stance on the genocide in the former Yugoslavia: his support for indicted war criminals, his reading of a eulogy at Milosevic’s funeral, his dismissal of the massacre at Srebrenica, and bizarrely, his suggestion that the Bosnian Muslims ‘did it to themselves’. Handke won’t respond to reporters about his views, dismissing their calls as ‘ignorant questions’, but neither the questions not the outrage will be so easily dismissed. All of this saga is well documented and it is not my intention to discuss it further, except that it takes me back to Graz, to 1992, and to the experience of — what I am tempted to call — that culture’s shadows.

Monument to the struggle against National Socialism in Graz. Against…?

Don’t mention the war.

It was impossible to ignore it in Graz. To some extent the atrocities unfolding in Bosnia reminded us of the questions still hanging over Austria’s own dark past, but even without the Bosnian war, those questions were thick in the air, impossible to avoid. Any reference to Austrian history, even seemingly innocuous queries typical of the international student’s curiosity, prompted a defensive, sometimes dismissive response from academics and students alike. A few weeks into the semester, news broke of the arrest of a retired 80 year-old Graz dentist, charged with war crimes. No-one said anything; it spoke volumes.

Without any prompting from myself, (or was simply my presence there as a foreigner sufficient prompting?), my new-found friend, K, wanted to talk about the Nazizeit. He wanted to explain the divisions within Austrian society, to brief me on the four-day ‘civil war’ of 1934, to explain how there were many opposed to Hitler, and they had simply kept their heads down. It was embarrassing for K that he had been born during the war, when ‘only commited Nazis were having kids’. His parents, he assured me, had been socialists. References to the Nazis and that time (including a few jokes!) were often there in our discussions, but I honestly don’t remember ever actually asking him about it.

I had lots of questions, and I sought the answers to those in books. ‘Ignorant questions’, they were. Questions about why this past had not been dealt with as it had been in Germany, questions about how debilitating this legacy of denial might be. I vividly remember the incident in a bookshop in Graz when I purchased Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz and Heinz Unger’s Die Republik des Vergessens. The bookseller snatched the money out of my hand and almost threw the books at me. Another foreigner sticking his nose into Austria’s dirty laundry! K would not have approved either, so I never told him.

Heldenplatz was a red flag. Bernhard’s play is set on the day of the funeral of Josef Schuster, a Jewish professor, who had witnessed the huge crowds in Vienna’s Heldenplatz, that had come to welcome Hitler in 1938. Schuster survives the war in Oxford before returning to Vienna but over time succumbs to depression from the realisation that now everything is worse than it was fifty years earlier. More Nazis, more anti-semitism. He suicides, throwing himself out of the window in his apartment that overlooks Heldenplatz.

The professor certainly had in it for Graz. In Graz leben nur Alte und Dumme…in Graz ist nur der Stumpfsinn zuhause… Only the old and stupid live in Graz, only mindlessness is at home there. (Graz seems to have been an early adopter of National Socialism.) Of course I kept those lines to myself. The play was first performed in 1988 on the fiftieth anniversary of der Anschlüß, the annexation of Austria into the German Reich. It caused uproar. Of course it would, its target was contemporary Austrian society. Bernhard’s sudden death a few months after the premiere only added to the play’s notoriety.

Unger’s Die Republik des Vergessens (‘The Republic of Forgetting’), a suite of three plays, each set during the end of the war, is much less famous than Heldenplatz, but is accusatory in its own way. A reminder of this dark time that Austrians refuse to examine, shielding themselves behind the myth that Austria was also ‘a victim’ of Hitler, invaded and occupied against its will, like France, Poland and so many others.

There were several images of Graz at the time that fed into these reflections: the Bosnians who had fled the war, begging on the streets with their headscarves and their plastic cups and their endlessly repeated bitte-bitte-bitte, (treated with near-universal disdain); the patrons I would see through the windows of Cafe Erzherzog Johann tucking into their Himbeertorte mit Schlagobers, dressed in their traditional green capes, their hats with a single feather, their long white socks tight on their meaty calves, the reminder that a certain exclusive Austrian culture was very much alive; and Esperantoplatz, the square in Graz dedicated to Esperanto and its inventor, the Polish Jew, Ludwik Zamenhof. Words, irony: the Jewish internationalist in parochial Graz.

Over the months as the siege of Sarajevo became bloodier and more alarming, and the refugees kept arriving, it seemed to me that a certain hardening of attitudes took place between the international students and their Austrian hosts. The students, the majority of whom were American, became less circumspect in their discussions as negative impressions took root, and the Austrians retreated to more defensive positions. Having got so much off his chest in the first month, K spoke less and less about the war years, and more about Styrian society: the diversity of its ethnic make-up, (Slovenes, Celts and Germans, for starters), its linguistic diversity, (he had mastered certain dialects that were incomprehensible to me), and the cultural attitudes he had rejected in his youth, and was still very much at odds with. Wir sind nicht typisch! he would remind me every time we met, often enough in laughter. We are not typical! No, I don’t think they were. But he would still surprise me from time to time, telling me something out of the blue, that reinforced the sense that these questions about Austria were never far from his thoughts, and not resolved.

My winter semester in Graz concluded with success in all of the exams, capped off with a truly memorable week in Berlin during the Film Festival. Back home, I read lots, my studies blossomed, and I graduated with the 1993 Goethe Preis and a love for the German language that endures. But I have never been back. Not to Graz, nor even to Vienna. Indeed, aside from a week in Zurich visiting an elderly Jewish friend in 2009, I have not been in the German-speaking world since 1993. None of this was intentional, and I surprise myself when I think about it. The why partly escapes me. Changed circumstances, opportunities elsewhere, career offerings that lead away from European language study — yes, all of that, but there is also an absence of desire. Graz was not just the city on the Mur with its lovely old town, its castle and clock tower, Graz was more than anything an atmosphere, dark shadows that infected conversations, a heaviness in the air that rendered the foreigner anxious, even fearful.

Peter Handke has not lived in Graz for decades, these days preferring the countryside around Versailles. The Nobel Prize medallion will be hung above a dresser in rural France, the victory will be celebrated in Serbia. But I can see Handke in Graz; I can see him there in the sixties as an angry young man, and again now, as an angry old man, at home in the shadows, nursing his grievances that the world has treated ‘them’ badly.

Photographs: The Writer and the King (Jonas Ekstromer), the young Peter Handke (Peter Henisch); Woman with son’s photo (Ernst Haas); Graz monument and town (Linzi Murrie).

reconstructing Bouffard

our white flag

imparare l’italiano in cucina

die Angst

an evening at La Mama


how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?


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