Across by Peter Handke

I’m not always entirely sure of when events take place or of how much time is passing in Handke’s novel, Across, but this hiatus of uncertainty is central to Handke’s theme and the novel’s main character, Andreas Loser: he needs to be helped to have time because he stands at the threshold, a threshold in which daddy longlegs are his only company, their live, dying and dead legs ticking out time like living clocks or ‘patron[s] of the threshold seekers’ (p21).

Andreas Loser is paused between many things: he has not left his family and yet he does not live with them; he has not quit his job but he has a leave of absence; he is a teacher but also a lay authority on the archaeology of the threshold; he lives in Salzburg but on the outskirts within sight of the German border; he lives close to a canal where the bridge preoccupies him. When he suddenly acts without seeming forethought and steps beyond the realm of commonly accepted morality, he stands at the threshold of lawlessness, homelessness and wilderness. The beauty of the mountainous landscape around him, infiltrated and pock-marked by habitation, thrust into relief by the human density of the Old City centre, makes the story more painful, more melancholic, more romantic in the oldest and most poetic of senses that stretches the naval gazing over the human condition back to the Greeks.

Loser, who has chosen to interpret the etymology of his name as a derivative of the dialect verb losen meaning ‘listen’ or ‘hark’, rather than someone who gets rid of things, is exceedingly good at heeding the world around him in a detail that is almost painful in its comprehensive inclusivity. He feels he lacks a sense of combined imaginative perception the Ancient Greeks call leukein, but the prose is full of the expression of illuminated experience. There is one passage in which he describes how a group of card players, brought together through a loose-knit connection of friendship, become bound through the aftermath of a period of storytelling:

‘One after another fell silent. But this was not the usual lull in the conversation before a group breaks up. The storytelling seemed, rather, to continue in the silence, and thus to become more eloquent than ever. Each of us delved deeper into himself and there met his neighbour, with whom he now, without trying, had everything in common. “Once upon a time there was we.” (How is it that I can say “we”? After all, we were not very many. And I trusted this “we.” Once upon a time there was a fact.)’ (p70)

This binding follows on from his criminal act making their closeness all the more eerie, all the more beautiful for its love and distrust of fellow feeling. The human ability to come together – and indeed this feeling of contented connectedness is something I think we all recognise and seek – isn’t necessarily entirely positive: it can blur moral sensibility. We need storytellers to hold us together, but we need them to be prepared for the consequences and sacrifices of standing between: “The storyteller is the threshold. [Loser quotes this himself.] He must therefore stop and collect himself” (p130).

I’m not saying I always like the main character, his motives or his actions, but Handke’s story is spellbinding, compelling, quiet in its outrage.

Next week I’m reading Carol Topolski’s Monster Love followed by The Last Novel David Markson.