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MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY by Peter Handke

MY YEAR IN THE NO-MAN'S-BAY

By Peter Handke

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-374-21755-6
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A writer’s “metamorphosis” from confident creator into a passive “observer and chronicler” who drops out of the milieu that’s sustained him forms the core of this ponderous, yet fascinating, impressionistic autobiographical novel by the noted Austrian playwright and fiction writer (A Journey to the Rivers, 1997, etc.). Handke’s narrator, who both is and is not his creator, is a former lawyer turned successful author whose ambition had been to write “a great story that would bind together and at the same time thoroughly air out his fellow countrymen, and not only them.” Knowing himself a failure, he retreats to a remote hamlet (which he dubs an inland “bay”) near Porchofontaine, outside Paris. There, he cultivates friendships with several people (among them a gifted painter and filmmaker; a —Woman Friend,” who is both something more than that and a former Miss Yugoslavia; and a rebellious priest)--all potentially useful characters as well as aspects of his own inquisitive psyche. Rueful memories of separation from his wife Ana (“the woman from Catalonia”) and son Valentin (who’s inherited his father’s restlessness) are juxtaposed against other recollections of the narrator’s past, political and literary ruminations (we learn a great deal about what are presumably Handke’s aesthetic principles and tastes), and--in this bulky volume’s most egregious miscalculation--a lengthy series of “observations” of his “bay’s” distinctive geographical and ethnographic features: It’s as if Robinson Crusoe had set up camp near Walden Pond, met John McPhee and Franz Kafka, and absorbed the former’s interests and the latter’s style and sensibility. But much of the novel is a lot better than that. The narrator has the wit to challenge the sincerity of even his most heartfelt outpourings--which are (or soon will be) literary expressions. The writing throughout is both painstakingly self-conscious and superbly lucid; we feel everywhere the pressure of an agile, well-stocked mind insistently scrutinizing itself. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one--and arguably an indispensable gloss on Handke’s unusual and provocative oeuvre.