Peter Handke: The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick
(Actually, I feel like I'm writing the review without having properly digested the book, I feel like I'm missing a lot, or not adequately capturing its genius, but I'm excited about this one so aw, what the hell? I quote extensively from the great translation by Michael Roloff, though I'd almost have to quote the whole book to give an adequate idea of the patterns, the themes, etc)
When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired.
So, with its echo of Kafka, begins Peter Handke?s slim novel, one of the strangest and most brilliant books I?ve read in some time. But I can?t put my finger on what it is precisely. Is it a novel about modern alienation? Or is it a parody of a novel about modern alienation? Is it meant to be taken seriously, or rather was the author, as I imagine, grinning diabolically while scribbling it down?
Yes, and no.
Handke likes the name: Bloch. I don?t think the character?s first name is mentioned after that opening sentence. He is Bloch. Bloch did this, and then he did this. Bloch?s banal routine is drily described in great detail. Bloch is fired. Bloch wanders around the city. Bloch buys a newspaper. Bloch folds the newspaper under his arm and walks to a restaurant. Bloch orders a sandwich, Bloch sees a movie. Bloch ducks his hotel bill. Bloch is mugged. Bloch sees another movie, then buys another newspaper, then sees another movie, then goes home with the ticket girl. Bloch wakes up next to the girl, they drink tea, they exchange meaningless chitchat, Bloch strangles her and leaves her body on the floor of her apartment. Bloch goes out, calls his ex-wife, who expresses little interest in him, then decides to see if he can find an ex-girlfriend in a small town. Bloch takes the bus to the town and finds the tavern where the ex-girlfriend works. He hangs around the town. A deaf boy has been missing for two days, the worst is presumed. Bloch buys more newspapers?
The newspapers. They recur. At first it is the sports section (more apparent in Wim Wenders?s outstanding 1972 film of the book, scripted by Handke), to check the scores, and later to track the progress of the murder investigation as it becomes apparent that the net is beginning to close in. All the while the walls are breaking down for Bloch. Bloch is obviously no longer able to cope. Things are increasing to lose their sense of reality. An early episode:
On the square in front of the station he ran into a man he knew who told him he was going to the suburbs to referee a minor-league game. Bloch thought the idea was a joke and played along with it by saying that he might as well come too, as the linesman. When his friend opened the duffelbag and showed him the referee?s uniform and a net bag full of lemons, Bloch saw even those things, in line with the initial idea, as some kind of trick items from a novelty shop and, still playing along, said that since he was coming too he might as well carry the duffelbag. Later, when he was with his friend on the local train, the duffelbag in his lap, it seemed, especially since it was lunchtime and the compartment was nearly empty, as though he was going through this whole business only as a joke. Though what the empty compartment was supposed to have to do with his frivolous behavior was not clear to Bloch. That this friend of his was going to the suburbs with a duffelbag; that he, Bloch, was coming along; that they had lunch together at a suburban inn and went to what Bloch called ?an honest-to-goodness soccer field,? all this seemed to him, even while he was travelling back home alone ? he had not liked the game ? some kind of mutual pretense. None of that mattered, thought Bloch. Luckily, he didn?t run into anyone else on the square in front of the station.
And jokes. Bloch, who lacks any sense of humor, sees ?jokes? in banal incidents. He tells ?jokes? that no one seems to get (He cracked jokes, but the landlady took everything he said literally). The space that Bloch moves through is itemized in detached detail, both the major (strangling the ticket girl) and the insignificant (buying a sandwich), and this ridiculous itemization is itself frequently a ?joke? for Bloch. And all these details have driven Bloch more than a little bit mad. Language is proving inadequate and is disintegrating. In his hotel, trying to get to sleep:
He was not dizzy; on the contrary, he saw everything with excruciating clarity [?] The nausea did not so much elate him as depress him even more. It seemed as though a crowbar had pried him away from what he saw ? or, rather, as though the things around him had all been pulled away from him. The wardrobe, the sink, the suitcase, the door: only now did he realize that he, as if compelled, was thinking of the word for each thing. Each glimpse of a thing was followed immediately by its word. The chair, the clothes hangers, the key. It had become so quiet earlier that no noises could distract him now; and because it had grown, on the one hand, so light that he could see the things all around him and, on the other hand, so quiet that no sound could distract him from them, he had seen the things as though they were, at the same time, advertisements for themselves. In fact, the nausea was the kind of nausea that had sometimes been brought on by certain jingles, pop songs, or national anthems that he felt compelled to repeat word for word or hum to himself until he fell asleep. He held his breath as though he had hiccups. When he took another breath, it came back. He held his breath again. After awhile this began to help, and he fell asleep.
Many passage breaks occur after Bloch goes to sleep after finally becoming exhausted with his maddening thoughts; so much so that toward the end of the novel the author indulges in a bit of self-reflexive whimsy (or is it?):
Various things he had said during the day came back to him; he tried to get rid of them by breathing out. Then he felt himself falling asleep; as before the end of a paragraph, he thought.
End of paragraph.
Handke?s portrait of a man driven mad by the modern world is chilling, and there are frequent allusions to advertisements, pop songs, and, especially, films as a more real point of reference than reality itself, or as the only way Bloch can reference reality. Bloch, the wanted man, sits in the kitchen watching the landlady:
She turned on the radio on the kitchen cabinet; it was nice to watch her walking back and forth while the music came out of the radio. When someone in a movie turned on the radio, the program was instantly interrupted for a bulletin about a wanted man.
Bloch?s scenario is almost a parody of the idea that since the birth of motion pictures everyone has, at some point or another, felt him- or herself to be walking through a movie in which he or she is the center ? everything is staged, but why? By whom? For whose benefit? In his moments of calm it all feels correct:
Everything had gone well for awhile after that; the lip movements of the people he talked to coincided with what he heard them say; the houses were not just facades; heavy sacks of flour were being dragged from the loading ramp of the dairy into the storage room; when somebody shouted something far down the street , it sounded as though it actually came from down there. The people walking past on the sidewalk across the street did not appear to have been paid to walk past in the background; the man with the adhesive tape under his eye had a genuine scab; and the rain seemed to fall not just in the background of the picture but everywhere.
But moments later in the caf? this gives way to annoyance and rage:
Bloch was irritated. Within the segments themselves he saw the details with grating distinctness: as if the parts he saw stood for the whole. Again the details seemed to him like nameplates. ?Neon signs,? he thought. So he saw the waitress?s ear with the one earring as the sign of the entire person; and a purse on a nearby table, slightly open so that he could recognize a polka-dotted scarf in it, stood for the woman holding the coffee cup who sat behind it and, with her other hand, pausing only now and then at a picture, rapidly leafed through a magazine. A tower of ice cream dishes dovetailed into each other on the bar seemed a simile for the caf? owner, and the puddle on the floor by the coat rack represented the umbrella hanging above it. Instead of the heads of the customers, Bloch saw only the dirty spots on the wall at the level of their heads. He was so irritated that he looked at the grimy cord that the waitress was just pulling to turn off the wall lights ? it had grown brighter outside again ? as if the entire lighting arrangement was designed especially to tax his strength. Also, his head hurt because he had been caught in the rain.
Bloch has no real dialogue ? fragments, if anything, until the very end. If he talks about anything it is related by the author in the paragraphs: Bloch mentioned that he? Bloch talked about the time that he? Like many a good psychopath, Bloch is pretty good at putting up a front of normalcy, but the thought processes behind are always spinning off in different directions. At one point
When he mentioned a corner kick that had been awarded by a referee, he even felt that he owed them the explanation that he was not talking about the corner of a room. The longer he talked, the less natural what he said seemed to Bloch. Gradually it began to seem that every word needed an explanation. He had to watch himself so that he didn?t get stuck in the middle of a sentence.
Later, talking to a girl about some banality, the theme is revisited: his disgust with conversation, with the meaninglessness and the predictability of it:
The girl, who had not understood him because he had become disgusted with talking in the middle of the sentence and had only mumbled the rest, laughed as though all she had expected for an answer was a joke [?] ?First of all? second of all?? Bloch repeated to himself what the girl had said; it seemed uncanny to him how someone could begin to speak and at the same time know how the sentence would end.
One almost feels sympathy for Bloch; the world he drifts through is a dreary place. Nothing surprises him or fills him with dismay. Things happen as he predicted they would. When, at the end of the novel, when a newspaper reveals that it?s only a matter of time before Bloch is caught, the words break down into crude pictograms printed on the page, and then, finally: Everything seemed to have been newly named.
Bloch goes to a soccer game and then he talks to a salesman also watching, and the dialogue happens to neatly sum up the novel?s primary theme:
He asked the salesman whether he had ever tried to look away from the forward at the beginning of a rush and, instead, to look at the goalie the forwards were rushing toward.
?It?s very difficult to take your eyes off the forwards and the ball and watch the goalie,? Bloch said. ?You have to tear yourself away from the ball; it?s a completely unnatural thing to do.? Instead of seeing the ball, you saw how the goalkeeper ran back and forth with his hands on his thighs, how he bent to the left and right and screamed at his defense. ?Usually you don?t notice him until the ball has been shot at the goal.?
The ending of the novel is priceless and perfect.
The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. - Hermann Broch