THE AFTERNOON OF A WRITER by Peter Handke
(Translated by Ralph Manheim, Minerva paperback, 1991)
One of Zadie Smith’s more sobering rules for budding writers was that they should be resigned to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied”.
This bleak, but no doubt realistic, viewpoint is one I suspect Austrian playwright and novelist Peter Handke would also subscribe to.
In ‘The Afternoon Of A Writer’ he presents the scribe’s life as one dogged by self doubt, guilt and constant feelings of inadequacy.
The brief tale follows a nameless man who having spent some time writing “a few lines that had clarified a state of affairs to his satisfaction” goes out for a random stroll around a nameless European city before returning home where he feeds his nameless cat and goes to bed. His life is no bed of roses!
The man’s mental state is described as being on the “frontiers of language” and as one who has voluntarily excluded himself from society. He exhibits a vague curiosity, but no great love, for mankind so, although he goes to a restaurant and a bar, he shows little inclination to interact with others.
His only casual conversations are with a woman who has fallen into some brambles and with a drunk who speech is indecipherable. The most signficant encounter is with his translator who says “I myself was a writer for many years. If you see me so happy today, it’s because I’m not one anymore”.
Suffice to say, Handke’s novella does not present the writer’s life in a glamorous light. Rather, writing is presented as a solitary, even isolating, act of compulsion suggesting, as Zadie Smith does, that dissatisfaction is the price you have to pay if you want to create something of lasting value.