Far from his desk, he was still at work

I had a friend in graduate school who sickened and died before he could complete his degree. He was frail and congenitally ill; an early death was always in the cards. But there was a period of about two years when he gradually suspended his activities as a student, at first on the assumption that he would return once he had rested and recovered, then with the increasing certainty that he would never come back. Immediately after he died, I became obsessed with imagining what it must have been like for him in the period before he was hospitalized but after he he stopped working on his degree. What did he do then? I imagined him walking around Boston, feeling that special alienation of the adult who has nothing to do in the daytime in a city.

One day, sitting on a bench beside the reservoir near Boston College, watching joggers, parents pushing strollers, and people deep in conference pass me by, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason I was so interested in my friend’s mental state during those months was that I myself do and probably will inhabit something like that same twilight zone for most of my life.

Many writers work very hard, but the appearance and feeling of aimlessness in the middle of the day, when everyone else is more or less toiling away, will always be a strange way of life, in some ways privileged, in others cursed. Even if you’re not watching the bustle with the eyes of someone waiting to die, in other ways that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer is a devastatingly beautiful novella about what it’s like to be a writer when you’re not (physically) writing. It’s lyrical in a way peculiar to German literature (and, for some reason, Marilynne Robinson), in which the evocation of sharp yet subtle mental states is intertwined with a kind of serious philosophical inquisitiveness. Thus The Afternoon of a Writer has those special qualities that make great lyric poems at once utterly particular and universally relevant.

It begins when the writer, who remains unnamed, finishes his day’s work, in the mid afternoon, and sets out for his daily walk. That’s it, that’s all that happens: he walks to town, gets a bite to eat, picks up a newspaper, has a few conversations, and walks home. But the tiny book is utterly enthralling. I kept jerking upright with the feeling that Handke was describing my own pathologies. For example, the writer is always making vows to himself about this or that aspect of his daily life (I will stop reading newspapers, I will read newspapers faithfully; I will walk into the center of town every day, I will avoid the center of town…). Partly this is because “he seemed to need an idea to carry him through the most trifling daily movements…” Sometimes he wonders:

did he actually have any rules? Weren’t the few that he had tried to impose on himself constantly giving way to something else—a mood, an accident, a sudden inspiration—that seemed to indicate the better choice? True, his life had been oriented for almost twenty years toward his literary goal; but reliable ways and means were still unknown to him. Everything about him was still as temporary as it had been in the child, as later in the schoolboy, and still later in the novice writer.

I have this identical problem. I know just what I need to do next in the big things that matter to me (reading and writing, basically), but I often find myself conflicted to the point of paralysis by small decisions about where to go on a walk, how to spend my free time, in what order to perform small chores, what sources of news to read and whether to pay attention to current events at all… Then I’ll formulate a plan, usually with a vow or two to myself, happily constructing a utopia of rules, which gives me energy for a day or at most a week, until I find myself suddenly faced with all the same questions as if they’d never been resolved. Surely a large part of the explanation for this helpless feeling of having to rethink the structure of what should be mindless habits has to do with the constant preoccupation that is a writer’s work?

It seemed to him that he was not going away from his work but that it was accompanying him; that, now far from his desk, he was still at work. But what does “work” mean? Work, he thought, is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use.

Just a few days after I finished the book, on twitter JM Schreiber shared a link to some promotional materials about a forthcoming documentary about Peter Handke. Reading those materials, and watching some preview clips I decided “the writer” of The Afternoon of a Writer is unquestionably Handke himself.