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The opening paragraph of Peter Handke's Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, as translated by Ralph Manheim, is a marvel in a book of marvels. Even in English, or perhaps only in English, the sentences, not written but spoken, verify their meaning by enacting the same experience of renewal in the reader. The Afternoon of Writer is only 85 pages long and not a great deal occurs in terms of narrated event, yet the same can be said of the whole. It is a clearing in a forest of books.

When the novel was published by Methuen in 1989, with the paperback of the translation following two years later in the superb Minerva imprint, it completed a series of three consecutive clearing novels: it was preceded in 1986 by Across and by Repetition in 1988. All three are long out of print and a new work by Handke has not been issued by UK publisher since Absence in 1990. Perhaps this fact explains the reason for my sudden need to revive attention for these books and this particular moment twenty years on. The more likely reason is that I want to understand how a quiet, reticent book like The Afternoon of Writer can mean so much more than the overtly worldly and eventful novels that are published instead. How is literary renewal possible?

Three steps not beyond: Peter Handke's trilogy of thresholds

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