Walker Percy and Peter Handke

One of the many pleasures of publishing with Farrar, Straus, Percy had learned over the years, was receiving copies of their newly published books. Percy usually found a few titles on each season’s list that strongly grabbed his attention, but one book on the fall 1974 list, a collection of two novellas and a memoir by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, so greatly impressed him that he wrote a note of praise to Giroux: “The book by Peter Handke is a joy.” Percy liked all three pieces, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” “Short Letter, Long Farewell,” and “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” but the last in particular, which deals with the suicide of Hanke’s mother, deeply affected Percy. Percy’s interest in Hanke apparently got around the Farrar, Straus office, and one of the editors there sent Hanke a copy of Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer. The attraction proved reciprocal; later, Hanke would translate both The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman for Suhrkamp Verlag, an experience that he would describe as a “voyage towards the center of my (our) existence, a voyage of images, spaces, inner situations. And it was good that I never reached the center, always felt it near, nearer and nearer, a warm thing.” Hanke’s reaction to Percy’s work was in many respects similar to Thomas Merton’s. To both of these close readers, the most powerful aspect of Percy’s fiction was the spell it wove, its atmosphere of enchantment. “No warmer and more secret books than these two,” Hanke continued about the two novels he translated. “And the secret is not made, cooked — it is not cheap mystery, it is felt and developed with writing, work.”

Pilgrim in the Ruines: A Life of Walker Percy, Jay Tolson, 1992, p. 394

Hanke brilliantly and so economically captures the deep subtleties of Percy. I confess that I haven’t read Hanke but I’ve always been a fan of his film work, notably with Wim Wenders — The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty and Wings of Desire. Given that despite several aborted efforts to get Percy novels filmed, before I was made aware of the Percy-Hanke connection, I thought that Wenders or Herzog might really be the only ones able to do some justice to Percy.