cover image My Year in the No-Man's-Bay

My Year in the No-Man's-Bay

Peter Handke. Farrar Straus Giroux, $30 (356pp) ISBN 978-0-374-21755-6

""Almost fifty-six now, I still do not know myself,"" explains the brooding narrator of Austrian novelist/essayist Handke's (The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling) sinuously beautiful latest novel, a meditation on two decades of a writer's life culminating in a solitary, sobering year of reckoning. Most recently, Handke wrote a highly subjective look at the turmoil in the former Yugoslavia (A Journey to Rivers); here, he returns to the often stiflingly solipsistic terrain familiar to his readers with an attempt (admittedly failed) at a ""Germanic epic,"" a travel work about journeys of discovery. Finding the right place to live seems to be the major preoccupation of his narrator, an ex-lawyer who is fascinated by Roman law and the poetry of Friedrich H lderlin. Ensconced on and off over two decades in a house in a back-bay suburb of Paris, he has ""renounced a life of action,"" content now to act merely as an observer, keeping the ""chronicler's distance."" He records discreet stories of his friends, referred to only by their descriptive names--""the singer,"" ""the reader,"" ""my son,"" etc.--yet finds that in the end he himself is the most interesting character in his narrative. Deserted periodically by his elusive wife (""the woman from Catalonia"") and distrusted by his son (""the child""), he spends the final year (1999) taking walks, picking mushrooms and composing a suitable narrative. Despite attaining moments of stylistic lucidity worthy of Montaigne, the narrator more often comes across as gloomy and hostile. Nonetheless, numerous trenchant moments of insight make this work intriguing and provocative. Winston's translation is impeccable. (Aug.)