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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

On a Dark Night
I Left my Silent House

Peter Handke

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To purchase On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House

Title: On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House
Author: Peter Handke
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: German
Availability: On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House - US
On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House - UK
On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House - Canada
In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus
Par une nuit obscure je sortis de ma maison - France
In una notte buia uscii dalla mia casa silenziosa - Italia
En una noche oscura salí de mi casa sosegada - España
  • German title: In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus
  • Translated by Krishna Winston

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Our Assessment:

A- : finely told and tuned tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Zeitung C 19/4/1997 Jens Jessen
The Economist . 18/10/1997 .
The LA Times . 19/11/2000 S.S. Reynolds
The NY Times B+ 29/11/2000 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 17/12/2000 Kai Maristed
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2001 Michael Pinker
Tages-Anzeiger A 22/4/1997 Pia Reinacher
TLS . 22/12/2000 Keith Miller
The Village Voice A 26/12/2000 Benjamin Kunkel
The Washington Post A 21/1/2001 Paul West
World Lit. Today A+ Winter/1998 E.W. Skwara

  Review Consensus:

  Most very enthusiastic, but not everyone taken by Handke's style.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Handkes Roman ist ein Bildungsroman nach deutscher Tradition; aber man weiß nicht, in welcher Richtung und mit welchem Ende der Held sich bildet oder verbildet. Er ist ein Entwicklungsroman ohne Entwicklung; man könnte ihn auch einen Abenteuerroman ohne Abenteuer oder einen Liebesroman ohne Liebe nennen. Er hat von allen diesen Gattungen Muster und Strukturen, aber diese Strukturen sind ungefüllt, die Formen sind leer." - Jens Jessen, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Mr Handke's latest book shows that he has not lost his fine talent for prose, but sadly also it shows up his growing preciousness. As the title shows, Mr Handke is happy to use many words where others might use just a few." - The Economist

  • "Odd that storytelling might prove to be a writer's strongest link to reality. There is a moment in this novel when, sure enough, if you do not try to understand every little thing, storytelling and the steppe become one." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) spare, austerely written fable that evokes, in an absolutely deadpan style, the poignancy of human loneliness and isolation. Mr. Handke's novel is also a task to get through, even though it is compact, laconic, compressed." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "Handke's power of observation and his seemingly casual tone, in which every word bears indispensable weight, are as mesmerizing as ever. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House is a modern-day questing tale in which the grail is never defined or seen, but rather, as the journey unfolds, intuited by both the reader and the hero." - Kai Maristed, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Kammermusik: verinnerlicht, luzide, feinstverästelt. Weniger Pathos, mehr ruhige Insistenz. Kaum Sprachgeschiebe, eher schweigsames Umstellen. Kein lautstarkes Sprechen, nur vorsichtiges Transkribieren von Bewusstseinsinhalten und seelischen Zuständen. (...) Peter Handkes Roman ist eine Abenteuergeschichte und eine Liebesgeschichte -- oder vielmehr: die Beschwörung der Liebe trotz bitterer Abrechnung." - Pia Reinacher, Tages-Anzeiger

  • "In addition to being a dream, On a Dark Night is a road movie, a metafiction, a mushroom trip, a Romantic quest poem, and an abortive love story. That is to say, it's a tease. It brims with withheld significance. The danger is that its run of implausible events will come to seem merely arbitrary, always leaving things vague when one asks why." - Benjamin Kunkel, the Village Voice

  • "(T)he novel goes from placid assembly and philatelic perusal of everyday things (...) into hyperbole, rendered in the same even tone. (...) This is where the French New Novel might have gone if pushed." - Paul West, The Washington Post

  • "Nothing in this wonderful book can be anticipated or guessed; every page contains new surprises both in plot and in poetic style. (...) In this his newest novel, apparent ease, airy lightness, directness, and purity all contribute to make the reader dizzy with the pleasure of "finding" the right image and word, and eventually let us soar to new heights of sensation." - Erich Wolfgang Skwara, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Handke's novel, On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House, may not seem immediately appealing. It is a narrative that only slowly circles to its actual story. The writer recounts a story that someone has told him, but he takes his time in getting to it, first setting scenes, filling in background, preparing the reader. The story itself is also an unusual one. Nevertheless, the novel is gripping from the beginning, a testament to Handke's talents.
       Near the end of the book Handke writes:

He'd always been drawn most powerfully to observation when he witnessed the simplest, most undramatic occurrences and processes, for instance rain coming down heavier or tapering off, or simply continuing; snow melting; a puddle slowly drying up.
       This reflects Handke's own interests and strengths. Few writers are able to make as much from such a focus.
       On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House begins with a description of Taxham, a small and easily overlooked town near Salzburg, in Austria. Handke's description centers only partially on the physical; instead, he situates the town. He conveys, with deceptive ease, exactly what it means to live in Taxham -- and only then moves on to the local pharmacist, the central figure of the novel.
       Despite being near the Salzburg airport Taxham seems at the edge of the world: the narrator and a friend of his, a teacher of classical languages named Andreas Loser, are "perhaps the only strangers who went there more than once". The two form a friendship of sorts with the unnamed Taxham pharmacist, and it is, eventually, the pharmacist's story that gets told.
       Before getting to the actual story Handke describes the pharamacist's life, an essential aspect of the story itself. The teller is more than just part of the tale, and understanding of who he is is essential to understanding of the episode he relates.
       The pharmacist had "traveled a great deal when he was younger, almost all over the world." He is still restless, but travel seems to offer nothing any longer: "By now nothing tempted him anymore, not a single place." He has some interests (he is particularly knowledgeable and passionate about mushrooms), but few friends. He is not the sort of person people greet (or often even just recognize) on the street. His family life is also far from satisfactory -- he is separated from his wife (uneasily still sharing his house with her), his son is unaccounted for, and even his daughter is far away.
       The pharmacist is interested in literature -- when he goes without reading one morning "he was missing something like his 'breakfast'" -- but has only limited literary aspirations. He does eventually take great interest in his story, a narrative that mirrors life, is an essential part of it, but is also apart from it. The narrator recounts:
"I realized: My story was at risk," my storyteller said. "And I cared about my story -- and how ! But if I continued to stand by, it would've been done for, and everything that had gone before null and void.
       The story, then, is essentially a road trip, as the pharmacist decides to travel again. He and two unlikely (though perhaps typically Austrian) companions, a poet and a former skiing champion, head to Spain. It is an unreal, surreal, polyglot trip through the Europe of the 1990s, though always presented with Handke's reserve and control. The pharmacist's "only form of self-defense was calm; to become the epitome of calm", and Handke seems no different. Through all the incidents in the novel (and there are a number of surprising turns) there is always a sense of calm -- and not a forced one: Handke's calm is by now completely natural and convincing.
       It is an odd trip, as the three seek without truly finding (stumbling across, among others, the peripheral Andreas Loser again -- the rare figure in the novel who is actually named -- who made some radical life-choices after disappearing earlier).
       The pharmacist eventually returns to Taxham, and there he recounts his summer story to the narrator, who tells it in turn. The world is a different one after the trip, but the changes are small and subtle. After telling the story the pharmacist says:
From speaking it, orally, nothing comes back to me. In written form, that would be different. And in the end I want to get something out of my story, too. Long live the difference between speech and writing. It's what life's all about. I want to see my story written. I see it written. And the story itself wants that.
       The notion convinces. It is not your usual storytelling (and not your usual story), but Handke's art is persuasive. In a time where so much writing is so relentless the deep, assured breaths of Handke's prose are a welcome respite. There is no tedium here either (though some of the book is fairly elusive); it is a short book, incident-filled and nicely paced. It is a book of details, but they are well-chosen and there is no surfeit, there are no unnecessary encumbrances or exhibitionistic displays. Handke writes crouching: "Crouching down to see what was happening from close up; and besides, crouching you were closest to yourself."
       Not for everyone -- those who want action and meatier plots should look elsewhere -- but certainly recommended. On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House is literature, and there's not too much of that being written nowadays.

       Note that Krishna Winston's translation is less assured than Handke's original, and occasionally discomfiting. The German tenses can be a struggle, and there is a rougher (or perhaps clumsier) feel to the prose in the English version -- though by modern American standards it is still near as rarefied as one can find.
       The fact that "hay-horse was the Austrian word" for grasshopper had escaped us -- though perhaps it was a stab at an evocative translation of "Heuschreck"..... And, while we understand that the German "Apotheker" must be translated as "pharmacist" rather than "apothecary" we regret the loss: the 'pharmacist' of this book is an Apotheker (with its latinate roots suggesting clerk and storehouse), not a Pharmazeut (suggesting clinical modernity and drugs).

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On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House: Reviews: Peter Handke: Other books by Peter Handke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prolific Austrian author Peter Handke was born in 1942. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019.

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