On Peter Handke’s “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick”

by Derek Neal

A few months ago, I wrote about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Spring and how his focus in this book is the examination of two worlds: the physical world that exists apart from us (the outside world), and the world of meaning and significance that is overlaid on top of this world through language and consciousness (the inner world). Knausgaard’s main goal seems to be to shock us out of our habitual, unreflective existence, and to bring about an awareness with which we can experience our lives in a different way.

Since reading Spring, I’ve picked up a few other books from the Knausgaard “tree,” by which I mean books by authors who’ve influenced Knausgaard. One is The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke, published in 1970, and the other is Pan by Knut Hamsun, published in 1894. I know these authors influenced Knausgaard because he says so himself in his My Struggle series. Reading them after having read Knausgaard is sort of gob smacking. What I thought were inventions by Knausgaard, or keen, unique insights into the human condition, are already present in Hamsun and Handke. This isn’t a knock on Knausgaard, but more of a criticism of myself, to think that someone could create something out of nothing, forgetting that every book or piece of art has a lineage and a history within which it exists. Isn’t the joy of discovery always tempered by the realization sometime later that someone, somewhere, has already done the thing you thought was new?

Handke and Hamsun, like Knausgaard, are both concerned with the way in which language and consciousness structure the surrounding world and our lived experience. However, whereas Knausgaard sees this as good and necessary, the alternative being chaos, Hamsun and Handke are interested in imagining characters who strip away language from their lives. The trick, of course, is that these authors must do this through language as they are writers. One linguistic technique that they employ is to remove causal language from the narration—words such as “because,” “so,” and “although.” Here’s an example from Handke calling attention to this, narrating the thoughts of Bloch, the main character, as he walks past a customs shed in a small town on the Austrian border:

Was it possible that nobody was in the room even though the window was wide open? Why “even though”? Was it possible that nobody was in the room because the window was wide open?

Handke calls our attention to the fact that “even though” and “because” are used to connect two ideas and create a relationship of cause and effect. With “even though,” we show that one thing happens in spite of something that would seem to prevent it from happening, while with “because” we show that one thing happens due to something else happening. In this case, the window being open might cause us to think that the room is occupied, but Handke wants to indicate that this is an assumption created in the mind of Bloch and that it can easily be turned on its head through a change in language. Why do we have to connect these two ideas? Without language, all we can say is what can be seen empirically: the window is open. What is at stake here for Handke is the question of whether language is simply a tool used to describe reality, or if language shapes and alters our understanding of reality by acting as a filter that obscures something “real.”

But why is Bloch concerned with this trivial detail of the customs shed? In the context of the novel, Bloch is nervous because he’s on the run after committing a murder. This is why, I think, he is thinking about whether or not he can be seen by an agent of the law. However, this is just my interpretation of the events. Handke doesn’t explain anything, forcing us to make our own inferences while also making us realize that our inference may be incorrect and simply a result of our desire to impose order on a disparate set of events. Handke’s refusal to connect or explain certain events, and then his explicit questioning of doing so (“because” or “even though”), make us become aware of the ways in which we try to force the events of the novel into a cohesive story.

While Bloch may be nervous passing the customs shed, we also have to note that he is not attempting to hide in this town; in fact, he has taken a room at an inn, eats meals in the restaurant, and regularly converses with strangers. Later in the book he engages the customs officer in a lengthy discussion. He acts more like someone on vacation than someone on the run. And, as far as we know, barely anyone in this small village is aware that an unsolved murder has taken place in the capital.

In the list of murderous novel protagonists, Bloch exists somewhere between Meursault, Camus’ protagonist from The Stranger, and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov wants to believe that his murder is meaningless, that everything is permitted because there are no longer any rules, but he can’t because inherently he feels that there is something immoral about his actions. Meursault, in a sense, succeeds where Raskolnikov fails; he really does believe that his crime is meaningless and that his guilt is the verdict of a corrupt and false society. Bloch oscillates between these two poles.

When Bloch is more like Raskolnikov, we see him questioning language and the meaning of things, as in the passage above. Here is another example:

He walked on because—Did he have to give a reason for walking, so that—? What did he have in mind when—? Did he have to justify the “when” by—? Did this go on until—? Had he reached the point where—? Why did anything have to be inferred from the fact that he was walking here?

The fact that Handke goes “meta” here is interesting, and it makes his intentions explicit, but it also weakens the story, and the same effect could have been achieved without calling attention to itself. When Bloch is more like Meursault, simply aware of his existence without trying to editorialize it, we see the representation of something akin to pure awareness. Here’s an example:

The dining room downstairs was filled with the tourists. The innkeeper led Bloch into the other room, where the innkeeper’s mother was sitting in front of the TV set with the curtains closed. The innkeeper opened the curtains and stood next to Bloch; once Bloch saw him standing to his left; then, when he looked up again, it was the other way around. Bloch ordered breakfast and asked for the newspaper. The innkeeper said that the tourists were reading it just now. Bloch ran his fingers over his face; his cheeks seemed to be numb. He felt cold. The flies on the floor were crawling so slowly that at first he mistook them for beetles. A bee rose from the windowsill but fell back immediately. The people outside were leaping over the puddles; they were carrying heavy shopping bags. Bloch ran his fingers all over his face. 

There are many passages like this in the book, and although there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Handke’s prose, I find it completely engrossing. Once you read it enough, you’re put into a sort of meditative trance where you feel in direct contact with your surroundings. Notice how this passage does not feature any causal language—no “because,” no “so,” no “even though.” Handke doesn’t write anything that goes beyond what Bloch can experience with his own senses.

Even the sentence about the innkeeper: “once Bloch saw him standing to his left; then, when he looked up again, it was the other way around”—Handke doesn’t write that the innkeeper had moved or walked somewhere, because Bloch doesn’t know this as he’s not looking. All he knows is that when he looks up, the innkeeper is in a new place. Time almost seems to stand still because practically each sentence exists on its own, disconnected from what comes before and after. For example, two sentences that would seem to be linked are: “Bloch ordered breakfast and asked for the newspaper. The innkeeper said that the tourists were reading it just now.” A more conventional narration of these words would be to connect them with “but.” Handke’s refusal to connect one event from the next is also apparent in his punctuation;[1] he continually uses semicolons to avoid using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so) to connect two independent clauses.

According to Grammarly, which is sort of an advanced version of Microsoft Word’s built-in spelling and grammar editor, coordinating conjunctions are used “so that we don’t spit out all our sentences like robots.” But sometimes we want to sound robotic. And what does that mean, anyways—to sound like a robot? It means, I think, to lack consciousness and self-awareness. This is usually seen as negative, but in the context of the consciousness of a narrator, it is a desirable trait as it can allow for a more direct and accurate description of events. A lack of self-consciousness also describes states which are considered the high points of human experience, such as the psychological idea of “flow” or the Buddhist concept of “nirvana.”

This state seems to be one that Bloch would like to achieve, but he has difficulty doing so because language and the need to order events keep getting in the way. At various points in the book, he becomes obsessed with how things are represented to the extent that he can no longer imagine something without its representation in symbols. For example, Bloch begins talking to a tax official who tells him that:

Whenever he saw an item, say a washing machine, he always asked the price immediately, and then when he saw the item again, say a washing machine of the same make, he would recognize it not by its external features, that is, a washing machine by the knobs which regulated the wash cycle, but by what the item, say a washing machine, had cost when he first saw it, that is, by its price. The price, of course, he remembered precisely, and that way he could recognize almost any item. And what if the item was worthless, asked Bloch. He had nothing to do with items that had no market value, the tax official replied, at least not in his work.

After this conversation, Bloch begins inquiring about the price of every object he encounters, even asking about a stone he has in his pocket—“he noticed that he had an odd compulsion to find out the price of everything.” This could be read as a Marxist critique of capitalism, but it’s more than that. Later in the novel, Bloch buys a map and compares the visual representation with what he can see before him. When he discovers that there is a discrepancy between the map and the territory—a house represented by a square doesn’t exist and a road drawn as curved is actually straight—he feels relieved.

Bloch seems to be in search of some sort of authentic experience that exists outside of language and representation. At one point, he becomes so tired that that his mind stops impeding his experience: “He saw and heard everything with total immediacy, without first having to translate it into words, as before, or comprehending it only in terms of words or word games. He was in a state where everything seemed natural to him.” But this reprieve is short lived. Later on, after people have cleared out of the bar he’s in, Bloch is “not doing one thing smoothly after the other but hesitating at each move.”

While Bloch cannot achieve this state of consciousness permanently, there may be one person in the novel who does: the victim of his murder. This character, named Gerda, is only present in the novel for a few pages. She is a cashier at a movie theater that Bloch frequents, and Bloch takes a peculiar fascination with her, seemingly because when he buys a ticket he is “astonished by the perfectly natural manner of the cashier in responding to the wordless gesture with which he’d put his money on the box-office turntable.” Later, after Bloch spends the night at her apartment, he notes how she has such an ease in conversation, which he himself lacks. It seems that her “naturalness,” or her lack of self-consciousness make Block so envious that he cannot stand to let her live.

The apparition of a minor character like this recalls a scene from The Stranger, when Meursault is joined by a woman at lunch. The woman is described as having “robotlike movements” and moves with “incredible speed and assurance.” She then disappears, only to reemerge later in the novel as part of the jury that finds Meursault guilty. She has no name but can only be referred to as “the robot woman.” In both novels, Handke’s and Camus’, the protagonists follow these women who seem to exhibit a naturalness or a lack of self-consciousness, a unity between mind and body, because this is what the protagonists are in search of. This is also the appeal of both novels, I think, but especially of Handke’s, as he tries to express this through the prose of the novel itself.


[1] I should note here that I’m referring to an English translation of Handke’s original German.