The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Peter Handke’s The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick remains his most famous book, in part thanks to Wim Wender’s film adaptation but also, I like to think, because of its memorable if somewhat clumsy (at least in a variety of English interpretations) title. Originally published in 1970, and translated by Michael Roloff in 1972, that translation has now been issued as a Penguin Modern Classic in response to Handke’s Nobel win.

The novella does, indeed feature a goalkeeper, though Robert Bloch is retired from the sport and finds himself fired from his current job as a construction worker in the first line, for reasons which are never explained. Or “at least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack.” This, and the fact that he simply turns and leaves, goes to the cinema, and then takes a room in a hotel gives us our first indication that Bloch has become (or perhaps always was) detached from his life. ‘Bloch’, of course, means ‘block’, as in ‘block of wood’, suggesting his emotional blankness, as well as being a particularly appropriate name for a goalkeeper. Just as a goalie blocks shots, so Bloch blocks out emotional connections. In fact, at times he seems to block out life itself, creating episodes of disorientation:

“With his eyes closed, he was overcome with an inability to visualize anything. He tried to tell himself the names he knew for each thing in the room, but he couldn’t picture anything…”

This perhaps explains why, throughout the narrative, he is intent on noticing small things such as “the grape skins he had spat out the day before were still lying on the sidewalk,” which is generally as much of his interior life as Handke reveals to us. A few pages in, Bloch spends the night with a woman (Gerda – though “he hadn’t even wanted to know” her name) and then kills her in the morning. The murder is sudden and dealt with very briefly in the narrative:

“Suddenly he was choking her. From the start his grip was so tight that she’d never had a chance to think he was kidding.”

It’s interesting that Handke moves for this moment to Gerda’s perception. There has been no warning of the violence (both for her and the reader) only a sense of Bloch’s growing irritation. After killing her, in further evidence if his detachment, he falls asleep.

Conventionally, the rest of the novella has Bloch on the run, as he leaves for a border town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. The border offers a theoretical opportunity of escape, but it does not seem to be the type of escape Bloch is looking for.

The rest of the book continues in an atmosphere of unease. This is caused, of course, partly by Bloch’s guilt which places him on edge whenever, for example, he sees any policemen:

“To show that he had nothing to hide, Bloch stayed by the fence and went on looking in at the empty pool.”

But even these fears are something of an abstraction:

“…it struck Bloch that what he saw while looking after the policeman looked for a moment like a simile for something else.”

Handke also increases the unease with the story of a missing schoolboy which is much talked about in the town, a potential crime which overshadows Bloch’s actual crime. Meanwhile Bloch continues to reduce everything to its parts: at one point he can’t look at anything without hearing the word in his head, at another “he noticed he had an odd compulsion to find out the price of everything.” Later he begins to see pictographs instead of words. Only at one point does the disassociation stop, when he is talking to two girls and “they talked about things and especially people he couldn’t possibly know as if he did know them.” Though this sense of belonging is both temporary and fals

“As long as they had gone on with this familiar talk, he had also forgotten the surroundings more and more; he had even stopped noticing the child and the dog in the next room…”

Of course, this feeling doesn’t last, but it is a rare moment in the novella when we feel sympathetic towards Bloch.

At the centre of The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is an acceptance that the origins of actions can be unknowable, not only to others but to the actor themselves. This is often an inconvenient fact for both writers and readers, but it is one that Handke faces time and again. (It also perhaps explains why his work is best suited to the novella form). Despite this, there still remains an undeniable narrative power which will keep the reader turning to the next page – and, while they may never quite find the answers they hope for, those demanding that it at least live up to its title will not be disappointed.

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16 Responses to “The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Certainly, the title catches the eye. I’m still not entirely convinced I want to read Handke, though…

  2. roughghosts Says:

    I do love this book. By staying tightly within the protagonist’s crumbling mind the lens through which the reader views the world becomes increasingly distorted. I love the point at which Bloch loses his capacity to recall words for common objects and little images are inserted into the narrative. He is not a likeable character but it is not clear how fully he is responsible for his actions—maybe, maybe not.

    This book reminds me of William Golding’s The Spire which also features a tight third person narrative and a main character who is not likeable but, in the end, must be pitied.

    • 1streading Says:

      Oh, that’s a Golding I haven’t read which makes me quite keen to seek it out.
      I also liked the way Bloch becomes increasingly detached – I thought wanting to know the price of everything was quite a clever indicator – and one I have seen in people before!

  3. Tony Says:

    This is still the only Handke I’ve read (mainly because I’ve twice ordered books online only to have the money refunded as they were out of stock!). I think it works well as a depiction of someone so completely alienated from the real world that they might as well be a different species…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though it doesn’t seem to be unique in his work in doing that. I hope that you get a chance to read more now that so much has returned to print (though largely in the US).

      • Tony Says:

        Well, I don’t need to worry about that as I read the original! It was more a case of the Book Depository having some issues with supply at the times I ordered 😦

  4. Tony Says:

    Also, the title is a mess in English because of the difficulty of translating ‘beim’ (short for ‘bei dem’ = ‘at the’, ‘in the’, ‘at the house of’). A literal translation would be ‘The Fear of the Goalkeeper at the (moment of) the Penalty’, but it sounds much smoother in German 😉

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I read this a few years ago after MJ Hyland named it as one of her favourite novels. I found the detachment strangely hypnotic and as much as I loathed the story, it has remained with me all these years later.

  6. JacquiWine Says:

    I think I may have seen the Wim Wenders film of this, novel, many moons ago. The existential quality that Wenders brings to many of his films seems to suit the subject matter very well.

  7. Tredynas Days Says:

    Like Jacqui I saw the film long ago, and recall finding it strange and haunting. Interesting what Tony says about translating the title. The penalty kick favours the kicker, so it’s understandable the goalie should feel…angst.

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