Inside the fragmenting mind: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke

‘Bloch got sleepy. He made a few tired gestures to make light of his sleepiness, but that made him even sleepier. Various things he said during the day came back to him; he tried to get rid of them by breathing out. Then he felt himself falling asleep; as before the end of a paragraph, he thought.’

One of the first things you need to know about Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is that here are no easy answers here. If you are inclined to believe that literature should purvey rational motivation, moral certainty, and a satisfying denouement, you might want to look elsewhere. This is a novel that dismantles everything that one expects a novel to be, but, because Handke engages in this process from within the mind of man whose own processes of perception and comprehension are unraveling, one can argue that for all its inherent strangeness, The Goalie’s Anxiety approaches a reality of experience that is startling.

goalieAfter all, how do we measure reality? The only measures we have are our thoughts and perceptions. Narrated with an almost clinical, documentary clarity from a limited third person perspective, the reader is presented with an opportunity to exist inside the mind of a dispassionate murderer and face the uncomfortable possibility that rational explanations for behaviour may not always exist–and that someone who may not be in their right mind can be disordered not only in their thinking, but in their emotional responses.

At the outset of the novel we meet Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had formerly been a well-known soccer goalie. He arrives at work one day and interprets small insignificant signs from his coworkers to mean that he has lost his job and, taking the hint, he leaves. He goes to the movies, takes a hotel room and otherwise occupies himself with random activities. Strange moods and thoughts pass through his mind. One night he decides to wait for the cashier at the movie theatre to get off work and follows her home.

When he wakes after spending the night with her, he discovers, lying in bed with his eyes closed, that an odd inability to visualize things has come over him. He tries naming objects, then making up sentences about things, all in an effort to bring the images to mind. He becomes aware of the pressure of things, distressing when his eyes are open, magnified when they are closed. His thoughts and experiences are starting to fall out of synch with the world around him. As he spends time with the cashier, he notices his irritation increasing and then, with little provocation or self-reflection, he strangles the young woman.

An unearthly calm envelopes the narration as Bloch’s actions and thinking processes are recounted with a surreal, slow motion quality. Before long he leaves the city to head out to a small town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. He shows no particular desire to hide from the authorities, but as he spends time in the town his thinking continues to fall apart. Talking and communicating begins to take on a disordered quality. Bloch starts analyzing and double checking his thoughts–the words and expressions that pass through his mind catch him up and he questions the meanings he attaches to the words of others, for example in this exchange with two cape-wearing (yes, cape wearing) bicycle policemen outside a closed pool where Bloch has found himself standing:

‘The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “Whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”.’

Over time his interactions with others continue to grow increasingly surreal, at least from within Bloch’s increasingly distorted perceptions of the world. We are, after all, firmly ensconced in the head of a man whose emotional and cognitive functioning is unspooling. The story may be proceeding with detached and disconnected sequences, but the tightly controlled limited third person narrative is deeply affecting for the reader. We can only see the world as Bloch experiences it, but with just enough distance to watch the internal decline. We are told what he is doing and thinking, but everyone and everything he encounters is filtered through his distorted lens–he imagines that messages are being sent to him, even if he is not certain what they are trying to indicate, objects and events hold meaning. As his paranoia grows, his sense of prescience is also heightened and he observes that his thoughts seem to proceed the words or actions of others.

At the same time Bloch exhibits an enhanced awareness of the world in small, often insignificant details that impose themselves on his consciousness to the point that he is sometimes irritated by the sensory input and his own intrusive observations. His breakdown is skillfully orchestrated. Handke captures his hyper awareness in descriptive passages that reflect the odd acuity of his attention and his internal difficulties with his own fragmenting thoughts. At one point, as Bloch tries desperately to cling to individual words, images briefly replace the terms that have abandoned him. And although, like Camus’ Mersault to whom he is often compared, he never expresses any remorse for his violent act; as the police appear to be closing in on him, his thoughts betray more than he can or will admit to himself.

‘He took a second look: no, the light switches stayed light switches, and the garden chairs in the landscape behind the house stayed garden chairs.

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–?’

It is sometimes said that Handke’s protagonist stands as an allegory for the disintegration of modern man and society, but I could not help but recognize in Bloch a striking depiction of the internal irrational rationalizing of the psychotic mind. The supercharged sensitivity, the paranoia, and the ultimate inability to string together coherent thoughts all echo my own unfortunate experience with mania and the experiences of many of the schizophrenic clients I’ve worked with over the years.

As the book nears its conclusion, Bloch has a recurring memory that seems to indicate there is an incident that may have been a mitigating factor in the progress of mental decline that plays out in the novel. It is subtly drawn and reinforced with the closing scene, but even then, one would imagine there might well have been an inherent psychological weakness that was triggered by the event. The 1972 movie based on this novel which marked the first collaboration between Handke as screenwriter and director Wim Wenders is more explicit in this regard, but the film proceeds with effectively disconnected and disorienting scenes to maintain the surreal feel of the book.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke is translated by Michael Roloff and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

11 thoughts on “Inside the fragmenting mind: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke”

  1. Well, you had me at the title. I have a keen radar for sniffing out anything football (soccer)-related as I consider football to be one of the greatest joys known to human-kind. From reading your review, my initial disappointment at the lack of on-pitch action was replaced by intrigue at what does sound like a contemporary take on Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’. It does sound really fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is one of those books that can get under your skin. The movie plays out the soccer aspect more explicitly and was written by Handke (who has gone on to collaborate with Wenders on films like Wings of Desire). I found a rather blurry copy on Youtube.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed your review of a book I know well. Just a couple of thoughts: for me, that final scene as he watches the goalie and the penalty kicker stands for the whole set of thoughts about language and meaning you lay out so nicely. Because the connections between words and things are largely conventional, they are, if we think about it carefully, a bit slippery. The sign the penalty kicker gives is meant to deceive and the goalie knows that and the kicker knows that the goalie knows that and on and on. The lesson Bloch and the reader get when the goalie just stands there and the ball hits him in the chest is … well, what is the lesson?
    The book has the form, in a way, of a detective or crime novel, with an early crime followed up by by an investigation. We’re in the mind of the killer, not in that of the police, but we get hints through the papers Bloch reads that the police are following a set of clues and getting closer to him. The clues are language of a sort, and in the conventional crime story the detective finds the perpetrator. Meaning is certain. But in this novel, at one point, Bloch compares a map with the scene below him and finds they don’t match and breaths easier. Meaning is uncertain and if that’s the case the clues he has left behind may be uncertain as well and he’ll not be found out.
    That’s one way to read the novel. Your connections between Bloch and people you have worked with is probably a more powerful way to read it.
    Wenders and Handke made a short movie before The Goalie’s Anxiety called “3 American LPs.” And Wenders has just filmed Handke’s play The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez, with Peter’s wife Sofie as one of the two characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoroughly Scott. I was a little anxious about your response to my reading of the book which I will admit is just one of the many possible readings that occurred to me. However, as you know, we cannot help but bring our own experiences to a book – especially one as opaque as this. I agree with you regarding the final scene but for the purposes of a review like this I only wanted to allude to the ending, leaving it open to an interested reader to approach it on his or her own terms.
      This is the type of read I love – one that leaves room for interpretation, exactly the sort of thing that frustrates the more concrete minded reader.
      I entered in this book with little advance knowledge, it is the first Handke novel I have read and not one that I had on hand. However, I am preparing to review a Brazilian novel called Quiet Creature on the Corner for Numéro Cinq and there is a limited amount of information in English on the author (Noll) or the book because few of his works have been translated to date, and one of the blurbs quoted suggests it is like “Werner Herzog writing a hypnotic sequel to the Goalie’s Anxiety”. What? Well I thought I would read the Handke first. Unfortunately it has proved to be very unfair to the poor Creature which really bears little resemblance to Goalie’s Anxiety. But the latter was so dominant in my imagination that I will have to wait a week before going back for a second reading of Quiet Creature in advance of writing my review!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As I may have mentioned before, my only experience of Handke is Repetition, which I found rather dull – I rather wish I’d read his most famous novel first. Your review certainly encourages me to do so.
    I’m glad to hear you’re reviewing Quiet Creature – one I already have picked out to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly enjoyed this, it’s fascinating to watch his thinking deteriorate. It is like having an interesting window on a character’s mind, especially one who’s behaviour is rather odd and inexplicable.

      Quiet Creature is a book I am still getting my head around. Some of the hyperbole in the promotional material is misleading in my mind. It does disservice to what is really interesting, at least as far as I can see. I need to reread it first. Sometimes I think it is unfortunate when reviewers need to evoke other artists or writers (Kafka and Camus are classics for this). I’ve certainly been thinking about it a lot after my first reading. The review will go live sometime in May, but of course I’ll link it here.


  4. I have just read this book and was really confused (and frustrated!) at times…this article helps my understanding…a breakdown in experience/reality that the reader gets to observe…The books seems more special now! Trying to accept that I don’t need to understand everything I read…I have experienced the book and I don’t need to prove to anyone that I ‘get it’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The perspective is ideal for showing the mental breakdown. And I like the vague ending (or that’s how I remember it). There is a film by Wim Wenders, which is interesting but you can only observe the character from the outside and the ending is too obvious. Either way he’s not a likeable character but you see the difference between what literature and film can portray.


  5. Hi Joe. I’m reading this book now, and am very impressed. I came to it through Wenders, and have partially watched the his film and partially read the book; I’m doing them in tandem. Thanks for your review, and glad to have found your site… (I’m a visual artist/photographer with an interest in writing; but I’m not trying fiction a the moment.)

    I am enjoying the way that it seems like Handke is fracturing the separation between his writing and the narrative as Bloch becomes less whole. I started thinking “Oh yeah, a bit Camus, a bit Sartre” at the start, but I currently see this writing as going further than either.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that the very tight third person perspective is the best way to depict a deteriorating psychological state. I watched the movie after reading the book and I would certainly suggest you read the ending before watching the way the film chooses to interpret it. As I recall the end is more open and ambiguous in the book.


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