Handke, Peter (Vol. 15)
Handke, Peter 1942–
Handke is an Austrian-born novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist writing in German. He is considered a major innovator in contemporary theater for his experiments with language. One of Handke's major themes is the inadequacy of language as a means of communication. This is perhaps best illustrated in his "Sprechstücke," or "speak-ins," Handke's own theatrical creation. Lacking the structure of traditional drama, these plays are basically language exercises in which the actors are speakers rather than characters. Instead of dialogue the speakers engage in cliché-ridden, fragmented monologues, thus conveying to the audience the way language impedes true expression. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Most of [Handke's] plays and novels consist of a series of affirmative propositions, each contained within one sentence that is usually a simple main clause or a main clause plus one subordinate clause. The link between these sentences is not the usual one of narrative, descriptive, or psychological flow. Rather, each sentence is complete in itself and qualifies the sentence before it, or, possibly, is one of several sentences qualifying the first sentence in the chapter or section or paragraph…. It is as if a state of affairs or a particular situation were being defined and constantly redefined until the final total definition permits of no mite of ambiguity. Considering this urge toward precise definition, it is not surprising that Handke's words, like those in an insurance policy, have an exact meaning, one single interpretation. Each word has a precisely apportioned weight and contributes to the total meaning of the sentence…. This does not result, however, in what is normally considered a spare style. Indeed, Handke has frequently been accused of self-indulgence. But it is the indulgence of repetition, not of emotional gush. (pp. 3-4)
[What] is his way of presenting reality? It is easier to say what it is not. It rejects fiction, symbols, metaphors, even comparisons; it rejects description, illusion, subjectivity, empathy: one is left with clinical impersonality, which owes something to Alain Robbe-Grillet's implacable...
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J. D. O'Hara
One of the irritating facts of the current literary scene is that Peter Handke is absolutely the cat's meow in intellectually arty circles now…. [Handke's fiction] consists especially of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), a terrific title, and [The Left-Handed Woman]. Both are written in a spare, clean, even emptied style; one fights the urge to speak portentously of the spaces and silences between the words, and of the gulfs that yawn between one character's speech and another's failure to answer. And of the inexplicable depths of human nature brought still wet and gasping to the surface…. (p. 232)
[As] always he writes in a fake style—knowing when it chooses to be, elliptical only for effect …, and making a mountain out of a molehill even as the work denies that either exists…. Handke leads critics to invoke, as Borges would say, the names of other writers—especially Kafka and Beckett—without noticing that they are noting a weakness, not a strength. If one were to read Handke without ever having encountered his predecessors, one would probably dismiss his style as pretentiously out of whack with its material; but who has not read the predecessors? (pp. 232-33)
J. D. O'Hara, "Reflections on Recent Prose," in New England Review (copyright © 1978 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. I, No....
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The Left-Handed Woman tells the story, with delicacy and eloquence, of a woman's escape….
These are the details [Handke] gives the reader: a woman, needing separation; her child, an ebullient companion and occasional philosopher; her husband, Bruno, the departed businessman whose unchallenging love leaves so much room for desire, and other minor characters who fill her life, or try to, after she and Bruno separate. To these characters, portrayed with awesome simplicity, Handke adds almost nothing, except an occasional insight—through the woman, named Marianne but called only the woman….
[Handke's characters last in our memory]. When they appear together, in a final scene, he moves from one to another with astonishing speed, in a ballet of words and images forcing all feelings to the surface. With the end of the book comes a sense of knowing the woman and her dreams….
Using his enormous gifts as a writer, poet and artist, Handke delivers her into what she will become—a woman alone—with quiet dignity.
David Blum, "Brief Reviews: 'The Left-Handed Woman'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, Nos. 9&10, August 26 and September 2, 1978, p. 46.
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[While They Are Dying Out] has been publicized and reviewed as Handke's most overtly political work, the words "most" and "overtly" must be taken in context or they are extremely misleading—though They Are Dying Out seems to be about Big Business….
This [play] is funny and lyrical, with a larger-than-life protagonist, lots of social satire, surreal irruptions, sensuality, violence. There's enough conniving almost to equal a plot, enough dissolution of self almost to equal a psychology. It is, indeed, easily pleasurable as you watch—but tricky, even opaque, when you think about it later.
The people dying out are embodied by Quitt, a character apparently fashioned from a mixture of homage and debunking. Quitt is a grand talker and a sharklike corporate leader….
The main action is not in the story but in the way roles and gestures go off-key just enough to indicate chasms and earthquakes. (p. 109)
Quitt is also endlessly self-concerned, and would be endlessly boring if Handke hadn't written his lines. As a profiteering, producer of cheap goods who's a narcissist to boot, his poeticism ill becomes him. But as a man unable to pull anything real from a tangle of dead words, false roles, and blocked actions, he becomes moving and plausible. (p. 111)
Erika Munk, "Faust, Inc." in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission...
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The theater of Peter Handke is [self-conscious] …, not simply in terms of self-referentiality, but in its overall assertion of theater as a self-sufficient entity. In its persistent characterization of itself as something apart from the elements of reality, dependent upon no external references, the theater of Peter Handke is the culmination of the modern dramatist's concern with his own art. (p. 105)
One would think that in drama the fact of physical presence would make the challenge of creating a self-sufficient world even more difficult [than in prose fiction], but Handke has succeeded in creating just such an illusion in The Ride Across Lake Constance. (pp. 105-06)
For centuries the drama has been like life; indeed, its main task has been to represent life. But Handke feels there should be no apparent mimetic relationship between the two; drama should be pure fiction, which does not depend for its understanding on any comparison to the real world. (p. 106)
In Handke's theater, nothing is intended to be respresentational. Props, language, action, and actors correspond only tangentially to the usual patterns and characteristics of reality, with each attempting to signify nothing but itself. The event on stage exists on stage and claims only to be a theatrical event. (pp. 106-07)
Yet to say that Handke's drama … has no relationship whatsoever to reality would be...
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