Marianne, referred to as the Woman, a thirty-year-old translator of French and a suburban housewife in an unnamed West German city. She, her husband, Bruno, and their child live in a bungalow on a hill overlooking the city. Marianne is lonely, as are the other characters of the novel. In spite of that, she suggests to Bruno that he leave her after he has returned from a business trip. There appears to be no specific reason for her suggestion. Marianne translates from the French that the ideal man is someone who loves her for what she is and will become. The idea that her husband leave her comes to her as an “illumination.” Whether this separation is permanent is not known.
Bruno, a sales manager for a porcelain firm. He has brown eyes that can observe without being observed. After his return from a business trip to Finland, where he did not know the language and felt very lonely, he says to Marianne that he felt that they were bound to each other but that he could now exist without her. After spending the night in a nearby hotel where they had gone for dinner, Marianne tells him that he should go to live with Franziska. Bruno does so. After a fight with the actor at Marianne’s impromptu party, where Bruno accused the actor of wanting to be his wife’s lover, he and the actor play Ping-Pong together and are the last to leave the party. They leave together.
Stefan, referred to as the Child, Bruno and Marianne’s eight-year-old son. He writes an essay for school that seems to be a parable of the novel’s theme. It is titled “My Idea for a Better Life.” Everyone would live on islands, he would have no more than four friends, and all the people he did not know would disappear. Stefan spends much time with his friend Jürgen and occasionally goes on outings with his mother.
The Father, Marianne’s father, an unhappy elderly man who is color-blind. He lives with a female companion. He comes to visit Marianne after receiving a letter from Franziska. He recognizes a film actor in a department store and tells him that he can improve by starting to risk himself while acting.
Franziska, Stefan’s schoolteacher and Marianne’s friend. She and Bruno live together at Marianne’s suggestion. She tries unsuccessfully to get Marianne to join a women’s group.
The actor, an unemployed, flabby man. He meets Marianne and her father after they have had their picture taken. He is criticized by Marianne’s father for holding back, for trying to be a personality instead of giving of himself totally. He contrives to meet Marianne in a café.
Ernst, referred to as the publisher, a corpulent man about fifty years old. He is Marianne’s employer after Bruno leaves her. She had worked for Ernst a long time earlier. He appears with champagne at her door, then makes a pass at her. Ernst says to Marianne that she is entering a long period of loneliness, which she takes as a threat.
The chauffeur, Ernst’s driver. He attends Marianne’s party and makes a sketch of her company.
The salesgirl, a woman who sells Marianne a sweater for her husband and who attends Marianne’s party. She has a child, who is kept in a back room during working hours.
Jürgen, Stefan’s playmate and schoolmate.
Handke’s characters are fairly conventional but extremely abstract and oddly presented in a detached and absolutely external manner. In fact, the novelist, who had previously written two film scripts for Wim Wenders—including the script adapted from his own novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972)—first imagined his story as a motion picture and went on to direct a film version.
The novel, which differs in some particulars of setting and action from the film, was written as a challenge. As Handke has explained in his notes for the film production, “I wanted to try a kind of prose in which the thinking and feeling of the...
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