Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Peter Handke may be regarded as an avant-garde iconoclast reacting against accepted narrative traditions and criticizing the complacency of the generation of German writers who preceded him. Handke first gained notoriety in 1966 when he challenged the “realistic” achievements of the prestigious Gruppe 47 writers who represented the establishment. Distrustful of language and of conventional notions of reason, Handke’s early works were an assault against the literary establishment of his time. His plays, one of which bears the title “Offending the Audience,” were antitheatrical Sprechstucke (literally, pieces of speech) that assailed time-honored conventions of drama.

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His first novel, Die Hornissen (1966; the hornets), was recognized as a German equivalent of the French New Novel and enhanced his reputation as an experimental writer. In addition, his alliance with Wim Wenders connected him with a new generation of filmmakers who were revitalizing the German cinema.

For Handke, characters take precedence over the story being told. Interviewed in 1979, he said “What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events.” He described narrative as “an ‘I’...writing a narrative poem about the time in which he lives, about the self, and about others.”

The psychology of the central characters of both The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and The Left-Handed Woman is irrational and mysterious, but, unlike Marianne, the central character of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is apparently quite mad. Both characters, however, are responsible for their extreme actions, and both are threatened by the consequences.

Because Handke distrusts language and its deceptive nature, his writing is sparse and primarily descriptive and his point of view dramatic or objective, with the narrator assuming the perspective of a mobile film camera, picturing the action, but not interposing to mediate or to interpret the story or the characters for the reader.

Novelist John Updike has noted that Handke writes “from an area beyond psychology,” and the point is well taken, if a little obscure. Handke does not put the reader in touch with the minds of his characters, but he does suggest something about Marianne’s psychology through what she says and through the way she responds to what she reads (while translating the autobiography of a Frenchwoman, not unlike herself) and to what others say. Though motives are not fully explained, the advantage is that psychology is not simplified to banal and manageable levels.

Writing in The Yale Review, Maureen Howard described The Left-Handed Woman as “a tale of modern perversity,” a “novel about the unsaid,” documenting “solitary pain” and “deranged loneliness.” Howard claims that the characters lose their names as their identities recede in the mind of the central character, but one could argue the opposite, for as Marianne (who is not herself named until the narrative is well in progress) comes to grips with her new identity and her existential rebirth, those characters who are meaningful to her are called by their Christian names. Bruno is always Bruno, moreover, and Franziska, her closest friend, is always Franziska.

The stance is one of defensive integrity, an ideal that is approached toward the end, as Marianne grows into her intense individualism and her sense of self-preservation eclipses the danger of self-destruction. At the novel’s end, Marianne seems relatively in control of her life, having found employment and having advanced beyond the self-doubts that accompanied her decision to separate from her husband. Reading this novel requires more than a little patience, but the work is extremely well crafted, and the development goes beyond the potential banality of another mid-life crisis. Handke is able to take an ordinary life and make it interesting.

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