Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1897
Peter Handke exploded onto the literary world in 1966 by means of his three plays, the first of which was aptly called Offending the Audience, and by making headlines, both here and in Germany, because of an outburst of criticism of the members of Gruppe 47. This association of German authors and critics was meeting at Princeton, and almost two hundred of Germany’s most famous intellectuals were present to be lambasted by the twenty-four-year-old beatnik who idolized the Beatles—his first performed play was dedicated to John Lennon—and dressed and groomed accordingly.
The Left-Handed Woman is the seventh volume by this “angry young man” to be translated and published in the United States. Like most of Peter Handke’s works, this one also deals with man’s alienation and loneliness in an absurd world. Thirty-year-old Marianne, wife of a successful executive of a porcelain manufacturing company and mother of an eight-year-old son, is suddenly cast into loneliness. The novel starts with Marianne and her husband, Bruno, celebrating his return from an extended business trip to Finland. He tells her that in the isolation in the cold and dark North where he could not understand a single word of what people said, he had come to realize how strongly he and Marianne belonged to each other. They go through all the motions of a reunion of a married couple. The next morning Marianne awakens Bruno and informs him, while laughing at her own choice of words, “I suddenly had an illumination”—another word she had to laugh at—“that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.” He leaves her and she rebuffs every one of his future attempts at returning to his family and house.
Is Marianne correct in assuming that Bruno will leave her some day in the future? And is her instinct right, making her fend for herself before that day comes? The answer to these questions can never be definitely ascertained in the novel; but a similar experience in the life of Marianne’s employer, the publisher, indicates that such an “illumination” is a private experience which has no relation to reality. The publisher is in a taxi once on a very dark evening with his girl friend, whom he loves very much. For a fleeting moment he sees a man on the sidewalk, and it flashes through his mind that the girl friend, in seeing that man, must realize what an old wreck is now embracing her and that she must be filled with revulsion. He immediately shies away from the embrace and breaks off all their relations, although it is doubtful that she ever even saw the man on the sidewalk.
The publisher’s knowledge that his thoughts, his “illumination,” have no basis in reality, does not change anything because in the novel the inner world and the outer world seem to have lost contact with each other. This feeling of dislocation between man’s emotions and the reality around him is strengthened even further by a statement made by Marianne’s friend, Franziska, who feels “that human thought is in pretty good shape but that life is elsewhere.” Also Marianne’s father contributes to this feeling when he states that at some time in the past he began “to live in the wrong direction.”
Nowhere in the novel can the realm of inner emotions be brought into a natural relationship with outer reality. People live past one another without making contact. Where there is physical nearness there is emotional separation, and in a case where for a moment it appears that physical and emotional contact might occur between two characters, they are literally separated by an electric shock. This is when Marianne and The Actor first meet in the department store. There is an apparent reciprocal emotional attraction but when they stretch out their hands in greeting, they recoil from an electric shock caused by static electricity. Later on, when The Actor catches up with Marianne in a café and comes to her house, he talks about emotions. He tells her how he loves her, longs for her, and desires her, but these words spoken out into the real world leave Marianne unmoved and as empty as the late night bus which passes by with its strap handles swaying.
The inability to communicate by means of language and the boundaries of expression placed upon us by the available linguistic structure are matters of concern to Peter Handke and are at the center of his work, The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World. These and other concerns with language also play a role in the novel at hand. There is very little communication in the dialogues in the novel. They consist of lifeless clichés, but they also appear odd because the responses are almost always off the mark from what the reader would anticipate. What is spoken has become part of the outer world and cannot penetrate into the inner world of the conversation partner. Not only can language not convey emotions from one person to another, but it also may even be detrimental to emotions: as soon as they are verbalized, they become reality which cannot reach back into the realm of emotions. This is exemplified in the incident between The Actor and Marianne. When they first meet without talking, there seems to be mutual understanding and attraction; but when he verbalizes his feelings for her, this understanding and compassion are replaced by apathy. Similarly, Bruno’s declaration of his feelings for his wife after his return from Finland immediately precedes Marianne’s “illumination” and her request that he leave her.
Perhaps it is also fear of secularizing the essence of the characters which prevents the Narrator from using their names. With this in mind, Marianne’s statement, “The more you have to say about me, the freer I will be of you,” begins to make sense. The more her husband and friends bring into words that which had united her with them before, the less influence they exert over her.
After asking Bruno to leave, Marianne grows more and more quiet and avoids expressing any feelings. Therefore, she can say in her final statement, which, like the one quoted earlier, is made to herself in front of the mirror: “You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.” This sounds like a victory statement after the impromptu party at her place. She has become immunized against the world around her, has accepted the inevitable fate, and has receded into a capsule of silence and loneliness.
Such a statement about the demise of language is interesting from an author whose early dramas were nothing but words. The author refused to call them plays, but rather “speaking pieces,” Sprechstücke, and all traditional elements of the theater were eliminated from them. There was no play-acting, no staging, no theatrical illusionism at all, only a bare stage with actors as speakers—Handke does not want them to be called actors at all—addressing the audience. This apparent emphasis on the word changes in later plays as, for example, Kaspar, in which the hero of that name cannot speak. He is taught words for the objects around him by impersonal voices. However, at the end of the play, Kaspar concludes that the language taught him is useless, as it cannot express what he wants to say. The development from Handke’s early speaking pieces through Kaspar culminates in his play, My Foot My Tutor, in which not one word is spoken. Like Kaspar, this play is concerned with presenting an aspect of the learning process, an aspect of the way in which an individual becomes aware of the forces around him, or within him, and takes steps to deal with these forces.
Both with respect to the debate about the efficacy of language and with respect to the analysis of a learning situation, one in which an individual is faced with previously unmet problems, The Left-Handed Woman is related to the plays mentioned. Some of the elements used to illustrate the demise of language in the novel have already been mentioned. However, to support the thesis that language in this novel is not merely a tool used to deal with a theme but is itself part of the central theme, it is necessary to return to them again.
Structurally the novel is not unlike the two plays mentioned. This novel of eighty-eight pages is broken into thirty-nine independent chapters which all show the woman, Marianne, in different situations. No attempt is made at tying the chapters together with a reference in one leading over to the other. The opposite is the case: each chapter is a self-contained unit. As the plays have blackouts between the skits or situations, so the novel has a very obvious, unusually large, spacing between each chapter. This spacing is always the same, whether the time span is long or short or whether there is a change of location or not. To make the division between chapters appear even stronger, the first word in each chapter is in heavy italics.
The lack of continuity and cohesion is seen also in other structural elements. Mention has already been made of the distortion created by having partners in a dialogue miss their cues, so to speak, thereby creating a halting effect since one statement does not logically follow the other. Increasing this duality and lack of continuity is the Narrator’s way of identifying the speakers as in a drama. Thus an already staccato dialogue falls even more apart when every statement, no matter how short, is preceded by “The woman:,” “The child:,” and so on.
Looking in on situations without hearing any words spoken, as is the case with the play, My Foot My Tutor, is another device used in the novel. We see Marianne observe through the window a meeting of the women’s association with which Franziska repeatedly tries to involve Marianne. We see her observe her son, Stefan, and his friend on the playground via a video transmission without sound. We see her in a shopping center notice a shopkeeper treating a foreign worker differently from the way he treats a local shopper, and many other similar situations. Soon it becomes clear that the novel as a whole is like the play, My Foot My Tutor. The reader is looking in on Marianne adjusting to loneliness, and he also gets a picture without sound, since he never hears Marianne put into words any of her feelings and thoughts. She—contrary to the other characters, especially Bruno—knows the limitation of language and accepts the consequences. As the character who was interviewed on the television program mentioned in the novel, and who was asked to tell about his loneliness and just sat there without opening his mouth, so Marianne at the end of the novel silently faces the world from her rocking chair on the terrace.
Because of the author’s inability to deal with the characters as complete human beings, and because of his disregard for the spiritual side of man, the novel is cold and humorless. Fortunately, it consists of only eighty-eight pages of large print with plenty of spacing; otherwise, many readers might never complete it.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 80
Gray, Paul. “A Formidable and Unique Austerity,” in Time. CXIV (June 19, 1978), p. 80.
Hoberman, J. “The Left-Handed Woman,” in The Village Voice. XXV (April 7, 1980), p. 27.
Howard, Maureen. “The Left-Handed Woman,” in The Yale Review. LXVIII,no. 3 (March, 1979), pp. 439-441.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, and James Knowlton. Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation, 1983.
Pawel, Ernest. “Sleeping Beauty as a Housewife,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIII (June 18, 1978), p. 10.
Updike, John. “Northern Europeans: Discontent in Deutsch,” in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, 1983.
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