The Left-Handed Woman
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...
(The entire section is 1897 words.)