Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A Moment of True Feeling stands in the tradition of modern existential literature. Handke is well aware of this, and it is no mere coincidence that the first name of the novel’s character is Gregor. The association is to one of the most famous alienated figures in modern literature: Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s novella Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936). In both stories, a dream signals the awakening of the figure’s true self, and both characters undergo transformations in which their estranged consciousnesses are revealed. Kafka’s story presents this theme in a more grotesque and dreamlike style. Handke’s theme also links his novel with other major existential writings of the twentieth century, such as Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958), Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausee (1938; Nausea, 1949), and Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946). The novels of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard also treat the same issues developed in Handke’s texts. All these existential writers view art as a mode of momentary transcendence for estranged consciousness.

What distinguishes Handke from the writers cited above is his awareness of the semiotic processes that condition the perception of “reality.” The ideas and theories of structuralism and semiology inform all of his works. Language and sign systems become, in the course of time, routine, automatized, and eventually mistaken for real experience. As Handke suggests in one of his early essays, human beings confuse nature (reality as it is) with the forms of their language (“reality” as they construct it). This confusion becomes a major source of the alienation that plagues his characters and is certainly the case with Gregor Keuschnig. He feels like “a prisoner in Disneyland,” confined in a prisonhouse of signs that are ultimately artificial and divorced from his experience. His moment of liberation or “true feeling” comes when he can create unique signs—such as the three objects in the park—that speak to his own existence.