Peter Handke

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Austria, on December 6, 1942. With the exception of a four-year period from 1944 to 1948, when he lived in Berlin, Handke lived in the country in Southern Austria. In 1961, he entered the University of Graz to study law. The critic Nicholas Hern argues that this legal training influenced Handke’s style: “Most of his plays . . . consist of a series of affirmative propositions each contained within one sentence which is usually a simple main clause on a main clause on a main clause plus one subordinate clause.” While he was at the university, Handke published his work in Manuskripts, the university’s literary review. From 1963 onward, he devoted himself to writing, and his first novel, Die Hornissen (1966; the hornets), appeared the year after he left the university.

This novel earned for Handke the chance to read at the prestigious Gruppe 47 conference in April of 1966, held that year at Princeton University. There he read from his second novel, Der Hausierer (1967; the peddler), and on the last day of the meeting he delivered a blistering attack on what he saw as the artistic failures of the group’s older members. Handke argued that much German postwar writing was too realistic and descriptive and “failed to realize literature is made with language, not with the things that one describes with language.”

This outburst and the success of his first play, Offending the Audience, at the Frankfurt “Experimenta” theater week in June of that year, brought Handke considerable media attention; since he affected a Beatles-like hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, he was much photographed, interviewed, and read. In 1966, he married actress Libgart Schwarz and moved to Germany from Austria. Over the next seven years, he lived in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Paris, and Kronberg (outside Frankfurt). His daughter, Amina, was born in Berlin in 1969. That same year, he joined with ten other writers to form a cooperative publishing house, Verlag der Autors. In 1979, he returned with his daughter to Salzburg in his native Austria.

In the late 1990’s, Handke reestablished himself as one of the enfants terribles of German literature by vociferously taking the side of the Serbs in the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, thus finding himself under attack from fellow writers, journalists, and politicians alike. Most of Handke’s literary output in the late 1990’s is a reflection of and a commentary on the events in the former Yugoslavia. As part of his condemnation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attacks on Serbia, Handke returned the Georg Büchner Prize, including a substantial stipend, that the German government had awarded him in 1973, and formally renounced his membership in the Roman Catholic Church, which he accused of supporting what he called the genocide of the Serbian people. At the same time, he proudly accepted his elevation to the rank of Knight of Serbia.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 979

Peter Handke’s early literary revolt against all repressive systems of rules and social customs and against the experience of daily dependency and dull coercive repetition is certainly linked to his birth and upbringing in a poor working-class environment. His birthplace, Griffen, in the province of Carinthia, Austria, lies about twenty-five miles northeast of Klagenfurt, the only sizable city in the region, and only a few miles from the border with Yugoslavia. Handke’s maternal grandfather, of Slovak descent, was a peasant and carpenter; his mother, the fourth of five children, worked as a dishwasher, maid, and cook during World War II and became pregnant with Handke by a German soldier, a bank clerk in civilian life, who was already married. Before Handke’s birth, his mother married another German soldier, Bruno Handke,...

(This entire section contains 979 words.)

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in civilian life a streetcar conductor in Berlin. In 1944, Maria Handke moved to Berlin with her son to await her husband’s return from the war. For some time after 1945, Handke’s stepfather continued to work as a streetcar conductor in Berlin, until in 1948 he moved his family to Griffen, where he found employment with Maria’s father. The stepfather’s alcoholism, the cramped quarters—the family, by then numbering six, shared two attic rooms—and the backwardness of the region became increasingly oppressive for the young Handke. After attending the local elementary school, he finally escaped from his hated stepfather and the confines of home by entering a parochial boarding school near Klagenfurt.

At the parochial school, the quiet and serious-minded Handke remained isolated from his fellow pupils. His superior intelligence allowed him to catch up on a year’s work in Latin within a short time and to become the best student in class. His German teacher recognized his writing talent and encouraged him to publish his first short stories in the school newspaper. Through this teacher, Handke became acquainted with the works of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, among others. Handke, however, soon felt the pressure of conformity at this school, with its expressed purpose of preparing young men for the priesthood, and he changed schools once more, to attend the Gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school) in Klagenfurt, from which he graduated in 1961. Apparently his former teacher advised Handke upon graduation to enter law school so that the young man might have enough time to pursue his love of writing and reflection. He entered the University of Graz, where he soon came into contact with an avant-garde group of young writers. He was able to publish in their literary magazine, and in 1963 a reading of one of Handke’s short stories was broadcast by a regional radio station.

In Graz, Handke met the actor Libgart Schwarz, whom he married soon afterward. Their daughter, Amina, was born in 1969, and in 1972 Handke and his wife separated; Amina continued to live with him. Handke’s marriage and divorce and his daughter Amina, respectively, form the autobiographical cores of the novels Short Letter, Long Farewell and Child Story. In November, 1971, Handke’s mother committed suicide. Handke was deeply shaken by her death; it rekindled long-suppressed memories of his own childhood and of his mother’s life of constant stricture and monotony, from which she freed herself through voluntary death. Within a few months, Handke wrote A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which several critics consider to be his best work.

Repeated moves and frequent travel characterized Handke’s life in the decade after 1965. His spectacular appearance at the 1966 conference of Gruppe 47 had launched his career as a serious and financially independent writer, and he quit law school after having passed several preliminary examinations with distinction. His travels led him to Romania, to Yugoslavia, and, in 1971, on a second trip through the United States. During that decade, he moved several times: In 1966, he left Graz for Düsseldorf; in 1968, he moved to Berlin; in 1969, to Paris; in 1971, to Cologne; in 1972, to Kronberg (outside Frankfurt). In 1975, Handke moved back to Paris, thereafter living in Salzburg, the setting for Across.

In 1978-1979 Handke was in United States, and in the late 1980’s he went on extended trips and hiking tours in Europe, Alaska, and Japan. His main residence from 1979 to 1991 was in Salzburg, which honored him in 1986 with the City of Salzburg Prize for Literature. In 1987 he received the Great Austrian State Prize. In 1999, Handke moved to Chaville, France, a small town not far from Paris.

Handke is a versatile writer; he is not only a novelist, poet, and playwright but also a literary translator, screenwriter, and film director. He and German director and producer Wim Wenders have collaborated on a number of films, including three adaptations of Handke’s novels: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971), The Left-Handed Woman (1978), and The Absence (1993). With Wenders, Handke wrote the screenplay for Wenders’s successful film Wings of Desire (1987). His account of a trip through war-torn Serbia, Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa and Drina: Oder, Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (1996; A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, 1997), unleashed a storm of protest in the European press. Handke’s observations are personal and geographical and portray the Serbians as ordinary human beings. His refusal to join in the condemnation of Serbia, and particularly his attendance at the funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Miloevi in 2006, resulted in a highly adversarial relationship with the media and the literary establishment. After having left the Catholic Church in 1999 in protest against its support of the bombing of Serbia, Handke returned the Büchner Prize (including the prize money) he had been awarded in 1973. When the committee that awarded him the prestigious Heinrich-Heine-Prize in 2006 came under attack from leading German politicians, Handke refused the award and directed that the money from an alternative prize, awarded to him by fellow artists in protest against this political meddling, be given to a war-damaged Serbian village.