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...
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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, 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...
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