Peter Handke

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Peter Handke World Literature Analysis

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Because of their nontraditional form and style and often bizarre subject matter, Handke’s works may seem intimidating to readers approaching them for the first time. A play such as Prophecy, for example, which consists entirely of statements such as “The chickens will scurry like chickens” and “The weasel will be weasel-faced,” resists the kind of straightforward interpretation that more conventional literary works allow. A consideration of some recurring themes in Handke’s work, however, can help clarify his often obscure material. Among Handke’s most important themes are the uses and significance of language, the analysis of abnormal psychological states, and the nature of the writing process itself.

Handke’s writing is filled with strange, innovative, and often playful uses of language. Moreover, language itself is frequently the subject of his writing, as in Calling for Help, which consists of a series of sentences and phrases spoken by two or more people on stage, each relating in some way to a need for help: “someone has escaped from death row,” “workers at that time were living in inhuman conditions,” “in case of emergency.” Each sentence or phrase is followed by the response “no,” as in a children’s guessing game, until the required word, “help,” is tried, leading to a “yes!” Handke explains:the speakers’ objective is to show the way to the sought-after word HELP, a way that leads across many sentences and words. . . . while the speakers are seeking the word help they are in need of help; once having found the word help they no longer need any help. before they find the word they ask for help, whereas once they have found the word help they only speak help without needing to ask for help any longer. once able to shout help, they no longer need to shout for help; they are relieved that they can shout help. the word HELP has lost its meaning.

Calling for Help uses irony and wit to examine a fundamental paradox of human relationships: People often find it most difficult to communicate their most urgent needs to others. When communication is finally established, Handke suggests, it may lose its original purpose and value. (Note that Handke, like the poet E. E. Cummings, ignores traditional capitalization rules in this work—probably to emphasize its verbal, rather than written, nature.)

If Handke’s use of language is sometimes playful, his subject matter is often just the opposite, frequently centering on mental breakdowns or other psychological disturbances. The protagonists of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, A Moment of True Feeling, Kaspar, and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams all exhibit some kind of emotional problem: psychosis, neurosis, childhood trauma, or depression. This emphasis on mental illness might seem morbid at first. Handke is not, however, interested in depicting the sensational or the bizarre for its own sake; his treatment of these subjects is typically low-key and objective. Rather, Handke uses the concepts of mental health and mental illness to examine and comment on the nature of reality, perception, and the place of the individual in society. For example, Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick walks away from his job, assuming that he is fired because only one of his coworkers looks at him when he arrives at work one day. An obviously neurotic behavior, Bloch’s action demonstrates the frightening power of individual perception: His reality has, in a real sense, been altered solely because of the way he views that reality. A similar situation is found in Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell , 1974). The...

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narrator of this novel, an Austrian such as Handke himself, declares, “As far back as I can remember, I seem to have been born for horror and fear.” As he travels across America after receiving a letter from his estranged wife (“I am in New York. Please do not look for me, it would not be nice for you to find me”), his troubled perceptions of life are used to shed light on personal interactions, the relationship of Europe to America (the “old world” and the new), and the connections between personal experience and the “real world.”

A final element that defines Handke’s writing is his treatment of the writing process as a subject in itself, a characteristic of much contemporary, or postmodern, literature. While authors of more conventional literature tend to tell their stories without referring to themselves or to their audience, Handke often interjects into his plays and fiction explicit commentary about himself, his thoughts about what he is writing, and his audience. Obvious examples are seen in Offending the Audience, where the relationship of the audience to the presentation on stage is the central concern of the play, and in Calling for Help, where audience reaction is crucial to the meaning of the material. Awareness and acknowledgment of the writing process are also found in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, in which Handke repeatedly comments on his motivation for and approach to writing:My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.

Through his direct commentary on the creative process, Handke continually reminds his readers that literature is the end product of a conscious intellectual endeavor, and that writing does not exist in a vacuum but has full meaning only in the context of the relationship between the writer and his audience. While analyzing the psychology of his characters, Handke does not shy away from examining his own as well.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

First published: Wunschloses Unglück, 1972 (English translation, 1975)

Type of work: Novella

Handke reacts to his mother’s suicide by telling her life story, examining the forces that shaped her life and that ultimately led to her death.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is considered by critics to be one of Handke’s finest works. Like so much of his writing, it defies pigeonholing in a traditional scheme of literary classification: Is it fiction, is it biography, or is it a personal meditation? Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Handke applies the techniques of fiction—imagination, reconstruction of events, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, and descriptions of characters and scenes—to an account of actual events, much like current historical fiction and television docudramas.

Handke’s mother’s story begins in a small Austrian village, the site of her eventual death. (Interestingly, the mother is never named—probably to emphasize the conformity and anonymity imposed upon the women in her society.) For most of the villagers, life is full of poverty and desperation—especially for the women. In his mother’s day, Handke says, “a girl’s future was a joke.” This observation is borne out by the mother’s subsequent experiences: a loveless marriage, shattered dreams, and life in a society that coerces her into denying her true feelings and personality. While she courageously makes repeated attempts to break free from repression and persecution—leaving home to pursue a career at age fifteen, illegally crossing borders in postwar Europe to escape from Germany and return to Austria, reading literature and involving herself in politics—she eventually succumbs to the negative forces at work in her life, saying, “I’m not human anymore.” Following a debilitating illness, probably psychological in origin, she calmly and deliberately ends her own life.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is interesting for several reasons. First, it illustrates the cause-and-effect relationship between pressures in society and individual psychological disturbance. The mother’s emotional problems—including fear, rigidity, self-blame, and depression—are founded in political and social pressures. Furthermore, by omitting her name and by repeatedly referring to her life’s events as “the old story,” Handke stresses the universality of her plight: She is not simply an individual but a “type,” symbolic of millions of women throughout history.

Second, the book provides a good example of Handke’s use of a new, alternative mode of expression, one that places the act of writing at the heart of its narrative. Handke continually interrupts his mother’s story to interject comments about his approach to it. Just before describing the suicide, he pauses to inform the reader that “From this point on, I shall have to be careful to keep my story from telling itself.” After her death he says, “All at once, in my impotent rage, I felt the need of writing something about my mother.” The act of writing does not produce the desired catharsis, however, for he later observes, “It is not true that writing has helped me.” By alternating the story of his mother with an account of his telling of her story, giving each equal prominence, Handke allows the reader to gain vivid insight into the creative process. He also demonstrates that the process of writing is just as important and interesting—perhaps more so—as its end product. Appropriately, Handke recognizes that it is an open-ended process as well, ending A Sorrow Beyond Dreams with the statement, “Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.”

Slow Homecoming

First published: Langsame Heimkehr, 1979 (The Long Way Around, 1985); Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, 1980 (The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, 1985); Kindergeschichte, 1981 (Child Story, 1985)

Type of work: Novellas

A scientist, an artist, and a child reveal insights about the relationship of people to the world and to each other.

Slow Homecoming is the English title of a collection of three of Handke’s short novels, whose individual titles may be translated as The Long Way Around, The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, and Child Story. The three works feature separate plots and characters and different styles. Taken as a group, however, they represent variations on a common theme: the ways in which people view themselves and their place in the world around them.

The Long Way Around tells the story of Sorger, a geologist whose physical journey from Alaska, California, and New York to his home in Europe parallels an inner journey of discovery and self-awareness. At the beginning of the novel, Sorger is a loner who “had done no work expressly useful to anyone” and who “would not have been fit company for anyone”; he tries to comprehend the meaning of existence by obsessively describing the physical world. This approach fails, and Sorger nears a psychological collapse, but eventually he realizes that it is relationships with other people, not his science, that give life its significance. He leaves for home full of confidence and optimism.

The Lesson of Mont-Sainte-Victoire deals with art rather than science, relating the visual art of French painter Paul Cézanne to the literary art of Handke himself. Handke describes his visit to a spot in the Sainte-Victoire mountain range where Cézanne found particular inspiration and the effects that the experience has had on his own creativity. The “lesson” is that true understanding and insight can be achieved only through the synthesis of form and object, subjective perception and objective reality, the specific and the universal. Handke applies this knowledge in the concluding section, a description of the woods near Salzburg.

Child Story, the final novella in the collection, is Handke’s autobiographical account of his relationship with his daughter from her birth through age ten. For Handke, being a parent is both magically fulfilling and horribly trying, and he describes both feelings with equal clarity: His primitive urge to protect and defend his newborn child contrasts starkly with the anger and frustration that, years later, cause him to strike her nearly “hard enough to kill her.” Throughout Child Story, however, Handke shows the importance of the interaction of parent and child, as his daughter provides him with the same kinds of insights that science and art offered in the two previous novellas.

Slow Homecoming is one of Handke’s most complex and difficult works. Often abandoning narrative in favor of meditations on life, knowledge, and nature, the three short novels owe as much to philosophy as to fiction. In their unusual blend of fiction and fact, description and explanation, investigation and revelation, the three sections of Slow Homecoming represent some of Handke’s most creative, fully developed, and innovative work.

On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House

First published: In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus, 1997 (English translation, 2000)

Type of work: Novel

A suburban Austrian pharmacist embarks on a journey with two once-famous companions, culminating in a phantasmagoric adventure on the Spanish steppe.

On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House employs, in essence, two narrators—one telling the story to the reader, and the central character, an alienated pharmacist from the Salzburg suburb of Taxham. The strategy allows Handke to provide himself with ironic distance from the story even as he tells it. For example, the book’s narrator will occasionally interject an explanation from the protagonist, but the mere fact that information is presented to the reader in this form calls attention to the subjectivity of the perspective. Handke thus combines content that often seems absurd or surreal with a narrative form that calls into question the nature of “truth.” The reader is never completely certain whether the events being narrated actually occurred, if they are subjective interpretations of events that another observer might have described differently, if they represent the subconscious of the central character, or if indeed they are altogether hallucinatory.

The tale begins prosaically enough. The pharmacist leads a mundane existence in a nondescript suburban town. He has his distinguishing characteristics—he is an aficionado of mushrooms, for example—but he remains an unremarkable figure. Estranged from his wife, although they continue to share the same house, he leads an alienated but not altogether lonely existence. The first real event of the novel is an apparently random act of violence perpetrated against the pharmacist. He is rendered mute by a blow to the head, although it is never entirely clear whether the cause of his speechlessness is physical or psychological.

At an unimposing restaurant the pharmacist meets a former Olympic skier and a once-famous poet, and, without saying a word, becomes their driver for a vacation trip which takes the trio to an encounter with a widow, who attacks the pharmacist and becomes an object of fascination, and to meetings with the daughter of the poet (intentional) and the son of the pharmacist (completely random). After some time, the pharmacist ventures forth on his own into a dreamlike land described as Spain but bearing little resemblance to any geographical locale. Ultimately, he returns home, his life changed in apparently profound but nonetheless unspecified ways.

This is a difficult book: While it clearly touches on themes of alienation, longing, and impermanence, these readily identified motifs are not entirely fleshed out. The circumstances surrounding the long-ago departure of the pharmacist’s son, for example, are hinted at but never fully articulated. Similarly, the exact nature of the relationship between the protagonist and the widow lies tantalizingly just out of reach.

Handke has expressed his preference for art works that “almost move” the observer rather than works that actually do so; On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House is an example of that type of art. This work appeals more to the mind than to the heart; the structure and language of the book are at least as important as any empathetic characterization. Still, the psychology of the characters, especially of the pharmacist, remains key, and the reader is compelled to provide answers that the author does not.

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