Handke, Peter 1942?–
Handke, an Austrian novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, is considered an exciting writer earning international stature.
Wunschloses Unglück [published in English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams] is a sensitive account of the life of Peter Handke's mother, a life which ended in suicide. It is an attempt both at writing about her and recording the difficulties of doing so….
The work is dominated by a single aesthetic imperative: not to sell reality short, not to become "reified into some machine for manufacturing memories or stereotypes". The resultant novel operates on two levels (rather in the self-analytical manner of Der Hausierer): the unadorned account of this woman's life and a commentary on the shortcomings of the biography as it develops. Certain misgivings are voiced at length before the account begins, and the narrative is interrupted every so often when the author feels that his material is shifting from fact to fiction.
Handke has always been less concerned with problems of narrative perspective than with the narrator's linguistic precision when describing what he is permitted to observe. Here, the narrator assumes an attitude of virtual omniscience towards his mother (although the tone rarely jars)—and his main interest is not in whether he can know so much about her, but rather whether he has done justice to what he does know….
In this delicately balanced novel, the reader witnesses Handke pitting his desire for an authentic account against the elusiveness of reality. But Wunschloses Unglück does not just note (and even at times take evasive action to resist) the danger of slipping into the rituals and rhetoric of confessional biography. There are times where Handke is not beyond exaggerating the fictiveness of his approach. For his mother functions here as both individual and "instance": a paradigm against which not only the resilience of language but also the pressure of literary clichés can be tested. And fact and paradigm inevitably clash on occasions. Hence the novella-like beginning of the work, the occasional arch mannerisms of Sprachskepsis, or the discussion of the problem of writing about poverty in literature and avoiding the pathos and emotional commonplaces of "nineteenth-century" writing.
Certain pitfalls seem to appear in the novel simply in order that the narrator may theorize about them; the old Handke-gestures have not been eradicated any more fully than the literary clichés have. (The narrative confesses as much, as the sobre, unilinear biography is abandoned in favour of a series of final, disjointed anecdotes.) Yet on the whole, Handke shows a newly-acquired respect for tangible reality in Wunschloses Unglück, and a compassion for his subject. The result is a salutary ability to contain his linguistic diffidence within bounds appropriate to its material.
"Fictively Filial," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1972; reproduced by permission), December 1, 1972, p. 1449.
The Ride Across Lake Constance … confirms [Handke's] seriousness, his accomplishment and his utter 'foreignness'. English language drama does not breed writers with such preoccupations as are evinced here.
For Handke is a writer who does away with surface altogether. He writes, as it were, from the nine-tenths of speech and behaviour that go unsaid and undone, rather than the one tenth that passes right through the system and actually communicates itself to others. In Lake Constance we see not so much an edgy encounter between several persons, in what is presumably the neutral ground of an hotel, as a subterranean account of unexpressed desires, fears, fantasies, nightmares and manoeuvres in a game of dominance and submission….
The inherent difficulty in the play, for Handke as well as for us, is that the focus constantly changes, indeed it's a multiple focus, so that productive ambiguity sometimes gives way to impenetrable confusion. Having set himself such an ambitious and complex schema, Handke has not resolved all the considerable problems that it throws up….
In Lake Constance, if someone holds out a hand, nobody shakes it. Rather it will be examined, stared at, kissed or have something placed on it. But that notion, that verbal and behavioural transactions are like business transactions, bobs up again throughout. It seems that one of Handke's central preoccupations is with the (somewhat jaded) thought that we're all on the make even in social situations, that the undercurrent of our behaviour towards each other is a jockeying for position, profit and territory. (p. 48)
It's almost a case for aleatoric playwriting, of which many might feel this piece to be an example. But I don't think Handke is that sort of a cynic. His plays are immensely serious, even grave. My only carp about Kaspar—which I look upon as an otherwise perfect play—is a feeling of portentousness, as though Handke were slightly burdened with an awareness of writing an important, a seminal play. Lake Constance is not such a superb structure but neither does it feel portentous. At moments, I'm reminded of Spike Milligan…. But Handke never permits himself to touch the sublime heights of Milligan's agility with concepts and their destruction. Milligan, a Celtic anarchist, fires off random shots … all the time. And, when he's pissed off, he turns to something else. Handke, being a Teuton, works systematically through, imposing an order on chaos. If not portentous, Lake Constance is pretty daunting. It makes you work at it. And indeed I can't put my hand on my heart … and swear that Handke has made me ponder on the implications of these matters for my own existence. Milligan wouldn't try to, but he can provoke you into making connections. Handke, burdened with a whole play to write and a schematised intent, is always too bogged down to take glorious Milliganesque flight. But then Milligan is a genius…. Handke may yet prove to be a genius but he is certainly well worth grappling with meanwhile. (p. 49)
W. Stephen Gilbert, in Plays and Players (© copyright W. Stephen Gilbert 1974), January, 1974.
Handke is a securely established star of the German-speaking literary world, [called by various writers] "the darling of the West German critics"…, "long since the key figure of his generation"….
He first attracted attention in 1966, with an acidulous attack upon the "descriptive literature" that he considered predominant in West German fiction. Since then he has himself produced industriously and managed to appeal to both the middlebrow press as an enfant terrible and to various highbrow camps. A "literary technocrat," in the words of one critic, he can draw readers from those who approach art politically (by his matter-of-fact, vaguely Brechtian rejection of conventional fiction's comfortable fat) and from those more concerned with "pure art" (by his persistent concern with a blend of ostensible avant-gardism and self-conscious literary historicism).
Above all, Handke is an original, both in his work and in his person. His industriousness has been matched by the central-European critical establishment;… when he was only 30, there had already appeared a 393-page anthology of essays on him, complete with a 35-page bibliography of books and additional articles deemed too insignificant to include in the book….
[Short Letter, Long Farewell, a novel,] is hardly a very endearing piece of prose. The title suggests the bones of the plot: on a visit to America the Austrian protagonist receives a short, flat farewell note from his wife ("I am in New York. Please don't look for me. It would not be nice for you to find me"), then spends the rest of the book traveling across the country, sensing his wife's presence in a series of threatening, melodramatic incidents, and finally encountering her again on the West Coast where the "long farewell" is consummated. (Actually, the "Langen Abschied" of the title is a direct and characteristic reference to Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye," which the translator, Ralph Manheim, has missed; on the whole, Manheim does a decent job, although the very self-consciousness of Handke's style and his near-fetishism about language makes translation problematic from the start.)
Needless to say, the first-person account of the hero's wanderings is hardly meant to be the whole story, nor is it recounted naturalistically: every time Handke ventures into dialogue he becomes a candidate for a bottom-of-the-page New Yorker item. But of course descriptive realism isn't the point here. Handke has a view of the world that he is trying to recreate through language and through art, and this novel is part of that attempt. Its hero perceives the world out of existential insecurity, his ego constantly shattered by outer reality (nature), inner reality (dreams) and time (chilling, cinematic flashbacks)….
The two central points of reference in a book full of references are Gottfried Keller's novel "Der grüne Heinrich" and the films of John Ford. In his continual, even obsessive citations of Keller and Ford, Handke identifies his book with the tradition of the German Bildungsroman (a novel in which the hero learns through his experiences) and with Ford's larger-than-life, heroic Americana, and yet also distances himself from them ironically. Handke values Keller's Heinrich because "he didn't want to interpret things; all he wanted was to be as detached as possible." Ford, who himself enters the book as a character at the end, assumes the role of patriarchal deus ex machina, wearily resolving tensions between history and nature and husband and wife, and making possible the peculiarly inconclusive "happy end," as Handke called it in an interview.
How all of this will strike the non-German reader will be a matter of taste. Sometimes the artificiality and the (deliberate) downright silliness of his assertions ("'We Americans always say "we" even when we're talking about our private affairs,' said John Ford") will strike one as dated, unpleasant, foreign or simply inept. The most immediately striking parts of this book are the moments in which Handke opens up Kafkaesque vistas—dreaming instants of remembered horror—and an occasional set piece, as in the description of the desperately doting lovers the hero encounters in St. Louis.
But for those who respond to complex and clever artifice, Handke has much to offer. The writing may be careful and calculating, but it is enormously intricate….
The sheer density of the in-jokes and cross references and philosophical curve balls throughout this book will keep a generation of German scholars busy and happy, and will no doubt attract something of an American discipleship as well. And there is an undeniable, intriguing fascination to it, one that makes one curious indeed about how Handke will evolve in coming years. It's just all very, very cold. (p. 5)
John Rockwell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974.
The Austrian writer Peter Handke is … a dramatist of deservedly high international reputation. He has also written volumes of poems and essays and … novels. His third novel, the first to be published in English, was The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), a subtle and fine use of mental disintegration as an analogue of the questions explored by Wittgenstein: connections between one's inner self and the world's knowledge of it.
Handke's fourth novel [Short Letter, Long Farewell] is about mental integration. This short, superbly wrought, understated yet powerful novel can be described, in one aspect, as a scale model of America made with absolute verism but then bathed in a slantwise light that shows the fantasy hidden in the fact. Handke also uses this process with his first-person narrator. At times we feel that the man is imagining some of the things around him, but then there are scale corroborations that confirm that he is only seeing the "imaginary" in the real….
From the beginning of the book, two cultural elements dominate: the Germanic culture of the narrator and American culture—but the latter is encountered in nothing like the Dickens-Trollope-Nabokov visitor's vein. Here the young European brings a good deal of the American culture with him from Europe, chiefly through the media of American pop music and films. He "recognizes" the US, not just because he has been here before but because, since childhood, it has been affecting him. (p. 29)
The book's dual process of reality and … parareality, its duality of European and American cultures are structurally aligned to the dual theme at the center: fear—of existence itself—that the narrator brings from Europe, along with a perspective on that fear that he gains in America…. The second paragraph … begins: "As far as I can remember, I seem to have been born for horror and fear"…. The "comparisons" in America give him a means of dealing with the fact (and terror) of being alive, as if—something like Handke's wonderful play Kaspar—a grown person, previously devoid of language, was here acquiring a means of identifying and ordering environment and experience….
Handke's novel is thus—to use a weary word validly, I hope—existential: the narrator (and in the background his wife) finds modes of living through an extreme situation that summons up everything in him, from his childhood memories of hiding under blankets to his reliance on the "safety" of American rock and film….
Its being is in the way it is written—a book of secrets to which we are made privy, full of sharp visions and of disquieting proportions, disquieting because true. Handke makes his narrator's minor moments empty their contents just as fully as the major ones….
Short Letter, Long Farewell, like The Goalie, can be read too quickly. Like The Goalie it is so intensely distilled that it seems easy to negotiate. Handke doesn't raise his voice or perorate; but every word he speaks has consequences. (p. 30)
Stanley Kauffmann, "It All Happened," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 28, 1974, pp. 29-30.
The Austrian narrator of Short Letter, Long Farewell ends an odyssey across America by paying a visit to director John Ford in Southern California: "He took us to his study and showed us a pile of movie scripts; writers were still sending them to him. 'There are some good stories in there,' he said. 'Simple and clear. The kind of stories we need.'" Few readers are likely to find Peter Handke's novel either simple or clear, but it seems to me precisely the kind we need. (p. 17)
It is important for two reasons: its narrative technique and the landscape of America against which the narrative unfolds. The latter shows us a country we have not seen so clearly since, perhaps, Nathanael West.
In this America—the imitation of a Hollywood fantasy instead of the other way around—a tense drama is given shape. Central to it is the narrator himself, whose reflections suggest the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Philosophy," Wittgenstein wrote in The Blue Book, "… is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us." Handke's protagonist battles against language's tyranny over experience….
Two things are going on in Short Letter, Long Farewell: The hero, desiring pure experience, fights his own intellectual formulations, while Handke, as a writer, combats the novel-as-literary-formulation. At the least, the latter contest is won, and the victory is complete and powerful.
Handke's method—to question the nature of experience, including literary experience—is most economically seen in the poems in Innerworld. But, again, these are no more like what many readers have come to think of as poems than Handke's novel is like an Oates melodrama. Handke cares less about entertaining than changing the reader.
Many of the poems present a series of language-descriptions of "the same thing." "The Three Readings of the Law," for example, begins: "Every citizen has the right—/applause/to develop his personality freely—/applause…." In the poem's second section this idea is rephrased: "Every citizen has the right—/applause/to develop his personality freely within the framework of the law—/exclamations: Hear! Hear!…" And in the final section: "Every citizen has the right/to develop his personality freely within the framework of the law and standards of common decency/… General, stormy, nearly unending applause." Language enslaves us, and the bitter irony is that we can enjoy being enslaved….
What interests Handke, as always, is the relationship between the language and the experience. (p. 18)
Charles Deemer, "Combating the Tyranny of Language," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), November 11, 1974, pp. 17-18.
This too-slender novel [A Sorrow Beyond Dreams] is the story of a mother's life seen through the eyes of her son. A suicide in her early 50s, she had grown to womanhood in Germany in the years just before World War II. She had felt the excitement of the new order under the Nazis, the pleasure of feeling at one with everyone in the nation, of having a purpose. But her nature and the nature of her society were such that she was not long destined to enjoy purpose or happiness of any kind. She was different from those around her, her son thinks: a careful but rebellious woman in ways that showed themselves only rarely. Mr. Handke's portrait is weighty and moving, slender though it is; he has a gift for the concise phrase, for the exact proof that shows, in a line or two, the nature of the character under his scrutiny. This is an astonishingly sad and possibly deceptive work; one has been persuaded that one has seen a life pass by, a life wholly crushed and joyless, when in fact one has seen a summation. But it is persuasion of precisely this sort that is the novelist's business, and Mr. Handke brings it off, desolate though it is. (pp. 27-8)
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 22, 1975.
[Handke's] plays and other works have made him perhaps the most interesting young writer in German today. (p. 20)
[Richard Gilman, in The Making of Modern Drama,] rightly [observes] that Handke is in some way a philosophical dramatist [and] finds him to be very like Wittgenstein. It is true that Wittgenstein called philosophy "a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language," and that Handke shows himself to be very suspicious of language as the means by which we are induced to accept "reality"; indeed he sometimes hates it and speaks of its "idiocy." But these similarities, even if not misleading, are not sufficient to justify the conclusion that "nothing could be closer in spirit" to Wittgenstein than Handke, and I am not surprised to learn that the dramatist has himself rejected the comparison.
Wittgenstein was concerned to avoid errors arising from a failure to understand the workings of language. This is not the same as to wish to "learn to be nauseated by language," as Handke says he does, and as he says we should if we are to achieve consciousness. But Handke's theory is not fully articulated, and there is excuse for confusion. He believes language to be an agent of social oppression and mystification, so there is a political aspect to his theory; but Handke seems to me less interested in this for its own sake than as the symptom of a more radical distress. Language makes us sick, perhaps makes us wicked (his theory is really quite Rousseauistic), and if we can find a single dominant motive in Handke's work it is that as a writer he is always having to love what he abhors. The consequence is that he is a poet above all else, and almost always in a state of fright or horror. (pp. 20-1)
The nausea which he says he feels, and which he compares to the nausea of Sartre's Roquentin about things, arises less from the brutalization of people by (the abuse of) language than from disgust at having to deal with the corrupt and systematic independence of language itself.
Hence for Handke language is what prevents us from being in the world as it is, a set of debilitating fictions. He is faithful to the puritanism of the avant-garde in general when he says that "the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of unnecessary fictions," and his earliest effort was to destroy the fictions that are habitual in the theater. He sought to strip it of all its familiar trappings, going beyond the point where Beckett leaves off, trying to make audiences understand the "produced" quality of what they were seeing, to abuse the theater and the audience too, in so far as it contributed to the theatrical fiction. In his early plays, there is no action, no character, no fourth wall; there are people in a room, and all that is happening is language. Of course the theater can be seen as a model of other forms of social lying, all dependent on language. Attack language, Handke seems to be saying, and you attack the root of evil.
Using language to attack language sets problems Handke is always aware of. His anti-theater is very theatrical, his anti-language has great linguistic and rhetorical resource. The words of his Sprechstücke ("speak-ins") are not, he explains, "pictures"; they point not to a world beyond them "but to the world in the words themselves." This words can do only by insisting on themselves as interesting, as opaque rather than transparent, exactly as the atheatrical quality of his plays requires constant reminders that we are in a theater and nowhere else. The expectations of the audience are constantly maintained by assertions that no conceivable curiosity or expectation of theirs may hope to be satisfied….
By constantly and aggressively challenging expectations Handke makes his anti-play playable, the anti-language speakable, intelligible to a language-corrupted audience. Self-Accusation, a less épatant piece [than Offending the Audience], explains the process of corruption: one is born, one acquires with language desire and anxiety, one commits crimes indiscriminately social and linguistic. Offending the Audience is said to be based on rock style and rhythms; My Foot, My Tutor is all mime. But these are evasions; language, as game or disease, dominates the entire enterprise.
Kaspar consummates Handke's theatrical treatment of this topic. According to the author it is "anarchic, and negates everything it comes across. I don't care whether this yields a positive utopia …". (p. 21)
Handke's poems … are series of sentences bound together by linguistic and rhetorical devices of the kind that are currently interesting practitioners of "text-linguistics" or "discourse-analysis." Above all they are encounters between the poet, a self-confessed traitor to silence, and his enemy the language….
Of the novels The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is most immediately impressive. It is of course obsessed with language and the anxieties it induces; but despite this attention to its own medium of communication it is a highly wrought story. (p. 22)
There is a trick ending, well prepared; and yet we can no more take it as its narrative face value than we can suppose the repetitions of words and motifs have the kind of sense one would expect in a more normal novel. They are indices or symptoms of the language-disease. The book has frontiers with Kafka and with the nouveau roman, but its peculiar pathology makes it decisively different from either….
New readers of Handke might do well to start with [A Sorrow Beyond Dreams], for here his deviations are less puzzling and better marked than in the early plays. Certainly he is not to be thought of only as a playwright; his place is wherever language needs to be examined or purged. He has the fertility and the resource to maintain himself alive in this extraordinary combat. Perhaps Handke is a little preoccupied with his own originality, and with the specificity of his own terrors. He nevertheless offers, with prodigality, evidence that the obsessions of modernism still afford the possibility of greatness. (p. 23)
Frank Kermode, "The Model of a Modern Modernist," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), May 1, 1975, pp. 20-3.
Among contemporary writers, Samuel Beckett has made an honorable specialty of composing a text and then cutting it, or shrinking it, beyond bare bone to the marrow, in the end producing something that feels like an irreducible minimum but still evokes its ampler versions. Beckett's The Lost Ones was one such text; Peter Handke's new book [A Sorrow Beyond Dreams] is another, though Handke offers the reader considerably more than Beckett in the way of colorful phenomena to hold on to and linger over. Easier to read, it has something of the same self-generalizing force as The Lost Ones, however; and the dreadful poignancy of the theme—the suicide of the narrator's mother—suffuses a maze of particulars which both scald and sustain him. A gentle, candid searching-out of her life develops into a tough inquiry as to what a writer, and a compulsive one at that, can make of grief, shock, and indignation.
One answer is: as short and as loaded a book as possible; no fat, no longueurs, no self-indulgent melodrama. Another is to recognize in the act of writing, as Handke's narrator (Handke himself?) does, that objectification or getting something off one's chest is impossible. Objectified, the hurt becomes a groomed presence that is the more upsetting for being out in the open. One never gets the text off one's chest. As the narrator says toward the end, "It is not true that writing has helped me … the story has not ceased to preoccupy me." Earlier, he explains that he "experienced moments of extreme speechlessness and needed to formulate them," only to discover at the halfway point the twin evils of over- and understating. These "two dangers" slow down his writing "because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance." In fact, as he says, this story is "really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror," and it's impossible to read it without sensing in every sentence an ontological vertigo that makes him write only a bit more than it doesn't. From that faint but sovereign impetus comes a text that feels wrenched-out, choked on itself, self-rebuked….
It is a profoundly affecting story, counterpointed throughout by the narrator's offended hesitancy and his weird but utterly comprehensible pride in what she's done. A giggle here, a self-conscious image there ("In these tempests of dread, I become magnetic like a decaying animal"), only sharpen the impact. Some day, the narrator promises himself, he'll write about the whole thing in greater detail. One hopes not. Subtitled as it is—"A Life Story"—A Sorrow Beyond Dreams not only implies an alternative genre, the death story, but also crams two lives into one death. Brief as it is, the text seems radioactive, professionally unprofessional in its abrupt, blurted pain. The writer is almost as much at a disadvantage as, say, a lion-tamer or a TV repairman who has to express grief entirely in the idiom of his calling. A better developed, less panicky, book wouldn't be half so disturbing.
As it is, we have here some mordant death-chamber music from an Austrian writer who gets better all the time…. The titles of two previous Handke novels, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Short Letter, Long Farewell, strangely prefigure this new book: it's not often you find the elegist's anxiety at the elegy so naked and concise.
Paul West, "Mother's Days," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 11, 1975, p. 2.