Peter Handke Handke, Peter (Vol. 135) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Handke 1942-

German dramatist, novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, memoirist, screenwriter, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Handke's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 10, 15, and 38.

Since his debut as a bold experimental dramatist in the mid-1960s, Handke has earned acclaim as a major European literary figure and one of the preeminent German-language writers of his generation. A leader in the international postmodern movement, Handke consciously avoids literary or theatrical conventions in his work. Influenced by the writings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the French structuralists, Handke's own writings examine the influence of language on the formation of personal identity as well as the problems and possibilities that arise from language. Despite his trenchant attacks on the oppressive force of social and cultural preconceptions, Handke rejects the combination of politics and literature and refuses to use his art as a platform for proselytizing. Though much of his writing is drawn from personal experience, the presentation of his ideas is often decidedly abstract, especially as he decontextualizes familiar concepts and words to probe subjective reality.

Biographical Information

Handke was born on December 6, 1942, in the Austrian village of Griffen. Both Handke's father and stepfather were German soldiers. His mother, like most of the villagers, was part Slovenian. Handke won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school located in Tanzenberg and then transferred to a gymnasium (a European secondary school) in Klagenfurt. He studied law at the University of Graz from 1961 to 1965. While there, he worked with writers affiliated with the avant-garde Forum Stadtpark. After he published his first novel, Die Hornissen (1966; The Hornets), Handke chose not to take the necessary exams to complete his law degree. In 1966, he married Libgart Schwarz, an actress with whom he has a daughter; they later separated, and Handke raised their daughter himself. In 1966, Handke also participated in an event that defined his literary career. He attended a convention at Princeton University of the Gruppe 47, the most influential association of German writers at the time. On the last day of the meeting, Handke, speaking from the floor, attacked the lectures and discussions he had attended. He criticized members of Gruppe 47 for their use of fictional and dramatic conventions. He insisted that literature is made up of language and not of that which language describes. In addition to its likely contribution to the decline of the Gruppe 47, Handke's highly publicized critique of his literary forebears established him as the enfant terrible of a new generation of European writers. He further declared his artistic assault on social and literary conventions in a 1967 essay entitled “Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms” (“I am an Inhabitant of the Ivory Tower”). Handke's first drama, Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience), created a sensation when it premiered during a week of experimental theater in Frankfurt. Two years later, he earned international recognition as a playwright with a production of Kaspar (1968). Handke's first collection of poetry, Die Innenwelt der Auenwelt der Innenwelt (1969; The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld), appeared soon thereafter. A year later he won acclaim as a novelist with Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). Since then, Handke has continued to produce additional volumes of highly regarded fiction, drama, essays, and poetry at a remarkable rate. In 1988, he was awarded the Der Grosse Oesterreichische Staatspreis, Austria's highest literary honor.

Major Works

While having demonstrated his skill in many genres, Handke is known best for his drama and fiction. Handke captured the attention of audiences and critics with his first drama, Offending the Audience, in which he employed minimalist techniques to call into question traditional bourgeois theater. The play opens with four actors announcing that the anticipated dramatic performance is canceled, and instead they begin to discuss the nature of theater. The actors' discussion then turns to the spectators themselves, whom the actors alternately compliment and insult. The drama culminates in verbal abuse directed at both the audience and theatrical conventions. Handke referred to this drama as a Sprechstück, or “spoken piece,” the first of several he wrote during the late 1960s, including Selbstbezichtigung (1966; Self-Accusation), Weissagung (1966; Prophesy), Hilferufe (1967; Calling for Help), and Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969; My Foot My Tutor). While Handke's Sprechstücke eschewed plot, characterization, and dramatic structure, the focus of these plays is language and how language determines an individual's identity. To radically underscore this point, for example, My Foot My Tutor is performed without any spoken dialogue. A later drama, Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander der wuβtten (1992; The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other) also uses no dialogue. The play consists only of stage directions and involves some 400 actors who traverse the stage, gesticulating and performing a variety of quotidian and symbolic acts. The role of language in the creation of one's social identity is central to Kaspar, Handke's first full-length play. This work, another Sprechstück, is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a developmentally delayed teenage orphan in nineteenth-century Nuremberg. In Handke's version of this oft-told tale, Kaspar is indoctrinated with social precepts as he learns how to speak. Kaspar's entry into a corrupted society signals his fall from a state of natural grace.

Of Handke's first two novels, The Hornets and Der Hausierer (1967; The Peddler), repetition, minute descriptions, and atmospheres of anxiety and violence reveal the influence of the French nouveau roman, especially as practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Handke's preoccupation with language is also evident in the critically important novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. In this book, Bloch, a construction worker, loses his job following the misinterpretation of a gesture. Bloch begins to lose his grasp of ordinary conversation and then reality. His paranoiac state culminates with the motiveless murder of a girl. Connecting language with personal identity, the book examines the alienation that results from a failure to reconcile one's inner reality to the powerful social reality. Handke explores similar themes in Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell), which involves an Austrian writer who flees his estranged wife and embarks on a parodic coast-to-coast trek across the United States. Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling) centers upon an Austrian diplomat who dreams that he is a murderer and attempts to authenticate his meaningless life, only to experience empathy for his fellow man which diverts him from suicide. Die Linkshändige Frau (1976; The Left-Handed Woman) features a thirty-year-old female protagonist who defies the dire expectations of others after parting from her husband and beginning her life anew. During this time, Handke also published Das Gewicht der Welt (1977; The Weight of the World), a journal of the years 1975-77 that consists of Handke's observations and reflections on his life and artistic aims while living in Paris with his daughter. Handke subsequently wrote the Langsame Heimkehr (Slow Homecoming) tetralogy, comprising the novels Langsame Heimkehr (1979; The Long Way Around), Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980; The Lesson of Sainte Victoire), and Kindergeschichte (1981; Child Story), and the dramatic poem Über die Dörfer (1981). Collectively, these works mark an important transition for Handke, who began to move away from deconstructive studies of fear and alienation to focus instead on the ameliorative properties of subjective transformation and mystical transcendence through altered states of perception. As a leading proponent of the “New Subjectivity” movement in West German literature during the 1970s and 1980s, Handke advocated a withdrawal into the liberating inner world of thought and being as an antidote to the oppressive, coercive external forces of society.

Der Chinese des Schmerzes (1983; Across) involves protagonist Andreas Loser, a teacher of classical languages and amateur archaeologist, who spots a man spray-painting swastikas on trees. He throws a stone at the graffitist and kills him, an impulsive act that reveals the dark depths of his nature and alludes to Austria's fascist guilt. Die Wiederholung (1986; Repetition) recounts the journey of a young man who leaves his Austrian home for Yugoslavia in search of his Slovenian heritage and long-lost older brother. He brings with him a Slovenian dictionary and an old notebook belonging to his missing brother, which, together, allude to the problem of language and translation. Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers (1987; The Afternoon of a Writer), based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 short story “Afternoon of an Author,” involves a nameless writer who, while occupying his apartment and wandering about the city during the course of the day, records his observations and reflects on the anxiety and isolation necessary for creative inspiration. Die Abwesenheit (1987; Absence), an essentially plotless novel, involves four generic characters—the old man, the soldier, the gambler, and the girl—who embark on a walking tour which, in its randomness, represents an anti-quest novel. Like Absence, the play Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum sonoren Land (1990; Voyage to the Sonorous Land) involves a cast of purely emblematic characters—including the actor and actress, the old couple, the local man, and the wide-eyed man—whose journeys and metamorphoses involve ventures into myth, history, and various psychological states. An even more complex consideration of reality is displayed in what may be considered Handke's magnum opus, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (1994; My Year in the No-Man's Bay). In this massive novel, protagonist Gregor Keuschnig, an Austrian lawyer who shares many biographical details with Handke, has moved to an ordinary Parisian suburb to write a book that turns out to be the novel being read. In his writing, the lawyer explores his isolation as well as the connection to others that he experiences. In order to make sense of his situation, he thinks of distant friends in Japan, Scotland, and Austria, as well as his son, who is traveling to Greece.

Handke's recent novel, In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus (1998), centers upon a lonely pharmacist who leaves his home and work in suburban Salzburg to embark on a journey with a champion skier and formerly respected poet whom he meets at a restaurant. Handke has also published several volumes of experimental essays, which he terms versuche (translated literally as “attempts”). These self-styled prose pieces, an amalgam of poetic meditation and metaphysical reflection, are contained in Versuch über die Müdigkeit (1989), Versuch über die Jukebox (1990), and Versuch über den geglückten Tag (1991), subsequently collected and translated in The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling (1994). In the genre of nonfiction, Handke's best-known work is Wunschloses Unglück (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams). In this memoir, written in the months following his mother's suicide, Handke not only recalls his mother's life but addresses the difficulty of treating her life as a literary subject while at the same time maintaining her individuality. In contrast to this highly personal work is Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau (1996; A Journey to the Rivers), in which he recounts his travels to Serbia in the fall of 1995 and relates his anger over Western media accounts of the Croatian and Bosnian wars. In addition to calling into question journalistic reporting, Handke blames the Yugoslavian crisis not on Serbia but on Germany, which, the author maintains, prematurely recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia.

Critical Reception

The interest of Handke's work to critics has strengthened over time. While he is consistently praised for his evocative explorations of language, perception, and the limits of expression, some of his more experimental works, though appreciated for their ambition, have been judged overly cerebral and abstract to the point of inaccessibility. His first drama, Offending the Audience, not only thrilled the audiences that were the object of Handke's abuse, but also reviewers. Praised for its attack on conventional notions of the theater, the play has exerted a significant influence on contemporary drama. Kaspar, the last of Handke's Sprechstücke, has been cited as one of the most important works of post-World War II German literature. Even when the play's thesis—that socialization through the teaching of language robs a person of his individuality—was rejected, the drama was commended for its intellectual rigor and overall dramatic intensity. The success of Kaspar established Handke's international reputation and helped silence critics who questioned his qualifications after he spoke out against Gruppe 47. Handke was recognized as an important German novelist with the publication of his third novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The book was praised for its examination of how language can influence the mind and for its use of madness as a metaphor for the writer's own difficulties. Critics note that Handke's later works change focus from the dilemma of language to the potential inherent in language. This shift in emphasis is perhaps most evident in what reviewers have judged to be the author's most significant novel, My Year in the No-Man's Bay. A great public success in German-speaking countries, the novel also fared well with critics. Reviewers praised the work for the complexity of its prose, its deft handling of the first-person narrative device, and the abundant variety of its themes. Critical response to his earlier memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was similarly positive, as Handke was commended for both the sensitivity and objectivity with which he recounted his mother's life. The reaction to A Journey to the Rivers, however, could hardly have been more different. While the book was a popular success among many Europeans, Handke was strongly denounced by reviewers for writing as an apologist for Serbian hegemony. Despite the controversy surrounding this work, Handke continues to be regarded as one of the most challenging and important literary figures in the contemporary German-speaking world.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Die Hornissen [The Hornets] (novel) 1966

Publikumsbeschimpfung [Offending the Audience] (drama) 1966

Selbstbezichtigung [Self-Accusation] (drama) 1966

Weissagung [Prophesy] (drama) 1966

Begrüssung des Aufsichtrats: Prosatexte (short stories) 1967

Der Hausierer [The Peddler] (novel) 1967

Hilferufe [Calling for Help] (drama) 1967

Hörspiel (radio play) 1968

Kaspar (drama) 1968

Deutsche Gedichte (poetry) 1969

Hörspiel 2...

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Michael Hays (essay date January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Peter Handke and the End of the ‘Modern,’” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 346-66.

[In the following essay, Hays examines the theoretical and aesthetic principles governing Handke's critical perspectives and dramatic works, particularly his effort to subvert the conventions of modern drama. According to Hays, “Handke's goal is to make art out of artifice while revealing the artifice of that art.”]

In order fully to understand Peter Handke's contribution to modern European drama, one needs not only to locate his work in relation to that of other contemporary playwrights (this has been done often enough), but also to come to...

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June Schlueter (essay date January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Politics and Poetry: Peter Handke's They Are Dying Out,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 339-45.

[In the following essay, Schlueter examines the deep-seated themes of individual loss and alienation that underlie the political ideology of They Are Dying Out.]

In 1974, a year after its publication, They Are Dying Out was produced at Zürich’s Theatre am Neumarkt and Berlin’s Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer. The Schaubühne, like Frankfurt’s Theater am Turm, favored politically involved plays with a leftist orientation,1 and three years earlier it had shown considerable hesitation with respect to The Ride...

(The entire section is 3516 words.)

Bruce Cook (review date 26 August 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sorrows of Young Writers,” in Washington Post Book World, August 26, 1984, p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, Cook offers a positive assessment of The Weight of the World.]

The avant-garde thrives in Germany and Austria as nowhere else in Europe. Solemn, strenuously intellectual and glumly determined not to entertain, the literary artists who are best known and most discussed go their own way, fiercely independent of all and everything except the state cultural agencies whose subsidies support them. Not that they would stoop to make willing compromise to the fatherland that feeds them—oh no, they mock the Germans and the Austrians unmercifully!—but...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

D. J. Enright (review date 14 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Special Subjects,” in The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1986, pp. 37-8.

[In the following excerpt, Enright offers an unfavorable assessment of Across.]

… The title [of Across] alludes to the novel’s leitmotif, and the subject of several expert mini-essays: the threshold. “Discovering and describing thresholds became a passion with me,” albeit the Austrian narrator, by name Andreas Loser, does nothing so crude as to cross, in any discernible manner, any discernible boundary.

Possibly the narrator of Handke's earlier and more animated novel, Short Letter, Long Farewell, offers the tip when he explains that, in...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Linda C. DeMeritt (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Peter Handke: From Alienation to Orientation,” in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1987, pp. 53-71.

[In the following essay, DeMeritt examines the transition from alienation and fear to harmony and happiness in Handke's literary works, drawing attention to such thematic developments in Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung and Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire.]

The extreme subjectivity which characterizes the works of Peter Handke in the late sixties and mid-seventies is based upon an experience of alienation. Objective predetermined systems and explanations are no longer valid, and the subject is propelled into an inner world of question and...

(The entire section is 8113 words.)

Michael Linstead (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Peter Handke,” in The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant, Oswald Wolff, 1987, pp. 155-70.

[In the following essay, Linstead provides an overview of Handke's literary career and discusses the major themes, artistic preoccupations, and narrative strategies of his novels.]

Peter Handke burst upon the West German literary scene in 1966, not with a novel or a play, although Die Hornissen (1966) and Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966) had already been accepted for publication, but with a tirade. At the meeting of the Group 47 in Princeton (USA) that year, Handke stood up and vehemently attacked the literature he had heard read. This caused a...

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Gail Pool (review date 8 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Tale of Rediscovery and Renewal,” in The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, Pool offers a favorable assessment of Repetition.]

In Peter Handke's previous novel, Across, the central character asks whether “repetition,” so often viewed as negative, might instead be viewed as good. “Could not one … speak of refreshing repetition as opposed to wearisome repetition? … The possibility of repetition as opposed to the danger of repetition?” he says. “Here is my other word for repetition: ‘rediscovery.’”

Rediscovery and renewal are at the heart of Handke's new novel...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Paul Oldfield (review date 5 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Magic Touch,” in New Statesman & Society, August 5, 1988, p. 38.

[In the following review, Oldfield offers a positive assessment of Repetition.]

In Peter Handke's new novel, his young narrator describes a painter retouching an unseen mural inside a wayside shrine. He resolves to write “so silently … without ulterior motive of any kind. Whatever this future work might be, it would have to be comparable to this painting, which ennobled the painter and with him the chance witness”. This sanctified, secluded site of creation is just the latest variant on Handke's belief that literature belongs in an “ivory tower”, that it can be an autonomous...

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Ursula Hegi (review date 16 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of What, Then, Shall He Write?,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 16, 1989, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Hegi offers a positive assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

Language functions as barrier and bridge in Peter Handke's The Afternoon of a Writer, a fascinating exploration of a man who has distanced himself from his life and, therefore, from the material he draws from in his writing. Though aware of sensuous details in his environment, he remains emotionally detached. His major connection to the world is through language, a sequence of words which—he reminds himself frequently—he has lost contact with before.


(The entire section is 1050 words.)

Mark Kamine (review date 2-16 October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tender Is His Plight,” in The New Leader, October 2-16, 1989, pp. 18-9.

[In the following review, Kamine offers a positive evaluation of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

This short novel [The Afternoon of a Writer] was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Afternoon of an Author.” That story describes one uneventful day in its protagonist’s life, episodically tracking his movements through Baltimore and recording his memory-laden reflections. It opens with the author feeling “better than he had for many weeks” and ends—after he suffers a crisis of confidence—with his resolution to go on writing. The piece is alternately ironic and elegiac....

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

John Leonard (review date 4 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Afternoon of a Writer, in The Nation, December 4, 1989, pp. 694-5.

[In the following review, Leonard offers a positive assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer.]

Peter Handke's early novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and his semifictionalized memoir of his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, were both fiery gems. Since then, the Austrian novelist, poet, playwright and translator seems to me to have been painting himself into a corner and then complaining that he couldn’t move. His books got thinner and more exasperating. So what if language itself were the secret hero of listless narratives like A...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

John Updike (review date 25 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Writer-Consciousness,” in The New Yorker, December 25, 1989, pp. 103-8.

[In the following excerpt, Updike offers a tempered assessment of The Afternoon of a Writer, which he notes may appear “pompous” and “claustrophobic” to American readers despite its “phenomenal intensity.”]

Harold Ross, the founding editor of this weekly, was wary of, among many other things, “writer-consciousness,” and would mark phrases and sentences wherein, to his sensibility, the writer, like some ugly giant squid concealed beneath the glassy impersonality of the prose, was threatening to surface. Writing, that is, like our grosser animal functions, could...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 100-1.

[In the following review, Skwara complains that Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land tends to be abstract and inaccessible.]

Peter Handke's newest book [Das Spiel vom Fragen oder Die Reise zum Sonoren Land] is a play, although it seems difficult to imagine the work successfully staged and performed. It is too cerebral and symbolistic to captivate a viewing audience with ease, I fear. Is it then a text destined rather to be read despite the distribution of roles and a cast of characters...

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Versuch über die Müdigkeit, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 460-1.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of Versuch über die Müdigkeit.]

What a wise and beautiful book, quite possibly one of Peter Handke's major works. Did we, the tired ones, ever know or suspect how much variety and wealth there is to being tired, how much power of innovation is hiding behind fatigue? We will find out and come out of it rejuvenated, or at least reconciled and comforted with our frailties. Versuch über die Müdigkeit is an essay—or is it a story, or mere poetry?—that we want to read slowly,...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Ursula Hegi (review date 1 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Only Disconnect,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 1, 1990, p. 3.

[In the following review, Hegi complains that Absence lacks characterization and creates intentional linguistic gaps.]

The four nameless characters in Peter Handke's latest novel are like paper dolls, suspended against a bleak sky in a chain of silhouettes that block the scant light. Told in a strangely passive voice that appears to rise from a void, Absence is not only about the condition of being absent—it also demonstrates the condition through the absence of words, connections and characterization.

Though Handke's characters are indifferent and...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Hugo Caviola (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ding-Bild-Schrift: Peter Handke's Slow Homecoming to a ‘Chinese’ Austria,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 381-94.

[In the following essay, Caviola examines the development and significance of Handke's increasingly sober and subjective tone in Langsame Heimkehr and Der Chinese des Schmerzes. Caviola argues that “Handke's solemn tone cannot be taken at face value but has to be perceived in the context of an aesthetic that is allegorically inscribed in the text.”]


“Niemand, fast niemand, kann oder mag Handke noch weiter auf dem Wege folgen, den dieser nun schon seit...

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Eva-Maria Metcalf (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Challenging the Arrogance of Power with the Arrogance of Impotence: Peter Handke's Somnambulistic Energy,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 369-79.

[In the following essay, Metcalf examines Handke's preoccupation with the aesthetic and contextual properties of language, particularly Handke's effort to purify language of its conventional meanings and associations in order to break free from “rationalistic discourse.” Metcalf writes, [Handke's] “impotent power is that of an alert dreamer, who reifies through illusion, who reveals by obscuring and enveiling words and concepts, and who gains in presence by withdrawing.”]


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Michael Hofmann (review date 24 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Superior Reality,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following review, Hofmann offers a positive assessment of Absence.]

Peter Handke's descriptions of reality are of two kinds: some are of superior accuracy, some describe a superior reality. After an initial struggle, Absence settles down as a book of the second type. In German, it was subtitled Ein Märchen. The English publisher’s blurb works out an ambitious platform for it as “a narrative scrutiny of the absence which lies at the heart of human identity and endeavour”, but to me it seems a book entirely without and against reason: it could have been any...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

J. J. White (review date 4 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Elusive Perfect Day,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1991, p. 34.

[In the following review, White offers an unfavorable assessment of Versuch über den geglückten Tag.]

Peter Handke's new prose-work is the third in a series of “Versuche”, essays-cum-experimental stylistic explorations of a theme, which have recently become his preferred mode. Versuch über die Müdigkeit (1989), on “tiredness”, marked a first flirtation with the form. An amalgam of snatches of recollected experience, reflective passages, random aperçus and tentative jottings about the nature and functions of tiredness, it involved both a new...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Versuch über den geglückten Tag, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 716-7.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive evaluation of Versuch über den geglückten Tag.]

Not one word on the dust jacket, not the merest hint tells the prospective reader what kind of book Versuch über den geglückten Tag is. There is no need, since Peter Handke presents us with his third Versuch. His two previous books, Versuch über die Müdigkeit and Versuch über die Jukebox (see WLT 64:3, p. 460, and 65:2, p. 301 respectively), have established a new dimension of literature’s realistic...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Gitta Honegger (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seeing Through the Eyes of the Word,” in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1993, pp. 87-92.

[In the following essay, Honegger examines Handke's approach to the problem of language and verbal expression in his dramatic works and prose experiments, particularly the use—or absence—of words to reveal both the limitations and interpretative potential of language and its associated meanings.]

… As though everyone everywhere in the world, day in, day out, always had his pictorial mission: the mission to be a picture to others: the woman walks “past the train station, along a puddle collecting the falling rain, as ‘the housewife on her way to...

(The entire section is 3401 words.)

Thomas H. Falk (review date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Die Theaterstücke, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, p. 604.

[In the following review, Falk assesses Die Theaterstücke and Handke's literary development.]

The meteoric ascent of the enfant terrible of the German literary establishment, Peter Handke, commenced in 1966. Only twenty-three years old in April of that year, he openly challenged the elite writers of Gruppe 47, then meeting at Princeton University. Their writing, he maintained, was an impotent literature of mere description; he would investigate all possibilities and types or forms of representing reality, contending that using the same form a second...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Langsam im Schatten, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, p. 820.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of Langsam im Schatten.]

Peter Handke's most recent book, containing essays, speeches, reviews, and critical comments, is by no means a minor but a major work. Its richness, diversity, and depth confirm—differently yet almost more so than narrative prose publications of recent years—the author as one of the most interested, most informed, most concerned, most universal literary figures alive today. Needless to say, all these qualities mentioned are referred to as greatness when found in a...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Richard Arthur Firda (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Prose: Meditative Fiction,” in Peter Handke, Twayne, 1993, pp. 121-41.

[In the following essay, Firda provides an overview of the major themes, narrative presentation, and artistic concerns in Der Chinese des Schmerzes, Die Wiederholung, Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers, and Die Abwesenheit.]

Andreas Loser, the symbolic narrator-protagonist of Handke's 1983 novel Der Chinese des Schmerzes (Across) is a brooding, mediative teacher of classical languages at a school in the suburbs of Salzburg.1 Loser, as his name connotes in English translation, is an outsider and loner, a type familiar to readers of Angst and...

(The entire section is 8736 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 16 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 16 September 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, in Times Literary Supplement, September 16, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, the critic offers an unfavorable assessment of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.]

Edinburgh audiences have long since realized that the centre of energy and the avant-garde on the European stage is in non-scripted and often non-verbal performance. It is a lesson that could have been learned in recent Festivals from, for example, Els Comediants, or Teatr Nowy and a whole range of other Polish companies, or from the Compagnie Jerome...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Gitta Honegger (review date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language and Reality,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LXII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 314, 316, 318-20, 322, 324, 326.

[In the following review, Honegger analyzes Handke's literary and aesthetic preoccupations in The Jukebox and Other Essays on Storytelling.]

Claude Lanzman, explaining his approach to filmmaking, quoted from an uncredited source: “When I have the answers, I write an essay, When I have the questions, I write a novel.” This in a nutshell sums up the problem with the English title given to three exquisite prose pieces by Peter Handke, presented in one volume as Essays about Story Telling: On Tiredness, The Jukebox, and The...

(The entire section is 2961 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 572-3.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a favorable assessment of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht.]

It can be argued and readily proven on the basis of the available body of world literature that a writer’s or poet’s greatness lies in his ability to renew himself constantly, thus surprising not only readers but language itself with increasingly innovative ways to describe both outer and inner world, while the basic artistic and human vision remains loyally intact. Seen this way, the ever-surprising Peter Handke is one of the greatest living...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Edward Timms (review date 26 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Words and Serbs,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1996, p. 29.

[In the following review, Timms finds shortcomings in Handke's criticism of Western media coverage of the Balkan war in Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina.]

Peter Handke made his name in the 1960s through a critique of received ideas, deconstructing the cliché transmitted by education and the media in dazzling disquisitions like Selbstbezichtigung (Self-Indictment) and Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience). In his most recent book, he returns to these themes with a vengeance, focusing on the distortions arising from media...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 147-8.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski commends Handke's intent but finds his efforts to provide an impartial view of Serbia unsuccessful in Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien.]

Peter Handke's controversial essay [Eine winterliche Reise], which first appeared in January 1996 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, is yet another manifestation of his continuing fascination with the former Yugoslavia. Ten...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Tom Sellar (review date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Question Marks,” in Theater, Vol. 27, Nos. 2-3, 1997, pp. 161-3.

[In the following review, Sellar offers a positive evaluation of Voyage to the Sonorous Land and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.]

Thirty years after his disgust with the straitjackets of language and received ideas led him to write his polemic-based Sprechstücke, Peter Handke has arrived at a surprising paradox. Despite his enduring conviction that language is to blame for the narrow culture of his native Austria, Handke's own poetic gifts have multiplied. Now the most important European writer in any medium, Handke forges exquisite dialogue and turns of phrase, and...

(The entire section is 1402 words.)

David Rieff (review date 12 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Book, Long Apology,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1997, p. 12.

[In the following review, Rieff offers a negative evaluation of A Journey to the Rivers, which he calls a “contemptible book.”]

For all the divisions that became apparent between their nations once the former Yugoslavia descended into war in 1991, Western European and North American intellectuals were remarkably united in their responses to the catastrophe. In this way, as in so many others, the Croatian and Bosnian wars seem to have recapitulated the experience of the Spanish Civil War more than half a century earlier.

Then as now, the...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 584-5.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski offers a negative assessment of Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise.]

Why did Peter Handke write this little book [Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise]? The controversial work to which it is a “summer supplement”—his Winterliche Reise … oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (1996; see WLT 71:1, p. 147)—had a stated purpose. It amounted to a plea for impartiality and tolerance toward the Serbs, who, Handke believed, were being treated...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date Winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 123-4.

[In the following review, Skwara offers a positive assessment of In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus.]

Each one of Peter Handke's books—or so it seems in retrospect—has taught its readers a lesson. Where the author’s youthful works contained lessons in a daredevil kind of genius, extending and jumping limits and borders of language, content and style, his later books offered firm proof of the possibility for renewal and transformation. Now, with his latest novel [In einer dunklen Nacht ging...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Thomas McGonigle (review date 20 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On a Blue Note,” in Washington Post Book World, September 20, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following review, McGonigle offers positive assessments of My Year in the No-Man's Bay and Once Again for Thucydides.]

Peter Handke's literary career has a pleasingly ambitious feel to it, and over the years most of this Austrian writer’s many books and plays have been well translated and published in America.

Early Handke books such as the startling road novel Short Letter, Long Farewell, about a journey from Providence, R.I., to John Ford’s house in California, and A Sorrow Beyond Words, a meditation on the suicide of his mother,...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

William H. Gass (review date 29 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Drizzle, Birdcall, Leaf Fall,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 29, 1998, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Gass offers a positive evaluation of My Year in the No-Man's Bay.]

When the Seine leaves Paris for the Channel, it makes several large loops while being forced by physics to skirt high ground. The first of these “bays” contains the hills of the Seine, low waves across a crescent-shaped region upon which the suburbs have intruded, but where large forests still remain, and also an area that shelters an airfield frequently bombed during World War II, so that craters can be seen on its many wooded walks. La Hauts-de-Seine halfmoons a...

(The entire section is 2745 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bernofsky, Susan. “‘The Threshold Is the Source’: Handke's Der Chinese des Schmerzes.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXII, No. 1 (Fall 1990): 58-65.

Provides analysis of Der Chinese des Schmerzes, drawing attention to the presence of “thresholds,” or in-between states of emotional and psychological change, where the narrator's shifting perceptions are played out for the reader.

Chernaik, Judith. “Green Thoughts.” Times Literary Supplement (14 July 1989): 775.

Faults the excessive length and moralizing of The Long Way Around.


(The entire section is 610 words.)