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.
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.
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.
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.