Peter Handke Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Peter Handke first achieved literary celebrity on the basis of his avant-garde plays, he is best known as a writer of fiction, having largely abandoned the theater early in his career. Most of Handke’s novels are quite short (several are of novella length), and their language is highly concentrated. As critic June Schlueter notes, while Handke’s awareness of the linguistic medium has remained constant, there has been a development in his fiction from an early emphasis on the limits of language and the failure of communication to an emphasis on the “redemptive power of poetic language.”

In addition to his novels, Handke has published several books, which are often classified as nonfiction but which he himself regards as of a piece with his fiction. Among these are the much-praised novel Wunschloses Unglück (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1975), written in response to his mother’s suicide, and Das Gewicht der Welt (1977; The Weight of the World, 1984). Handke has published a small number of short stories, essays, and several slim collections of poetry; he has also written radio plays and has written or co-written screenplays and otherwise collaborated on the making of several films. Since the 1980’s, Handke has translated many works of French, Slovenian, English, and Greek writers, among them Marguerite Duras, Bruno Bayen, Aeschylus, and William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite his rather sparse output, Peter Handke is widely regarded as an important and influential contemporary dramatist. He became one of the first of the generation of German speakers born during World War II to achieve prominence. Unlike many other postwar German and Austrian writers, he does not hark back to the Nazi era, nor does he concern himself with “the past” in any usual way. At the same time, his plays do not follow the example of Bertolt Brecht, so pervasive in the postwar German theater: Handke’s plays are not theatrical in the ways Brecht’s are, nor do they have Brecht’s scope. Rather, they seek to define language as act and language as power. Three of Handke’s plays, Offending the Audience, Kaspar, and The Ride Across Lake Constance, have entered the international repertory; these works made him the most prominent German-language playwright of the 1970’s. While Handke was awarded several notable honors and awards—for example, the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize in 1967 and the Schiller Prize in 1972—he refused or returned other prizes, including the Büchner Prize (won in 1973, returned in 1999) and the Kafka Prize (refused in 1979). He accepted the Salzburg Literature Prize in 1986.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Peter Handke (HAHNT-kuh) made his debut on the German stage with the drama Publikumsbeschimpfung (pr., pb. 1966; Offending the Audience, 1969). His subsequent dramatic works include Hilferufe (pr. 1967; Calling for Help, 1970), Kaspar (pr., pb. 1968; English translation, 1969), Das Mündel will Vormund sein (pr., pb. 1969; My Foot My Tutor, 1970), Quodlibet (pr. 1970; English translation, 1976), Der Ritt über den Bodensee (pr., pb. 1971; The Ride Across Lake Constance, 1972), Über die Dörfer (pr., pb. 1982; Among the Villages, 1984), Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wussten (1992; The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, 1996), and Untertagblues: Ein Stationendrama (pb. 2003).

After publishing several radio plays in the early 1970’s, Handke wrote a film script, Chronik der laufenden Ereignisse (1971; chronicle of occurring events), which he also produced, and a television script, Falsche Bewegung (1975; wrong move). He has collaborated frequently with film producer and director Wim Wenders and was the screenwriter (with Wenders) for Wenders’s 1987 film, Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire). An early collection of short stories, Begrüssung des Aufsichtsrats (1967; saluting the trustees), should also be noted. Handke’s collection of poetry Die Innenwelt der Aussenwelt der Innenwelt (1969; The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld, 1974) gives poetic expression to his recurring concern with language as its phrases, in their description of the outer world, simultaneously reflect the inner world or consciousness of the author and vice versa. Handke has also raised these concerns in several of his critical essays, notably Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms (1972; I am an inhabitant of the ivory tower).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

With the sudden and unprecedented advent of Peter Handke on the German literary scene in 1966, the era of postwar German literature, which had tried to come to terms with World War II and the Nazi past, reached its conclusion. Handke is the representative of a new generation of German writers for whom the Federal Republic of Germany constitutes the societal reality that furnishes the material and the conflicts that inform their works. Born in Austria, then reared in East Berlin for some years before returning to Austria, Handke regards the new Germany with the eyes of an outsider who nevertheless possesses an insider’s intimate knowledge of his subject. Handke’s stance as an outsider is reflected in his disregard for social problems, unless they reflect his primary concern for language: In the midst of the student revolts of the late 1960’s, he became one of the first writers in West Germany to emphasize that changes in the political realities of the new republic would not come about through protest resolutions or political manifestos but rather through the exact use of the word, the honesty of literary expression, and the truth of fiction (as Manfred Durzak notes). The majority of Handke’s fellow West German writers recognized the validity of his claim only after the fall of Willy Brandt as chancellor in 1974.

Handke’s outsider’s attempts at registering German societal developments and their effects on the individual are in some ways mirrored on a larger and certainly less intellectual scale by frequent media attempts in Germany in which the social and economic ills of that society are blamed on the United States, from which they have supposedly been imported. In contrast, Handke traces the ills that afflict his characters to the larger ills of German society. Under these circumstances, it becomes noteworthy that in two of his novels, Short Letter, Long...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

To what extent are Peter Handke’s political views, or his expression of them, relevant to a consideration of his writing?

Handke’s plays provide little in the way of stage directions, apparently leaving staging considerations up to individual directors. What elements of his plays are necessary? What elements are legitimately open to interpretation?

Handke often seems to ask more questions than he answers. What are the effects of this technique on the reader?

As a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, Handke engages in a wide variety of literary pursuits. Where does he fit in a discussion of writers who pursue multiple genres?

Some of Handke’s work is overtly autobiographical, some partially so. How important is it to understand the author if we are to understand his writing?

Handke is known for the precision of his language, even as he discusses inarticulateness. Discuss this apparent anomaly. How, if at all, is it relevant that English-language readers will encounter his work only in translation?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Coury, David N. and Frank Pilipp. The Works of Peter Handke: International Perspectives. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2005. Offers analysis and interpretations of Handke’s poems, plays and essays.

DeMeritt, Linda. New Subjectivity and Prose Forms of Alienation: Peter Handke and Botho Strauss. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. DeMeritt examines the use of social psychology in German-language twentieth century literature by providing critical interpretation of Handke’s and Strauss’s prose work.

Demetz, Peter. “Peter Handke: A Fragile Witness.” In After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies,...

(The entire section is 495 words.)