Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Austria, on December 6, 1942. With the exception of a four-year period from 1944 to 1948, when he lived in Berlin, Handke lived in the country in Southern Austria. In 1961, he entered the University of Graz to study law. The critic Nicholas Hern argues that this legal training influenced Handke’s style: “Most of his plays . . . consist of a series of affirmative propositions each contained within one sentence which is usually a simple main clause on a main clause on a main clause plus one subordinate clause.” While he was at the university, Handke published his work in Manuskripts, the university’s literary review. From 1963 onward, he devoted himself to writing, and his first novel, Die Hornissen (1966; the hornets), appeared the year after he left the university.
This novel earned for Handke the chance to read at the prestigious Gruppe 47 conference in April of 1966, held that year at Princeton University. There he read from his second novel, Der Hausierer (1967; the peddler), and on the last day of the meeting he delivered a blistering attack on what he saw as the artistic failures of the group’s older members. Handke argued that much German postwar writing was too realistic and descriptive and “failed to realize literature is made with language, not with the things that one describes with language.”
This outburst and the success of his first play, Offending the Audience, at the Frankfurt “Experimenta” theater week in June of that year, brought Handke considerable media attention; since he affected a Beatles-like hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, he was much photographed, interviewed, and read. In 1966, he married actress Libgart Schwarz and moved to Germany from Austria. Over the next seven years, he lived in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Paris, and Kronberg (outside Frankfurt). His daughter, Amina, was born in Berlin in 1969. That same year, he joined with ten other writers to form a cooperative publishing house, Verlag der Autors. In 1979, he returned with his daughter to Salzburg in his native Austria.
In the late 1990’s, Handke reestablished himself as one of the enfants terribles of German literature by vociferously taking the side of the Serbs in the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, thus finding himself under attack from fellow writers, journalists, and politicians alike. Most of Handke’s literary output in the late 1990’s is a reflection of and a commentary on the events in the former Yugoslavia. As part of his condemnation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attacks on Serbia, Handke returned the Georg Büchner Prize, including a substantial stipend, that the German government had awarded him in 1973, and formally renounced his membership in the Roman Catholic Church, which he accused of supporting what he called the genocide of the Serbian people. At the same time, he proudly accepted his elevation to the rank of Knight of Serbia.
Peter Handke’s early literary revolt against all repressive systems of rules and social customs and against the experience of daily dependency and dull coercive repetition is certainly linked to his birth and upbringing in a poor working-class environment. His birthplace, Griffen, in the province of Carinthia, Austria, lies about twenty-five miles northeast of Klagenfurt, the only sizable city in the region, and only a few miles from the border with Yugoslavia. Handke’s maternal grandfather, of Slovak descent, was a peasant and carpenter; his mother, the fourth of five children, worked as a dishwasher, maid, and cook during World War II and became pregnant with Handke by a German soldier, a bank clerk in civilian life, who was already married. Before Handke’s birth, his mother married another German soldier, Bruno Handke, in civilian life a streetcar conductor in Berlin. In 1944, Maria Handke moved to Berlin with her son to await her husband’s return from the war. For some time after 1945, Handke’s stepfather continued to work...
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