A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, the story of the life and death of Peter Handke’s mother, can be considered a novel in the sense that all biography and autobiography verge upon fiction when the writer imposes a pattern of meaning upon the facts. Handke recognizes a conflict when he tells the reader that “in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts,” and he fears reducing his mother’s story to a mere “literary ritual.” At the same time, he sees that readers other than himself will want to move beyond his mother’s specific case to “generalizations” about the human condition; for them, the formulations are more interesting than the unvarnished facts.
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, then, is not only the story of Handke’s mother but also the story of Handke composing the story about his mother. The novel opens with a quotation from a small-town Austrian newspaper: “In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.” The sparse, objective report is followed by the narrator’s subjective reaction to the death, a mixture of horror and apathy, and his rationale for writing about the death: He wants to explain it, to bring himself “back to life,” and “to represent this VOLUNTARY DEATH as an exemplary case.” More important even than these reasons, he senses a need to transcend “moments of extreme speechlessness” and seek control over experience, or at least control over its impact on him.
The writer’s mother (who is never more specifically named—indeed, the narrator never names himself) was born in the early 1920’s of peasant stock in a small Austrian village. Education was barely imaginable for boys, and it was “unthinkable” for girls; “a girl’s future was a joke.” Desiring to study something and, in so doing, create a life for herself, she left home as a girl to learn cooking at a resort hotel. For a short time, she was happy. She embraced Adolf Hitler and the communal pride he promoted, went out on dates, enjoyed herself, and fell in love with a married man—a German party member by whom she conceived her first child, the narrator himself.
Pregnancy brought an end to the incipient struggle for freedom and personhood; instead, it allowed the triumph of duty when the mother married a man she detested, an army sergeant from Berlin, “to give the child a father.” From this point forward, the narrative is a descent into hopelessness, an account of a joyless marriage punctuated by three more births and three secret abortions and a story of a dreary routine, which offered little reward.
When, after the war, the alcoholic husband lost job after job in Berlin, the couple returned to the Austrian village of the wife’s birth. It was a time when the woman “could laugh anyone to silence,” and she seemed to use laughter as a defense against powerlessness. She certainly used it to destroy her husband’s dreams. Laughter was the only thing that was hers. If, in the city, she had allowed herself to become a “type,” in the village no personal life at all remained possible, and “individual” was a dirty word. Her energy went into “scrimping” when there was barely enough income to support existence; it went into “imitating the pattern of middle-class life.” She sensed that there was something more to be had from living but had no one to help her find it.
Eventually, the acquisition of household appliances changed her life. She had time to read books, to form political opinions, and to...
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become a person rather than function merely as a machine. Yet heightened awareness brought heightened misery: headaches, a nervous breakdown, and a feeling of futility. In quest of a reason to go on living, the woman wanted to adopt a child but was denied one because of her husband’s tuberculosis. Methodical, tidy, and compulsively clean to the last, “she wrote letters of farewell to everyone in her family” and lined her underpants with diapers before she lay down to die.
The mother’s death does not conclude the story. Her son leaves his home in Frankfurt to attend the funeral, feels a need to write about his mother, does write about her, and decides, “It is not true that writing has helped me.” He feels “like a decaying animal...attacked by...horror.” In one last desperate effort to make meaning of his mother’s life and of his feelings about it, Handke records a series of brief observations in the last few pages of his narrative, concluding with the line: “Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.”