(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is considered by critics to be one of Handke’s finest works. Like so much of his writing, it defies pigeonholing in a traditional scheme of literary classification: Is it fiction, is it biography, or is it a personal meditation? Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Handke applies the techniques of fiction—imagination, reconstruction of events, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, and descriptions of characters and scenes—to an account of actual events, much like current historical fiction and television docudramas.

Handke’s mother’s story begins in a small Austrian village, the site of her eventual death. (Interestingly, the mother is never named—probably to emphasize the conformity and anonymity imposed upon the women in her society.) For most of the villagers, life is full of poverty and desperation—especially for the women. In his mother’s day, Handke says, “a girl’s future was a joke.” This observation is borne out by the mother’s subsequent experiences: a loveless marriage, shattered dreams, and life in a society that coerces her into denying her true feelings and personality. While she courageously makes repeated attempts to break free from repression and persecution—leaving home to pursue a career at age fifteen, illegally crossing borders in postwar Europe to escape from Germany and return to Austria, reading literature and involving herself in politics—she eventually succumbs to the negative...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 789 words.)