Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams may be the most accessible and the most moving of Handke’s works, all of which deal with the (often tenuous) connections between art and life and with the process of making literature. Handke seeks to discredit the old mimetic conception of art; art is not necessarily a mirror of life that allows its audience to see life more clearly. The world created by the work of art is different from the real world; there may be parallels between the two worlds, but the patterns of meaning in the work of art are created by the artist and, as such, may not correspond to anything discoverable in the real world.

What the “real world” consists of is another question, one which the artist may not be able to answer, according to Handke. On the other hand, it may be that the artist knows as much as anyone can, for facts by themselves are empty; only interpretations of the facts are meaningful. One fictionalizes the facts (creates one’s own version of events) before one can deal with them.

Since Handke wishes to challenge traditional assumptions of what art is and can do, his work is, at times, deliberately unsettling, as in the play Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience, 1969), which methodically thwarts the audience’s expectations. While such works are clever, the audience or reader is offended. In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, it is the narrator who is thwarted and frustrated by the limitations that artistic conventions necessarily impose, and the reader watches and sympathizes. The novel engages the emotions as well as the intellect. After all, what reader has not sought to make meaning out of a tragedy that has befallen him? A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is not only a provocative piece of metaliterature but also an enduring work of art that speaks to every reader.