The Left-Handed Woman

When it comes to who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature each year (although I may well have an opinion on whether one writer deserves it more than another) what I largely long for is that a writer in a language other than English is the winner, particularly one who has not been widely translated into English, or one who has largely fallen out of print. Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich would be examples of the former (the translation of Modiano since his win in 2014 has been quite astonishing); J M G Clezio would be an example of the latter, with six of his novels reprinted in November 2008 after his win. This year’s winner, Peter Handke, would seem a perfect example of another writer who falls into this category, with almost all his work out of print in the UK. So far, however, any reissuing is limited to the US (Pushkin Press’ edition of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams had already been planned), with seven of his novels due in December, and New Review of Books reprinting another two next year. Can this be down to the controversy that has surrounded his award, or is he simply seen as a more difficult sell by UK publishers? Whatever the case, it seemed an appropriate time to read the 1982 Abacus copy of The Left-Handed Woman (translator unnamed) I had picked up earlier this year.

The Left-Handed Woman is a novella rather than a novel, not quite reaching 90 pages in this edition. In summary, very little happens: Marianne and Bruno are married with a young son, Stefan, but when Bruno returns from a trip abroad, Marianne asks him to move out and he goes to stay with a friend, Franziska. Marianne is initially quite isolated, but as the story progresses she develops new relationships and the novel ends with a gathering in her house of those she knows, both from before the break-up, and her new acquaintances. The novel explores Marianne’s loneliness and questions whether it is entirely negative.

Our introduction to Marianne immediately suggests she is at one remove from reality, an aspect of her character which is emphasised by the distancing technique of being referred to as ‘the woman’ throughout:

“The woman stood as if in a trance, but instead of going stiff she seemed to bend to her thoughts. The child came and asked her what she was looking at. She didn’t so much as blink.”

This idea is repeated throughout the novella:

“Then for a time she remained motionless in the same posture.”

The word ‘motionless’ in particular applies itself to the character again and again: “For a time the woman stood motionless…” and “The woman sat motionless at the desk.” This has the effect of leaving the reader on the outside of the character, looking on as if from a distance – echoing the way in which Marianne herself is often portrayed looking out of the window of her flat. That we have little access to her thoughts or feelings is best demonstrated by the moment she asks her husband to leave, shortly after he has told her, “Tonight I feel as if everything I’d ever wished for had come true” (suggesting she is also closed to him):

“I suddenly had an illumination… that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”

Bruno’s frustration shows in later encounters: “Damn it, you’re not well,” he tells her, and:

“Do you suppose there’s no one else in the world but you? I exist, too, Marianne. I exist!”

Her decision is impossible to judge, however, as we have little insight into their life before – perhaps it is Bruno who is solipsistic.

When Bruno leaves she decides to return to work as a translator and her progress from isolation to a new accord with the world can perhaps be measured against the scenes where she is sitting at her typewriter. Initially She struggles to type at all:

“She sat at the typewriter, in the bedroom. She didn’t type… Suddenly the woman pushed the typewriter aside and it fell to the floor.”

Later we are told, “she folded her arms over the typewriter and laid her head on her arms.” Eventually she begins to type, something that seems to coincide with others coming into her life, for example her father’s visit. She also develops new relationships – an actor falls in love with her, and she also invites a shop assistant – who tells her “you seem so free” – to visit her. When Bruno and Franziska visit her near the end – “expecting to find the loneliest woman on earth” – her apartment is full.

Handke, however, is not making a point about the benefits of company. Marianne’s loneliness seems to have purified her and allowed her make new relationships on her own terms, something, now that we look back at the opening scene, was not the case with Bruno (why else would Franziska say, “At last your Marianne has woken up”?). This is revealed in her final statement:

“You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.”

The Left-Handed Woman can be disconcertingly distant but it is ultimately a rich and subtle novella. Many of its initially banal moments remain frozen in the reader’s imagination. It is a brief but fascinating introduction to Handke’s work.

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2 Responses to “The Left-Handed Woman”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I have to confess that I knew very little (if anything) about Handke until his recent Nobel Prize win – not that I know a lot more about him now, but your review of this certainly helps! Interestingly, a colleague mentioned this particular novella as being one to look into, so it’s great to see a review of it here – characteristically insightful as ever, Grant. For such a short novella, it seems to pack a lot in; and yet, I never get the sense from your commentary that it feels crowded in any way, possibly because of the distancing effect you mention above.

    • 1streading Says:

      No, I didn’t know much about Handke either – but I would agree that this does seem a good way to be introduced to his work. It’s also one of the books being reprinted in the US.

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