A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

The Pushkin Press reissue of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was fortuitously timed to coincide with his Nobel Prize win (a win that seemed to have left UK publishers largely uninterested, until Penguin Modern Classics announced they will publish three of his novels under their imprint in August). Like The Left-Handed Woman, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was originally written in the seventies, and quickly translated by Ralph Manheim. It is not, however, a novel, being instead the story of Handke’s mother’s life written in response to her suicide in 1971:

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

Although the novel is about his mother’s life, it is also, more generally, about the lives of women of her generation. (At one point Handke admits, “what is written here about a particular person is rather general”). As Handke makes clear, choices for women at that time were all but non-existent:

“No possibilities, it was all settled in advance…”

He later states that “any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence.” It is for this reason, having become pregnant to the one man she would ever love (unfortunately already married), she marries a man she positively dislikes:

“She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father).”

This life that she didn’t choose has a bruising effect on her character:

“Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy.”

She shuts down the conversation of others with her laugh, feels only contempt for her husband, and, at one point, packs a suitcase for one of her sons and leaves it outside the door. Handke excels in identifying the chasm between the inner life and the outward appearance, and his mother invests herself in keeping up that outward show (something that continues to the very end in her preparations for suicide):

“She comforted herself with the thought that she was at least imitating the pattern of middle class life.”

Handke presents a scathing picture of society as a whole: claustrophobic, emotionally stifling, quick to judgement:

“In talking about himself, if anyone went beyond relating some droll incident, he was said to be ‘peculiar’.”

(This is also an example of how funny Handke can be). It is only in her later years that Handke is able to say, “she was gradually becoming an individual.” Now, however, she begins to suffer from paralysing headaches, a further symptom of the stress of limiting herself for all these years.

His mother’s life, of course, covers the period when the Nazis came to power in Austria, and here we discover some insight into the attractions of fascism. His mother has no interest in politics, but she does notice a change in that “even the daily grind took on a festive mood.”

“What was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics – a masquerade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair.”

It is during this period she falls in love, and, as the normal social rules are disrupted, briefly sees different possibilities – “it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders.”

The constricted life she faces once married, Handke suggests, is what eventually drives her to kill herself. In fact, going further back, when Handke says, “It all began with my mother suddenly wanting something” (she wants to continue with her education), the ‘it’ can be read as her suicide. Denied the opportunity to continue learning (Handke cleverly links the emphasis on neat writing for girls at school to the later need to present a superficially perfect household, calling their education a “mere child’s game”) her frustration only grows. By the age of thirty she has resigned herself to the fact that “she was nothing and never would be anything.”

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a powerful and moving story, an evocative recreation of Handke’s mother’s life, and the lives of women in general in the twentieth century. Despite Handke’s analytical style, and his statement that “I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character”, there is still a sense that his mother is only partly known, and that too is part of her tragedy.

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12 Responses to “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I love this book. My blog review led to my first introduction to write for a journal. But it’s a memoir, not a novel. One of the most interesting aspect of this book for me was Handke’s discussions about the challenges of writing about a real life and telling a true story. At one point he says he wished he was writing a story or play—a medium that gives the writer license to make things up, to lie!

    • 1streading Says:

      I liked the way it was both the story of an individual and of society – very much like Annie Ernaux. Have you read her?

      • roughghosts Says:

        Yes, I think I approached the book to see what it would show about telling real stories, but I was impressed that although he imagined he could write his way through grief in two months by stepping apart to a degree, in the end he is overwhelmed by loss anyhow. Annie Ernaux I expected to like but I abandoned The Years early on. For me it was alternately tedious and self-indulgent, but I’m well aware that’s a minority opinion. 🙂

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Possibly quite different in terms of style and tone, but seeing your perspective on this book reminded me of Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night in which the author writes about her mother’s suicide at the age of sixty-one. Not an ‘easy’ book to read, but there was something very compelling about it – magnetic, almost. It sounds as if the same applies here…

  3. Radz Pandit Says:

    Very compelling review, Grant! This is the only Handke I have and am now tempted to bump it up the pile. I can understand how the lack of opportunities for women during those times and the pressure of keeping up appearances can be quite stifling!

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s very short so I’m sure you’ll manage to sneak it in somewhere. It seemed to me a very accurate portrait of the lack of choices available to women. It’s difficult not to feel that this was partly to blame for his mother’s depression. Her headaches reminded me of the mother in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing.

  4. Melissa Beck Says:

    I’m so glad to see your review. My intention is to read some Handke this year including this title!

  5. winstonsdad Says:

    They talk about auto fiction in recent years and he did it here years before

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    As Stu says, it does sound rather like auto fiction. Interesting. I actually have this, but haven’t read it. I was a bit put off by the recent (fairly justified sounding) controversy where once again a price was given to two authors so distracting everyone from one of the authors. Still, it does sound like the work is good.

    • 1streading Says:

      The cross between autobiographical and social commentary reminded me of Annie Ernaux – but then she has being writing that way for years as well. The two Nobel prizes were a bit unfortunate but at least it wasn’t a shared prize, just delayed. I’m wary of becoming involved in the controversy surrounding Handke – as is often the case, actual quotations seem hard to find. I’m happy to judge the books on their merits anyway.

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