Archive for the ‘Peter Handke’ Category

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

January 21, 2020

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.

The Left-Handed Woman

November 8, 2019

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.