Peter Handke: Belinda McKeon on loss, longing and language

Peter Handke: the author wanted to do justice to his mother's life. Photograph: Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP via Getty

Peter Handke: the author wanted to do justice to his mother's life. Photograph: Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP via Getty


From the archive This article first appeared in The Irish Times on August 16th, 2003

Because the Austrian writer Peter Handke was only in his early 20s, it was deemed likely that the extreme abstraction and formal experimentation evident in his first novel, Die Hornissen, and his play, Publikumsbeschimpfung (later translated as Offending the Audience), were merely a subversive phase. His philosophy of the "descriptive impotency" of literature, which he preached to Günter Grass, among others, at a Princeton literary seminar in 1966, his theory that the only reality represented by art was that of language itself; all of this would be diluted by a few years' more worldly experience, it was muttered, and Handke would concede that authority for a piece of writing belonged to the author, rather than to the the words from which it came.

So there was some relief from commentators when this short text appeared in 1972; written in just two months, Wunschloses Unglück was Handke's response to the suicide of his mother. Here, it seemed, was more solid ground, in literary terms: an autobiographical subject matter, a clear authorial presence, a narrative of actuality. Here was Handke confronting his mother's lonely decision to end her life, at the age of 51; his anger at the disappointment that life had been, the struggle to exist in the poverty and parochialism of wartime Germany and post-war Austria. Grief, it was felt, had shocked Handke out of conceptualism, had fleshed out his abstractions. Psychoanalysts were quick to see in the book a fulfilment of duty to his mother, an attempt to recreate her, a very private, tender apology, and the biographical data with which to return to his earlier, less accessible work, and stake out its meaning in straightforward psychological terms.

But, as Jeffrey Eugenides - himself no stranger to the subject of suicide - points out in his introduction to this new edition of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (the translation is Ralph Mannheim's, and dates from 1977), to read this work as autobiography is to read it with one eye closed. To see here merely a lament for a lost mother is to force upon the book precisely that which Handke ruled out in the process of writing it: an emotional engagement with his subject which gives way, via much poignant reflection, to eventual reconciliation and, for the reader, to a deeper understanding of the author. Wary of belittling his mother by turning her into a character, Handke consciously abstains from description, and from expressing his own feelings about what has happened. A purely objective approach, he insists from the outset, is the only way to do justice to the facts of his mother's life, to write her without pawning her to fiction.

Handke does not approach his mother as an individual because that is precisely what society forbade her, and all women like her, to be; she was a type. So, with gruelling discipline, Handke regards her as such: the type of woman who lived through the Nazi years, the war, and the punishing hardship of the postwar era, who married an unlistening husband, who learned not to draw attention to herself, and who eventually put her youngest child to bed, tied a scarf under her own chin, and took an overdose of sleeping pills when the conviction that life was unbearable overtook her. The result: a scrupulously detached, thematically shifting work that epitomises the dread and distraction of loss more skilfully and compellingly than could any memoir or eulogy.

Just as in his mother's life, there is a certain liberation from reality in such typology, such depersonalisation; if, even amid the oppression, she could pretend to be someone she was not, could move around in the outside world released from her own feelings and her own failings, so this method affords Handke a release from the swamp of "horror" which threatens to overwhelm him when he thinks clearly about her suicide.

But, just as his mother's refuge in typology collapsed as soon as she entered the doors of her own home, there are moments, too, of raw pain, which push through Handke's defences, which puncture his disinterested pace like sharp stones underfoot. Yet these moments do not swing open a door on Handke's soul, or a resolution of the author's troubled relationship with his mother. Rather, as random words and intonations which betray him, which infuse his style with longing and regret, they corroborate Handke's conviction that language is the real character in any text, the dominant, defiant force which refuses to carry out the wishes of an author. Which is what renders this book such a moving, involving portrait of grief - we watch Handke set out with the hope that language will help him to see this task of remembrance through, and we watch him come to the slow realisation that, in fact, it does the opposite - it takes his mother further and further away from him, complicates his memory of her, compounds his loss. "My sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper," he writes. But "someday", he concludes, "I shall write about all this in greater detail". Things will be no different then, he is now certain; language will be no kinder. But, long after the son has made his peace, the author's responsibility endures.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story, By Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Mannheim, is published by New York Review of Books Classics, $10.95

Belinda McKeon is a novelist and critic