A Sorrow Beyond Dreams / Peter Handke

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this book but when I did so in the early 80’s it instantly became one of my very favorite books. The title for one thing- I even love the German title Wunschloses Unglück for some reason, probably because I love the book so much in general. It being out of print and difficult just to get the book from a library back in those days,  I hate to admit that (being a librarian and all, and very cognizant of copyright infringement), after reading and falling in love with it and not knowing if I’d ever be able to get it back again, and wanting to have it with me at all times, instead of stealing it (I draw the line at that) I photocopied the 65 page hardcover copy I had in my hot little hands, justifying it to myself by promising that it ever did come back in print I’d be the first to know and the first one in line to get it, and that in the meantime I’d be telling as many people about it as I could.

I was in the throes of deciding whether I really wanted to be a writer at that time (not realizing you either were or you weren’t), and was reading all kinds of literary theory, including that of the Nouveau Roman movement when I came across this book, which has some of the aspects of that theory in it, particularly in its rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence, and in its questioning of whether fiction with its artifice can even approximate the nature of existence. He believed less is much more, that you had to do the best you could to tell the truth, and layers upon layers of fiction’s apparatus didn’t solve the problem, rather further obfuscated things.

The book’s story line is a difficult one, that of coming to terms with his mother’s suicide in the most objective possible way. He realizes the task he has set himself and all the way through questions whether he is succeeding in any way in conveying what he is trying to convey. He uses capitals throughout the book for emotive terms he applies to his mother’s life, signalling his futility in trying to capture her reality, and italics for the cliches he purposefully sprinkles throughout, cliches often used (albeit in a well-meaning way) to come to terms with such a tragedy.

Just the facts, ma’am are how he begins, her life having been profoundly impacted by her coming of age in Hitler’s Germany, her son the product of a wartime romance with a much older man, making her an unwed mother in one of the most horrific times in modern history, after which she marries a gruff alcoholic German Army sergeant who never could understand her, meanwhile still carrying the torch for her son’s real father which she would for the rest of her life. Eventually she begins discovering the world and living her life through her son, educating herself by reading the books her son shares with her from the university he is attending, books by Hamsun, Gorky, Kafka, Dostoevsky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. She then becomes depressed by her experience with this great literature, which she often takes literally, and her son feels responsible. Gradually Handke becomes a success as a writer and, busy living his life, lessens his contact with his mother. No longer having this connection with her son, she loses interest in life and kills herself.

Handke doesn’t feel the relief he thought he’d feel writing the book, nor does he realize much of anything concerning his mother’s suicide. With one of the great rationalizations in literary history he ends the book with this:

Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.

Both he and the reader know he won’t.

And yes, the book finally came back into print, in a mini compendium  published in 1988, entitled 3 x Handke, and yes, I literally ran out to buy it as soon as I heard.

Originally published in 1972 in German, the Ralph Manheim translation was published in 1974. Handke has gone on to become a major figure in world literature though he probably has had his greatest commercial success collaborating with Wim Wenders on several of his films.

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