Wednesday, April 9, 2014


In seiner Erzählung Wunschloses Unglück beschäftigt sich Handke mit dem Problem der Biographie. Als zeitgenössischer Schriftsteller muss er die hergebrachten Konventionen der Sprache und literarischen Formen auf ihre Fähigkeit, immernoch Realität darzustellen, untersuchen. Handke macht Wunschloses Unglück zum Forum für seine Auseinandersetzung mit der biographischen Form. Er stellt in seiner Erzählung nicht nur die faktische Erschliessbarkeit des einzelnen Lebens durch die Biographie in Frage, sondern deutet auch auf die Fiktion seines eigenen Lebens (Autobiographie) und des Menschenlebens im allgemeinen (Geschichte) hin. Man »fingiert« das eigene Leben, das anderer und das des Menschen schlechthin, um sich durch die Scheinrealität der Form dem Chaos einer Welt ohne Zusammenhang zu entreissen.

Peter Handke's Wunschloses Unglück examines the stereotypical speech patterns that help socialize individuals into stifling roles, but the narrator is gradually forced to recognize his inability to distance himself from this linguistic corpus. This article enquires into the mechanisms behind his linguistic complicity by reconstructing the novella's discourse on the practice of domestic economy. The critique of language present in Handke's texts elucidates how the deployment of fixed phrases reduces mental effort. Since he defines his writing as an expenditure of labor, however, the narrator of Wunschloses Unglück points to his own use of phrases as a form of cautious management of resources in the production of a text. He does not necessarily fail to criticize the language of a repressive social world, but he must simultaneously match his critical ambitions with the limited means at his disposal. The result is a textual strategy of quotation that appears both critical and collusive.

»Unter der Rubrik Vermischtes stand in der Sonntagsausgabe der Kärntner Volkszeitung folgendes: ›In der Nacht 

zum Samstag verübte eine 51jährige Hausfrau aus A. (Gemeinde G.) Selbstmord durch Einnehmen einer Überdosis von 
Schlaftabletten.‹ Es ist inzwischen fast sieben Wochen her, seit meine Mutter tot ist, und ich möchte mich an die Arbeit machen, bevor das Bedürfnis, über sie zu schreiben, das bei der Beerdigung so stark war, sich in die stumpfsinnige Sprachlosigkeit zurückverwandelt, mit der ich auf die Nachricht von dem Selbstmord reagierte.« 

Sie gingen viel aus und waren ein schönes Paar. Wenn er betrunken war, wurde er frech und sie musste streng zu ihm werden. Dann schlug er sie, weil sie ihm nichts zu sagen hatte und er es doch war, der das Geld heimbrachte.,Ohne sein Wissen trieb sie sich mit einer Nadel ein Kind ab.,----,Sie lief nie weg. Sie wusste inzwischen, wo ihr Platz war. 'Ich warte nur, bis die Kinder groß sind.',----,Eine dritte Abtreibung, diesmal mit einem schweren Blutsturz. Kurz vor ihrem vierzigsten Lebensjahr wurde sie noch einmal schwanger. Eine weitere Abtreibung war nicht mehr möglich, und sie trug das Kind aus.

By Thomas Curwen, Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review.A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
Peter Handke

Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

New York Review Books: 80 pp., .95 paper

Judging whether life is worth living or not is, as Camus famously wrote, the fundamental question of philosophy. Yet he clearly understates the problem. For those who kill themselves, there can be no second-guessing. That decision is merely the surcease of pain. Hardly an answer, it is the beginning of the anger, the sorrow, the guilt, disbelief and shame for those left behind. But the real legacy of suicide is a story, a reiteration of Camus' question tied onto every memory and every memory recast, reshaped and re-imagined to provide an explanation for an event that has none. Perhaps no two authors could be more dissimilar in their ventures into this territory than Peter Handke and Jonathan Aurthur, and it is precisely their differences that make their stories important today.

=A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,= written in 1972 and first published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1975, is Handke's account of his mother's life and death. Prosaic, poetic, elliptical and self-conscious, it is an exacting picture of the shock and grief that await those who have inherited the ruins of a suicide. =The Angel and the Dragon= is messier and more desperate. The story of Charley Aurthur's life and his death in 1996, told by his father, lacks literary concision but gains momentum in its inconsolable grappling with the meaning of mental illness.

Charley Aurthur was by all accounts a talented and precocious child. He was born in 1973 of activist (and soon to be divorced) parents, grew up in Culver City, played the piano with obvious aptitude and wrote. By the time he turned 15, however, a shadow, tinged by insomnia and abrupt mood swings, had begun to dim his talent. Then, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at college, he took a weekend trip to Yosemite and, while driving home, totaled the family car. A week later, he was sitting with his parents and a psychiatrist, who recommended that he be hospitalized. It is every parent's nightmare: Aurthur and his ex-wife soon learned that the accident and Charley's subsequent behavior -- jittery, dazed, anxious and weeping -- were most easily understood as the symptoms of a psychotic break.

The Aurthurs' introduction to the world of mental illness was precipitous. For his part, Charley experienced disorienting extremes of delusion and despair, reconstructed here through his letters, poetry and journal entries. His doctors debated whether he suffered from manic depression or schizophrenia. (Their diagnoses were often guided by the effectiveness of specific medications, which after one suicide attempt became an extraordinary cocktail of Navane, Cogentin, Klonopin, lithium and Wellbutrin, cut by an occasional session of psychotherapy.) Aurthur was no better prepared emotionally -- or financially -- than Charley and found himself searching the past and the present for a clue as to why his once seemingly balanced child had changed and what could be done to set his life right again. He ranged broadly through the written landscape -- from Michel Foucault to A. Alvarez, from Kay Redfield Jamison to Kate Millett -- scrutinizing biomedical and psychosocial treatments and fast confronting his own powerlessness in the face of Charley's rapid decline.

Mental illness is a phrase you won't find in Handke's account of his mother's death, yet it surely waits in the wings. While attempting a factual account of his mother's life, told with a journalist's precision (=The Sunday edition of the Karntner Volkszeitung,= his story begins, =carried the following item under 'Local News': 'In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night ....' =), Handke can't help but fall through the occasional trapdoor. =This story,= he concedes, = ... is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror.=

Born in a small Austrian village in the 1920s, Handke's mother -- he keeps her nameless -- lived in a world constrained by history and convention, where girls grew up playing a game based on the stations of a woman's life, Tired/Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead, where Hitler was a man with =a nice voice= and World War II became =contact with a fabulous world.= Pregnant by her first love -- a married man who disappeared from her life as quickly as he appeared -- she married a German army sergeant, and, after the war, they settled in Berlin, where he worked as a streetcar motorman and drank, worked as a baker and drank, and finally just drank. She had a second child, aborted a third and grew old before her time. In 1948, they fled the eastern sector of the city and returned to Austria, to the house where she was born and where life bore only a marginal resemblance to middle-class privilege. =Squalid misery can be described in concrete terms,= Handke writes; =poverty can only be intimated in symbols.= And poverty abounded.

Given the fact of her death, the mystery is how she survived these years, but it is not uncommon to find purpose in great hardship. She swaddled herself with the illusion of progress, the chimera of change, and, in truth, her husband, now in middle age, was becoming less of a bully, and she -- we are told rather cryptically -- =was gradually becoming an individual.=

But suicide is not the result of one moment or one wound. It is a slow accumulation of pain, often triggered by a physical malady. She began having bad headaches. Her doctor thought it was a strangulated nerve, and what first incapacitated her (=She dropped everything she picked up, and would gladly have followed it in its fall. Doors got in her way; the mold seemed to rain from the walls as she passed ....=) became with time a chronic condition. She visited a neurologist, whose diagnosis, =nervous breakdown,= provided a strange comfort. =He knew what was wrong with her; at least he had a name for her condition. And she wasn't the only one; there were others in the waiting room.= And so she endured, traveling to Yugoslavia, putting up fruit and vegetables for the winter and talking of adopting a child, until the world closed in on her. When her husband, who had been sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis started getting well, she grew desperate again. She stopped seeing people. She shut herself up in her house. She went to a pharmacist for 100 sleeping pills.

The final pages of Handke's story are a wrenching litany of real and imagined moments, of syncopated flights of mostly single-sentence paragraphs -- heart-wrenching associations and chasms of silence between each thought -- and when he recounts the flight home for the funeral, he confesses: =I was beside myself with pride that she had committed suicide,= as if she had finally availed herself of the only freedom remaining to her. It is a stunning line. Could Jonathan Aurthur make this claim? Perhaps. Eleven days after Charley leaped from Lincoln Boulevard into the morning rush hour on the Santa Monica Freeway, Aurthur visited the overpass, stared into the flow of traffic and walked away feeling suddenly, perhaps inexplicably, liberated. =[Charley's] terrible affliction and suffering had imprisoned him but it had also imprisoned me,= he writes, =and now both of us were free.=

During his last three years, Charley had been buffeted among five hospitals, a process that Aurthur equates with the life of a soldier =repeatedly wounded, repeatedly sprayed with sulfa drugs and patched up and sent back to the trenches, a little weaker each time.= At the end of each treatment, Aurthur was left with no greater certainty about what could be done to restore his son, and, indeed in some cases, questioned whether the cure might be worse than the disease.

Thirty years may be an instant and an eternity when comparing the world between =A Sorrow Beyond Dreams= and =The Angel and the Dragon,= but the before and after of a suicide has changed little. The statistics are stark. In this country today, a person completes a suicide every 15 minutes, and almost as often someone is left behind to try to make sense of it. It may be a father remembering his son; it may be a son remembering his mother. In either case, it is less a philosophical question than a profoundly social problem.

While the pleasure, if this is the word, of reading Handke comes from the existential assumptions of his story, it is important to realize that suicide -- the reality, as opposed to the idea (which Camus seemed to savor) -- is not an existential dilemma. It is the final, tragic outcome of a psychiatric illness. Yet how prepared are we for this knowledge?

There is no more a prescribed course for treating mental illness than there is a prescribed course for being human, and as Aurthur looks at what we now know -- and don't know -- about mental illness, it becomes clear that the model we have today for understanding the diseases of the mind and suicide is inadequate. Beyond the brain-mind dichotomy that has of late polarized our understanding of human behavior must lie a paradigm that will break the icy rivers of vested interests, professional bias and brazen certainty and encompass the complex social and emotional roots of these diseases. Certainly, Handke's and Aurthur's books suggest this need.


Peter Handke: the truth about sorrow…

What makes Handke exceptional is his willingness to engage us as well as himself in the difficulty of telling our truths, sharing our sorrows, interpreting our dreams….
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (image courtesy Goodreads)
For the last (well, perhaps next to last) work from the “world literature” segment of the 2015 reading list, I return to an author who has decidedly influenced me in the way I write, in the way I think about writing, in the way I assess writing, particularly the writing of literature. I have written before about the great Peter Handke, the brilliant and controversial Austrian novelist, playwright, and filmmaker and about the power of his work to force the reader to reexamine his/her ways of looking at literature and at life.  No author of our time has been more relentless in his search for truth, nor has any author been able to say more with fewer words than Handke. For those few of you who know my work, a light bulb has probably just come on. For those of you not familiar with my work, please go buy it so that I can become a rich vapid celebrity and lose all this delicious artistic integrity I’m always on about....

her a lot has been added to our knowledge about the suicide of Handke's mother Maria Sivec since her son Peter published SBD. The most important, I would say, is that she did so at the prospect of the return (from a tuperculosis sanatorium), and needing to live again, at close quarters, with her husband, Handke's name-giving stepfather, the horrendous - so it appears from Handke's account, raping and beating stepfather Bruno Handke, whom she married after Handke's actual father did not leave his wife to marry her. In other words, the rural Sivec clan, of the Slovenian minority in the province of Carinthia, appears to have been too incompetent to avail itself of divorce or separation. Moreover, Maria Sivec can be regarded as having sufferered since the love of her life refused to marry her, as suffering from lifelong depression, including the period during which she carried her first born to term, communicating her depression anaclytically to her child who was then treated as the love-child par excellence, a matter, too that has consequences.
Also, as we find out from Malte Herwig's biography of Handke MEISTER DER DÄMMERUNG"
of Handke's post-Graduation trip with his actual father, a Herr Schoenherr, a bank employee from Northern Germany, who had been stationed as a German soldier in Carinthis in the early 1940s, did not actually happen, except perhaps in Handke's imagination, to which we need to consign his father's fear that he and his teen-age son might be mistaken for a homo-sexual couple. - That is, the wish that Handke expressed after he completed SBD, that  he'd like to be able to lie a bit again, had actually already been fulfilled. 
As to getting "back to that all later" - he actually did with the great THE REPETITION which makes what one might call mythological adjustments to the family configuration, which installs his grandfather Sivic as the orienting father figure, and the women die of cervical cancer.

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MICHAEL ROLOFF exMember Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website