On Handke's "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams"

by Mark Jay Mirsky

In a complex (though damning) review of Peter Handke's "Crossing the Sierra Los Gredos," in the August 19, 2007 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, one line caught my eye, and raised a vigorous "No, unfair!"

The reviewer had begun with praise for Handke's early work, but then slowly demolished the writer's career, beginning with Slow Homecoming, (1979).

I published excerpts of Handke in Fiction, and at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1976, had a brief but bizarre encounter. Handke was teasing my friend, Marianne Frisch, our European editor, cruelly from what I could read on her flushed, exasperated face. When she introduced me, I thought I heard him say, reacting no doubt to my bushy head of chaotic curls, that I looked like a taxi driver. It took several moments of explanation for me to understand that I looked like the actor in the movie, Taxi Driver. Handke had a bottle of wine in his hand and he poured us both drinks, sipped a bit, remarked in English, "It tastes awful," and then tipped the bottle back into my glass with a mischievous, "Have some more." I left more amused than irritated.

Neil Gordon wittily identifies, in his review of Crossing the Sierra, Handke's "parenthetical nonsense." ("On the contrary? Also not on the contrary.") But perhaps there is something more to it—a caustic wit?

The line of Neil Gordon's that made me wonder was in regard to Handke's Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Gordon, while praising texts of Handke's from the early and mid seventies, says nothing about A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which is puzzling since the book dates from that period. While Gordon does not register his own opinion of Handke's memoir, he quotes a critic who branded the book "exasperating, even neurotic" and goes on to point out a British newspaper's evaluation of Handke as "that arch bore of German experimentalism."

Nothing in Handke's earlier work, which I admired but felt somewhat distant from, prepared me for A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. It is one of the few books that explain to me both the bleak world of the German and Austrian poor and the illusions and "dreams" that the Nazi cause held out to them. Its pages, though not overtly political, catalogue what caused so many Germans to lose their way in the mists in the 1930's.

Handke's portrait of his mother's banal enthusiasm is brutal, but in its unsparing honesty, it accepts no excuses. Grappling with his mother's attempt to break out of the narrow possibilities that her family offered, the delusion that she found love (delusion as her son describes it) in her liaison with a married man, an affair that led to Peter Handke's birth, her subsequent bitter marriage to a man she did not love, her abortions, nervous breakdowns, and finally her suicide, Handke's book is neither "exasperating" nor "neurotic." It is an inventory of his mother's "dreams" and the sorrow they brought her.

I am not one of those to pillory Gunter Grass for his belated admission that he served as a young man with Hitler's SS. (We published excerpts of his earlier memoir, Diary of a Snail, which carefully excluded the admission.) Grass's early work, in its gloss, contrasts with Handke's painful description of a mother's death and his own contradictory reaction to it. This kind of truth does bring joy, and if Gordon rightly congratulates Sebald for his writing, I think Handke deserves it equally for A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. I don't care for everything of Sebald's. The Emigrants left me cold, but I was swept away by On The Natural History of Destruction, whose grim details touched me where Vonnegut's account of the bombings of Germany did not. Again, I welcomed the chill power of Sebald's Austerlitz. Without detracting from Sebald, however, I did not hear the direct self-accusation implicit in Peter Handke's portrait of his mother. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams deserves to retain its prominent place on the shelf of post World War II literature.