Peter Handke: Wunschloses Unglück aka A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972)

Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human any more.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück or A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is the bleak account of a German woman’s life. It is the story of Handke’s mother, her struggle, her despair, her suicide.

The author starts with his own motivation to write this book, the attempt to make sense to put into words what is hardly comprehensible and to escape a feeling of being utterly numb. What did surprise me at first is his choice to call the account novella. Not memoir. After a few pages I realized that he wanted to make this an exemplary account. His mother’s life stands for numerous invisible women’s lives. When I finally got that, I felt like standing in a corner of a room and just scream. It’s such an outrageous account. It’s outrageous and infuriating and sad because it’s such a common story. Numerous women born in small towns (or even cities) between the wars lead lives like this. No one took them seriously, no one thought they should have a proper education. They were oppressed, and crushed, ridiculed and held small. All they were offered was the proverbial Kinder, Küche, Kirche (Children. Kitchen, Church).

Handke has by now become one of the most controversial German authors, but at the time of the publication of Wunschloses Unglück he was still the German literary Wunderkind, so too speak.

Handke’s mother is born in Kärnten, a region in Austria, in the early 1920s. She belongs to the Slovenian speaking minority. Despite a joyless childhood and hardly any education – she is only a girl – , her curiosity and interest in many things make her leave home and enjoy life for a while. She is only a young woman, almost a girl still, when she gets pregnant from a married man. He is the love of her life and she will never love anyone else after this. Afraid of the shame and what would become of her and the child she gets married as fast as she can to someone else. They live in Berlin and stay there until after the war when poverty and the difficult situation in the bombed city drive them back to the village in Austria from which she came.

What follows is indeed exemplary and that is why it’s so sad. Her husband starts drinking and hits her. She gets pregnant at least another five or six times, three of the children she aborts herself. The society in which she lives consists of uncultured peasants. She looses all interest in life and starts to develop all sorts of ailments. In the end she has a chronic headache that is so severe that she can hardly think, barely see and speak. She goes to a doctor who diagnoses a nervous breakdown, gives her pills. She does get a little bit better. She starts to visit girlfriends, reads extensively. She reads the books Handke gives her and with the help of those books, she speaks about herself for the first time.  She tries to have some fun but her marriage is so love- and joyless, she can hardly stand it. Her husband has tuberculosis and is gone often, when he is back, they sit and stare silently at opposite walls. She says she wants to die by she is afraid of death. She starts speaking about how to kill herself and finally writes long letters of goodbye to everybody. She buys a red umbrella, goes to the hairdresser, has her nails done, lies on her bed and swallows all the tablets she has.

When Handke hears of her suicide his first reaction is one of pride. He is proud of her. After a while he starts to feel horrible. He starts to write about her but that doesn’t help. He wakes regularly in terror and dread.

Handke could have chosen numerous ways to tell this story, more personal ones. Throughout the narration he hardly ever uses perosnal pronouns like “I” or “she” but always “one did this, one did that”. The alienation is as complete as possible.

Handke is famous for his style, unwieldy at times but sparkling here and there with metaphors and sentences that you don’t find often. If you want to get to know him, it isn’t a bad thing to start with a short text like this one.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams has been published by Pushkin Press and by the The New York Review Book Classics. It’s extremely depressing but a very important text. It describes in details the life of many a woman in Catholic petite bourgeoisie in dreary post- war Germany and Austria. It speaks of the misogyny and sexism that pervaded the society. The poverty, the struggles, the joylessness. Manic saving, mistrust of anything that looked like frivolity and be it only reading a book. It’s an oppressing account but worth reading.

Handke didn’t only write depressing books. He has, amongst a lot of other books, written the script of one of the most beuatiful movies, Wim Wender’s Himmel über Berlin aka Wings of Desire.

21 thoughts on “Peter Handke: Wunschloses Unglück aka A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972)

  1. I’ve only read Die Linkshändige Frau (The Left-Handed Woman) and I didn’t like his style at the time.

    The terrible KKK slogan rang a bell from German classes. We’re back to women and their nerves, right? A perfectly good excuse not to look too closely at their living conditions. It must have been awful to be full of curiosity, intelligent and be compelled to stay at home and be the victim of random pregnancies. The only choice she ever made was that of her death.

    • His style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, that’s for sure. I think it is readable though and since he writes like no one else I know I think it’s also interesting.
      Yes, we are back to women and their nerves. This suffocating ambiance is a frequent topic in German movies and also books but like this with a real person at the core of the story is different.
      I couldn’t write a book like this, bare of all feelings. He writes about his reaction to her death but we never really know how he felt about her. The book did remind me of Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. There are similarities in the two life stories but I really liked Widmer. This one only made me want to scream.
      I think I did not read The Left-handed woman. I read other Handke’s.

  2. I have heard so much about Handke but have yet to read him. I do own one novella by him but can’t now recall what it is (and I am too casual to check, as Virginia Woolf says). I’m intrigued by his reputation, and must give him a go.

    • His political pro-Serbian statements regarding the war in former Yugoslavia have given him a very bad reputation but it’s unfair to discard the writer for that, especially since this was a war in which there were losers on both sides. He is challenging but anyone who writes as well can’t help admiring his style. He comes up with marvelous sentences. Not everything he has written is equally good but all of his early novellas are great and some of the longer books like On a Dark Night I left my Silent House (which I have to read still) must be marvelous. I saw there is a German biography out and I am very tempted.

      • That’s the problem with contemporary writers. We can read interviews and hear them talk on the radio and on TV. Sometimes their public character overshadows the author.
        Same thing with Marguerite Duras and her take on the “Affaire Grégory”

          • Here is Wikipedia about Duras:
            “En 1985, elle soulève l’hostilité et déclenche la polémique en prenant position dans une affaire judiciaire qui captive l’opinion publique : l’affaire Grégory. Dans une tribune du quotidien Libération du 17 juillet, elle se montre convaincue que la mère, la « Sublime, forcément sublime Christine V. », est coupable du meurtre de son enfant, trouvé noyé dans la Vologne en octobre 1984. ”

            Strange that I remember this, I was really young at the time. Or mayber I’ve read about it later.

  3. I thought I recognised the cover, and then when I got to the bit about NYRB, I knew I’d read a synopsis of this book. I didn’t buy it as it sounded rather depressing.

    BUT on an up note–it reminds me of the film Germany, Pale Mother (A war film no less). If you haven’t seen it, you must.

    • I haven’t watched it yet although I always meant to. I’m sure there might be parallels as the things Handke describes were so typical of large parts of German and Austrian society. The so-called Trümmerfrauen (that’s what Deutschland bleiche Mutter is about, I believe) were all having sort of a better life during the war and as soon as the men came back it meant they had to return to Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Very depressing.

  4. I have this one. I studied German in college, though have sadly all but forgotten it. Peter Handke was an author who was often recommended and I think at one point I even had a couple of books in German! Had better stick with the English though. I will have to read this when I am in not too dark of a mood, I think.

    • It’s depressing… Lucky it’s very short. More than 100 pages would have been too tough. Unfortunately there were also parallels with my own mother. As for Hnadke, I still think if anyone is interested in German literature, it is a must to read him. His style is unique. He is a bit out of fashion by now.

    • Thanks, Novia. This is also because I always like to discover new authors. I’m much more likely to pick a book by someone that I don’t know than read someone again although there were a few authors, like Ruth Rendell, that I picked more than once. I also discovered authors on your blog that I had never heard of.

      • I like discovering new authors too but it was like gambling…I often fail finishing their book.
        I like reading books by the same author, as you know I want to read ALL Stephen King books

        • It is like gambling but I have gotten better at it. I think if I had more time I would probably read more books of the same author. I must admit when you really like an author it’s nice to continue reading him, se how he evolves…
          Lucky for you Stephen King has written more than just one book. Not like Harper Lee. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Allegedly Because of Snow – Angeblich wegen Schnee (2013) A Winter Book edited by Babette Schaefer | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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