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.

Matthias Politycki: Next World Novella (2011) aka Jenseitsnovelle (2009)

Hinrich takes his existence at face value. His wife, on the other hand, has always been more interested in the after-life. Or so it seemed. When she dies of a stroke, Hinrich goes through her papers, only to discover a totally different perspective on their marriage. Thus commences, a dazzling intellectual game of shifting realities.

How do you picture the afterlife? Like a cold dark lake you have to cross? Do you picture how you will be surrounded by loneliness and obscurity and that you will know before you even start to dip into those icy waters that you will never make it across and that you will die a second time while attempting to reach the other shore?

Probably this is not your idea of the next world but it is Doro’s. The thought of it terrifies her and when she confides in Hinrich, telling him of her terrors, they form a bond and eventually become a couple. Before she reveals herself, Hinrich, a professor of sinology, secretly pines after Doro the young specialist of the I Ging who occupies a room on the same floor of the department of sinology. While he is very much in love and provides her with a pot of green tea every afternoon, she doesn’t seem to care for him at all. But suddenly one afternoon, to show Hinrich what her idea of the after world looks like, she takes him to an art museum and shows him a painting. The painting isn’t named but from the detailed description it seems they stand in front of Böcklin’s Toteninsel. Of course Hinrich doesn’t take her fears seriously. This is as much mystical rubbish to him as the I Ging. Still he promises her that he will wait for her on the other shore.

However these days are long gone and the memory of the beginning of their story provides only one part of the things Hinrich will remember on a beautiful autumn morning on which, like every day, he gets up late only to find Doro already sitting at a table and correcting what he has written the day before. The moment he enters the room he realizes something is wrong. The room is filled by an overpowering smell and the fact that Doro sits here correcting something is a little strange as well as he hasn’t written anything in a long time.

What we finally discover through Hinrich’s eyes is the fact that Doro has died inexplicably and that the text she not only corrected and annotated but tried to finish as well is an old fragment of a novel that Hinrich has written some thirty years ago. It is the story of Marek the drunkard who gets involved and hurt by a beautiful waitress. Marek is as opposed to Hinrich as can be imagined.

From the moment of the discovery of her body until the very end of the novel the book takes a few very surprising twists and turns.

Hinrich and Doro’s story alternates with the parts of the fragments of the novel that Hinrich rereads. The tone of the interwoven texts is very different. The novel uses outdated slang, the other parts are written in a very polished and literary German.

Hinrich, a man who had extremely bad eyesight and could hardly see a thing, decided late in life to have a laser operation. To be able to see clearly has transformed him into a completely different person. Before his opperation he was dedicated to Doro, content with a life filled with books that took place either at the university or at home. Since he can see he goes out in the evenings with his students, chats up waitresses and discovers a completely new side to himself.

What he didn’t know and discovers now through reading the annotations and the letter that Doro has left for him is not only that she knew about his affairs but also that she hated and despised him and that she has taken revenge.

I did absolutely not like this novel at first as I found Hinrich Schepp to be such a boring and narrow-minded character. But I should have known better when embarking on reading a book whose main character has such a name.  Surely no one would choose a name like that for his protagonist if he wasn’t poking fun at him. All the infuriating and annoying bits about Hinrich’s charcter and his actions fall into place at the end and their meaning changes one’s view of Hinrich. One could even say that Hinrich becomes endearing.


As said before, the book has a few extremely surprising twists and turns to offer and from page to page we see things and people in a new light until, at the end, everything changes again.

There are a few painful moments in which Hinrich’s mask is ripped off and he finds himself exposed and ridiculed. Shame is one of the strong feelings that pervades the whole novella.


Next World Novella is a quirky book that touches on a lot of different things. It explores the fear of dying and death as well as marriage, love and self-deception. The most interesting aspect for me was the exploring of the ideas of an after life and the dimension added by the references to the I Ging, a text that I find highly fascinating. But also the discovery of how much “unlived” life there is hidden in an ordinary life is interesting. Every human being has a potential that would allow him or her to live many lives that would maybe look very different from the one chosen.

I have read the German book and insofar I cannot say much about the translation. I thought for a long time about the title and if Next World Novella is really how I would have translated Jenseitsnovelle. For different reasons I don’t think so. The sense is the same but I had a feeling “Jenseits” sounds more poetical than “Next Life”. The word “next” contains a very hard consonant whereas “Jenseits” has a soft and flowing sound. That is why I would have tended towards a title containing hereafter or after life. I’m sure Anthea Bell who is a renowned translator had her reasons. As for the rest of the text, I got the impression the German is more old-fashioned and mannered than the English translation.

All in all I can only recommend this book. It’s very different, surprising and intelligent.