A Mother’s Story, for Brief Moments, in Dreams: The Problems of Language

Peter Handke has produced something remarkable in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story (Residenz Verlag, 1972). He has written a biography of his mother, after her death by suicide, in which he has drawn a portrait of her essence without in any way usurping her person through metaphor. Writing with restraint and with his usual crafted, weighted use of language—but more unpacked than that word implies—word by word like a single struck piano key, he has given the reader this woman who was also his mother, and the period and place in which she lived: the leaden, hopeless and dread full place that was Austria and Germany in the decade before the Second World War, during the period of National Socialism and then the Soviet occupation. Written in astonishing haste in January–February 1972, almost immediately following her death, he felt he must capture what he could because, as he explains in the book’s second paragraph, “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide. Yes, get to work for as intensely as I sometimes feel the need to write about my mother, this need is so vague that if I didn’t work at it…” and in this intense vagueness he posits the contradictions inherent in writing anything that could be truthful to the person being made anew on the page. There is no clear transcription; in writing there is always the danger of artifice. The story takes over; the language can’t carry the meaning and also remain transparent. And you can’t force memory, can’t force the issue, can only deal with the scarring when you are able. He had to get in before the tissue began to harden. So he’s working against expediency, against the natural inclination for ease, retreat and protection, and gathering the pieces out of which to make a biography sufficient to remember. Putting in place the person he can remember, and wary of the effects of his making.

It’s Nabokov without the essential comma. His gorgeous Speak, Memory. “Speak,” Nabokov gently cajoled. “Talk to me memory,” said the inserted comma. Handke isn’t without recollection or anecdotes relating to his mother. But where Nabokov is calling on his memory to come forward with the goods and tell him his life’s stories, Handke is first making solid the goods on which he can later hinge his memories. He doesn’t want stories, although he does refer to his work in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams as the story of his mother.

Donata Wenders: Peter Handke II, Chaville, 2009

A lack of affect is a symptom of unwellness. Flatness and detachment are not just reflections of objectivity but speak to isolation and a lack of emotional connectedness. When A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was reissued by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2002 it was accompanied by an introduction by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides who wrote, “The most striking thing about the book is Handke’s disciplined detachment from his subject, a mode of inquiry that offers nothing remedial or heartwarming in the way of a typical account of a parent loved and lost.” I’m not sure I agree. I think it speaks to Handke’s style but also to the horror to which he refers consistently—at his mother’s dying and his sense that it was an event experienced by her as horror. What the writing exhibits is his corresponding emotional retreat, which he describes as boredom alternating with apathy and speechlessness. He is simply overcome, disabled. The emotionally stripped language he uses is metonymically accurate to the conditions he is presenting: the untenable historic period for which almost any language is inadequate and the political, cultural and social prescriptions that applied. And his mother’s specific situation of poverty, an insistence on the absence of expectations, contempt for education, the requirement that no one distinguish themself in any way. No spontaneity, no self-assertions. “Cheated out of your own biography and feelings,” Handke writes, “you became “skittish;” you shied away from people, stopped talking.” Handke says that “she had also had to husband her feelings so much that she expressed them only in slips of the tongue, and then did her best to gloss over them.”

This effacing of her biography by the joyless circumstances of her life shudders the core of Handke and is compounded by his mother’s despair in recognizing early on, from the programme described for her that “she was nothing and never would be anything; it was so obvious that there was no need of a forecast.” She was dead by her own hand and his horror and grief remained. The writing that he thought would save him has failed. “Writing has not, as I first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretence at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment.”

You can’t wish an alternate life for someone else sufficiently to apply it to them, like sewing a shadow to their heels; it won’t adhere and what you’re doing finally is building it for your own romance. Hence his despair. His writing had failed him and here is the struggle with language. If he writes in a general way about the life of a woman whose situation is like hers, it can apply broadly. The descriptions can be more abstract in their applicability. Then the individual who was the impetus for the writing is overlooked and the result is precisely what he never intended it to be: “a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext.” The high wire is stretched taut between documentary reporting and losing the individual who becomes, as Handke describes it, painlessly submerged in poetic sentences. The two poles have “slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance.”

In the introduction, Jeffrey Eugenides refers to the work of American writers from the same period as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. In America, the postmodern writers recognized there were no truths; the writing that issued then was a surfeit of fiction, an almost backlash response to the recognition of the apparent void truth left when it withdrew, a heaping of fiction upon fiction, as Eugenides described it. But Handke’s history is different, his expectations also different—there had never been, for him, a West to which this young man could go, no striking out for the territories. Temperamentally and historically he carried a weight that would never have been shared by American writers. Where the death of truth resulted for them in what Eugenides identifies as “an invitation to the carnival of imagination,” Handke is seeking the truth. His mother’s life was tragically limited in the possibilities offered a bright and curious girl and woman—her biography was, he felt, painfully spare—and he wanted for her and for himself to fully acknowledge who she had, in effect, been. Not the story of a life subject to the reduction or amplification of having been written, but the actual, the real and true and here he’s stuck with the vagaries and shift of memory. Or he can produce a lebenslauf, the equivalent of what Eugenides calls a resumé life, a fact-sheet biography.

Handicapped by his determined intention to create no fictions, i.e., to extract himself from his role as writer, he despairs: “I can only move myself into the distance, my mother can never become for me as I can for myself, a wingèd art object flying serenely through the air. She refuses to be isolated and remains unfathomable; my sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper.” He grapples with the limitations of writing but this is his craft and he is equipped, but what he also inserts—and this is throughout the book—are his noting flashes of horror, terror, fear. They are searingly sharp, pointed and brief and they pierced the skin of his mother’s biography for all of her life, even to its end.

Only a few months before her suicide she wrote letters to Handke. Here, the words are hers and he feels no need to question the state described, no need to interrogate it for suppositions of fiction. “Yesterday I saw Dostoevsky’s ‘The Gentle Spirit’ on TV; all night I saw the most gruesome things, I wasn’t dreaming, I really saw them…,” she wrote. Handke describes a fog that lingered, her trying various positions for her arms when she lay in bed at night, a rooster’s crowing turning the night into day, a buzzing in her head, the sound of a drop of water running down the window outside. He creates a nightmare tension that anticipates what will follow and recognizes what he’s done. “From this point on,” he writes, “ I shall have to be careful to keep my story from telling itself.” He has to retreat from his writing her, or what he has written of her won’t be her but writing instead.

He’s made this book to capture the life she extinguished and that he felt had never been fully realized. What is it then, that this compensatory biography should give us? I read it through a number of times and the picture remains incomplete; lacunas interrupt it and its surface is as pock-marked as the moon’s. Once, in the book, Handke mentions that when the war ended his mother might have been described as being dark-haired, slender and tall. He doesn’t say her name. I don’t remember anyone being named. She would have been somewhere near to 11 years old when Gerhard Richter, the celebrated German painter was born in Dresden. His father had been a teacher and, unemployed, had moved the family to a small town near the Czech border, was obliged to become a member of the National Socialist Party and then, at the outset of the war, a soldier. Released by the Americans in 1946 he returned to his family in what was now the Soviet zone. This is a history that parallels Handke’s mother’s, and I look at the paintings Gerhard Richter produced in the mid ’60s. Black and white oil paintings of photographs from his family’s album, Uncle Rudi in his army uniform, Aunt Marianne, a young girl in half profile, her smile partly obscured by the baby she holds on her lap (presumably her little brother), or Christa and Wolfi, two solidly built women in summer dresses standing behind a German shepherd who sits on a dining room chair in front of them. All the work in this series are in black and white attesting to the truth of photography, and in all of them Richter had employed his technique of dragging the wet surface so the image is blurred, indefinite and impossible to be read fully. They speak to memory’s elusive quality and to the reluctance of a nation to recognize and acknowledge its history. These grey paintings, these grisaille works, are Richter’s achieving what Handke wants to correct. Stunning and unnervingly inconclusive, they are too materially ambiguous to be the visual equivalents of Handke’s text. Still, when I try to see Handke’s mother as though in a photo, I think of Richter. She comes no clearer.

He writes, “At best I am able to capture my mother’s story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them; but these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness.”

Here is the tragic irony that besets his quest for the restoration of his mother’s biography. Since he can’t reinstate her being, it can only be her full story he presents and this he wanted to do in language that was unassailably true to her. A stand-in in words. Hence the title, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Only in dreams, he tells us, can he find her, and then briefly, and dreams we know are transient, contingent and far from immutable. His grief, his sorrow is beyond speaking. Nor can he write it, nor her.