Last reviewed: June 2018
Austrian novelist and playwright
December 6, 1942
Peter Handke is one of the most prominent and prolific writers in the German language and has published in many genres. Born in a small village in Austria on December 6, 1942, he spent his early adolescent years at a private Catholic school and knew from the age of about thirteen that he wanted to be a writer. Handke attended the University of Graz but immediately left when his first novel was accepted for publication. He gained notoriety when he vehemently criticized the writing of his contemporaries in a well-publicized outburst at the 1966 meeting of the Gruppe 47 writers’ association. He was married in 1966 and divorced in 1972. Handke left Austria soon after the publication of his first novel and moved to Paris with his daughter; he has since spent much of his time in Paris. An innovative and highly controversial author, Handke has been well received abroad, especially in France and the United States, but has been attacked often by German literary critics. While he was awarded several notable honors and awards—for example, the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize in 1967 and the Schiller Prize in 1972—he refused or returned other prizes, including the Büchner Prize (won in 1973, returned in 1999) and the Kafka Prize (refused in 1979). He accepted the Salzburg Literature Prize in 1986. Peter Handke.
Handke’s early writings focus on the relationship between language and the perception of reality. That is, he examines the ways in which “reality” is often a construction of linguistic forms or sign systems that tend to alienate the individual from experience. His early plays, Offending the Audience and Kaspar, for example, are highly experimental theatrical treatments of this structuralist theme of language and perception. His initial experimental novels were not easily accessible but also address this issue. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was his first commercial success; it deals with the linguistically distorted perceptions of a schizophrenic soccer goalie who commits a random murder.
Handke’s subsequent works, especially the novels, often involve decidedly autobiographical elements but still focus on existential themes of perception, reality, and the estrangement of the individual. Short Letter, Long Farewell describes the narrator’s anxiety-ridden journey across the United States as he compares his perceptions with the “images” of American society that he knows from books and films. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams deals with the suicide of Handke’s mother in late 1971. In it he examines the ways in which traditional linguistic stereotypes of women shape and distort his mother’s perceptions of herself and others. In A Moment of True Feeling the alienated Gregor Keuschnigg wanders the streets of Paris for several days as he seeks to find some form of experience that will reconnect him to reality. Handke builds upon his personal experiences as a single parent with the novel The Left-Handed Woman, in which the female protagonist, estranged from her husband and living alone with her son, attempts to achieve some sense of identity apart from her roles as wife and mother.
The theme of language, poetic or literary images, as a mode of overcoming or transcending alienation is implicit in Handke’s earlier writings but becomes a clearly explicit topic in his later texts. In his journal The Weight of the World he tries to use language and imagery in a way that will enhance experience rather than distort it. During the years 1979 to 1981 Handke wrote an unconnected trilogy of texts translated under the general title Slow Homecoming; it includes the novels The Long Way Around, The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and Child Story. These works represent the author’s personal and literary odyssey, a return to his Austrian homeland and to the literary heritage of German and Austrian authors, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adalbert Stifter, and Rainer Maria Rilke. The works reflect Handke’s ongoing search for existential roots and a personal identity with respect to the creation of a post-Romantic poetic vision. Die Geschichte des Bleistifts (a pencil’s story) is a journal Handke kept during the composition of Slow Homecoming and contains his reflection upon the poetic process.
The novel Across tells the story of Andreas Loser, a teacher of classical languages who is also an amateur archaeologist. Across also presents the author’s search for “origins” in literary history (the Latin nature poetry of Vergil) and in the self. As is the case with all Handke protagonists, Loser abandons his everyday life in order to embark upon a personal journey of rebirth and regeneration, an attempt to achieve a new vision of his life. In doing so he murders an old man whom he finds painting swastikas on the side of a mountain. This scene suggests Handke’s rejection of the Nazi past in his personal and national heritage. (Handke’s father was a German soldier during World War II.) Repetition also returns to Handke’s roots. It is a first-person narrative of a young Austrian man as he remembers incidents from his childhood and recounts a journey to Yugoslavia in the footsteps of his older brother. The Afternoon of a Writer is another strongly autobiographical narrative text that depicts the life of a writer who believes that he has lost the ability to write. Peter Handke’s quest for identity and existential rootedness in the act of poetic transformation informs all of his writings and has earned for him many readers.
In the 1990s, Handke reestablished himself as one of the enfants terribles of German literature by vociferously taking the side of the Serbs in the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, thus finding himself under attack from fellow writers, journalists, and politicians alike. Most of Handke’s literary output in the late 1990’s is a reflection of and a commentary on the events in the former Yugoslavia. As part of his condemnation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attacks on Serbia, Handke returned the Georg Büchner Prize, including a substantial stipend, that the German government had awarded him in 1973, and formally renounced his membership in the Roman Catholic Church, which he accused of supporting what he called the genocide of the Serbian people. At the same time, he proudly accepted his elevation to the rank of Knight of Serbia.
Having begun his career as a dramatist with an examination of language’s inability to communicate, Handke had moved to an examination of how language forces humans to construct reality. In the plays he wrote in the late 1990’s responding to the Balkan conflict, Zurüstungen zur Unsterblichkeit (preparations for immortality) and Voyage by Dugout, he arrives again at a position first articulated in Kaspar: Language is a tool of manipulation and indoctrination. The Einsager, the linguistic social engineers of his most famous play, turn into the chorus of the three journalists in Die Fahrt im Einbaum.
In March 2006, Handke gave a speech at the funeral of former Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milošević suggesting that the world's condemnation of Milošević was unwarranted. Later that year, the jury of the Heinrich Heine Prize voted to award the prize to Handke, but the award was withdrawn when the city council of Düsseldorf, who must vote to approve the winner, said that they would not approve Handke due to his support for Milošević.
Handke's 2008 book The Moravian Night, another exploration of the treachery of memory and language, was longlisted for the German Book Prize and the European Book Prize; that year, Handke was also awarded the Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. He won the Franz Kafka Prize in 2009, and his 2010 play Storm Still, set in the Austrian/Slovenian region of Carinthia under Nazi occupation, won the Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis. In 2014 Handke was given the International Ibsen Award by the Norwegian government, a decision that was condemned by the Norwegian chapter of PEN International.