Peter Handke’s “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams”

Peter Handke’s memoir “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” details the life and eventual suicide of his mother, which he attempts to portray in the narrative as having been an “exemplary case” of voluntary death.  This is my response to the dense, sparse narrative in which Handke refuses sentimentality and resists analysis; the text ventures into places rarely seen in traditional literature, confronting aspects of our experience that prove nameless, incomprehensible and (nearly) uncommunicable.  

In his introduction to A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Jeffrey Eugenides situates Peter Handke’s memoir in context of other novels written in the same time period of the 1970’s, specifically those grouped under the umbrella heading of American literary postmodernism. He writes how writers such as Barth, Pynchon and Coover were penning “wild, funny novels full of narrative disjunctions and formal play” as part of a broad movement characterized by feelings of fatigue “with the complacency of realism” (xiii). A mother’s suicide is never funny in the same sense as the humor typical of these other novels; form must (or at least ought to) match subject matter, which in this case disqualifies the overt, outright irony that characterizes so much of postmodern literature. Despite this disconnect, Eugenides introduces the memoir as part of the postmodern tradition, an inversion of the same feelings. Tight, minimalistic prose; fragmented, disjointed narrative; unchanging, sullen tone. Handke achieves many ironies in his text, ones of the absurdity of living, the emptiness at the ends of being, the strange comfort in encountering things that cannot be adequately communicated, nameless, objective, merciless forces he can only hint his reader’s mind toward.

Handke resists typical narrative procedures, instead employing a crisp, tense style with little emotionalism, preferring the story of his mother’s experiences to not be one characterized by pity. The memoir opens by referencing the suicide as a news story in a newspaper, a depersonalized form of mass media that renders a woman’s entire life as only objective details, as dates, times and locations. Depersonalization is major theme of the memoir, what with the attention it pays to crowds, newspapers and lifeless, dead bodies. It is an opening particularly fitting for Handke’s account, which reads almost like a newspaper in a cunning, piercing way. A key agent in his rhetoric is the unusual bolding of certain words and phrases, seemingly unevenly placed throughout the text, signifiers which draw particular attention to themselves almost like vocabulary words in a science textbook to be memorized for a middle school test. Bolded phrases provide emotional, pathos-laden content without the price of sacrificing dignity in language of representation. Multiple layers of meaning are connoted: “The men she liked to be with were GENTLEMEN” (24). The mother’s taste in men and in social appearances are apparent; also clear is that her access to gentlemen is uncommon and unusual, something she’s not used to and something she craves, something that means more to her than any regular, unbolded phrase. Bolding is a technique for Handke to insert something of himself into the text without directly doing so. We are acutely aware of his knowledge of his family’s social class, his awareness of the environment his mother lived most of her life in and never really escaped. “Gentlemen” is contrasted against his mother’s husband and even Handke himself, who despite his education and world travelling is unlikely to ever pick up on or desire values considered “gentlemanly,” values some (Bourdieu comes to mind) consider to be inherited or not inherited based on social standing at birth. This is a primary point of disconnect between mother and son.

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The extra power ascribed to these bolded words isolates them from the rest of the text. Like magnets, new connections are forged to previously unexplored territories, an interesting ripple in Eugenides’ take on literary postmodernism.

 

Coba Ruins

Top, from left: Recovered Mesoamerican ballgame court; Coba ruins from peak; Coba, viewed from ground. Bottom: A selfie; a family portrait- typical tourist stuff; Mayan glyph script, the only fully-developed pre-Columbian writing system in the Americas, of particular interest to me on the trip.

3 January 2016.  10:45a.m.  Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. 

“The captain of the winning team,” Germán says, “earned the honor of being sacrificed to the gods.”  We stop in our tracks in the hot dirt.  Sweat cascades down our foreheads as we turn toward the guide, a young man who quit his office job and abandoned his college degree to spend six days a week guiding tourists through thousand year old Mayan ruins.  “Some reward, eh?”

An uneasy laugh emanates through our little group of American and European travelers.  The idea is entirely foreign to us; we’re more intrigued than repulsed.  The traditional game still practiced ceremonially by the Maya involves a ball of rubber, elbows and lots of patience.  And intensity.  And luck.

“Be back at the van at 11:45, and we’ll get on the road for our next stop: zip lining,” Germán says. We scatter.  Dad and Nancy step over to sit on an overturned log for a sip of water.  Andrea holds up her phone and takes a picture. I pull out my selfie stick, attracting a few stares, and snap a picture.  I fix my sleeves and hook the stick through my belt  buckle.

“Well, shall we?” I say to my sisters.  They nod and begin walking toward the pyramid.  Earlier, Germán had told us the Mayan added another layer to the outside of many of their temples every 52 years- symbolically and literally,  a new generation added to the works of the previous ones.

The walkway is steeper than we’d anticipated.  The hard limestone is cool on our hands, the aisle overrun with people of all sorts scurrying to the top.

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The Richter family with their guide, Germán.

A few hundred steps later we reach the temple’s peak.  Various alters and rock formations dot the landscape that otherwise consists only of trees and a long powerline that stretches across the distant forest.  No roads are visible, no buildings, no airplanes in the sky. We sit and ponder the view, new impressions turning around our heads.  Think of what’s been done here, the history, the heritage we’re witnessing, the transformation of one culture to another and another.

Germán has spent years studying the ancient Mayans and is able to answer all of the questions we ask him, including his own well-informed personal critiques of popular conceptions of the ancients of his homeland that he feels an overwhelming affinity with. I ask him about the writing system developed by the Maya, a particular interest of mine that I’d read up on before the trip. We take full advantage of his knowledge, asking the funny questions, the clichéd ones, the slightly uncomfortable ones. There is a true desire to learn and to share.

It is my first time outside of the United States.

We look down at the limestone and think of the morning’s experiences.  Then we crawl back down on our butts, one step at a time, sea turtles, saltwater and sand ahead of us.

Maps and Maplessness

 

This is a short story I wrote as part of an Advanced Creative Writing course at SUNY Cortland in the Fall of 2014.  It’s not my best work, and I’ve surpassed it many times since, but I haven’t published a piece of fiction here in quite some time.  It’s an immature story, but I still feel something for it and look back at it fondly.  I’d like to publish something of more substance on this site soon (I’m in a fiction writing class here at Buffalo, too, where I come up with lots of shorter ideas that are unpublishable in any medium other than a personal blog).  p.s.- currently still working on my autobiographical novel and a special short story dealing with unconscious and involuntary memories.  My seminars this spring include classes on digital medias, environmental criticism, 20th century intensified postmodern fiction and the aforementioned fiction writing class.

Hope you guys enjoy. 

Maps and Maplessness

 

On the morning my brother George was killed while merging onto the highway heading home from California and whatever he’d found there, he wrote something in his journal I’ve carried with me ever since: “We are cold and we are lost, but on mornings when there is no rain, we are rich men indeed.”

My roommate Sam and I were hiding off a side road on the edge of a cornfield two weeks later, right on a ridge where trees of muted orange and yellow met the decaying gold furrows of a New York autumn. We huddled by our fire, taking advantage of the evening to stand on our feet, which we hadn’t done all day, and used the last daylight of today to plan how best to use the daylight of tomorrow.

“71 will bring us close to the mountains,” I said, “ but we’ll be hitting traffic bound for the city.”

Sam took the map from my hands. We always chose the scenic route over the quicker one, and did our best to avoid highways because there was a need to rush when driving on one. These were two points of good-travelling George had outlined in his journal. I was tired and didn’t care where we went. Sam looked at the map for a moment and then walked away toward the ridge.

“Grab the tent for me and I’ll start setting it up,” I told him. The tent we were using to sleep in was in the basket on the side of his motorcycle, one he’d borrowed from his father. “Sam, I want to go to sleep. Grab me the tent,” I yelled, but he kept walking. “Where are you going?” I shouted.

“I’m going to find water,” he said.

“Well, I’m pitching the tent,” I said firmly. “At least bring some back with you,” I yelled to him.

It was a long day and I thought about just finding a tree to lay up against and nod off to sleep. I was tempted but knew my indefinite future was to be spent with my spine heaped on a motorcycle for 14 hours a day, and I knew it could rain up here any time and I’d probably sleep right through it until I was soaked and shivering.

When the stakes for the tent were all hammered in I got a can of pork and beans out from my bag and took the frying pan we were using from Sam’s bike and began heating them over the coals. The pan was still dirty from the eggs we’d made earlier that morning but I didn’t care and popped the beans in anyway. When I put the grease bin away I noticed one of the eggs had broken in the plastic bag we kept them in and had been heating all day in the hot motorcycle bag. The broken egg, crushed Sameath the weight of the other half-dozen or so, floated in a thin yellow paste peppered with white shell-pieces. The rotten-egg stew smelled of unknowable disease as I opened the bag and immediately upon reacting to the stench I flung it away toward a tall willow twenty feet into the trees. I went back to the fire and took the beans off and ate them cold before putting half back on the coals to heat for Sam whenever he wandered back.

After I slept for about an hour I woke to hear him eating as he sat on the meditation pillow he’d insisted on bringing. I’d been realizing for a few days now just how truly unprepared we were for everything and now it all was beginning to boil over.

“Find any water?” I muttered.

“Yes. Far away.” He motioned toward a resealed Poland Springs bottle sitting by his feet. “You know, Ben, maybe we should start heading back.”

“What?”

“You know,” he said, cracking the knuckles of each finger individually, “maybe we should head back to school. We’ve only missed the first week. We’ve only missed syllabus week. We could still go back and nothing would be any different.”

He was losing faith. I knew he’d end up going back now.

“Sam, you made a promise. You promised you’d stay out here with me as long as it took. We both made promises.”

“In the morning I’m going back,” he said.

“No,” I said, and rolled over inside the tent so I was facing away from him. “No,” I thought, looking down into the silky abyss of the black tent fabric. “No. No.”

I laid in the tent for what felt like hours and for the whole time I was awake Sam sat outside by the fire, flaking the mud off his boots and applying and reapplying his black bandana to his head.

“How can you justify doing anything but this?” Nothing was making sense now. I was in that state of semi-consciousness when you get so caught up in your thoughts that sleep itself becomes a state of anxiety and even your dreams are of times when you won’t need to think and in this state you are never sure if the events surrounding you are real or imaginary, if your words are sounds or if they are just something your worries have created and all you know is you can’t trust your own sense of reality and it’s not going to end at any definite time… In the haze of the tension of the world I looked up at the cornfield illuminated under the light of the moon and saw George’s pale and unchanging face wandering through the maze of the rotting cornstalks, his eyes lost and worried and unsure how to get out toward any place worth going, everything melting around him and still no where to go…

That night we slept in the tent and cleaned nothing of our dinner, put nothing away, left the day-old heated eggs sitting underneath the willow tree where I’d thrown the bag of them and surely cracked them all, and in the starlight approaching dawn when I heard paw-steps meandering over like the ever-present ghost following me I hoped with all my life and all the life to ever be lived that it might be a grizzly bear come to look me in the eyes and judge me, for then I might know what value and meaning was truly able to be found and the foggy illusions chained to my thoughts might dissipate like ash as the fires of being kept burning, burning, burning, and if the grizzly came and looked at my eyes like clear iridescent blue-tinged salmon he might lift his paw and in his apathy toss my thoughts back into the river they came from and if he came everything would be settled, George and I both gone to nothingness, ash and clay, bright or black. All my life was inside the bear who sat at the top of the hill, eating what I’d thrown to him.