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.
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.