Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard – My Numéro Cinq review

I have written about Thomas Bernhard’s novels before, but faced with prospect of writing a longer critical review of a book containing four short stories I was faced with a dilemma: What does one say about Bernhard?

The question really is: How much familiarity with Bernhard should one assume? He is, most definitely, a singular writer. Those of us who count ourselves among the converted tend to have bulging bookshelves filled with a healthy supply of Bernhard’s novels, memoirs and poetry. Others are uncertain or fail to be immediately captivated. A bit of Bernhard primer is thus in order for those potential new readers, especially in this instance, because Goethe Dies, the collection at hand, offers a perfect opportunity to experience the magic of the master in miniature. A treat I argue for readers no matter their degree of prior acquaintance.

So in the following review published at Numéro Cinq earlier this week I tried to balance my general discussion of Bernhard’s prose style to provide a context for the appreciation of my analysis of the stories that would not be too redundant for the experienced or too vague for the novice.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. And while you’re there have a look around. There is another great issue shaping up at NC.

A Master Set Loose in a Small Space: Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies — Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

Continue reading here:

Peace for the soul: Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

Mother bore the babe in the white moon,
In the shadow of the walnuts, ancient elderberry,
Drunk on poppy juice, the lament of the thrush;
And silently
A bearded face bows with compassion over her

Quietly in the dark of the window; and the old chattel
Of ancestors
Lay broken up; love and autumn reverie.

Layout 1So begins “Sebastian Dreaming”, the centre piece of the second and final collection of poems prepared for publication by Georg Trakl during his lifetime. His first collection, Poems (Gedichte) had been published to warm reception in 1913, but, one year later as he was awaiting the release of this volume, he received word that the war would indefinitely delay all further publications. It is thought that this news, in conjunction with the mental and emotional stress he suffered working in the dire conditions of a wartime military hospital, contributed to his early demise. On November 3, 1914, he was found dead of a cocaine overdose. He was twenty-seven years old.

Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum), represents the second book of Our Trakl, a three part series of new translations of Trakl’s complete works by American poet and translator James Reidel. Recently released by Seagull Books, this volume joins Poems, which was published in 2015. True to form it is finely crafted and beautifully presented. Although the poems here have appeared in other compilations, and editions of selected works, Reidel contends that this book deserves to be read, as Trakl intended, as a single volume. As with Poems, the reader is invited to spend time with the work as a whole, to engage with Trakl’s fractured, dream-like vision.

In an earlier review of the first volume of this series, I traced an overview of Trakl’s life and included links to Reidel’s essay about this project in the journal Mudlark. The elements of Trakl’s poetry, and the challenges facing the translator, are perhaps even more strikingly evident in this book. The motifs that dominate his first collection – rural landscape, nature, colour, signs of life, images of death and the abiding presence of his beloved sister Grete – are all here, but there is a more restrained and disjointed feel to many of the pieces. This reflects, according to Reidel, Trakl’s continuous efforts to try to pluck poems out of his experience, efforts that fall apart and lead him to return to the same images and motifs repeatedly:

“Indeed, translating him is like finding ones footing on the blue glass mountain of fairy tales—with Grete the princess within. The great irony, for me, is that the constant improvements, revisions, and corrections are in keeping with Trakl’s method, with all his obsessive autumns, black birds, neologisms—and in that same spirit—his Schwesterei, his sistering his poems, his madness, decay, and constant sense of downfall and sunset and the like. There is in Trakl a constant reworking, a constant revisit to the same forest, to see the same blue deer, and so on, to the same working poems to see them in the right light, or, more often, the right gloom.”

As a reader coming to this work, I am neither inclined nor qualified to enter into a critical assessment of Sebastian Dreaming or the translation at hand. Other translations of Trakl’s poetry are available and I do not believe that any one translation is superior to another, especially with poetry, although readers, with or without an ability to approach the work in the original, are bound to have preferences. The first version of a piece encountered? The one that sounds most pleasing in English? The translation that is most exacting in content and form to the German?

As noted in my earlier review of Poems, Reidel indicated in his introduction to that volume that his intention is to try to capture Trakl in a sense that would be as close as possible to the experience of the original reading, keeping in mind the time and the influences that would have shaped his work. As he explains, “I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.” The care and sensitivity Reidel has brought to his work comes through, touching the reader across the century that has passed since the poet’s death.

Sebastian Dreaming is divided into five sections. The final part, consisting of one longer, magnificent prose poem, “Dream and Benightment” (previously translated as “Dream and Derangement”) stands as my personal favourite, given my current fondness and attraction to the form. It is an intense and powerful piece:

Hate scorched his heart, lust. Then he stepped into the green of the summer garden in the guise of a silent child, in whom he recognized his benighted face shining. Woe the evening at the window, when a grey skeleton emerged from crimson flowers, death. O, you towers and bells; and the shadows of the night fell upon him as a stone.

The poems in this book are charged, if possible, with a more sombre atmosphere than his earlier collection. The sadness comes through clearly and lingers. The recurring themes are visited from varying angles and directions. One can sense the poet trying to focus his vision while over it all hangs the eerie premonition of death that will soon be freed from the pages and realized by the increasingly discouraged and depressed writer.

I will leave you with a complete taste from this collection, in the form of this striking, spare poem:

Peace and Silence

Shepherds buried the sun in the leafless forest.
A fisherman pulled
The moon from the freezing pond in a net of hair.

In the blue crystal
Lives the pale man whose cheek rests against his stars;
Or he nods his head in crimson sleep.

Yet the black flight of the birds always stirs
The beholder, the saint of blue flowers,
The stillness near recalls forgotten things, extinguished angels.

Once more the brow nights over the lunar stone;
A shining boy
The sister appears in autumn and black corruption.

Georg Trakl’s Sebastian Dreaming: Book Two of Our Trakl, translated by James Reidel, is now available from Seagull Books.

Painting the world with words: Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr

“I saw a jet-black darkness tattooed with countless dots of light above me, an apparently boundless firmament stretching out to the deepest universe, while I lay on the bottom of a rowing boat that a Maori ferryman pushed through the night with the strokes of his oar.”

Layout 1Thus begins “In Space” one of the 70 episodes collected by Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr in his unconventional and utterly captivating Atlas of an Anxious Man, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Simon Pare. Seemingly caught in a dreamscape somewhere between travelogue and memoir, he leads the reader on an unforgettable journey that stretches across the globe in a series of evocative vignettes. Such as the one quoted above which, we soon learn, is an account of a tour into a system of caves deep within mountains on New Zealand’s South Island. The night sky Ransmayr is lying beneath is an illusion created by the luminous larvae of a gnat species clinging to the cave ceiling. Insects that mistakenly fly up toward the false heavens are soon snared in a web of sticky silken threads and become nourishment for the growing larvae. Nestled securely within the bottom of the boat, the author goes on to recount a frightening experience from earlier that same day as he made his way through a high mountain pass to reach this site:

“After snow had begun to fall in large flakes just before the top of the pass, my rental car, not equipped for wintry conditions, began to slide backwards – backwards! – with churning wheels down an already snow swept rise towards the edge of the road and a rocky slope. The slope was so steep that my car seemed destined to somersault over and over down to a mountain stream far below, running black and silent towards the valley bottom.”

He is about to jump and let the car go on without him when it comes to a stop perilously close to the edge where passing trekkers find him and tow him to safety with their jeep. In four pages we are treated to both the wonders and the terrors of nature, narrated with the skill and confidence of a gifted storyteller.

Each episode begins with an observation: “I saw an open grave in the shade of a huge araucaria pine” or “I saw a fisherman cursing as he steered for Baltimore harbour in the south-west of Ireland” or “I saw a three-toed sloth on the veranda of blue wooden house on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast” or “I saw a naked man through binoculars from my cover behind dusty firethorn bushes.” Even a tale that seems to begin with a most ordinary descriptive passage becomes, before you know it, an engaging portrait of a place, an experience, a character. Ransmayr has an uncanny ability to focus his lens on the small details to bring a location, a time, an event to life.

The 70 entries follow neither chronological nor geographical order, and occasionally he even slips back in time to capture experiences from his own life in Austria, reaching as far as the age of three with the account of a storm that lifted the roof off his house when he was watching his mother hang wet laundry across the attic room. Whether he is observing a bird on a remote rock face, watching a man tee off at the North Pole, describing a bullfight in Spain, or trekking through the Himalayas; he is never a disinterested observer. His engagement with the people, creatures, and landscapes he encounters is always curious but respectful. In the waters of the Dominican Caribbean for example, he floats among the waves watching a humpback whale cow and her young sleeping far below. When the calf suddenly breaks free from its mother’s protective shadow and heads up for the surface, Ransmayr panics as the parent rushes up towards him in pursuit. She comes close enough that he can see the iris of her eye:

“The giant looked at me. No, she brushed me with her gaze and altered her course by a hair’s breadth, just enough that we didn’t touch each other. Yet although she avoided me with this hint of a deviation, and therefore recognized and acknowledged my existence, I discerned a complete indifference in her look – akin to the mountain’s toward someone climbing it, or the sky’s toward someone flying through it – that I was overcome by a feeling that I would dissolve into nothing before these eyes, disappear before them as though I had never lived. Maybe this Atlantic giant in black had actually swept up from its realm in the deep to convey to an Atlantic swimmer how rich and varied, unchanged and natural the world was without him.”

His travels typically take him to the far reaches, off the beaten track, to locations accessed on foot, or by bicycle, assorted boats, tour buses, rental vehicles and more. He explores history, lifts his telescope to the heavens, and encounters politically tense environments. No two entries are the same, few extend beyond 6 to 8 pages, some are only 2 or 3 pages long. I found it best to take my time with this book, reading a few entries a day and allowing the awe to linger. This is not an ordinary travelogue by any means, but it is a shimmering example of what makes the best travel writing sparkle. The theme, if there is one, that unites and drives the narrative from beginning to end is possibly simply wonder. Not that Ransmayr is blind to the poverty, suffering and threats he encounters. His immediate reactions are sometimes frustration, even fear, but he manages, remarkably to find a glimmer, an image, a thought that affirms life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

However, what really makes this book such a joy to read is the sheer beauty of the language and the author’s ability to weave his experiences and observations into stories that are moving and original, time and again. I’ll leave you with end one of my favourites in which he tells of emerging from mangrove swamps in Sumatra to encounter, in a clearing, a building on stilts. On the patio a man is singing with a karaoke machine, but his only audience is composed of the geckos clinging to the roof. Ransmayr takes a seat and as he listens to the singer perform the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” he is transported back to a snowy night in Austria, a wedding and corduroy suits. Suddenly a lightening strike from an approaching storm knocks the power out. Oddly, the singer fiddles with the controls, seemingly determined to try to turn the machine back on until a thin man in a sarong appears and calls to him:

“The singer laughed. And then the thin man was beside him, took him by the hand and led him carefully down the stage steps and between the empty chairs and tables to one of the walkways, and I realized that the singer, who was groping for obstacles with his free hand, could not have seen the lightening and could not have seen how the neon tubes and control lamps had gone out, nor how night had fallen so suddenly over the mangroves, swallowing up swarms of insects and a tin sky with hundreds of geckos stuck to it. Karaoke. A blind man had sung to me out of the mangroves of Sumatra back to the village of my birth.”

Thank you to Seagull Books for kindly sending me on this journey.

Inside the fragmenting mind: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke

‘Bloch got sleepy. He made a few tired gestures to make light of his sleepiness, but that made him even sleepier. Various things he said during the day came back to him; he tried to get rid of them by breathing out. Then he felt himself falling asleep; as before the end of a paragraph, he thought.’

One of the first things you need to know about Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is that here are no easy answers here. If you are inclined to believe that literature should purvey rational motivation, moral certainty, and a satisfying denouement, you might want to look elsewhere. This is a novel that dismantles everything that one expects a novel to be, but, because Handke engages in this process from within the mind of man whose own processes of perception and comprehension are unraveling, one can argue that for all its inherent strangeness, The Goalie’s Anxiety approaches a reality of experience that is startling.

goalieAfter all, how do we measure reality? The only measures we have are our thoughts and perceptions. Narrated with an almost clinical, documentary clarity from a limited third person perspective, the reader is presented with an opportunity to exist inside the mind of a dispassionate murderer and face the uncomfortable possibility that rational explanations for behaviour may not always exist–and that someone who may not be in their right mind can be disordered not only in their thinking, but in their emotional responses.

At the outset of the novel we meet Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had formerly been a well-known soccer goalie. He arrives at work one day and interprets small insignificant signs from his coworkers to mean that he has lost his job and, taking the hint, he leaves. He goes to the movies, takes a hotel room and otherwise occupies himself with random activities. Strange moods and thoughts pass through his mind. One night he decides to wait for the cashier at the movie theatre to get off work and follows her home.

When he wakes after spending the night with her, he discovers, lying in bed with his eyes closed, that an odd inability to visualize things has come over him. He tries naming objects, then making up sentences about things, all in an effort to bring the images to mind. He becomes aware of the pressure of things, distressing when his eyes are open, magnified when they are closed. His thoughts and experiences are starting to fall out of synch with the world around him. As he spends time with the cashier, he notices his irritation increasing and then, with little provocation or self-reflection, he strangles the young woman.

An unearthly calm envelopes the narration as Bloch’s actions and thinking processes are recounted with a surreal, slow motion quality. Before long he leaves the city to head out to a small town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. He shows no particular desire to hide from the authorities, but as he spends time in the town his thinking continues to fall apart. Talking and communicating begins to take on a disordered quality. Bloch starts analyzing and double checking his thoughts–the words and expressions that pass through his mind catch him up and he questions the meanings he attaches to the words of others, for example in this exchange with two cape-wearing (yes, cape wearing) bicycle policemen outside a closed pool where Bloch has found himself standing:

‘The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “Whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”.’

Over time his interactions with others continue to grow increasingly surreal, at least from within Bloch’s increasingly distorted perceptions of the world. We are, after all, firmly ensconced in the head of a man whose emotional and cognitive functioning is unspooling. The story may be proceeding with detached and disconnected sequences, but the tightly controlled limited third person narrative is deeply affecting for the reader. We can only see the world as Bloch experiences it, but with just enough distance to watch the internal decline. We are told what he is doing and thinking, but everyone and everything he encounters is filtered through his distorted lens–he imagines that messages are being sent to him, even if he is not certain what they are trying to indicate, objects and events hold meaning. As his paranoia grows, his sense of prescience is also heightened and he observes that his thoughts seem to proceed the words or actions of others.

At the same time Bloch exhibits an enhanced awareness of the world in small, often insignificant details that impose themselves on his consciousness to the point that he is sometimes irritated by the sensory input and his own intrusive observations. His breakdown is skillfully orchestrated. Handke captures his hyper awareness in descriptive passages that reflect the odd acuity of his attention and his internal difficulties with his own fragmenting thoughts. At one point, as Bloch tries desperately to cling to individual words, images briefly replace the terms that have abandoned him. And although, like Camus’ Mersault to whom he is often compared, he never expresses any remorse for his violent act; as the police appear to be closing in on him, his thoughts betray more than he can or will admit to himself.

‘He took a second look: no, the light switches stayed light switches, and the garden chairs in the landscape behind the house stayed garden chairs.

He walked on because–
Did he have to give a reason for walking, so that–?

What did he have in mind when–? Did he have to justify the “when” by–? Did this go on until–? Had he reached the point where–?’

It is sometimes said that Handke’s protagonist stands as an allegory for the disintegration of modern man and society, but I could not help but recognize in Bloch a striking depiction of the internal irrational rationalizing of the psychotic mind. The supercharged sensitivity, the paranoia, and the ultimate inability to string together coherent thoughts all echo my own unfortunate experience with mania and the experiences of many of the schizophrenic clients I’ve worked with over the years.

As the book nears its conclusion, Bloch has a recurring memory that seems to indicate there is an incident that may have been a mitigating factor in the progress of mental decline that plays out in the novel. It is subtly drawn and reinforced with the closing scene, but even then, one would imagine there might well have been an inherent psychological weakness that was triggered by the event. The 1972 movie based on this novel which marked the first collaboration between Handke as screenwriter and director Wim Wenders is more explicit in this regard, but the film proceeds with effectively disconnected and disorienting scenes to maintain the surreal feel of the book.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke is translated by Michael Roloff and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thoughts on Among the Bieresch by Klaus Hoffer

Sometimes, when I am reading a book that I know I will want to write about, my thoughts about the work at hand take form in the process of reading in a manner that will later inform and direct my review. Other times, the route from reading to writing is more circuitous. I tend to take copious notes, underline and engage with my books, but, having said that, there is always the risk of failing to see the forest for the trees (or more explicitly, failing to appreciate the text for the words). Then, when I sit down to write, no matter how much I may love the work at hand, I look back over my notebook and face too many words to sift through.

BiereschAmong the Bieresch, the long-standing German cult classic by Austrian writer Klaus Hoffer is a book that threatened to undermine me, as a reviewer, with its words – words that are supercharged with meaning and reference to a broadly expanding literary and socio-economic landscape. The beauty of this book is that it works on so many levels and now, with its recent release from Seagull Books, in an animated translation by Isabel Fargo Cole, an English language audience has the opportunity to meet and explore the singular world of the Bieresch.

My review of Among the Bieresch has been published by 3:AM Magazine. I am most grateful to Tristan Foster for his wise and patient editorial guidance as I floundered, at times, in my own words.

Listen closely now – The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]

THIRTEEN INSTANCES OF LUNACY
TWENTY SURPRISES
FOUR DISAPPEARANCES
TWENTY-SIX MURDERS
TWO INSTANCES OF LIBEL
SIX PAINFUL DEATHS
THREE CHARACTER ATTACKS
FIVE EARLY DEATHS
ONE MEMORY LAPSE
FOUR COVER-UPS
EIGHTEEN SUICIDES

With the list above, the cover of the University of Chicago publication of The Voice Imitator offers a warning to the potential reader of the themes that feature in the 104 stories that lie ahead. For seasoned readers of Thomas Bernhard none are likely a surprise, though it is quite possible to emerge at the end thinking, “were there only 26 murders and 18 suicides?” Chances are it feels like there are more. But that’s okay. Would you really expect less?

VoiceIf the thought of encountering a volume containing 104 stories sounds intimidating, be assured that this collection spans all of 104 pages. This is Bernhard in microcosm, all of the acerbic wit and dark charm one could want from the Austrian playwright, poet and novelist distilled into brief anecdotal tales, each recounted within the space of one page.
The longest fill the page, the shortest are no more than a few lines.

Drawing on newspaper reports, rumour, and overheard conversations, Bernhard exploits this condensed form of fiction to tackle his favourite targets, including, of course, his native country. Even in a confined space, he finds room to explore the foibles of human nature and contemplate the bitter ironies of life. There is a healthy dose of death – murder, suicide, accident – some, tragic, some absurd; and no small measure of madness. Featuring a familiar retinue of philosophers and professors, craftsmen and woodcutters, musicians and artists, freaks and loners; the stars of these anecdotes and fables are driven by conviction, thwarted ambition, disillusion, and disappointment. Just like, well, the rest of us.

The least effective pieces are the very shortest. A few more lines are often in order to set the scene, to draw the drama, to pull the the punch. But even then, the emotional impact can be striking with less than half a page:

“Sitting in the early train, we happen to look out of the window just at the moment when we are passing the ravine into which our school group, with whom we had undertaken an excursion to the waterfall, had plunged fifteen years ago, and we think about how we were saved but the others were killed forever. The teacher who had been taking our group to the waterfall hanged herself immediately after a sentence of eight year’s imprisonment had been passed on her by the Salzburg Provincial Court. When the train passes the scene of the accident, we can hear our own cries intermingled with the cries of the whole group.”                        (Early Train)

The use of the first person plural in the majority of these stories lends an intimate tone. One can almost imagine the narrator as one of those inveterate storytellers who always has an entertaining morsel at hand: a family legend, a piece of wisdom, a mini tirade to share. Bernhard’s language plays on repetition, relies on qualifiers like “so-called” – one can almost see the air quotes – and, in this shortened format, he delights in throwing a punch at the end, leaving the reader with a gasp, a nod, or an ironic laugh.

Some might see this as an introduction to Bernhard for those uncomfortable diving into, say, a single-paragraph 200 page novel. But it works even better, one might argue, as a treat for those who are already acquainted with some of Bernhard’s classic works. Each little anecdotal story stands like a glimpse into the windows of Bernhard’s world… the themes, characters, and images that feature in his longer works shine, isolated for a moment, in the space of a single page or less. Contained in this way, his rhythm, his cynicism, and acerbic wit ring through. Bite-sized Bernhard to marvel at and enjoy.

glm_vThe Voice Imitator is translated by Kenneth J. Northcott. This stands as my first contribution for the German Literature Month reading challenge.

The art of distilling a life lived: A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke

“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.”

With this simply stated aspiration, Austrian writer and dramatist Peter Handke set out to capture the essence of his mother’s life and chronicle the painful spiral that swept her into a darkness which would lead her to take her own life at the age of 51. Written over two winter months in 1972, the result is a slight volume, 69 pages, that can be read in afternoon. But length can be deceiving. Tracing out a life that spanned the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the austerity and suffering that followed,  A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a spare and elegant memoir from which the reader emerges drained and aching alongside its author.

sorrowFrom the outset he admits that he is seeking an element of closure in the act of putting words to paper, but he wishes to avoid an overly sentimental account, concerned that he risks turning his mother, a real person, into a “character.” He intentionally adopts a more distanced perspective. He does not refer to her by name, and when he recounts the events of his early years he is “the child” or one of “the children”. He employs capital letters for emphasis (“she was a woman who had been ABROAD”). But there is another motive as well. He sees in her life an illustration of the social restraints that defined and limited the lives of so many women from poor rural communities such as the small Austrian village where she began and ended her life. As such he wishes to present her life story as one that is at once personal and exemplary.

The portrait he paints of his mother is one of a spirited young woman, who was denied her pleas to be allowed to continue her studies, for an education beyond the basics was not to be squandered on girls or women. So she ran away to the city to study cooking – not exactly an academic pursuit, but again the only option open for her. She thrived in her new environment: a world of new friendships, fashions, opportunity, and the heady comraderie that accompanied the rise of National Socialism.

The outbreak of war only added to the excitement as young soldiers, away from home and lonely, flooded into the city. She met and fell in love with a married man. Before long she was pregnant, but by the time her son Peter was born she had married another man. Her first romance would remain her only true experience of romantic love; what she had with her husband was a disappointing, often hostile, and very lonely existence. After the war the young family spent a few years in Berlin, living amidst the rubble. A second child is born there. (Over the years she will have two more children and secretly abort three others with knitting needles.) In 1948 they flee Germany and return to Austria, where she finds herself back in her family home, trapped again in a restricted environment, her life once more defined by the Catholic shame and guilt of village life.

Economic conditions at this time were harsh and her husband’s drinking and difficulty holding employment did not help. She responded with the only strategy available: “pure scrimping; you curtailed your needs to the point where they became vices, and then you curtailed them some more.” Necessities would be wrapped up and handed out at Christmas. As Handke recalls, “I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.” Yet she did not look to the possibility that life might hold more for her than housework and continually making the rounds required to keep her drunkard husband employed, creditors from the door and paperwork up to date just to assure access to the most basic benefits.

Finally, as modern appliances started to appear in her house, freeing up a little precious time, Handke’s mother took to reading. Not just the newspapers, but books he brought home from university: Fallada, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and more. She took everything she read very personally as if each book was a commentary on her life. But by doing so she began to find the words to express herself and put voice to her experiences. As she gradually emerged from her shell, her son finally began to learn about her. However they did not give her a vision of hope for her own future, they spoke only to a past:

“Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but it showed her it was too late for that. She COULD HAVE made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave SOME thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a LITTLE LESS about what people might think.”

For a while she become more engaged in the community, showed more compassion to her husband, and things might have improved but the disappointments of home life still seemed to defeat her. She began to have headaches. She started to withdraw from community life. Her spirit sagged and no one could tell her what was wrong until a neurologist in the city identified her condition as a “nervous breakdown”. With the comfort of having an explanation and medication to ease the pain, she eventually improved. There would be a respite. But in the end despair returned. In November of 1971, she wrote farewell letters to her each member of her family. Then one evening after dinner with her daughter and an evening watching TV with her youngest son, she took all of her sleeping pills and all of her antidepressants and laid down on her bed to welcome that final rest.

If Handke had imagined that in writing this account of his mother’s life he would be able to achieve some peace himself, he discovers, in the end, that that is not the case. The story continues to preoccupy him, to haunt him. Facing memories head on is an act of confronting horror but it does not ease it. The horror arises from the persistent attempt to reflect a truth. He admits that at times he longed to be able to lose himself in a fiction, to be able to tell lies for a while, write a play instead. No longer able to stay out of the frame, he closes the book with a collection of images, remembrances, and brief personal confessions.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is, as its subtitle indicates, a “Life Story” told with simplicity and honesty. As Handke reflects in an extended parenthetical aside almost halfway through the book, he wanted to pare his mother’s story down, to present her life with a focused clarity. He sees, in the type of project in which he is engaged, two particular challenges:

“These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

The result he achieves is a memoir stripped to its essentials, but delivered with stark, beautiful prose. His love comes through in every phrase as he recounts his mother’s story, and the emotions that arise as he sees her through the final rituals of her shortened life are real, complicated and raw.

*A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, translated by Ralph Manheim with an Introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.