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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (New York Review Books Classics) » User review

A stark, haunting and painful recollection of a son's view of an incomplete life.

  • May 6, 2013
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A contemporary masterpiece in the genre of the literary memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is actually an unceasing nightmare where closure is not a possibility, primarily because it recounts the suicide of the author's mother, a woman whose desire for her own forged intellectual and independent identity is never completely made manifest. Peter Handke, one of Austria's preeminent authors and playwrites, looks painfully backward and assesses his mother's life, times and environment and tries to understand. In truth, by writing a recollection of his mother's unfulfilled life, he gave voice to the countless and nameless other women of his mother's generation, idealistic young adults who only got partly educated and then dismissed back to the rural villages for marriage, motherhood, house maintenance, cooking and eventually death. Social existence before and under Hitler was just one flat line, and circumstances would not allow for any kind of growth and mental development, a frustrating burden indeed for someone who yearned for more than just being an abused wife and a 24/7 pan scrubber. Deviating from the normal routine, Handke's mother would make indulgences from what was expected of her, from voting differently from what was expected of her to indulging in treats for herself as a gift for her own hard labors and efforts. However, those acts had to be done in silence, for there could be no walk off the path of scrimping, saving and struggling. To better herself, she started to read the college texts of her son, and while she valued the power of education that came from her reading, she too understood that it was too late for her to apply that learning to something practical and financial. From then on, her life is depicted as a downward spiral. But perhaps, her spiral sadly started after her birth.

By ending her life, she supposedly removed the shackles that were burdening her. She tried to flee from her emptiness, and it was quite palpable and consuming. "I'm not logical enough to think things through to the end, and my head aches. Sometimes it buzzes and whistles so that I can't bear any outside noise. I talk to myself, because I can't say anything to other people anymore. Sometimes I feel like a machine. I'd like to go away somewhere, but when it gets dark I'm afraid of not finding the way home again. In the morning there's dense fog and then everything is so quiet. Every day I do the same work, and every morning the place is a mess again. There's never any end to it. I really wish I were dead. When I'm out in the street and I see a car coming, I want to fall in front of it. But how can I be sure it would work?" Page 64. After contemplating and planning, Handke's wounded mother consumes all her sleeping and anti-depression pills but not before having her hair and nails done and selecting a brown two-piece dress, an act that conveys commitment, contentment and finality.

Upon of learning of his mother's suicide, Peter Handke flew back home and was immersed in a world of raw silent violence. He read about her act, which is depicted at the very beginning of the memoir: "The Sunday edition of the Karntner Volkszeitung carried the following item under "Local News": "In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51 committed suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills." Page five. Reading her namelessness and apparent insignificance in the article, it made him delve deeper into who she was and what her times were like and hence, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was created, while, to quote the author, "My mother had 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." Page five. In the book, he actually claims a measure of pride in his mother's horrific act, perhaps viewing it as a counterpoint to a horrible life. By redefining suicide and the stigma attached to it, I'm sure it allowed Handke to perhaps cope with the terrible and shocking aftermath a little bit better. In any event, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was an intense read with sparse prose, a depiction of what dark times can do to a strong yet also vulnerable soul. A short and compelling read.
A stark, haunting and painful recollection of a son's view of an incomplete life.

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In this heartwrenching account of his mother's illness and death, avant-garde Austrian novelist and playwright Handke (Once Again for Thucydides; Ride Across Lake Constance and Other Plays) details his struggle to tell the story of his mother's life and his relationship to her without turning it into an overwrought elegy. The result, first published in the United States in 1974 as part of a collection (this is the first time it has been published as a freestanding book), is indeed considered by most critics to be one of Handke's finest literary achievements, one that is much less abstract than much of his other writing. Seven weeks after his mother's suicide in 1971, Handke felt compelled to preserve his memories of her, of their life together during the postwar misery, and to record his rage over the problems that his mother left for him to solve after her death. Both his anger at this legacy and his admiration for his mother are obvious, and the essay is melancholy and lucid. Highly recommended for large public library and academic literary collections.
Ali Houissa, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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