Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting

‘The Left-Handed Woman’ by Peter Handke (translated by Ralph Manheim)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 68 pages; 2020. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.

Perhaps because it was written in 1976 when the idea of a woman being independent was more radical than it is now, Peter Handke’s novella The Left-Handed Woman is a relatively odd story.

Written in cool, detached prose, it explores what happens (hint: not very much) when a woman called Marianne decides to leave her husband.

She has a young child, Stefan, but it’s hard to know how old he is other than he goes to school. Her husband, Bruno, runs a porcelain company and is often away on business trips. Perhaps this is why she gets it into her head that one day Bruno will leave her permanently and so she makes the first move: she asks him to move out of the marital home.

There’s no argument, no pleading, no reaction really at all. It’s all very strange.

Bruno smiled and said, “Well, right now I’ll go back to the hotel and get myself a cup of hot coffee. And this afternoon I’ll come and take my things.”
There was no malice in the woman’s answer — only thoughtful concern. “I’m sure you can move in with Franziska for the first few days. Her teacher friend has gone away.”

And so Bruno moves out and into Franziska’s spare room and that’s kind of it. (Of course, we never really hear his side of the story, so perhaps he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with his wife any more?)

The woman takes a job as a translator for a publisher, who comes to her house armed with flowers and Champagne. The overtones are slightly creepy. He knows she is alone.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Marianne is visited by lots of different people, including her father, Franziska and Bruno, because they are worried about her being alone. “Don’t be alone too much,” her husband warns her, “it could be the death of you”.

And while Marianne does go through a period of adjustment — avoiding people in the supermarket, staring into space a lot, sinking into a kind of malaise and cutting herself off from others — she realises that she can survive perfectly well on her own.

The final scenes of the novella have almost everyone Marianne knows — and those she’s only just met, including an actor, her publisher’s chauffer and a random salesgirl with whom she’s recently interacted — arriving at her house for a spontaneous party. It’s only when they are gone and she is able to relax and put her feet up that a sense of contentment settles upon her. Perhaps having a life of one’s own will be okay after all.

This is a strange novella. The conversations between characters are often vague and dispassionate. People behave in odd ways and say odd things. The overall feeling is one of confusion, discombobulation, frustration and angst.

The main message I came away with is reflected by the afterword, a quote by Goethe from his 1809 novel Elective Affinities, which could well sum up what it has been like living in the grips of a global pandemic:

And so they all, each in his own way, reflectingly or unreflectingly, go on with their daily lives; everything seems to take its accustomed course, for indeed, even in desperate situations where everything hangs in the balance, one goes on living as though nothing were wrong.

Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2019, not without controversy (see this New York Times story and this Guardian opinion piece). I have previously read his 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is a cold-eyed account of a once famous soccer player committing a brutal murder.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Linda Stift, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 172 pages; 2016. Translated from the Austrian German by Jamie Bulloch.

Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake is part of Peirene Press’ Fairy Tale Series. It’s an eccentric and twisted tale, first published under the German-language title Stierhunger in 2007, that retells the story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s obsession with keeping slim. Or at least I think that’s what it’s doing.

This is an odd story, a multi-layered story, a story that isn’t all that it seems. But the one abiding theme is appetite. How do we feed it, how do we control it, how does it control us?

When the story opens a young women is tempted by a cake in a pastry shop. The cake, which is known as Gugelhupf, is offered to her by an old lady, Frau Hohenemb, a stranger whom she meets on the street who has carefully noted the scars on her knuckles. (Scarred knuckles are a sign of bulimia, caused by putting your hand in your mouth to make you gag.)

The young woman, who narrates the story, then accepts an invitation to go back to Frau Hohenemb’s house to eat the cake with a cup of tea. From thereon in, the young woman becomes trapped in a kind of interdependent relationship with the old lady who may, or may not, be Empress Sissi herself. Yes, I told you it was a bit bonkers.

Over the course of this short novel (it’s just 172 pages long), the young woman gets caught up in a whole bunch of strange activities involving Frau Hohenemb and her housekeeper, Ida, including blowing up a statue of the Empress, visiting a sex museum and  stealing a royal cocaine syringe on public display. Along the way the narrator’s past life as a bulimic is retriggered and she enters a new pattern of gorging and purging on food.

The Empress and the Cake is a grotesque sort of horror story that shows how the slow erosion of willpower can be detrimental to wellbeing. It also highlights the idea that control and power can come from unusual and unexpected sources. Greed, addiction and cruelty are all themes underpinning the central storyline. I read it with a mixture of fascination and abhorrence. Do try it if you are looking for something utterly different to anything you’ve read before.