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‘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.

‘The Left-Handed Woman’ by Peter Handke, first published in 1976, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a fine example of the author’s “rigorous Modernism”, a novel that shows how “personal identity is fragile and difficult to maintain”.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Farrar, Fiction, literary fiction, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting, Straus and Giroux

‘The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick’ by Peter Handke

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Fiction – paperback; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 133 pages; 2007. Translated from the German by Michael Roloff.

Austrian writer Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was first published in 1970. According to the blurb on the back of my 2007 reprint, it caused quite a stir in Europe and the United States at the time, because of its “innovative use of language and its searing portrait of a troubled man in an equally troubled society”.

It came to my attention after I read a rather wonderful interview with MJ Hyland in which she named it as one of her influences. I love Hyland’s work (you can read all my reviews of her novels here) and this book sounded like something I’d like, so I promptly ordered a copy online. Fittingly, it arrived just in time for German Literature Month, which runs throughout November, and was an “interesting” palette cleanser after reading a steady stream of Canadian fiction for my Shadow Giller obligations.

An accidental murder

The story is a simple one (though it’s astonishingly told): Joseph Bloch is a once-famous soccer goalkeeper (the “goalie” of the title), who has just lost his job on a construction site. With nothing to occupy his days and no friends of whom to speak, he fills in time by going to the cinema, where he develops a “thing” for the cashier, whom he later murders, almost by accident and without thinking of the consequences.

He flees to a village on the Austrian border, where he re-establishes contact with an old girlfriend, who runs a public house. By coincidence, the neighbourhood is filled with police, all on the hunt for a missing boy.  Bloch’s days are mostly filled with wandering around aimlessly, observing the search efforts from afar; his evenings drinking in the pub. Nothing much happens.

But it’s not so much the actual things that Joseph does, but what goes on in his head that makes this novella such an intriguing read. Surprisingly, given it’s written in the third person, we get an alarming view of Bloch’s mental state and his subsequent descent into a kind of madness.

In many ways, it’s like Bloch is watching a movie with the sound turned down too low. He has problems with his memory — he often gets a feeling of deja vu, as if it takes his mind a few seconds to catch up with his actions  — and constantly mishears things or is woken up by noises that don’t actually exist.

Bloch was wakened by a banging and wheezing on the street, trash cans being dumped into the garbage truck; but when he looked out, he saw that the folding door of the bus that was just leaving had closed and, farther away, that milk cans were being set on the loading ramp of the dairy. There weren’t any garbage trucks out here in the country; the muddle was starting all over again.

Detached and chilling

The prose style is detached, so detached it’s almost weightless, which lends the tale quite a chilling atmosphere, effectively echoing Bloch’s troubled mindset.

Indeed, Handke does rather wonderful things with language in this book, which demonstrates how muddled and confused Bloch becomes as the story progresses. This paragraph is a good example:

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”. For what would be the point of their telling him about the goats that, he should remember, had once, when the door had been left open, forced their way into the pool, which hadn’t even been officially open yet, and had soiled everything, even the walls of the restaurant, so that the rooms had to be whitewashed all over again and it wasn’t ready on time, which was why Bloch should keep the door closed and stay on the sidewalk?

Admittedly The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is a difficult read, not least because it presents a man battling his own sanity, but because it’s written in such a dry, almost monotonous, manner it’s sometimes hard to maintain interest. That monotony is no doubt deliberate because it simply mirrors the dullness of Bloch’s life (one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t murder the cashier simply to alleviate the boredom), so it’s something of a relief that the book is only 133 pages long.

It’s not a cheery read by any stretch of the imagination — and it ends far too abruptly for my liking — but the way in which it reveals the hidden mind is nothing less than impressive. And I would certainly explore more of Handke’s back catalogue: he has dozens of novels (and plays) in translation.