A Sorrow Beyond Dreams


Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Unglück) is a stroke of genius!


A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a short story about the suicide of a poor, sad and disillusioned Austrian woman who happened also to be Peter Handke’s mother. The book was written in 1972, shortly after the woman’s death.

This is how the story begins:

The Sunday edition of the Kärnter 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.’

In the pages that follow Handke will refer to his mother as “she” or “you,” but rarely as “my mother” and never by name. He will not make his own mother into a character, therefore he decides to write sentences that will be applicable not only to his mother but to “the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life.”

Mayumi Terada


The biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life? (Could anyone else have had his mother’s particular life???)

For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need to worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of young men; a girl’s future was a joke. (12)

In her childhood and even more in her young girlhood, “Aren’t you ashamed?” or “You ought to be ashamed!” had rung in her ears like a litany. In this rural, Catholic environment, any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence …  even joy was something to be ashamed of; … (23)

Handke’s raw and simple attitude towards his subject (this woman, who might have been anyone, but who happens to have been his mother) creates a truthful and considerate portrait of the life of women in interwar Europe. By describing the indecent discrimination against his mother, he makes the life and suffering of all women visible.


Poetics, to take it back to Aristotle, where the category began, is distinguished from theoria and praxis in the primacy of its activity of making. Poetics is the active questioning about how does, how should, how could, art be made.

In this very personal biography of his mother, which is not, according to Handke, shaped as a memoir, but as a text which subject could have been anybody with the specific life of his mother, Handke also develop a poetics. (Poetic from Greek poietin: to make). Here are some of Handke’s thoughts on making:

Of course what is written here about a particular person is rater general; …

(He believes anything else would have been too personal and not of interest to anyone but himself)

The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten – like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext. (31)

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 facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think about. (32)

Ethics;  “… my sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper”

In stories we often read that something or other is ‘unnamable’ or ‘indescribable’; ordinarily this strikes me as a cheap excuse. This story, however, is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror. (34)

… extreme need to communicate coincide with extreme speechlessness. That is why I affect the usual biographical pattern and write: ‘At that time … later,’ ‘Because … although,’ ‘was … became … became nothing,’ hoping in this way to dominate horror. That, perhaps, is the comical part of my story. (34)

In a state of unfathomable grief Handke still manages to discuss how and why art should be made. It’s an exceptional performance – outstanding.

So, lets end where we started, with the SHORT VERSION:

Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Wunschloses Unglück) is a stroke of genius!


Donata Wenders: Peter Handke II, Chaville, 2009


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Caroline says:

    It’s an amazing book, I agree. Bleak, sad, depressing but important.
    I understand why he chose to write it like this, not too personal.
    I shudder when I think how many women must have lived like this in post-war Germany.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Hi Caroline!
      I’m sad my German isn’t good enough to read him in original – this is a text where language really matters!
      Have you read anything else by him?

  2. I am intrigued by this description of the strange way he chooses to write of ‘her’ and ‘you’ and does not name her–and yet maintains an intimacy that is apparently revelatory. Did you read it in English? –I have not heard of him (or the book)

    1. Sigrun says:

      Yes, I read him in English. Its a beautiful book – highly recommendable for content & form, and for the way he discusses life & writing.

  3. This is a very poignant story and true story.

    1. Sigrun says:

      I find it very interesting to see how Handke manages to present his mother with such great sympathy, really understanding the situation of women in this generation.

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