Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Left Handed Woman

The Left Handed Woman - Peter Handke

 This is an odd, spare novella. Set in anonymous suburbia it tells a tale of marital disintegration, or does it? It manages to be both mundane and fabulous. The reader is never quite sure what exactly is happening.

The book opens with the woman (who is never known as anything else) sitting at her sewing machine in a room which has a glass window taking up one side. The window opens on to the windowless wall of the neighbouring house. A clear visual metaphor for isolation and communication difficulties.

Beside her her eight year old son is 'writing a school essay' on "My idea of a better life." - "I would know everything already, so I would have not need to do lessons."

Her eyes "sometimes lit up even when she wasn't looking at anyone, without her face changing in any other way." The house is rented because her husband, Bruno, could be moved at short notice due to his job. He has been away for weeks and is to be collected from the airport that day.

When we meet him we have some reason to suspect that he may have had an affair while away. but we (or at least I) was unprepared for this - "The woman said , 'I've had a strange idea. Well, not really an idea, more like an - illumination.  But I don't want to talk about it. Let's go home now, Bruno. Quickly. I have to drive Stefan to school.'
Bruno stopped her. 'Woe if you don't tell me.'
The woman: 'Woe to you if I do tell you.'
Even as she spoke, she couldn't help laughing at the strange word they had used."
She goes on to say that the illumination is that her husband is going to leave her so she tells him to leave now, which he does.

The use of the archaism here (I'm assuming it to be well translated)  hints that this may not quite be realism. It suggests at least an elemental story. The way that the woman has a sudden illumination seems to reflect back to the first scene where her eyes "sometimes lit up" of their own accord. There is an anti narrative strain at work, each moment seeming separate from the moment preceding and succeeding it.

I felt that the woman was not just dissociated from her name but from the taste and texture of her life. She is in the throes of a deep depression. Her 'illumination' may be that her husband has played a role in this. Later on she says about him: "The truth is that he wants me to be strong in connection with things that don't interest him: the children, the household, taxes. But when it comes to the work I hope to do, he destroys me. He says: "My wife is a dreamer." If wanting to be what I am is dreaming, then I want to be a dreamer."

But it is not a simple black and white book. Her treatment of her child is similarly unsupportive. She seems almost eager to be shot of him at times and the following quote demonstrates a desire for him to become independent of her - "You're never really pleased. You were only pleased with me once - that time when we were bathing and all of a sudden I came swimming up to you without my ring around me."

She even seems to use the boy to try to keep others at a distance. When she starts to do some translation work for a publisher he comes to visit, and seems to flirt with her. When she is paying attention to the child he says: " 'Don't you like my company? I have the impression that you keep so busy with the child only so you won't have to pay any attention to me. What's the sense of this mother-and-child game? What have you to fear from me?"

The sense of her being lost in the particular is conveyed in the following quote, which captures perfectly a particular aspect of the depressed mindset. "She went about the bungalow, putting it in order, stopping, turning around, bending down, scraping at a spot here and there in passing, picking up a single grain of rice and taking it to the rubbish bin in the kitchen." Housekeeping is thus made a task of Sisyphean proportions.

The possibility of suicide is present - "The publisher said, 'Write about it Marianne. One of these days  you won't be with us any more if you don't." Even the sounds of life surrounding her seem portents of some unspecified doom: "The roar of the traffic was so loud that a long lasting catastrophe seemed to be in progress." The woman herself comments on her fear of being alone. "Let's have another glass. I've just had a feeling that every minute I spend alone I lose something that can never be retrieved. Like Death. Forgive the word. It was a painful feeling."

She is also afraid of happiness, and probably it's helpmeet desire - "I don't want to be happy. At the most, contented. I'm afraid of happiness. I don't think I could bear it, here in my head. I'd go mad for good, or die. Or I'd murder someone."

When her father visits she asks him "Have you some idea about how one might live?" He is a writer who no longer writes, one of those who lived through the war, but who refuses to use the war to excuse his own anomie. "I believe that at some time I began to live in the wrong direction - though I don't hold the war or any other outside event to blame."

Through this psychodrama are strung small domestic incidents between the woman and her husband and son. She is also pursued by an actor who tries to explain her attraction for him thus - "Your face is so gentle - as though you never forgot that we're all going to die."

And for all the tragic undercurrents this is also a comic river and near the end we have a modest suburban version of a ball where characters come together and apart over the course of a night at the woman's house. All is not death and despair.

These are just scattered thoughts about this book which I find strangely fascinating. I read it first many years ago and remember a similar feeling of disassociation and fascination from the last time. It is a book that resists the reader and yet draws one in. It makes me want to re read another Handke book, The Afternoon of the Writer which I preferred to this last time round (in the eighties). Recommendations for other Handke books welcome.

I was inspired to read this by GermanLitMonth which is long over by now but thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for the inspiration.

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