Peter Handke’s Nobel Victory and His Masterpieces

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is a novel by the Austrian novelist, playwright, poet and essayist Peter Handke, the current Nobel Laureate in Literature for the year 2019. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a novella which focuses on Handke’s mother who killed herself. First, I am going to discuss The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and later we would go further and analyse A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is Handke’s most famous work alongside A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Slow Homecoming and Short Letter, Long Farewell. It is an existentialist novel which focuses on Bloch, an ex-goalie who is fired from his job and, due to the utter monotony of his life and experiences throughout the nook-and-corners of the city, he murders a woman. It is a strange novel, and it is unlike anything I have ever read before because Handke’s language and the texture of his images are dense without being verbose, literal without being melodious and cerebral without being accessible at all. I had read two of his plays, Kaspar and Offending the Audience, before reading his novels. His plays were solely focused on overthrowing the authoritarian literal conventions of theatre, and they achieved a high level of artistic rebellion while remaining low key works of high art. The novel is primarily focused on breaking the conventions of the art form and is an avant-garde piece. It may prove to be utterly inaccessible for even the most fervent and avid readers of high art literature. The novel’s prose, crafted in sharp, short and slightly musical sentences, leaves the reader utterly nauseating and benumbed due to overload of sensory images and the sharp contrasts between the physical and visceral landscape.

Many people might think that Handke is overly tricky and confusing, but there is a real ingenuity to this work, a linguistic and artistic ingenuity which breaks apart the novel form. It could be seen as a re-examination of the novel form itself; as, in his plays, Handke re-examines the conventions of theatre and, while threatening to overturn them, overturns them in the end. An exceptionally short and effective work, it took me a day to read and left me breathless due to the sheer intensity of the novel. The overall effect is not pleasurable but intellectually exhilarating. He is an acquired taste. The woman is murdered by Bloch, and the aftermath is utterly unexpected due to its digressive pattern and intricate wordplay that extends throughout the novel, the murdered woman never steps into the novel again but lingers somewhere in the mist. It could be seen as a series of guilt-ridden, existentialist and despairingly bleak and comical meditation on the meaninglessness of life which is strewn over Handke’s language for, as the novel progresses, the sentences and the logical connexion or connection between words begin to fall apart slowly. Sentences, like life, become more and more meaningless as they cease to make sense except they appear to throw the reader into a zen-like hallucinatory mind-numbing jet lag.

Handke is an artist, his work crosses the borders of film-making, screenwriting, novels, plays, and poetry and prose poetry. All of his works correspond to each other and form an artistic semblance or present an artistic sense of unity without bearing any similarity in terms of genre or context, for his work his genre-less and his context is ever-changing. It showcases that Handke appears to be an artist who works across different mediums for he focuses on the beauty of the art itself. Another famous work of his, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, is stripped of the linguistic ingenuity of this novel while retaining the style and voice. It tells the story of his mother’s suicide which can be read as a long novella form obituary; most of its story remains elusive and buried, and the narrative is not described as in a work of literature but a form of speech and process of thought. Art and its linguistic burden is stripped down into nothingness in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and only the profound darkness of emotions remain behind in the reader’s memory. What is most pertinent to this short yet masterful novella is the burden of artistry upon reality which effects Handke’s writing; the writing is simple, exhausted, heartbroken and grief-stricken which accounts for its shortness, brief meditations and simplicity. The novella is about his mother, but what shines through the novella is the conflict between the artist and a writer who mourns his mother’s death. His oeuvre is defined by these exceptionally voiced and composed stylistic notions, at times stripped down to bare reality and on the other hand, embellished with rebellion in the artistic world. His works could be said to converse with art itself and not the realistic aspect of it. In the short length of his works, he manages to link through symbolisms, language and images the history of literature and other forms of artistic movements related to Cinema and Painting. His works span many genres and movements while remaining distinct and isolated from the influence of his peers and contemporary inclinations; he seems to derive his motivation from the classical world.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is an exceptionally stylistic avant-garde work full of intellectuality and linguistic ingenuity. In contrast, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams trims down the burden of artistic embellishment and style to portray whatever Handke felt. These two works are recognised as the pillars of his entire novelistic oeuvre. An artistic iconoclast with an elitist intellectuality inaccessible to most people and a writer who allows emotions to flow on their own and strips down style and beauty for reality to speak for itself in its sparse, and sharp whispering voice. These two books must be read alongside his plays to be understood what makes Handke such a great writer and perhaps the most original voice to be heard. I am very pleased about this Nobel victory, despite the controversies, for Handke was awarded the prize for his literary and artistic merit, not for his political engagements. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams goes beyond the artistic artifice to explore the reality which has imprisoned the writer; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is a fictional work which focuses on the power of art and meaning of narrative in correspondence to the novel form, its essential contents and its renovation as an art form. I would say Handke, to paraphrase the late Harold Bloom when he spoke for Pinter’s Nobel victory is an incredibly beautiful choice to be the current holder of The Nobel Prize in Literature. While the rest of the world screams at Handke and the committee, I am already eager to see the victor who will be taking away this prize next year.

However, this is surely not the end of Peter Handke. This is the first part of his works that I have reviewed here. In the next part, I would be analysing his novels Short Letter, Long Farewell and Slow Homecoming, his collaborative film venture with the great auteur director Wim Wender named Wings of Desire (Wender’s most well-known work). Wim Wenders has a lifelong friendship and professional relationship with Handke and they have made films and written scripts for cinema and adapted Handke’s novels for the big screen. Handke has also achieved artistic merit in film direction and writing for the screen. To understand this great writer’s complex legacy, one cannot discount the relationship between his literary works to each other and the relationship between films and his works. He has created works across many genres, and that is what makes him a special artist; I am enthralled by his victory and sincerely congratulate him.

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