Ghosts and vampires. Werewolves and torture devices. These are the standard fare of horror stories. In a story with no supernatural elements or hidden bloody chambers, Peter Handke’ book A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story evokes a true horror story. The terrifying thing about this story is that it could have happened to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Handke’s horror story is not the frightening walk down a dark haunted passageway, but the realistic—and often nihilistic—look back at the life of a woman, his mother.
Condemned by family members and by circumstance to a life without future, without meaning, and without hope, she finally “finds herself” through literature, but in finding herself, loses her desire to live. His mother’s final act of individuality, and perhaps her first real act of agency, was to voluntarily choose to take her own life. Hoping to find relief from the personal horror of his mother’s death, Handke uses writing as a means to examine his mother’s life, and to keep himself active during a time when apathy and passivity could have easily overtaken him. The desire to tell someone about her life cheered him up momentarily but was ultimately not the path to healing he had hoped.
Handke’s personal mind-boggling horrors consisted of his mother’s death, the relentless mercilessness of nature, and the rotting away moment-by-moment of life eventually leading to death. He expressed that his horror often manifested as moments of extreme speechlessness when the horror of reality was so deep and so grave, that it was nearly impossible to describe in words. He referred to these moments as intermittent “states” when “suddenly my day-to-day world … fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.” But that very speechlessness and need to find expression for those moments, was also the motivating factor in much of his desire to write. By engaging in literary work he felt alienated from himself and “transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.”
The detached manner that he told of his mother’s life, almost the perspective of an onlooker and not someone personally involved in the narrative, seemed evidence of his machine-like objectification of himself through writing. Not wanting to extort sympathy from his readers, he wanted to convey the sense of “telling him a rather fantastic story,” so he told his mother’s life story in almost a once-upon-a-time format. “It began with …”; the starting words of a classic narrative arc. This happened. Then this. Then this. A story told, not to incite sympathy, but to explain a life that ended in such an apparently tragic (although he would call exemplary) fashion.
Handke uses a variety of words and phrases to describe the horror of his mother’s story and also of his reaction to her death. If he had stuck with only the word horror to describe what they were experiencing, the full impact of what the horror was and how impactful it was may have been lost to the reader. It might have almost seemed like an exaggeration for dramatic effect. He described his own horror as incomprehensible, uncommunicable, impotent rage, tempests of dread, mercilessness of nature, and undirected objective horror.
His mother’s personal horror was described as coming from being the eternal loser, the weaker half, poverty, wretchedness, too miserable to complain, no future, alone with the four walls, no future, strangulation, and that mere existence was torture. By adding specifics to the general concept of horror, the reader is able to feel and relate to the true horrific nature of what was being described. If someone read the story and simply felt it was a sad tale, they would have missed the wretched helplessness and incomprehensible grief and horror that became part of their daily lives.
Rather than traditional horror story types, the everyday events of his mother life were used to paint a picture of a woman whose life was trapped and help captive to the powers around her, in just as real a way as if she had been held in a cell of the Beast’s dungeon her entire life. Being raised in a world where the childhood game of little girls consisted of playing “Tired / Exhausted / Sick / Dying / Dead” with their friends, the hopelessness and lack of a fulfilling future was palpable. As a child, his mother felt stirrings of individuality during her schooling, but learning was considered nothing more than a child’s game for girls. After all, women’s adult lives would be spent at home, so they might as well get used to being home constantly with “no room of one’s own.” There was no worrying about the future because there was no future. Every day was a monotony. “Today was yesterday, yesterday was always.”
The hopelessness of his mother’s life was brought through to the reader by the repetition of the humdrum days and months and years. Even though there were moments of hope when it seemed his mother was about to step into her own individuality and discover her true self, those moments were fleeting and served to only bring greater clarity to the horror that continued on and on throughout her life. If Handke had given us only the monotony of his mother’s life without the brief moments of hopefulness, it may have lulled the reader into apathy, but by giving hope, the possibility of change was awakened, thus freshly awakening the reader to the sad plight of his mother.
After the introduction of appliances, Handke’s mother had more time each day to purse her own interests now that she was freed from the daily-ness of her daily tasks. She found time to read and discovered the world of literature. She felt the stories were giving her youth back to her, but sadly, she found these glimmers of hope served to make her feel even more hopeless and depressed. The stories were reminders of all the things she would never do and of all the things she would never be.
Handke uses writing as a means to express the inexpressible moments in his life, and his mother evidently did the same thing as she sank deeper into depression. When life became too unbearable and she was no longer able to converse with other people without it feeling like a form of torture, she resorted to writing letters. Like mother, like son. In both cases, their writing also did not bring the healing they had hoped. His mother’s last letters were farewells, and his book about his mother did not prove to be a distraction for him. Rather than becoming preoccupied with the process of writing, his act of writing added to his preoccupation with his mother’s death.
It is not true that writing has helped me. In my weeks of preoccupation with the story, the story has not ceased to preoccupy me. Writing has not, as I at first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment.
The book ends with short anecdotes, a series of simple flashes of memory and observations of himself and his thoughts following his mother’s death. The majority of the book was a retelling of his mother’s life, but when he shifts to telling his own tale at the end, the storyline becomes broken and fragmented. He ends with a statement that he would like to return and write more detail about these snatches from his life. It feels as though he has processed his mother’s life story and her death, but is still detached from his own life and his own grief and consequently is unable to express his own life experiences with the same candor, openness, and detail as he could with his mother’s life story.
By allowing the reader to see the trudging, monotonous themes of his mother’s life, we come away with the full sense of the horror of her life. The helplessness. The hopelessness. A life awakened too late. A sorrow beyond nightmares. More misfortune than anyone could wish for.