Peter Handke

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Peter Handke
Handke in 2006
Born (1942-12-06) 6 December 1942 (age 78)
Griffen, Austria
  • Novelist
  • Playwright
Education University of Graz
Notable works
Notable awards
Signature Signature of Peter Handke.svg

Peter Handke (German pronunciation: [ˈpeːtɐ ˈhantkə] ; born 6 December 1942) is an Austrian novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019 "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience." [1] Though some praised Handke as a meritorious laureate, the decision to award him a Nobel Prize was also denounced internationally by a variety of public and academic intellectuals, writers, and journalists, who cited his support of the late Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian genocide denial.


In the late 1960s, he was recognized for the plays Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) and Kaspar , as well as the novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). Prompted by his mother's suicide in 1971, he reflected her life in the novel Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams). Handke was a member of the Grazer Gruppe (an association of authors) and the Grazer Autorenversammlung, and co-founded the Verlag der Autoren publishing house in Frankfurt. He collaborated with director Wim Wenders, leading to screenplays such as The Wrong Move and Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire).


Early life and family

Handke was born in Griffen, then in the German Reich's province Gau Carinthia. [2] His father, Erich Schönemann, was a bank clerk and German soldier whom Handke did not meet until adulthood. His mother Maria, a Carinthian Slovene, married Bruno Handke, a tram conductor and Wehrmacht soldier from Berlin, before Peter was born. [3] The family lived in the Soviet-occupied Pankow district of Berlin from 1944 to 1948, where Maria Handke had two more children: Peter's half-sister and half-brother. Then the family moved to his mother's home town of Griffen. Peter experienced his stepfather as more and more violent due to alcoholism. [3]

In 1954, Handke was sent to the Catholic Marianum boys' boarding school at Tanzenberg Castle in Sankt Veit an der Glan. There, he published his first writing in the school newspaper, Fackel. [3] In 1959, he moved to Klagenfurt, where he went to high school, and commenced law studies at the University of Graz in 1961. [2]

Handke's mother took her own life in 1971, reflected in his novel Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams). [2] [4]

After leaving Graz, Handke lived in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Kronberg, Paris, the U.S. (1978 to 1979) and Salzburg (1979 to 1988). [5] Since 1990, he has resided in Chaville near Paris. [6] He is the subject of the documentary film Peter Handke: In the Woods, Might Be Late (2016), directed by Corinna Belz  [ de ]. [7] Since 2012, Handke has been a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. [8] He is a member of the Serbian Orthodox church. [9] [10]

As of early November 2019, there was an official investigation by the relevant authorities into whether Handke may have automatically lost his Austrian citizenship upon obtaining a Yugoslav passport and nationality in the late 1990s. [11]


While studying, Handke established himself as a writer, linking up with the Grazer Gruppe (the Graz Authors' Assembly), an association of young writers. [5] The group published a magazine on literature, manuskripte  [ de ], which published Handke's early works. [2] Group members included Wolfgang Bauer and Barbara Frischmuth. [12]

Handke abandoned his studies in 1965, [2] after the German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag accepted his novel Die Hornissen  [ de ] (The Hornets) for publication. [13] He gained international attention after an appearance at a meeting of avant-garde artists belonging to the Gruppe 47 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1966. [14] The same year, his play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) premiered at the Theater am Turm  [ de ] in Frankfurt, directed by Claus Peymann  [ de ]. [13] [14] Handke became one of the co-founders of the publishing house Verlag der Autoren  [ de ] in 1969 with a new commercial concept, as it belonged to the authors. [15] He co-founded the Grazer Autorenversammlung in 1973 [16] and was a member until 1977. [5]

Handke's first play, Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), which premiered in Frankfurt in 1966 and made him well known, [14] was the first of several experimental plays without a conventional plot. [2] In his second play, Kaspar , he treated the story of Kaspar Hauser as "an allegory of conformist social pressures". [14]

Handke has written scripts for films. [5] He directed Die linkshändige Frau (The Left-Handed Woman), which was released in 1978. Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide's description of the film is that a woman demands that her husband leave and he complies. "Time passes... and the audience falls asleep." The film was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 and won the Gold Award for German Arthouse Cinema in 1980. Handke also won the 1975 German Film Award in Gold for his screenplay for Falsche Bewegung (The Wrong Move). He collaborated with director Wim Wenders in writing the screenplay for the 1987 film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), including the poem at its opening. Since 1975, Handke has been a jury member of the European literary award Petrarca-Preis. [17]

Handke collaborated with director Wim Wenders on a film version of Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter , wrote the script for Falsche Bewegung (The Wrong Move) and co-wrote the screenplay for Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) and Les Beaux Jours d'Aranjuez (The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez). He also directed films, including adaptations from his novels The Left-Handed Woman after Die linkshändige Frau, and The Absence after Die Abwesenheit. [2] [5]

In 2019, Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience." [1]

Literary reception

In 1977, reviewing A Moment of True Feeling , Stanley Kauffmann wrote that Handke "is the most important new writer on the international scene since Samuel Beckett." [18] John Updike reviewed the same novel in The New Yorker and was equally impressed, noting that "there is no denying his [Handke's] willful intensity and knifelike clarity of evocation. He writes from an area beyond psychology, where feelings acquire the adamancy of randomly encountered, geologically analyzed pebbles." [19] The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described him as "the darling of the West German critics." [20] Hugo Hamilton stated that, since his debut, Handke "has tested, inspired and shocked audiences." [21] Joshua Cohen noted that Handke "commands one of the great German-language prose styles of the post-war period, a riverine rhetoric deep and swift and contrary of current," while Gabriel Josipovici described him, "despite reservations about some of his recent work," as one of the most significant German-language writers of the post-war era. [22] [23] W. G. Sebald was inspired by Handke's intricate prose. In an essay on Repetition, he wrote about "a great and, as I have since learned, lasting impression" the book made on him. "I don’t know," he lauded, "if the forced relation between hard drudgery and airy magic, particularly significant for the literary art, has ever been more beautifully documented than in the pages of Repetition." [24] Karl Ove Knausgård described A Sorrow Beyond Dreams as one of the "most important books written in German in our time." [25] The book and its author were also praised in Knausgård's My Struggle . [26]


In 1996, Handke's travelogue Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (published in English as A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia) created controversy, as Handke portrayed Serbia as being among the victims of the Yugoslav Wars. In the same essay, Handke also criticised Western media for misrepresenting the causes and consequences of the war. [27]

Sebastian Hammelehle wrote that Handke's view of the Yugoslav Wars, which has provoked numerous controversies, was probably romanticized, but that it represented the view of a writer, not a war reporter. [28] The American translator Scott Abbott, who traveled with Handke through Yugoslavia after which numerous essays were published, stated that Handke considered Yugoslavia as the "incredible, rich multicultural state that lacked the kind of nationalisms that he saw in Germany and Austria". [20] Abbott added that Handke viewed the disintegration of country as the disappearance of utopia. [20] Reviewing The Moravian Night , Joshua Cohen stated that Handke's Yugoslavia was not a country, but a symbol of himself, a symbol of literature or the "European Novel". [22] Volker Hage wrote that The Moravian Night is "extremely cosmopolitan" and connected to the present, while also that the book represents the autobiographical summary of Handke's life as a writer. [29] Tanjil Rashid noted that "Handke’s novels, plays and memoirs demonstrate the evil of banality". [25]

After his play Voyage by Dugout was staged in 1999, Handke was condemned by other writers: Susan Sontag proclaimed Handke to be "finished" in New York. [30] Salman Rushdie declared him as a candidate for "International Moron of the Year" due to his "idiocies", [31] [32] [33] while Alain Finkielkraut said that he was an "ideological monster", [34] and Slavoj Žižek stated that his "glorification of the Serbs is cynicism". [34] When Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Award in 2014, it caused some calls for the jury to resign. [35] [ who? ]

However, disputing such interpretations of his work as listed above as misinterpreted by the English press, Handke has described the Srebrenica massacre as an "infernal vengeance, eternal shame for the Bosnian Serbs responsible." [36] This concern about the imprecision and political nature of language, carries through Handke's view. In a 2006 interview, Handke commented on concerns about the stereotyped language of the media that "knew everything", endlessly recycling words like "the butcher of Belgrade". [37]

In 2013, Tomislav Nikolić, as the then President of Serbia, expressed gratitude saying that some people still remember those who suffered for Christianity, implying that Handke was a victim of scorn for his views, to which Handke replied with explanation, "I was not anyone's victim, the Serbian people is victim." This was said during the ceremony at which Handke received the Gold Medal of Merit of the Republic of Serbia. [38]

In 2014, Handke called for the Nobel Prize in Literature to be abolished and dubbed it a "circus". [39] [40]

In February 2020, Sima Avramović, the president of the commission for decorations of the Republic of Serbia, explained that Handke, for "special merits in representing Serbia and its citizens" as he "wholeheartedly defended the Serbian truth", is being decorated with the Order of the Star of Karadjordje . The current President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, presented recipients on the occasion of the Serbian Statehood Day. [41] [42]

Reactions to the Nobel Prize

The decision of the Nobel Committee to award Handke a Nobel Prize in literature in 2019 was denounced internationally by a variety of public and academic intellectuals, writers and journalists. Criticism focuses on the writer's view on the breakup of Yugoslavia and Yugoslav Wars, which has been described as pro-Serbian, his support of the late Slobodan Milošević, and Bosnian genocide denial. [43] [44] [34] The high-profile figures who decried the decision of the Swedish Academy, include individuals such as: Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian, who in her letter published in the New York Times wrote that the Nobel committee has awarded Handke a platform which "he does not deserve and the public does not need him to have", adding that such platform could convince some that his "false claims must have some legitimacy", [45] Jonathan Littell who said, "he might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy – he’s an asshole.", [44] [43] Miha Mazzini who said that "some artists sold their human souls for ideologies (Hamsun and Nazism), some for hate (Céline and his rabid antisemitism), some for money and power (Kusturica) but the one that offended me the most was Handke with his naivety for the Milošević regime (...) I found him cruel and totally self-absorbed in his naivety", [44] Hari Kunzru who said that Handke is "a troubling choice for a Nobel committee" and that he is "a fine writer, who combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness", [31] [44] Salman Rushdie, who also criticized Handke's support for wartime Serbia in 1999, [31] [32] Slavoj Žižek, [32] [34]  Aleksandar Hemon, [46] Bora Ćosić, [34] Martin Walser, [34] and others.

The award was met with negative criticism in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Croatia, and Turkey, resulting in public statements of disapproval. [8] [40] [47] Expressing "deep regret", the decision was condemned by PEN International, [48] PEN America, [49] PEN England and Wales, [32] PEN Norway, [50] PEN Bosnia and Herzegovina, [51] PEN Croatia. [52] [32] [53] [40] [31] A group of demonstrators protested against the writer when he arrived to receive the prize. [54] Mothers of Srebrenica protested against the award with messages to oppose the "spreading lies", while Women – Victims of War association from Republika Srpska organized a rally in Stockholm in support of Handke, saying that they support all people "who speak accurately and correctly and who think with their head". [55]

Support for Handke came from Jon Fosse, former recipient of the Ibsen Award, who welcomed the decision of the Swedish Academy (Nobel Committee deciding on laureates in literature) to award Handke the Nobel Prize, saying that he was a worthy recipient and deserved it. [56] The Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek said: "The great poet Handke has earned the Nobel prize 10 times", while Karl Ove Knausgård reacted to the Nobel Prize for Handke: "I can’t think of a more obvious Nobel laureate than him". [20] [57] Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for 2018 at the same ceremony, said she was proud to be with Handke, whom she greatly values, and tо the fact that both awards go to Central Europe [58] [59] Award-winning filmmakers Wim Wenders and Emir Kusturica publicly congratulated Handke and traveled to Stockholm for the award ceremony to support him. [60] [61]

Both the Swedish academy and Nobel Committee for Literature members defended their decision to award Handke the Nobel prize. Academy members Mats Malm and Eric M. Runesson wrote in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter that Handke had "definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues" but that they had "found nothing in what he has written that involves attacks on civil society or respect for the equal value of all people". [62] However, they quoted an article from 2006 in which Handke said the Srebrenica massacre was the worst crime against humanity in Europe since World War II. [62] Nobel for literature member Henrik Petersen described Handke as "radically unpolitical" in his writings and that this support for Serbs had been misunderstood, while Rebecka Kärde said: "When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right" adding that the author "absolutely deserves a Nobel Prize". [62] [63]

The Intercept published a number of articles by Peter Maass criticizing Peter Handke's Nobel Prize in Literature reception because of his neutral attitudes towards the Srebrenica massacre committed by the Bosnian Serbs. In another article by Intercept, Maass went to great length to call Handke an "exponent of white nationalism". Subsequently, in an interview conducted by Maass in December 2019, asking Handke whether the 1995 Srebrenica massacre (in which 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska) had happened, Handke responded: "I prefer toilet paper, an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions." Maass also claims that two Nobel prize jurors were adhering to conspiracy theories with regard to American involvement in the Balkan conflict and that they were "misinformed" about Handke's literary achievements. Germany's Eugen Ruge also protested against the scale of the criticism. In November 2019, around 120 authors, literary scholars, translators, and artists expressed their unease in an open letter. They felt that the criticism against Handke was no longer rational. [64] [65] [66]



Handke has written novels, plays, screenplays, essays and poems, often published by Suhrkamp. [13] Many works were translated to English. His works are held by the German National Library, including: [81]

Further reading

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