The Left-Handed Woman is probably one of Peter Handke’s best known novellas, translated into more than a dozen of languages. Two years after being published in 1978, it was made into a film that Handke adapted and directed. The film was nominated for the “Golden Palm Award” at the Cannes Film Festival and has won several prestigious prizes.
Handke was born in Carinthia, Austria in 1942. In his early years he endured painful experiences from the horrors of Nazism and World War II. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a poignant memoir was probably inspired by some ordeals from his childhood – a broken family with a drunken stepfather and a mother who committed suicide. His works tend to incorporate several aspects of the complex relationship between parents and children, a subject that is also present in The Left-Handed Woman. At the beginning of Handke’s co-written multi-award winning film Wings of Desire (co-authored with its director Wim Wenders), a homesick voice dealing with a child from Song of Childhood, his most famous poem, was used. Below I am quoting a few lines to offer you a taste of the nostalgic tone.
“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”
As a multi-talented artist and one of the most recognized living German-language writers, Handke has produced dozens of books including poetry, novel, essay, memoir, translation and controversial theatre plays that he directed and acted. He was also quite active in films, writing many screenplays, particularly the adaptations of his own novels Absence and The Left-Handed Woman which he directed, as well as City of Angels directed by Bradley Siberling and Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders as mentioned earlier.
Marianne, the main character in The Left-Handed Woman, is 30 years old and most of the time in the story she is only referred as “the Woman”. She is married to Bruno, who is constantly travelling as the “sales manager of the local branch of a porcelain concern well known throughout Europe”. They have one child, Stephan, a quiet and detached boy who is referred to sometimes in the novella as “the child”. They “lived in a terraced bungalow colony on the south slope of a low mountain range in western Germany, just above the fumes of a big city.“
Other relevant characters in the novella are Franziska, a close friend of the couple and the teacher of the child. Like the main character, some of the characters are also named by only a generic name to refer to their identity or profession. The Publisher is a former boss of the woman, who is “a heavyset but rather fidgety man of fifty” who dates younger women. The Father of the Woman, another character, brings into the story the Actor when he identifies him in the street and brazenly tells him that he was “not shameless enough for an actor. You want to be a personality, like the actors in those American movies, but you never risk yourself. As a result, you’re always posing.” Two additional characters with minor roles are the Chauffeur of the Publisher and the Salesgirl, a single mother with a baby.
Handke uses a family as a microcosm to display the problems of many women in Europe, especially in Germany who suffer from dependency on domineering husbands. They live isolated in suburbs taking care of children that are often absent-minded or spoiled, and not quite close or loving.
From the beginning of the novella one can easily spot Bruno as a selfish man that treats his wife as a docile object to fulfill his selfish needs. Handke manages to disclose this authoritarian nature when Marianne pick ups Bruno from the airport after he has been traveling for weeks. Bruno talks to her in a bossy tone and doesn’t seem to care for her opinions, “Let’s go to the hotel in town for a festive dinner. It’s too private here for my taste right now. Too—haunted. I would like you to wear your low-cut dress.” Without objecting to this command, Marianne asks him “What will you wear?” .… “Bruno: “I’ll go just as I am.” The same thing happens again at the end of the dinner, when Bruno tells her, “We’ll spend the night here. Stefan knows where we are. I left the telephone number on his bedside table.” The woman lowers her eyes while Bruno tells the waiter. “I need a room for the night,” he said. “You see, my wife and I want to sleep together right away.”
In this sequence early in the story, Handke makes explicit the desire of Marianne’s to move away from an inconsiderate husband and to live alone with their son. Walking back home the morning after the night at the hotel, Marianne tells Bruno without warning: “I suddenly had an illumination…that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”
From that moment, the story starts to focus on the Woman’s new life without a husband, including the struggle with loneliness and the need to adapt to a situation that she has created without regrets. The story unravels through descriptions of her daily routine, her relationship with the child and her encounters with the other characters.
One day the Woman comes across her friend Franziska who asks her “Is there someone else?” She also shows concern for the well-being of her and the child’s, “What will the two of you live on? Have you thought of that?” But at the same time, Franziska is impressed by Marianne’s action and invites her to join her in a women’s group meeting. “They’ll all be so glad to have you. Right now they have a feeling that human thought is in pretty good shape but that life is elsewhere. We need someone who’s making a bit of a break with the normal way of life—in other words, who’s slightly nuts.”
One evening, the Publisher appears at Marianne’s door without previous notice to respond to her, as she has sent him a letter to let him know that she is now in a position to accept his offers to translate for him as in the past. He enters with “flowers in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other” and says, “I knew you were alone, Marianne.” With this scene, Handke seems to imply that the Publisher expects more than translation work and desires to have a “romantic” night with his new employee. Like many men, he thought divorced or separated women were in need of company, therefore, easy to seduce.
The Actor also appears at Marianne’s door another day approaching her in a more subtle way with romantic “poetic” words, expressing his desire to have a relationship with her: “There are some galaxies so distant that their light is weaker than the mere background glow of the night sky. I would like to be somewhere else with you now.” Insistent on her decision to be alone and probably assuming that these sweet words at the end will turn out to be empty and worthless, the Woman answers, “Please don’t put me in any of your plans.”
With these two events involving Marianne’s intending lovers, Handke seems to show a certain disdain for men that try to grasp weaker women to fulfill their selfish needs either of sex or of ego. Handke further challenges all stereotypes involving this context in his modern attempt on the classic figure Don Juan: His Own Version (published in English in 2011). Handke’s Don Juan travels through different countries and gets in bed with many women, yet he is not a simple seducer. “His power over women is of a different order, and he does not revel in it; on the contrary, it makes him shy. His look … reveals to them the “outrage” of their solitude and sets free their desire, which he then feels duty-bound to fulfil”.
However, in The Left-Handed Woman, male characters are different from Handke’s “Don Juan”. Marianne is not necessarily a feminist nor does she dislike men, but prefers to keep them at a distance. Clearly she chooses solitude rather than having another authoritarian boyfriend like her husband or a fling with an idealist romantic man who might flicker and fade. Marianne, “..looked into her eyes and said, ‘You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.””
The title The Left-handed Woman is taken from a song to which Marianne listens alone “over and over again”. The lyrics make reference to a woman like Marianne, who sits “with others in a Laudromat,”; comes “out of with others from the metro exit” or “from an office building”. The tune continues as if mirroring Marianne’s isolated daily life: “She sat with others on the edge of a playground, But once I saw her through a window Playing chess all alone”. The song ends telling the left-handed woman: “I want to see you in a foreign continent, For there at last I shall see you alone among others, And among a thousand others you will see me, And at last we shall go to meet each other.”