Authors: Peter Handke
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs
Translated from the German by
He not busy being born is busy dying
Dusk was falling quickly. It was just after 7 p.m., and the month was October.
A Dog’s Ransom
HE SUNDAY EDITION
carried the following item under “Local News”: “In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged fifty-one, committed suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills”.
My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide. Yes, get to work: for, intensely as I sometimes feel the need to write about my mother, this need is so vague that if I didn’t work at it I would, in my present state of mind, just sit at my typewriter pounding out the same letters over and over again. This sort of kinetic therapy alone would do me no good; it would only make me passive and apathetic. I might just as well take a trip—if I were travelling, my mindless dozing and lounging around wouldn’t get on my nerves so much.
During the last few weeks I have been more irritable than usual; disorder, cold and silence drive me to
; I can’t see a bread crumb or a bit of fluff on the floor without bending down to pick it up.
about this suicide, I become so insensible that I am
sometimes startled to find that an object I have been holding hasn’t fallen out of my hand. Yet I long for such moments, because they shake me out of my apathy and clear my head. My sense of horror makes me feel
: at last my boredom is gone; an unresisting body, no more exhausting distances, a painless passage of time.
The worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathiser short, because I need the feeling that what I am going through is
and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. If anyone talks to me about it, the boredom comes back, and everything is unreal again. Nevertheless, for no reason at all, I sometimes tell people about my mother’s suicide, but if they dare to mention it I am furious. What I really want them to do is change the subject and tease me about something.
In his latest movie someone asks James Bond whether his enemy, whom he has just thrown over a stair rail, is
. His answer—“Let’s hope so!”—made me laugh with relief. Jokes about dying and being dead don’t bother me at all; on the contrary, they make me feel good.
Actually, my moments of horror are brief, and what I feel is not so much horror as unreality; seconds later, the world closes in again; if someone is with me I try to be especially attentive, as though I had just been rude.
Now that I’ve begun to write, these states seem to have dwindled and passed, probably because I try to describe
them as accurately as possible. In describing them, I begin to remember them as belonging to a concluded period of my life, and the effort of remembering and formulating keeps me so busy that the short daydreams of the last few weeks have stopped. I look back on them as intermittent “states”: suddenly my day-to-day world—which, after all, consists only of images repeated
over a period of years and decades since they were new—fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.
That is over now; I no longer fall into these states. When I write, I necessarily write about the past, about something which, at least while I am writing, is behind me. As usual when engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine. I am writing the story of my mother, first of all because I think I know more about her and how she came to her death than any outside investigator who might, with the help of a religious, psychological, or sociological guide to the interpretation of dreams, arrive at a facile explanation of this interesting case of suicide; but second in my own interest, because having something to do brings me back to life; and lastly because, like an outside investigator, though in a different way, I would like to represent this
as an exemplary case.
Of course, all these justifications are arbitrary and could just as well be replaced by others that would be equally arbitrary. In any case, I experienced moments
of extreme speechlessness and needed to formulate them—the motive that has led men to write from time immemorial.
In my mother’s purse, when I arrived for the funeral, I found a post-office receipt for a registered letter bearing the number
. On Friday evening, before going home and taking the sleeping pills, she had mailed a registered letter containing a copy of her will to my address in Frankfurt. (But why also
?) On Monday I went to the same post office to telephone. That was two and a half days after her death. On the desk in front of the post-office clerk, I saw the yellow roll of registration stickers; nine more registered letters had been mailed over the weekend; the next number was
, and this image was so similar to the number I had in my head that at first glance I became confused and thought for a moment nothing had happened. The desire to tell someone about it cheered me up. It was such a bright day; the snow; we were eating soup with liver dumplings; “it began with …”: if I started like this, it would all seem to be made up, I would not be extorting personal sympathy from my listener or reader, I would merely be telling him a rather fantastic story.
Well then, it began with my mother being born more than fifty years ago in the same village where she died. At that time all the land that was good for anything in the region belonged either to the church or to noble
landowners; part of it was leased to the population, which consisted mostly of artisans and peasants. The general indigence was such that few peasants owned their land. For practical purposes, the conditions were the same as before 1848; serfdom had been abolished in a merely formal sense. My grandfather—he is still living, aged eighty-six—was a carpenter; in addition, he and his wife worked a few acres of rented farm and pasture land. He was of Slovenian descent and illegitimate. Most of the children born to peasants in those days were illegitimate, because years after attaining sexual maturity, few were in possession of living quarters or the means to support a household. His mother was the daughter of a rather
-do peasant, who, however, never regarded his hired man, my grandfather’s father, as anything more than the “baby-maker”. Nevertheless, my grandfather’s mother inherited money enough to buy a small farm.
And so it came about that my grandfather was the first of his line—generations of hired men with blanks in their baptismal certificates, who had been born and who died in other people’s houses and left little or no inheritance because their one and only possession, their Sunday suit, had been lowered into the grave with them—to grow up in surroundings where he could really feel at home and who was not merely tolerated in return for his daily toil.
Recently the financial section of one of our newspapers carried an apologia for the economic
principles of the Western world. Property, it said, was
. This may in his time have been true of my grandfather, the first in a long line of peasants fettered by poverty to own anything at all, let alone a house and a piece of land. The consciousness of owning something had so liberating an effect that after generations of will-lessness a will could now make its appearance: the will to become still freer. And that meant only one thing—justifiably so for my grandfather in his situation—to enlarge his property, for the farm he started out with was so small that nearly all his labours went into holding on to it. The ambitious smallholder’s only hope lay in saving.
So my grandfather saved, until the inflation of the twenties ate up all his savings. Then he began to save again, not only by setting aside unneeded money but also and above all by compressing his own needs and demanding the same frugality of his children as well; his wife, being a woman, had never so much as dreamed that any other way of life was possible.
He continued to save toward the day when his children would need
for marriage or to set themselves up in a trade. The idea that any of his savings might be spent before then on their
couldn’t possibly have entered his head, especially where his daughters were concerned. And even in his sons the centuries-old dread of becoming a homeless pauper was so deeply ingrained that one of them, who more by
accident than by design had obtained a scholarship to the Gymnasium, found those unfamiliar surroundings unbearable after only a few days. He walked the thirty miles from the provincial capital at night, arriving home on a Saturday, which was house-cleaning day; without a word he started sweeping the yard: the noise he made with his broom in the early dawn told the whole story. He became a proficient and contented carpenter.
He and his older brother were killed early in the Second World War. In the meantime, my grandfather had gone on saving and once again lost his savings in the Depression of the thirties. His saving meant that he neither drank nor smoked, and played cards only on Sunday; but even the money he won in his Sunday card games—and he played so carefully that he almost always won—went into savings; at the most, he would slip his children a bit of small change. After the war, he started saving again; today he receives a government pension and is still at it.
The surviving son, a master carpenter with twenty workers in his employ, has no need to save. He invests, which means that he
drink and gamble; in fact, it’s expected of him. Unlike his father, who all his life has been speechless and in every way self-denying, he has at least developed speech of a kind, though he uses it only in the town council, where he represents a small and obscure political party with visions of a grandiose future rooted in a grandiose past.
For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need to worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of the young men; a girl’s future was a joke.
No possibilities, it was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, brief bewilderment, then the alien, resigned look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the kitchen work, from the start not listened to, and in turn listening less and less, inner monologues, trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep, cancer of the womb, and finally, with death, destiny fulfilled. The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman’s life: Tired/ Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead.
My mother was the next to last of five children. She was a good pupil; her teachers gave her the best possible marks and especially praised her neat handwriting. And then her school years were over. Learning had been a mere child’s game; once your compulsory education was completed and you began to grow up, there was no need of it. After that a girl stayed home, getting used to the staying at home that would be her future.
No fears, except for an animal fear in the dark and in storms; no changes, except for the change between heat and cold, wet and dry, comfort and discomfort.
The passage of time was marked by church festivals, slaps in the face for secret visits to the dance hall, fits of envy directed against her brothers, and the pleasure of singing in the choir. Everything else that happened in the world was a mystery; no newspapers were read except the Sunday bulletin of the diocese, and then only the serial. Sundays: boiled beef with horseradish sauce, the card game, the women humbly sitting there, a family photograph showing the first radio.
My mother was high-spirited; in the photographs she propped her hands on her hips or put her arm over her younger brother’s shoulder. She was always laughing and seemed incapable of doing anything else.
Rain—sun; outside—inside: feminine feelings were very much dependent on the weather, because “outside” was seldom allowed to mean anything but the yard and “inside” was invariably the house, without a room of one’s own.
The climate in that region is extremely variable: cold winters and sultry summers, but at sunset or even in the shade of a tree you shivered. Rain and more rain; from early September on, whole days of damp fog outside the tiny windows (they are hardly any larger today); drops of water on the clothes lines; toads jumping across your path in the dark; gnats, bugs, and moths even in the daytime; worms and wood lice under every log in the woodshed. You couldn’t help becoming dependent on those things; there was
nothing else. Seldom: desireless and somehow happy; usually: desireless and a little unhappy.
No possibility of comparison with a different way of life: richer? Less hemmed in?
It began with my mother suddenly wanting something. She wanted to learn, because in learning her lessons as a child she had felt something of herself. Just as when we say, “I feel like myself”. For the first time, a desire, and she didn’t keep it to herself; she spoke of it time and time again, and in the end it became an obsession with her. My mother told me she had “begged” my grandfather to let her learn something. But it was out of the question, dismissed with a wave of the hand, unthinkable.
Still, our people had a traditional respect for accomplished facts: a pregnancy, a war, the state, ritual, and death. When at the age of fifteen or sixteen my mother ran away from home to learn cooking at some Hôtel du Lac, my grandfather let her have her own way,
because she was already gone
; and besides, there wasn’t much to be learned about cooking.
No other course was open to her; scullery maid, chambermaid, assistant cook, head cook. “People will always eat.” In the photographs, a flushed face, glowing cheeks, arm in arm with bashful, serious-looking girl friends; she was the life of the party; self-assured gaiety (“Nothing can happen to me”); exuberant, sociable, nothing to hide.