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Peter Handke turns 75

Conny Paul sb
December 6, 2017

The renowned novelist, screenwriter and essayist has long courted both critical acclaim and ill-fame in equal parts. As Austrian man of letters Peter Handke reaches another milestone, his legacy remains an open book.

Porträt Peter Handke
Image: Imago/Agencia EFE/C. Cabrera

In a recent interview, Peter Handke said he didn't want to celebrate his 75th birthday on December 6. Perhaps he would go to the local Portuguese Bar in Chaville, a small town 12 kilometers southwest of Paris where he's been living since 1990.

Handke initially lived in the town with his second wife, French actress Sophie Semin. But she moved out in 2001. "In order to live together with Handke, you would need a castle with two wings," she once said.

Self promotion

Handke first caused a great stir in 1966 when the 24-year-old delivered a diatribe to the Group 47 literary circle at Princeton University, wherein he attacked German literature for its "descriptive impotence." Critics interpreted this as ruthless self-promotion. Others predicted a rapid career ascent. Indeed, that same year Handke celebrated his first major success as an author with the novel "Die Hornissen" (The Hornets).

The belligerent and sometimes moody author, poet, essayist, scriptwriter, translator and director would go on to create over seventy stories and prose works — in addition to about two dozen plays. The book "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" from 1970 was an early bestseller, and was made into a film that same year by film director Wim Wenders. In 1973, the young author was awarded the prestigious Büchner Prize.

Peter Handke und Wim Wenders
Peter Handke and Wim Wenders have continued a life-long collaborationImage: picture alliance/picturedesk/F. Neumayr

Handke and Wenders had met as students in 1966 and have carried on a close artistic and personal relationship. In 1987, Handke co-wrote the screenplay for Wenders' film "Wings of Desire;" while as recently as 2016 Wenders adapted Handke's earlier play, "The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez," which was filmed in 3D. The relationship drama was set in an old country house near Paris, with one of the two main roles played by Handke's wife Sophie Semin.

Read moreNew Wim Wenders film searches for the meaning of life


But much of Handke's lauded writing has been mired in controversy. Having grown up near the Slovenian border, he was a big supporter of the former Yugoslavia, which carried on to support for the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan War.

In 2006, Handke attended the funeral of former Serbian leader and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, a figure he had long praised despite being charged with genocide — the writer once also denied the Serbian massacre at Srebenica. The native of Carinthia in Austria (he also lived in Berlin with his mother at the end of World War Two) showed that he could still argue passionately for his convictions.

After Handke described the bombing of Serbia by NATO as a war crime, he was attacked by politicians and the media — a period portrayed in his book "Voyage by Dugout or The Play about the Film about the War."

In 2006, following fierce criticism for his attendance at the funeral of Milosovic, Handke's nomination for the 50,000 euro Heinrich Heine Prize was withdrawn by some on the Dusseldorf city council. Handke then said that he would not accept the prize.

Peter Handke Trauerfeier Slobodan Milosevic HOCH
Peter Handke attends the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic in 2006Image: ullstein bild - AP

Members of the Berliner Ensemble called the episode an "attack on artistic freedom" and initiated a "Berlin Heinrich Heine Prize," which raised the same prize money — which Handke did not accept either, asking for the funds to be gifted to a Serbian enclave in Kosovo.

In 2014, Handke was awarded the Ibsen Prize in Oslo, but when it similarly caused a furore and jury members were asked to resign, the writer again did not accept the prize money.

The Ibsen Prize committee wrote that "Peter Handke has proved himself to be a cosmopolitan who perpetuates world literature in his own writing and offers space and protection for the diversity of human history and stories."

The Last Epic?

"An artist is only an exemplary person if you can see in his works how life goes," Peter Handke once said, adding that an artist must go through three or four sometimes painful transformations.

Handke describes his latest novel "Die Obstdiebin" (The Fruit Thief) as his "last epic." One thing is for sure: Handke will remain the freethinking provocateur he has always been.

A new wrinkle: Wim Wenders tackles opera

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