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  • The Left Handed Women of Peter Handke and Jimmy Reed
  • Russell E. Brown (bio)

The Austrian Writer Peter Handke (born 1942) published Die linkshändige Frau in 1976. Originally conceived as a film script, the story was filmed by Handke and Wim Wenders the following year. Both versions achieved a remarkable popular success for this onetime cryptic and uncompromising literary avant-gardist.

The text is the disarmingly simple account of the separation of a thirty-year-old woman from her husband and the subsequent months of life alone with her son in a suburban villa. Handke restricts himself, in the manner of the nouveau roman, to an objective reporting of events and conversations, providing neither an authorial voice nor the inner voice of his heroine, Marianne. Thus the motivation for Marianne's sudden break with her husband Bruno or for her subsequent actions is never revealed, and the sparse story has given rise to many contradictory interpretations, as the critics try to complete the text, ranging from a document of woman's emancipation1 like Ibsen's A Doll's House to an account of [End Page 395] the author's own marriage breakup2 with reversed colors to a chauvinist critique of contemporary woman's search for autonomy.3

A certain intertextual illumination may be provided by the title itself and its subsequent application in the story. In popular culture left-handedness signifies differentness from social norms, clumsiness, or strangeness. It used to be considered a fault that had to be corrected in children. The main character Marianne is never shown or said to be "left-handed" in the text itself (she is color-blind). In the mirrors in which she often contemplates herself, she would of course appear to be opposite-handed. In the film version Marianne is right-handed. The title alone identifies Marianne as left-handed, as a notable, problematic, or eccentric person. The title is derived from a song on a phonograph record she repeatedly listened to on a particular night or on many nights: "In der Nacht saß die Frau allein im Wohnraum und hörte Musik, immer wieder dieselbe Platte" ("The Left-Handed Woman" 100-101). It should be noted that the song's title is given in English, although the quoted text that follows is in German. Apparently Marianne is listening to an English-language record for whose text Handke then supplies a German translation, while leaving the title in the original.

Some German critics of the story use the song's text as a "Verständnishilfe" (Sandberg 59) or state "Der Titel fusst auf einem Schlagertext, der das Thema intoniert" (Schultz, quoted in Fellinger 227), without seeking an external model. Christoph Bartmann declares "Der Name . . . kommt von einer fiktiven Singlesplatte" (221). A major Handke expert, Manfred Durzak, identifies the song as "The Left Handed Woman der amerikanischen Country-Blues Sängers Jimmy Reed . . . in seiner deutschen Version in den Text montiert" (145). Other critics, such as Rolf Gunter Renner (106) and Doris Runzheimer (127), acknowledge Durzak's identification of the song and procede with their own commentaries. Runzheimer does call it "das von Handke . . . übersetzte Lied," going beyond Durzak in the claim that Handke himself made the translation from the American original.

Because to an American familiar with rhythm and blues it is impossible that the German text of "The Left-Handed Woman" be a translation or "deutsche(n) Version" of an authentic American text in that genre, I resolved to find out what actually was going on. Perhaps the English translation of Handke's story would provide the English-language original lyric. An English translation by Ralph Manheim was first printed in The New Yorker (7 November 1977), but there the song text is inexplicably [End Page 396] omitted. It is, however, included in the book edition of the same translation, which I quote here and throughout, rather than supplying the Handke original, of which it is a faithful translation:

The Left-Handed Woman

She came with others out of aSubway exit,She ate with others in a snack bar,She sat with others in a Laundromat,But once I saw her alone, reading the papersPosted on the...


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