Handke and his mother (a Carinthian Slovene whose suicide in 1971 is the subject of Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a reflection on her life) lived in the Soviet-occupied Pankow district of Berlin from 1944 to 1948 before resettling in Griffen. According to some of his biographers, his stepfather Bruno's alcoholism and the limited cultural life of the small town contributed to Handke's antipathy to habit and restrictiveness.
In 1954 Handke was sent to the Catholic Marianum boys' boarding school at Tanzenberg Castle in Sankt Veit an der Glan, Carinthia. Here, he published his first writing in the school newspaper, Fackel. In 1959, he moved to Klagenfurt, where he went to high school, and in 1961, he commenced law studies at the University of Graz.
While studying, Handke established himself as a writer, linking up with the Grazer Gruppe (the Graz Authors' Assembly), an association of young writers. The group published the literary digest manuskripte. Its members included Elfriede Jelinek and Barbara Frischmuth.
Handke abandoned his studies in 1965, after the German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag accepted his novel Die Hornissen (The Hornets) for publication. He gained attention after an appearance at a meeting of avant-garde artists belonging to the Gruppe 47 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, where he presented his play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience). Handke became one of the co-founders of the publishing house Verlag der Autoren in 1969 and participated as a member of the group Grazer Autorenversammlung from 1973 to 1977.
Handke has written many scripts for films. 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 Falsche Bewegung. Moreover, he played a big part in writing Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire; the poem at the beginning of the film was also written by him. Since 1975 Handke has been a jury member of the European literary award Petrarca-Preis.
After leaving Graz, Handke lived in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Kronberg (all in Germany), in Paris, France, in the USA (1978 to 1979) and in Salzburg, Austria (1979 to 1988). Since 1991, he has lived in Chaville near Paris.
He is the subject of the 2016 documentary film Peter Handke: In the Woods, Might Be Late, directed by Corinna Belz.
In 1996 his travelogue Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia) created considerable controversy, as Handke portrayed Serbia among the victims of the Yugoslav Wars. In the same essay, Handke also attacked Western media for misrepresenting the causes and consequences of the war. Former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević asked that Handke be summoned as witness for the defence before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but the writer declined. He did, however, visit the tribunal as a spectator, and later published his observations in Die Tablas von Daimiel (The Tablas of Daimiel). In 1999, Salman Rushdie wrote that Handke "has astonished even his most fervent admirers by his current series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic." He noted that Handke received the Order of the Serbian Knight from Milošević for his propaganda services during a visit to Belgrade, and that his "previous idiocies include the suggestion that Sarajevo's Muslims regularly massacred themselves and then blamed the Serbs; and his denial of the genocide carried out by Serbs at Srebrenica."
On 18 March 2006, in front of more than 20,000 mourners at Milošević's funeral, Handke gave a speech in Serbian which sparked controversy in the West. In a letter to the French Nouvel Observateur, he offered a translation of his speech: "The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milošević. The so-called world knows the truth. This is why the so-called world is absent today, and not only today, and not only here. I don't know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević".
Handke's position regarding the war in Yugoslavia has been challenged by the Slovenian writer and essayist Drago Jančar, and the two have engaged in a long polemic.
In 2006 Handke was nominated for the Heinrich Heine Prize, but the prize money of €50,000 had to be approved by the city council of Düsseldorf. Members of the council's major parties stated they would vote against awarding the prize to Handke, resulting in the prize being withdrawn.
In 2014, Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Award, which caused some calls for the jury to resign. The decision was condemned by PEN Norway. Bernt Hagtvet, an expert on totalitarianism, called the award an "unprecedented scandal," stating that "awarding Handke the Ibsen Prize is comparable to awarding the Immanuel Kant Prize to Goebbels." A group of demonstrators protested against him when he arrived to receive the prize. On the other hand, Jon Fosse, former recipient of the prize, welcomed the decision, saying that Handke was a worthy recipient and deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature.1973: Georg Büchner Prize
1987: Vilenica International Literary Prize
2000: Brothers KARIC Award
2002: America Award
2008: Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste
2009: Franz Kafka Prize
2012: Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis
2014: International Ibsen Award
Handke collaborated with director Wim Wenders on a film version of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, wrote the script for Wenders' The Wrong Move, and co-wrote the screenplay for Wenders' Wings of Desire and The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez. He has also directed films, including from his own novels, The Left-Handed Woman and The Absence.