Friday, 15 March 2019

Book Review: Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke

To come to terms with important events in life, notably with big changes, usually takes time even if they don’t turn upside-down the entire universe that we have known. Sometimes they can leave us at a complete loss because they put into question who we are and force us to re-evaluate our whole being to piece together a new identity. In the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke a young Austrian writer has fled to the USA to recover his peace of mind after the end of his marriage to Judith. Years of life together had turned them into opponents seething with hatred to the point of trying to kill each other more than once, and yet, his fear of his ex-wife mixes with the urge to go after her. As a result, he zigzags across the country as much in flight from as in pursuit of Judith...
Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Carinthia, Austria, in December 1942. As from 1961 he studied law at Graz University and published first short stories in the literary journal manuskripte. After a prominent German publishing house had accepted to bring out his first novel The Hornets (Die Hornissen: 1966), he abandoned his studies and devoted himself entirely to writing. He produced successful, often highly controversial plays (including screenplays and radio dramas), stories, essays, journals, travelogues, and poems along with novels like for instance The Peddler (Der Hausierer: 1967), The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter: 1970), A Sorrow Beyond Dream (Wunschloses Unglück: 1972), Short Letter, Long Farewell (Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied: 1972), The Left-Handed Woman (Die linkshändige Frau: 1978), On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus: 1997), Don Juan (2004), or most recently, Die Obstdiebin (2017; tr. The Fruit Thief). In 2019, the Swedish Academy awarded the prolific author the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”. Peter Handke lives in Chaville near Paris, France.

Late in April 1971, not much before his thirtieth birthday, an unnamed Austrian writer arrives in Providence, Rhode Island, not anticipating that the message left by his ex-wife Judith means Short Letter, Long Farewell. The two didn’t separate on good terms, and yet, she followed him to the USA. At her hotel in New York they tell him that she already left, but he travels there nonetheless and stays for several days. Then he heads for Phoenixville west of Philadelphia to join his former lover Claire who invited him to accompany her and her little daughter to St. Louis. After nearly three days in the car and two nights in roadside motels, where they revived their fleeting affair, they arrive in Rock Hill. They pass quiet days together until he receives a printed birthday card from Judith with the word “last” inserted by hand and the blurred Polaroid of a loaded revolver glued to it. A few days later, he also gets a parcel from her, but he needs rubber gloves to unpack it because around the box she wound thin wire connected to a battery that gives nasty little electric shocks. Soon after, he leaves for Tuscon, Arizona, where he visits the missionary station Saint Xavier del Bac on the outskirts of an Indian reservation. On his way back to the hotel, a gang of youths robs him. With the little money that he has left, he manages to get to Portland, Oregon, and on to Escada in the mountains where his brother works in a sawmill. Having seen him from afar, he returns to the motel and finds a postcard of Twin Rocks at the Pacific Ocean waiting for him. It’s Judith’s wordless invitation to join him there and he scrapes together all his loose change to go…

Superficially, the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell just shows a first-person narrator who zigzags from the American East to the West Coast casually observing on the way country and people, but more importantly, it’s the character study of a man digesting the end of a toxic marriage that left him alone and at a loss. Even he can’t tell if he is fleeing from his ex-wife or if, in fact, he is pursuing her. At any rate, he is “going west” both in a literal and in a figurative sense hoping to find himself in the unknown lands beyond the horizon or within his soul. The narrator’s special taste for the films of John Ford, notably his westerns, mirrors his quest of identity just as much as the book that he picked for his tour, namely the nineteenth-century Swiss classic Green Heinrich by Gottfried Keller. Apart from the travelling, the novella doesn’t offer much of a plot, nor are the descriptions of country and people particularly impressive. The focus is mostly on self-reflection and contemplation, and yet, the narrator (who is a barely concealed alter ego of the author) never really comes to life. The book is well written, though.

Before the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke I had already read – ages ago – this Austrian author’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a biographical work dealing with his mother’s hard life and eventual suicide. Now I picked fiction hoping that it would give me a taste for the writings of my much-celebrated compatriot, but it didn’t. Occasionally, the story dragged a little, and yet, it was a nice read overall even though I really can’t see what made and makes literary critics praise it so much. I dislike most about it (and about many critically acclaimed books by German-language writers these days) that it feels like what I call a “literary selfie” notwithstanding that it’s fiction really. Like Gustave Flaubert I don’t want to “see” the author’s person between the lines of her/his book. Despite my reservations, I recommend this Austrian novella touring the USA of the early 1970s.

Having been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times according to rumours, the Swedish Academy finally awarded it to Peter Handke in 2019.

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