Short Letter, Long Farewell Essay - Critical Essays

Peter Handke

Critical Context

Instead of telling the narrator and his wife a story, Ford asks them for their story, which Judith then supplies. When the director asks if what Judith has said is true, she answers, “[I]t all happened.” “It all happened” are the last three words in Handke’s novel, and the “it” that she refers to did occur but only in Handke’s fiction and perhaps only as fiction; the reality beyond her words and beyond the narrator’s as well remains untellable. Pointing to the pile of manuscripts he has been sent for his consideration, Ford says, “There are some good stories in there.... Simple and clear. The kind of stories we need.”

Handke’s language and syntax are certainly simple, but his story is anything but clear. Yet the story is needed not despite its ambiguity but for it, for it is story which deals with the difficulty of distinguishing the myths on which man would like to depend from the reality that lies beneath, or perhaps beyond, the semiotic surface.

In his earlier works, Handke tended to emphasize the opacity, the arbitrariness, and the self-reflexivity of language, while in later works, he has become more and more concerned with the possibility of a nearly mystical truth lying somewhere beyond this same linguistic surface. The strength of Short Letter, Long Farewell derives largely from Handke’s relentless depiction of the way in which the individual can delude himself in his quest for meaning and self-definition and, just as important, it deals with his pursuit of a truth less bleak—not a myth but a necessary story, an authentic fiction.