Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Slow Homecoming is a fictionalized vision of an artist’s personal odyssey that closely reflects the concerns and preoccupations of its author. It is a fanciful account of Handke’s coming to terms with both his aesthetic program as an author and his own past life. Although, in terms of surface plot, Slow Homecoming does not seem to comprise a connected series of short novels, it is clear that, on a thematic level, the three texts are intimately joined as a whole. Indeed, Handke has expressly indicated that they should be considered as a unit.

To understand what is meant by “homecoming,” it is necessary to discuss briefly Handke’s biography. He had received international recognition as a novelist and a playwright at the young age of twenty-four in 1966. Almost immediately thereafter, he left Austria and lived—as a single parent with his young daughter—in a number of cities in Germany and finally settled in Paris in 1969. He stayed there for almost ten years. In 1979, he did return to his homeland and has since resided in Salzburg.

The reasons for his self-imposed “exile” are several. He was reared in a provincial area of Austria (the province of Carinthia) and wanted to experience the outside world. The international and cosmopolitan city of Paris is the exact opposite of the small and culturally stifling towns in which he had lived as a child. More important, Handke needed to distance himself from all that his homeland represented to him; on a political level, he vehemently rejects Austria’s connection with the Nazis and its often prejudiced and narrow-minded provincial life. The alienated state of his characters reflects to a large degree the author’s own existential dislocation.

In the diary Das Gewicht der Welt (1977; The Weight of the World, 1984), Handke called Austria “the fat on which I have been choking.” His childhood had been a painful one. His real father, a soldier in the German army, had never married his mother and his adoptive father was a drunken and rather abusive man. Considering the depressing account he gives of his mother’s life in Wunschloses Ungluck (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1974), he must have grown up in a cold and disturbing environment. Handke’s early teenage years were spent in a very strict and guilt-ridden Catholic seminary, and it was there that he became aware of the deep feelings of alienation that plagued him. He found that reading (and writing) fiction offered him a temporary escape from the oppressive atmosphere around him, and it was at this early age that he made the decision to become a writer.

The notion that art affords the alienated individual a momentary experience of transcendence from the suffering of life has been the central factor in Handke’s work since the beginning of his career and has informed all of his writings. It is primarily an existential view of art. If there is no absolute meaning in the universe but only the significance that the individual human being posits, then the creative faculty is the mode by which mankind ultimately defines itself. In so far as one projects sense onto the senselessness of existence, one is able to transcend, if even for a moment, the pain that being entails. Each text of the Slow Homecoming series attempts to work out this idea about the nature of aesthetic creation.

Handke’s project as author is intimately connected to his estranged past, and it is no wonder that with artistic success, he fled the source of his pain. With time and age, however, comes healing and a longing to establish a connection to one’s roots, to the origins of one’s being. The slow “coming home” that is described in these books is an abstracted yet personal record of the author’s attempted reconciliation with his inner self and of his efforts to define his task as an artist.

In The Long Way Around, Sorger’s activity as...

(The entire section is 1620 words.)