Short Letter, Long Farewell

by Peter Handke

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659

Short Letter, Long Farewell is one of Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke’s typically enigmatic works, a decidedly meditative novel which defies simple summary or definitive explanation. It seems to involve at once too little plot and too much; its events follow one another in bewildering succession and fail to form any clearly meaningful pattern.

The novel is divided into two nearly equal parts, “The Short Letter” and “The Long Farewell,” each preceded by a brief passage from Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser (1785-1790; English translation, 1926). The first passage deals with the need to attend closely to physical facts and the second deals with the way in which travel enables one to “forget what we don’t like to think of as real, as though it were a dream.” Dreams play an important part in Handke’s novel, as do physical facts, and it is between the elusive otherness of the first and the swamping immediacy of the second that both the narrator and the reader must negotiate their way.

The novel begins in April—like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1380-1390) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922)—on the narrator’s second day in the United States, only a few days before his thirtieth birthday. The reader follows him on his cross-country travels from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tucson, and finally California. Where Walt Whitman traveled the land transcendentally, “afoot with [his]vision,” Handke’s narrator is adrift with his nightmare—Whitman’s exuberance and faith having collapsed into the black hole of Handke’s bleak aesthetic. Whether his narrator’s travels comprise a quest or an escape is left in doubt, for they cannot be divorced from those of his wife, Judith, from whom he has recently separated but who has since come to the United States. At first, it is the narrator who seems to be following his wife, but it soon becomes equally likely that she is the tracker and he the prey. He is perhaps not so much tracked as lured to his death, but it is a death that she seems more intent on dreaming about than actually causing.

The novel’s ambiguous action is rendered in an equally ambiguous style that may best be described as absurdist realism. The sentence, “The bus took the Bruchner Expressway through the Bronx, turned off to the right, and crossed the Harlem River to Manhattan,” is typical of this style, one in which the specific details do not contribute to any Jamesian “solidity of specification” but instead suggest that they have been arbitrarily chosen; they are not so much insignificant as nonsignifying. They hint that the narrator’s larger world, and that of the reader as well, may be similarly devoid of meaning. The style is too realistic and serves only to accentuate the gap between language and physical reality on the one hand and language and understanding on the other. The narrator observes and records everything but, along with his reader, understands nothing. Realizing his own ignorance and incapacity, he pursues an art of deflection, hoping that, by describing accurately what is near at hand, he will be able to delude himself into believing it to have the “momentous” importance it clearly does not possess. It is a style marked above all by coordination rather than subordination, an art of catenation rather than comprehension: an ultimate superficial realism surprisingly like the disjunctive dream logic by which one scene leads, as if inevitably, to the next.

The narrator searches for reasons and motives but finds only his own explanations. Since he is also a random event in the world, his actions are themselves similarly absurd. “Then and there I decided to spend the money living as lazily and frivolously as possible” is a statement that is open to the reader’s interpretation but not to any definitive explanation. Like the narrator, it does not mean; it is.

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