(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 659 words.)