Short Letter, Long Farewell

by Peter Handke

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Themes and Meanings

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The problem that the narrator faces and that Handke poses for his readers involves a variation on the familiar existentialist theme of the need to know the world in all of its absurdity and, once that knowledge has been gained, to act in that same world authentically. For the narrator, the problem is compounded by the fact that he is a playwright (or at least claims to be), so the verb “to act” is invested with a dual meaning: to perform an action and to play a role. In Short Letter, Long Farewell, the purely existential world of Jean-Paul Sartre gives way to Handke’s awareness that man does not live by existentialism alone, for his world, as well as his relationship to it, is semiotic. At every turn, the narrator finds his life ordered, or contaminated, by structures of signs drawn from both high art and pop culture. Thus, he describes, as if naturally, a certain day as having “passed as quickly for me as the days in horror films”; more disconcerting is the way in which his reading of four-frame Peanuts comic strips have shaped the structure of his dreams. Literature and pop culture are not presented as the means by which life can be better apprehended but instead as substitutes for that life, sign systems apprehended as if they were reality. This is especially evident in the narrator’s reading of Gottfried Keller’s novel Der grune Heinreich (1854-1855, 1879-1880; Green Henry, 1960). Believing himself to be insignificant, the narrator wants to transform himself into whatever literary character he happens to be reading about at the time: Heinrich, for example, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

At times, Short Letter, Long Farewell reads like a parody of Sartre’s novel La Nausee (1938; Nausea, 1949); the effect is to ironize the narrator’s desire to live authentically, to turn it into the oblique evidence of his inauthenticity. Something similar, though less damning, occurs if he is read as the hero of a Jamesian “international novel” in reverse (the innocent European coming to an America that is not so much culturally as semiotically rich) or as a latter-day Huck Finn making his way through a semiotic wilderness where “the artificial signs and objects of civilization [have] become nature” and where the truths that are held to be self-evident are no longer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of signs which (the pursuer would like to believe) stand beyond interpretation, transformed into eternal verities. Not surprisingly, the narrator feels some jealousy because a mere child, Delta Benedictine, can be so at home in such a world, having the ability to look “on symbols and representations as having an existence of their own.”

Aboard the riverboat Mark Twain, the narrator interprets the “bestial shriek” of the steam whistle as the summons to a resurrection, a uniting of all that had seemed disjoined “in a single, painful and theatrical revelation of history”—of American history, which is to say American myth—that leaves the narrator enthralled and convinced: a willing believer.

His own life in disarray, the traveler becomes a pilgrim and makes his determined way to one of the patriarchs of that myth, one of its founding fathers, the seventy-six-year-old film director John Ford, whose films about the American past—The Iron Horse and Young Mr. Lincoln in particular—have taught the narrator most of what he knows about America and about the need “to understand history by seeing people in nature.” Ford’s pictures, the narrator says, made him happy, for what they provide is a myth that serves as...

(This entire section contains 705 words.)

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an alternative to the narrator’s own loneliness and existential isolation. As Ford explains, “[W]e don’t take our egos as seriously as you Europeans.”

Relief from the narrator’s typically European self-consciousness comes at a high price, however, one that the narrator is only half-willing to pay. Expecting that Ford is about to tell a story, the narrator leans forward only to realize “that I was imitating the gesture of a character in one of his pictures.” Although the narrator never quite attains the state of authentic action, his self-awareness saves him from the inauthenticity he both craves and fears.

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