May 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke

There’s something about Wings of Desire. After seeing it in college, one of my friends joined the circus. Another picked up and moved to Berlin, where she had a series of painfully gorgeous and unavailable male roommates with silly German names. I fell in love with Peter Handke’s Biblical-sounding “Song of Childhood,” and started reading Austrian literature. The poem ran through my head for years, like Eliot’s “Prufrock” or Gillian Allnutt’s “Images of Revenge.” It ran through my head in German, even though I don’t speak any German. I could hear it better that way. I don’t pay attention to Handke’s politics. He’s a beautiful writer, spare but not simple, cinematic, more haunting than cruel.

Handke’s 1972 Short Letter, Long Farewell is a Great American Novel, so it’s fitting that it’s not American, not in English, not epic, and kind of more screenplay-like than novel-like. It’s the story of an unnamed Austrian man, just turning 30, who heads to America with all of his savings and does a bunch of American things, like stay in hotels and stare at military men in bars and go on a road trip with an old lover and watch TV movies and meet John Ford. He is fleeing (or maybe pursuing?) his murderous ex-wife, Judith. It won’t spoil the book to say that it ends with a showdown.

It won’t surprise Handke fans to learn that the entire book is about exactly what it is not about, about exactly what he has deliberately, almost pathologically, left out. This is how he manages to stay so spare. In Wings of Desire, Columbo is an American angel who has traded in his wings for the brief, conflicted glory of a human existence. In Short Letter, Long Farewell, America is a glossy movie set, a fantasy horizon to move into thoughtlessly. The dark shadows of Austria and grief are felt everywhere, and acknowledged nowhere. Quentin Crisp once wrote (weirdly, in an admiring review of Splash): “The voice of Europe is a cross between a scream of frustration and a yawn of despair.” There’s plenty of screaming and yawning in Short Letter, all of it silent.

Short Letter, like all good fictional travelogues, is the story of the failed attempt to escape into a dream, to cheat memory, and history, and death. Throughout the story, the narrator is reading the uber-Germanic Green Heinrich, by Gottfried Keller, a masterpiece of autobiographical self-examination, self-fleeing, adventure, misadventure, and denial. And the narrator drifts between dreamy quiet and self-exploratory monologues. Somehow things happen, without it being clear how or why they’ve happened. “What I wanted,” he tells his lover Claire between New Baltimore and Pittsburgh:

"was not so much to make something out of nothing or change one thing into another as to enchant myself… Today I interpret that feeling not as a desire to vanish from the face of the earth, but as joyful anticipation of a future when I would cease to be the person I was at the moment. It’s very much the same now when every day I tell myself that I’m one more day older and it must show. It’s got so I really want the time to pass and make me older."

"And die," said Claire.

"I seldom think of my own death," I said.

This glossy new paperback edition of Short Letter starts with a wonderful introduction by Greil Marcus, who quotes a character in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” But Handke’s roadbook, his Green Henry goes to Hollywood, is more a story of Europe’s frustrated, despairing voice colonizing the vast, backlit American landscape and then riding off into a celluloid sunset.  

Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
NYRB
ISBN: 1590173066
192 Pages