Short Letter, Long Farewell

The nomad’s life, captured so well in this cover

It’s hard for me to write roles. When I characterise somebody it seems to me that I am degrading him. Everything that’s individual about him becomes a tic.

In this strange work, which is part noir, part self-exploration, part travelogue and part great American novel, Handke has avoided writing characters the way his narrator avoids roles. He stays disengaged with people, with grief, with the country that he is traveling in. And yet, the work seems personal and engaging.
There isn’t much by way of story. A 30 year old European travels west to America to presumably recover from a broken marriage. It is a long farewell as the title alludes; his wife follows him like an invisible shadow, threatening to barge into his escape any moment.
Peter Handke’s novella is very close to what I most enjoy about written text. A string of dispassionate and astute observations, so much like a camera pausing and gazing at scenes that are both beautiful and disgusting at the same time. The scenes which make you think, Ah! that is an interesting viewpoint. They are narrated in a sparse but poetic language. Even though I read a translation, I can see that Peter Handke makes words work hard for him, extracting more meaning in every letter.

The short novel is also a European gaze on America – what Europeans perceive America to be. It sometimes comes across as shallow, at other times sorted and uncomplicated. Of course, in characterising America, Handke could only pick up what outsiders may see as tics. 

..not wanting to give (my daughter) an American upbringing. I didn’t want her to act as if the world belonged to her or to regard what belonged to her as the world.

The American’s audience’s heroes are pioneers. That’s why they regard only physical action as adventure. They don’t want to see roles, they want action…
…we tend in our own theatre to imitate ourselves, seen for the most part as people who no longer have adventures but only dream of having them.

Towards the end, John Ford appears in the story as a character which is my favourite part of the story. The entire sequence is Sebald-esque – with a mixture of travel, nostalgia and timelessness.

I don’t feel much nostalgia for my own past; what makes me nostalgic is things I never got around to doing and places where I’ve never been.

So true, Mr. Ford. Peter Handke is making me hanker after that unknown place.

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