Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

To come to terms with important events in life, notably with big changes, usually takes time even if they don’t turn upside-down the entire universe that we have known. Sometimes they can leave us at a complete loss because they put into question who we are and force us to re-evaluate our whole being to piece together a new identity. In the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke a young Austrian writer has fled to the USA to recover his peace of mind after the end of his marriage to Judith. Years of life together had turned them into opponents seething with hatred to the point of trying to kill each other more than once, and yet, his fear of his ex-wife mixes with the urge to go after her. As a result, he zigzags across the country as much in flight from as in pursuit of Judith...

Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Carinthia, Austria, in December 1942. As from 1961 he studied law at Graz University and published first short stories in the literary journal manuskripte. After a prominent German publishing house had accepted to bring out his first novel The Hornets (Die Hornissen: 1966), he abandoned his studies and devoted himself entirely to writing. He produced successful, often highly controversial plays (including screenplays and radio dramas), stories, essays, journals, travelogues, and poems along with novels like for instance The Peddler (Der Hausierer: 1967), The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter: 1970), A Sorrow Beyond Dream (Wunschloses Unglück: 1972), Short Letter, Long Farewell (Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied: 1972), The Left-Handed Woman (Die linkshändige Frau: 1978), On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus: 1997), Don Juan (2004), or most recently, Die Obstdiebin (2017; tr. The Fruit Thief). In 2019, the Swedish Academy awarded the prolific author the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”. Peter Handke lives in Chaville near Paris, France.

Late in April 1971, not much before his thirtieth birthday, an unnamed Austrian writer arrives in Providence, Rhode Island, not anticipating that the message left by his ex-wife Judith means Short Letter, Long Farewell. The two didn’t separate on good terms, and yet, she followed him to the USA. At her hotel in New York they tell him that she already left, but he travels there nonetheless and stays for several days. Then he heads for Phoenixville west of Philadelphia to join his former lover Claire who invited him to accompany her and her little daughter to St. Louis. After nearly three days in the car and two nights in roadside motels, where they revived their fleeting affair, they arrive in Rock Hill. They pass quiet days together until he receives a printed birthday card from Judith with the word “last” inserted by hand and the blurred Polaroid of a loaded revolver glued to it. A few days later, he also gets a parcel from her, but he needs rubber gloves to unpack it because around the box she wound thin wire connected to a battery that gives nasty little electric shocks. Soon after, he leaves for Tuscon, Arizona, where he visits the missionary station Saint Xavier del Bac on the outskirts of an Indian reservation. On his way back to the hotel, a gang of youths robs him. With the little money that he has left, he manages to get to Portland, Oregon, and on to Escada in the mountains where his brother works in a sawmill. Having seen him from afar, he returns to the motel and finds a postcard of Twin Rocks at the Pacific Ocean waiting for him. It’s Judith’s wordless invitation to join him there and he scrapes together all his loose change to go…

Superficially, the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell just shows a first-person narrator who zigzags from the American East to the West Coast casually observing on the way country and people, but more importantly, it’s the character study of a man digesting the end of a toxic marriage that left him alone and at a loss. Even he can’t tell if he is fleeing from his ex-wife or if, in fact, he is pursuing her. At any rate, he is “going west” both in a literal and in a figurative sense hoping to find himself in the unknown lands beyond the horizon or within his soul. The narrator’s special taste for the films of John Ford, notably his westerns, mirrors his quest of identity just as much as the book that he picked for his tour, namely the nineteenth-century Swiss classic Green Heinrich by Gottfried Keller. Apart from the travelling, the novella doesn’t offer much of a plot, nor are the descriptions of country and people particularly impressive. The focus is mostly on self-reflection and contemplation, and yet, the narrator (who is a barely concealed alter ego of the author) never really comes to life. The book is well written, though.

Before the novella Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke I had already read – ages ago – this Austrian author’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a biographical work dealing with his mother’s hard life and eventual suicide. Now I picked fiction hoping that it would give me a taste for the writings of my much-celebrated compatriot, but it didn’t. Occasionally, the story dragged a little, and yet, it was a nice read overall even though I really can’t see what made and makes literary critics praise it so much. I dislike most about it (and about many critically acclaimed books by German-language writers these days) that it feels like what I call a “literary selfie” notwithstanding that it’s fiction really. Like Gustave Flaubert I don’t want to “see” the author’s person between the lines of her/his book. Despite my reservations, I recommend this Austrian novella touring the USA of the early 1970s.

Having been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times according to rumours, the Swedish Academy finally awarded it to Peter Handke in 2019.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

Crabwalk by Günter Grass

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
As time passes, ideas may go out of fashion or even become kind of taboo, but once in the world they never disappear completely. These days, fascist ideas including national socialist ones see an alarming revival all around the world thanks to – for the moment still – democratic movements that prudently deny their roots. Such pretended nationalistic and patriotic, but actually racist ideologies make believe that they can put the unfathomable chaos of the modern world in a clear order and especially the young are easy prey for the populist demagogues who cunningly preach them taking advantage of the growing discontent in the population over living conditions and cultural diversity. In the novel Crabwalk by en-NOBEL-ed German writer Günter Grass a journalist from Berlin retraces his own and his mother’s lives to understand how their history encouraged his son to write a Nazi blog and to kill his pretended Jewish counterpart.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Many ways lead to enlightenment. Some of them – like religion and other established spiritual practice – are conventional and almost generally accepted, while others are so individual that they seem rather absurd, even completely crazy from an outsider’s point of view. They all have in common that it requires great determination and perseverance to pursue them because all along it remains uncertain when or if at all the ultimate goal will be reached. On the other hand, we are only beginning to learn here in the West that following the way is actually more important than arriving. The Irishman in London of the 1930s who is the title hero of Murphy by Samuel Beckett, the 1969 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, tries to reach a presumably blissful state of non-existence through complete inactivity, but just like his earlier lover his new one urges him to take on a job...

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

The experience of the holocaust marked forever the lives of the survivors, no matter how much they would have liked it to be differently. Many of them will have pushed aside all thoughts of the past because they couldn’t bear the pain any more and they had to concentrate on building a future from virtually nothing. And yet, the indescribable suffering that they had seen and endured must have lingered on in their souls adding subconscious overtones to their actions, thoughts and ways of life. This is also the genesis of Mr. Sammler’s Planet as brought to literary life by Saul Bellow, the 1976 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the summer of 1969, Artur Sammler is a holocaust survivor well in his seventies who lives in New York City and indulges in intellectual musings on the increasingly vulgar and brutal comedy of modern life that surrounds him.

Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Québec, Canada, in June 1915, but the family moved to Chicago, USA, in 1924. He studied sociology and anthropology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, before he became a naturalised American and joined the Merchant Marine during World War II. In 1944, Saul Bellow brought out his first novel Dangling Man, but after the war he started his long career as a university lecturer interrupted only by some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship and by numerous travels. Along with his work he kept writing long as well as short fiction, some non-fiction and even a play. The most notable of his works are the novels The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975). “For the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” the Swedish Academy awarded him the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. The most important among his later novels are The Dean’s December (1982), More Die of Heartbreak (1987) and Ravelstein (2000). Saul Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, in April 2005.
The morning in summer 1969 begins like any other on  Mr. Sammler’s Planet or more precisely in his room in the apartment of his late wife’s widowed niece in New York City. Sammler is past seventy and came to the USA with his daughter Shula two years after World War II. The family had gotten trapped in Poland while liquidating the estate of his deceased father-in-law, so instead of returning home to England, Shula had had to hide in a Catholic convent and Sammler had fallen into the hands of Nazi slayers with his wife Antonina. His world had changed.
“[W]hen Antonina was murdered. When he himself underwent murder beside her. When he and sixty or seventy others, all stripped naked and having dug their own grave, were fired upon and fell in. Bodies upon his own body. Crushing. His dead wife nearby somewhere. Struggling out much later from the weight of corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. Scraping on his belly. Hiding in a shed. Finding a rag to wear. Lying in the woods many days.”
Sammler feels that he lasted rather than survived, and yet, friends and family ascribe to him the authority of a judge or a priest. Financially, the well-educated Polish Jew who lived with his family in London between the wars writing for Polish periodicals now completely depends on the generosity of his wealthy nephew, the surgeon Arnold “Elya” Gruner, who brought him and Shula to New York. Apart from occasional guest lectures that he gives at Columbia University, Sammler frequents public libraries and observes the moral decline around him. The sight of a pickpocket at work on the bus captures him.
“[…] It was a powerful event, and illicitly—that is, against his own stable principles—he craved a repetition. One detail of old readings he recalled without effort—the moment in Crime and Punishment at which Raskolnikov brought down the ax on the bare head of the old woman, […]. That is to say that horror, crime, murder, did vivify all the phenomena, the most ordinary details of experience. In evil as in art there was illumination. […]”
On another occasion the pickpocket follows him home, corners him in the lobby and exposes his genitals as a threat. Not enough with this, Sammler has to return a manuscript that his half-crazy daughter stole from an Indian scientist who envisions Moon colonies like H. G. Wells decades earlier because she is obsessed with the idea of him writing a memoir about his friendship with the famous writer in interwar London. Moreover, their benefactor is hospitalised with an aneurysm that will kill him and Shula’s violent ex-husband arrives from Israel to settle down as an artist in New York City…

From a third-person perspective and against the backdrop of the first Moon landing in July 1969,  Mr. Sammler’s Planet portrays a Holocaust survivor who observes his surroundings, i.e. his closest relations and people who just cross his path. He mentally shakes his head in incomprehension and disapproval at the increasingly loose morals that in his opinion must lead to the end of human civilisation. For a person well advanced in age his isn’t a particularly unusual reaction to changed times, but Sammler also shows a mild form of racism attributing the ongoing decline to the influence of what are to him, the European intellectual with old Jewish lineage, the primitive or barbarian ways of Africa. The black pickpocket who fascinates him so strangely is the incorporation of the prejudice that up to a point clearly echoes the demonising Nazi stereotype of Jews although, in the end, his blood restores him as a human being. Also other characters represent aspects of the growing madness that Sammler perceives all around and some of their actions are so grotesque that they make laugh. The plot is of little importance compared to Sammler’s contemplations and a powerful language always spiced with irony, if not sarcasm.

For me reading  Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow has been entertaining, even funny in part, as well as thought-provoking which is something that only few books achieve. A couple of years ago, I read the en-NOBEL-ed author’s earlier (epistolary) novel Herzog and didn’t enjoy it half as much as this one. Although so much older than myself, I found it easy to relate to the protagonist because, in the final analysis, we all live on our separate planets shaped by experiences and emotions of our own in addition to objective knowledge. Besides, nobody will deny that, at least occasionally, the people around us seem to behave like clowns in a poor comedy and the feeling that the world is doomed to go to ruin isn’t entirely strange to any of us, either. In a nutshell, it’s a novel about the human condition with a holocaust extra that deserves my recommendation.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany

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