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Peter Handke: Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (Short Letter, Long Farewell)

The unnamed narrator of this novel is an Austrian writer, fleeing across the United States from his estranged wife. She has sent him a letter, the short letter of the title, asking him not to look for her and warning him that it might not be in his interests to do so. But nothing much happens in this novel as in his other novels. There are no car chases or dramatic reconciliations. He does not even end up with another girl. Starting from Providence, specifically the Wayland Manor hotel (there really is a Wayland Manor in Providence, though it is an apartment building not a hotel), he travels across America, ending up visiting the film director, John Ford, with his estranged wife, Judith and without negative consequences. During his journey, which, as much as anything else, is an opportunity for an occasionally bemused Austrian to give his reactions to the USA, his wife robs him, tries to kill him but, finally, reconciles with him and they agree to part. He is not entirely alone in his journey. He contacts Claire Madison, whom he had met and slept with on a previous journey to the USA. She is driving to St. Louis with her daughter from Phoenixville, near Philadelphia, and he goes with them. Apart from the strange behavior of Claire’s daughter, Delta Benedictine (so called because she was born in New Orleans) who screams when anything is left open, nothing much happens with Claire.

It has been said that the point of Handke’s novel is to show that life and not art matters. The array of characters, the often unwitting involvement of the narrator in other people’s lives and the lack of an “arty” structure to the novel might point to this but the ending – a “happy” ending – has John Ford enjoying the tale of their adventures and it is clear that the tale – the art – is the point of Handke’s novel. It is just for him that a tale need not, should not be conventional in structure or content.

Publishing history

First published in German 1972 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1974 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux