Short Letter, Long Farewell

Short Letter Long Farewellbook by Peter Handke

annotation by Diana Woods

Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell is narrated in first person by an unnamed man who flees from Austria to America to escape the person he’s been during the bitter break-up of his marriage. As I read the first section of this book, when he’s traveling from city to city, I asked myself: Where is this going? What does it all mean? If it weren’t for the bizarre threats from his wife and their cat-and-mouse chase, I might not have been interested enough to finish the book. It wasn’t until the end of the book, after I’d had time to think about the story as a whole, that I realized how cleverly it’s written and what I might take from it, despite the fact it isn’t the type of story that I anticipate writing.

The author uses several techniques to help the reader understand and care about a narrator who’s totally disconnected from his emotions. I end up knowing more than the narrator than he knows about himself. That helps make the story interesting. I’m in his head–his cerebral ruminations–and find out that he feels guilty for having failed his wife, but he doesn’t how he caused her to become so enraged. Based on her homicidal anger, I surmise that he has some serious flaws in his personality and relationship style, but the author never directly addresses what happened between them. Instead, the author shows us the narrator’s relationship with Claire, a woman he slept with once on a previous visit to America. I see a total absence of emotional connection between them despite their physical intimacy, causing me to infer that he treated his wife in the same manner. The scene where he takes Claire to a construction site to have sex and then, the next day, tells her that he’s leaving, portrays the depth of his insensitivity. One of the most powerful lines in the story appears to illustrate his fear of intimacy: “…as we drove into Indianapolis in the dusk and I glanced at Claire’s profile, the imperturbable, disembodied calm that came over me felt like the calm of a murderer.” It also emphasizes the theme of violence, the love-hate bond within a relationship. I admire the way Handke keeps bringing me back to the major theme thread and am more cognizant of the need to do the same in my writing.

The narrator’s dissection of the relationship between Claire’s friends, known as the lovers, leads me to conclude that despite his keen powers of perception, he fails to understand the basics of emotional attachment. Then, I understand why his wife feels cheated in her marriage to the point of seeking vengeance. But I’m also seeing him as clueless, with no intent or malice, and worthy of empathy. I plan to mimic his techniques for creating understanding and empathy toward characters with major personality deficits.

There’s a twist in the narrator’s relationship with Claire’s child that helps me to care about him. He appears to be concerned about the child’s feelings, worried that she’ll feel left out and alone in an adjoining hotel room. He actually wakes the child to reassure himself that she’s okay which tells me that he’s projecting his own childhood feelings onto her. She’s not going to appreciate being woken up in the middle of the night. There’s also a fleeting image of his early childhood abuse, traumatic enough to have caused him to detach himself from people at an early age. So, now, I know that he’s stunted in his emotional growth, and how can I not be sympathetic toward him.

I’m particularly interested in the development of unreliable narrators, and this story provides examples of techniques that I can use in order to portray traits or deficiencies that the narrator can’t articulate or be aware of. The split between intellect and emotion within the narrator, making him reliable in one area and totally lacking in the other, was fascinating, as was the way it was conveyed to the reader. I’ll definitely be using that technique in character development.

The author dropped hints about the uniqueness of the narrator’s personality, including his attraction to the grotesque in nature, from the beginning of the book, but it didn’t impact me as a reader until I saw him in the relationship with Claire and her child. The foreshadowing added to the credibility factor within the story. I’m learning how important it is to provide a foundation and a build up to events within the story and how it increases the impact at the end.

The section of the book where the narrator spends time with Claire and her friends, the lovers, is incredibly engaging. He’s such a unique character that I never know what he’ll do or think next. I’m fascinated with his version of the nuances of relationships, the distancing and coming together. Is he learning something about relationships? I assume that’s the case, and probably the reason he finally understands the need to face his wife in person. The reader is invited to invent the missing portions of the narrative; there may be more than one way to interpret events. I’d definitely like to work on that technique in my stories and leave areas where the reader has to infer meaning.

In the final pages of the book, the author has a difficult problem. I know the narrator is emotionally stunted. So, how can the author demonstrate that the narrator has changed? I think that this change occurred earlier when the narrator finally decided to confront his wife and end the chase, although I can’t be sure since I don’t know why he made that decision. He walks toward his wife as she points a gun at him. Is he afraid? Again, the author doesn’t tell us. I’m disappointed and feel cheated. This seems like an event that might jolt the narrator into an emotional break through on some level, an insight into his behavior.

His wife drops the gun. Is she a coward? Does she still love him? Since love is the other side of hate, I’m assuming so. They board a bus together and travel to Malibu where they end up making peace. And, due to the narrator’s emotional deficits, that process also requires a third person to articulate/model it for him. A mutual acquaintance/movie director explains his philosophy of being friends, not enemies. They listen and follow his advice, or at least, that’s what the ending implies. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending but would have found it artificial for the narrator to experience an emotional catharsis. If facing a gun didn’t cause his emotions to surface, I’d find it hard to believe that he’d become emotional in a comfy setting. I wanted to know what they talked about all those hours on the bus. That seemed to be a major omission, a scene that the reader needed to be part of. At the end of the book, I found the characters shallow and wondered why I’d cared about the narrator earlier. He’s not present enough at the ending.

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