Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
It is a strange time. In a world where a popular subject for many movies (and books) is apocalyptic and/or post apocalyptic scenarios, how does one settle into an innovative story about escape and travel? Before I answer that question I felt compelled to google “novels about apocalypse.” One site listed the ten best post-apocalyptic books to read before the world ends. I have read three of them: Earth Abides, 1949, On the Beach, 1957 and The Stand, 1978. I have a few to go and will not be seeking any of them out soon as truth is playing out better than fiction at this point.
Sidebar: The 2018 award was announced in 2019 due to the scandal that exposed serious flaws in the appointed-for-life committee. After a year of regrouping, new members, new rules and a new hope for transparency, the committee announced both the 2018 and the 2019 Nobel Literature Laureates. The Washington Post wrote a perspective on this that is worth the read: “The Swedish Academy took a year off to fix the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s still broken.” In case you missed it, the previous Booklover explored a work of fiction entitled Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, the 2018 prizewinner.
Peter Handke was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” This choice by the Nobel Committee did not go with out protest and controversy as outlined in the above-mentioned Washington Post article. I will leave that part of this Austrian author’s bio for you to explore.
Handke’s novel Short Letter, Long Farewell is an interesting postscript to my previous read, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. Both works of fiction deal with travel, an interesting subject matter in light of the current pandemic that brings new social norms of social distancing, sheltering in place and a run on toilet paper. And just as this situation has produced wildly different points of view about how to handle all of this, these two authors also demonstrate wildly different points of view on travel given to the reader in two unique styles of writing.
Handke’s German traveler arrives in Boston. Upon checking into the Wayland Manor Hotel he is handed a note by the desk clerk: “The letter was short: ‘I am in New York. Please don’t look for me. It would not be nice for you to find me.’” Thus begins his journey (or escape) across America. The travelogue/journal style holds intimate descriptions, awareness, and details of our beautiful country as seen through the eyes of someone, albeit foreign, who cherishes it and seems to know it. Truth be told, the traveler is escaping a marriage — the “me” in the note is his wife. This fact plays into the adventure. In addition, he seeks out a previous companion, Claire, and piggy backs on her and her daughter’s travels. One stop along the way has them spending time with some artists where this observation is made:
“When the child saw a representation of nature, one of the painter’s pictures, for example, she never thought of asking whether there really was such a scene, and if so where, because the copy had replaced the original forever. I remembered that, unlike her, I myself as a child had always wanted to know where the object represented actually was. In our house, for instance, there was an oil painting of a glacier landscape with a mountain hut at the lower edge. I had always been convinced that this landscape and this hut existed in nature; I even thought I knew where the painter must have stood, and when someone told me the picture was pure imagination I couldn’t believe it. For a long time I could hardly breathe when it came to me that the picture was alone and that I could find nothing to go with it. It was very much the same when I learned to read: I couldn’t see how it was possible to describe something that didn’t exist. The village described in my primer was a real village, not my own of course, but another not far away. I even knew which village. And because the first books I read on my own were told in the first person, I was horrified when for the first time I opened a book in which there was no “I” narrator. These forms of perception had so powerful an influence on my other experience that now in retrospect it seemed to me that the shock of discovering they were not valid had been a turning point of my life. I felt almost jealous of this child, who from the first looked on symbols and representations as having an existence of their own.”
These observations, insights, and musings punctuate the travelogue. I leave you with my favorite phrase: “All at once I understood how illusions and mistaken identities give rise to metaphors.”