Undercover: Life on the Mississippi (05/05/77)

“We were sitting on the top deck of the river­boat Mark Twain waiting for it to pull out into the Mississippi… Then the steam whistle blew a signal… it was as though a whole nation had set its lips to a giant flute—a long drawn-out screech so bestial and brutal, but at the same time, what with the billowing clouds of black smoke and the vastness of the Mississippi, so proud, so grandiose, that, embarrassed and yet bodily shaken, I could only look off to one side. So overpowering was that signal that, splintered by fear, I lived a dream of America that up until then I had only heard about. It was a moment of expertly organized resurrection, in which the things around me ceased to be unrelated, and people and landscape, the living and the dead, took their places in a single painful and theatrical revelation of history. Theatrically flowed the Mississippi, theatrically the tourists moved from deck to deck, while an old man’s deep, far-carrying voice told the story of the riverboats over the loudspeaker: the new era of travel and commerce they had initiated, steamboat races, black slaves loading firewood by the light of the moon, boiler explosions; and finally, how the railroads had taken the place of the riverboats. Sick as I was of loudspeaker voices on tours, I could have listened to that dramatic voice forever.”

The voice here is that of Peter Handke, a young Austrian novelist, poet and playwright. The passage is from Short Letter, Long Farewell, a novel now collected, along with The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick—a short novel about murder and the fragmentation of perception—and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams—Handke’s memoir of his mother’s life and suicide—in Three By Peter Handke (Avon, 298 pp., $2.25, with superb translations from the German by Ralph Manheim and Michael Roloff). This volume is cheap, it has a spooky cover, and it makes such absurdly overpraised American novels as Ragtime, Speedboat and Lancelot read like the empty gestures that they are.61ekUmKbGHL._SL500_SX373_BO1,204,203,200_

Though each of the books included in this omnibus is a sort of masterpiece, and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams likely the finest of them, it is Short Letter, Long Farewell that has stayed with me with the greatest force. That is because, I imagine, the book is set in the United States, and like The Great Gatsby—which Handke, with great self-deprecating humor, invokes as he begins his story—it is an attempt to discover what traps America has set for those who believe in its promises, and, in a deeper, more persistent way, an attempt to discover what promises America still has the power to keep.

The book begins in Providence, as the narrator, a young Austrian, receives a letter from his wife,
who has left him: a warning not to follow her, though she tells him where she is. He sets off to
trace her in New York, then Philadelphia. Outside of Philadelphia he rejoins an old lover and travels with her and her daughter through the Midwest and into Missouri; threatening messages arrive from his wife, and a fake bomb. He leaves for the Southwest; she follows him, and has him beaten up. He flies to the Northwest; there, looking at the Pacific, his confrontation with his wife takes place. Then, together, they take the bus to L.A. to meet John Ford, who explains where they have been. It’s in the middle of his journey that the narrator, alone, goes to see Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, and, feeling the life in the picture (“In the end not only the drunks, but the actors playing the drunks, were listening to Lincoln”), understands that he must see Ford himself, must play Dorothy to Ford’s Wizard. And yet in this book Ford is a symbol only till we meet him, and the trip the narrator and his wife make across the country is a symbol only because such a trip must be a symbol—not because Handke ever forces it to be one. I didn’t notice, until I finished the tale and sat back to think about it, that the narrator had retraced the path of American history, had himself reached, settled, abandoned and pursued every retreating frontier until, at the frontier’s end, he had no choice but to settle his affairs. Like the narrator, I didn’t understand, until his extraordinary vision on the Mississippi riverboat, that whatever he was fleeing—his wife, “himself”—he had put much more of himself into searching out a kind of wholeness so complete, expansive and out of reach that only a place as big, dangerous and contradictory as America could even hint at it.For if Handke does not impose his symbolism on America, he wants to comprehend the symbolism America has inevitably imposed on his story. In Young Mr. Lincoln he finds an image—Lincoln talking down a lynch mob—that to him embodies “every possibility of human behavior”; it is just that sort of multiplicity that has died within the narrator, and without being able to figure it out, he determines that that image of freedom is American, and that Ford would somehow know the secret of that image. “What we see in the landscape isn’t nature,” a woman he meets tells him, “but the deeds of the men who took possession of America, and at the same time a call to be worthy of such deeds. We were brought up to look at nature with a moral awe. Every view of a canyon might just as well have a sentence from the Constitution under it.” A page later, the narrator sees that only a vision like that offered by the tourist boat Mark Twain can contain such a paradox—one is estranged from nature and yet forced to make a moral connection to it. Only such a paradox, and such a vision, can imply the dreamed unities that might rescue the narrator from the confines of his own history, from his narcissism, can detach him, for a moment, from what he has taken to be his fate. And that too is an image of freedom.

It is this sort of a quest that I look for in American novels, and almost never find.


Rolling Stone, May 5, 1977


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