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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Die Ballade des letzten Gastes

Peter Handke

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To purchase Die Ballade des letzten Gastes

Title: Die Ballade des letzten Gastes
Author: Peter Handke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 185 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Die Ballade des letzten Gastes - Deutschland
  • Die Ballade des letzten Gastes has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Der Standard . 3/11/2023 Michael Wurmitzer
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 30/10/2023 Hilmar Klute
Tagesspiegel . 31/10/2023 Gerrit Bartels

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es wirkt besonders richtungslos. Ist das ein Schlenker zu Bodenversiegelung und Klimawandel ? Womöglich ! (...) So passiert nicht viel, außer dass einer erlebt. Die Freiheit muss sich erst einer nehmen! (...) Handke bleibt ein Prophet des kleinsten Verbindenden." - Michael Wurmitzer, Der Standard

  • "Mit seinem neuen nun, der Ballade vom letzten Gast, schließt er den Kreis zu seiner Nobel Lecture -- und noch weiter zurück. Nämlich zu der Zeit, als Handke zu dem verfeinert-eigenwilligen Schriftsteller wurde, als den man ihn heute kennt. (...) Man hat bei dieser Ballade des letzten Gastes von Beginn an den Eindruck, als würde Peter Handke sich kreuz und quer durch den eigenen Schreibraum bewegen" - Gerrit Bartels, Tagesspiegel

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Die Ballade des letzten Gastes has not yet been translated into English and this review is based on the German original; all translations are mine.]

       Die Ballade des letzten Gastes ('The Ballad of the Last Guest') has two epigraphs, the first from the Odyssey: "... πῆ κεν ὑπεκπροφύγοιμι;", translated into German by Handke as: "... Wohin nur könnte ich hinab-hinaus-voranflüchten ?", a lovely translation of ὑπεκπροφύγοιμι (the A.T. Murray translation has it as: "where then should I find escape from bane ?"). Like Odysseus, Gregor Werfer -- the central character of the novel -- is one who has been away for a long time, but his return to the family-home for his annual week-long stay finds him restless; even there he is constantly straying about the town (now part of a city-like agglomeration), spending little time at the family-home and still trying, in various ways, to move on, as it were.
       The story begins with his trip, the final stages of his arrival. First introduced as simply the "fragliche Mensch" -- both the 'person in question' as well as a: 'questionable person' --, Gregor returns to the country of his birth, a long trip involving three flights, and a last leg then by bus. He lives, we are told, in another part of the world -- with it parenthetically noted: "Auf oder in welchem, möge ein jeder sich selber vorstellen" ('On or in which, everyone can imagine for themselves') --, without a wife or children; what family and roots he has are here, where he grew up. The loose description of the stages of his trip contrast sharply with those of his return-trip near the end of the novel, where even the flight-time is precisely given (eleven hours and thirty-three minutes), and there's even mention that, while ninety-one per cent of his fellow passengers put down the window-shades after the evening meal on board, Gregor was one of the few who didn't (only pulling it down at sunrise, when all the other passenger pulled theirs open again, typical of his contrarian attitude towards seeing and what he wants to see ...).
       Gregor is the oldest of three children -- and almost two decades older than the youngest, Hans, who had long ago joined the Foreign Legion, stationed somewhere in the tropics. Their sister -- the one sibling who has remained --, meanwhile, now has a young child; among the things the family wants to do while Gregor is visiting is to have the boy baptized, with Gregor as godfather. It is the one 'event' the story builds to, with Gregor dutifully playing his part (and then high-tailing it out of there again, back to his home abroad).
       Just before he starts the final leg of his trip home, the walk from the bus station, Gregor reads a text message that he had received but initially ignored. He learns that his brother is dead, a shot to the head having killed him instantly in combat. It is with this knowledge that Gregor then reaches the family home -- but he does not immediately share it. Indeed, he keeps it to himself -- and his stay then becomes, in many ways, an exercise in avoidance, both of sharing this information with his family and of his family in general.
       Gregor's family is one in which one of the house-rules is: no questions, and so Gregor -- and the other members of the family -- are safe from being pressed into revealing things they'd rather not. (The rule seems not to be entirely adhered to: just before he leaves, Gregor's sister points out that one of the things he always does on his annual visits is inquire as to who had died since he was last there -- something he fails to do on this visit.) The family also leave Gregor be, to do as he pleases -- even though they're disappointed that he doesn't spend as much time with them as they would like or expect. But Gregor goes out of his way to avoid the family home: he continues to wander: "Nur noch gehen, gehen, gehen" ('Just to walk, walk, walk') his ambition at one point. There's even mention that he had recently been reading the Odyssey .....
       Solitary Gregor is apparently well-practiced in such 'Ein-Mann-Expeditionen' ('one-man expeditions'), which is also how he sees his wanderings around town. Like many Handke-protagonists, he observes, interacts, reflects in a way that is both close but maintains some distance; whatever 'feel' he has for his surroundings, he nevertheless shapes it all with and into words (though he rarely expresses them in speech). There is a great deal about how his hometown has changed -- one of the villages that has grown together with others to essentially form a new city, while many of the houses in the area, while in good condition, seem empty or abandoned (something he had already noticed on previous visits).
       Above all, Gregor avoids the family home, and while the family is used to him going his own way on his annual visits, even they are surprised by the extent he does so this time. Early on, he wants to spend the night in the woods; later then he takes to staying in the local inn-bars and restaurants, wanting to always be the 'last guest' (of the novel's title). Only the baptism does then bring them all together again.
       The novel is divided into three parts: 'Über den Tod eines Fremden' ('About the Death of a Stranger'), 'Die Ballade vom letzten Gastes', and 'Die Ballade des letzten Gastes'; the latter two would both generally be translated as 'The Ballad of the Last Guest' but in the first case it is more a ballad about him, while in the second it is his ballad -- as is also made clear by the switch to the first person in the narrative here (though it's not exactly a narrative at that point ...). Already earlier, the 'chonicler' -- a frequent Handkeian presence -- occasionally steps forward in a text that otherwise there is told in the third person (while closely focused on Gregor), but in the final section Gregor even goes so far as to admit that:

In meiner Heimatwoche ging mir auch auf, daß mein angemaßtes Chronistentum von Grund auf eine Fälschung war, eine Verpuppung meiner selbst.

[During my week at home it also dawned on me that my presumptuous assuming-the-role-of-chronicler was a fraud from its very roots, a misrepresentation of my self.]
       In the third section he is also already half a world away, in the place that he has made his everyday home; the distance does not change the fundamentals -- the reflections (the ballad ...) remains similar, if slightly shifted in tone and perspective.
       Die Ballade des letzten Gastes has many of the Handke-hallmarks and features, such as the protagonist who lives (in some unidentified place) far away and returns for a short time to where he grew up (resembling somewhere in not entirely rural southern Austria), with a family where communication is limited, who is a close observer of people, places, and nature, and a great wanderer. The significant news Gregor learns -- the death of his brother -- naturally hangs over the rest of the novel, especially since he keeps it to himself for so long, but is not made central in the way many writers would have done; typically, Handke layers a great deal more around it, and does not even place or keep it at the fore (as, arguably isn't necessary in any case, as it is such a significant occurrence). The baptism of Gregor's nephew makes for a balance between life-beginnings and endings -- obvious, but also not too forced.
       As with many of Handke's novels, there's a sense of aimlessness and drift -- mirrored here in Gregor's wanderings and seeking -- but it's a fairly tight little novel, making that more manageable for the reader than in some of his other work. It can be seen as a variation on his usual themes (and methods), but even as it fits comfortably into his œuvre it also stands quite nicely on its own.
       There's plot here -- it just isn't presented the (very basic ...) way most readers have now gotten used to. There is also more reflection than action in Die Ballade des letzten Gastes -- but in that way, in the way Handke does it here, that also makes it much more true to life than most fiction. Handke is successful in what he sets out to do, and he does it with a practiced, sure hand here, very well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 November 2023

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Die Ballade des letzten Gastes: Reviews: Peter Handke: Other books by Peter Handke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prolific Austrian author Peter Handke was born in 1942. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019.

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© 2023 the complete review

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