“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? . . . I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
“Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
— David Hume, from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
* * *
The Lime Works (1970)
Translated by Sophie Wilkins
Translated by Sophie Wilkins
Translated by David McLintock
Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982)
Translated by David McLintock
The Loser (1983)
Translated by Jack Dawson
Translated by David McLintock
My Prizes (1980; published 2010)
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
(all above novels recently reissued by Vintage International; My Prizes published for the first time in English by Knopf)
* * *
Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 and grew up in Austria. He studied music at the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg. In 1957, he began a second career as a playwright, poet, and novelist. The winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation. He published nine novels, an autobiography, one volume of poetry, four collections of short stories, and six volumes of plays. Thomas Bernhard died in Austria in 1989.
This brief biography is from the inside cover of Concrete. I don’t plan to say anything more about Thomas Bernhard’s biography in this essay. There’s a danger, and it seems an especially tempting danger in the case of Bernhard, judging by the reviews I’ve been reading these past few months, to dismiss an author’s work, or limit its potential impact, by making it seem as though their work were simply an expression of their biography. Rather than take seriously what someone is saying, their novels are viewed simply as self-medicating counseling sessions, or as reactions to this or that literary or political moment. I didn’t know Bernhard, not that knowing him would provide any special insight into his work. I haven’t read his autobiography, Gathering Evidence. I know very little about the context in which these novels were written, beyond what any semi-educated American knows about the history of Germany, Austria, and Europe, or how that context could have affected Bernhard or his fiction.
* * *
The Lime Works: Konrad has moved he and his wife into an abandoned lime works, where he hopes to complete a scientific project on the sense of hearing. Although decades have passed and Konrad has yet to begin this work, he continues his investigations through daily, arduous, and seemingly specious experiment on his wife. The novel is an account of their lives, and Konrad’s apparent brutal murder of his wife, at the lime works as told by two locals to a traveling insurance salesman.
Correction: The narrator travels to a remote gorge where his friend Hoeller lives with his family. Their life-long friend Roithamer was building a Cone nearby, in the middle of the forest, for his sister. Roithamer committed suicide after the death of his sister, which followed quickly on the heels of his completion of the Cone, and the narrator is in Hoeller’s house trying to piece together Roithamer’s notes on the construction of the Cone.
Concrete: Rudolf, the sickly and dying narrator, has been studying Mendelssohn Bartholdy for years, with an eye toward writing the definitive work on the German composer. Troubled by his wealthy sister, Rudolf recounts his attempts to begin his work and his travels to various European cities that he hoped would serve as the appropriate venue to begin his work.
Wittgenstein’s Nephew: “Part memoir, part fiction,” Thomas Bernhard recounts the story of his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, both of whom were heirs to one of the wealthiest families in Europe, and both of whom spurned their wealth to purse their particular manias.
The Loser: Three friends, Wertheimer, the narrator, and Glenn Gould, the world famous pianist (albeit with different biographical details), have studied music together. On hearing Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations, both Wertheimer and the narrator give up on the piano, knowing there’s no hope that either of them can play up to Gould’s standard. Years later, Wertheimer commits suicide, and the narrator travels to Wertheimer’s village to try and understand what caused his death and to write a book about Glenn Gould.
Woodcutters: An aging writer accepts an invitation to an “artistic dinner” that is being thrown by the Auersburgers, a society couple that patronized the arts and that the narrator had broken with twenty years earlier, after having had an intimate relationship with them both. Held, coincidentally, on the same night as a funeral for their common friend and recent suicide Joana, during the course of the dinner the narrator excoriates the shallow and vapid Viennese art scene and decries his pitiful participation in it.
My Prizes: A non-fiction account of literary prizes that Bernhard was awarded and the absurd ceremonies held in his honor.
* * *
“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has his theme. He should move around in that theme.” —Thomas Bernhard in a 1986 interview with Anja Zeidler
* * *
Bernhard’s novels move from the present to the past. There is an action, usually a suicide, that has happened before the novel begins. In The Loser it is the suicide of Wertheimer; in The Lime Works it is Konrad’s apparent brutal murder of his wife; in Woodcutters it is the suicide of the “movement-teacher” Joana; in Wittgenstein’s Nephew it is the death of Paul Wittgenstein; and in Concrete it is the continuing inability of Rudolf to write his treatise on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. By the time these novels have begun, all of these actions have already happened. What remains to Bernhard’s characters is to make some sort of sense of these actions, to provide a justification for the suicide, to explain their writers’ block, to seek out from all their relations with society, with history, with their own minds that have made this action somehow necessary or inevitable. They seek causes and try to discover in everything the logic that is dictating events.
The main characters are generally both uniquely qualified and supremely unqualified to undertake these investigations. They are intellectuals, or aspire to be—writers, scientists, musicians—people accustomed to observation, study, experiment, to making sense from nonsense or constructing frameworks for understanding. But at the same time they are, or at least are reported to be, or appear to be, mad. Konrad has been conducting experiments on his wife for years, the Urbanchich method he calls it, for his yet-to-be-started masterwork on the sense of hearing. Roithamer has dedicated the last years of his life to constructing a Cone in the middle of the forest, a Cone whose location and form are supposed to bring perfect happiness to his sister but instead destroy her. The narrator of Woodcutters spends an entire dinner party, and the whole novel, sitting in a chair, glowering at the other guests, and occasionally muttering obscenities under his breath. And so on.
So we are held in this constant tension by Bernhard. His narrators are unreliable, but they’re not unreliable in the way that the term is commonly understood—that we can’t trust their version of the events in the story. What we can’t trust in Bernhard is the characters’ explanation for the causes of events that have already happened. The events are never in dispute: there was a suicide, I haven’t written, there was a murder, my friend is dead. And, generally speaking, when you read an unreliable narrator, you’re presented with something that is on the whole reliable, it’s a nearly true version, and the interest is in finding those places where the unreliability becomes apparent. Bernhard seems to invert that equation. What you’re seeing are drops of reliability in a lake of unreliability. It’s as though he invites his readers to dismiss these narrators, to be constantly emphasizing their otherness, he’s certainly not at all like you and I, and then, bolting out of the blue, are these moments of brutal clarity. And it’s at those moments, when you recognize the sometimes dark truth in what one of Bernhard’s characters is saying, that it begins to dawn on you that perhaps this character isn’t so different from you, that maybe you identify with him more closely than you’d care to admit.
* * *
“We mustn’t let ourselves go so far as to suspect something remarkable, something mysterious, or significant, in everything and behind everything, this is a yellow paper rose, the yellow paper rose, to be precise, which Roithamer shot down at the music festival in Stocket that one time, together with twenty-three others in different colors, that’s all. Everything is what it is, that’s all. If we keep attaching meanings and mysteries to everything we perceive, everything we see that is, and to everything that goes on inside us, we are bound to go crazy sooner or later, I thought.” Correction, pg. 126.
* * *
What I see in Bernhard is an examination of the problem of consciousness—if we understand consciousness to be the thing that provides us with ex-post facto justifications. And what is truly disturbing in Bernhard is not that his characters have created justificatory structures that verge on the insane, or at the very least the disturbed, but that these justifications are our own. For Bernhard’s characters always have an explanation, and those explanations, while delivered by unconventional people, and in unconventionally strident ways, are quite common: society caused this, or the family, or money, or fear of failure, or our innate goodness and seriousness running up against an uncomprehending and intolerant other. And maybe what he’s showing is that any attempt at justification or explanation is a kind of madness, that the causal search is a denial of the reality of the situation we’re faced with, that there is no significance, that our consciousness is just as deceptive as the consciousnesses of these half-mad characters, that our lives are based on stories, that we use these stories to paper, pitifully, over a truth that we can’t face, that these madnesses are our own madness.
And further, that this mad belief in the validity of our explanations moves forward out into the world in the most destructive ways.
* * *
So, that was pleasant. Since this is supposed to be a review, I should probably suggest why you, as a reader, would want to engage with this kind of thinking, what you could expect to get out of reading Thomas Bernhard. There’s the prose; reading these books is a true aesthetic experience, even if it’s a bit totalizing, as a friend of mine might say. The sentences coil in and out of each other with the apparent logical rigor of a Wittgensteinian aphorism, but with no attempt to be logical. It’s a unique reading experience to always feel that you’re on the verge of some sort of concluding logical statement only to find that there’s no conclusion, only a further assertion on some new and tangentially related topic, which in its turn leaves you hanging on the verge of understanding. Like everything beautiful, it’s hypnotic. And some of it is quite funny, which is the usual defense of Bernhard (He’s relentless, he’s bleak, but he’s funny!). The characters themselves, their obsessions and manias, are fascinating. While Bernhard’s theme, as he calls it, seems narrow, it’s really amazing how many variations he can spin out of it, how convincing he can make each one—it’s an awesome experience to be in the presence of such an imaginative and powerful mind.
But for me, and I admit this may be a strange and minority view, what is most interesting about Bernhard is his ability to hold himself and his readers in the space of Reason. It’s easy to walk away from Bernhard, let the sun warm your face, and think that everything is as it should be in the best of all possible worlds, or that it would be if only. . . . But I admire Bernhard’s bravery, his willingness to say No, and it’s good to turn to him from time to time, whenever the bullshit starts to feel a little deep.
* * *
“What we think is secondhand, what we experience is chaotic, what we are is unclear.
We don’t have to be ashamed, but we are nothing, and we earn nothing but chaos.
In my name and in the name of those here who have also been selected by the jury, I thank all of you.”
—Thomas Bernhard in a speech on the occasion of the awarding of the (little) Austrian State Prize.
E.J. Van Lanen is the senior editor at Open Letter, a press dedicated to publishing innovative works of fiction from from around the world.
image credit: seier+seier
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