Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, first published in English translation in 1979, is a remarkable novel, formally innovative and richly demanding in content. Bernhard’s writing is frequently grouped with Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, and his affinities with those two preeminent European modernists are on display here. But Bernhard’s approach has its own concerns as well as an arguably darker edge. The characters and situations in Correction are comical and sometimes absurd, but they are also grounded in a recognizable historical reality and geography. As a result there is a surprising weight and closeness to the existential ground his characters ultimately tread upon. When Bernhard’s satire bends into horror as the novel progresses, there is little allegorical distance for the reader to retreat into. The culminating tragedy feels both personal and claustrophobic.
The story concerns three childhood friends: Roithamer, the narrator, and Hoeller. As boys they had walked to school together through a wild and apparently treacherous stretch of mountain and forest country in rural Austria. Roithamer was the son of an aristocratic family living on an estate named Altensam, while the other two boys were of humbler origins. But Roithamer’s childhood was by far the hardest of the three, full of familial hatred, violence, and misunderstanding. Roithamer sought escape in the surrounding villages and came to despise his life at Altensam, saving particular scorn for his mother, his father’s second wife. At one point the boys arrive at school to discover that their teacher has hung himself, a sight that affects them all profoundly. After their school days, Roithamer and the narrator go on to Cambridge while Hoeller remains in Austria, becomes a taxidermist, and eventually builds an incredible house perched over a rushing river in the remote Aurach gorge, which the boys used to travel through on their way to school. Roithamer is inspired by the house, and, when Hoeller offers him the use of a garret for his studies, begins to spend significant time there during his visits home.
Strangely, perniciously, Roithamer’s father leaves him in possession of Altensam at his death, knowing Roithamer despises it and in destroying it will destroy the family legacy. Roithamer sets about doing just that, selling the property to finance his own incredible architectural project: the building of the mysterious “Cone” in the center of the Kobernausser forest which is to be a home for his beloved sister and which, he claims, will “make my sister perfectly happy by means of a construction perfectly adapted to her person.” After six years of tireless secret labor, the Cone is completed and presented to the sister, who, unable to handle the shock (and presumably the incestuous undertones), dies shortly thereafter. Roithamer, despondent, hangs himself in a clearing on the path leading to Altensam.
After this the book takes another strange turn. The novel’s narrator, who at the book’s beginning arrived at Hoeller’s home to collect the papers Roithamer has willed to him, moves into the garret room that Roithamer felt was the only place he could think freely. He is clearly in awe of his dead friend and overwhelmed by his role as caretaker of his legacy. Roithamer’s presence haunts the garret; the narrator wonders if his every thought isn’t an echo of a thought Roithamer once had there. He focuses on the manuscript Roithamer has left him, noting that Roithamer has rewritten it three times, each time “correcting” it down to a new and shorter version that “destroyed” the old version. Yet, together the versions compose an irreducible whole. The narrator believes his friend’s work is a masterpiece, albeit one that cannot be published in its current state. What is he to do? He decides to go to sleep for the night with the plan to “sneak up on Roithamer’s legacy” in the morning.
The second half of the book opens with the narrator still nominally telling Roithamer’s story in the second person. Quickly, however, he begins to speak directly in Roithamer’s voice, reading portions of the manuscript. It becomes apparent that Roithamer’s manuscript is being rewritten, “corrected” once again, this time through the voice of the narrator, who begins, ominously, to disappear into the language of the text. Roithamer’s story becomes increasingly obsessive and mad as it recounts the construction of the Cone and the death of his sister. Finally, it turns to the rationalization of suicide. By the time the text ends “The end is no process. Clearing.” the narrator’s own voice has long since dissolved entirely into Roithamer’s text.
Bernhard based certain bibliographical aspects of Roithamer on the life of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was born into great wealth, went to Cambridge, lived austerely, worked obsessively, and spent years carefully designing and building a house for his sister (though it was not cone-shaped). Other elements of Roithamer come from Bernhard’s own troubled life: his love of the Austrian countryside, hatred of the Austrian state (he famously forbid the publication or production of any of his works in Austria for the duration of their copyright), and bilious relationship with his mother. The unfortunate misogyny that mars this otherwise marvelous novel also apparently comes from Bernhard’s personality, and may help to explain its neglect. Satire is a motive force throughout Bernhard’s work, but here his repeated jeers at women come across as ham-fisted and ugly, personal rather than ironic. They are disappointing, all the more so because they are so tangential to the ideas that are at play.
What is going on in this strange narrative, at times prosaic, at other times dreamlike, and finally deeply lingual and deconstructivist? Copying and repetition are signal themes: of houses, of biographical elements, and of ideas and written works. Copying implies a return, and in Bernhard’s world, life is grimly circular, a spiral of repetitions grounded in the presumption of Correction.
Correction, however, does not imply improvement, but rather an irrepressible compulsion for change, change so devoid of meaning it becomes repetition, repetition so inevitable that it inspires horror. Correction is a process that dominates thought, obliterates autonomy. Bernhard has picked up Beckett’s conceit—”I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—and taken it a further step down the path to annihilation. It is not “I” that goes on, it is “Correction” that goes on, reducing individuals to mere ciphers of its will. We are in a world of rewritten histories where what we suspected to be central—identity—becomes insignificant, and what we thought was a mere structural apparatus—language—becomes the vital, empowered life force. Human reality becomes a secondary concern, a mere host body through which the mechanical process of Correction passes.
In one sense it is an editor’s nightmare—the endless rewrite. In another, deeper sense it is a harrowing vision of the endgame of deconstruction, striking for its implications for individual identity in a world emptied of fixed meaning. Perhaps most profoundly, it is Bernhard’s response to Austria’s rewriting of the history of its sympathetic participation in the Nazi war machine during World War II. Twenty-five years on, his diagnosis of humanity’s tendency toward such compulsive and even suicidal “revisions” of history seems ever more prescient.
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