Thomas Bernhard
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The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931. He suffered from problems with his lungs for most of his life and died in 1989 by assisted suicide, aged 58. He produced a vast body of work: novels, novellas, poems, plays, short stories, a five-part memoir.

His was an art of extremes, so here are two of them.

Either:

Thomas Bernhard was a dark genius, the heir to Beckett and Kafka.

Bernhard’s novels are addictive, tragicomic torrents, written in a prose style that Geoff Dyer describes as ‘the closest experience a reader can come to listening to music’.

Bernhard’s radical honesty – notably about Austrian hypocrisy – shocked and offended, but it also earned him prizes and adulation. ‘Austria without Thomas Bernhard would appear in no West German paper,’ wrote the (East) German playwright and poet Heiner Müller. ‘He’s practically an advertisement for it. There is no better promotion for Austria than Thomas Bernhard. Austria would not exist without Thomas Bernhard.’

Bernhard’s writing is so good it defies paraphrase. ‘The greatness of a great book is untranslatable. I cannot tell you what is extraordinary about The Loser. You must read it for yourself.’ (Claire Messud)

Bernhard is very, very funny. ‘I absolutely love Bernhard: he is one of the darkest and funniest writers. My favourite book of his is Extinction, a must-read for everybody.’ (Karl Ove Knausgaard.)

‘Not much of the international writing worth reading in the last twenty years has been done outside Bernhard’s shadow’ (Michael Hofmann). His is ‘the most significant literary achievement since WWII’ (New York Times). He is ‘the greatest writer in the world’. (Italo Calvino).

Or:

The price you pay for Beckett and Kafka’s complicated brilliance is the sheer tedium of so much of their prose. How many of us, in our heart of hearts, can honestly say we feel like re-reading Beckett’s Molloy or Kafka’s The Castle? Bernhard’s writing offers the tedium without the redeeming brilliance. He’s the heir to Beckett and Kafka, but not in a good way.

Bernhard’s novels are great megaliths of shapeless prose, written far too fast (six novels in five years is rarely a good sign). Reading them feels like a punishment.

If you’re a sadomasochist or a book reviewer, and you read the five Bernhard novels recently reissued by Faber, you will just about be able to tell where he’s trying to be funny. But you’ll never actually crack a smile, not even in the bit in Extinction that Geoff Dyer describes as ‘without doubt, the funniest passage in the whole of literature’.

It is typical of a Bernhard fan that he (or she, but more likely he) would want to crown someone ‘the most significant literary achievement since WWII’. That penchant for superlatives in the game of literary top-trumps. The same excessive reverence applied to the life as to the work. Hear the admiration and glee in Michael Hofmann’s description of Bernhard as ‘an almost predictably unpredictable terror… While professing to hate most aspects of Austria, he fell hard for its nattiness. Affecting soigné country clothes and a pleasant smirk across his remarkably clownlike features, he was the most photographed unphotographed writer, the most interviewed recluse, the most courted and best-paid enfant terrible.’

There have been many significant literary achievements since WWII. The work of Thomas Bernhard is not one of them.

*

It’s an inconvenient truth – for newspaper editors, anyway – that most writers are kind of ok. Very few are unequivocally brilliant. Very few are truly terrible. The reality is usually located somewhere between those two ‘either/or’ extremes. ‘Good in parts’ isn’t great copy, though. Reviewers’ verdicts tend to suffer from distortion because it’s sexier to discover ‘the new Sally Rooney’ or to gun down the latest Martin Amis than to write a boringly balanced appraisal.

So despite all the cover praise, I didn’t pick up my first Bernhard anticipating a transcendental literary experience. I expected it to be overhyped but good in parts. But I think, this time, it actually is a case of either/or. Bernhard is peddling a sort of anti-literature, literature that refuses to do any of the things that literature usually does. Either you think this is a masterstroke of sophistication from ‘a maddened, magical genius’ (Edna O’Brien). Or you think that the bad writing is just that – bad writing.

There’s also some price-fixing going on. Bernhard’s cheerleaders are often fellow purveyors of paradox: Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner, Ben Marcus, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Interested parties. All of these writers are essentially promoting their own pedigree, a genetic heritage that can be traced back from David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq through Bernhard to Beckett and Kafka. Bernhard represents an important mutation. He amplifies Kafka’s penchant for paradox (‘Correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding of the same matter do not exclude each other entirely’, the priest tells K at the end of The Trial) and grafts onto it something approaching autofiction. The narrators of his novels share significant amounts of Bernhard’s biography. These two traits form the basic literary DNA of the contemporary writers who most revere Bernhard’s work. Writers who overlook the problems of inbreeding – like pug-lovers who can’t see the cruelty that artificial selection entails.

Cruelty, in this case, to readers.

*

By now you’re probably wondering what Bernhard’s books are about. You’ve probably also realised that that’s a stupid question. In Bernhard’s own words: ‘You have to understand that in my writing the musical component comes first, and the subject matter is secondary.’ Or as Hofmann puts it: ‘None of your character-and-plot malarkey’.

But, briefly, for form’s sake:

Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982, trans David McLintock 1988) is a portrait of a friendship between Bernhard and Paul Wittgenstein. It opens during a period when both men were in hospital, Bernhard for his lung ailment, Wittgenstein for his recurrent madness. The novel ranges over the twelve years of the friendship, which ended with Wittgenstein’s death in relative poverty.

Concrete (1982, trans David McLintock 1984) is an episode in the narrator Rudolf’s 10-year struggle to write a book about Mendelssohn. At the start of the novel, his sister has just left Rudolf’s home after a longish visit. He feels her presence prevented him from starting work on his book, but now that she’s gone, it’s just as difficult. He decides to go to Palma, Majorca, for a change of scene in the hope that this will help him begin. It doesn’t.

The Loser (1983, trans Jack Dawson 1991) fictionalises an encounter between the pianist Glenn Gould and two other pianists, the narrator and Wertheimer, the ‘loser’ of the title. Wertheimer is nearly world-class, but on hearing Gould play he recognises his superiority and his life begins to unravel. In the aftermath of Wertheimer’s suicide, the narrator relates Wertheimer’s decline, while looking back on their early friendship and their mutual worship of Gould.

Woodcutters (1984, trans David McLintock 1987) describes a pretentious dinner party given on the same evening as the funeral of the hosts’ and narrator’s mutual friend, a woman called Joanna who committed suicide after a life of failure and misery.

Extinction (1986, trans David McLinock 1995) is the personal history of Franz-Josef Murau, who lives in Rome in part because he can’t bear to live anywhere near his hated family’s enormous country house in Austria. On returning to Rome after his sister’s wedding, he learns that he must go straight back to Austria, because his parents and father have just been killed in a car crash. The second half of the novel describes Murau’s homecoming and the funeral.

I am giving all these perfunctory summaries at the same time not just because subject matter really is secondary to ‘form’ in Bernhard’s work, but also because, as Dyer write, ‘all the books are pretty much the same; the next book seems to pick up where the previous one left off… what the books have in common is necessarily more striking than what separates any one title from the others’.

The main thing they have in common – which his fans neglect to mention – is that the pay-off is always sentimental and sensational. Concrete, for example, ends with Rudolf remembering an encounter with a young woman called Anna Härdtl on a previous visit to Palma. He tells us the tragic story Anna told him (much of Bernhard’s work is reported speech, more on which later). She was in Palma in mourning for her young husband, who died after falling from the balcony of a cheap hotel during a disastrous holiday the couple had taken with their young son as respite from running their disastrously failing business. Her husband was buried the next day, without her knowledge or consent, in a grave shared with a woman called Isabella the couple had never met. Bernhard remembers how he went with Anna to find the grave. In the novel’s present, he is haunted by the story and returns to the graveyard alone.

To my astonishment I found that the marble plaque set in the concrete no longer bore the names Isabella Fernandez and Hans Peter Härdtl: instead it bore, already engraved in the marble, the names Anna and Hans Peter Härdtl. I turned at once and quickly went to the porter on duty in his lodge next to the mortuary cold store. In answer to my question, which I put quite clearly and, as I could see, comprehensibly, even though I put it in Spanish, he simply repeated several times the word suicide.

For Hofmann, the novel is ‘like an oyster that finds its grit unexpectedly and late on’. 128 pages taken up with the narrator’s dithering about how to start his book and whether or not to go on holiday, followed 27 pages of Anna’s tragedy. Either you think this is a startlingly original approach to form. Or you think that the bolted-on ending can’t justify the torpor of the rest of the novel. Of course, a lot depends on whether you find the rest of the novel torpid, which Hofmann clearly doesn’t. Here is a representative sample. (I am really sorry about this, but it’s important to give you a good long draught so that you can fully appreciate the flavour. Remember, I had to read five whole novels.)

I began to think about what I should pack in my two cases, which I had meanwhile taken upstairs and left open on the chest of drawers in my bedroom. At first I packed some clothes, underclothes and shoes, bearing in mind my old principle of taking only what was essential. Only two jackets, two pairs of trousers and two pairs of shoes I said to myself, and I got together the right ones, remembering all the time that they must be summer jackets, summer trousers and summer shoes, for in Palma it is already summer in January – or more or less summery, I said, correcting myself. People always make the mistake of taking too many clothes on a journey, half killing themselves with the weight of their luggage, and then, if they have any sense, always wearing the same things when they get there. Now I’ve been travelling on my own account for over thirty years, I told myself, yet I still always take too much at the last moment. But on this journey, which will possibly – indeed almost certainly – be my last, I thought, I won’t take too much. That at least was my intention. But I was already in two minds when it came to deciding whether to take a pair of dark brown or a pair of black trousers with the dark grey ones. In the end I put a dark grey pair, a dark brown pair and a black pair in the case. However, when it came to jackets I was in no doubt: it had to be just a grey jacket and a brown one. […] It was naturally not as easy to pack the second case as it had been to pack the first, for I should have needed one twice the size to get in all the things that seemed to me to be absolutely necessary for my work.

He goes on packing for the best part of another page. This is one of the sections where you sense you’re meant to be laughing, but I was mostly fighting sleep. Not so Michael Hofmann, who was paying proper attention during the packing sequence, with one eye on the parallels between Rudolf’s poor health and Bernhard’s. ‘That the bag of medicines eventually goes in the ‘intellectual’ suitcase says everything that needs to be said.’

There are suicides in three of these five novels. In The Loser, Wertheimer travels from Austria to Switzerland, where his sister is living, and hangs himself near her home. ‘Wertheimer wanted, I thought, to shift the blame for his suicide to his sister, to deflect attention from the fact that nothing but Glenn’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations as well as his Well-Tempered Clavier was to blame for his suicide, as indeed for his disastrous life.’ Wertheimer, a virtuoso pianist, gives up the piano and kills himself as a result of hearing the more virtuosic Gould. He is an extravagantly romantic figure, a caricature, almost. For me, the exaggeration precludes any possibility of pathos. Yet this is Leanne Shapton in her afterword espousing the ‘love is all you need’ school of criticism as practised by Jonathans Franzen and Lethem:

This is love. A love like no other that can’t be destroyed or contextualised, named or delegitimised. Bernhard had that love for Gould and his work. We are lucky when we can love like this. Whether it is work, a piece of art, a person. When people love their work the way people love people, they can make it art, and sometimes that art gives and takes more love than the human expression of love can. This is a book for anyone who loves to work, who loves their work, loves how work can love you and others back when one feels unloving and unloved.

In Extinction, Murau’s aversion to his family centres on their Nazi-sympathiser past. Towards the end it is revealed that the Children’s Villa, a beloved outbuilding where he remembers putting on plays with his sister, was also a hiding place for members of the SS during WWII. In the novel’s final sentences we learn that Murau gives the enormous family pile to the Jewish community in Vienna.

Great art is good. Suicide is sad. Nazis are bad.

I suspect these platitudes contribute an important feel-good factor to Bernhard’s overall effect. You slog through the difficult bulk of one of his novels, feeling terribly sophisticated and grown-up (‘as with beer or wine, a taste must be acquired’, writes Dyer), and you’re rewarded at the end with the sickly glacé cherry that sank to the bottom of the glass.

*

So what about the main event, the prose? Everyone seems to agree that it’s terribly musical. Sometimes, people get very specific. For Michael Hofmann, writing in the LRB (4 November 2010), ‘If Bernhard is anything, he is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out its trapped and staggered shards of shrilly hammered phrases.’ (A helpful reader wrote in to point out that harpsichords are plucked, not hammered). Leanne Shapton hears something very different when she reads the The Loser, disagreeing with those critics who have tried to find parallels between that novel and the Goldberg Variations. The Loser, Shapton tells us, is more like ‘Gould’s rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13, Op. 27 No. 1, second movement, Allegro molto e vivace. Two minutes long. It’s unrelenting, barely a rest or break. A point made, a beauty described, it runs its fingers over the surface of something impenetrable, marble.’

Let me tell you, The Loser is not two minutes long. It is 170 pages that feel like several years. Like all of these five books, it is written as a continuous chunk of text: there are no paragraphs[1]. John Updike, reviewing Wittgenstein’s Nephew, was typically, marvellously alive to the practical implications of this, writing that Bernhard’s ‘typographical signature – a resolute lack of paragraphing, an unrelieved march of unindented lines – shows hostility, towards the reader and also towards the printer, for whom every alteration involves a vast displacement of type.’

For the more fanciful Hofmann, it’s a symptom of Bernhard’s lung trouble: ‘the torrential, unparagraphed speech bespeaks the difficulty of breathing. A paragraph or pause for breath would be a waste of what little time he had.’ This makes no sense. Someone struggling to breathe would surely look like Emily Dickinson on the page (‘And I – could I stand by / And see You – freeze…?’). Bernhard’s narrators have excellent lung capacity, metaphorically speaking. They are the Olympic swimmers of prose, like this champion debater in Ben Lerner’s excellent new novel The Topeka School:

And now Joanna stands to deliver the first affirmative speech. For a few seconds it sounds more or less like oratory, but soon she accelerates to nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume rising; she gasps like a swimmer surfacing, or maybe drowning; she is attempting to ‘spread’ their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn – that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule among serious debaters being that a ‘dropped argument’, no matter its quality, its content, is conceded.

There’s nothing so coherent as an argument in Bernhard, but the basic principle of ‘the spread’ still applies. There are no stopping points to allow you to absorb what you’ve read; by the end, you’re so exhausted that you’re ‘dropping arguments’ all over the place. Dyer’s account of reading Bernhard is revealing. He suggests that when we try our first Bernhard, ‘rather than fall instantly under the Bernhardian spell, we think, OK, I sort of get it, without either getting it or succumbing’. After that, he argues, we read on,

not because we are craving more but, on the contrary, because the experience has not been as transformative as we were led to expect. And then, gradually, we discover that we are caught in the implacable riptide of Bernhardian woe… If you go with the tug and surrender yourself to it then Bernhard’s writing becomes the opposite of off-putting. Since there’s nowhere to pause, nowhere to conveniently mark a resting place, you just keep going. The books become, in a negative way, unputdownable, while other novels become correspondingly un-pick-up-able.

This was not my experience of reading Bernhard. I spent the entire time trying to fight my way back to shore, where I could do something more fun, like washing out the coffee grounds stuck to the bottom of the food waste bin.

Bernhard’s paragraph-less prose might be one inspiration for the idea that his writing is like music. Music doesn’t stop, nor does his prose, ergo it’s like music. Of course music does stop: it is premised on all sorts of different stops, crossing over each other, creating form and tension. The note value. The bar line. The phrase. The pause. The rest. I would argue that a novel with no paragraphs is like a piece of music without bar lines. Which does exist, of course, but is so free-form as to be nudging the boundaries of what we understand by ‘music’. A better parallel might be the prose poem. Bernhard’s books are to novels what prose poems are to poetry. And who wants a novel-length prose poem, let alone five?

But I’m stating the obvious with all this talk of bar lines. Bernhard’s acolytes will tell you that the music is to be found locally, within the sound of the sentences themselves. One immediate problem with that (to state the obvious again) is that we are reading in translation, and the ‘music’ of Bernhard’s prose sounds very different in Jack Dawson’s translation of The Loser from in David McLintock’s translation of the four other novels under review. Perhaps that’s true in the German as well; but you see the difficulty.

Are you ready to hear some music?

This is from The Loser, in which a charming local quirk of Bernhard’s is at its most pronounced. If, say, he’s sitting in a chair thinking about something that happened in the past, he’ll remind you with astonishing regularity that he’s thinking it, by ending every other sentence with ‘I thought’. If he’s thinking about someone who once said something to him, the problem is compounded. As follows:

…when asked what my profession was I actually once responded, so Wertheimer said, that I was an aphorist. But people didn’t understand what I meant, as usual, when I say something they don’t understand it, for what I say doesn’t mean that I said what I said, he said, I thought. I say something, he said, I thought, and I’m saying something completely different, thus I’ve spend my entire life in misunderstandings, in nothing but misunderstandings, he said, I thought.

But… I say problemo, you say supremo. Either/or. For the true Bernhardian, this is actually a star feature. The rest of us just aren’t groovy enough to feel the beat, man. Here’s Edmond Caldwell to explain about the repetition of these ‘speech-tags’:

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word.  After five or ten or twenty repetitions in more or less close succession, they get louder rather than softer.  They stick in the throat, won’t let the prose – no, the story – go down easily.  Compared with the “fine” writing of so much contemporary literary fiction (brought to us by the ethic of writing-as-craft that holds sway in the MFA programs), their effect is powerfully unlovely, brilliantly ‘bad.’  And suddenly, instead of tripping over them, you find yourself laughing.

Suddenly. If you surrender yourself. Both Dyer and Caldwell seem to suggest that there’s a click point when you suddenly ‘get’ Bernhard. An unanswerable critical argument.

If you’re unpersuaded, here’s another favoured Bernhardian technique for repeating himself. This is page 38 of Wittgenstein’s Nephew:  ‘I remembered that Paul’s other consuming passion, besides music, was motor racing.’ And this is page 39: ‘He had in fact two passions, which were at the same time his two main diseases – music and motor racing.’ In another writer, this banal repetition would signal sloppiness, inattention. In Bernhard, it’s musical variation.

Or….

*

Wertheimer’s description of himself as ‘an aphorist’ is likely a bit of Bernhardian irony, because these novels are stuffed full of aphorisms. Some are straightforwardly Wildean: ‘To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. To publish the intellect is the most heinous of all crimes’ (Concrete). A few are rather good. ‘Venice is a city to be visited for only a few days, never for longer, like an elegant old lady whom one always goes to see for the last time’ (Concrete).

More usually, Bernhard’s aphoristic tone expands into something shaggier, more curmudgeonly – the iconoclasm for which he is so celebrated. ‘People love animals because they are incapable even of loving themselves. Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs.’ Is this bracing truth-telling from an anti-everything Cassandra? Or just glib nonsense from the court jester? He is capable of nicely counterintuitive formulations:

The mind cannot develop in the country; it can develop only in the city, yet today everyone flees from the city to the country because people are basically too indolent to use their minds, on which the city makes the greatest demands, and so they choose to perish surrounded by nature, admiring it without knowing it, instead of seizing upon all the benefits the city has to offer.

(Compare Michel Houellebecq’s eviscerations of the rural idyll in France.) But Bernhard doesn’t know when to stop, and usually these rants are extended ad absurdum – then repeated a few pages later. Of course, for the Bernhardian, ‘absurd’ is an unequivocal positive. As is exaggeration, another key feature of his style. It is exaggeration that is the subject of the ‘the funniest passage in the whole of literature’, according to Dyer, towards the end of Extinction [the narrator Murau is recalling a conversation with a man called Gambetti]:

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise. I’ve cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of. I know of none greater. No one has carried the art of exaggeration to such extremes, I told Gambetti, and if I were suddenly asked to say what I really was, secretly, I’d have to say that was the greatest artist I knew in the field of exaggeration.

Yes, yes, I get it. He’s exaggerating about exaggeration. I just… don’t find it that funny.

But if you do like this sort of thing, then you’ll probably enjoy Bernhard’s hyperbole and cliché, too. All done deliberately, of course. After all, he’s a genius. We know he knows when he’s using cliché, because he tells us. ‘At times he seemed like his former self, but death was written on his face, as they say.’ ‘He now bore what they call the mark of death.’ (Both from Wittgenstein’s Nephew; just two examples from so, so many) As for hyperbole, Bernhard’s narrators are constantly being completely annihilated or destroyed by other people. (Kafka’s diary entry following his engagement ceremony with Felice Bauer comes to mind: ‘Had they sat me down in a corner with real chains and posted policemen in front of me and let me look on simply like that, it could not have been worse.’)

This is Rudolf in Concrete, complaining about his sister:

The very thought of her robs me of my capacity for any intellectual activity, and she has always stifled at birth any intellectual projects I have had.

This is Rudolf in Concrete, complaining about people:

People exist for the sole purpose of tracking down the intellect and annihilating it. Sensing that someone’s brain is on the point of some intellectual effort, they come along and stifle this intellectual effort at birth.

This is Rudolf in Concrete, preparing to go on holiday:

I shall be going away from a country… in which only the primitive instinct for survival prevails and the slightest pretension to thought is stifled at birth.

Presumably it’s all part of the anti-literary project, just like Knausgaard’s much lauded ‘boring bits’ and impoverished use of language. Here is Knausgaard, remembering a childhood crush in Boyhood Island: ‘I would be getting undressed by my bed and the thought of Anne Lisbet and her whole being could suddenly strike me with such force that I was left reeling with happiness and longing.’ The idea, I think, is a radical stripping-back, an unselfconsciousness designed to produce increased authenticity.

*

In the Nintendo game Super Mario, two plumbers called Mario and Luigi journey through a series of worlds to rescue Princess Toadstool. On the way, they collect gold coins which are suspended just above their heads, requiring them to jump up and punch at the same time. When a coin is collected, there’s a pleasing sound effect to let the player know their score has increased.

This, I imagine, is what reading Bernhard is like for his fans. Only instead of coins, they’re punching paradoxes.

Paradox-itis. The symptoms are there in Kafka, but Bernhard really incubates the strain. Then it spreads to Houellebecq, Foster Wallace, Dyer… Sometimes Bernhard gives us full-blown Derridean, tail-eating paradox and aporia (Derrida: ‘To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.’) Sometimes he just says one thing then holds that its opposite is true a few sentences later (a more Beckettian vibe. See Molloy: ‘A little dog followed him, a pomeranian I think, but I don’t think so’). And there’s a weaker – though no less annoying – variant, in the form of his penchant for chiasmus: ‘Paul the madman was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig , while Ludwig the philosopher was just was mad as his nephew Paul’ (from Wittgenstein’s Nephew).

I am going to list some examples. If you’re new to Bernhard, let this be a sort of entry-test to his work. The requirement is that you find what you’re about to read funny or profound, ideally both. If you think it’s tedious and facile – more or less the same thing again and again and again, another simulated coin punched to the sound of an electronic fanfare – then I think we can safely say that Bernhard is not for you. (Cross Foster-Wallace off your wish list, too – but not Dyer or Lerner, who both out-write their Austrian ‘master’.)

From Wittgenstein’s Nephew:

I imagined that I would spend a few more weeks in the hospital and then leave… Yet… I did not believe I would leave [the hospital] alive… in all I felt there was not one glimmer of hope.

From Concrete:

On the one hand we can’t be alone, people like us; on the other we can’t stand company.

We need someone for our work, and we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one.

On the other hand I’ve always loved her, with all her dreadful faults – loved her and hated her. Sometimes I’ve loved her more than I’ve hated her, and vice versa, but most of the time I’ve hated her because she’s always acted against me.

From The Loser:

Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought.

Everyone says something repeatedly and is misunderstood, this is the only point where everybody understands everybody else, he said, I thought.

From The Woodcutters:

It was in the Sebastiansplatz that I learned not only to admire human beings and human society, but also to despise them, I thought, to find them at once attractive and repellent. It was in the Sebastiansplatz that I first became clearly aware of the power and impotence of artists, and of human beings in general.

From Extinction:

I have yet to see a photograph that shows a natural person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature. Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century. Nothing has ever sickened me so much as looking at photographs. And yet, I now told myself, the longer I look at the distorted images of my parents and my brother in these pictures – the only ones I ever took of them – the more I see the truth and the reality behind the distortion.

The artificial world produced the artificial human world, and conversely the artificial human being produced the artificial world.

David Foster Wallace pushes the tradition forwards, or rather back on itself, with his signature move of circular logic. This is from Infinite Jest:

Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they’re permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten – which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo) – but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline.

And for good measure, here’s some Dyer:

You could not get stoned… until you knew what it was like to be stoned. (White Sands)

The hotel, when he finally stumbled on it, was nowhere near where it was supposed to be and, at the same time, exactly where it was meant to be. (Jeff in Venice)

To return, briefly, to Bernhard’s sister. ‘On the other hand I’ve always loved her, with all her dreadful faults – loved her and hated her. Sometimes I’ve loved her more than I’ve hated her, and vice versa, but most of the time I’ve hated her because she’s always acted against me.’ (See also Extinction: ‘His brother, my father, he both loved and despised.’ ‘If I say that I have always loved them, this does not mean that I have not always hated them in equal measure.’) The language is simplified and exaggerated, as so often in Bernhard. Hate? But we know what he means; there’s a kernel of truth in there. The people we are closest to sometimes drive us crazy. Many better writers have fruitfully explored this complexity. Ben Lerner, however, would say I was missing the point. This is from the afterword to Wittgenstein’s Nephew:

For Bernhard, you cannot meet in the middle. That is mediocrity, death. Everything is a question of extremes… This manic restlessness, this shifting and switching, is a symptom and a source of suffering… but it is also a source of energy. Bernhard’s chiasmic sentences graph his neurosis so perfectly that even his most misanthropic statements make one feel a little less alone: his eloquence about isolation reaffirms art’s capacity to make consciousness sharable. His sentences denote despair, but they are unmistakably alive.

There it is again: that warm fuzzy notion that the goal of art is to make us feel less alone – coupled to the contorted idea that Bernhard’s AC/DC prose generates some sort of electric life force.

There are clever things to be said about the narrators in Bernhard’s work: their unreliability, the slippage between the narrators and the characters they encounter. And every book contains a reference to its own construction (of course it does), so there’s plenty of room for critical calisthenics there, too. But I’m going to leave all that to the pros.

*

The person I feel sorriest for in all of this is Anne Enright, called on to write the afterword to The Woodcutters. Why did she accept the commission? She nervously spends two out of four pages describing a trip to Vienna. Then comes the confession.

The first time I attempted Bernhard, with The Loser, I could not read him in English, the sentences were too head-wrecking and baroque for that. I had to try reading them in the original…. But I could not read Bernhard in German any more than I could read him in English.

With just a page left of her afterword, we read: ‘What a pleasure, then, in the middle of my reading life, to find I can finally get behind his sentences.’ Then follow two very short paragraphs on The Woodcutters before Enright returns, her relief audible, to her trip to Vienna.

I felt sorry for Anne Enright, but also pleased to hear her speaking frankly about her experience of reading him. Best of all, even after her mini-ephiphany, she doesn’t pretend to find him funny. (In fact I don’t think Bernhard’s sentences are that difficult; I think his writing is just so excruciatingly boring it gives the illusion of difficulty.)

Silly me: buoyed by my experience with Enright, my heart gladdened when I read the first sentence of Dyer’s afterword to Extinction. ‘In order to write this afterword it was necessary to reread the book in your hand, a prospect I contemplated with some trepidation.’ Someone else prepared to be honest about Bernhard’s detractions, I thought! But no; Dyer was nervous for a very different reason. ‘Like an alcoholic offered a drink after a long period of abstinence, I worried that a few sips of Bernhard would lead, almost instantly, to my going on a complete bender.’

I didn’t feel like an alcoholic while reading Bernhard. I felt like someone developing a bee-sting allergy. The first reaction is mild: just some redness and itching. The second time the toxin enters your body, the swelling is more serious. And so on, to the point where I think another encounter with Bernhard’s fiction could send me into anaphylactic shock.

*

These five novels are reissues of books first published in the 1980s, when type was still handset. When there are no computer files to reprint from, the old physical text can be scanned into a computer and then formatted and edited as normal. But you have to be careful about errors introduced by the scanner ‘seeing’ incorrectly.

In Extinction, the longest, densest and most deadly of the five (not, as Knausgaard has it, ‘a must-read for everybody’. Is there a formulation more obnoxious than ‘must-read’?)

On page 10, Murau is reading a copy of an article he wrote: ‘Moreover, a cursory glance revealed a number of unpardonable printing errors – which is the wont thing that can happen to me.’ [my italics; the computer has mis-seen the word ‘worst’] You might think this is a joke, but…

On page 11, same problem: ‘Practitioners of photography are guilty of the wont crimes it is possible to commit’ [my italics]

Page 140: ‘My Either, of course, has not just an inkling…’ [my italics; the computer has mis-seen ‘Father’]

Page 312: ‘Naturally we surfer all the time after being told that we have not long to live, but we shield ourselves from this dire prognosis because we want to go on living.’ [my italics; it should be ‘suffer’]

What do these errors signify?

Either Fabers, despite having in their care ‘the most significant literary achievement since WWII’, didn’t bother to get the novels re-proofread before publication. (A sadly frequent occurrence with translated literature.)

Or there was proofreader, who valiantly tried to keep their eyes open – and failed.  Mon semblable, mon frère!

 

 

[1] In fact there are three short paragraphs on the first page of The Loser; from then on, the rest of the novel is one long unbroken ‘paragraph’. And to be really accurate, Extinction is two long ‘paragraphs’: the one that makes up the first section, and the one that makes up the second.


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