1. Thomas Bernhard's CONCRETE. Comments from April 2001.

  2. Thomas Bernhard's WITTGENSTEIN'S NEPHEW. Comments from April 2001.

  3. Thomas Bernhard's CORRECTION. Comments from January 2001.

  4. Thomas Bernhard's WOODCUTTERS. Comments from July 2001.

  5. Thomas Bernhard's ON THE MOUNTAIN. Comments form July 2001.

  6. Thomas Bernhard's comments on Vienna Coffee Houses.


~essay by David Sepanik


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 – Kinkazzo has seen it in Vienna and can confirm! It is now the abode of the Bulgarian Cultural Office…). 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. [But on this and its reassessed interpretation see other essays on the Bernhardiana]


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.

* * *


by Rhonda Lieberman

Rhonda Lieberman on the Indiscreet Charm of Thomas Bernhard

We all want to be good consumers. We don't want to reproduce negativity. So whenever I hear Cindy Crawford aver, "It's really inner beauty that counts," my inability to take things at face value makes me feel unclean. According to Gilles Deleuze, "The world is the set of symptoms of which the illness coincides with man."

A recent art piece in Vogue juxtaposed two "artful gatherings": a late-19th-century parlor painted by Alfred Stevens, garnished with lady artist and models, and a mod 1965 postcard of a fancy French restaurant in Chicago with mannequinlike patrons, all of whom looked upscale yet very normal. Both images offered the voyeur attractive poses to identify with--one the pale romantic, two the sporty WASP. It has been customary since the 19th century for image-makers to reflect back their bourgeois or bohemian audiences from the place from which they appear likable to themselves; god help the artist who refuses to mirror his consumers back to themselves in idealized form.

While one-too-many a puff piece on a "down-to-earth" celebrity or pure-hearted artist can throw one into the hands of the devil (at least for a moment). Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, based his career on recording every possible insult to his intelligence and finding that everything, upon close examination, disgusted him. He was one of those Viennese who were constantly hating everything: art, kitsch, nature, the Viennese who "have no lavatory culture," his colleagues, and himself. He reserved especially colorful remarks for "the real wreckers of art"--art historians--who deserve "to be chased out with a whip." Heidegger himself appears, unattractively, "pulling on his socks." Especially apt at capturing esthetic urges as they curdle into careerism, jealousy, sterility, and consciousness (where most people prefer to forget these Kodak-unworthy moments--and years), Bernhard has preserved them in his books. Despite his frequent tirades against the Austrian people, when you read him it's hard to remember he's talking about horrible people in Vienna and not people you know in NYC today.

WOODCUTTERS: A NOVEL, 1984, is a charming account of an "artistic dinner," populated with people mid- to late-career who are past their period of productivity and may or may not know it yet, and of how they prey upon others. The host couple are in fact the real parasites of the evening, a culturally anxious heiress and her husband, a once promising composer "in the tradition of Webern" who has developed over the years into an alcoholic who scares people at parties, and inflicts atonal entertainments upon them when they would like to go home. The narrator contemplates his long personal history with the guests, all of whom have prostituted themselves in various ways in the name of Art, and who repel him.

The Bernhard world is structured like a Mobius strip on which culture vultures flip into philistines, and vice versa; one relishes every sordid turn with discreet grunts of pleasure, and leaves the book strangely expunged of ego shit one didn't even realize one was busy repressing. His work bears testimony to the fact that prolonged exposure to Beauty does not necessarily do any Good. I was bemused to hear that Susan Sontag has recently conducted a Bernhard reading at a tony Manhattan bookstore.

In OLD MASTERS: A COMEDY, 1985, he provides a portrait of a professional art-consumer, an excruciatingly cultivated geriatric music critic. He goes in for a book-length close-up, observing the geezer as he observes another geezer (this one by Tintoretto, the White-Bearded Man), a habit he has committed every other day for 30 years at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. We get into his head for an unsightly portrait of an "old master" internally corroded by his lifelong dependence upon "old masters," "to be saved anew by music every day, from all the atrocities and hideousness," which indeed are plentiful. Confronted with a staggering masterpiece that taunts us with our limitations, we must bring it down to our level, consume it--do something to it or with it--or be destroyed. The act of caricaturing the masters and having one's way with them emerged, in fact, as the strongest esthetic act left to us in our belated cultural condition. We're moved and horrified at the lengths to which the sick ego must go in order to withstand too much perfection, knowing, in fact, that it must give in to its smallness to survive. While his narrators are distinctly unlikable, they are adequate expressions of egos inadequate to the task of getting over themselves. By relentlessly inhabiting these flawed points of view and refusing to step back from them, Bernhard has produced, in my opinion, distinctly human expression.

"When we observe a picture for any length of time, even the most serious picture, we have to turn it into a caricature in order to bear it. . . . Even the obese smelly Bach at the organ of Saint Thomas's Church was only a ridiculous and deeply embarrassing figure, there can be no argument about that." I first discovered Bernhard when I was drawn to his novel entitled THE LOSER, 1983. It's about three piano virtuosi, all gifted, who go to Salzburg to study with Vladimir Horowitz. One of them is the genius Glenn Gould; when the other two hear him play the Goldberg Variations, they decide never to play the instrument again, "because they will never be as perfect." The book is about the rest of their lives, which are sordid: one of them is the "loser," who devotes himself to the "human sciences, without knowing what they are," and alarms the other two by accumulating millions of disorganized notes, which he never turns into anything. The other one is the narrator, "the philosopher."

As witness to the genius, they are traumatized; nothing happened but their consciousness that Gould is a genius. The consciousness is the trauma; and Bernhard's books are like objectified traumas, trauma objects, receptacles for the horrid experience of those who must suffer (or survive) the genius of others. Gould is the catastrophe (from their point of view), and they are his survivors. Only a depraved ego could have permitted himself to undergo the feelings necessary to produce such a sacred horror of a book.

I devoured it, of course, to recognize what I have been doing wrong--to possibly avoid future disasters, as if one could. The loser had "an artistic attitude," the genius "didn't need one." The loser "detested artists . . . who destroyed their personalities to be geniuses," the genius wants "to wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one . . . Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach." The loser blames everyone else for his catastrophe: "I told Glenn that he had destroyed Wertheimer |the loser~," said the narrator, "but Glenn had no idea what I meant." The loser "would have liked to be Glenn Gould, would have liked to be Horowitz . . . wasn't capable of seeing himself as a unique and autonomous being, as people can and must if they don't want to despair; no matter what kind of person, one is always a unique and autonomous being, I say to myself over and over and am rescued."

The loser is more interesting to read about, though ultimately, like Gould, he winds up erasing himself from his "work," changing and deleting his hellishly overinvested manuscript, his life's alibi, until finally "nothing remained except the title The Loser." The narrator, too, renounces his musical ambition, and retreats to "occupy himself with a writer's inanities," to witness this pathological display. To be destroyed rather than enriched by the achievements of others is a little bit of hell more frequent in the art world than people care to admit. The book is about being friends with a genius artist, and how horrible it is, especially for the merely talented. It's esthetic porn for overachievers, capturing the foul juices in which the ego simmers, unable to give itself over to a wholly hygienic admiration of the more gifted friend, or to the Universal. A persistent theme in Bernhard is art appreciation in its grotesque aspect, how it festers in "creative" milieux swarming with ex-aspiring artists, whose once esthetic strivings are now long buried, inhibited in their aim, deflected onto people, fashion, politics, and other people's work. Ironically, the "worklessness" of these people is mirrored back by the real "work" (as articulated by Maurice Blanchot), the "workless work" that stands not for the gods, nor for their absence, but, rather, for the absence of their absence--the congenitally belated object that can only bear witness to its own absurd urgency . . . and mock it. The only thing more superficial than me is my work.

Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass

When I met Cary, he was installed in the gallery personally handing out cookies to his spectators from a toaster oven. He gave me his card--"Here I am, please don't be mean"--and I was both liberated and devastated. Liberated because I couldn't believe someone was getting away with what he was doing in a gallery context; devastated because I felt, by the very coherence of his loser vision, that he had somehow anticipatorily plagiarized all of my subsequent wretchedness as part of his material. Since he's a good friend, I feel doomed for life. While the Gould-genius was characterized by his paradoxically titanic egolessness, Cary has turned his whining, his self-consciousness, his willingness to admit he wants to be fashionable, into his form of discipline. By combining both genius and loser in one, I feel like he has squeezed me out into this nonspace, as his witness, like a kind of double loser. Maybe that's why he has a weight problem! Cary's achievement of masterful misery challenges the concept of Loserliness itself, introducing the distinction, in fact, between strong and weak losers, strong losers being the ones who can work their misery, affirmatively becoming--losers; weak ones those who haven't yet figured out how to occupy themselves, to tap the Giant Loser within for Personal Power. Admiring his sure loserly instincts, I find myself reading all of his traits, even his hatred of houseplants, as potential components to the integral genius of his vision. I realize that this is sick. I don't like things that suck.

Beavis and Butt-head

One is shocked to discover that Bernhard won "many of the most prestigious literary prizes of Europe" when he thoroughly skewered pretentious windbags, institutional prostitutes, puffed-up cultural pimps, and scary people who traded in their early promise for marriages to money, positions, or, in the case of the women, garden-variety ingrates. One has to presume that the very people who gave Bernhard these prestigious awards were the soul-destroyers and murderers he was talking about, produced and circulated by the very "hospices for terminal dilettantes" that sickened him. Ever biting the hand that fed him, in the end Bernhard won, as usual, by never underestimating human vanity. One has to presume they thought that he was talking about someone else. Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.

* * *


The bleak laughter of Thomas Bernhard

by Ruth Franklin
– (New Yorker, December 25, 2006)

In 1988, to commemorate Austria’s annexation by Adolf Hitler fifty years earlier, a new play was commissioned from Thomas Bernhard. The author of eleven novels and more than twenty plays, Bernhard had a well-deserved reputation as the country’s most provocative postwar writer: he spent his career alternately mocking and mourning Austria’s Nazi legacy, which, with typical bluntness, he once represented as a pile of manure on the stage. At first, he declined to participate in the commemoration, saying with caustic humor that a more appropriate gesture would be for all the shops once owned by Jews to display signs reading “Judenfrei.” But the author of plays like “The German Lunch Table,” in which family members gathered for a meal discover Nazis in their soup, could not resist such a rich opportunity to needle Austria’s political and cultural élite. “All my life I have been a trouble-maker,” he once wrote. “I am not the sort of person who leaves others in peace.”

The scandal of Heldenplatz, the verse drama that was Bernhard’s contribution to the occasion, began well before opening night. The play takes its name from the Vienna square where cheering crowds greeted Hitler in 1938; that square also happens to be across from the Burgtheater, Austria’s most prestigious theatrical institution, where the play was produced. The action revolves around the suicide of an Austrian Jew who, returning to Vienna after having fled during the Second World War, is dismayed to discover anti-Semitism still simmering in the country. After the press got hold of the script, which included lines such as “There are more Nazis in Vienna now / than in thirty-eight,” politicians on the right, including Jörg Haider, called for the director’s expulsion from Vienna. For the première, on November 4, 1988, the Burgtheater was put under police guard. At the play’s finish, according to Bernhard’s biographer Gitta Honegger, a “dissonant ovation” of “shouting, booing, clapping, and whistling” went on for forty-five minutes.

The hostility of the response surprised even the pugnacious Bernhard. Some of his friends said that the episode hastened his death, which occurred, by assisted suicide, three months later, when he was fifty-eight. (He had suffered from lung ailments since his teens, and spent the last decade of his life under constant medical supervision.) But he managed to have the last word. His will, released shortly after he died, forbade the publication, the production, or even the recitation in Austria of his works, “including letters and scraps of paper,” for the next seventy years, the duration of their copyright. “I emphasize expressly that I do not want to have anything to do with the Austrian state and that I reject in perpetuity not only all interference but any overtures in that regard,” he declared.

Bernhard’s gesture of loathing toward the homeland that had miserably failed to appreciate him was also, of course, a masterly stroke of publicity, guaranteeing a storm of lawsuits as publishers and theatre administrators went to ridiculous lengths to circumvent the ban: the Vienna Festival mounted one of his plays in Bratislava, with buses chartered for the sixty-kilometre journey across the border. But one can also see it as the consummate prank of a satirist who, in the words of W. G. Sebald, found a dark humor in “the tension between the insanity of the world and the demands of reason.” Sebald went on, “While the reader may not feel inclined to break into laughter on the basis of the material presented to him, it rings out all the louder behind the scenes of the work.”

The past year has seen the publication in English, for the first time, of two of Bernhard’s earliest works. Michael Hofmann has translated his first novel, FROST (Knopf), which appeared in 1963, and James Reidel has translated a selection of his poetry, IN HORA MORTIS / UNDER THE IRON OF THE MOON (Princeton), dating from 1957. Read in the context of Bernhard’s career, they reveal one of his most characteristic traits: a remarkable singlemindedness. Philosophically, there is no difference between the writing that Bernhard did in his twenties and his extraordinary late novels. All the elements of his intensely pessimistic world view—remorseless fury at a callous universe, lack of faith in human relationships, manic pursuit of aesthetic perfection—were likely set by the hardships of his youth. He was born February 9, 1931, in a Dutch clinic for unwed mothers. His mother had been working in Holland when she became pregnant, apparently as the result of rape. His father, a carpenter and petty criminal from Germany, never acknowledged him, and Bernhard always remembered the humiliation of having to undergo a blood test as a child to establish paternity. He was soon deposited in the care of his maternal grandparents, in Salzburg. His grandfather was an anarchist and a writer of pastoral novels, and Bernhard idolized him. He recalled the walks they took, during which his grandfather would extemporize about nature and philosophy, as “the only useful education I had.” This idyll ended when Bernhard was six; his mother married and moved the family across the border to Germany.

The best account of Bernhard’s early life, if hardly the most reliable, is the autobiography he published, in five volumes, between 1975 and 1982. (It appeared in English in a single volume titled GATHERING EVIDENCE, translated by David McLintock.) This work, which Bernhard describes as having been “assembled from hundreds and thousands of scraps of remembered experience,” contains some of his most memorable and disturbing writing and some of his blackest humor. Bernhard, a chronic bed-wetter, was humiliated when his mother hung out his stained sheets for the neighbors to see. At school, he was even more miserable: the target of bullies, he particularly hated his compulsory membership in the Deutsches Jungvolk, a junior branch of the Hitler Youth, whose activities consisted of “constantly singing the same brainless songs and marching down the same streets yelling my head off.” When he was eight, a social worker arranged to have him sent to a home for “maladjusted children,” where he was shunned and denied meals; his only friend was a boy with deformed hands and legs, who received similar punishments.

In 1943, at the age of twelve, Bernhard was sent to a school in Salzburg, where he lived in a “filthy, stinking dormitory”—officially, a National Socialist Home for Boys—presided over by an “archetypal Nazi.” Air-raid drills were soon taking place every day, and Bernhard witnessed people fainting and dying in the air-raid-shelter tunnels. “The streets were strewn with broken glass and rubble,” he wrote, “and the air carried the distinctive smell of total war”:

An enormous cloud of dust hung over the ruined cathedral, and where the dome had been there was a great gaping hole the size of the dome itself. From the corner by Slama’s [a clothing shop] we had a direct view of the great paintings which had adorned the walls of the dome and were now for the most part savagely destroyed, what remained of them standing out against the clear blue sky in the light of the afternoon sun. It was as though this gigantic building, which dominated the lower part of the city, had had its back ripped open and were bleeding from a terrible wound. . . . On the way to the Gstättengasse I stepped on something soft lying on the pavement in front of the Bürgerspital Church. At first sight I took it to be a doll’s hand, and so did my companions, but in fact it was the severed hand of a child. It was the sight of this child’s hand that quite suddenly transformed this first attack on the city by American bombers from the sensation it had been up to then—a sensation which produced a state of feverish excitement in the boy I was at the time—into an atrocity, an enormity.

After the war, Catholic priests replaced the school’s Nazi administrators, but Bernhard continued to regard school as “a machine for the mutilation of my mind.” At the age of fifteen, he quit and became an apprentice in a grocery store in a down-and-out neighborhood on the city’s periphery. In contrast to his misery at school, Bernhard took great pride in his job; he seems to have had a knack for getting along with the customers, and particularly enjoyed their open, robust way of speaking, which helped to shape his digressive writing style. Inspired by his employer, a music lover, Bernhard began taking singing lessons with an opera singer; he was apparently very talented. But during the winter of 1949, after a bout of influenza, he was admitted to the hospital with a lung infection. It was the beginning of a lifetime of chronic illness. In the fourth volume of his memoir, BREATH: A DECISION, he writes of a harrowing night spent in a way station for the nearly dead:

Every half-hour a sister comes and lifts my hand, then drops it again. She probably does the same with a hand in the bed in front of mine, which has been in the bathroom longer. The intervals between her visits get shorter. At some stage men in grey enter the bathroom carrying a closed zinc coffin. They remove the lid and put a naked body inside, then replace the lid. I realize that the person they are carrying past me out of the bathroom in the closed zinc coffin is the man from the bed in front of mine. Now the sister comes only to lift my hand, to see whether she can still detect a pulse. Suddenly the heavy wet washing hanging on a line stretched across the bathroom and right over my head falls on top of me. A few more inches and it would have fallen on my face and smothered me. The sister comes in, grabs the washing, and throws it onto a chair beside the bath. Then she lifts my hand. All night she calls at various rooms, lifting people’s hands and feeling their pulses. She starts stripping the bed, the bed in which someone has just died. She throws the covers on the floor and then lifts my hand again, as though waiting for me to die. Then she bends down, gathers up the covers, and goes out with them. Now I want to live.

While recuperating, Bernhard contracted tuberculosis. The last volume of the memoir is a gruesome report of his treatment—including a botched procedure during which his doctor collapsed the wrong lung—and of an extended stay at the Grafenhof sanitarium. But, as he later told an interviewer, “When the body is ill the brain develops astonishingly well.” While he was in the hospital, his grandfather died, leaving him his typewriter. Requesting books from his grandfather’s shelves, Bernhard began, for the first time, to read literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoyevsky. He also began systematically working through his memories of childhood, “gathering evidence” about his own past and making notes on innumerable slips of paper. “I had now discovered my method of working,” he wrote, “my own brand of infamy, my particular form of brutality, my own idiosyncratic taste.”

During his stay at Grafenhof, Bernhard published his first short story, an homage to his grandfather. After his departure (against doctor’s orders), he worked as a cultural journalist and court reporter with a Salzburg newspaper, and then studied acting at Salzburg’s Akademie Mozarteum. He published his first volume of poetry, “Auf der Erde und in der Hölle” (“On Earth and in Hell”), in 1957, and two others quickly followed. Critics have tended to regard Bernhard’s poetry as a curiosity, and at first glance it appears to have little in common with his later work. The cycle of poems IN HORA MORTIS (Latin for “In the Hour of Death”), in which the poet plangently complains of his sorrow to a silent God, seems particularly incongruous. But seeds of his obsessions have started to sprout; the poems in “Under the Iron of the Moon” draw a dismal landscape of decay, in which flowers “blossom in blood” and “fears blow / in the wind.” Bernhard was also refining a painstakingly precise approach to composition: Ingrid Bülau, a friend from his days at the Mozarteum, remembered hearing him recite his poems into a tape recorder, erasing and rerecording himself until he had got the tone and the rhythm exactly the way he wanted.

Bernhard’s start as a novelist seems almost to have been an accident. His fourth book of poetry, titled “Frost,” was rejected by his publisher. In response, Bernhard went into retreat and emerged, seven weeks later, with the draft of his first novel, also called FROST. It consists of notes made by an unnamed medical apprentice who is sent on an atypical mission: he must observe the elderly painter Strauch and report on the man’s condition, all the while keeping his own identity and purpose secret. Strauch, an eccentric misanthrope, has been living in an inn in the mountains, where the student also takes up residence; he quickly ingratiates himself with the old man, joining him on his long daily tramps.

It is unclear what purpose the student’s observations serve; his letters back to the clinic are never answered. But the very act of logging the minutiae of a person’s habits and language echoes the efforts of the young Bernhard in his mental note-taking in the sanitarium. In essence, the apprentice is learning how to be a writer. At first, he sticks to facts, noting how Strauch “spits out his sentences the way old people spray saliva into the air” and faithfully recording the painter’s vaguely philosophical circumlocutions, while admitting that he does not understand them. But as the apprentice investigates his subject’s deeply pessimistic state—Strauch has destroyed all his paintings, which are “a perpetual reminder of my worthlessness,” and is fixated on suicide—he comes to “feel the contagion of his logically galloping illness.” It is impossible for him to re-create the painter’s persona through his language without somehow also taking on his identity.

Strauch quotes Pascal: “Our nature is motion, complete stasis is death.” The novel’s metaphor for this stasis is the gradually encroaching “iron frost” that will finally cover everything. The book’s landscape is shot through with traces of pain; like the decaying bodies that the young Bernhard could still smell beneath the rebuilt streets of Salzburg, “grisly traces” of the war in the valley remain, occasionally shocking their way through the snow. Strauch describes the landscape as “ugly and menacing and full of wicked memory particles, a landscape that can really dismember a man.” By the end, the painter has disappeared into the snow, both literally and figuratively: he goes missing, and the search for him must be called off because of a heavy snowfall. We must assume that it is suicide. “The cold is eating into the center of my brain,” he tells the apprentice.

Like Kafka, one of the writers he most admired, Bernhard composed nearly all his fiction from a single template, a template already evident in FROST. His typical protagonist—often loosely based on a real-life model, such as Glenn Gould or Ludwig Wittgenstein—is a genius who is obsessed with an impossible project and is eventually destroyed by the tension between the desire for perfection in his work and the knowledge that it is unattainable. In CORRECTION (1975), the scientist Roithamer spends years building a structure in the shape of a geometrically perfect cone, only to commit suicide after the project’s completion. Rudolf, in CONCRETE (1982), has been working for years on a book about Mendelssohn without writing a word of it.

Such obsessive themes demand an obsessive form. In his struggle to depict consciousness in action, Bernhard honed an exquisite union of structure and idea. His novels take the shape of extended monologues, which can continue for as long as a hundred pages without a paragraph break, and which hurtle through every emotion from the pensive to the hysterical. Bernhard’s early training as an opera singer finds expression in the musicality of his prose, which creates, holds, and repeats key phrases and ideas as a composer might do with a melodic motif. Since there is no narrative or exposition, it is up to the reader to deduce the action. One entire book consists of a man’s thoughts as he sits in a chair at a party; in another, a man spends nearly a hundred pages contemplating a photograph. The purpose, as the narrator of CORRECTION explains it, is to penetrate the subject’s mental state:

When I concern myself with Roithamer, with what order of magnitude am I dealing? I ask myself, clearly I am dealing with a head that is willing and compelled to go to extremes in everything he does and capable, in this reciprocity of intellectual interaction, of peak record performances, a man who takes his own development, the development of his character and of his inborn intellectual gifts to its utmost peak, its utmost limits, its highest degree of realization . . . and who must force everything he is, in the final analysis, to coalesce in one extreme point, force it all to the utmost limits of his intellectual capacity and his nervous tension until, at the highest degree of such expansion and contraction and the total concentration he has repeatedly achieved, he must actually be torn apart.

Unsurprisingly, this style, with seemingly interminable sentences wending from subject to subject without pause for breath, has its detractors. Even David McLintock, in an essay on the difficulty of translating Bernhard, calls him “a curiously unpromising writer.” But this stylistic obduracy was, for Bernhard, both a necessity and a source of glee. Bernhard has been called an Übertreibungskunstler, an artist of exaggeration. Not only do his novels, pushing every idea to its extreme, require a similarly extreme form; he also took pleasure in prose that is hyperbolic, over the top, even joyful in its own insanity. When he is in the mood, he can be very funny: his musings on the problems of the artist are serious, but he surrounds them with often hilarious digressions on everything from hand-knitted sweaters (“hideous knitwear”) to his theory that three-ring binders, and the bureaucracy they symbolize, are the downfall of German literature (“The one exception is of course Kafka, who actually was a bureaucrat”). The eternal troublemaker who once referred to his writing as his “particular form of brutality” might also have taken some delight in watching his readers squirm. He told of leaving one of his own plays early and getting his coat from the checkroom attendant, who said sympathetically, “You don’t like it, either, do you?”

There is a deeper purpose to Bernhard’s apparent linguistic sadism. He seems to have taken Wittgenstein’s well-known dictum “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” as a personal challenge. Accordingly, he tried to expand the outer limit of his own language to the point where it could encompass even the most extreme forms of human experience. IN HORA MORTIS ends with a poem that appears to depict the moment of death, unravelling into a string of barely articulated cries: “my thorn sticks / piercing / oh / piercing / oh / piercing / oh / oh / oh / my / Oh.” In the novella AMRAS, Bernhard tried assembling fragments of notes and diary entries to depict a family’s pathology. In novels such as GARGOYLES and THE LIME WORKS, he began to develop his idiosyncratic use of long paragraphs and monologues, finding in their looping form a way of writing about the secrets hidden in the Austrian past and the problems faced by those who inherit them.

CORRECTION marked the apotheosis of this style and is perhaps Bernhard’s masterpiece. The novel’s first section consists of a hundred-plus-page monologue by an unnamed friend of the scientist Roithamer, who has come to sort out Roithamer’s papers after his suicide: thousands of slips of paper and a “bulky manuscript” titled “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.” Altensam is Roithamer’s family estate, which the scientist inherited, to his chagrin, after his parents died in a car accident. The Cone turns out to be an “edifice as a work of art” that Roithamer spent the last six years of his life perfecting, intending it to be a gift for his beloved sister: he designed it to exact mathematical specifications and had it constructed in a clearing at the absolute center of the Kobernausser forest. “The idea was to make my sister perfectly happy by means of a construction perfectly adapted to her person,” Roithamer explains in the papers that he left behind. But his sister was so horrified by the Cone that she became sick and died just months after seeing it. On the way to her funeral, Roithamer attacks his manuscript, “correcting it over and over again,” and says that he will burn the essay after he has “destroyed it by totally correcting it into the exact opposite of what he had started out to say.” He hangs himself shortly afterward.

Roithamer’s friend, overwhelmed by this literary archive, decides to “sort and sift” the papers but not to alter them. The second half of the book, another paragraph of more than a hundred pages, represents a narrative of sorts, entirely in Roithamer’s words (indicated awkwardly in translation by the interjection “so Roithamer,” meaning “according to Roithamer”), pieced together from his fragments. The notes record Roithamer’s hatred for his family, primarily for his mother, who locked him as a child in a turret room filled with dead flies. And they describe with pride the process of building the Cone, the thrill of undertaking something that has never been done before, and the despondency that leads him to “correct” what he has done: “We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong) . . . that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification and we correct the result of the correction of a correction andsoforth.” But the “ultimate correction,” he realizes, is suicide. In the book’s virtuosic final passage, Roithamer’s mind unspools toward its breaking point:

Correction of the correction of the correction of the correction. . . . We can’t always exist at the highest pitch of intensity, so we start to slow down in our thinking and doing (feeling), so that after a while we can go back to thinking, doing, feeling with even greater intensity, and in this way we can eventually reach ever greater degrees of intensity; as long as we haven’t crossed the border, the extreme limits, we’re not crazy. . . . We always went too far, so Roithamer, so we were always pushing toward the extreme limit. But we never thrust ourselves beyond it. Once I have thrust myself beyond it, it’s all over, so Roithamer, “all” underlined. We’re always set toward that predetermined moment, “predetermined moment” underlined. When that moment has come, we don’t know that it has come, but it is the right moment. We can exist at the highest degree of intensity as long as we live, so Roithamer (June 7). The end is no process. Clearing.

This vision of death as the “ultimate correction” must be understood as one of Bernhard’s famous exaggerations: if the artist could achieve greatness only by surrendering his entire person, then Bernhard himself—who, after all, continued to write and publish steadily up to the end of his life—could not attain it. Even Bernhard recognized the “monstrousness,” as Roithamer says, of living such a life. It is the ultimate bleak joke.

In the plays and novels that Bernhard published during his last decade, culminating in “Heldenplatz,” he addressed himself ever more ferociously to disrupting the silence surrounding Austria’s Nazi past. His final novel, EXTINCTION (1986), dramatizes most vividly what he termed Herkunftskomplex, or “descent complex”: how does one deal with an unwanted inheritance? Franz-Josef Murau, the speaker in this novel—which, again, is divided into two hundred-plus-page monologues—has just received news that his parents and brother have been killed in a car accident, leaving Wolfsegg, the family home, in his hands. He feels nothing but resentment toward them and toward the estate, where they sheltered Nazis before and after the war in the children’s playhouse. Even now, the former Gauleiters turn out in force for the funeral, a disgusting spectacle:

The bishops . . . will be followed—with measured tread, as they say—by the Gauleiters, the S.S. officers, and the members of the Blood Order. And these will be followed by the National Socialist Catholic population, I thought. And the music will be played by our National Socialist Catholic band. The National Socialist salvos will be fired, and the National Socialist bells will toll. And if we’re in luck our National Socialist sun will shine throughout the ceremony, and if we’re out of luck we’ll be drenched by the National Socialist rain.

Murau’s rage reaches its peak when he remembers a former friend of the family, a miner named Schermaier, who was informed on during the war, for listening to Swiss radio, and was sent to a concentration camp. Afterward, he received a token sum in reparation, while a former Nazi nearby receives a generous pension. “What kind of a state is it,” Murau asks himself, “that pays a fat pension to a mass murderer and showers him with honors and commendations, yet no longer troubles about Schermaier?” In his anger, he decides to write a book to be called Extinction, whose purpose will be “to extinguish what it describes, to extinguish everything that Wolfsegg means to me, everything that Wolfsegg is, everything.” But he realizes that Wolfsegg, contaminated by its past, must be extinguished literally as well. On the novel’s last page, he reveals his decision to hand over the estate to the Jewish community in Vienna. There is something ridiculous in the gesture: an act of charity alone cannot redeem Austria’s pathology. But Murau has no other choice; he has reached the logical end of his arguments. Just as Roithamer must “correct” his manuscript out of existence, so must Murau extinguish Wolfsegg along with himself. Thus absolved of his responsibility, he soon dies.

“I won’t have anything to do with this state, or no more than is absolutely necessary,” Murau concludes toward the end of EXTINCTION. The words are strikingly similar to those with which Bernhard’s will, only a few years later, attempted to ban his work from Austria. Whether Bernhard thought of himself as a Murau, disposing of his estate in as perverse a manner as possible, or as a Roithamer, destroying the eccentric edifice that was his life’s work, the verbal echo must surely have brought him a mordant satisfaction. “What a good thing it is that we have always adopted an ironic view of everything, however seriously we have taken it,” he mused in his memoirs. He kept it up to the end.

* * *

The Heart in Winter
By CHRISTOPHER BENFEY (October 22, 2006)

by Thomas Bernhard
- Translated by Michael Hofmann (342 pp., Alfred A. Knopf)

Among 20th-century purveyors of gloom — think of Beckett, say, or Philip Larkin (“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”) — some of the most distinctively doom-ridden wrote in German, though not necessarily in Germany. The unnerving Austrian poet Georg Trakl, whom Wittgenstein so admired, dosed himself with narcotics to allay the horrors of the front in 1914. Kafka wove his nightmares in bureaucratic Prague. Canetti and Sebald, safe in England, remained haunted by the war-torn landscapes they had left behind. Of this saturnine company, Thomas Bernhard, who spent most of his life in Mozart’s city of Salzburg, may have had the darkest imagination of all. Born in 1931 to an unwed mother and a father who refused to acknowledge him (“Everything connected with my father has always been guesswork,” he wrote in his autobiography, GATHERING EVIDENCE) and plagued by lung problems, Bernhard published poems, plays and novels before his death in 1989.

The poet Michael Hofmann, who has translated works by Kafka and Canetti, has produced a vigorous version of Bernhard’s first novel, FROST, published initially in 1963 and until now unavailable in English. Possibly the bleakest of all Bernhard’s books, FROST is a sort of “Magic Mountain” without the magic, though it’s occasionally leavened by a quirky gallows humor. The grisly opening sentence sets the tone: “A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead and hauling babies out into the world either.”

The unnamed narrator, a young medical student, has been sent by his superior, a surgeon, on a “mission to observe the painter Strauch,” the surgeon’s eccentric brother. Strauch has abandoned Vienna for the alpine village of Weng (“the most dismal place I have ever seen,” the narrator reports) and has holed up in an inn of unimaginable squalor (“It was the shortcomings of it that delighted him”). “The walls are so thin,” Strauch tells the narrator, “you can hear people’s thoughts through them.”

The narrator poses as a law student on vacation, whiling away the time by reading a novel — we never learn which novel — by Henry James. Strauch reads only Pascal: “I’m not interested in anything made up.” A hideous landlady runs the inn while her husband serves a term in prison for killing a guest. She trades sex for dog meat with a man known only as “the knacker,” then serves the meat to the drunken laborers in her public bar. None of these characters have names, and we have little idea what they look like. The inn, the village, the monstrous power plant taking shape in the ravaged landscape — all these remain vague as well.

With such a minimal plot and cursory descriptions, there’s plenty of room for Strauch’s musings, as reported by the impressed and increasingly unhinged narrator. Strauch has little to say about art. He hates the art world and hasn’t painted in years; when he still did, he painted in darkness. “When he thought his picture was done, he drew back the curtains, so abruptly that the light blinded him and he couldn’t see.” Strauch closely resembles other master-thinkers in Bernhard’s subsequent novels: the central character in the surprisingly humorous WITTGENSTEIN’S NEPHEW and the architect-philosopher, another Wittgenstein stand-in, in the more ponderous CORRECTION.

Some of Strauch’s observations seem profound. (“People always say: the mountain reaches up into heaven. They never say: the mountain reaches down into hell.”) Others are appealingly odd. (“The sky would get goose bumps if it knew something we didn’t.”) But too many sound simply like the ravings of a lunatic. (“Breakfast is ‘way too ceremonial’ for him, ‘it feels absurd to pick up a spoon. Meaningless. A sugar cube is an assault against me. Bread. Milk. A catastrophe.’ ”)

Occasionally, though, these ravings achieve a kind of lyrical grandeur, as when Strauch riffs on a barking dog: “Listen ... how the barking organizes itself, how it makes space for itself, listen, it’s the cracking of canine whips, it’s canine hyperdexterity, canine hyperdespair, a hellish serfdom that is taking its revenge, taking its revenge on its grim devisers, on me, on you.” The reader wonders for a moment if Strauch has been reading Allen Ginsberg. Two pages later, Strauch returns to his room “not to sleep, but to howl to myself in the silence of horror.”

Like every Bernhard hero, Strauch despises postwar Austria. (“Our state is ludicrous ... the bordello of Europe.”) He’s also hardly an admirer of women. (“I could name you any number of outstanding men who were ruined by their wives.”) Bernhard’s misogyny has been traced to his alienation from his mother — he was raised by his grandparents — but this hardly excuses such rants. As winter closes in and the snow deepens, along with Strauch’s paranoia, the painter remarks, “Frost and women are the death of men.” “There is only one way to go,” Strauch concludes, “through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.”

And what about that tantalizingly unnamed novel of Henry James, which the narrator has “almost finished” by the end of FROST? James wrote many stories about the unequal relationship of master and acolyte, but I suspect the novel in question is The Ambassadors, where, as in FROST, one character’s task is to go on a journey and bring back confidential tidings of a loved one in trouble. The narrative styles could hardly diverge more sharply: James the master of nuance and the telling descriptive detail; Bernhard the blunt and moralizing abstractionist. In both novels, the traveler is transformed, but Bernhard’s narrator learns nothing so heartening as Strether’s famous injunction to “live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” Bernhard’s gloomier message, indelibly expressed at the icy dawn of his career, is that life itself is the mistake.

Christopher Benfey, the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of “Degas in New Orleans” and “The Great Wave.”

Thomas relaxingCabinet Magazine - (Issue 10 - Spring 2003)



About halfway through The Loser, Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard's 1983 book about blocked creativity, the narrator drops a bomb on the unsuspecting reader. In a momentary suspension of his virtually unswerving tone of aggressive pessimism and misanthropy, Bernhard inserts a single sentence that smacks awkwardly of humanism. It appears amid a series of reflections prompted by the suicide of the narrator's friend Wertheimer, whose demise stems from an inability to reconcile himself to functioning as a slightly inferior pianist when compared with the musical genius of a fictionalized Glenn Gould. This sentence, in the slightly abbreviated form in which it was recently reprinted on the back of an envelope distributed by the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, reads: "Each human being is entirely unique, and each is the greatest work of art ever created." The envelope in question, which arrived at the Cabinet offices last year, contained general press information unrelated to Bernhard. The quote was printed on the envelope's flap, providing the recipient with a few friendly words of wisdom on the way to examining its contents. Evidently, Austria's native son was being given a kinder, gentler face than the one he presented publicly during a lifetime of vitriol directed at his homeland.

Austrian Cultural Forum card
In his will, Bernhard, who died in 1989, famously banned the publication and production of his plays and novels in Austria for 70 years (the length of their copyright). It is thus ironic, and at the same time completely predictable, that the Austrian Cultural Forum would recuperate his image and turn him into an optimist who sees the inherent value in all human existence. Known for his tightly-wound depictions of the ultimate futility of life, Bernhard nevertheless sought some measure of independence and self-assertion in the act of writing. The quoted sentiment is certainly his, but taken out of context it might give the unfamiliar reader the wrong idea. The Forum's appropriation of an author often trashed by Austria in his lifetime causes one to question whether their new attitude is a newfound warts-and-all acceptance of a literary denizen or a cynical manipulation of a body of work. If we look closely at Bernhard's career, both versions can be seen to have some merit. Though he constantly berated Austria in his novels, plays, and speeches, Bernhard nevertheless accepted all of the awards he was given, and there were many. And while he likely would have interpreted the use of the quote as yet another example of Austrian hypocrisy (they are well known for rejecting their artists while they live, only to honor them after death), he may also have appreciated the gesture as the perfect illustration of what he regularly presented as the fundamental human drive toward miscommunication.

On its website, the Austrian Cultural Forum, which opened its new building to the public in April of last year, states its mission to be that of "transforming modernity." For a country that has recently seen the revival of xeno- phobic right-wing politics via Jörg Haider's flashy Freedom Party (FPO), it's no wonder that the New York-based cultural representatives want to alter the legacy of modernity. Indeed, Bernhard himself consistently railed against the country's unwillingness to confront, or even to properly acknowledge, its role in the most ignominious moments of the modern era. New York offers a sympathetic audience that might still have enough distance from the Austrian literary scene to be unfamiliar with Bernhard's position as what he termed a "nest-fouler." By the same token, the average, skeptical New Yorker could most likely handle a more apt quote, such as this line from Concrete (1982): "Everyone is a virtuoso on his own instrument, but together they add up to an intolerable cacophony." It retains a bit of the desired humanism, but doesn't forsake Bernhard's spleen.

Gregory Williams is an editor at Cabinet.


by Rudi Krausmann

When I heard of the death of Thomas Bernhard by chance in the German daily paper Die Süddeutsche Zeitung the reaction was more then a shock. My life seemed suddenly meaningless to me. Immediately I stopped working (ironically I was just translating the news for a German language program at Radio 2EA) and stared out of the window. What am I doing here, I thought. Opposite I saw some construction workers putting up another skyscraper at Bondi Junction. It was obvious what they were doing, but where would it lead to? Another shopping centre, another price list. It happens every day and I, like so many others, got used to it.

When I turned away from the window and looked into the room I saw, amongst many other silly wall decorations, one from Austria. It showed the 'Stephanskirche', Vienna's most popular cathedral in the background, and in the foreground a 'Fiaker', a horse-drawn coach and its driver sitting on top with a few American tourists in the back seats. They were all smiling, of course, like an operetta by Lehàr (Immer nur lächeln ...). This poster was distributed by the Austrian government.

At this moment I was not even thinking of Thomas Bernhard's works, his novels, plays or even early poems, some of which I had read in the course of the last twenty years. As it happened I had had my own private encounters with Bernhard over a longer period. For one year I was sitting with him in the same classroom, it was at the 'Humanistische Gymnasium' in Salzburg, later I met him in the streets of Vienna when he was totally unknown and writing his first novel Frost. If he did not use the tram (or the Straßenbahn) at the time, it was not only that he had hardly any money, but because he did not want to sit in the same compartment with the Viennese. He preferred to walk back to the apartment of his aunt, from the centre of Vienna to its outskirts.

With the literary success of his novel Frost, and the reception of the 'Bremer Literaturpreis', amounting also to some prize money, he bought himself a small farm near Gmunden in Upper Austria, where he also died.

When I met him occasionally in the cafés of Salzburg, like the 'Tomaselli' or 'Bazar', bourgeois establishments which nobody from a middle class background could escape, he was always full of hate and full of irony. His hate was directed against the Austrians or the state of affairs in Austria, and his irony against the human condition in general, not sparing himself. And, if you like, he put his hate into his novels and his irony into his plays.

After I had emigrated to Australia I had of course lost personal contact with Thomas Bernhard. Once I sent him a copy of Aspect (No. 21, June 1981) because I had published a translated interview with him which had first appeared in Die Zeit, a German cultural weekly. I had not asked his permission. Bernhard was already 'famous' at this time for his rudeness, he hardly replied to anybody and was not even willing (a friend of his told me in Salzburg during a later visit) to receive his translators. As he had not installed a telephone in his farm, even his friends and relatives found it hard to communicate. There was a rumour that he threw the daily mail in the rubbish bin before he had looked at it. Whatever the case, Thomas Bernhard's style of writing and style of living were the same.

When Thomas Bernhard had died, suddenly, many Austrians must have been relieved. Nobody in Austrian literature, past or present, had made such direct attacks on his fellow-citizens. Neither the classic Grillparzer nor the modern Robert Musil. And never, to my knowledge, had the Head of State, 'der Bundespräsident' made a comment.

'Thomas Bernhard's writings are an insult to the Austrians', Dr Waldheim had publicly declared. No wonder that Thomas Bernhard, who was buried secretly and had managed it that only three people could come to his funeral, thus depriving the Austrians of a lovely corpse (eine schöne Leich) made more headlines post-mortem than when he was still alive. And Gunter Nenning, provocative journalist from Vienna entitled his article in Die Zeit 'Der wahre Präsident' (the true President). I quote (my translation): 'Waldheim lives, Bernhard is dead. Death for an Austrian who, in his preference for the wrong ones, is as unjust like its Philistine people. At first they did not want to know about him. The West-German culturati, nourished by its publishers, had known Thomas Bernhard much better than his own countrymen ... The true President of Austria, who was, like its people, justified in hatred about everything and everyone in this country, was not loved by his own people ... But the dead Bernhard is a good Bernhard, the next postmodern public building will be named after him ...'

I could go on quoting ad infinitum, or if you like, ad absurdum. Unfortunately in this postmodern polemic the essential Bernhard could have been lost, or even forgotten. Perhaps foreign writers like John Updike, expressed a more balanced view. In his comment, also published in Die Zeit, he wrote: 'Although in Bernhard's writing the theme disease is prominent, I was deeply moved when I heard of his early death. My knowledge of his work is limited, but the few books of his which I have read impressed me immensely. In my opinion he was one of the authentic voices in post-war Europe ... His unique form of irony and his particular honesty had the sign of greatness' (my translation).

I like to remember Thomas Bernhard as I saw him the last time in Salzburg. He was leaning against the wall of the 'Trakl Haus', now a museum of this ill-fated Austrian poet who had died of an overdose of drugs during the First World War, at the age of 26. Although at this time he was at the height of his fame and productivity, his smile was very sad, with only a flicker of irony. I had intended to ask him to go to the 'Tomaselli', but realised he was not in the mood to go anywhere. Thomas could have said what he wrote ten years later in a letter to the director of his plays, Claus Peymann:

All by-passes lead to death.

Caricature of Thomas Bernhard by David Levine, 1990FROST BY THOMAS BERNHARD
(Knopf, 2006, 352 Pages, Hardcover)

Review by Michael Cisco

For the first time, Thomas Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, published in German in 1963, is finally available in an English translation. Bernhard, who died in 1989, is perhaps best known for his novel The Loser. His many plays don’t seem to have attracted the same degree of international attention as has his fiction, although more than a few of them have been published in English.

While it is not difficult to find literary associations with Bernhard’s style, his work is entirely distinctive and instantly recognizable. Most of his novels consist of three or fewer paragraphs, at least one of which will fill most of the book. They are monologues delivered by one person about another person, whose characteristic speeches will be cited at length by the narrator. Bernhard’s narrators are never the discursive focal points of his books. They are relays for someone else. These someone-elses are often artists and/or intellectuals, usually trapped in a state of suspense, unable to work. The subject of his novel The Lime Works, for example, is a man who has been preparing for years to write the definitive scientific work on the sense of hearing. To date he has produced nothing but voluminous notes, but nevertheless he believes he could write the entire work out in a single sitting, or nearly, if he could only find the right moment. The artist who doesn’t make any art is like the chaste lover who exercises the special discretion, and maybe gets to experience the intoxication, of Milton drinking water from his wooden bowl, in the sense that this forms a kind of devotion to a higher conceptualization of art altogether. While it may seem like failure, something more intriguing has happened, what Deleuze called “jumping in place” - - the problem, whatever is bringing about decomposition, becomes an element of a new composition, not just a new thing, a statue or a song, but a new way of composing.

It is hard to imagine Bernhard without Beckett, but this has nothing to do with any idea of “influence.” They both travel in the same circles, and they have the same incomparable power to surprise a reader with tragic and humorous passages. In the work of both, and arguably in their careers as well, there is a similar rejection of status, wealth, fame and so on, which each necessarily must have been able to get in order to be able to reject; and a related desire for poverty and rejection. The rejection of social mediation, the sense of getting down to earth among common people, is present, but is inoculated against stupidity, to an extent, by an equivocal loathing of humanity, “common” or otherwise, which is especially intensely turned against themselves, so they are not martyrs among the philistines but, in Beckett’s case, intellectual cripples, and in Bernhard’s case, intellectual invalids, plagued by their own incessant mental activity. Both of these authors have jumped in place by making failure a way to proceed, or to make stopping into the way to go on, without simply writing about failure or stopping but by actually failing and stopping in writing that therefore succeeds and endures.

Repetition is another critical element in Bernhard’s style, and he does with it something like what Beckett does with fragmenting. He will repeat phrases with minor variations many times, making a statue of writing that can be turned this way and that. It is a hallmark of obsessive thinking, the incessant rephrasing of an idea, that he manages to transform into music.

Frost, as anyone might expect, provides anyone familiar with Bernhard an opportunity to see the aspects of this style as they begin to assemble. It is however broken up into chapters and individual paragraphs, and uses quotation marks extensively as they are almost never used in his later work.

Here’s the situation. A medical student interning at a hospital in Schwartzach is given an unusual assignment by his mentor, an important surgeon named Strauch. The surgeon’s brother is the proper inhabitant of that name, however. This brother is a painter who no longer paints and hasn’t for some time, and who lives at an inn, alone, in a remote mountain town called Weng. The surgeon asks his student, who is not named, to go to Weng, posing as a law student, and to observe Strauch the painter as closely as possible, sending back reports on his brother’s condition and character. The medical student does this, and the book consists mainly of transcriptions of Strauch’s monologues.

There are dramatic episodes, but Frost does not does not strive to achieve formal unity except perhaps in the simplest and least intrusive ways. The book is unpredictable. For the most part, it simply follows Strauch’s endless, sometimes stifling and overwhelming, production of language. There are moments that are simply music, although it’s nearly impossible to have more than a vague sense whether or not I am responding to the translation or the original; there are also moments when the language becomes precariously overwrought and threatens to collapse. This is an especially acute problem with Frost because the passages of beautiful writing aren’t descriptive but strictly abstract, involving thoughts and descriptions of thoughts. The novel is also replete with beautiful images, but these are economically introduced and not subject to any effusive description.

A lesser writer might have assigned direct narrative to Strauch, but Bernhard has made Strauch the figure around whom the narrator will orbit and whose distinctive, phantasmagorically negative philosophical propositions and observations he will relay in random order. By this means, Bernhard has figured out a way to retrieve ephemeral isomorphisms of thought, that break off from any particular context, that being the essential gesture that links them all. And he does this without having to deform them by jamming them into a single consistent framework of thought. It’s remarkable to note how consistent Bernhard’s style is, even in this first attempt, with what will come after. There is always the same passionate mania for thinking, not for analysis but for aphoristic thinking, so that each hermetic statement is like the most intense line of an unwritten poem that haunts it or condenses illegibly around it. The student always controls things, it being up to him to determine the outcome, give the book its shape, and in a way the novel can’t really end because it is written to destroy the possibility of a complete Book. It does develop over its duration, mainly insofar as it thematizes the viral invasion of the student’s voice by Strauch’s, and Bernhard’s own voice does this as well, so that the attentive reader experiences this relationship to Bernhard as the student does to Strauch (although Strauch and Bernhard are not the same, which strengthens the analogy).

Toward the end, Strauch relates to the narrator a performative story about a teacher, which is reminiscent of the final, murderous story in Malone Dies. It is revealing in the relations it takes up with the reader, and the student, and less so in its content. It isn’t really Strauch’s story, not the story of his life, but it is a representation of Strauch’s condition. The story resists the temptation to adopt any reductive idea of the student as Strauch’s student or any stupid dichotomy between the medical man and the thinker, dreamer and political man, the practical brother and the impractical and so on. The doctor-brother is the dichotomizer, while Strauch is about the delirium of endless dichotomies that re-blend together into another solid uncut fog wall. Strauch’s story isn’t a story-in-a-story, it’s more of the same narrative in which his own story appears, referring to nothing else, not allegorizing but taking part in the overall representation, and so it has a truly eerie feeling of self-awareness, as though the book were alive. Something similar happens in another of Strauch’s anecdotes, occurring much earlier in the novel, about a traveling showman he mistook for a tramp. This piece I find I don’t know how or why to describe; I’ll say only that I immediately knew it was on the short list of the things I’ve loved reading the most.

Frost is “timeless” in the sense that it doesn’t knot itself to ephemeral things or to a historical moment, but to a kind of problem of living. The problem is insoluble, except perhaps insofar as Strauch is jumping in place. The result of the isolation of the setting is both highly abstract and weirdly regional, as if rejection of the region were a regional characteristic. Weng seems completely real, the business with the factory, the power plant, the secondary characters like the landlady, the knacker and the engineer, none of whom are named – that privilege is reserved for Strauch, even if he isn’t the sole possessor of that name he is the only one habitually addressed in that way, making him something other than a functionary. The passages about the plant and so on are all Kafka like. I don’t always believe in Strauch, but he is more often believable than not, and unreally vivid. There are times when Strauch threatens to become too transparently a vehicle only, and when the fascination he exerts seems exaggerated and implausible. These moments are an unnecessary gilding of the lily, as Strauch is already sufficiently fascinating, and the exaggerated descriptions of his fascination only raise suspicions of something self-serving or of a cheat, imposing a fascination by decree.

There are moments when the whole novel seems on the verge of unraveling, as if Bernhard could lose it all by overplaying a little more; but there are more great moments when the relentlessness of Strauch’s complaining really makes itself felt, when the stifling atmosphere and endless nullification begin to get to the reader too, who also can’t wait to get out from under it. Strauch is allowed really to lay it on – this is very playlike, histrionic as Bernhard named his collection of plays Histrionics, performative and great. Frost is unusually demonstrative in comparison with Bernhard’s later novels, and it is structured like an extended play.

This is a long citation – the ellipses and emphases are all original – but the effect of the style unfolds in time and in the steady barrage of its astonishments:

“You see,” he said, “this tree comes on and says the line I told it to say, an incomprehensible line of poetry, a line that will turn the world on its head, a so-called line against God, you understand me! The tree walks on from the left, the cloud comes on from the right, the cloud with its softer voice. I view myself as the creator of this afternoon drama, this tragedy! This comedy! Now listen, the music has come in right on cue. The music plays on the difference between my words and all others. Listen, the instruments are perfecting it, my tragedy, my comedy, the instruments, all the high-pitched and low-pitched instruments, music is the only mistress of the double killing-ground, the only mistress of the double pain, the only mistress of the double forbearance ... Music, you hear me ... language approaches music, but language hasn’t the strength to circumvent music, it has to directly approach music, language is nothing but weakness, the language of nature as much as the language of the darkness of nature, as the language of the depth of leave-taking ... You hear me: I was in this music, I am in this music, I am made of this language, I am contained in the quiet poetry of this afternoon ... Do you see my theater? Do you see the theater of apprehension? The theatre of God’s un-self-sufficiency? What God?” He turned to me and said: “God is a cosmic embarrassment! An immense embarrassment of the stars! But,” he said, and set his index finger against his mouth: “let’s not talk about that. I want the tree to finish its lines, I want the stream to finish its lines, I want the sky to finish its lines, and I want Hell to master the rationale of its fires, to the very end. I want these fires, you must know. I want these shadows, I want these shadows to kill ... to kill each and every thing ... I have compassion with this tragedy, with this comedy, I have no compassion with this tragedy, this comedy, this self-invented tragicomedy, with these self-invented shadows, with these torments of shadows, with these shadow torments, with this endless sadness ...” He said: “Such a spectacle is a product of absurdity, of divine absurdity, such a spectacle, you see, you must know, is nothing but laughter ... And now listen,” said the painter, “the world arises into the air from its own dark, just as air, just as the water in the air, the relation between the air and the other air ... ”

These wild histrionics are acts, so that, rather than failing to become fully musical, the language succeeds in becoming a hybrid of language and music. It might be said it is histrionic, musical language about drama, music and poetry, but then if anything this passage shows us these things as actions in action, rather than presenting them as stable unities with fixed definitions about which we can talk or write. Frost is filled with moments like these, and they aren’t illustrations of exceptional sophistication in a theory of fiction or prose; they don’t anticipate criticism, even though they lend themselves too generously to critical readings. They radiate an intense eeriness in their untheoretical, unmediated self-consciousness, as the writing actually starts to writhe portentously with a life of its own, which does not mean an image of life or a lively bit of something or other, but with life.

I am exaggerating, although it’s hard to know by how much, but I can say that Frost arouses that kind of enthusiasm.

–Michael Cisco
21 February 2007

Bernhard in the snow


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