A REVIEW OF THOMAS BERNHARD'S
BY MICHAEL VASS
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 4 | February 15, 2013
One of the most distinct writers of the 20th century, or any other for that matter, Thomas Bernhard’s obsessional, musical thought and style are so particular, so peculiar, and so consistent throughout his novels, stories, plays, poems, memoirs, and other miscellany that it’s hard not to imagine that his voice emerged fully formed and intact. Martin Chalmer’s recent English translation of Bernhard’s first short story collection, Prose (Prosa as it appeared in German in 1967), both confirms and complicates this assumption, and provides a fascinating opportunity for English speaking readers to witness the inimitable Austrian writer becoming himself. Unsurprisingly, the themes that dominate the seven stories in Prose are the same ones that recur throughout Bernhard’s work: alienation, obsession, hatred, genius, madness, crime, punishment, murder, suicide, and the agonies and consolations of kinship and co-dependence. Stylistically however, Bernhard seems to still be in the process of refining his unique, relentless approach in Prose. Many of the familiar trademarks of his style are present in these stories, but Bernhard has not yet quite figured out how to assemble and integrate them into the breathtaking literary performances of his later work.
However, perhaps this is a matter of an ill-suited form as much as that of a young writer fine-tuning his voice. After all, Bernhard had already published his debut novel Frost in 1963, and his second novel Gargoyles came out the same year as Prose. While both of these novels are surpassed by his later work, they already demonstrate a more cohesive and confident voice than most of the stories in Prose. Counterintuitive as it might initially seem, Bernhard’s minimally plotted prose is much better suited to the novel than the short story. Repetition, modification, contradiction, and negation are crucial to Bernhard’s style, and he needs the space afforded by a novel to make the most of these compositional elements, as well as to achieve the astonishingly acute modifications of tone that take place within his highly precise range.
The blunt title Prose is uncharacteristically self-reflexive, and yet it is appropriate in many ways. Bernhard is never much concerned with story or plot. Even in his longer novels, the conventional complexities of plot construction are jettisoned in order to emphasize the significance of more obscure, elusive events that might not register in a traditional narrative, events his characters obsessively revisit and dissect, ranting about them and digressing from them until all perspectives and arguments have been exhausted. Bernhard’s art is not storytelling but prose as such, and at the height of his powers he can command rapt attention from the thrill of being carried along by the disturbing and hysterical vigour of the long, rhythmic sentences that make up the single-paragraph monologues of which most of his novels consist. While no one would characterize Bernhard’s writing as life-affirming, there are few writers whose work is so startlingly alive, teeming with such seething vitality that it seems to constitute some awful force of nature. (Interestingly, Bernhard’s only other book of short prose, the much more unconventional and assured collection The Voice Imitator, features his only other blatantly self-reflexive title. Consisting of 104 very short single-paragraph anecdotes apparently derived from newspapers and hearsay, The Voice Imitator takes the emphasis on voice over narrative much farther than Prose. Transformed into brief satisfying blocks of Bernhard’s signature prose without ever quite becoming stories, the incidents recounted in the collection implicitly suggest that singularity of voice can be as effective a way of shaping raw experience as the imposition of narrative.)
One of Bernhard’s odd achievements over his prolific 30 year career is to have repeatedly come up with new characters, new incidents, and new settings that allow him to write sentences that make perfect sense within the context of an individual novel, but which nonetheless would also fit almost as easily in any of his other works. (This might be true to some extent with many great writers, but it is especially true of Bernhard). His characters are highly specific, and yet they all, believably, say similar things in more or less the same way from novel to novel. The same dynamic emerges in miniature in Prose.
Each of the stories vividly conjures distinct characters, settings, and situations, and yet they all fall within the narrow subsection of the human experience that Bernhard repeatedly mines. The stories all offer variations on the basic Bernhard worldview: most people are loathsome; life is overwhelmingly disappointing and cruel; families offer little more than hostility and misunderstanding; nature is fascinating but indifferent at best; science, philosophy, and art occasionally achieve meaningful distraction from life’s core of misery, but their vanities and pretentions usually compromise them fatally; extreme intelligence and talent can offer escape, but they usually fold in on themselves and warp into madness eventually; friendship can be comforting, though it eventually grows tiresome, particularly because the only meaningful subjects to bond over are the depressing fundamental facts of life listed above. When the narrator of “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” remarks, “One describes best what one hates,” the statement could easily come from most of the other stories’ characters. The same could be said for many other examples:
Here everyone reproaches everyone with everything. (from “Jauregg”)
These are prototypical Bernhardian nuggets, and they clearly reflect the author’s outlook as much as that of the characters. Indeed, from the perspective of contemporary conventional wisdom about fiction writing, Bernhard might seem to get away more than most writers can or should with using his characters as blatant vessels for his own musings. But in fact, he is not getting away with anything. Bernhard has made an art of musings and vessels, and to admire his work is to admire his inventiveness in filling new Bernhard vessels with new Bernhard musings and in containing new Bernhard musings in new Bernhard vessels. There is no writer for whom form and content are more inseparable, indeed the concepts hardly make sense in his work.
Bernhard’s preferred mode of narration in most of his novels is what might be called first person once or twice removed. Typically, this consists of a narrator relaying, at length, what another character has said, or what another character has said another character has said— “inverse telescoping of reported speech” is how Geoff Dyer describes it in an essay discussing Bernhard’s influence on W.G. Sebald. For example, Bernhard’s masterful early novel The Lime Works, which came out just three years after Prosa, consists essentially of a single-paragraph monologue by an eccentric reclusive named Konrad who has murdered his crippled wife, explaining the events leading up to the violent crime. However, it is a monologue as reported by two of Konrad’s friends to an insurance investigator, who is the actual narrator of the novel (and about whom we never find anything out). Thus it is a monologue constructed from and refracted through various sources. The purpose of this curious method is not to undermine credibility or introduce discrepancies to the narration—since there is not much of a story to convey, the reliability of the narrator is of little significance. This inverse telescoping is partly a way around the overly convoluted device of the novelistic monologue. Bernhard is not interested in stream of consciousness and doesn’t attempt to reproduce the flow of thought. Instead, he pieces together fragments of expressed thought into a cohesive stream of narration, one that nevertheless acknowledges its fragmentary nature. For Bernhard, monologues occur between people, over days and months and years.
This form of narration allows Bernhard to revel in the undeniable pleasures of complaint while simultaneously expressing the horror of being. Each of his novels is an orchestrated cacophony of attacks, rants, arguments, boasts, analysis, and speculation, bolstered by biographical anecdotes and digressions, which combine to ruthlessly dissect the loathsome delusions of sanity, rationality, natural harmony, and good health. His novels often function as a history and explanation of individual madness, presenting an argument for the logic of one man’s insanity over collective sanity. The crazed central protagonist is inevitably the most developed mind on display. Apparent sanity always indicates some unrealized potential, and it always seems temporary.
If Bernhard’s basic approach is akin to placing an extreme human exhibit under the microscope for scrutiny, then his mode of narration allows the reader to study it with the eye of the scientist while simultaneously experiencing the chaos occurring at the molecular level. In The Lime Works, Bernhard has already mastered this unusual tactic, which was present in Frost and Gargoyles as well. I have described it at length because it is crucial to Bernhard’s unique voice, and while it emerges fitfully in Prose, it is much less consistent and effective than in the novels.
All of the stories in the collection are narrated in first person, and while many employ “inverse telescoping of reported speech” the first two stories make the most extended use of the technique. “Two Tutors” and “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” are both are structured around double narrative arcs: in each story, the narrator recounts an encounter with another character, who in turn tells a story to the narrator. Neither narrative thread would make much of a story on its own, and yet the mysterious Russian doll structure – each thread both contains and is contained by the other— results in hauntingly suggestive reverberations, even if their impact is muted compared to what Bernhard achieves in his novels. “Attaché at the French Embassy” employs a similar structure, complicated further by its presentation in the form of diary entries.
The two stories that are told in more conventional first-person, “The Cap” and “Jauregg,” are slightly more straightforward, and they suffer somewhat from the missing layer of narration. They are longer than many of the other stories, but their impact is more muted, though each contains some typically impressive passages.
The final two stories, “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and “The Carpenter”, are the most satisfying in the collection. Both achieve a more balanced approach to the refracted first-person mode Bernhard prefers by employing a slightly more conventional method in which the narrator simply tells us about another character without extended use of reported speech or any convoluted bifurcated structure. Unlike the other stories, both forge a successfully compact and distinct vessel to contain and unleash a fresh torrent of Bernhard musings.
“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” hones in on the perennial Bernhard theme of friendship as a crucial but dangerous means of acknowledging and dissecting the torment of being. The unnamed narrator tells the story of Georg, his university roommate, an eccentric whose family despises him for his deformities and his useless poetic and intellectual inclinations (his deformities are never described, nor is his poetry). The two young men form a claustrophobic bond based on their similar past traumas, their mutual hatred of the present, and their inability to imagine a future— “a system of protective conduits, created by us for us and only visible to us.” The idea of suicide is an essential element of their friendship, though they never speak of it:
We were enclosed in our thoughts of suicide as in our room and in our conduit system, as in a complicated game, comparable to advanced mathematics. In this advanced suicide game we often left each other completely in peace for weeks.
More than the other stories in Prose, “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” is composed of the layered, winding, halting, burrowing, seemingly never-ending sentences that make Bernard’s best work so re-readable. Here is a typically powerful example from the beginning of the story, as the narrator describes the cruelty of Georg’s family, who hid him away because of his natural deformities:
After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die; but he didn’t die and, although all of them together have done everything to make him fall fatally ill, he did not once fall dangerously ill (neither in Innsbruck, where, separated by the River Inn, he had grown up a couple hundred yards away from me – neither knew of the other – nor later, during our Viennese studies in a room on the third floor of a house in Zirkugasse); among them he had only grown larger and larger and ever more ugly and frail, ever more worthless and in need of help, but without his organs being affected, which functioned even better than their own…
As happens frequently with Bernhard, the ranting tone—full of apparent contractions (“larger and ever more… frail”), strange word choices (“faecal and victual detestableness”), and unexpected emphases that turns a simple adjective into an ambiguous philosophical concept (“dangerously ill”)—tends to distract from the amount of crucial information that’s being communicated.
The story concludes when Georg’s suicidal impulses finally culminate in an act of violence against himself, which brings his hated father to Vienna. The final scene of the story has the narrator watching as Georg’s father packs up his son’s belongings in the fading daylight. Bernhard builds to a climax through the tense rhythm of his final sentence without ever revealing what exactly what has occurred to Georg:
Once my eyes had gotten used to the darkness and were able to take full advantage of the darkness, and I shall never forget this keenness of my eyes, I saw that this man, who was wearing a black coat with a sheepskin lining, that this man, who gave the impression of being in a hurry and was throwing everything of Georg’s onto a heap, in order to remove it, that this man and that everything connected to him bore the blame for Georg’s misfortune, for the catastrophe.
Since it’s clear that “the catastrophe” is Georg’s excruciating existence as a whole, Bernhard can satisfyingly conclude the story without clarifying whether his principal character is alive or dead—a flourish characteristic of his talent for precise, affecting prose that manages to elude narrative expectations.
“The Carpenter” presents Bernhard in a somewhat different mode. The unhinged fervor that usually drives Bernhard’s characters is mostly absent from story. In its place is the sober, baffled, weary voice of the unnamed village lawyer-narrator, whose job, as he (and Bernhard) seems to see it, is to represent helpless people and their hopeless cases before a fatally flawed state that only exasperates the permanent injustice already endemic to nature. (As Martin Chalmers points out in his brief but useful afterword, Bernard’s first writing job was as a court reporter.)
The lawyer sets up the tale of the titular character, a former client he hardly knows, with brutal bluntness in the opening sentence:
Someone, as in the case of the carpenter Winkler, released from prison with a shocking suddenness, is, as I’m forced again and again to conclude, impossible to help.
The lawyer has received a visit from Winkler’s sister, who is distraught at her brother’s unexpected early release from prison. Through his encounter in his office with the sister, and later with Winkler himself, the lawyer recounts their bleak story. After years of violent behaviour, terrifying everyone around him but most painfully his helpless younger sister, Winkler was imprisoned for a notorious crime (which is never described). Five years later, he has, as his sister explains, come to the lawyer’s office to thank him for his service during the trial and to seek advice on how to proceed in his new freedom.
At once vicious and defenseless, adrift and incapable of change, Winkler’s fate, according to the lawyer, has long been sealed:
His childhood and his youth had been overshadowed by the hopelessness of ever being able to reform and improve himself. All the prerequisites of a life that proceeds inconspicuously and doesn’t hurt anyone had always really been missing in his case. By disposition he had been from the outset nothing but a dark source of cruelties and pain. An upbringing which was completely wrong, because not even attempts at it were present, had pushed his predispositions into and down to the criminal.
Her life ruined two years before it started by the birth of her brother, Winkler’s sister is an equally hopeless case, her awful lot made only more unbearable by her inexplicable love for her only sibling:
If she only thought of ‘the night behind the station’ (‘The time at the saltworks’) – I stopped her from having to explain herself in detail – it was incomprehensible to her now (‘but perhaps out of fear of him?’) speaking up for him, after he had ‘systematically smashed’ her life. (‘He ruined us all!’) It seemed altogether strange to her, that she was now standing in front of me to plead for her brother; but she was pleading ‘urgently’, that now, ‘when he is so abandoned’, I should not turn him away.
Winkler and his sister lack the verbosity and neurosis of Bernhard’s typical characters, and as such they make much better subjects for an effective short story. The conflicted, arms-length perspective of the lawyer—equal parts disgusted and devastated— achieves a kind of inverse telescoping by other means.
When the lawyer tries to encourage Winkler’s hopes for the future, his attempt at a pep talk is so infused with his own deeply felt despair that it becomes inseparable from his interior monologue:
He was not alone with his crime, I repeated, everybody committed crimes, big ones, but most crimes went undetected, unrecognized, unpunished. Crimes were symptoms of illness; nature unceasingly produced every possible kind of crime, including human crimes; nature crimes were by right. Everything was always in nature and from nature, nature was by nature criminal.
Describing Winkler’s manner of speaking, which is “awkward, like a body full of wounds into which at any time anyone can strew salt,” Bernhard pushes the lawyer to the limits of coherent expression as he grapples with the inscrutable carpenter:
His voice was neither soft nor loud, it did not really belong to him but came from his conditions and contexts; at best, a fundamental comparison could be drawn as if in consideration of a not-yet living and already no longer living, but existing, creature which is yet no mere object.
“The Carpenter” has no plot, it offers only a disturbingly convincing portrait of nature gone criminally and unalterably awry, which for Bernhard is the fundamental relationship of nature to humankind. Winkler and his sister are impotent beings upon whom life is inflicted, their fate reduced to the doling and suffering of pain. This precludes the possibility of a narrative arc, and so the story’s evocation of a ruinous life that is not worth living but is nonetheless inescapable simply winds itself out.
Having failed to cheer Winkler up, the lawyer runs out of things to say and Winkler drifts asleep in his chair. Eventually he awakes and abruptly leaves the room, backing out without a word. The lawyer’s final words of narration are as matter-of-factly discomfiting as his first:
His case was difficult. I have not seen or heard of the man since.
With this, Bernhard dispenses brusquely with another of his fictional exhibits presented in evidence of the unrelenting and unredeeming misery of existence, on to the next case.
MICHAEL VASS is a filmmaker and writer. His award-winning films have screened at many festivals and galleries, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. He was the 2012 winner of the Canadian Art Foundation Writing Prize, and his writings have appeared in publications such as in Cinema Scope, Cineaction, MACHETE, and The Rusty Toque. Michael received his BFA from Simon Fraser University and his MFA from York University, and he's an alumnus of the Canadian Film Centre's Directors' Residency. He is currently a fellow at the UnionDocs Collaborative Studio Program in Brooklyn.