Though still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989 at the age of 57, is widely recognized as one of the foremost figures in contemporary European literature. Celebrated in Europe since the early 1980s, his unmistakable prose style has marked a number of talented younger Austrian and German writers such as Lilian Faschinger (Magdalena the Sinner), Elfriede Jelinek (The Piano Teacher), Hans-Ulrich Treichel (Lost) and, perhaps most obviously, W.G. Sebald in his last novel, Austerlitz. The monomaniacal protagonists, the relentlessly unparagraphed stream of reported speech, the architectural rigor of even his wildest sentences–these peculiarities of Bernhard’s prose have worked their way into the interstices of new literary forms in the German-speaking world and beyond. Even in the United States, where Bernhard’s macabre humor and disregard for novelistic conventions have prevented a broader reception, he is appreciated as a writer’s writer, a kindred spirit of Paul Auster, Harold Brodkey, William Gass and Jonathan Franzen.
Despite this international recognition, Bernhard is deeply Austrian in a way that few outsiders can fully appreciate; even his hatred of Austria, which was deep and longstanding, was typically Austrian. Like the Viennese turn-of-the-century political journalist and poet Karl Kraus, or the nineteenth-century regional playwright Johann Nestroy, Bernhard was a satirist whose literary genius needed the foibles and dirt of his contemporaries in order to take flight; a childlike rage and humor propelled his sentences. Sebald, who grew up in a region of Bavaria that is quite close to Bernhard’s world, described the writer and his literary alter-egos as “nearly blasphemous” in their attacks on Austrian society and politics, which corresponded “neither to a model of engaged criticism nor to any concept of artistic autonomy” and therefore provoked the outrage of “conservatives and progressives in equal measure.” Deeply Austrian as well is Bernhard’s sense of disgust for power–especially of government and family–which always appears in his work as dirty and corrupt. In this respect he most resembles Kafka (another Austrian) and his contemporary Peter Handke, who once wrote that his own disgust for power “has nothing moral about it, [but] is a fact of my humanity, a quality of every cell in my body.”
Bernhard’s provocations were legion. His few public appearances to accept prizes for his work inevitably culminated in brief but devastating denunciations of whatever official institution was about to honor him. His play Heldenplatz (“Heroes’ Square”), commissioned for the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Austria’s national Burgtheater in 1888, focused instead on the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, when thousands of Austrians jubilantly greeted the arrival of Hitler’s troops into the capital. Politicians tried to cancel the performance and expel the author from the country. Once he suggested that all mothers should have their ears chopped off. “I said that,” he explained in an interview, “because it’s a mistake if people think they’re bringing children into the world. That’s too easy. They’re having adults, not babies. They give birth to a sweaty, disgusting, pot-bellied innkeeper or a mass murderer, that’s who they bring into the world, not children.” Even in death Bernhard managed to slap his fellow Austrians in the face, having previously stipulated in his will that no performances of his work could take place in Austria, “however this State might constitute itself.” (Loopholes have since been found to get around this prohibition.)
Three Novellas, deftly translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott, provides a fascinating microcosm of the madhouse in which Bernhard found himself confined. His Austria is not Sound-of-Music Land or the alpine vistas of the travel agencies. Nature is reduced to a rotting tree or the frozen carcasses of deer buried in an avalanche; provincial life is unremittingly vulgar; state bureaucrats are meanspirited and stupid; the rare cultured individual is isolated and obsessed. At the same time, these early novellas supply us with a blueprint for the distinctive narrative style that Bernhard refined to perfection in later novels like Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Correction, The Loser and his last novel, Extinction. They all make use of the prototypically Bernhardian narrator–unnamed, crafty, obsessive, above all prolix–caught in the typically Bernhardian situation of having to relate the details of an acquaintance’s recent suicide, which has threatened his own existence.
Amras, first published in German in 1964 and stylistically the most fragmented, relates the Gothic tale of a family’s joint suicide pact from the perspective of a surviving son. Writing in the grip of his parents’ death, the narrator describes his life in his uncle’s ancient tower, a dark, airless edifice that is a town landmark and serves as a metonym for his troubled family, at once refuge and curse. Much of the book is concerned with the narrator’s artistic brother Walter, who also survived the family suicide pact but who, a short while afterward, throws himself from the tower and dies. For all its creepy, medieval furnishings–a 400-year-old knife that hangs on the wall of the “Black Kitchen,” straw mattresses where the brothers sleep and take their meals of smoked meat, the moist darkness of the stones themselves–the tower surprisingly inspires a near-mystical experience of vision and unity. “Through the floors and walls, not only the air, we were connected most intimately to all of nature…we heard the mingling of all imaginable languages, the mingling and droning of all sounds filled our cranial cavities, which at times were completely emptied of flesh, of blood.” Walter’s suicide, however, puts an end to this dark ecstasy, and the narrator’s voice gives way to fragmented, morbid observations about the “pornography of nature,” slaughtered pigs, a woodcutter who seems more animal than human. Nothing, it seems, will keep this narrator from following the rest of his family into suicide.
Playing Watten, the second novella, has more humor and narrative cohesiveness than the first, though it paints an equally desolate portrait of nature and human relationships. The narrator here is a wealthy, successful doctor whose ordered life, including a weekly card game of “watten” at a local inn, is thrown off kilter by the suicide of one of his card partners. There are other indications of crisis, including a competitor’s slander that has forced the narrator to close his practice. But the clearest sign is his inability to take his customary walks to the “rotten spruce tree” (4,000 steps) or the “gravel pit” (8,000), never mind the much further distance to the inn where he used to play watten. The brilliance of the story lies in the sheer verve and energy with which the narrator confesses to his own existential stasis, the result of his insight that social rituals like card games will not save him. “I say to the truck driver: even if I could suddenly go and play watten again, I would not go and play watten, because now I know that playing watten doesn’t get you anywhere either. The years have proved to me that even playing watten doesn’t get you anywhere beyond hastening you on towards total nonsense. You can play watten if you like, I say, but you will see that it doesn’t lead you to anything but nonsense.”
In these and similar rants, purposefully and irritatingly repeated at great length, language exists as a kind of existential drone in which individual words stop making sense. “I think we know very early on that we cannot think with our brain and cannot speak with our language, yet we go on thinking with our brain and speaking with our language all our lives.” And so the narrator continues to utter his Gothic thoughts, confined to a dark hut in the woods, filling countless notes with preliminary thoughts for his unwritten scientific studies, no longer capable of tolerating even the noise he makes in the winter when he sticks his cane into the frozen snow. “Tear up the floor of the hut and you will find some horrible things,” we hear him confess in the story’s last sentences. “A person like me is a person full of tricks and is constantly waiting for a person who will destroy his tricks while destroying his head, dear sir.”
The final novella is called Gehen in German, which means “to go” or “to walk” but has an etymological connection to thinking through the composite term Gedankengang (literally “thought path” or “way”). But look where this connection leads in Bernhard: “The person who thinks also thinks of his thinking as a form of walking, says Oehler. He says my or his or this train of thought (Gedankengang). Thus it is absolutely right to say, let’s enter this thought, just as if we were to say, let’s enter this haunted house.”Gehen is riddled with this mad, haunted flow of language-walking and language-thinking. “Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesday, now I go walking–now that Karrer has gone mad–with Oehler on Monday as well.” So begins a “traveling text” that reports the narrator’s discussion with Oehler about their brilliant scientist friend Karrer, who, at the height of his intellectual powers, has gone mad and been hospitalized in a Vienna asylum. Unexpectedly light and playful, this philosophical ramble culminates in a wild scene in a fancy men’s clothing store, where Karrer finally breaks down, berating the clerk for the shoddy quality of the trousers he has been shown (“Czechoslovakian rejects,” he cries) and throwing one after the other into a huge pile like so much worthless trash.
As in many of Bernhard’s works, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language seems to be the hidden ghost in this textual machine. “Oehler says: Karrer’s world is his own to the same extent that it is ours. I could just as well be walking here with Karrer along Klosterneuburgerstrasse and be talking with Karrer about you, if you and not Karrer were in Steinhof at the moment.” Wittgenstein’s notion of a language world here seems to support the idea–quite crucial for Bernhard–that personal identity is porous, even interchangeable; that our language is never original. (“Fundamentally, everything that is said is a quotation,” we read at one point where, typically, one character is quoting another.) But then, after taking us down similar “thought paths,” Bernhard suddenly reverses course and affirms the exact opposite: “But in fact it is impossible that I would have acted like Karrer, says Oehler, because I am not Karrer, I would have acted like myself, just as you would have acted like yourself and not like Karrer.” Back and forth, up and down, the mind paces, vainly searching for a way out of itself. The final result is madness; but before that comes a kind of respite, a tense philosophical equilibrium: “I close my eyes and lay the palms of my hands on the blanket and go back very intensely over the previous day. With a constantly increasing intensity, with an intensity that can constantly be increased…. The state of complete indifference in which I then find myself, said Karrer, is through and through a philosophical state.”
In closing, one should commend the translators and the publisher for bringing these bizarre, irritating and very funny stories into English at a time when commercial presses shy away from “difficult” work in translation. (Sebald is a surprising exception, though it is unlikely his genre-defying work would have received such broad acclaim without the current vogue of Holocaust memory.) Much of Bernhard’s best work consists of short stories that are still unknown in English; a dozen plays, regularly performed in Europe, including his masterful drama Heldenplatz, remain unseen. In a world of profit-driven literary publishing, we need unconventional, strange writers like Bernhard, who refused to toe the line. Perhaps, as he maintained, everything that is said really is a quotation. But then nobody sounds quite like Bernhard.