The Unrelenting Novels of Thomas Bernhard

By Blake Butler


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During the 58 years of his life, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) composed more than 60 works of fiction, theater, poetry, and nonfiction, including at least 29 books currently available in English. He is considered by many to be the greatest author in the German language since World War II. Often characterized by his seething loathing of social decor, patriotism, and ego, and fed by years spent suffering from tuberculosis and a gathering madness that would eventually force him to spend two years in a sanatorium, his work is some of the blackest, most bare-teethed realist writing available. Over the past several years, Vintage has been reissuing his novels as a series, enabling me to finally fill in the gaps in my reading of his most notable translated work.

Frost (1963)

Written in a plain, almost diary-like catalog of days, Frost follows a young doctor taking up the company of a dying and reclusive painter in order to report on him to his mentor. Even this early on in his career, Bernhard is able to use a simple narrative about the daily activity of human company as a showroom for his black philosophies, ranging from critical to insane. As they talk and walk around the town, the painter, pretty much at what you could call the end of his rope, goes on diatribes and casts his ideas on every inch of the surrounding world, creating a seemingly simple but unrelenting sprawl of criticism and shit talk. The ideas accumulate and grow in on one another until it becomes difficult to know the real from the unreal. Not one of my favorites of Bernhard’s, but compelling in how it sets up the style he will grow only more intense about with each subsequent work.

Representative Sentence: “Terminal illnesses are like exotic landscapes.”

Gargoyles (1967)

This was the first book of Bernhard’s to be translated into English, and the one that began his rise to fame. There’s a rather strange symbiotic sort of texture here: the book begins by following a doctor on his rounds in a small town, treating odd characters who are sick or confined, while exhibiting to his son, who is along for the day, all that can go wrong. After a small strange tour of homes, they end up at the castle of a prince, who essentially takes over the voice of the book with endless ranting about the minds of men: their foolishness, their delusions, their egoism, their lack of spirit or intellect, their exhaustion. Throughout the 100-page rant, a tension that could only be found in the likes of Bernhard develops, riding the weird gap between the bizarre and tedious prince and the nearly silent father and son, climaxing not with plot but with a sublimely monotonic and almost pummeled sort of feeling, again one that the future Bernhard will bend even harder onto the reader.

Representative Sentence: “Sometimes the actual existence and the pretended existence of a person merge in a way that is fatal for him.”

The Lime Works (1970)

Marking a distinct turn from the mostly socially concerned matters of Bernhard’s previous work, The Lime Works is probably the most bizarre, bordering on surreal, of all his novels. At its center is the story of a man who buys an old stone labyrinth and moves into it with his crippled wife. He intends to use this isolation to write a masterwork on human hearing, and forces his wife to take part in a series of strange experiments by way of research. But even in her captivity, the man blames his wife’s presence for his inability to complete the work, culminating in an insane mesmeric rant about the nature of creation and concentration at the end of which, taking place at the book’s beginning, he shoots his wife twice in the head. This is perhaps the most twisted of Bernhard’s maniacal creations, and the first to appear as a single unending paragraph, the format for the majority of his subsequent work.

Representative Sentence: “It was possible to have anything in your head, and in fact everybody did have everything in his head, but on paper almost nobody had anything.”

Correction (1975)

This was the first Bernhard novel I read, and it’s still my favorite. Coming off the bizarre enclosure of The Lime Works, Correction goes even deeper into the black. It’s so unrelenting that it becomes a kind of wonder of desolation, of frustration, though in a way that is so blunt and fucked it feels only more and more near. The overlying idea here is the presence of a cone, built by a man named Roithamer for his sister to live inside of in the middle of a forest. But when she enters the cone, his sister dies, and Roithamer kills himself in grief, leaving the narrator to go through Roithamer’s plans and papers for the cone’s construction and the unblinking rhetoric of the surrounding world’s corruption, darkness, and destruction, to the point that even the identity of the speaker and the suicided Roithamer begin to blur together, in a voice. It’s not necessarily the easiest introduction to Bernhard’s body, but it is certainly one of the most densely deathly books around and worth a read.

Representative Sentence: “Had the idea of building the Cone not surfaced, he would still be in England today, but his life had to turn out as it has, in fact, turned out, the idea of the Cone brought his life to a new high-point, the highest possible in fact, I now said, the six years he spent on the Cone were undoubtedly the high-point of Roithamer’s life, certainly the perfecting of the Cone was.”

Concrete (1982)

Concrete is interesting in that it is a monologue delivered by a man who meant to write another book instead. He is driven into a kind of endless paranoia by the presence of his sister, whom he knows may appear at any moment and interrupt his work. As a result, instead of focusing on music, which was the original topic of his book, the author is flooded with anxiety over being unable to ever become what he wants, to do what he wants, as he realizes this has always been the case, in all things, at the price of his entire life. It’s a refreshingly short, infuriatingly honest account of being human among humans, in constant conflict, terrified.

Representative Sentence: “All our lives we’ve been looking for something, in the end for everything imaginable, and never finding it, always wanting to achieve everything and not succeeding, or else achieving it and losing it at the selfsame moment.”

The Loser (1983)

The Loser is again unique among Bernhard’s plot structures in that it incurs a close relationship among three men: the pianist Glenn Gould and two of his former classmates. One of those classmates serves as the book’s narrator, who, witnessing Gould’s genius in school gave up his craft, after realizing he would never be as great as his classmate; the other student, recognizing the same thing, killed himself. Many speculate that Bernhard, who was himself obsessed with music as a student but forced to give it up partially as a result of his tuberculosis, based at least the spirit of the mesh of contemplation of genius, failure, and methods of handling obscurity on his own most personal struggles. Perhaps the most immediately accessible and oddly moving of Bernhard’s whole career.

Representative Sentence: “When I get up I’m revolted by myself and everything I have to do.”

Woodcutters (1984)

Intentionally or not, Woodcutters is probably Benhard’s funniest book, if we can define funny as being a total social dick. Basically, the narrator goes to a party he doesn’t want to thrown by people he doesn’t like and sits in a wingchair waiting to eat dinner while thinking hateful things about the others at the party. He mentally pisses on them for acting tasteful when they have no taste, acting cultured when they worship shit, and begging for social praise by throwing a party for a pompous actor who shows up several hours late—all of this on the day of a funeral for one of their old friends, a woman who had just committed suicide. Bernhard’s monologue of hate continues to build the scene into a social spectacle of egoism and flaunting and pretension until the guest of honor finally arrives. The novel is particularly odd in how it draws you into the social spectacle while simultaneously making you hate the speaker and the spoken of. In short, it engrosses you in the weird ways people try to go about being people in one another’s eyes.

Representative Sentence: “At Kilb he made himself look vulgar and ridiculous by screaming This food’s abominable, in the same way, it now occurred to me, as he’s made himself look vulgar and ridiculous hundreds and thousands of times in my presence.”

Extinction (1986)

Bernhard’s last and longest novel might in the end be my favorite of all, if for wholly different reasons than Correction. Much of Bernhard’s work during his final years fixated on the social hells of ridiculous social climbers and shitty artists, and this is the most intensely critical of those people, to the point where it rather directly acknowledges that there’s no one who isn’t fucked. Written as an autobiographical account of the son of a wealthy family who has just received word his parents and brother have been killed in a car accident, he somewhat reluctantly returns home to oversee the mass funeral. What follows is a massive and unflagging criticism of every element of the town where he grew up, from his family’s shoddy treatment of employees, to a massive library held in disdain, and, most significantly, his parents’ Nazi ties. There’s something hypnotic about Bernhard’s monolithic-paragraph style, and the flood of formal language he uses to pull apart the character of anything he sees, including the narrator himself. Subtle in its implications, and not so subtle in its disdain, Extinction is about as pointed an antisocial firestorm as could be imagined.

Representative Sentence: “My sisters had gleefully recited to me the names of all who had announced that they would attend the funeral, and the list was headed by the Gaulteiters, the SS officers, and the members of the Blood Order.”

Previously by Blake Butler - Shapes That Make Me Busy

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