Thomas Bernhard

by Ben Marcus

First published in Harper’s, November 2006.

Thomas Bernhard, the ranting, death-obsessed Austrian novelist and playwright who died in 1989, was the ultimate Nestbeschmutzer, soiling his country with screeds against the landscape, the people, and their history. Not content with the limitations of his own mortality, Bernhard darkened his will with the dictum that his works could not be published or performed in Austria after his death, as if to suggest that his homeland was not even worthy to bathe in his hatred. Although Bernhard’s executors have sashayed around his stipulation, his wrath has since matured into something far more universally toxic. In the end, Bernhard’s concerns are not a single country and its political crimes but rather the sheer affront of life itself, what the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran referred to as “The Trouble with Being Born.”

Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, fellow countrymen of Bernhard’s, reported on this trouble also, but in prose that was far more stately, tempered, and quite less given to spleen. Bernhard was altogether unconcerned with immunizing a reader against his surgical attacks on humanity, and if he made a blood sport of novel writing, he did it with a zeal and a gallows humor that is unrivaled in contemporary literature. His formally radical novels, which sometimes blasted into shape as a single, unbroken paragraph, were manic reports on such fixations as the futility of existence; the dark appeal, and inevitable logic, of suicide; the monstrosity of human beings; and the abject pain of merely being alive. Bernhard’s language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing. Building interest in the grief experienced by people who look at the world and find it unbearable was a dark art of Bernhard’s, and his characters do not resist the long walk to death’s door but run to it and claw at the surface, begging for entry. After all, says Strauch, the agonized painter in Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, “there is an obligation towards the depth of one’s own inner abyss,” even if meeting that obligation destroys you.

A debut work of nearly unbearable bleakness, by a writer who would go on to produce some of the most severely nihilistic literature of the twentieth century, Frost, which was first published in German in 1963, is not so much a novel as a persuasive case against happiness, written in the relentless prose style that would become Bernhard’s signature. An Austrian medical student accepts a perverse task from a teacher: go to Weng, where “the roadsides favor promiscuity” and “children fall into sudden fits of weakness,” and clinically observe Strauch, the teacher’s estranged brother. “Watch the way my brother holds his stick, I want a precise description of it,” says the teacher. This is a perverse thing to want, particularly from someone who has not seen his brother in years, and it creeps toward suggesting that such cold, loveless interest from a family member has something to do with Strauch’s miserable loneliness. It will turn out that other forces are bearing down on Strauch as well, and that misery happens to be one of his guilty pleasures. This is a man who excels at futility and unhappiness, and the performance of his grief will overpower every other spectacle in the novel.

The narrator arrives in Weng and is soon promised that he’ll “get to meet a whole series of monsters,” which proves to be true:

I really was frightened by this landscape, in particular this one spot, which is populated by small, fully grown people whom one can certainly call cretins. No taller than five foot on average, begotten in drunkenness, they pass in and out through cracks in the walls and corridors. They seem typical of this valley.

Readers of Bernhard will recognize this distortion as his default, fantastical take on the real world; the people who populate it are crushed into grotesque shapes, colliding with a brutal landscape that seems carved out of a cruel fairy tale. The language is gothic and clinical at once, affecting the airs of anthropological rationality. When Bernhard imagines beyond reality, it is to color the world worse, and he can be very convincing about it: “Cities that are long since dead, mountains too, long dead, livestock, poultry, even water and the creatures that used to live in the water. Reflections of our death-masks. A death-mask ball.” About his dank, mountainous environment, Strauch warns the narrator, “It’s not possible to be so healthy that being here won’t cripple you inside and out.”

Crippled inside and out certainly is a good working diagnosis of Strauch, although geography, mutilating or not, seems hardly to blame, however convenient a scapegoat. He is menaced by headaches, certain that frost is eroding his mind—a destroyed man whose hyper-articulate death throes seem to spout, without cease, not from the landscape but from his amygdala, the nut-shaped cluster of worry in the brain that might as well be called the anxiety fountain. Indeed, the treachery of landscapes in Bernhard’s work cannot compete with the poison and peril emanating from within his characters.

The narrator registers at the local inn where Strauch is living and passes himself off as a student of law rather than medicine. As subterfuge goes, the deception proves mostly irrelevant to the novel, but Bernhard clearly requires some established literary devices to keep the book from reading like a hatchet job on life itself. Yet the only character who could possibly care about the narrator’s secret identity is Strauch, and he’s too busy combing his own hair shirt to detect the lie. Strauch would much rather “make the world die in me, and myself die in the world, and everything cease as though it had never been.” That’s a pretty ambitious goal, and by the end of the book a kind of success has been achieved, as if the book has fallen on its own sword. The world depicted by Strauch becomes fairly cold to the touch, and the narrator, not to mention the reader, is sucked headlong and flailing into his death-ship perspective.

Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind—usually self-loathing, obsessive ones—and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment. “‘You wake up, and you feel molested,’” Strauch says:

In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers: a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street, you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundredfold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.

Without a story to drive it, Frost builds not through unfolding events but by telemarking around Strauch’s bitter cosmology while the narrator follows him through the woods, fattening himself on the rage of his new mentor. A chart of Strauch’s worldview would produce a splotchy Rorschach of points and counterpoints, contradictions, reversals, and the occasional backflip, none of which could really hold up to a logician’s scrutiny, which is obviously the point. Strauch, a failed artist who only painted in total darkness, is opposed to nearly everything, and lest you think he’s a humanist at the core, with a fondness for the arts (that classic virtue of the misanthrope), he claims that “artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet.” Yet there are even worse evildoers, in his estimation: “I’ve never hated anything as much as I hated teachers.” A notable assessment, given that he was for a long time employed as one.  Of his students, he says: “I never told them the name of one single flower or tree. Nor gave them one country of origin . . . Because I am opposed to the enlightenment of children where plants are concerned, in fact, where nature is concerned.” Indeed, he believes that schools should be abolished and that young people should be required to visit slaughterhouses instead, which can teach them far more, and far more quickly: “The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!” He swears he does not exaggerate, and that “imagination is an illness.” On his own powers of observation: “I discovered that my surroundings didn’t want to be explained by me.” Which doesn’t keep him from trying.

Strauch is too deranged to make sense, or, more worryingly, he’s too perceptive and intelligent to straitjacket his explosive declarations with coherence and consistency. Never mind the beautiful paradox of Beckett’s motto: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Bernhard’s version of the phrase removes Beckett’s compulsion to live: I can’t go on, I’ll kill myself. I am a coward for not having already killed myself. But since all pursuits are futile, suicide is futile. Better never to have been born.

One of the unbalancing pleasures of Frost is how frequently we can change our mind about Strauch as he himself obsessively changes his own mind, shifting our diagnosis from Angry Genius to Brain-Addled Sad Sack to Poet of Uncomfortable Truths. Not knowing the limits of his hatred and fear makes Strauch fascinating, and Bernhard, even this early in his career, knew how to use characters as shock treatments for the reader, dialing up the intensity before boredom can set in. The most chilling idea that recurs in Frost involves suicide, which is offered up by Strauch as the one authentic solution to the problem of being alive. But it is spoken of as such an inevitability—the question is only really when it will happen for each person—that it’s considered “the decision of the father (first and foremost) and of the mother (as well) to sponsor the suicide of their offspring, the child, the sudden premonition of ‘having created a new suicide.’” Suicide is a project initiated by all parents, and giving birth is likened to plotting a death. It feels violent, and violating, to have suicide threatened in one’s presence, even from a character in a novel, and to ignore it is like walking away from a drowning person. If there’s something voyeuristic to this role we’re forced into, it also imposes an unwanted responsibility, which is quite different from the routine empathy one might feel toward a more typical fictional character. This difference of literary effect begins to describe how assaultive Bernhard’s work can be. Strauch foreshadows the kind of character Bernhard would go on to create in novels like Woodcutters, The Loser, Correction, and Extinction—a ranting malcontent on a filibuster, staging grand disquisitions on the awful discomfort of being human, frequently endorsing suicide as not only appropriate but desirable. He so loathes the fact that he was born that he wants to erase himself.

Alive with rage and shouting in our faces, a character of this sort eats up so much of the stage that story and plot are crowded out to the perimeter, obediently clamoring for attention now and again, but appearing dim and perfunctory at best. The compelling happenings of Frost are mostly interior, and the physical world and its objects are rotely attended to. The narrator, innocent of the world at the outset, is so poisoned by Strauch’s perspective that he turns into a kind of destroyed madman himself—as if he has witnessed an atrocity that he will never recover from—and we see that certain ideas can be so corrosive as to ruin the mind that hosts them. The novel closes with the narrator’s “report” back to his teacher, a letter that regurgitates some of Strauch’s tirade with a degree of desperation, struggling to find a language with which to diagnose Strauch, settling finally on the awkward phrasing of “an amoral interstitial thinking without any declared purpose,” a disorder that has probably not yet made it into the DSM. Banging his head against “the unrevealing mysticism of one who is on the run from clarity,” the narrator in the end declares Strauch to be “much more miserably alone than one will be able to imagine even after reading my report.” This is a beautiful bit of modesty that defeats any sense that Strauch has been exaggerating his condition, deepening the already terrible black hole that surrounds him. It seems that Strauch isn’t the only one who paints in total darkness. His creator is rather fond of doing so as well.

Bernhard’s ambivalence toward the dramatic shape of a plotted story is already in evidence in Frost, yet he hadn’t quite determined how to supplant it, which leads to a static, sometimes overexcited investigation of Strauch and his manias: a novel that can function more as a perverse disclosure of a disease than as a suspenseful revelation of character. The subplots and secondary characters in Frost—intrigue at the inn and the neighboring village, which Strauch and the narrator sometimes gossip about—serve as peripheral animations to throw Strauch’s tirades into greater relief, but they also work to allow the reader some much-needed rest from the scorched-earth intensity of Strauch’s anger. The knacker, hauling around animal carcasses, is sleeping with the innkeeper, whose husband is in jail for murder; as characters they are somewhat less than human, driven entirely by their lower faculties and made to seem unduly crass and petty. A farmhouse burns, incinerating the animals within, which prompts a cheerful description of their burnt flesh. A woodcutter is killed. But these characters, and their intrigues, are more like hand puppets bobbing atop cardboard scenery, a bit of over-rigged, cartoonish entertainment in between bracing doses of death talk. Bernhard doesn’t seem particularly convinced by the dramatic potential of this material either, and so it is only lightly and erratically sketched, while Strauch is held in abeyance before he bombards us again with his rant against life. One senses the young Bernhard trying his hand at conventional narrative (an interest he would later abandon), dutifully serving up novelistic material to spackle together the far more potent torment issuing from Strauch, but it’s curious in a novel when adultery and animal fires, as well as general mayhem in the Austrian forest, can serve as light comic relief.

Bernhard finds little use in his novels for cheerful thoughts, happy people, or positive outcomes. Says the narrator of The Loser: “It’s always correct to say this or that person is an unhappy person . . .whereas it’s never correct to say that this or that person is a happy one.” Facile reasoning aside, his characters might be regarded as arguments, constructed to stifle any possibility of hope or joy, the opposite of what anyone—anyone, that is, with an interest in self-preservation—should want from a book. They petition, with a barrister’s authority, a bleak space, interrogating the purpose of life and regularly finding it hollow and terrible. “Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet,” asks the narrator,” or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterwards?”

Who indeed? Yet the technique precisely describes the kind of jeopardy in which Bernhard routinely places hi characters, choosing to notice them just when their suffering is at its most intense. This procedure allows readers the unusual experience of witnessing people who operate under virtually no illusions, in the most extreme emotional circumstances, at war with fears that none of us can rightly deny. These are characters without the routine protective carapace of denial and evasion, and their raw assault on mortal problems can make them seem both heroic and doomed. As psychological specimens, they are among the most dour, depressed, angry, and alarmingly death-obsessed characters in the history of literature; and anecdotal assessment, of course, but if a device existed to measure the nihilism of a fictional character, it is hard to imagine that Bernhard’s creations would not peg the needle of the machine.

Bernhard’s mortal impulses place him in the company of another contemporary German-language writer, W.G. Sebald. Both were perfect adherents to Kafka’s credo to pursue the negative, because “the positive thing is given to us from the start.” Each produced portraits of devastated characters, ruined by both circumstance and self-generated torment, but their techniques diverged in stark ways. Whereas Sebald built a tranquil moat around his characters’ pain, Bernhard wheeled out the catapult and flung his characters into the fire, paying close attention to the sounds of their screams. In Sebald the emotion is buried under the veneer of manner and etiquette, and its repression and concealment create an exquisite pressure. We tiptoe around his characters and their elaborate denial, which, by its very banality, suggests to us extraordinary levels of pain that cannot be etched in language. They are so obliterated as to be beyond direct communication. Instead, they can talk about the flora and fauna in wistful ways, they can reminisce dully, and we are left to infer the depth of their grief. Sebald promoted his credo of subtlety and indirection when he declared that atrocity could not be rendered directly in literature, a rule that would seem to stuff rags into the mouths of Bernhard’s characters, who are so far from standing on ceremony that they may as well be crawling on their bellies through the dirt.

What does bind Bernhard and Sebald, beyond their instinct toward the inner darkness, is an interest in narrative techniques that moderate, and offset, the pain and anguish of their characters. Each frequently presents narrators whose chief function is to listen in on characters in pain, harvesting their suffering. Sebald’s quiet narrators work like mollusks on the encoded confessions that come to them, and it’s often the patience and curiosity of the narrators, or their simple drive to listen, that slowly draws in readers, until our own powers of detection are heightened and we can see the delicately buried signs of anguish. It is as though authorial choreography is not enough; an ally must be sent abroad into the text to work directly with the characters.

Bernhard, too, would prove to be obsessed with narrators who spy, effacing themselves in order to feed on a vaster world of feeling. In Frost, what keeps all of the madness and vitriol captivating is how elaborately it is mediated through the narrator, who breaks from direct quotation into stylized paraphrases, allowing the raw, spoken material from Strauch the refinements and range of literary prose. Strauch’s consciousness is artfully parceled for us to sound both more deranged and more provocative than it would if we were to listen directly to his monologues. This is not your best friend’s narcissism: boring and self- centered, repetitive, ignorant of its audience. Yet whenever Strauch worries his wound for too long, the relentlessness of the wrath quickly becomes numbing and theatrical. It strangely loses its conviction.

Bernhard would develop a keen instinct for techniques that allowed him to complicate what is sometimes the very basic message of his books (i.e., it hurts to be alive, and we might consider killing ourselves). Frequently, he would pair his characters with mute sidekicks, like the narrator in Frost, who absorb and filter the rage into readable form. This is Bernhard’s version of literary suspense: dangling his characters over sharp rocks, wringing from them their tortured confessions, which are then corseted into elegant prose by able chaperones. Frost is but a tentative step toward the mediation and rage processing that Bernhard would continue to hone in his later work. In books such as Extinction and Yes, Bernhard’s ranting narrators move away from their private testimony and manage also to shoulder a storytelling burden, saving these novels from overdrilling their own resources. A more refined antidote Bernhard discovered to this problem was to increase the curatorial range of his narrators, giving them access to larger and more varied territories, deepening the tragic circumstances that would provide the context for the novel. Correction, for example, plants its narrator among the posthumous papers of an architect who has just killed himself, since the perfect structure he built for his sister—a cone in the middle of a forest—has allowed her to consummate her own lifelong desire: to kill herself. The narrator, again unnamed and emotionally muted, can access both recollections and writings of his subject, Roithamer, in addition to his own memories of the man, which allows for a more complicated, contrapuntal force to develop, with multiple channels of content flowing into his shaping hands. The narrative moment of the novel is itself static—a man sits in a garret sorting through papers—but the territories the narrator can access to build a story are expansive and rich, allowing for a layered unfolding of circumstance and consequence.

If Frost is an apprentice work, a blast of raw feeling without the formal elegance of his later novels, it already heralds Bernhard’s urge not just to look death in the fact but to climb directly in its mouth and produce a fearless report of the architectural dimensions of a place that few of us care to imagine for very long. In writing that is remarkable for how close it takes us to our own ending, Bernhard is, finally, uplifting and revelatory, because he does not turn away from the most central and awful part of reality. His characters are so ruthlessly determined not to be fooled that they ruin themselves before our eyes. This is mercilessly honest work that shows the moral consequences of being highly alert to life, and it is terrifying to read. As the narrator of Frost says of his own report, “I could read the whole thing back, but I would only give myself a fright.” ■

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