If, like me, you long ago read everything you could get your hands on by Austrian novelist, playwright, memoirist and poet Thomas Bernhard, it’s never an unrewarding experience to revisit his work.
For those who haven’t read him, he might be just the medicine that cures your ills, if you have a certain idiosyncratic deficiency of literary singularity and imaginative vituperation in your diet. This condition admittedly has always been an affliction of mine.
It’s not so much the fact that Bernhard acidifies and melts away all sugarcoating of the human condition that makes him special, it’s that he performs it with a virtuosic verbal brutality fully commensurate to the task. As a wielder of prose, Bernhard is an intemperate, hyperbolic maestro…and god I love it. His revulsion for phoniness and pretension is of such vehemence it make’s Salinger’s appear to be fake, insincere and perhaps rather dainty when all is said and done.
Admittedly, getting used to encountering a paragraph that runs to two and a half (or five) pages doesn’t happen right away, but quicker than you might think you actually begin to dig the head of steam the man builds up, assuming your bathroom breaks are scheduled with proper forethought.
Yes, at first a book (The Lime Works) about a man holed up in a quarry with his wheelchair bound, rifle-toting wife less than pleased with the auditory experiments he is conducting on her for the sake of his great work in progress may not sound like what you want to curl up with on a cold winter night. But then, after reading some, you just can’t get warm and cozy without it.
In Concrete, Rudolph the musicologist narrator driven mad by his ten-year attempt to find the perfect opening sentence to his musicology opus, speaks for many an artist’s (or anyone else’s) angst in the struggle to get it done right, and simply to get it done in the face of every fresh temptation, interruption, distraction, annoyance and vanity the world has in store, and keeps coming. William Styron astutely I thought described as the “obduracy of the language” what is so difficult about the creative process, at least the literary kind, and Bernhard nails it with a railroad spike.
Bernhard uses piano prodigy Glen Gould as the focus of The Loser, wherein he mercilessly and hilariously both celebrates and bemoans artistic ambition, the perils of seeking artistic perfection, and perhaps more emphatically, the intimidating, inhibiting nature of artistic genius on aspiring, or less gifted artists.
In Wittgenstein’s Nephew, a character named Bernhard and a friend of the real life Bernhard, Paul, the nephew of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein are hospitalized at the same time in separate wings of the institution, Bernhard in the pulmonary ward, Wittgenstein in the psychiatric wing. During the encounters and conversations they manage while there, they become comrades in gallows commentary and biting catharsis, as well as mutual sources of consolation, a sanctuary of sorts created for their mutual eccentricity.
Old Masters, besides again celebrating Bernhard’s chosen redoubt of unapologetic misanthropy in the face of artistic, political, social and cultural groupthink, in particular, the self-satisfaction of artistic or critical uniformity, he laments and excoriates with particularly ebullient venom the hijacking, shall we say, of the cultural enterprise by tools, an undertaking many of us can certainly appreciate.
Gathering Evidence is perhaps the most compelling and wonderfully disturbing work of autobiography by an artist you will be lucky enough to encounter. What stands out most may be the admiration and affection he conveys for the grandfather who largely raised him, and who wrote defiantly whether anyone cared or not, an appreciation for nihilistic determination he passed along.
Abandoned by his mother to a caretaker on a houseboat while still an infant, incarcerated in the tuberculosis ward (sanatoriums, as they called them then) while an adolescent, due to a mistaken diagnosis, and where of course he then contracted tuberculosis, Bernhard’s isn’t your father’s literary memoir.
If anyone ever despised nationalism, cultural chauvinism and outright ethnocentrism more than Bernhard, someone must point them out to me. Bernhard’s relationship to Austrian pride somewhat resembles that of Liz Taylor to Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though without the kernel of endearment. Austria is the matrix of Mein Fuhrer, and Bernhard never lets Austrians forget it for a single second, no matter how hard they try to kick it under the rug, or to suppress their perpetuated bad habits from the Nazi era.
Indeed, Bernhard’s coup de grace, what he putatively called his posthumous emigration, may have been the instruction he left in his will, that after his death, his works could never again be published or performed in his native land. Let’s see Noam Chomsky do that.
In fact, Thomas Bernhard is one of those few and far-between (despite what you might encounter in book reviews) literary giants, singular voices, and authentically influential artists, especially taking into account the influence on his fellow writers (I’d bet my fortune Bernhard never used the phrase fellow writers, but you never know). That Bernhard is highly renowned and infrequently read (an old, tired story of course) is irrelevant to the latter naturally.
I’ll leave you with a taste of the writing in this excerpt from Gathering Evidence, where Bernhard evinces some of his regard for his native Salzburg:
“This city of my fathers is in reality a terminal disease which its inhabitants acquire through heredity or contagion. If they fail to leave at the right moment, they sooner or later either commit suicide, directly or indirectly, or perish slowly and wretchedly on this lethal soil with its archiepiscopal architecture and its mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism. Anyone who is familiar with the city knows it to be a cemetery of fantasy and desire, beautiful on the surface but horrifying underneath”