Thursday, January 24, 2008


I am currently reading Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost, published in 1963, and translated from the German in 2006 by Michael Hofmann. You may be unfamiliar with both the life and work of Bernhard. Born in Holland in 1931, he was the bastard son of a high-strung Austrian mother and reprobate laborer father, also Austrian, whom Bernhard never met, but whom subsequent research led him to believe may have been murdered during the Second World War.

Bernhard was only briefly in Holland during his infancy, his mother having been sent there to have her out-of-wedlock child. Mother and son soon returned to their Austrian homeland, where Bernhard came of age in difficult circumstances during and after the war. In his autobiography, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard provides a striking account of his early life, up to the age of 19. He lavishes particular attention on the torments he endured as a schoolboy, most excruciatingly during his tenure as a boarding student at the "National Socialist Home for Boys," which he attended during the war years.

Bernhard's account is precise and unsparing in every way, both of himself and of others. As a teenager, and while barely surviving with his extended family in a tenement, Bernhard deviated from his normal, and much dreaded, path to school, turning instead in the direction of the state labor office. That same day, he began a new life as a grocer's apprentice in a public housing project in Salzberg. One might expect a writer, particularly one as inclined to the shadowed vision as is Bernhard, to recount this experience as one of misery, but in fact, it constituted a tonic and liberation. No longer forced to endure the taunting sarcasm of his teachers, he was free to watch and observe, to speak his mind as did the denizens of the housing project whom he served. In a sense, Bernhard's abandonment of school in favor of the tiny grocery store tucked into the basement of a dreary apartment block initiated him into what would become his life as a writer.

Gathering Evidence is one of Bernhard's best works, more eventful and plot driven than are most of the novels he wrote. Though I am a great admirer of his work, I must admit that many of his novels suffer, at least in patches, from an absence of narrative movement. His characters ponder and ruminate, despair, and savor the ironies of their despair, their thoughts circling back upon themselves. At times, this leads the reader into a narrative cul de sac which . . . well, sometimes amuses, sometimes fascinates, and sometimes bores.

In my opinion, he pulls off this aesthetic trick to best effect in his brief novel, Concrete, the story Austrian musicologist of independent means who has, for the past several years, been attempting to write a ground-breaking study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though he aspires to pen only a brief article, the demands of the assignment - self-imposed, of course - rise to such towering heights that he is unable, throughout the book, ever to settle upon even the first sentence. Concrete is written in the form of a journal, in which the narrator recounts his epochal bout of writer's block, his relationship with his hard-nosed, worldly-wise sister (whose expressions of concern for his welfare move him to both anger and tender affection) as well as a host of other episodes and encounters that crowd his mind and brook him no peace. Though this hardly seems the stuff of comedy, Concrete is suffused with a self-mocking humor. Bernhard knows full well that his protagonist is an absurd creation, that writers, poets, artists and intellectuals are absurd poseurs, and that in fact, it is absurd even to be a human being. A rather Austrian observation, eh?

Anyhow, I've got some business to attend to today, so let me offer a couple of quotations from Frost, to give you a taste of Bernhard's style, or at least, his style as translated into English.

How long was I proposing to stay in Weng, he asked. I needed to get back fairly soon, to prepare for exams in the spring, I said. "As you are studying law," he said, "I'm sure you'll find a job later. There are always jobs for lawyers. I had a nephew once who was a lawyer, only he lost his mind over stacks of files and had to quit his job in the civil service. He wound up in Steinhof. Do you know what that is?" I replied that I had heard of the institution "am Steinhof." "Well then, you'll know what became of my nephew," he said.

Readers familiar with Bernhard's work will know that his friend, Paul Wittgenstein, was a frequent guest at "am Steinhof," during his bouts of periodic madness. Such knowledge of course, only enhances the ominous implication of all that is left unsaid in the passage above.

The tale of Bernhard's friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, is, in part, the story of a beloved friend's descent into madness and despair. At it's end, Bernhard reveals that he declined to attend Paul Wittgenstein's funeral, and has never been able even to visit his grave. All of this is recounted in the brief volume, Wittgenstein's Nephew., and yes, Paul was the nephew (or cousin) of the renowned philosopher Ludwig, which again, adds greater dimension to the tragedy.

One more passage from Frost:

"My time has passed as if I didn't want it. I didn't want it. Sickness is a consequence of my lack of interest in my time, lack of interest, lack of productivity, lack of pleasure. Sickness appeared where there wasn't anything else . . sometimes I jumped out of bed, and slowly I saw all thought become impossible, worthless, everything successively, logically, became pointless and meaningless . . . And I discovered that my surroundings didn't want to be explained by me."

Lovely, in its own strange way.

An interview with Bernhard is linked to here. A review of Frost here. I can't say whether the review is any good, because I didn't bother to read it.

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