Friday, November 10, 2006

Thomas Bernhard on Russian Literature

I was going through this list, rather ridiculously titled "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die", and I just thought of finding out how many I had already read. Thank God before that, I did a random search and found out that it didn't have anything by Pushkin! No Onegin, just imagine! Then I searched for Lermontov and no results there too!

Anyway, idiocy apart, and speaking of Russian literature, Thomas Bernhard is a great fan of Russian literature too. This is from his autobiography Gathering Evidence. He is speaking about Dostoevsky's The Possessed (also translated as The Demons or The Devils)

Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. (335-36) from here

Specially noteworthy is the word "elemental". Indeed, what I like best about those nineteenth century Russian masters is that they don't use love or death as devices to move the plot forward but rather an end in itself. Plot works to explain what death means, rather than the other way, as would happen in regular novels.

Also this quote from The Loser:
All my tendencies are deadly ones, he once said to me, everything in me has a deadly tendency to it, it's in my genes, as Wertheimer said, I thought. He always read books that were obsessed with suicide, with disease and death, I thought while standing in the inn, books that described human misery, the hopeless, meaningless, senseless, world in which everything is always devastating and deadly. That's why he specially loved Dostoevsky and all his disciples, Russian literature in general, because it actually is a deadly literature, but also the depressing French philosophers [I think he means Pascal here].

The book that I get reminded of most while reading Bernhard is Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Only thing is that in Bernhard there is no, or very little, social, political and philosophical context. The narrators in Bernhard are similar to the underground man, only that we never get to know why the narrators became the way they are. Not that I think Bernhard is even trying to do the same thing, that is engage in socio-philosophical criticism, but it does take away some of the effect. In the end, in Bernhard, it remains just a portrait of a disintegrating mind, a mind going to pieces, and some interesting experiments with the language. In the end it really doesn't compare very favourably with Dostoevsky.


Cheshire Cat said...

Wow, that was quite a list! I didn't think that the list-maker was biased against Russian literature - a lot of Turgenevs and Dostoevskys on the list. The problem is that you are extraordinary well-read in that department :)

As for Bernhard vs Dotoyevsky, Bernhard's novels are comic masterpieces; I wonder if even Dostoyevsky's most ardent devotee would make that claim for him.

Alok said...

Actually Dostoevsky is quite funny too. Some people claim to have laughed when the underground man starts with, "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man." And have you seen Woody Allen's Love and Death? He parodies the "I could not even become an insect" from the book and you have to see it if you haven't... His parody, I think, is not too far from the real russian novels :)

Actually people find Kafka, Beckett and Kierkegaard funny too, I am sure you belong to one of those :)

As for me, I sympathise with madmen and melacholic people, and their rants, antics and ironic quips often leave me sad with an understanding, even when I laugh in the beginning.

And that list is strange. I had a look at it once more. They have Turgenev's King Lear of the Steppe, which I didn't know existed! And they have minor figures like Leskov and Goncharov, both of whom I have not read yet and then they don't have anything by Chekhov!!!

Cheshire Cat said...

I think the focus in the list is on novels. Maybe that's why Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" and Chekhov's plays and short stories don't find mention. In any case, the list doesn't claim to be exhaustive, surely there are more than 1001 must-read books :)

Alok said...

yes that must be it but then they should have changed the title to 1001 "novels".

i dont see any poets either. byron, keats, shelley nobody is there.

Vidya said...

How disappointing,and I thought I could catch up on my reading after I die :)

I think this guy is on the dot in his description of Dostoevsky. It does have this effect on people.It is almost like it puts you aboard a time-warped blackhole like bubble that draws you in, completely sealed from the times you live in..It almost gives me a culture shock to even step out of these books and end up seeing different landscapes and mindscapes around me..

Alok said...

I agree, it has the same on me too. I read somewhere a line which said that Russian literature is the literature of extremes, which is I think very apt. after you have encountered the madmen, fantatics and the romantics of russian novels, characters in regular novels look so naive, simple and boring!