Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thomas Bernhard Review in the Harper's

There is a very entertaining review written by Ben Marcus of Thomas Bernhard's novel Frost, which has recently been published in English, in this month's (November) Harper's magazine. Sadly the review is not online. It is also a very nice introduction to his work as a whole, though I think Marcus emphasises his negativity a little more than his unique style and voice and as a result it may drive away some of the potential but soft-hearted readers of Thomas Bernhard. Here is the opening paragraph of the review (I was thinking of copying the entire essay but it is too long, may be I will):

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Not content with the limitations of his own mortality, Bernhard darkened his will with the dictum that his works could not be published or performed in Austria after his death, as if to suggest that his homeland was not even worthy to bathe in his hatred.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 humour 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 the 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 the 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 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 favour 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 towards 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.


Update: Few more excerpts from the review

A comparison between Sebald and Bernhard...

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 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 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 and 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 witness the characters' wounds firsthand.

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 worried his would for too long, the relentlessness of the wrath quickly becomes numbing and theatrical. It strangely loses its conviction.


And since I complained about his emphasis on negativity, I should add this para too where he explains why Bernhard is "uplifting and revelatory" (his focus is still on the content though):

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 face but to climb directly into 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."

10 comments:

Antonia said...

I agree with you,alok,too much emphasis of the negativitiy...and Musil wasn't so innocent either...that he hasn't shown his disgust with some things outright like Bernhard doesn't mean he is not 'spleeny'....not so convinced somehow by this review, also the connection to Cioran....you are right, he is being described as too negative and also this Nestbeschmutzterthing, as if Bernhard has had no reason to act like that and should rather take all the shit, instead he says: I don't care what you do as long as you don't perform my stuff everything is fine. As if the cultureindustry is something holy and evil Bernhard protests against the cultural status quo were completely unjustified which they weren't. Still aren't. As if he was bitchy without reason...

Alok said...

Yes, I agree with you. Also in the whole review he is fixated upon "what" he says, but very less on "how" he says what he says, which is I think more important. Bernhard is able to give a voice to those extreme mental states of despair and rage which is so refreshing and energizing. He is a rebel in true sense. When I read him initially I found him a little depressing but now his prose energizes me like no other writer's does.

I have got his Frost too. Will start soon.

Alok said...

I have added a couple more paragraphs from the review.

Antonia said...

yes exactly, Bernhard has this carthatical element which wakes one up and this guy totally neglects this, this grim cheerful liveliness...and like you say, Bernhard gives these states a voice which is what it is about,giving things a voice, bringing them into the world, so that they can be less a burden and this guy describes him as if he is suffocating his readers in pessimism.
Frost I haven't read, but am sure you will write about it here?

Alok said...

yeah, will try to put down something here :)

Antonia said...

am sure you would, alok :)

bloggerhead said...

Can i ask you something? Do you only write like this or are you like this in person as well:)

Alok said...

Er, What do you mean? :)

I am not even remotely in the league of Thomas Berhnard or his characters, but generally speaking, I do find morbid and dark sides of human existence more attractive. To me, the concept of joie de vivre is just that, a concept, and a concept which I don't understand at all...

Anonymous said...

Any chance you could post the whole thing? Pleeease!

Alok said...

I don't have access to the magazine now. It wasn't anything special really but if you want it you will have to locate the Nov 2006 copy of Harpers magazine.