Friday, September 28, 2007

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

George Steiner in his introduction to Thomas Bernhard's Correction complains that in his later writings Bernhard succumbed to "a monotone of hate (hate for Austria, for modern man, for the soiled materiality of being)." I think it is a very accurate description for Extinction (and indeed most of his other work too) which was the last novel he published before he died in 1989. A monotone of hate is a good phrase and even though Steiner uses it (slightly) disapprovingly I don't understand why it must be so. A novel by its very nature need not always be polyphonic. Also negation in itself doesn't mean nihilism. Hate and negation are ways of affirmation too. Specially after all the horrors of the twentieth century, what we need is negation, a relentless negation, unmitigated by any sentimentality or respect for conventions. This is reason why the affirmation of values as practiced by the conventional novel often feels completely anachronistic and sentimental, even when the writing itself is accomplished. (This is even more so after you have just finished a Thomas Bernhard novel.) I don't think there is a greater exponent of this type of literature, a literature of negation, than Thomas Bernhard along with perhaps Samuel Beckett (though I have so far been unable to really get into his novels).

Neither the content nor the style of Extinction will be unfamiliar to the reader of other Bernhard novels. It is also written in the form of a reported monologue. In this case the narrator is a professor of German named Murau who lives in Rome in a self-imposed exile from Austria. The whole novel of around 350 pages is basically just two unbroken and unparagraphed monologues. All told by Murau to his student Gambetti. So every utterance is followed by "I told Gambetti". Sometimes he just thinks so in that case it is "I thought" or "I told myself." Only in the first and the last sentence of the book we realize that Murau's monologue itself is being reported by a third person. (That's also where we learn his name.) There is also a small twist that we come to know only in the end. Murau reveals that he is suffering from some fatal heart ailment and only in the last sentence the third person narrator who is reporting Murau's monologue informs that he died on such and such date. In this sense the whole monologue itself feels like a negation of the ultimate negation (death). (Negation of the negation, I am told, is a Hegelian phrase by the way.) There is also another element of self-reflexivity in the narration. At couple of places Murau says that he wants to write a book which will "extinguish" everything that he writes about and will name it "Extinction." In that sense the book is about his own extinction.

So what is his monologue all about? Difficult to summarise here. It all starts with the telegram he receives informing him of the death in car accident of his parents and elder brother. But with Bernhard and his unrelenting negation, this is no occasion of sentimentality and sadness. Murau uses it as a pretext for launching his diatribe against his family, the life in the country estate, which to him meant slow spiritual death, the philstinism, smugness, shallowness and hypocrisy that forced him to flee that place which he says saved his life. His family of course is treated as a typical Austrian species so his invective is directed against the whole of Austria too at the same time. His two remaining sisters Caecilia and Amalia get a good dose of invective too. There are a few figures he admires however. His uncle Georg who, like him, fled from the country estate. Then there is a poet friend named Maria (based on Ingeborg Bachmann) who he says is the greatest poet of Austria and who like him lives in self-imposed exile in Rome. There is a roman-catholic bishop who is having an affair with his mother, or so he thinks. Murau is divided about him. He grudgingly admires him at a few places but otherwise mocks him too. In general he uses "catholic" as a term of abuse. For example "Austria is a catholic country" means it is quite bad. He often uses it in conjunction with "national socialist."

The book is of course full of hilarious rants. You won't know when he has left one topic and moved to another, everything told in as exaggerated a manner as possible ("Goethe is the foremost intellectual quack of Germany," he says at one place). He himself comments on his own style:

"I've always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise. I've cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of. I know of none greater. No one has carried the art of exaggeration to such extremes, I told Gambetti, and if I were suddenly asked to say what I really was, secretly, I'd have to say that I was the greatest artist I knew in the field of exaggeration."

Of course one can't say if he is exaggerating here too!

In short it is an absolutely fantastic book. If you are not familiar this is probably the best book to start reading him. If you are already familiar with his work, you will no doubt agree about the addictiveness of his style. I have so far read The Loser, Wittgenstein's Nephew, Old Masters, Frost and half of Correction. This is by far my favourite of all. The Loser is very bleak and Old Masters is the funniest, this book has both in a good balance. I will probably copy a few excerpts from the book sometime later. For now a sample excerpt -- the gaping void. (Again it is the negation of the idea of retrievability of past common in so much of nostalgic and sentimental literature.)


antonia said...

i love the book too and i dont have anything to add except there is one other one that deals with Bachmann and that is his "Ja" - no clue whether it is translated. I think you might like "Woodcutters" as well.

Alok said...

i have asked the library for woodcutters as well. will read that soon when it is available.

Ja is translated as Yes in English. I think all of his novels are translated now, they are just a little difficult to get because not all of them are published by corporate publishers.

Alok said...

there is also a hilarious comment in Old Masters. In the middle of his tirade against Heidegger, Reger says that he can't understand why a lady friend of his who is otherwise extremely intelligent and a great poet wrote her thesis on him!

in this novel also Maria agrees to participate in poetry discussion only when they agree not to talk about Heidegger. it is really funny.

KUBLA KHAN said...

i will endorse what you feel about this book. regarding Yes, i have it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
there is a reference to Bachmann, as antonia has mentioned.

i think far from hate, Bernhard actually loves his country and the very things he demolishes. in psychological defense mechanisms, as i discussed this once with a friend, this hate or rant is called possibly reaction formation, behaving in opposite to what you actually feel.
these destructive monologues serve the purpose of reminding the interested reader of perhaps seeing the comic side to a serious thing.
i might be totally wrong.

KUBLA KHAN said...

i have written a post on Yes in my blog.

Antonia said...

Bachmann said about her thesis that she wanted to defeat Heidegger, sort of prove him wrong, you know this youthful eager thing, you are wrong and here is why. She was 23 when she wrote it. What she does in her thesis is to compare lots of critical reactions of different philosophical schools on Heidegger and points out quite some one or two problems in Heidegger's philosophy. It is a bit outdated by now, but gives a good summary and is nicely written.

antonia said...

oh yes that is true, Kubla, i can remember your post.

Alok said...

kubla: Love or hate can be debated but one thing is sure he is obsessed with Austria. Somebody said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. and whatever it is what he feels for austria, it is anything but indifference.

what struck me is this attempt to justify or make excuses for him and his books because his books are full of hatred for everything. this sentimental need for shallow affirmation, which people look for in books and when they don't find it they find justifications or criticise it.

I have read your post on Yes. I have subscribed to your blog and read it regularly. I don't comment always because i have nothing substantial to add to the post.

antonia: i have read about her work on heidegger in some of the articles and book reviews about here but don't know much. I won't understand it either if I find it anywhere. I am still struggling with what "being" means :)

Cheshire Cat said...

350 pages seems rather long for a Bernhard novel. But if you actually think it's better than "The Loser", it's certainly worth a try.

I think Walser is a far better example of the literature of negation than Bernhard. Bernhard's is a potent rage, while Walser's work manifests a being that is utterly convinced of its own powerlessness and is reduced simply to a voice.

Alok said...

actually it is hard to say with him because his books are so similar. And even though it is longer I found it a little easier to read than the loser.

I think this awareness of futility that you talk of is there in Bernhard too. In fact it is made explicit in Extinction. All of his monologues are spoken in the shadow of a certain death, and in most cases the monologues are reported after the death of the narrator, after the voice is already "extinct."

Kafka is also a negation specialist. More obviously in his diaries and aphorisms but also in his fiction. plus most of modern continental philosophy in so far as I understand revolves around negation, following Nietzsche the original precursor.

Cheshire Cat said...

I just think one should distinguish degrees of negation. Bernhard is really closer to someone like Swift than to modernists like Kafka, Walser or Beckett. Kafka is a better example, but his fictions have too exquisite a logic - his writing is often about negation, but does not manifest it. I tend to think more of writers like Walser, Blanchot and (of course) Beckett, the very form of whose fictions are saturated with negation.

Alok said...

Yes I agree. The negation in Beckett for example is the negation of writing and the negation of language itself. He seems unwilling to complete even a sentence. Some of his later plays contain more grunts and groans than full scale dialogues or speeches. I am not familiar with Blanchot at all but keep coming across him at so many places.

Also agree with the Swift connection. May be that's why I like Bernhard more. Gulliver's Travels is perhaps my favourite english language novel, certainly of all the "pre-modern" writers.

Cheshire Cat said...

I think you'd like "Death Sentence". I have "Aminadab" lying around somewhere but haven't read it, and "The One Who Was Standing Apart From Me" makes for rewarding reading. I haven't read any of the later work, which shades more and more into criticism, I believe. Blanchot presents more of a problem than other writers mentioned here because is more explicitly theoretical. Also unlike the other writers, he doesn't have much of a comic sense.

Alok said...

my library here doesnt have anything by Blanchot. Will keep him on radar anyway.