Saturday, October 27, 2007

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters

There is a very astute observation by Mark Anderson on the back cover of Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters. He says, "One can write continuously and still have a writing block, just as one live with the ongoing thought of one's imminent death - and laugh at it." This is a very revealing way to look at what would look like Thomas Bernhard's idee fixe - his constant and never ending fixation with a small set of subjects (madness, isolation, suicide, why is Austria hell on earth etc.) and his one track style. Like all of his other books this book is also one unbroken monologue. The occasion is an "artistic dinner" being held to honour an actor who has recently performed in a Burgtheatre production of Ibsen's "The Wild Duck." The narrator is a Bernhard-like figure who has returned to Vienna after spending 20 years in London. Now much to his regret he finds himself accepting a dinner invitation from his erstwhile friends and mentors - the Auesberger couple, with whom he is now bitterly estranged. Auesberger was a music composer of some talent ("a successor of Webern", "Novalis of sounds," the narrator calls him) but has allowed his talent to be dissipated through alcoholism, social climbing and celebrity mongering.

He reserves similar vitriol for two of the female guests to the dinner too. One of them, Jeannie Billroth, sees herself as "the Virginia Woolf of Vienna" while she actually is, according to the narrator, "an unscrupulous, petit bourgeois hypocrite of the most dreadful kind." Things get a little messy when the narrator reveals that he once had an affair with her twenty years ago when he was a struggling young writer himself. There is also another female writer, this time it is "Austrian Gertrude Stein or an Austrian Mariane Moore." All of his invectives against these artist figures have one common theme - how state patronage of arts and literature makes artists and writers compromise and betray their ideals and promises in order to ingratiate themselves with the state so that they can win honours and prizes. (Wittgenstein's Nephew also has some really nasty comments about state prizes and honours as it is practiced in Austria.) As he is thinking about all this he is also regretting and criticising himself for accepting such an invitation. As it happens, one of their mutual friends just committed suicide and they went to her funeral that very morning and he sees his acceptance of the invitation as an act mired in hypocrisy and sentimentality. The narrator also moves back and forth in time and reveals his own complicated relationship with the deceased, which takes up major portion of the book.

All this while the narrator has been sitting in the wing chair and observing the guests waiting for the Burgtheatre actor to arrive. Once he arrives the scene changes to the dining room chair (though the monologue continues unbroken) and the actor takes over from the narrator. He goes on and on about how hard it is to play the Ekdal character and related trials and tribulations of being an actor. The narrative now switches to a reported monologue where the narrator reports what the actor is saying, laced with his own dismissive comments. Though as the party progresses late into the night the narrator's view of the actor changes too. Under the influence of alcohol perhaps the actor himself launches a similar vitriolic attack on his hosts and the Viennese Virginia Woolf, and at that time the narrator suddenly realizes that he is not as idiotic and hopeless as he seemed initially, specially when he utters the words, "The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter - that has always been my ideal," the narrator realizes that he has witnessed something important and he must set it down on paper at once (which is what we have been reading actually). The book ends with these lines:

"And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late."

I was expecting some more explicit discussion of Ibsen and in particular "The Wild Duck" because the play covers a lot of similar ground in terms of subject too but Bernhard never goes into it. Though he does make it clear that nobody in the party has any idea about what the play is about and actor's soliloquy about the problems of playing Ekdal and Gregers wouldn't have made any sense to most of them. In the end it is still a great work of social satire and criticism, in the same vein as Ibsen. It also offers a very penetrating glimpse at the Austrian cultural establishment, in particular the institution of Burgtheatre. Though it is very specific to Austria, most of it applies to any place with a similar system of official patronage and rewards.


KUBLA KHAN said...

This novel is definitely one of Bernhard's best. as you have quoted,"The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter - that has always been my ideal,......
throughout his works, there is an attempt to live in isolation, in professions that seem anti intellectual, for eg cutting timber. you will find similar refrain in gargoyles.
it is almost a mystical insistence on perhaps understanding or tackling life. in ages gone by, shepherds held the exclusive rights to everything.
one must try to understand why bernhards's narration is consistently anti intellectual, even anti proletarian, anti bourgeious.the narrators are usually anti socialist, anti state, but now they want a peace that comes out of renouncing things, including life or desire.

just a few thoughts. well written post.

antonia said...

what he is doing is not explicit discussion if the wildduck, but an implicit one and it is truly a great one, all this criticism of the actors and so on. it is an implict discussion for it deals with lifelies, the wildduck, and what bernhard does in wildcutters is severely dissecting the lifelies of all the people who join that dinner. I think it is very close to Ibsen, but indirectly, very subtly so. And how he has this moment in which the artist becomes "bright" and says these woodcutterthings, this is truly greatly described and in some sense wonderful Ibsian.

Alok said...

kubla: yes, a relentless negation of everything is what is consistent in his writings. It is as if he means to say that you can survive only by saying NO to everything and defining oneself only in opposition to everything else.

antonia: I was actually thinking about it. Obviously he didn't choose the play just at random and there were indeed lines of continuity between the play and the novel. I was thinking perhaps in the end the narrator will think about his role as the destroyer of "life-lies" of people and may be think about what happens in the play with the Gregers character. Also the transformation of the Actor character from a pompous airhead to a melancholy philosophizer derived a lot from Ibsen too. I was thinking may be he will muse about and say something about his feelings for the characters and the events in the play too. But you are right, it is subtle. It is left for the reader to discover the connections and think about them.

I now also remember there is a dialogue in the play somewhere about "the revenge of the forests".. I don't remember exactly and I didn't really understand when i read it first which was quite a while back. Now i am thinking if that woodcutters quote is also a direct reference to Ibsen..