Maybe you’ve seen them, stranded in shoals of the fiction section in some out-of-the-way used bookstore: the black-clad members of the cult of Thomas Bernhard. Incurably bookish, ninety percent male, they hand you well-thumbed copies of The Loser and The Lime Works and stare fixedly into your eyes.
“Bleak stuff,” they say, “but then again, what is life but one long bleak expanse in which all human experience is ground down, endlessly ground down by bleakness and incurable human stupidity?”
They stuff his novels into your jacket pocket with furtive hands that smell of strong coffee and tobacco.
“Don’t worry,” they whisper. “It’s funny, if you can stand it.”
They say it like it’s a challenge.
I’m exaggerating, of course. We wouldn’t be experiencing such a flowering of Thomas Bernhard’s literary reputation if all his supporters were maladjusted young men malingering in coffee shops and contemplating the depths of human misery. But what is striking about even the most thoughtful and culturally astute admirers of Bernhard is that their praise often resembles the scenario I’ve mentioned above: an exhortation to read, read, read the mad Austrian, but always with a caveat: only if you dare.
Hence Claire Messud, recommending The Loser on National Public Radio, felt obligated to issue a warning: “you will not find it pleasant.” Thus Geoff Dyer, who has written exceptionally well about Bernhard, calling him “the funniest writer… also one of the most profound,” felt the need to add that “Bernhard is nothing if not interminable.”
Hello, I’d like to read the novel by Thomas Bernhard that was recently recommended me by the fellow from the Guardian. Yes, please: the interminable one.
But by far the most virulent example of this sort of behavior comes from the pen of Ben Marcus, in an essay he wrote for Harper’s in 2006. Although it’s more than half a decade old, it still serves quite well as a reference point for the current understanding of Bernhard, as well as a fascinating case study in what a certain kind of writer (or reader) takes away from Bernhard’s novels. Marcus writes:
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 humor 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 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.
Novel-writing as “blood sport?” Rhetorical negativity? Moaning and wailing? Not to mention the military word choice: “blasted,” “transmit,” “attacks.” This is the sort of language that would normally be used to send readers running for the hills, but Marcus makes a strength out of disgust and darkness, fashions it into a sort of badge of honor, a platonic ideal of negativity that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff. One gets the sense of a perverse sort of initiation into the pleasures of unpleasant fiction.
And yet, Bernhard is experiencing a flowering beyond what one would expect from a cult author. Consider the extensive reissue project undertaken by Vintage, culminating in the recent publication of Bernhard’s pseudo-memoir, Gathering Evidence, bundled with his satirical treatment of his own fame, My Prizes. Stroll through the B’s in the fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble – hurry, you might not have much time – and you’ll find a series of delightful paperbacks to catch your eye.
How did such an unpleasant author fashion such a stunning coup? Is it because he isn’t as unpleasant as everyone says he is? What if all this talk about the Bernhard’s “blood-sport” amounts to a colossal mis-reading of the entire canon, a mis-reading which says more about the readership than it does about Bernhard?
The first secret, shared only by the initiated, is that Bernhard is very funny.
Bernhard himself wrote a sort of self-mocking description of his particular brand of humor in his novel The Lime Works, placing the manifesto in the mouth of his antihero Konrad:
Whatever point a man like himself reached, arrived at, all he ever reached or arrived at was irritation, further irritation. But all of it was ultimately so comical, it’s all more comical than anything, which is why, he is supposed to have said, it is all quite bearable after all, because it is comical. All we have in this world is the very essence of comedy, and do what we will, we can’t escape from this comedy, for thousands of years men have tried to turn this comedy into tragedy, but their efforts had to fail, in the nature of things.
This from the mouth of a man who has subjected his wife to grotesque experiments and then shot her in the head with a shotgun. So yes, Marcus is partially right: gallows humor.
But not always gallows humor, and not always humor about the gallows. Sometimes the humor is about more quotidian stuff, like clothes. Consider this riff from The Loser, in which the protagonist Wertheimer ruminates on Tyrolian folk costume.
If she wanted to invite guests he wouldn’t allow it, said Franz, she also wasn’t permitted to dress the way she wanted, had always had to wear the clothes that he wanted to see on her, even during the coldest weather she was never allowed to put on her Tyrolian hat, for her brother hated Tyrolian hats and hated, as I also know, everything connected with Tyrolian folk costume, as of course he himself never wore anything that even vaguely recalled Tyrolian folk costume, thus here, in this region, he naturally always stood out, for here everybody always wears Tyrolian folk costume, above all clothes that are made from coarse loden wool, which is actually quite well suited for the quite dreadful climatic conditions in the lower Alps, I thought, he found Tyrolian folk costume, like anything that even reminded him of Tyrolian folk costume, deeply repugnant.
I would offer this as one of the funniest sentences in the history of European literature. It is also, no matter how you look at it, neither a keening wail of misery or a ruthless display of novel-writing as blood sport. It is representation of an author in fine and firm control of his ironic faculties, capable of resting a sentence on the keenest edge – the angle of absurd laughter.
I, for one, will never again hear the phrase “Tyrolian folk costume” without breaking out into hysterics.
Here’s more in the same vein: the following paragraph from Frost, cited in Marcus’ essay.
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers: a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street, you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundredfold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
What are streets, anyway? There are times, in the middle of his expertly modulated rants, when Bernhard resembles nothing so much as the most single-minded stand-up comedian you could ever imagine. What’s the deal with streets, anyway?
Having to get dressed! Glory at those exclamation points, let them tickle your eye. Having to eat breakfast!
Now, this is not to say that Bernhard is not bleak, not funny, not interminable (at times). I am only suggesting that in playing up certain sides of Bernhard his admirers are selling an image which is woefully incomplete, an image which neglects many of the sides which make a writer capable of masterpieces.
In fact, of all the sides of Bernhard which are routinely neglected, the humorous Bernhard sometimes gets the best treatment. Geoff Dyer, for instance, understands; understands so well, in fact, that there are beautiful humorous sections of his great pseudo-essay on D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, that seem as if they were pulled straight from The Loser. Even Marcus, in his Harper’s essay, admits to an appreciation of Bernhard’s “light comic relief.”
What seems always to be neglected, amongst this sea of praise for the author’s supposed hatred for all the things of this world, is what one might call the softer side of Bernhard: the side which incurable misanthropes, thinking they have found a brother with which to hurl rage and bile at the horrors of this world, might easily miss.
There is beauty in Thomas Bernhard, if you are willing to look for it, and sadness. Not despair, mind you, or aesthetic perfection; not intellectualization thereof, but the genuine article. There is even love, of a difficult kind, in the sense of love for a place in which you can no longer live, love for a homeland that has harmed you, and which you love deeply without ever quite forgiving.
Here, for example, is the unnamed narrator of Correction, writing about the way he and his friend took to school in the morning, through the Aurach river gorge.
Suddenly I no longer had to hold back anything. I said, putting off a little what I’d primarily meant to say, that my finest memory, and probably Hoeller’s as well, and Roithamer’s too, was my memory of our walks to school together… I could remember those thousands, hundreds of thousands of weather conditions on our walk to school, abrupt shifts in the weather, I felt them suddenly take place, transforming our way to school from one minute to the next and thereby transforming us inside from one minute to the next, and the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to the plain.
There is anger here, and bitterness, too, but there is another sort of emotional register on display, as well. It exists in that simple phrase which appears in the middle of the sentence: I felt them suddenly take place. It is this feeling that we need to concern ourselves with, as readers, to understand that Bernhard is capable of more than just wailing in rage and misery. It rests in a phrase like this one: the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to plain. This phrase – and many others like it in Correction, which deserves to be called Bernhard’s pastoral novel – displays a distinctly unfashionable but extremely important novelistic gift: the ability to set the reader firmly in the middle of an emotional state, an emotional state by which they cannot help but be deeply affected.
Sometimes this power rises softly, like that bit about the Aurach gorge. Other times it appears in the middle of a particularly vicious, sarcastic rant, and it feels like being in the eye of a tornado. It is, above all else, a distinctly pleasant feeling. After all, visceral linguistic sensation is one of the deepest pleasures afforded by fiction.
Bernhard is also capable of sadness. When I say sadness, I don’t mean the solitary, monomaniacal despair people often reference in regard to his obsessed narrators. I mean the sadness of humans in relation, in their inability to connect to each other.
Consider this section in The Lime Works, concerning Konrad and his wife:
At bottom it was nothing more than an infinitely sad story of a marriage, astounding, shocking if you chose, and yet it could just as well be regarded as almost laughably commonplace, even though it might seem strange, extraordinary, crazy to the superficial observer. But there was no use talking about it. The mitten: while watching her knit his mitten he asks himself: Why is she knitting that mitten, always the same one? but he also asks himself why, instead of continually working on that mitten, doesn’t she take time out to mend his socks, patch his shirts, his torn vest, all my clothes have big holes in them, everywhere, he said to himself, but she sits there knitting that mitten. Her own cap needs mending, so does her blouse, too, but not, she keeps working on that mitten. The lime works have been the finish of her, he thought, watching her work on that mitten.
Marcus claims the following about Bernhard: “His project is not to reference the known world, stufﬁng it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind — usually self-loathing, obsessive ones — and then set about destroying them.” But the truth of the matter is that self-loathing, obsessive narrators can also be round, can also live in the known world, can have wives and childhoods and pains. And what can be more obsessive and also more real than a husband watching his wife obsessively knitting and re-knitting a single mitten – a mitten he doesn’t even want – while the rest of their lives crumble about them? This is not grand despair; it is small and desperate sadness.
Hundreds of examples abound of these small, precise emotional details. Roithamer’s trip to the music festival in Correction, where he miraculously shoots twenty-four paper roses and then, in despair, gives them all away to a random girl. The bicycle ride in Gathering Evidence, where Bernhard describes the initial freedom and eventual despair of a young child escaping his town on two wheels, only to have the grand machine break down and strand him in unfamiliar territory.
Grand despair is a great hobbyhorse for the intellectual, precisely because it can be intellectualized away, or worse, traded in conversation for some obscure aesthetic satisfaction. Small sadness provides no such feeling of satisfaction. It gets under your skin, it works its way deeper. What makes Bernhard such a compelling writer is that he builds his vistas of grand despair from the tiniest building blocks, the most rote disappointments. His lofty edifices rest on the lowliest and most traditional of observations, and though they are painful and stifling constructions – like the Cone in Correction that Roithamer builds for his sister – they are all the more horrible for feeling real.
Any famous author undergoes a reduction in the public eye. To those who have yet to read them, David Foster Wallace is footnotes, Lydia Davis is neurotic brevity, Georges Perec is that guy who didn’t use the letter e. Our responsibility as champions of the writers we love is to overcome the reductive impulse and try to portray as best we can the immense complexities of the writers we love, to resist at all times the propensity to fit capacious literary work into the smallest possible box. What makes the literary reputation of Thomas Bernhard so strange is that his champions seem to be uninterested in presenting anything but one side to the public, even as they recommend him.
One could think of many hypotheses for this. Perhaps people want to keep Bernhard to themselves, for fear of his being co-opted by the masses; this hinges on the idea that a suicide-obsessed Austrian writer of incredibly long sentences and rampant repetition will go over like gangbusters with the American middlebrow reading public. Fat chance.
Maybe the fault rests in the slippery nature of humor; this is, after all, the same country that took a hundred years or so to get around to Melville’s ironic turn of phrase. Who’s to say that in a hundred years people won’t be crowning Bernhard as misunderstood comic genius? Except that a vast percentage of the people who love Bernhard now already get the humor; the problem is that, like Ben Marcus, they only see it as suicide’s humor, and so they shelve it in with despair.
The fault, it seems to me, is the idea of Bernhard: his perfection as a literary figure, as opposed to his existence as an actual creator of prose. Consider this the ideal recipe for a cult writer. Take the bleakest of all bleakness, mix in enough convoluted prose style to warn off the philistines, sprinkle with a dash of black humor, then put it in the oven until it has baked to perfection. Only perfection never arrives, as it never arrives for Bernhard’s characters – characters one suspects the man’s more faithful readers sometimes wish they could become. So the faithful reader never eats, which is no great loss, since eating would entail too much pleasure; the idea of eating it is aesthetic pleasure enough.
But you are interested in writers, I assume, not the images of writers, and so it is my responsibility as a lover of Thomas Bernhard to give you the roundest message I can muster: for those of you who may have been frightened away by the overwhelming anhedonia of his supporters, I say, do not be afraid. There is no initiation. You do not need, as Ben Marcus once said, half-jokingly, 355 years of schooling and the safety of a steel cage to read Thomas Bernhard. Please partake of the paperback feast which Vintage has now set before you. Despite all reports to the contrary, there is pleasure here.