Whining into the Void

This year, Faber is reissuing five novels by Thomas Bernhard, who rose to fame as a thorn in the side of the Austrian establishment, though he comes down to us as “Austria’s finest postwar writer”, in the words of Gabriel Josipovici. The first two of these reissues, Concrete (1982) and Extinction (1986), were released in March, with beautiful abstract watercolour covers by Leanne Shapton. The latter, with its exponential curve, looks as if it might represent a Malthusian catastrophe, or perhaps, with its meaty pinkness shading into green, a sliver of prosciutto on the turn; the former is a diffusion of blue paint, its almost iridescent quality promising something rather more colourful than concrete.

The two books come with afterwords by Geoff Dyer and Michael Hofmann respectively, as well as starry-eyed endorsements including the New York Times’s claim that Bernhard’s novels are “the most significant literary achievement since WWII”. And yet even his fans are quick to issue caveats. John Updike commented on the “hostility” of Bernhard’s walls of unparagraphed text; Dyer calls his work “fundamentally unapproachable” but finds that readers nonetheless end up dragged out to sea in “the implacable riptide of Bernhardian woe”. Hofmann writes that you can’t really prepare for “Bernhard’s machined vehemence, though once you’ve read one, you perhaps start to crave the bitter taste and the savage not-quite-humour”.

It is impossible to understand the Bernhardian landscape without knowing something of his life. Born in Amsterdam to a single mother, he was moved at a young age to Salzburg, where he was placed in a Nazi home for boys. After the war, the home rebranded itself as a Roman Catholic institution. “Fundamentally”, Bernhard writes in his memoir, Gathering Evidence, “there was no difference between the National Socialist System and the Catholic system. Everything simply had a different veneer and a different name, but in the end the effect was the same.” He had ambitions to be a singer, but he caught a lung infection while unloading potatoes from a cart in the snow at the age of seventeen, and never fully recovered.

And so Bernhard’s narrators are about as happy-go-lucky as Arthur Schopenhauer; indeed, a character from his second novel, Gargoyles, actually eats pages from The World as Will and Representation. They excoriate Austria for its collaborationism and refuse to take part in society. They also declare that they must be heard even when they aren’t sure what to say. They find themselves lost in the petty shallows of everyday consciousness. They are the nephews of Franz Kafka and Knut Hamsun, the grandchildren of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, with whom there are many parallels. Liberated from work by an inheritance, the archetypal Bernhardian narrator makes an art of his own idleness; rather than draw one sure line, he sketches over the same point repeatedly; he turns out aphorisms as provocations; he blames others for his own inability to foster relationships.

Concrete, the shorter and earlier of the two novels reissued this spring, charts the narrator Rudolf’s procrastinations as he prepares to begin writing a book about “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. Almost everyone remarks on the musicality of Bernhard’s style: he deals in the subtle weaving of phrases and motifs and repetitions (though it’s worth saying that there’s little to be gained by studying his superstructures). Never, for example, do we hear the German composer referred to as “Felix Mendelssohn”, nor as “Mendelssohn” – only ever “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. The phrase, repeated over and over, begins to take on the power of an incantation.

Paralysed by his aspirations and the weight of his research, Rudolf vituperates his sister for preventing him from beginning, but, having decided to get away from the family home to write in Mallorca, realizes that he can’t write there, either. The most fruitful of these procrastinations turns out to be Concrete itself. It is a novel of yearning, of distraction, of falling short. We learn that Rudolf is stuck after ten years on the first sentence, just like Joseph Grand in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague – and little wonder, since the first sentence of Rudolf’s notes is a twelve-line knot of clauses and qualifications.

If the Rudolf of the earlier novel sometimes has a fogeyish bluster, Franz Josef Murau, the narrator of Bernhard’s last novel, Extinction, is a pure-bred misanthrope. Condescending, supercilious, misogynistic, hypocritical, this Ancient Mariner won’t let you go until he has told you everything he can’t stand about his childhood. He berates Austria for its enthusiastic embrace of Nazism and Catholicism, but he sees no problem with living in Rome; he says he is an intellectual but all he does is bitch and gossip. He detests the tasteless, the depraved, the petit-bourgeois, architects, builders, doctors, the obese, animals and writers, especially those who write what he calls “binder literature”: the literature of bureaucrats.

The novel begins with a telegram informing Murau of the death of his parents and brother, leaving him, the prodigal son, as heir of the family estate at Wolfsegg. In the book’s extended metaphor, Wolfsegg is Austria; Murau’s childhood playroom there, the site of his fondest memories, was squatted by Nazis during the war; and the estate’s huntsmen stand in for the country’s military. For half the novel, Murau sits looking at three photographs – of his parents, of his sisters, and of his brother – turning over the reasons why he dislikes them. In the second half, he goes back to Wolfsegg to dislike the surviving sisters in person and to take possession of the estate.

Murau is not likeable; he’s barely bearable. There is something adolescent about his invocation of the intelligentsia (Wolfsegg doesn’t just have a library, it has five) and his name-dropping of famous hotels. The biggest problem is his relative lack of irony compared to a narrator like Rudolf, whose bile is offset by his sheepish awareness of his own weakness and anxiety, his concession that his sister wants what is best for him, his occasional admission of fault. Rudolf is his own worst enemy, where Murau is simply cruel and unreasonable. George Steiner wrote that “too often, notably in his later writings, Bernhard succumbed to a monotone of hate”, and Extinction has all the tonal variation of a fridge. Or to put it more politely, this may not be entry-level Bernhard.

That said, there is something strikingly modern, even prescient, about the targets of Bernhard’s trollish excess. Take Rudolf’s excoriation of dogs and dog owners in Concrete, for instance: “I’ve always hated dogs. . . . Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. . . . The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul”. Or Murau’s apoplexy over photography: “Everybody wants to appear happy, never unhappy, to project a falsified image, never a true image of the unhappy person he is. . . . It never strikes them how appallingly they compromise themselves”. He later clarifies that since the invention of photography “the mental condition of the human race has been in permanent decline”. It seems fair to assume that he would have judged the Europe of 2019 extremely cursed.

I suspect much else is forgiven if you find him funny. Dyer claims Bernhard has written “the funniest passage in the whole of literature”, though perhaps Murau has taught him to exaggerate (“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”). The humour of distortion to absurdity or grotesque is funny if you don’t secretly suspect that he means it. But as Bernhard put it in an interview in 1981, “I need not invent anything. Reality is far worse”. By his last novel, Bernhard appears animated by the sincere belief that there is no future, and the world he paints is fundamentally hostile and degenerate. “The only advice I can offer to any thinking person is to kill himself before the millennium. . . . That’s my genuine conviction”, offers Murau towards the end of Extinction. Thomas Bernhard died by assisted suicide in 1989, after years of deteriorating health; the rest of us had the stupidity to outlive him.

 

This review was first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of the Brixton Review of Books. You can get four issues for £10 here.

Q&A (with spoilers…)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

***Spoilers ahead***

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

 

First published on Cheryl M-M’s blog.