Show Hide image

Thomas Bernhard’s fiction of the meaningless

His work was powered by bile and dread, but the Austrian novelist found laughter in the dark.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

I first encountered Thomas Bernhard in a university Waterstones in 1997, when I picked up a book because of its cool, doomy cover and intriguing title: The Voice Imitator. It fell open to a very short story called “Hotel Waldhaus”:

We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them. 

I’d never heard a voice like this (and you do hear Bernhard as much as read him; he’s all about voice). I wanted more, and there was more: 16 novels and novellas, short stories, poetry, more than 20 plays and five compelling volumes of memoir.

Bernhard was born in the Netherlands in 1931, where his Austrian mother, pregnant after being raped, had moved to have the baby. Other than a brief spell in Germany in the mid-1930s, Bernhard spent the rest of his life in Austria, a country for which his mingled love and hatred became “the key to everything I write”. Austria loved and hated him, too; he won some of the country’s most significant literary prizes, and his plays were performed in its national theatre, but his constant excoriation of its Nazi legacy, something many Austrians wanted desperately to forget about, made him a divisive figure.

In 1989, following the deterioration of the lung disease that had afflicted him since his teens, he died by assisted suicide. Now, to mark the 30th anniversary of his death, Faber & Faber has reissued five of his novels from the 1980s: ConcreteWittgenstein’s NephewExtinction (all translated by David McLintock), Woodcutters (Sophie Wilkins), and The Loser (Jack Dawson).

In Concrete (1982), the narrator knowingly describes himself as “impelled by disgust rather than possessed by curiosity”, and Bernhard can seem like a writer who has foresworn curiosity in favour of bile. His narrators fill entire books with
unparagraphed torrents of prose that look intimidating, sometimes beginning with sentences hundreds of words long, but which prove immensely readable once you lock into their angular rhythms.

They seem furious at first, but these screeds against idiocy and hypocrisy gradually reveal themselves to be impelled not primarily by anger or misanthropy, but by doubt, fear, and a genuine regret that life should be as bleak and meaningless as this. Bernhard’s characters all face the horrifying paradox of an unasked-for life that can only be escaped by an even less wanted death. Indeed, he dwells so much on the awful varieties of death awaiting us all that you find yourself agreeing with the innkeeper in The Loser (1983) who considers a stroke, “a wonderful way to go. . . everybody wants to have a stroke, a fatal one”.

Throughout his career, Bernhard was compared to Beckett, Kafka and the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus among others, but while these names offer the newcomer useful handholds, reading Bernhard makes his singularity rapidly apparent. What’s most Beckettian or Kafkaesque about his writing is that it earns its own adjective, Bernhardian. For some, however, while Bernhard’s style might be distinct, his individual books are not. “All of Thomas Bernhard’s novels are the same,” a recent Irish Times article announced, “except that some of them are better than others.”

The pronounced similarities between the books make them vulnerable to such judgements: several begin with the suicide of a friend of the narrator, a narrator who is often in the final stages of lung disease and, as if outrunning death, expresses himself via onrushing, urgent, unbroken slabs of text. But like the rumours that circulated in the late 1960s about the walls, floors and ceilings of Bernhard’s Obernathal farmhouse being painted completely black, these judgements are inaccurate. They oversimplify what he put into his books, and underestimate what readers can get out of them.

From Yes (1978) onwards, the novels Bernhard wrote after he began publishing his memoirs are distinct from his earlier work. More autobiographical details appear, and his cosmopolitan, moneyed narrators occupy apartments in Rome or Madrid, or family estates in Upper Austria (Bernhard wasn’t of the gentry but he fetishised the trappings of Habsburg breeding). Most notably, these narrators tell their own stories, whereas Bernhard’s first four novels are acts of witness that echo the long childhood walks he took with his beloved grandfather, a frustrated author who ranted about life’s iniquity and the benefits of suicide.

In Frost (1963), for example, a medical student is dispatched to a remote village to monitor the mentally unstable painter Strauch, while in Gargoyles (1967) a young man accompanies his father on his medical rounds through a rural landscape more like a haunted fairy tale than 1960s Austria. In Correction (1975) an academic attempts  to piece together the abandoned work of a Wittgenstein-like philosopher, Roithamer: he has died by suicide following his sister’s death after she moved into the Cone, a structure of inhuman perfection he built for her in the precise centre of a vast forest.

The existential question stalking Correction’s labyrinthine sentences is whether the narrator will survive the process of “sifting and sorting” Roithamer’s notes, or enact the philosopher’s conclusion: that life is an error, and suicide its logical correction. Roithamer hanged himself before carrying out his plan of burning his notes, but Bernhard’s other works are full of destroyed, abandoned and unwritten projects: paintings, novels, theses, a “major work of impeccable scholarship” on Mendelssohn, another on Glenn Gould. Like the lives devoted to them, these works are futile and bound for extinction.

Correction might be Bernhard’s most important novel. But whereas most of his work paces restlessly between comedy and tragedy (“Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” asks the title of a 1967 short story), Correction’s intensity leaves much less room for humour than is found in, say, Woodcutters (1984), Bernhard’s venomous assault on the artistic set he associated with in 1950s Vienna. (The novel was so ill-disguised that it was briefly banned pending a lawsuit, with the scandal making it by far his bestselling book.) Yet laughter can be hauled from even the blackest pits of Bernhard’s excavations, as when Roithamer describes the despair life inflicts on humanity generally, and his family in particular: “They throw themselves down a rock cleft, or off a bridge railing, or they shoot themselves, like my uncle, or they hang themselves, like my other uncle, or they throw themselves in front of a train, like my third uncle.”

Even the structure of Bernhard’s novels, which tend to have an extremely lopsided ratio of action to text, can be comedic. In The Loser, the narrator takes 114 pages to walk through the door of an inn. In Woodcutters, the narrator sits brooding in a chair until page 98. Rather than describe these actions in great detail, Bernhard uses them almost as repeated licks or rest stops in a piece of music: the unexpected frequency of the refrain “I thought, entering the inn” first disrupts the flow of the text, then becomes absurdly funny, then largely ceases to register as the reading experience becomes frictionless. Entering Bernhard’s flow state is something like being colonised by a voice: does he put us in his characters’ heads, or does he put them in ours?

***

In 1988, Jörg Haider, then chairman of the far-right Freedom Party, called for Bernhard’s expulsion from Vienna when his play Heldenplatz was staged to mark the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss (sample line: “All Austrians are Nazis”). This play was the final thrust in Bernhard’s relentless attack on the National Socialism he saw pervading Austria, “a country that’s disfigured, degenerate, and done for”. In her biography of Bernhard, Gitta Honegger notes that a decade after his death, audiences attending a Berlin revival of one of his plays found it politically quaint, but in 2019 the attention he pays to fascism’s persistence feels anything but.

His work charts its survival and growth, from Frost, in which Strauch calls the war “an inexpungible inheritance” and pine needle-covered skeletons and shells litter the forests, to his memoir Gathering Evidence (1982), where Bernhard identifies Catholicism as the continuation of Nazism by other means. It memorably describes how, at the war’s end, the portrait of Hitler hanging in his school was swapped for a crucifix.

In Extinction (1986), Bernhard’s extraordinary final novel (he delayed its publication for several years to ensure it would be his last book), Franz-Josef Murau, narrator and unwilling heir to the grand estate of Wolfsegg, buries his parents and brother in the company of corrupt church officials and two Nazi Gauleiters, who, in contrast to the part-buried relics described in Frost 20 years earlier, feel empowered to display their Nazi medals and parade amid the Austrian elite. With Wolfsegg standing for Austria, Franz-Josef’s final act in the novel is an attempt to annihilate his nation. This is what Bernhard chose to be his final statement as a novelist.

While Extinction is political and operatic, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), a semi-autobiographical account of his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s first cousin once removed), has the intimacy of a chamber piece. Here he describes what happened when Paul, who was regularly committed to psychiatric hospitals, would appear unexpectedly at his farmhouse:

… if the weather was mild, he would sit alone in the yard with his eyes closed, listening to the records I played on the first floor, from which the sound carried perfectly through the wide-open widows. Some Mozart, please, he would say. Some Strauss, please. Some Beethoven, please. I knew what records to play in order to put him into the right frame of mind. We would listen to Mozart and Beethoven together for hours, without saying a word. This was something we both loved. The day would end with a light supper prepared by me, after which I would drive him home. I shall never forget those wordless musical evenings I spent with him.

***

The last novel Bernhard wrote, Old Masters (1985), was composed in the wake of Hedwig Stavianicek’s death. This woman, nearly 40 years Bernhard’s senior, with whom he sometimes lived and who was at one point perhaps his lover (he had a handful of affairs with older women and possibly at least one man, but appeared to be celibate for much of his life), supported him financially as a young man, and emotionally for much longer. Bernhard typically exasperated interviewers with evasive or nonsensical replies, but when asked in 1979 what Stavianicek meant to him he answered with uncharacteristic candour: “She has without a doubt been the most important person in my life since I was 19.” When the bereaved music critic Reger discusses his wife’s death in Old Masters, his words are arrestingly simple: “I sat there, giving my tears free rein, and I wept and wept and wept and wept.”

These tender moments, however, don’t  uncover the “real” Bernhard. They are sincere and powerful, but his body of work remains one in which hope is categorically absent; there is no failing better in his universe, only failing, and everything in life, as he once pointed out in an acceptance speech, is “absurd, when one thinks about death”.

Two days before his own death, reeling from the ferocious response to Heldenplatz, Bernhard performed one last coup, altering his will to stipulate that no work of his could be “produced, printed or even just recited” in Austria for 70 years. The ban didn’t hold, but that his plan went awry would not have surprised the man who wrote “all we have ever achieved is an approximation, a near miss”. Most probably he would have laughed. 

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning