With David Antin, Thomas Bernhard, Richard Burgin, Anne Burke, Carol De Chellis Hill, William Eastlake, James Joyce, Vicki Mahaffey, Mark Crispin Miller, Flann O'Brien, Mary E. Papke, Claude Simon, Jonathan Swift, John Taylor, Curtis White
Reading Thomas Bernhard
The voice of the late Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) is so outrageous that, despite the dark things it says, it often makes you laugh. The only other time you may feel that way is when reading one of the great novels of Céline, but there is something very different from Céline here. There’s an acute aesthetic devotion to the operations of memory and the lost world of the past that recalls Proust. There is also a relentless investigation of wounded consciousness in isolation evoked with a musical and radical use of form and language that recalls Beckett. (Each of Bernhard’s best novels, for example, Concrete, Old Masters, and Extinction, is written as a single monstrous paragraph.) Finally, there is an objective awareness of society and a contrarian attitude towards it that brings to mind Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger, and some of the novels of Emmanuel Bove.
While Bernhard is certainly sui generis, he is also part of a tradition of inspired twentieth-century monologists that includes, among others, the aforementioned Proust, Céline, Beckett, Sartre, Camus, and Bove. Each of these writers, in turn, drew upon the example of Dostoyevsky’s dark and masterful nineteenth-century monologue Notes From Underground—perhaps the work that most influenced both Bernhard and the course of twentieth-century fiction in general. From its outset with Dostoyevsky, the extended monologue has been both intellectually and emotionally subversive and steeped in both psychological and physical illness. Notes From Underground begins with Dostoyevsky’s protagonist announcing his sickness, and Rudolf, the narrator of Bernhard’s most exemplary novel, Concrete, proclaims in his first sentence "the third acute onset of my sarcoidosis." That’s but the first of many parallels between the two novellas. Both the Underground Man and Rudolf are middle-aged men living in isolation—simultaneously sick and hypochondriacal. Moreover, Dostoyevsky and Bernhard immediately reveal that their protagonists’ monologues come from actual documents they are writing which describe their own maladies, as well as those that plague mankind in general. In today’s parlance we would probably classify them as obsessive-compulsives whose confessions are written because of their inability to act decisively on other fronts. After ten years of research and planning, the musicologist Rudolf has been unable to write the first sentence of his study on the composer Mendelsson Bartholdy. Similarly, the Underground Man is unable to enact his long-planned revenge against either the officer or his colleagues who have humiliated him. This Hamlet-like paralysis that afflicts both of them eventually has more serious consequences when the Underground Man can’t act efficaciously on behalf of Liza, the prostitute who loved him, or when Rudolf doesn’t do more to help Anna Hardtl, who eventually commits suicide. Ironically, both the Underground Man and Rudolf are first-rate psychologists and intellectuals who understand themselves as well as other people. Their tragedy is the realization that understanding only rarely leads to change. Finally, Notes From Underground and Concrete each have two-part structures. In the first part the narrators reveal and analyze their own natures as well as their corrective visions of the world. In the second, they interact with the world and the reader learns how tragically difficult it is for them to translate their thoughts into action.
Of course, there are some important differences between the two monologists. While Rudolf lives a far more physically isolated existence in the country than the city-dwelling Underground Man, he is also more dominated by his family, in particular his sister, than the Underground Man who lives with no family ties at all. On the other hand, the Underground Man is far more dominated by his sexual drive; indeed, Rudolf is one of the most sexually disinterested men in contemporary fiction. One might also say that the Underground Man (like Dostoyevsky) has more of a philosophical cast of mind and Rudolf (like Bernhard, who was a professional musician before he was a writer) is more of an aesthete. Lastly, Rudolf is far more wealthy than the Underground Man, for whom poverty is a central problem, and has options and opportunities that simply aren’t available to the latter. Still, these books have so much in common that Concrete almost seems like a twentieth-century retelling of Notes from Underground. (I don’t think it’s insignificant that Rudolf reads aloud from The Gambler while at his country home at Peiskam and makes a point of taking Dostoyevsky with him to read on his trip to Palma.)
Given Bernhard’s debt to Dostoyevsky and other twentieth-century monologists, the question is: what is unique about Bernhard’s fictive universe? As is the case with almost every other first-rate writer, there is no single insight, theme, or stylistic device that can be culled from his work and identified as the main component of his uniqueness. Rather it’s in the totality of his vision that his originality shines forth, for it is Bernhard’s personality and view of things that is truly original and that can only be felt over time as one adapts and reacts to the power of his voice. Indeed, Bernhard’s narrative voice is so strong that to some degree it overpowers and collapses the differences between the protagonists of his different novels. At times one feels that his books are being narrated by the same man or perhaps by twin brothers. Thus Bernhard’s chief "weakness" as a writer is the result of his greatest strength—the uniqueness and power of his narrative voice. No matter the novel—The Loser, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Extinction, Old Masters, or Concrete—it’s the voice of an obsessive, barely controlled hysteric saying the darkest possible things (often in a funny way) about all aspects of Austrian society, particularly in Vienna, as well as about human nature in general. Bernhard uses the single novel-length paragraph as a way of representing his obsessives’ avalanche-like onslaught of consciousness. It’s as if Bernhard is determined to give us the truest possible visual image of his protagonists’ flow of thoughts regardless of the conventions of literature (such as paragraph breaks).
the core of his characters’ obsessive consciousnesses are the darkly
comic bursts of outrage comedian Dennis Miller calls (when using a
somewhat similar technique in his own monologues) "a rant." Bernhard’s
narrators flit from one rant to another whether the subject be people’s
excessive love for dogs, the deceit of the Catholic Church, or the
horrible condition of lavatories in Vienna. Here are some lines (the
rants often go on for pages) from Old Masters in which the music critic Reger rails against the all-pervasiveness of piped-in music:
While Bernhard has a valid point about the ubiquity of muzak and its deleterious effects, as objective social criticism it is clearly exaggerated to a wild and ultimately comic degree. Yet while virtually all Bernhard’s rants are "exaggerated," the psychology behind them is real and convincing. By diverting their attention from a much deeper source of pain and anxiety and/or postponing decisions they are afraid to make, the rants perform an important psychological function for Bernhard’s narrators. The entire narrative motion and drama of Concrete hinges on a few of Rudolf’s monumentally postponed decisions. Should he start writing his book? How, ultimately, should he judge his sister’s impact on his life? Should he take a trip to Parma? How should he judge the way he treated Anna Hardtl? Each of these decisions pose such a threat to his fragile and overburdened psyche that except in the last instance they must first be preceded by a rage-filled rant. In the case of Anna Hardtl, with which the book ends, there is no rant but there is also no decision or resolution made before the novel closes with Rudolf "in a state of extreme anxiety." The implication is that the anxiety can only be temporarily appeased by the process of ranting and then confronting her tragedy with a genuine insight. Finally, the rants camouflage the more tender feelings of Bernhard’s protagonists, feelings which make them more vulnerable than expressing their frustration or anger. After Rudolf’s diatribe against dogs (". . . politicians, dictators—are ruled by a dog, and as a result they plunge millions of human beings into misery and ruin," etc.) he realizes that his sister does care for him, that her advice about his needing a holiday for his mental health is both wise and well-intentioned. Similarly, after Reger’s rant against muzak, he begins to describe his love and grief for his recently deceased wife.
It is Bernhard’s magical sense of timing in suddenly introducing a lyrical, yet heartbreaking passage after a monologue of rage that separates him from so many other writers and makes him finally a major artist of his century. Let me give one more example. After railing about his horrible health, Rudolf transitions to a discussion about people saving clothes and tells us that his mother’s coat hangs in a wardrobe "which is otherwise empty and which I keep firmly locked. However, never a week goes by but I open the wardrobe and smell the coat." From these two lines we learn all we need to know about his love for his mother. It is difficult to find another example in literature, or art in general, of this ability to so seamlessly and poignantly juxtapose such extremes of emotion. Céline does it a bit, Kurosawa does it brilliantly in a film like The Seven Samurai, and in music Mahler is one of the very few masters of such juxtapositions. Moreover, Bernhard, unlike the trio above, has a greater gift of concision. Concrete is 155 short pages. Old Masters, which I take to be his second greatest novel, is only slightly longer. One realizes that, like Faulkner or Nabokov, Bernhard is a verbal musician with a heart deep enough to counterbalance poignant moments of beauty and mercy with his darkest explorations of the isolated human psyche.