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Old Master

Thomas Bernhard’s victory in defeat

Though freighted with dissatisfaction, the monologists of Thomas Bernhard are held aloft by gusts of Alpine vehemence. Their impractical endeavors—philosophy, classical music, art history, and ill-defined “sciences”—mark them as outsiders. The misanthropic comedies they inhabit require the lonely vantage of these intellectual pursuits. For them, contempt is the terminal stage of isolation, when it is at last reborn as freedom. That these men—and they are invariably men—are both neurotically circumscribed and wonderfully elastic, both piteously frail and immensely vital, is the particular magic of Bernhard. His fictions suggest that cynics, too, can be large of spirit. How else to explain the implacable joy that radiates from each annihilating wave of consciousness?

Each of Bernhard’s works is a great storehouse of society’s abuses, both real and imagined. They feature characters forced to the margins by their physical conditions: the legless protagonist of A Party for Boris (1968); the paralyzed doctor in Playing Watten (1969); Konrad’s wife, bound to a wheelchair in The Lime Works (1970); Rudolf, afflicted with sarcoidosis in Concrete (1982). These figures are often subjected to appalling mockery, a disdain which Bernhard, himself chronically ill, knew all too well. Hospitalized at seventeen with pleurisy and later contracting tuberculosis, his was a life of permanent and spiteful invalidism. “The crippled schoolboy and Pittioni [a mocked teacher] were for me the most important figures at the school,” he wrote in his memoir, Gathering Evidence, “it was they who brought out, in the most depressing manner, all that was worst in a ruthless society.” For Bernhard, sanity and success are always suspicious, suggesting the healthy animal’s violence against those less fortunate. His fictions are responses to that violence, vengeful fantasies of thoroughness pushed to absurd limits. But despite pursuing even the most trivial, the most petty of infractions, the world’s crimes forever exceed redress. This impossibility is the dramatic fulcrum of every Bernhard novel.

His monologists perform a kind of shadowboxing. What makes these confrontations so continuously fascinating—and so reliably funny—is that they feature only one combatant. Even when there is a second adversarial presence—Werthheimer’s sister in The Loser (1983), say—they are filtered through the monologist’s consciousness, recast in the thin clay of resentment. Slights are listed, enlarged, pulled at like taffy, assuming cartoonish dimensions. These exhaustive enumerations require the contemplative freedom of isolation, whether in full retreat from society or as declamation to a captive audience. The monologists tend to confine themselves to spaces over which they can be reasonably (or unreasonably) certain of control. The brothers of Amras (1964) occupy a small tower room; Konrad and his wife inhabit the abandoned lime works; Roithamer, in Correction (1975), gradually restricts his movements to an attic; Koller limits himself to the Vienna Public Kitchen.

Bernhardian nay-sayers are all of a piece, like a set of collectibles.

The Cheap-Eaters (1980), recently reissued by Spurl Editions, in a new translation by Douglas Robertson, sports several typical features of the Bernhardian novel. There is the obsessive intellectual (Koller); the mostly passive listener to whom he relays his unspooling thoughts (an unnamed school friend); examples of Austrian vulgarity (the eponymous cheap-eaters); the search for aesthetic or intellectual perfection; limited resolution; and the mesmeric narrative flow of a mind in duress. The plot, such as it is, exists as an armature for the mold of Koller’s consciousness. Having been bitten by a dog, he uses the occasion of his leg’s amputation, and the ensuing legal payout, to devote himself more fully to his life’s work, a long essay entitled Physiognomy. No details are offered about this essay—concealment and incompleteness being hallmarks of the Bernhard monologist—though Koller believes the cheap-eaters, a group of four men who daily eat at the Vienna Public Kitchen, are somehow central to its realization. That they do not mock him for his missing leg renders them sympathetic to Koller, whereas the rest of the city’s inhabitants have earned his most profound antipathy. He insists on the fundamental importance of confrontation: “it constantly and incessantly mattered to him to be against something; his very existence depended upon it.” These words could be ascribed to the paranoid Prince Saurau of Gargoyles (1967), the failed piano virtuoso Wertheimer in The Loser, the ferocious writer-narrator of Woodcutters (1984), or any number of other Bernhardian nay-sayers. They are all of a piece, like a set of collectibles.

A scene from Thomas Bernhard’s play, Before retirement (1999). | DW

What is the genealogy of Bernhard’s rhetorical aggression? He referred to his maternal grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler—Ur-monologist, beloved tyrant, obscure writer of pastoral novels—as “the one human being of essential importance in my life and existence” and “my only teacher.” The great European hysterics and doom-mongers, too, haunt his fictions. He has something of Leopardi’s pessimism; Dostoyevsky’s passion; Kleist’s hurtling momentum; Nietzsche’s exaggeration; Schopenhauer’s gloom. Beckett is pervasive—the sense of a voice chewing free of life like a limb caught in a trap—as is Kafka’s hypersensitivity. (I’ve always though Konrad’s lifelong study of hearing in The Lime Works parallels the rodent’s preoccupation with sound in “The Burrow.”) Musil, his forebear and countryman, taught him the digressive potential of banality. In his synthesizing of these imposing sources, native petulance evolves into totalizing vigilance.

Hanging over all this is the matter of Bernhard’s seriousness. Are we to take his despair at face value, or are these miserable creations the follies of a caustic jester? The more one reads, the more difficult such a distinction becomes. In their repetitions, their eddies of obsession, their personal entanglements and subtle variations, each monologist can resemble a comedian delivering seemingly off-the-cuff material, which is in reality highly practiced and refined. Callbacks serve to broaden and deepen the effect of each rant. Positions are taken, qualified, reversed. There is a dimensionality to these attacks, as if an idea has accumulated physical mass. Take Koller, for instance, on “the masses”:

Ninety-nine percent of all people sold out to the masses at the very moment of their birth, so he said. But any person of the mind was obliged to take up the struggle against the masses, to take a stand against them, to declare his opposition to them, at the very moment of his birth; that alone legitimated him as a person of the mind. Anybody who yielded to these masses, be it even on a single point, had forfeited his chance to be a person of the mind and was a mindless person. That every person of the mind naturally always had the masses and hence, to put it dramatically, the whole of humankind ineluctably against him as a matter of course, was transparently clear. . . . Everybody, even those who struggled against these masses and hence against feeblemindedness, ultimately hailed from these masses, and it was only logical and natural at the same time that they were gobbled back up by these masses.

Bernhard offers a formal attentiveness to refrain worthy of the villanelle or the roundel. These furious assaults contain a chorus-like center, an idea or judgment brought round again and again in habituating action; the original position is exhaustively established only to be abandoned after every possible reinforcement has already been made. But the patterning of Koller’s phrasing is as much structural as it is musical. Each recurrence of “the masses” is like a nail driven down at the edge of a billowing tent. It fastens the passage to the page amid great storms of extemporizing. Modification (“person of the mind,” “mindless person,” “feeblemindedness”) and exaggeration (“at the very moment,” “that alone,” “be it even on a single point,” “the whole of human kind”) prolong the attack or position it beyond retort. The final feint at rationality—“it was only logical and natural”—cheekily suggests the whole thing would have occurred to anyone had they only considered the matter more carefully. Bernhard is always extending these invitations to complicity.  

Bernhard’s fictions give form to the shared sense that one can at any time be rendered expendable by impersonal forces one neither recognizes nor understands.

His monologists are nomads of the mind, moving from fortification to fortification, stockpiling intellectual provisions that are inevitably left behind after some tiny flaw has been discovered in the masonry. They try out and abandon a series of conceptual shelters. Stacked one upon the next, the set pieces induce a particular passivity in the reader. The cistern of thought having broken, one is pinned down by the flood until the vessel has emptied itself. No opportunity is afforded to reflect, or challenge, or clarify. The Bernhardian style overwhelms in its speed, its pretenses to logic, its qualifications and counter-qualifications, its absolutism. The effect is exhilarating even when it erodes one’s defenses. Reading Bernhard is often an exercise in submission.

As Gary Indiana has pointed out, it is also a relief. Whatever endurance they require, one can’t help but feel gratitude for these novels, in which the stunted soul of modern life—and that life’s barristers and accomplices—is taken to task. They give no quarter to imbecility, vulgarity, pretension, or power. They are concise rituals of rejection. To stop speaking is not to die, as in Beckett, but to be spoken for by things one despises: politics, history, culture, information, lust, gossip, technology, or the rising seas. His fictions give form to the shared sense that one can at any time be rendered expendable by impersonal forces one neither recognizes nor understands.

Bernhard’s negations deform the familiar features of the realist novel. Plot, description, growth, and resolution are crushed by the tidal forces of contempt. But what at first blush seems a voice of hopeless constriction is in practice magnificently open and baroque. The ubiquity of Bernhard’s style across national literatures marks it as both persuasive and culturally agnostic. To think about this replication is to think seriously about the last half century. To say no to a world that does not value you—a world of consumerist fantasy, ecological collapse, puritanical censure, brazen demagoguery, and algorithmic smoothing—is to understand the contemporary appeal of Bernhard’s repudiations. The afterlife of the Bernhardian rant would not be so rich and varied if the world we inhabited were not so persistently hideous, terrifying, confusing, and cruel.

Throw a stone into the crowd of great, recent European novelists and you’re likely to hit an acknowledged Bernhardian. The Italian fabulist Italo Calvino named Bernhard, with whom he shared a sense of the world’s disenchantment, the greatest living novelist in 1978. W.G. Sebald’s pessimistic fictions make constant use of Bernhard’s nested attributions—“From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz”—as a way of shrugging off the burden of omniscience. László Krasznahorkai’s torrential maximalism is recognizably Bernhardian, as are the complexly woven sentences of Javier Marías. Andreas Ban, the protagonist of Daša Drndić’s late-career masterpieces, Belladonna (2012) and EEG (2016), is an accretion of resentment and rage worthy of any Bernhard novel. These approaches are neither uniform nor precisely imitative. Sebald is less angry than melancholic, for instance; Krasznahorkai is apocalyptically mystical in a way Bernhard could never be. But the formal features of Bernhard’s prose—its long, self-sabotaging sentences, its ability to push away or pull toward subjects, its death obsession and incandescent rage—offer fictive approaches to seemingly unspeakable atrocities. One of the striking paradoxes of Bernhard is that while he only ever approached politics obliquely, his technique enabled scores of other writers to grapple with political horror directly. Whether one desires cool, abstracted distance from the abattoir of the twentieth-century, or visceral proximity to its criminality and nihilism, Bernhard’s style is accommodating.

In Latin America, that same style has given supple form to political paranoia, guilt, and self-loathing. Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile (2000) comprises the ranting death bed confession of Father Urrutia—Jesuit priest, literary critic, and Bernhardian monologist—in a single, book-length paragraph that circles the accommodations of the literary establishment during the Pinochet era. An earlier novel, Distant Star (1996), details a mediocre poet-cum-serial-killer’s collaboration with Chilean death squads. (A sample of the poet’s skywriting: “Dead is friendship / Death is Chile / Death is responsibility.”) Bolaño, like Bernhard before him, dramatizes the mendacity and cowardice of an abandoned homeland. Elsewhere, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s rabid, heretical Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (1997), in which an exiled professor, having returned home for his mother’s funeral, eviscerates his home country, earned him death threats in El Salvador—though it would be his seventh novel, Senselessness (2004), that usefully expanded upon the Bernhardian template. The novel follows a political exile who accepts a job editing a 1,100 page report on the torturing and killing of the indigenous population of an unnamed Central American country[1] at the hands of its military regime. While the coiling sentences clearly betray Bernhard’s influence, they articulate paralyzing fear rather than anger. Both Bernhard and Moya write from a sense of powerlessness, though in the latter’s case this stems from the consuming, paranoiac awareness demanded by life under a dictator. It is not only idiots and vulgarians his narrator must fear, then, but informants, killers, and sociopaths. The rigorous Bernhardian scrutiny, with its diabolical speed and meticulousness, has scaled with the level of injustice depicted.

Whatever the fictions of the future look like, Bernhard’s continued afterlife seems all but assured.

Much recent accomplished writing in English, too, bears the mark of Bernhard, though the formal and thematic deployments differ considerably from their European and Latin American counterparts. Where the latter often submerge the individual in the political, the former have largely fixated on individual neuroses and interpersonal conflicts. Embedding multiple references to Bernhard in its pages, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015) features a consultant ethnographer studying the “symbolic operations” governing a monoculture. Patrick Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (2017) uses savage humor to explore alienation and familial estrangement. Antonio, the narrator of Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s dense, spiraling Aphasia (2020) dissolves paternal crises in the solvent of art, culture, and sex. The long, elegant sentences of Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness (2020) gain acceleration by way of their sinuous lusts and shames. Mark Haber’s Reinhardt’s Garden (2019) and Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s The Organs of Sense (2019) are both recognizably Bernhardian comedies of illogicality. While in some cases these works showcase aggression typical of the monologists, more often they inhabit the baroque ruins of the form, repopulated with contemporary tensions, offenses, and anxieties. The pliancy of Bernhard’s technique remains even when the pressure of his anger has been reclaimed or transmuted. He seems capable of withstanding his own gentrification.

Where might the Bernhardian novel go next? An essentially improvisatory form, there seems no limit to its potential, though the monologists are unlikely to be heroes. Rather, they are loners operating along an event horizon, often one of their own devising. That their resentment is sublimated into disguised affirmation is one of Bernhard’s greatest achievements. Without that critical transformation, the monologists would be thin and attenuated figures, ranting crackpots just as likely to give in to cut-rate ideas as resist them. Instead, they extend the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man,” the politically ambiguous figure tethered between reactionary self-pity and emancipatory negation. As the internet creates ever more granular communities—tribalist arrangements predicated on exclusion, hatred, anti-intellectualism, or disinformation—new kinds of monologists will avail themselves to imaginative possibility. The would-be novelist need only look around. The world is ever more full of private resentments, invented sleights, scapegoats, and red-pill awakenings. Whatever the fictions of the future look like, Bernhard’s continued afterlife seems all but assured.

[1] Loosely based on events in Guatemala, the novel ends with a version of Bishop Gerardi’s assassination.