AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 18 November 2017

LOST IN A BOOK

Studies of avid readers have found that books have an emotional affirmation. They make people feel better about themselves, provide confirmation that other people have gone through the same things, they help people think through problems in their own lives and help clarify their feelings. They broaden horizons and give them a window into other lives and other societies and help them both engage with the world beyond their personal circumstances and escape from pressures in their daily lives.

Here’s the description of a reader who found escape and enlightenment simultaneously in reading: from Greg Bottoms' book Angelhead, a rather disturbing memoir of his brother’s schizophrenia:
At some point – I can’t pinpoint exactly when – I realized that books made sense of the worst things, even if they seemed stunted and dark, offering nothing but a crippled epiphany. These were the ones I gravitated toward then: Poe, DostoevskyThe Tell-Tale Heart and White Nights are, to me, schizophrenic classics – and the American pulp novelists of mid-century. I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning-the more transgressive, the more violent, the better because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe-and I still believe-that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved . . . I am not exaggerating when I say books saved my life; or put another way, books saved my mind and helped me to understand my life. (104-6)
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In the following essay Margaret Atwood describes her years of growing up reading books. We also get a glimpse of her favourites.
Margaret Atwood

THE PLEASURE OF READING
by Margaret E. Atwood

I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.

In any case, the first books I can remember were a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannibalistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimm’s would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettelheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.

Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theatres and where even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimm’s. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried ‘girls’ books’ — The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curlytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse — but they weren’t much competition for Batman or for red-hot iron shoes. ( Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children’s classics, some of which I’d already heard, read out loud by my mother — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver’ s Travels is not really a children’s book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too.

I read Canadian animal stories — those by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance — in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas — adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children’s book — and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse.

By this time I was about ten or eleven, and I’d begun dipping into the adult shelves. I can recall with great clarity the Dell pocket-book mysteries, the ones with the map of the crime scene on the back and the eye in a keyhole on the front, along with the lurid picture of the strangled blonde in the red strapless gown. One mystery in particular stands out: the murder was done by tying the victim to a tree, naked, during mosquito season. (Living where I did, I found this highly plausible.) I read a junky science-fiction magazine left behind by a guest, and vividly remember a story in which the beautiful women of Planet X hunt men down, paralyse them with a bite on the neck, and lay eggs on them like spiders. I used to drag the really dubious books off into corners, like dogs with bones, where no one would see me reading them.

I resorted to flashlights under the covers. I knew good trash when I saw it. I don’t think these books influenced my writing, but they certainly influenced my reading. Around this time too I read the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, which some fool had put in the school library on the assumption that anything without sex in it was suitable for young minds. This experience disturbed me in a way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales had not, possibly because Poe is obsessive about detail and sets out to horrify. I had nightmares about decaying or being buried alive, but this did not stop me from reading on.

Attracted by the beautiful woodcuts of whales in our edition, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick, again expecting animals. I skipped the parts about people; I identified with the whale, and was not at all sad when it wrecked the whaler and drowned most of the crew and got away at the end. After all those trapped wolves and poisoned foxes, it was about time for an animal to come out on top.
Moby Dick
When I hit high school, I read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and developed what was, in those days before rock stars, a standard passion for Mr Darcy and Heathcliff. (Luckily I did not at that time know any bad-tempered, impolite and darkly brooding young men; otherwise I might have run off with them.) These reading choices were approved of by adults, who liked anything called a classic. Other reading choices were not. In grade nine, for instance, I joined a paperback book club which was in the business of parting teenagers from their allowances, and received a satisfying helping of verbal trash through the mail every month. Donovan’s Brain stands out: it was about an overgrown and demented brain which was being kept alive in a glass jar by scientists — a brain which was trying to take over the world. In addition to colouring my view of politicians, this prepared me for the reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, later on.

I discovered the cellar. (By this time we were living in Toronto, and had one.) My parents had two vices which I have inherited — they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen — crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prised off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and — one of my favourites — lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders — my father was an entomologist — to H. G. Wells’s history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill’s history of the Second World War, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon — books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid’ s Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.

All of this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.

In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing — unlike reading — appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school curriculum had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; ‘Canadian writer’ seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was.

What do I enjoy reading today? It’s hard to say; it varies from day to day. From where I’m writing at this desk I can see, deposited around the floor of the room, eighteen separate piles or nests of books. They aren’t all there for purposes of enjoyment — some of them are for work — but, starting from left to right, the things on the tops of the piles are: Virago’s catalogue of new books; Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth; a newsletter about health; a book on the origins of humanity; a Canadian literary magazine called Paragraph; Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval; a dictionary of French synonyms; two paperback murder mysteries, one by P. D. James, one by Robert Barnard; Writing the Circle, an anthology of Native (Indian, Inuit or Eskimo) women writers; Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel, Hocus Pocus; a book on wind energy in Denmark — well, you get the idea. Every once in a while I root through the piles, picking out something in them I haven’t yet read, shuffling them around, trying to figure out where to file the books in the various already overcrowded bookcases. Or I add to the piles, or growl over them, protecting them from being tidied up, or haul something off to another location. I read in bed — what a luxury! — or on aeroplanes, where the phone can never ring; or in the bathtub, or in the kitchen. It’s still a random process, and I still love it.

My favourite books

I dislike lists of top ten favourite books, because they don’t give you enough room. Novels? Poetry? Non-fiction? Do collected works count? Does the Bible? Does The Joy of Cooking?

But here are five novels I’ve read recently and enjoyed a lot. They have not all been written recently; it’s just that I did not get around to them at the time: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet; Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Nawar El Sadawi, The Fall of the Imam.

And here are five Canadian novels I’ve read and reread over the years: Anne Hébert, Kamouraska; Alice Munro, The Lives of Girls and Women; Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel; Robertson Davies, Fifth Business; Timothy Findley, The Wars.

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(Bloomsbury India’s The Pleasure of Reading, from which the essay has been excerpted, can be bought here)

Thursday, 16 November 2017

AN INTENSE SCENT

Fragrant Attraction
The power of fragrance in sexual attraction
Rachel Herz Ph.D.
by Rachel Herz Ph.D.
(Psychology Today)





Many people, including mavens in the fragrance industry, believe that aromatic aphrodisiacs exist, and are only waiting to be found. The competition in the commercial world for this holy grail is fierce because if such a magical elixir could be captured it would be the beginning of a trillion dollar industry, not to mention the solution to loneliness and guaranteed success for nights out on the prowl. Type the word "pheromone" into Google and you'll get hundreds of hits for companies offering to sell you wearable pheromones "guaranteed for sexual success", along with various merchants purporting "data" that their elixirs boost the sex life of those wearing it. But think for a minute about how we might also interpret data that wearing these potions makes those donning them more sexually successful.

The marketers of Wonder Bra in Canada used a wonderful truism in an ad jingle of the 1970's; "if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you look great." If you believe that by putting something on-whatever it might be-it will make you more attractive to the opposite sex, your behavior will change. You'll feel more confident and secure and you'll be more flirtatious and happy-which will increase your attractiveness to others and thereby boost your sex life. None of this has anything to do with mysterious pheromones, rather it has all to do with self-confidence.

Indeed in a recent study conducted in the UK, men who wore the British label version of AXE deodorant (Lynx) were rated by woman as significantly more attractive than men who weren't wearing scented deodorant (1). The surprise, however, is that the women didn't actually smell the men-the men just smelled themselves. Women rated headshots of 35 men and 15 second video clips of the same men imagining introducing themselves to an attractive woman. The women rated all the men as equally attractive on the basis of their photos. But on video, the men wearing scented deodorant were rated as significantly more appealing than the men who weren't wearing fragrance, and the women only watched the video clips for 15 seconds. Probing why the AXE men were so much more alluring the researchers found that it had to do with how confident the men felt and how the scent of the deodorant made them feel. The more the men liked the fragrance they were wearing, the more confident they felt-- and the more confident they felt the more attractive their body language was to women. The other amazing finding was that it only took 15 minutes of wearing the scented deodorant to boost the guys' self-confidence. On the opposite side of the aisle, in a large survey study I found that 90% of women (from teenagers to seniors) feel more confident when wearing fragrance than without (2). Therefore wearing a fragrance you like will make you feel better about yourself which will consequently make you more attractive to others.

However, there is biological peril, especially for women, to the magic of fragrance. Not only does a man's use of fragrance make him behave more charmingly, my laboratory has shown that above all other physical characteristics, women rank how a man smells as the most important feature for determining whether she will be sexually attracted to him. Critically, she doesn't discriminate much between whether his scent comes from his clean natural body-odor or from the bottle on his dresser. The reason this is a biological hazard is because, as my last blog explained, our body-odor is the representation of our immune system genes and women use their noses to choose their "correct" biological mate to ensure maximum fertility and child health. Therefore by wearing a fragrance that a woman finds enchanting, a biologically unsuitable man can trick a woman into being with him by "falsely" smelling scrumptious.

The take home message for men is: if you smell good to yourself and to the lady of your dreams you'll be a sure-fire winner. But for women the message is: beware a man who smells too good because of his fragrance. If you think he has potential and you're on the hunt for a man to be your mate, ask him to wash with unscented soap and to kick the fragrance/deodorant habit for a while. If your nose and heart remain enamored then you're on to something good.
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(1) Roberts, S.C., Little, A.C., Lyndon, A., Roberts, J., Havlicek, J. & Wright, R.I. (2009). "Manipulation of body odour alters men's self-confidence and judgments of their visual attractiveness by women." International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 31, 47-54.
(2) http://www.senseofsmell.org/research_exchange/finalreports.php [now archived]

Scent of a Woman
Testosterone answers the call of a woman's scent
Rachel Herz Ph.D.
by Rachel Herz Ph.D.
(Psychology Today)





Above and beyond looks and bank account size, women rank how a man smells as the number one determinant for whether she'll be sexually attracted to him. Moreover, what men each woman finds most sexy smelling varies widely and is tied to immune system genetics. Everyone (except identical twins) has a genetically unique immune system, and the specific genetic fingerprint of your immune system is outwardly represented by your body odor. Research shows that naturally cycling women prefer the body-odor of men whose immune system genes are relatively different from their own. This "opposites attract" phenomenon is what evolutionary matchmaking aims for, as it is adaptive for fecundity, infant survival and reproductive success.

When it comes to men, the story has been that how a woman looks-her hourglass figure, full lips, lustrous hair and sparkling eyes are what appeal most. This is not superficial or sexist; it makes good evolutionary sense because these physical attributes are in fact signals to youth and health and therefore probabilistic fertility. By contrast, though a few studies have shown that men find a woman's natural body-odor to be most pleasant when she's ovulating, there has been little else to suggest that a man's biology is at all influenced by scent. However, other male mammals use odor as the dominant cue for the initiation of sexual behavior. A male rhesus monkey with a blocked nose will ignore a female in heat. Now new research from Florida State University has revealed that human males may be driven more by the scent of a woman's "heat" than has ever been realized before.

Saul Miller and Jon Manner tested college men for their responses to T-shirts that had been (1) worn to bed by college women who were ovulating, or (2) worn to bed by college women who were not ovulating, or (3) T-shirts that hadn't been worn by anyone (unscented). Regardless of the condition, all men were told that the shirts "had been worn by a woman" and they were asked to take big sniffs of it three times over a 15 minute session. Testosterone levels were measured before they sniffed and then after the 15 minute T-shirt session. Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is directly influenced by external cues- when heterosexual men interact with an attractive woman or watch pornography their testosterone levels rise.

Miller and Mann's study revealed that the men who sniffed T-shirts from ovulating women had higher testosterone levels than the men who sniffed T-shirts that didn't indicate fertility; either worn by non-ovulating women or unworn. But the testosterone levels of the men who smelled the shirts signaling fertility didn't actually increase from their pre-sniff levels, as happens when men are exposed to other overt sexual signals. They just didn't drop – which is what happened to the men in the other conditions – who sniffed T-shirts that didn't indicate fertility. There are various possible explanations for this finding. My speculation is that it reflects the biological response to either a thwarted or successful sexual ‘match to expectation'.

If you tell a heterosexual man that he's going to be smelling a T-shirt from a young woman, evolutionary theory might suggest that he would become interested both mentally and physiologically – as a possible indication of mating to follow. However, if the actual act of sniffing does not in fact signal the "presence" of a woman with immediate reproductive value (as in the case of T-shirts from non-ovulating women or not worn), this unconscious biological disappointment may manifest as a drop in testosterone. By contrast, the constant level of testosterone observed in the men who smelled T-shirts from ovulating women may indicate a match to expectation. In order to test whether this explanation has any merit we would need to know what the level of testosterone was in the men before they were told anything about the T-shirts. Or we might conduct a new study where men are given various types of reproductive information (false or not) about the women whose T-shirts they may be smelling. It would also be fascinating to know whether any testosterone changes occur when heterosexual men smell T-shirts worn by other men (under various "informational" conditions). I could go on. Suffice it to say that this is a fertile field for future research!

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Citation:
Miller, S. L. & Maner J. K. (2010). "Scent of a woman: Men's testosterone responses to olfactory ovulation cues." Psychological Science, 21, 276-283.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

REITERATING THOMAS BERNHARD

Thomas Bernhard

Insisting on Thomas Bernhard (it's my obsession) and continuing the series of articles on his life and works, below is a medley of critical excerpts on him...

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(From The New Yorker and a collection of  critic George Steiner’s articles, it concentrates on Bernhard's work: Steiner was one of the first critics writing in America to recognize the significance of Bernhard’s authorship, and this 1986 essay for The New Yorker offers an insightful and enthusiastic appraisal…)

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Thomas Bernhard is principally a writer of fiction – of novels, short stories, and radio plays. Prolific and uneven, he is at his best the foremost craftsman of German prose after Kafka and Musil. Amras (1964); The Lime Works, translated by Sophie Wilkins (1973, and recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press, which has also brought out two other Bernhard novels); the still untranslated Frost created a landscape of anguish as circumstantial, as closely imagined, as any in modern literature. The black woods, the rushing but often polluted torrents, the sodden, malignant hamlets of Carinthia – the secretive region of Austria in which Bernhard leads his wholly private life – were transmuted into the locale of a small-time inferno. Here human ignorance, archaic detestations, sexual brutality, and social pretense flourish like adders. Uncannily, Bernhard went on to extend this nocturnal, coldly hysterical vision into the high reaches of modern culture. His novel on Wittgenstein, Correction [see below], is one of the towering achievements of postwar literature. His Der Untergeher (The Loser), a fiction centered on the mystique and genius of Glenn Gould, searches out the manic powers of music and the enigma of a talent for supreme execution. Musicology, erotic obsession, and the keynote of self-contempt distinctive of Bernhard give compelling strength to the novel Concrete. Between these peaks lie too many fictions and scripts imitative of themselves, automatically black. Yet even where Thomas Bernhard is less than himself the style is unmistakable. Heir to the marmoreal purity of Kleist’s narrative prose and to the vibrancy of terror and surrealism in Kafka, Bernhard has made of the short sentence, of an impersonal, seemingly officious syntax, and of the stripping of individual words to their radical bones an instrument wholly fitted to its excoriating purpose. The early novels of Beckett will give the English reader some approximation of Bernhard’s technique. But even in the most desolate of Beckett there is laughter...

Born in 1931, Bernhard spent his childhood and adolescence in pre-Nazi and Nazi Austria. The ugliness, the strident mendacity of that experience have marked his entire vision. From 1975 to 1982, Bernhard published five studies in autobiography. They span the period from his birth to his twentieth year. Now assembled into a continuous sequence, these memoirs make up Gathering Evidence. They recount the early years of an illegitimate child taken in, brought up by eccentric grandparents. They chronicle Bernhard’s hideous school years under a sadistically repressive system, run first by Catholic priests, then by Nazis, then again by priests, the evident point being that there is little to choose between the two. The section called “The Cellar” narrates in paralyzing detail the young Bernhard’s experiences in Salzburg when the city was being bombarded by the Allied Air Forces. The immediate postwar years were an oasis for Bernhard, who became an apprentice and a shop assistant to a Viennese grocer and witness to the temporary discomfiture of the Nazi, now so suddenly and surprisingly converted to democracy. Running errands for his dying grandfather, the old anticlerical and anarchic tiger whom Bernhard loved as he had loved no one else near him, the eighteen-year-old falls ill. He is consigned to a hospital ward for the senile and the moribund. (Such wards will become perennial in his later novels and in the inspired book-part fact, part invention – Wittgenstein’s Nephew) In the ward, Bernhard contracts tuberculosis. On the threshold of adult life, he finds himself under sentence of death. It is both in constant expectation of the fulfillment of that sentence and in defiance of it that he will escape into the armed citadel of his art. […] 
Thomas Bernhard
RECONSIDERING THOMAS BERNHARD’S CORRECTION
Essay by David Sepanik


I.

Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, first published in English translation in 1979, is a remarkable novel, formally innovative and richly demanding in content. Bernhard’s writing is frequently grouped with Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, and his affinities with those two preeminent European modernists are on display here. But Bernhard’s approach has its own concerns as well as an arguably darker edge. The characters and situations in Correction are comical and sometimes absurd, but they are also grounded in a recognizable historical reality and geography. As a result there is a surprising weight and closeness to the existential ground his characters ultimately tread upon. When Bernhard’s satire bends into horror as the novel progresses, there is little allegorical distance for the reader to retreat into. The culminating tragedy feels both personal and claustrophobic.

The story concerns three childhood friends: Roithamer, the narrator, and Hoeller. As boys they had walked to school together through a wild and apparently treacherous stretch of mountain and forest country in rural Austria. Roithamer was the son of an aristocratic family living on an estate named Altensam, while the other two boys were of humbler origins. But Roithamer’s childhood was by far the hardest of the three, full of familial hatred, violence, and misunderstanding. Roithamer sought escape in the surrounding villages and came to despise his life at Altensam, saving particular scorn for his mother, his father’s second wife. At one point the boys arrive at school to discover that their teacher has hung himself, a sight that affects them all profoundly. After their school days, Roithamer and the narrator go on to Cambridge while Hoeller remains in Austria, becomes a taxidermist, and eventually builds an incredible house perched over a rushing river in the remote Aurach gorge, which the boys used to travel through on their way to school. Roithamer is inspired by the house, and, when Hoeller offers him the use of a garret for his studies, begins to spend significant time there during his visits home.
Strangely, perniciously, Roithamer’s father leaves him in possession of Altensam at his death, knowing Roithamer despises it and in destroying it will destroy the family legacy. Roithamer sets about doing just that, selling the property to finance his own incredible architectural project: the building of the mysterious “Cone” in the center of the Kobernausser forest which is to be a home for his beloved sister and which, he claims, will “make my sister perfectly happy by means of a construction perfectly adapted to her person.” After six years of tireless secret labor, the Cone is completed and presented to the sister, who, unable to handle the shock (and presumably the incestuous undertones), dies shortly thereafter. Roithamer, despondent, hangs himself in a clearing on the path leading to Altensam.

After this the book takes another strange turn. The novel’s narrator, who at the book’s beginning arrived at Hoeller’s home to collect the papers Roithamer has willed to him, moves into the garret room that Roithamer felt was the only place he could think freely. He is clearly in awe of his dead friend and overwhelmed by his role as caretaker of his legacy. Roithamer’s presence haunts the garret; the narrator wonders if his every thought isn’t an echo of a thought Roithamer once had there. He focuses on the manuscript Roithamer has left him, noting that Roithamer has rewritten it three times, each time “correcting” it down to a new and shorter version that “destroyed” the old version. Yet, together the versions compose an irreducible whole. The narrator believes his friend’s work is a masterpiece, albeit one that cannot be published in its current state. What is he to do? He decides to go to sleep for the night with the plan to “sneak up on Roithamer’s legacy” in the morning.

The second half of the book opens with the narrator still nominally telling Roithamer’s story in the second person. Quickly, however, he begins to speak directly in Roithamer’s voice, reading portions of the manuscript. It becomes apparent that Roithamer’s manuscript is being rewritten, “corrected” once again, this time through the voice of the narrator, who begins, ominously, to disappear into the language of the text. Roithamer’s story becomes increasingly obsessive and mad as it recounts the construction of the Cone and the death of his sister. Finally, it turns to the rationalization of suicide. By the time the text ends “The end is no process. Clearing.” the narrator’s own voice has long since dissolved entirely into Roithamer’s text.

Bernhard based certain bibliographical aspects of Roithamer on the life of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was born into great wealth, went to Cambridge, lived austerely, worked obsessively, and spent years carefully designing and building a house for his sister (though it was not cone-shaped). Other elements of Roithamer come from Bernhard’s own troubled life: his love of the Austrian countryside, hatred of the Austrian state (he famously forbid the publication or production of any of his works in Austria for the duration of their copyright), and bilious relationship with his mother. The unfortunate misogyny that mars this otherwise marvelous novel also apparently comes from Bernhard’s personality, and may help to explain its neglect. Satire is a motive force throughout Bernhard’s work, but here his repeated jeers at women come across as ham-fisted and ugly, personal rather than ironic. They are disappointing, all the more so because they are so tangential to the ideas that are at play.

II.

What is going on in this strange narrative, at times prosaic, at other times dreamlike, and finally deeply lingual and deconstructivist? Copying and repetition are signal themes: of houses, of biographical elements, and of ideas and written works. Copying implies a return, and in Bernhard’s world, life is grimly circular, a spiral of repetitions grounded in the presumption of Correction.

Correction, however, does not imply improvement, but rather an irrepressible compulsion for change, change so devoid of meaning it becomes repetition, repetition so inevitable that it inspires horror. Correction is a process that dominates thought, obliterates autonomy. Bernhard has picked up Beckett’s conceit—”I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—and taken it a further step down the path to annihilation. It is not “I” that goes on, it is “Correction” that goes on, reducing individuals to mere ciphers of its will. We are in a world of rewritten histories where what we suspected to be central—identity—becomes insignificant, and what we thought was a mere structural apparatus—language—becomes the vital, empowered life force. Human reality becomes a secondary concern, a mere host body through which the mechanical process of Correction passes.

In one sense it is an editor’s nightmare—the endless rewrite. In another, deeper sense it is a harrowing vision of the endgame of deconstruction, striking for its implications for individual identity in a world emptied of fixed meaning. Perhaps most profoundly, it is Bernhard’s response to Austria’s rewriting of the history of its sympathetic participation in the Nazi war machine during World War II. Twenty-five years on, his diagnosis of humanity’s tendency toward such compulsive and even suicidal “revisions” of history seems ever more prescient.
Thomas Bernhard, 1969 Obernathal
The Genius of Bad News
by Tim Parks
(The New York Review of Books, 2007)

1.

The many novels and plays of Thomas Bernhard, at his death in 1989 Austria’s most prominent and controversial writer, achieve their full impact and are properly understood only within the context of the author’s native culture and language. Such is the persuasive argument of Gitta Honegger’s biography, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian (2001). But where does this assessment leave those of us whose grasp of Austrian history is shaky, those who are unable to tackle the original German? Is our sense of his importance to us the fruit of a misunderstanding?
To warn us of her unorthodox, largely nonchronological approach, Honegger opens with a typically provocative remark from Bernhard himself:
I hate books and articles that begin with a date of birth. Altogether, I hate books and articles that adopt a biographical and chronological approach; that strikes me as the most tasteless and at the same time the most unintellectual procedure.
Explaining that her work is as much a cultural history of postwar Austria as a biography of Bernhard, Honegger goes on: “The process of his self-invention reveals more about him and the world he lived in…than a chronological account of his life and work could do.”
Sketch of Thomas Bernhard at the typewriter
Such an attitude is no doubt in line with Bernhard’s own tendency to introduce us in medias res to a mind in turmoil where events past and present, real or apocryphal, flash by in rapid succession without apparent order or hierarchy, where the voice speaking is so much aware of its own performance as to raise doubts about its candor. Yet notoriously every story does have its chronology and every life, between cradle and grave, its trajectory. To understand the significance of any “self- invention” one must have a grip on the inescapable facts on which the self feeds and from which invention diverges. The same is true of a nation. How are we to understand modern Austria’s mendaciously sanitized image of itself without an account of its Nazi past?
To be “tastelessly” chronological, then, perhaps the first thing we need to know about Bernhard is that his last name was an accident that would estrange the author from his family rather than unite him to it. In 1903, while still married to one Karl Bernhard, Thomas’s grandmother, Anna, ran off with the struggling writer Johannes Freumbichler, by whom she was pregnant, giving birth to a daughter, Herta, who, despite her natural father, was registered Herta Bernhard. In 1931, while working as a maid in Holland, Herta gave birth to an illegitimate child, Thomas. The father ran off, denied paternity, and committed suicide before the law could catch up with him. In 1936 Herta married and became Frau Fabjan, bearing her husband first a son in 1938, then a daughter in 1940. Thomas was now the only member of the family with the name Bernhard. His stepfather refused to adopt the boy and allow him to become a Fabjan. In The Lime Works, written in 1970, we hear of the central character Konrad that
he suffered because his sister and his brother Francis were only one year apart in age…while he, years older than they…was separated from them by the difference in age between them and him, a separateness that hurt him to the roots of his being…the misfortune of being six years older than his sister, seven years older than his brother Francis…led to his life of chronic isolation…. All during his childhood he worried about losing touch with his siblings and his family in general, because of their continuing instinctive rejection of him.
Autobiographical or not, the passage is typical of Bernhard’s tendency to spin out possible and invariably unhappy accounts of his own early life. Shifted back and forth between his grandparents’ family and his mother’s, between Austria and Bavaria, Thomas had every chance to feel rejected and displaced. One piece of information we find only in the (extremely useful) chronology at the back of Honegger’s book is that in 1941, soon after the birth of his half-sister and completion of the Fabjan family nucleus, Thomas was sent away to an institution for “difficult children” in Thuringia. Later there would be a Catholic home for boys in Salzburg (during the Allied bombing).
In the autobiographical works he wrote in his forties, Bernhard makes it clear that the center of the family, and the key emotional attachment for himself, was his grandfather. Dreamer, anarchist, and bisexual, Johannes Freumbichler spent his whole life seeking and failing to become a great writer. Unable or unwilling to hold down a job, moving frequently in search of a situation congenial to his writing, he depended economically on the sacrificial efforts of his wife and daughter. From his grandfather, Bernhard learned about the nobility of artistic endeavor, but also about the coercive and destructive nature of the artist’s powerful influence on those around him.
Years later, when the charismatic Thomas began to exercise the powers of seduction that would overcome the rejection of his family, or gain him a surrogate family, or earn him an honored place in the larger family of Austrian society, he must have been aware that he was imitating his grandfather, who had also sought to impress and dominate others by insisting on his artistic ambitions. And he would also have realized that Freumbichler himself was locked into a destructive relationship with past Austrian culture and romantic notions of greatness, a relationship that both won him a devoted family and devastated its members. Such awareness never prevented Bernhard from exercising his charisma and seeking devotion and greatness; nor, however, would he forget to expose the dark side of the artist’s ambitions. Almost all his writings offer us a monomaniac, achievement-obsessed central character. Whether he is an epitome of intellectual perfection, as with the Wittgenstein figure in Correction, or a paralyzed failure, as with Konrad in The Lime Works, he is always a catastrophe for those around him, and ultimately for himself.
Seeking redemption through art, grandfather Freumbichler wanted the same for those around him. The family was living in Salzburg now. Daughter Herta was to become a ballerina. Thomas, having abandoned school at sixteen to work as an apprentice in a grocery store, took private singing lessons. But hardly had he begun to dream of being an opera singer than he ran into the other experience that would prove decisively formative. In 1949, aged eighteen, he was hospitalized for pleurisy and then discovered to have tuberculosis. There followed a series of hospitalizations that lasted some two years and saw the young man at death’s door for long periods. During this time both his grandfather and his mother died. In the autobiographical memoir Breath: A Decision,1 Bernhard describes his spell on the death ward thus:
All the patients were on drips of some sort, and from a distance the tubes looked like strings. I had the constant impression that the patients lying in their beds were marionettes on strings…in most cases these strings…were their only remaining link with life.
Typical of Bernhard is the combination of feeling altogether abandoned to one’s self, yet at the same time altogether dependent on the community, the institution, which remains, despite, or because of, the life-giving drips, extremely sinister. It is not merely a question here of suffering the irritating presence of others, but rather of one’s being determined from outside. One is a marionette. Some years hence the lonely boy would be writing for the theater, pulling all the strings himself.
After a period of deep depression following his mother’s death, Bernhard at last “entertained the supreme ambition to return to full health.” He began to break the hospital’s rules to visit a nearby village each evening and ultimately left the hospital without an official discharge. Crucially, though this is not mentioned in his autobiography, the step was only possible with support from outside. On his evening excursions he had met Hede Stavianicek. Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother, and perhaps lover. She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society. It was with her support that in January 1951, frail, acne-scarred, and determined, a nineteen-year-old Bernhard plunged into the fray of Austrian society.
And it is at this point of the story that Honegger’s approach comes into its own. How would Bernhard’s powerful private experience mesh with the very particular and ambiguous situation in Salzburg and Vienna, where the atrocious events of the war, and above all of Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust, had been removed from public debate with obscene haste? After his own near-death experiences as well as the actual deaths of the most important members of his family, Bernhard was looking for a new home, a new identity in the sophisticated world of Frau Stavianicek. After the disgraceful years of Nazism, the Austrian middle classes were casting about for an improbable respectability. Bernhard studied them. When was it that he realized that the best way into a certain kind of society might be as a thorn in its flesh?
From 1951 to 1955 the young man worked as a cultural journalist and court reporter for a Salzburg newspaper, taking in a wide range of modern theater and collecting endless accounts of troubled lives. He published some poems and short stories, one under the pseudonym Thomas Fabjan, a name that had always been denied him. Then in 1955 came the first piece of writing to bear his distinctive voice: a vitriolic attack on the Salzburg Landestheater. It was scathing, over the top, almost hysterical. It won him his first libel case. But oddly it didn’t exclude him from the society he attacked, as his grandfather, working quietly away on his novels, had always been excluded. Rather, the papers began to talk about him. There would always be in Bernhard’s work a journalistic element of fierce polemic directed at influential figures in the public eye. A society wrestling with guilt cannot easily dismiss its accusers, indeed, a certain virtue may accrue to giving them space.
Speaking of the moment he left the hospital, Bernhard remarked: “I was no longer capable of starting work with a firm…. I was appalled and horrified by the thought of working, of being employed by someone, just to be able to survive.” Throughout Bernhard’s fiction, the minor and sometimes even the major characters are identified only by their occupation: the miller, the woodcutter, the miner, the stone worker, the doctor. It is a token of the fact that they are marionettes, that society is a chorus of complicit roles orchestrated by tradition and necessity. “I never wanted an occupation,” Bernhard wrote, “but to become myself.”
So it was unlikely that he would remain a salaried journalist for long. From 1955 to 1957, supported by Hede Stavianicek, he studied acting and directing at Salzburg’s Mozarteum. Trying different parts, he found he was most successful at playing the cantankerous old man. He began to mingle with the Viennese avant-garde. Good at forming intimacies that never quite became stable relationships, he started to spend his summers in the bohemian community of Tonhof, the summer mountain residence of the rich musicians Gerhard Lampersberg and his wife, Maja. Both Lampersbergs fell in love with him. They weren’t alone. Bernhard flirted, left and right, with men and women, put on his first three plays in the Tonhof barn, then escaped to Frau Stavianicek when things got tense. By now he was calling her “Auntie,” as ill-defined a relationship as ever one could wish. It is intriguing that his ferocious attack on the Lampersbergs many years later in the novel Woodcutters accused them above all of cozy complicity with the establishment they pretended to oppose. Cited, as so often, for libel, Bernhard gave aggressive interviews in which he claimed that all the bohemian community was state-subsidized, whereas he alone had always been independent. “Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidized, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage….”
Honegger is no doubt right to suggest that the hyperbole and hypocrisy of Bernhard’s position—for he had received many awards and was generously patronized—was an indication of his anxiety about his own inevitable involvement in Austrian culture. “The past of the Habsburg Empire is what forms us,” he said in another interview around the same time. “In my case it is perhaps more visible than in others. It manifests itself in a kind of love-hate for Austria that’s the key to everything I write.”
By now an uneasy pattern of behavior was all too evident: insecure, Bernhard craved intimacy and recognition. Yet his real ambition was for total independence, which, alas, he feared was impossible. He became a master of the on-off friendship, the unconsummated love affair. He would make friends with a married couple, insinuate himself into their family, monopolize the wife, then withdraw. The casualty list of those confused by his behavior grew rapidly. But at least he wouldn’t make the mistake of marrying and destroying his wife and children. The genetic buck would stop with Thomas. This became an obsession frequently present in his novels. The only way to stop the interminably mendacious back and forth of human relationships was to stop procreating for good.
After his break with the Tonhof community, he traveled widely, but as soon as he had a financial success with his first major play, he bought a farmhouse and began to reinvent himself as an Austrian country gentleman. Then he thought he really ought to sell it and distance himself again. Then he decided to keep it after all. Remorselessly castigating the establishment, he eagerly sought the company of the aristocracy. A picture of the emperor Franz Joseph was hung upon the living room wall.

2.

Still, there is nothing like the permanent dilemma for creating exciting art. Honegger is excellent at showing how Bernhard’s personal contradictions connected with the peculiarly Austrian genre of the Heimatroman and the very special role of the theater in a suffocatingly tight-knit Austrian society. With the nation reduced, after the First World War, to a fragment of its imperial, Austro-Hungarian glory, there had been a deliberate attempt to build up a national identity around narrative depictions of vigorous and morally commendable Austrian peasant life—the so-called Heimatroman. During the Nazi period, such literature had taken on a decidedly blood-and-soil flavor which afterward was repackaged, in many cases by the same writers, as a sanitized and optimistic nativism, all too appealing to the Green Party and the tourist industry.
Johannes Freumbichler had enjoyed his only success, in 1937, with an unorthodox HeimatromanPhilomena Ellenhub, a book that ran against conventional Catholic morality by offering a sympathetic account of the vicissitudes of an independent, unmarried mother. His grandson went much further. Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, (1963, published in English translation for the first time in 2006), presents a ferociously dystopian view of rural life. The narrator, a young medical student, has been instructed by a senior doctor to go to a remote mountain village to observe the doctor’s brother, a painter, who has secluded himself in the place for many years in a state of near insanity. “He lives, as they say, in his head. But he’s terminally confused. Haunted by vice, shame, awe, reproach …—my brother is a walker, a man in fear. And a misanthrope.”
The student records the painter’s ravings, which combine a deep inner anguish with a loathing for the shameless sensuality of the landlady of the inn where he and the student are staying and for the violent drunken men who revolve around her and her two daughters:
The primitive is everywhere…. Sex is what does for them all. Sex, the disease that kills by its nature …they live for sex, like most people, like all people…. All of them live a sex life, and not a life.
As the book progresses we begin to fear for the sanity of the medical student as he is both seduced and overwhelmed by the intensity and negativity of the painter’s vision. In particular, he loses all confidence in the profession he has chosen: “Helper of mankind, I thought. Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms. I can’t imagine myself ever helping anyone…. I don’t understand anything.”
Amras (1967), Bernhard’s second long work of prose, actually manages to step up the intensity, reconstructing the history of a family induced to attempt collective suicide by the rapacious ugliness of the rural society all around them. Again the despair of the intellectual narrator feeds misanthropically on the utter spiritual emptiness of ordinary provincial life, but in such an exaggerated fashion that the reader is uncertain how to respond.2
Gargoyles (1967), the third and the most accomplished of Bernhard’s subversions of the Heimatroman, once again picks up the theme of medical science’s inadequacy when confronted with extremes of intellectual despair on the one hand and blind appetite on the other. In this case the narrator, a young engineering student, accompanies his doctor father on a round of visits to sick patients in the dark woods and deep gorges of the southeastern Austrian province of Styria.
The morning begins with a failed attempt to save an innkeeper’s wife, victim of a drunken assault, and proceeds from catastrophe to catastrophe as it penetrates an ever-gloomier countryside. The doctor’s denunciation of a dull and brutal provincial society could not be more radical:
Crimes in the city are nothing in comparison with crimes in the country. The innkeeper, he added, is your typical violent man, your born delinquent. Everything in him and about him is violent and criminal. At every moment and in every situation he is the merest cattle trader, it’s his job and he never transcends it. “And if he is now weeping and desperate,” my father said “he’s weeping because he’s lost a valuable beast. For an innkeeper his wife is never anything more than a valuable beast.”
Soon enough the doctor doing the denouncing is himself implicated in the general failure. His cures are inadequate. He is unable to communicate with his son. He seems resigned to the idea that his daughter will eventually commit suicide. We discover that his wife too suffered from depression and neurosis, which may have caused her illness and early death. The doctor, the intellectual, seems unable to improve the world.
Indeed, where there is intelligent life in Gargoyles it tends to isolate itself. Bloch, the doctor’s only friend, is a successful real estate agent, who keeps his intense intellectual life entirely separate from his commercial activities. More extreme, an (unnamed) writer/ industrialist lives in complete segregation in a destructive, incestuous relationship with his sister. But the doctor’s final visit is reserved for the most brilliant and isolated character of them all: Prince Sarau, hereditary landowner of vast areas of gloomy forest, lives in the Gothic castle of Hochgobernitz perched high above the doomed landscape we have crossed. A dying monomaniac who at once fears and fantasizes the extinction of his family, the prince launches into a hundred-page monologue which entirely shifts the equilibrium of the book—and marks a turning point in Bernhard’s career—as the doctor, son, and reader are spellbound by the obsessive and self-destructive power of the prince’s delivery:
“Once we become aware of the complex of problems relating to our existence, we think we are philosophical. We are constantly contaminated by whatever we touch; therefore we are always contaminated by everything. Our life, which is not nature, is one great contamination…. Of course everyone is constantly protecting himself by saying: I don’t belong there! And he has every right to do so. I too am continually saying that I don’t belong there, don’t belong anywhere. But all together we are really accidental. We tire quickly whenever we don’t tell lies. The foundations are in the earth, we feel, but we do not add the thought: in the lower strata, and we are afraid. Are we always asking too much of others?” the prince asked. “No,” he answered himself, “I think not. I confront a person and I think: What are you thinking? Can I, I ask myself, go along with you inside your brain for a little? The answer is: No! We cannot go along with someone inside the brain. We force ourselves not to perceive our own abyss. But all our lives we are looking (without perceiving) down into our physical as well as psychic chasm. Our illnesses systematically destroy our lives, just as an increasingly defective orthography destroys itself.”
As ever in Bernhard, the more isolated a character is, the more chaotic the mind, and the more the world dissolves into a stream of words that might be either revelatory or meaningless.
In his next novel, The Lime Works, published in 1970, the characters who would normally be expected to appear in a Heimatroman are reduced to the few local people—the former works manager, a public safety inspector, the two managers of nearby estates—who give accounts of the life and words of the main character, Konrad, who, disgusted with the world and society, has withdrawn with his crippled wife to the silence and segregation of the abandoned lime works where he hopes to write the definitive account of the faculty of hearing and, by implication, of the nature of communication.
Konrad’s humiliation is total. Not only, in his perfectionism, is he unable to write so much as a word of his book, not only does he find isolation as detrimental as company, but when at the end he murders his wife and hides from the police in the cesspit, he becomes just another statistic in the country’s long list of brutal domestic crimes. The ultimate defeat is that any valuable ideas he had are now passed on and modified in the minds of the sort of people whom he despised and who, more conventional and more cautious than he, happily consume, along with the reader, his fascinating story. Inescapably, he is part of the local mental ecology. He was never isolated from them at all. With wonderful irony, the various accounts of his downfall are gathered together by an insurance agent struggling to sell life insurance policies in the local village inns. Konrad will serve as a cautionary tale.
Writing with immense power and the blackest of wit, Bernhard thus denies writing any power to alter the society it remorselessly criticizes. On the contrary, the artist is implicated in the general freak show. “The imagination is an expression of disorder,” says the painter in Frost, “it has to be.” Given that the Western world of today still likes to imagine creative authorship as a pleasantly exotic branch of progressive liberal politics, such a vision is hardly the passport to wider popularity. Indeed Bernhard has never achieved that. There remains, however, particularly for those of us who come to him through his novels rather than his plays—and that means most of his admirers outside the German-speaking world—the mystery of his success on the Austrian and German stage, which was, after all, the source of his income. Herself trained in the theater, Honegger is at her best here, and at her most confident in declaring Bernhard only partially comprehensible if read apart from his national setting.

3.

Like so many of his characters, Bernhard loved to be alone, segregating himself behind the tall hedges surrounding his farmhouse, rapidly becoming part of local folklore, a misanthrope whose imagined malignant powers could be used to threaten a naughty village child. But he also loved, from time to time, to be the center of attention. And since the theater has always had a central position in Austrian society, and in particular the Burgtheater, and the Salzburg Festival, what better places for Bernhard to show himself?
Borrowing from Beckett, Strindberg, and others of his immediate predecessors, Bernhard’s plays distinguish themselves for the virulence of their monologues attacking the middle-class establishment. But who was in the audiences at the Salzburg Festival and the Burgtheater if not the middle-class establishment? In the play Am Ziel (which might be translated “Arrived”) the nameless lead character, who is simply designated the Writer, remarks of his successful play:
I can’t understand
why they applauded
we are talking about a play
that exposes every one of them
and in the meanest way
admittedly with humor
but nasty humor
if not with malice
true malice
And all of a sudden they applaud
The staging of a Bernhard play thus demonstrates two apparently contradictory truths: the power of the artist to get people to accept anything at all; and simultaneously the impotence of the artist to change anything. The same people come back, once again applaud savage criticism of themselves, but never change (“the Burgtheater,” he wrote, “could become a national mental institution for those who have proved themselves incurable”).
Honegger’s description of how Bernhard used his casting to reinforce this idea of a situation of embattled stasis is fascinating. An actor with a Nazi past would be cast in the role of a Nazi or, even better, in the role of a Jew whose rhetoric and neurosis is indistinguishable from a Nazi’s. An actress from one play would be given a role that in some way was a comment on her previous one. Elements in each play might refer back to controversies created by earlier plays. In short, the collective memory of the local audience was essential. They were constantly reminded that all was as it always had been.
In this regard a productive misunderstanding between Bernhard and the man who directed most of his plays galvanized the author’s theater career from beginning to end. The enfant terrible Claus Peymann came from the extreme left of the German political spectrum, openly sympathized with the terrorist Red Army Faction, and insisted that the theater was “a place of opposition—in certain times to the point of subversion.” When Bernhard wrote the play Eve of Retirement, which features an aging ex–SS officer, now a respectable judge, who puts on his old uniform and always, we are told, sleeps with his devoted sister once a year to celebrate Himmler’s birthday, while his younger and crippled socialist sister is dressed up as a concentration camp victim, Peymann no doubt saw this as grist for his political mill. Convinced of the positive value of shocking the audience, he did everything to create an atmosphere of scandal around Bernhard’s work.
This suited Bernhard, for whom scandal was the only way he could enjoy himself in public, since it combined intense attention with at least the appearance of acting independently. Politically, however, the playwright was far more complex than his faithful director. Of Eve of Retirement Honegger astutely remarks: “The outrage…was not the suggestion that the majority of Germans are incurable Nazis but the implication that fascism is just another symptom of an innate obsessiveness that also drives scholars, scientists, and artists.”
What is it then that we are applauding when we praise a writer who would have included each and every one of us in his indictments? The excellent Honegger with her sometimes belabored academic prose and her research grant, as she acknowledges, from the Austrian Ministry of Culture and Education would not have been exempt. Nor the writer of this review, with his flagrantly biographical approach. In Gargoyles, the narrator’s father speaks of a painting that is at once absolutely ugly and at the same time absolutely beautiful. Then he explains: “It’s beautiful because it’s true.” The picture, we are told, shows two naked men standing back to back, but with their heads rotated, so that they are also face to face. It is a grotesque contradiction of isolation and intimacy.
As we read, in Bernhard’s coercively rhythmic prose, of the dangers of being possessed by the rhythms of another’s mind, as we put down one novel whose monomaniac narrator dreamed of being the last of his dynasty only to pick up another and find ourselves confronted with the man’s spiritual successor, as we smile over those interminable superlatives that suggest that even the supreme effort will not be enough, as we embark on huge sentences, never-ending paragraphs, that remind us that experience is seamless and that if we want to say one thing we must be prepared to say everything, which is of course impossible, in short, as we read and reread Thomas Bernhard, we have the intense impression of being able to savor, briefly held together in the decidedly artificial space of these performances, a true picture of the contradictions that drive our lives. The world described is ugly, the reflections leave no space for optimism, but the mechanism invented for delivering the bad news is never less than exhilarating.
Writing more often than not about writer’s block, Bernhard became remarkably prolific, producing seventeen full-length plays, a dozen novels, and five works of autobiography. Insisting that all was parody and quotation, he created one of the most distinctive voices of the twentieth century. Awareness, in the last decade of his life, that he was terminally ill with lung and heart disease seemed only to accelerate his output. Denying the possibility of perfection, lamenting the false promise of genius, his own work got better and better. His last novels—ConcreteThe Loser, WoodcuttersExtinctionOld Mastersare his finest. Shorn of the immediately scandalous material of the plays and the extravagantly Gothic tone of the earlier fiction, these books are wonderfully focused on the central paradox of Bernhard’s writing, that the very act of expression runs contrary to his obsessive drive toward a superior isolation. The antithetical energies unleashed in these books lay down a pulse in the reader’s mind, and their prose is as near to unforgettable as any prose I know.
In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. Always discreet, never sharing the limelight, she had been his lifelong companion, his Lebensmensch, as he put it. Bernhard was there at the end to care for her. “Suddenly I gave my tears free reign,” says the author’s stand-in in Old Masters, the novel he wrote immediately afterward. “I wept and wept and wept and wept.” It is perhaps the only moment of cathartic release in all Bernhard’s work. Five years later, having always declared that we are no better than marionettes, Bernhard nevertheless made the gesture of severing the fatal strings himself, taking a lethal overdose shortly before an inevitable death. And in a last mad bid for independence from his native country, his will, revised two days before his death, prohibited all publications or productions of his work in Austria until the end of his copyright.
Bernhard must have known that this stipulation would not long be respected, that he would inevitably and rapidly be appropriated into the Austrian canon. But with Bernhard it was always the yearning for independence, the gesture of opposition, that served to confirm the deeper complicity between the artist and the world he works in. As the East German playwright Heiner Müller commented of the controversy surrounding Bernhard’s plays: “He writes as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria…. The disturbance can be articulated that loudly and clearly because it doesn’t disturb.” And the reason it didn’t disturb is that Bernhard always presents his criticisms in such a way that the critic, the author, Bernhard himself, seems just as unbalanced and guilty as the world he deplores. Nor does any alternative form of behavior appear to be imaginable. Indeed, it was in his staging of the modern liberal’s interminably lost battle with his origins and milieu, which is to say with the human condition, that Bernhard becomes so powerful a voice even outside the world he was fatally attached to.
  1. 1
    Bernhard wrote five brief autobiographical works covering different periods of his life. These are collected in one book for the English-language edition, Gathering Evidence, translated by David McLintock (Knopf, 1985). 
  2. 2
    The University of Chicago Press published in 2003 Three Novellas, a collection of three short works of Bernhard’s written between 1964 and 1971, including Amras
Thomas Bernhard - Xmas 1957