Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.
Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.
A typical Bernhard story (both in Prose and in his novels) takes the form of a report or confession of narrator who witnesses the dissolution of another character’s mind—as Ben Marcus argues, Bernhard is less a narrative storyteller than an “architect of consciousness.” The narrator serves as a filter through which the victim1 pours his defense, which, at this remove takes on a deeply ironic aspect. By keeping the subject at arm’s length, Bernhard can create an at times unbearable tension: does the distance save the reader from identifying fully with the victim1 or does it cause us to suffer more due to the fact that Bernhard’s narrators are themselves sufferers by proxy, thus magnifying the amount of anguish a book can contain?
The sixth of seven stories in this collection, the excruciatingly ironic “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son,” offers a prime example of this technique. The titular character, the narrator’s fellow student and roommate, is driven to desperation by being different, a dividing line drawn between him and his family:
Georg was an exception. He was the center of attention, but thanks to his worthlessness, thanks to the scandal which he represented for the whole family, always frightened and embittered by him, not least where they tried to cover it up, a horribly crooked and crippled center of attention, which they wanted out of the house at all costs. He was so greatly and in the most dreadful way deformed by nature they always had to hide him. After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die . . .
The “scandal” Georg causes, we find, is due more to his intelligence than a mysterious deformity: being born into a merchant family, this “useless, ever deeper and deeper thinking beast” who “even wrote poems,” deviated too much from the rigid stupidity of the shopkeeping class. As in a fairy tale, Georg’s murderous family conspires to rid themselves of this nuisance. Despite his perceived monstrosity, Georg proves himself strong enough to overcome his family’s evil designs and flees to Vienna.
In a fairy tale, such an escape signals a happy resolution. In Bernhard’s stories it signals the point at which any similarity to a fairy tale falls apart. There’s no redemption in this universe. Escape is only exchange, in this case one prison, the family cellar at Innsbruck, for another: Vienna, “the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe . . . such an old and lifeless city . . . such a cemetery.” And, since Georg once again finds himself claustrophobically entombed, he commits his final, and in the eyes’ of his family, unpardonable crime.
“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and five other of the stories in Prose fall into the basic pattern above: a highly subjective secondhand report on the crime of a hypersensitive character. The irony being, of course, that the perpetrators of the so-called crimes are in fact victims of grave and at times obscure injustices themselves—and justice’s blindness serves only as a convenient excuse for its idiocy. This is typical Bernhard, surprising only in its relentlessness.
In the two remaining stories—“The Cap” and “Juaregg”—Bernhard deviates from his typical distance (if not pattern) by presenting confessions without an intermediary. In “The Cap,” the narrator, suffering from a “_pathological nature_,” is so incapable of action that even the decision to go for a walk proves to be an unrelenting torment. Even more unbearable than action, however, is twilight, at which time he flees the house in terror to walk in either of two directions: toward an ugly town or toward a beautiful town. Imagine then his overwhelming consternation when he finds a cap on the road leading toward the ugly town and assumes the proper course would be to attempt to return it to its owner. But to whom does the cap belong? Is it a woodcutter’s or a butcher’s or even a farmer’s cap? And what if he puts it on? But he has no right to put it on, for he is not a farmer, a butcher, or a woodcutter. And what color is the cap?
These questions cascade over him, inordinately agitating his already fragile mental state. He wants nothing more than a life without complications, but such an eventless existence is impossible for someone in his state. Like many of Bernhard’s characters, the narrator in “The Cap” suffers so much precisely because he is not mad. He believes that by going mad he would manage to escape his anguish:
But the truth is that I want to go mad, I want to go mad, nothing I want more, than really go mad, but I fear that I am far from being able to go mad. I at last want to go mad! I don’t want to be only afraid of going mad, I at last want to go mad. Two doctors, one of whom is a highly scientific doctor, have prophesied that I shall go mad, very soon I would go mad, the two doctors prophesied, very soon, very soon; now I’ve been waiting two years for it to happen, to go mad, but I still haven’t gone mad.
This breathless, hysterical desire is merely another form of madness and bars the way to any escape. This is the fate of Bernhard’s characters: a crazed desire for insanity or suicide, both options being viewed as an end to suffering. To go on living is possible, of course, but always with the awareness that “We are at liberty to kill ourselves.”
A friend and I, both booksellers, were recently discussing a curious compulsion we feel when recommending “depressing” books: we find that we search, almost unconsciously, to find something palatable on which to focus our enthusiasm. This is natural enough in sales, I suppose, but nonetheless troubling. In the case of Bernhard, for instance, I find myself explaining that while his work is, well, almost unbearably grim, there’s comedy and pathos in it as well. This is true—Bernhard is a savagely hysterical writer—but highlighting it obscures a fundamental characteristic of his, and many of our best writers’, work: the acknowledgement that life is itself not particularly palatable. This isn’t to say life, and by extension superior works of art, aren’t graced by moments of remarkable beauty, but by focusing only on the “nice” we risk shutting ourselves off from the fullness of experience.
Bernhard offers us such a discomforting vision. In the story “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” his narrator offers an opinion that “one describes best what one hates.” Our literature is much richer for this assumption.
1 Everyone in Bernhard’s fiction is a victim, whether of a bad childhood, failed ambitions, or simply of having been born: “The catastrophe,” Prince Sarau reports in Gargoyles, “begins with getting out of bed.”