Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thomas Bernhard

For anyone interested in reading some of the most hypnotic, relentless, and engaging prose you’re likely to find, read Thomas Bernhard. I am sure the more savvy readers of world literature have already devoured Bernhard’s iconoclastic novels, and don’t need me mumbling about them, but I’ve just read my first (The Loser) and am starting my second (Yes).

I learned of Bernhard’s work about a year ago, stumbling on a quote about him, one that made me remember the name. I bought The Loser for a buck at the Brown Elephant, a good investment. Months later, the big goofy lit prof at the big goofy university had us read the opening of Bernhard’s Correction. I was stunned. There were no paragraph breaks, the sentences went on and on, expanding and turning back into themselves, spiraling and whirling, and the tone was… learned and strident? That works, sure. Bernhard was critical of his native Austria, so much so that an old woman once attacked him while he was boarding a bus. He relished riling and ruffling and any other R word you’d like to insert. He was a gadfly, but a wise one, one who could spin a sentence into gold. And he had a dislike of the standard beginning/middle/end novel with a plot and rising action and all of that. His books—from what I can tell—do not do anything so commonplace. The Loser knocked me on my ass solely for its (lack of) structure, which is essentially a circle—though, if one were game, a pattern or “plot” or conventional linear tale could easily be fashioned. This is not to say that the book lacks a story. By no means. The story is, I feel, secondary to the language and the characters—the “loser” and the narrator and, to a lesser extent, Glenn Gould, the famous pianist. There is a lot going on, and anyway, novels need not obsess over plot.

So what brought me to Bernhard? As intrigued as I was by the little bit from Correction, I resisted Bernhard because the prof, who was stomping for the dead Austrian, was not my favorite professor (or person) and I have a juvenile inclination to rebel. “He likes Bernhard, then fuck Bernhard,” I might have said. How sad. How silly.

It took me a few months to get over it and read The Loser, but this was spurned on by another book, one I am still reeling over: Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Moya is obviously a fan of Bernhard. One can tell that from reading the two of them, though Moya’s run-on sentences and lack of paragraph breaks drives the reader along on a more linear path. Also, Moya’s breakthrough book (yet to be translated) was titled El Asco: Thomas Bernhard En San Salvador. As is often the case, I get the next book from the last one.

So I’m just starting Yes. More details to follow once I finish, though you can find all kind of Bernhard tidbits, excerpts, and hoo-haws here and all over the web. As always, I am late to the game.