Friday, February 05, 2010

Thomas Bernhard

“For let us not deceive ourselves: most of the minds we associate with are housed in heads that have little more to offer than overgrown potatoes, stuck on top of whining and tastelessly clad bodies and eking out a pathetic existence that does not even merit our pity.”

From Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, translation by David McLintock. I just finished reading this book, my third Bernhard, definitely not my last. What can you say about a writer who left it in his will that none of his works be published or produced in his native country? What can you say about a man so deft at holding the mirror to his society that he was attacked by an old lady while trying to board a bus?

I’ll say this: rarely does a writer like this come around. Bernhard was, as the saying goes, the real deal. Like Celine, whose ellipsis riddled the page, his books tend to share the marked characteristic of lacking paragraph breaks, creating a singular style that was perhaps not 100% original inasmuch as he was not the first to try something so bold, but, in a much greater sense, is very goddamn original because he owned that style. When you do something better than anyone else, you own it.

Usually slim books, which might help those leery of reading such dense pages get through to the back cover, the work of this master cannot be explained other than to locate his tropes, themes, patterns and practices—a boring process, I’m afraid, and not befitting such a talent, but it helps us understand contextualize. I’d list them here, but to what end? (I will state that two of the three books I have read have suicides and the other features a madman.) Read the back of any of his books published in English and you’ll find out all you need to know about what loosely constitutes a typical Bernhard “plot.” Be ready to abandon the story and walk through the language; brace yourself for contempt, pathos, and a scathing critique of society. Sure, Austria is what often finds itself in the author’s sights, but the criticisms travel very well.

So what have we learned today? That the economy is still walking with a limp? That Illinois politics are endlessly fun? That we hate our jobs a lot of the time? What elevates us from these daily grinds? If you’re like me, a good book is the cure, and you could do a hell of a lot worse than Bernhard.

Thank you for your time.