Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Cerebral Pulse

Thomas Bernhard's fiction presents us with a singular vision. In his novels we are witness to voices crying out in despair. This voice sometimes comes to us direct--as with the procrastinating Rudolph in Concrete, who is supposed to be working on a book of musicology, but instead obsesses over the perfect first sentence and rants about his sister and Austria and his illness. Or the voice comes to us by way of another party--as in Old Masters, in which Atzbacher spends much of the book waiting for Reger in the museum, and as he waits we get detailed reminisces of the things Reger has said, along with thoughts of his own, as well as those of the museum guard (see my entry on Old Masters); or in The Loser, in which the narrator, after the suicide of his friend Wertheimer, ponders their abandonment of careers as concert pianists, in the face of their contact and relationship with the fictionalized Glenn Gould. In Correction, the narrator accepts an invitation to sift through the papers of his friend Roithamer (who also committed suicide, and who was reportedly based on Wittgenstein), and similarly recalls the words and actions of his late friend.

In each of these books, Bernhard employs similar methods in the service of similar concerns (full disclosure: I have not actually finished reading Correction; I read about 45 pages several weeks ago, but sleepiness ruled the day, and I was not up to the task; I intend to return to it soon). Huge half- or full-book-length paragraphs; long, winding, repetitive sentences; displaced narration. We encounter rants--about art, humanity, above all about the corruption and filth of Austria. It might sound as if these books are virtually identical, but while the methods and concerns are similar, the effect is unique to each.

For those of us who care about such things, the publication last year, for the first time in English (translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann), of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, was a major literary event--of significantly more importance than most of what seems to set the book world atwitter. Frost was originally published in 1963, twelve years before Correction (which is the earliest of the other Bernhard novels I own). Flipping through the book, right away differences are apparent: actual paragraph breaks! Rarely a paragraph longer than two pages! And, at 342 pages, the book is considerably longer than his other fiction (100-150 pages longer than Correction and The Loser, more than twice as long as both Old Masters and Concrete). In other ways, however, it quickly becomes clear that Bernhard's concerns in this novel were of a piece with his later fiction, though he had not yet refined his methods.

In Frost, we again have an anguished voice coming to us, this time again filtered through a narrator. The narrator is a medical internist who has been tasked to observe and report on a man named Strauch, a painter, the brother of the assistant doctor's. He poses as a law student so that Strauch will not suspect him of any connection with his brother, who he has not seen in years. And so we get Strauch's despairing and contradictory view of the world, which is not at all unrecognizable in a Bernhard character. We get comments like the following:
"Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible." (86)
Or:
"Lawyers make nothing but confusion," he said. "A lawyer is an instrument of the devil. In general, he's a fiendish idiot, banking on the stupidity of people much more stupid than himself, and by God he's always right." [. . .] "Jurisprudence creates criminality, that's a fact. Without jurisprudence, there would be no crime. Did you know that? Unlikely as it may sound, that's the truth of the matter." (125)
Or:
Newspapers were the greatest wonders of the world, they knew everything, and only through them did the universe become animated for their readers, the ability to picture everything was only preserved by newspapers. [. . .] "Of course, you have to know how to go about reading them," said the painter, "you mustn't just gobble them up, and you mustn't take them too seriously either, but remember they are miraculous." [. . .] "The dirt which people hold against newspapers is just the dirt of the people themselves, and not the dirt of the newspapers, you understand! The newspapers do well to hold up a mirror to people that shows them as they are--which is to say, revolting." (140-141)
The use of quotations marks setting off Strauch's supposed actual words from the narrator's recounting of them is something Bernhard abandoned in the later books. The sentences are much shorter. Though the book is still darkly comic like the others, the tortured worrying of a topic from every possible angle, to extreme and ridiculous degrees, is foreshortened here. Strauch does beat on a subject for a time, per the internist's account, but not to the excessive extent of later Bernhard characters. Still, the methods are recognizable, though the effect is perhaps somewhat muted by comparison.

But, Strauch talks like this, on and on, bending the narrator's ear, occupying most of his time, till the narrator forgets why he is there, what he is supposed to be doing. What can he say about the painter? Everything seems clear to him, but impossible to convey to another. And here the narrator produces a fully formed thought that, I think, represents an unexpected nod from Bernhard--almost as if he is telling us what the point is (almost), not just of Frost and Strauch's despairing voice within, but all of his narratives. Here it is:
What sort of language is Strauch's language? What can I make of his scraps of thought? Things that initially struck me as disjointed and incoherent, actually possess "truly immense connections"; the whole thing is in the nature of an enormous transfusion of words into the world, into humans, "a pitiless proceeding against stupidity," as he would say, "an uninterrupted, regeneration-worthy backdrop of sound." How get that down? What notes? Schematic or systematic to what point? His outbursts descend on me like rockfalls. Abruptly, things he says detach themselves from the explosive guffaw of ridicule which he reserves for himself "and the world." Strauch's language is the language of the heart muscle, a scandalous "cerebral pulse." It is rhythmic self-abasement under the "subliminal creak" of his own rafters. His notions and subterfuges, fundamentally in accord with the barking of those dogs that he drew my attention to, with which he "scattered me to the air." Can it still be described as language? Yes, it is the false bottom of language, the heaven and hell of language, the mutiny of rivers, "the steaming word-nostrils of brains that are in a state of endless and shameless despair." Sometimes he will speak a poem, and then tear it apart, reformulate it as a "power plant," "a barracks for the raw philosophy of a wordless tribe," as he says. "The world is a world of recruits, it needs to be brutalized, you need to teach it to shoot, and not to shoot." He rips the words out of himself as from a swamp. This violent ripping out of words leaves him dripping with blood. (148-149)
A passage like this strikes me as highly unlikely to appear in the mature Bernhard fiction. But I submit that it serves very well as a description of not only Bernhard's fiction, but also, perhaps, the attitude we might take to the anguished voices contained in it. Because these are indeed voices of despair, from characters who are suffering, characters who have all but given up, in the articulation of the despair, and who, in some cases, ultimately actually do give up. A "pitiless proceeding against stupidity"; "rhythmic self-abasement": these phrases are incredibly apt. In Old Masters, Reger spends most of his time ranting about art, the awfulness of it, the absurdity of it, but art is ultimately all that makes life worth living. In the other books, as well as in Old Masters, life itself is found wanting, but life is all there is, except for death.

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