Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Letter

Very early in Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles, before we encounter the Prince or any of the other grotesque character portraits, the narrator mentions a letter he had recently sent to his father. He describes it:
. . .I had tried to sketch the uneasy relationship among us three, between him and me and between him and my sister and between me and my sister. . . [...]

In the letter I had tried to define certain things about our relationship by citing seemingly simple but to me extremely important details. In the writing I had taken the greatest pains not to offend my father. Nor to offend anybody. From my years of observation I found it fairly easy to sketch a picture of us that could be considered truthful from all three sides. My letter had been composed very calmly; I did not allow myself to show any excitement, although I did not evade the central matters that concerned me [. . .] I had long wanted to write such a letter and had started on it repeatedly, but had each time been overcome by doubts about the usefulness of this sort of accounting. It had always been impossible for me to write to him. Each time I would immediately become aware of the awkwardness of suddenly expressing in black and white things that for years had only been private thoughts, speculations. Then too I was checked by a reluctance to bring up possibly long-forgotten matters as essential evidence for my view of us. For I would have had to proceed with sincerity and therefore ruthlessness, and yet show consideration for all concerned. That, too, made such a letter impossible for such a long time.
This letter sounds to me like an excellent description of Kafka's famous letter to his own father. Unlike the letter sent by this narrator, Kafka's letter was apparently never received or read by his father, because, I believe, of his mother's intervention. One can see why she would have stopped it from being read. While in many respects it is a model of understanding and fairness, there is no sense that Kafka's father, if he in any way resembled the portrait that emerges from the letter, could have read the letter as anything other than an affront. And this is not necessarily to take Kafka's "side" against his father, whatever that might mean at this juncture far removed from the situation. But the letter, more than any real attempt to explain anything to his father, really reads like a performance, just as any piece of writing is a performance. Kafka performs a version of himself for the purposes of his letter. And perhaps he was being as scrupulously honest as it was possible for him to be. Even so, the letter remains a performance, a writing, something to which a real-life figure, it seems to me, could find all but impossible to respond to. Bernhard's narrator speaks of "doubts about the usefulness of this sort of accounting", and he's right, is he not? There comes a time, in some relationships, when such an accounting is quite beside the point--too late to do anyone any good--and in others, if the gulf in communication is enough to precipitate this kind of letter, then what good could it do anyway, however well intended, other than as a way of performing one's own confession, one's own account, one's own perspective?

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Lloyd Mintern said...

Yes, indeed, and the literary performance most often pivots precisely upon the point of communication that the one to whom it is personally, and even strategically addressed is, by their own nature, completely blocked from receiving. But such is the nature of many nevertheless profound intimacies!

October 20, 2008 3:16 PM  

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