Thursday, December 07, 2006

Devastated Characters

From Ben Marcus' review of Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost (just now appearing in English for the first time), in the November issue of Harper's:
…his characters might be regarded as arguments, constructed to stifle any possibility of hope or joy, the opposite of what anyone-anyone, that is, with an interest in self-preservation-should want from a book. They petition, with a barrister’s authority, a bleak space, interrogating the purpose of life and regularly finding it hollow and terrible. "Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet," asks the narrator, “or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterwards?"

Who indeed? Yet the technique precisely describes the kind of jeopardy in which Bernhard routinely places his characters, choosing to notice them just when their suffering is at its most intense. This procedure allows readers the unusual experience of witnessing people who operate under virtually no illusions, in the most extreme emotional circumstances, at war with fears that none of us can rightly deny.


Bernhard’s mortal impulses place him in the company of another contemporary German-language writer, W. G. Sebald. Both were perfect adherents to Kafka's credo to pursue the negative, because "the positive thing is given to us from the start." Each produced portraits of devastated characters, ruined by both circumstance and self-generated torment, but their techniques diverged in stark ways. Whereas Sebald built a tranquil moat around his characters’ pain, Bernhard wheeled out the catapult and flung his characters into the fire, paying close attention to the sounds of their screams. In Sebald the emotion is buried under the veneer of manner and etiquette, and its repression and concealment create an exquisite pressure. We tiptoe around his characters and their elaborate denial, which, by its very banality, suggests to us extraordinary levels of pain that cannot be etched in language. They are so obliterated as to be beyond direct communication. Instead, they can talk about the flora and fauna in wistful ways, they can reminisce dully, and we are left to infer the depth of their grief. Sebald promoted his credo of subtlety and indirection when he declared that atrocity could not be rendered directly in literature, a rule that would seem to stuff rags into the mouths of Bernhard's characters, who are so far from standing on ceremony that they may as well be crawling on their bellies through the dirt.

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