Sunday, October 19, 2008

Notes on Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles

In Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles, the narrator is a student, home from school, accompanying his father, a doctor, on his rounds. Unlike most of the other Bernhard novels I've read, in which the narrator is in a sense a conduit through which another character's sensibility is conveyed, in all its contradictions, with occasional stretches of the narrator's own outlook, itself often enough dominated in some way by the other, the first part of this novel is devoted to encounters with multiple characters. Here, the narrator and his father visit numerous patients, suffering from some malady or other, and we get commentary of sorts from the narrator, as well as his father, along the way. Some of these encounters are very brief, others are many pages in length. The husband of a woman killed by a drunk in their inn. An elderly woman on her deathbed. A businessman talking at length about the relative qualifications of applicants for a job he has posted. And so on. Each character, visited as part of the rounds, or otherwise encountered on the way, walks onto the page, alive for a moment, before exiting. We encounter them, as the narrator does, as individuals, however damaged. In the narrator's comments and his father's, we get the sense that these people are doomed: doomed by their environment, by their parents, teachers, institutional context. These people are grotesques, the gargoyles of the title, twisted into ugliness.

For an example of this sort of commentary, the narrator and his father stop to eat at one point. As they leave:
We paid and left. In the restaurant a band of schoolchildren were being fed. They were given hot soup and admonishments not to make noise. What gruesome people these innocent creatures will inevitably become, I thought as we left the restaurant.
Earlier, speaking of a man whose death he'd witnessed, his father reports that he'd seen on his face "a man's accusation against a world that refused to understand him". Later the narrator, speaking of a Turk who'd left home to work in the gorge described in the novel, and who is made fun of and has only a kind of slavery to look forward to if he stays, thinks to himself:
How destitute the Turk's life at home must have been for him to end up in this gorge in Central Europe, I thought. The gorge is a cruel betrayal of him.
This kind of thing is fairly common in the first part of the novel, then halfway through they visit the Prince Saurau, with whom we stay for the rest of the novel. Here we are in more familiar Bernhard territory. This is early Bernhard, and I'm tempted to say that the second half of the novel is the writer perhaps settling into his form. As with later novels, such as The Loser and Old Masters, we again have blocks of text devoted to the rantings of someone other than the narrator, through the narrator's memory of the event (I note here that in this recent post, I miswrote on this score when I said that it is Bernhard's narrators who rail against the absurdity of life, though surely they do some of that, too; they are not merely the delivery system for another's opinions) . Here, the narrator’s father explicitly tells the narrator that the Prince is "mad", a definitive assessment not normally given by a character in a Bernhard novel (so my memory tells me anyway; I should keep that in mind as I re-read his books). Thomas Bernhard's novels can be relentless, exhausting reads. Here, the exhaustion factor is mitigated by the inclusion of the earlier encounters before the Prince. The attraction, again, is the voice, the cerebral pulse, of the Prince, similar but not identical to that of characters in Bernhard's other works.

Though an enjoyable read--it's always a pleasure to read Bernhard, exhaustion notwithstanding--Gargoyles feels minor in comparison to, for example, the two novels mentioned above, to say nothing of two I haven't read yet: Correction, which is so often touted as his masterpiece, or Extinction, claimed as a favorite by at least one reader.

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