Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Bernhard Moment

If in the early part of last year my reading was dominated by Peter Handke, I anticipate the beginning of this year to be dominated by his fellow Austrian, the late Thomas Bernhard. Not only did I receive for Christmas the two newly published collections of his writings, Prose (early stories just now appearing in English for the first time) and My Prizes (his various pieces commenting on his several literary prizes), but I already had three other volumes still awaiting my attention. These are Wittgenstein's Nephew, Woodcutters, and the final novel, Extinction. The relentlessness of Bernhard's mature style means that I am especially loath to read him when exhausted and so has meant that I have not been reading him much of late, except where shorter works have been available. The Voice Imitator, for example, or Three Novellas. The latter collection, of similar vintage as the stories found in Prose, I did read last year, and each of the three stories successively came closer to that mature style, with "Walking" in particular being very much like the later Bernhard, and so reminding me of the considerable pleasure to be found in his music. It feels like time to read him again. (A re-read of Concrete, my first Bernhard, may also be in order.)

There have been several new paperback editions of Bernhard's work in recent years, which is just one reason why reviews have been appearing at some of the more popular litblogs. I admit to some ambivalence about this. It's great that people are reading Bernhard and that his books are coming back into print (though, alas, the new American Vintage reissues are fucking ugly; fortunately, I already have the vastly more attractive University of Chicago editions for most of them; The Lime Works appears to be the only one I am missing). I suppose I'm being a bit churlish. Few noticed when others of us were talking about Bernhard in the past. I'm not completely beyond the tendency to care whether (more) people notice. But, to be fair, I don't have many actual complaints about the recent blog-commentary I've seen, which is more than can be said for either mainstream coverage of Bernhard or the traditional critical responses to him.

For the former, Dale Peck's recent item in the New York Times has received some attention. Since Peck is the author, you can bet there is something wrong with it, but in fact I wasn't quite as bothered by it as some, if only because I don't much mind the practice of "a reviewer [using] a book merely as a soapbox on which to stand and expound". You'll notice I have referred to Peck's "item"; this is because, though it is ostensibly a review of the two new books, he doesn't really review either of them, instead using the occasion to cluelessly talk up Bernhard in general. Which, again, in itself isn't a bad thing. It depends on the nature of the argument being expounded. Obviously, "soapbox" and "expound" are words carrying negative connotations, and Peck does little to warrant a defense (though he does once or twice veer dangerously close to getting it). He goes on and on about alienation. (The article sounds at times like a less interesting version of Zadie Smith's much-discussed "Two Paths" essay from two years ago, though Peck doesn't really explore the question he raises.) The soapbox-line comes from Terry at Vertigo, in his excellent evisceration of the Peck review (which he follows up with a fine review of his own of Prose).

With respect to the traditional critical take on Bernhard, a recent review in the London Review of Books of a new UK edition of Old Masters, by the well-regarded translator Michael Hofmann (translator of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, among many other important German-language works), is a case in point (my own review of Old Masters, from four years ago, is here; see also John Self's fine review last year at Asylum). Waggish handles Hofmann's review superbly. Waggish was disappointed in the review,
not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. [...] [the ranting] is always contextualized. It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target.
The voice in Bernhard is so vital that one is often tempted to nod along in agreement. I can't tell you the number of times I have encountered a passage that seems to perfectly capture a given position, or perfectly expresses a thought, and I have stopped to underline or jot it down, or have even blogged an excerpt, only to see it negated or comically undermined further down the page, or on the next page, or perhaps 30 or 60 pages on, this negation or reversal also perfectly expressed, by the same character, in the same marvelous music. I am reminded, again, in these moments, chastened even, that the opinion is not the point (which is not the same thing as saying that it's completely irrelevant, either to Bernhard or to his art). (Of course, I underline or excerpt anyway.) (Coetzee is another writer who is constantly reminding us of this; we seem to need the reminders.) In any event, Waggish's post is an excellent discussion of the purposes Bernhard's characters' rants serve in the narratives which contain them (which appear to some readers to simply be the totality of those narratives, the characters merely stand-ins for Bernhard himself).

One aspect of Waggish's review that is of particular interest to me is the distinction he makes between the middle narratives, culminating in Correction, and the later, more rant-fueled books, which include Concrete, The Loser (again, source of this blog's name), Old Masters, and Extinction. I am partial to these later works, and at times found Correction rough sledding. Correction is often named as Bernhard's best and most important (Waggish agrees), most prominently by George Steiner, who tended to dismiss the later work as the product of a writer "succumb[ing] to a monotone of hate". Steiner, like Hofmann, missed the point. Here is Waggish again (his post is much more than the excerpts I'm quoting in this post and is very much worth reading in its entirety):
All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount.
Interestingly, from, say, the latter half of Gargoyles, through Correction, on through to the later novels, the musicality of Bernhard's voice, the refracted narrative, the repetitions, the negations, is so similar, so recognizably Bernhard, that I have to admit that I hadn't remembered that those of the middle-period are not "all that rant-filled at all" till Waggish pointed it out. Perhaps oddly, it's Correction that, for this reader, was the toughest to finish, and I think it's what Waggish calls the "hermetic approach" that helps to explain it. The later works, though superficially rant-filled, and certainly despairing, are at the same time lighter, and also funnier. I don't feel oppressed by the writing, even as it bears obvious similarities with the hermetic, oppressive writing of Correction. It is this lightness which, for me, elevates the later writing.

Now, on to the reading.


Thomas McGonigle said...

For which edition of Correction did George Steiner write an Intro... I had corresponded with GS about TB and gave him the initial publication figures...
I intend later today to read closely your blog..
I notice Coleman Dowell's name... we share a publisher and I personally loathe Walter Abish for interpting a conversation I was having with CD shortly before he killed himself.. but that is for another day.
Michael Roloff sent me the link to your blog

Richard said...

Cheers, Thomas.

I'm not at home, so I can't doublecheck, but the edition of Correction I have is the Vintage UK edition, published some time in the last decade or so. The Steiner intro may be an item that previously appeared elsewhere, I can't recall.

Also, if you're checking out the blog, you may come across some posts about Evelyn Scott. I learned of her through your blog. Thanks.