Confessions of an Obsessive
Whatever story Thomas Bernhard happens to be telling, it is always the case history of an illness. He is one of those writers whose persistent and obdurate attention is principally devoted to those who are imperiled or already lost, to people who are being sucked by the undertow towards the abyss. His tableaux are populated by psychopaths and neurotics, criminals and madmen, murderers, suicides, and the dying. The personnel of this epic are gloomy and menacing; the world delineated here is uncanny and depressing.
But unequivocal though Bernhard’s predilection for the macabre and the suffocating is, the motives by which he is actuated are apparently legitimate. He is fascinated by the darkest regions of our existence precisely because it is there—and only there—that he hopes to find the answer to the most decisive questions. Certainly, he wallows in morbidity and also frequently in repulsiveness, but the pathology is plainly intended to render the human condition visible and the abnormality to point up the dubiousness of the things we are accustomed to regard as normal.
So Bernhard shines his flashlight into the suburbs of existence in order to determine its focal points, in order to grope his way towards them or at least furnish a hint as to their location. He knows that in literature it is often the eccentric detour that leads to the center. In other words: he puts extremity on display not despite but because of its exemplary significance.
Moreover, his prose works evince a striking authenticity that we cannot help missing in many of our younger writers and that is unattainable by mere craftsmanship. Bernhard is a storyteller who has no need to go looking for his subjects. We are dealing here rather with a subject that has found someone to tell a story about it. His works are diaries of a man bereaved, confessions of an obsessive—which, however, is by no means to say that they contain anything in the way of autobiographical elements.
At the same time each of these prose texts owes its persuasiveness to its description of background detail, which enfolds the text’s characters and objects just as comprehensively as the localities and landscapes implicated in its storyline. Whether he wants to be one or not, Bernhard is an Austrian national bard, one who is admittedly impelled to write not so much by love or introspective musings over life in the Tyrol or the Styrian valleys as by rage and disgust, if not outright loathing. Bernhard’s aggressive relationship with his native environment is the sole and blatantly visible incubator of the extraordinary one-sidedness that determines his subject-matter and perspective as well as his choice of motifs and characters, of colors and tones, of literary devices. But in literature as a rule one-sidedness is ascribable to one of two things: it can be rooted in a laudable impetus or it may have its origin in a kind of narrow-mindedness. I believe that both ascriptions hold true for Thomas Bernhard: his one-sidedness strikes one as audacious one moment and simplistic the next. It facilitates the severity and the idiosyncrasy of this epic, but unfortunately also sets narrow limits to it and often occasions monotony. Thus, the very thing that makes his prose so valuable threatens to vitiate it at the same time. His new book, the novel, Verstörung [Gargoyles], evinces this with almost appalling clarity.
The first-person narrator, a student who has come home for a brief stay, is taken along by his father, a country doctor in Styria, on a daylong series of house calls, because, he says, the young man “must become acquainted with human beings.” His notes on the individual patients and the people connected with them, on their histories and destinies, fill the first part of the book. Bernhard inaugurates the round-dance with a dying innkeeper’s wife who has been mortally wounded by a dipsomaniac for no conceivable reason; this episode is followed by portraits of various invalids who are almost all afflicted with horrifying physical or mental infirmities and are for the most part slowly wasting away; at the end we are presented with a depiction of an insane cripple which hardly scrimps with the unsettling details.
This is all recounted in an impassive style that deftly and coherently employs indirect discourse, a style from which Bernhard manages to wrest a considerable amount of power: for from this pointedly referential, often depositionally formal mode of writing it is easy to gather that although the young commentator would like to contemplate the sufferers dispassionately, for all his cool objectivity he feels touched by their misfortune. Many passages are signalized by a peculiarity that is a hallmark of good prose: in them distance and proximity are discernable at one and the same time.
So Bernhard’s epic art stands the test once again in several of the juxtaposed miniatures of the first part of the book, but only in those in which he contents himself with the depiction of the sensuously perceptible world and also places his trust in sober, reportorial observation. When he tries to seek out the mental causes of the crimes and illnesses he describes, he comes up with motives that seem superficial and formulaic and make it evident that while psychology is undoubtedly his passion it is not necessarily his forte.
When on the other hand he lets the facts and concrete situations speak for themselves, the characters and moods are immediately present, and local color and a sense of setting emerge almost spontaneously. It then becomes apparent that he is capable of transforming inconspicuous details and trivial objects into discrete but telling indicators of a situation, and in particular of the hopelessness of that situation. The succinct description of the bedroom of an irremediably doomed widow betrays more insight into her life than do all the exegetic remarks that are likewise served up to us.
Nevertheless, this first part of Verstörung leaves behind a decidedly ambivalent impression. At first blush it seems to me that such a colossal accumulation of dismal, perverse, and gruesome elements quite simply undermines the novel’s economy: anything displayed in such abundance fails to achieve its intended effect and occasions fatigue rather than shock.
In addition, Bernhard proceeds from a programmatic thesis that condemns his book to failure from the outset. The country doctor who elucidates the world for our narrator states, “In point of fact there are more brutes and criminals in the country than in the city. In the country brutality, like violence, is the foundation […] The crimes committed in the city, the urban crimes, are nothing compared with the crimes committed in the country […].”
To this opinion, which is stated in the novel’s first few pages, Bernhard has subordinated the whole of Verstörung, with a characteristic—and in this case disastrous—result: the individual tableaux, sketches, and genre paintings are always intended to reinforce and exemplify these theses [(sic) on the plural number (DR)]. Thus Bernhard degrades his narrative art: he consigns it to a merely illustrative function. Consequently, in certain stretches the book reads like a blood-and-soil novel turned on its head. The genre whereby the praises of rootedness in the soil were formerly sung must now be made to promulgate examples of rootlessness.
Naturally I wouldn’t dream of getting into an argument about the inhabitants of rural Styria with the author of Verstörung. He knows his way around there; I don’t. Moreover, he never gives one cause to doubt that his survey is sufficiently broad or deep. But as a rule radical anti-idylls bear an embarrassingly close resemblance to idylls–namely in being at an equally far remove from reality. And a social critic’s thesis-driven novel of ideas, even one that tries to elevate the world it depicts to the level of an allegory of our epoch, strikes me as an extremely dated literary anachronism.
But Verstörung has also got a second part. The doctor and his son pay a visit to a certain Prince Saurau, who at the moment of their arrival is immersed in a conversation with himself, which he continues carrying on despite their presence. His monologue, which is well over a hundred pages long, is registered by the narrator without commentary or anything else but occasional stage direction-like remarks.
This prince, who possesses enormous amounts of land, has plays staged in his “summer house,” is suffering from a mental illness, and is in the habit of carrying on “masochistic discussions” with himself for hours on end in a locked and bolted room; he can hardly avoid being stigmatized as conventional: such figures have been awfully popular since at least the days of Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Bernhard’s prince tells anecdotes about his mysterious and unabashedly sadistic son and about three men who have applied to him for a job; he reports on catastrophes that have already happened and on others that he expects to happen; he meditates on the State and on suicide. Everything is sited—so he proclaims—“in a homogeneous, dim-witted agony.” He says that in his entire life he has only ever “beheld invalids and crazy people,” in incidental connection with which it is striking that he expresses views that are quite similar to those of the by no means-insane doctor in the first part of the book. From the very beginning, the prince declares, he has dreaded “being compelled to be suffocated by the stench of the world.” He says that the “mass-political madness of the masses” (?) is not so ridiculous “that in the future it would still not be able to destroy everything.” Or: “The common people are stupid and smell bad; this has always been true.” From the doctor we heard: “The poor are doubly brutal, vulgar, and criminal.”
To be sure, the author of Verstörung has sound reasons for giving plenty of space to the prince’s pathological hatred and to his contempt of humankind. The only problem is that he lacks the eloquence required for fulfilling such a function. The almost fanatical authorial obsessiveness that is so often in evidence in Bernhard’s prose is completely ineffectual here, where the object is to substantiate the confessions of an obsessive. The few illuminating formulations and intriguing insights contained in this endless monologue are regrettably drowned in an ocean of platitudes and in a welter of chit-chat that makes extraordinary and unconscionable demands on the reader’s patience.
At least Bernhard has been ambitiously keen to elucidate the mental condition of a madman with the help of his own expressions. But even this attempt proves unproductive, to put it mildly. “The interior of my head is literally an unimaginable wasteland”; “the noise of my head prevents me from doing anything”; “In my head there is a snarl of lines”; “Repose is spreading in my head and is going to smash it to pieces”—these assertions are simply not up to snuff. Persistently iterated messages like these reveal nothing but that the realization of the intended effect exceeds Bernhard’s present powers.
It would be unfair to suspect the author to whom we owe the novel Frost and a few extremely remarkable novellas of wishing to relieve himself of aesthetic and intellectual responsibility with this monologue. But this foray into the domain of the uncontrollable has caused the man who time and again has depicted people on the edge of the abyss to stumble into the proximity of a perilous abyss in his own right.
Art must “go too far in order to learn how far it is allowed to go.” Although these memorable words, first spoken by Heinrich Böll in his Wuppertal speech, originally referred only to artistic freedom, they hold good for the validity of art in a much more general sense. In his Verstörung Thomas Bernhard has gone too far. Probably he had to. Will he be capable of drawing the right conclusions from having done so?
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Über Thomas Bernhard. Herausgegeben von Anneliese Botond [On Thomas Bernhard. Edited by Anneliese Botond] (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), pp. 93-99. According to the bibliography in this book, Reich-Ranicki’s review was originally published in Die Zeit on April 28, 1967.