Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A Translation of "Ein Sinnbild der großen Kälte," an Essay on Thomas Bernhard's Frost by Carl Zuckmayer

An Allegory of the Great Coldness

A medical student, who is completing his clinical traineeship in a provincial hospital—in Austria such an internship is known as a Famulatur—is ordered by the clinic’s assistant physician to observe his brother, the “painter” Strauch, who lives alone, and evidently in a state of mental decay, in a godforsaken village in the mountains.  He is expected to make a report of his observations.

This report, to wit, the student’s daily jottings, constitutes the subject-matter of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.  I regard this book as one of the strongest first attempts of a new talent, as one of the most haunting and disturbing prose works produced by an author of the younger generation since Peter Weiss.  When I think back on my reading of this book, I hear a remarkable din, like the sound of the crust of snow on the front of my house shattering and melting away owing to a nocturnal incursion of Föhn air through the eaves-gutter.  This uncanny, menacing, thrilling, blustering din, which intimates the disaggregation of all human connections to the point when one last solitary remnant of the soul will have been laid bare, plays out in the background of a lucid, disciplined, richly imagistic prose idiom—it is not engendered by the words themselves; rather, the shocked and horror-stricken reader overhears it in their interstices.  Here something that we neither know nor are acquainted with is called to mind, something that can scarcely be compared to anything lived or experienced, or even to any literary precedents and that opens up new perspectives on that human “abyss” of which Büchner speaks.[1]  For this is no “psychological” novel, even if the various phases of disaggregation and isolation, or, as one should rather term it, frostification, of Strauch the painter are linguistically rendered with the exactitude of a clinical report.  It is much more like a legend or a ghastly fairy tale, like some terrifying history of a mythological martyrdom, or in the words of the author and his subject, like a “passage through a millennium not yet inhabitable by humanity”—like an “expedition into primeval forests of solitude.”[2]

At this point I am again compelled to use a comparison drawn from acoustics: in this book loneliness drones, it drones and within it solitude reverberates like the footfalls of a man who, as the last, forgotten human being, has been confined to some cavernous vault like St. Peter’s Basilica when it is shut up at night.  At the same time the book is not a narrative about there being “no exit” in the trivial buzz-wordish sense--because in it an exit is still very much being sought, an exit that inheres in the realm of human possibilities, and at the same time, despairingly and yet not hopelessly, the book is searching for an entrance that could lead to a deeper interiority and thereby to a discernable wellspring.  The sequence of events in this book rather reminds me of the by no means merely recreational or wayward work of the speleologist, who embarks on his investigations to the end of discovering not only the courses of subterranean bodies of water but also unfamiliar insights and new evidences of the origin of humankind.

In the unbridled, idiosyncratic monologues of the painter Strauch, who has long since stopped painting and “made heating fuel” of his paintings, who “goads” the young man, the catalyst of his verbal discharges, “onwards with a stick,” like a mule whom he would like to encumber, who “spews out his sentences like old people’s spittle” on endless walks—“flights,” the narrator calls them—through ravines encrusted in frost or macerated by fresh snow—out of these cascades of words issuing from an ever self-referential imagination, out of these abstruse (but never “absurd”!) scraps of ideas and simultaneous visions of a hypersensitive brain that has so to speak been bereft of its protective cranial integument—out of all this and in all this there emerges, in a scarcely comprehensible manner, a secret and secretive, but for all that absolutely pellucid sense (one could speak of the sense of non-sense or of the clear-sightedness of blindness); it emanates from a certain terrifyingly compelling, appallingly fascinating quality, from the spellbinding power of madness, a madness that in a different, unexplored dimension nevertheless “has method in it”; and in a plastic medium that is constantly outgrowing its defining contours this painter Strauch, this “poor fool,” this “idiot,” preserves a peculiar, unmistakable creatureliness, with which he overawes the young doctor, the implanted spy, the detached observer and—without this ever being explicitly stated or underscored by means of embarrassing pointers—makes him into a different human being, or even into a human being full stop.        

Anybody who is acquainted with the landscape of the upper Salzach--acquainted with the Pongau, with its little industrial towns, railway yards, that seem to have been thrown together by accident amid the eternal mistiness of their waterfalls, acquainted with its gloomy, gorge-like, incision-ridden lateral valleys--knows with what oppressive realism the author has captured its distinctive hues and climate.  In an overheated light railway train, the Famulant, together with a crew of snow-shovellers, makes his ascent to the little village of Weng.  “It was as warm as the inside of the belly of a cow.”  But the frost clings to the villagers’ damp clothing.  “Weng is the bleakest place I have ever seen.”  One of those inbred settlements in which you cannot cross the street without running into a village idiot who gapes at you and drools as he claws at you with his fingers.

The fictional town of Weng--this is the scenic backdrop of a limbo that, as in a nightmare, one cannot find one’s way out of, duped as one is by darkened blind alleys and uncertain lights, menaced as one is on all sides by lemures lying in wait.  “Extremely short grown men and women whom one may unhesitatingly term cretins...on average no taller than a meter forty centimeters...everybody here has drunken children’s voices sharpened up to high C, voices that that they pierce you with as you pass by them.”  Everywhere one hears yapping, howling dogs, but one never sees them, except sometimes as cadavers that the landlady chops to bits for use in her unspeakable cookery.  “Weng is situated at a very great height, and yet also entirely at a very great depth, as if inside a gorge.”  In Schwarzach-St. Veit the river overlooked by the student’s window rushed noisily past; here it is “unbearably still and silent.”  Here the painter Strauch, whom his brother the surgeon has not seen in twenty years and scarcely wishes to see, has hidden himself away in his private labyrinth; here he undertakes his endless, hurried walks, which give one the feeling that they are always describing the same circle.

It is a final stop, an oubliette in which a man has incarcerated himself and thrown away its key through its grilled window: this out of a dread of what might happen to him in the outside world.  Nevertheless, he claws at every ray of light that slips through the grill, as if he might take hold of it and thereby build another world, another freedom, a bridge to redemption leading out of an existence in which he has nothing to look forward to but going under, perishing, freezing to death.

He resides there in the bare, creaky sitting room of a third-rate inn (I cannot recall whether in the book it is ever stated that the floor of the sitting room creaks, but the author’s narrative artistry is so accomplished that I hear the floorboards creak when the headache-stricken painter sleeplessly paces up and down in his woolen socks).  So accomplished that everything, even abstraction, even the intertwined filaments of thought, the intellectual breakdown of a schismatic spirit, takes on a sensuous quality, an acoustic, or even more often an optical quality (for it is no accident that this man Strauch is a painter, an “artistic painter”) in one’s imagination; I see the dead tree stumps on the path to the high forest and their potpourri of roots, the unfinished waterworks and the—perhaps only imaginary—tumor on painter’s foot like rudiments of his mental world, of his “word-transfusions,” made visible; I smell the acidic haze of the tavern and the landlady’s bedclothes, as if I were capable of converting the painter’s categories of perception, cellular revulsion, physiological horror, and spiritual ecstasies of color, into mathematical figures.     

This inn is the gathering place of the middle-cum-upper stratum of this inferior town, which despite its inferiority has already been overrun by the industrial present.  The truck drivers, the foremen, the engineer, the knacker, the police deputy—who among many others share the landlady’s bed.  Meanwhile the landlord, a convicted homicide, is expiring in a penal institution.  The inn is the nerve center of a musty little world of musty sexuality, a world dominated by the brutal butcher’s mentality of the harlotic landlady, who lashes out with the fireplace poker at her pregnant daughter.  Sexuality untouched by the magic wand of Eros permeates this hyper-neglected and therefore unconcealed strain of humanity like an uncouth, compulsive, lackadaisical instinctual drive: “All of them live a life of sexuality, a non-life,” the painter at one point says of his “pre-human inhabitable” environment.  “Here you can make pure observations that do an about-face in the cold, out of resentment of themselves.”

But the reporter, the narrator, does not get bogged down in the details of such observations; he does not make a flashy spectacle of the naked abominableness.  When at one point the landlady and the knacker, having just slept together, are sitting in the empty barroom and eating sausage-slices and drinking beer, one feels a gagging sensation in one’s throat, a kind of shame that could never be evoked by the most naked description of shamelessness.  “I smell human flesh,” says the gluttonous giant in the fairy tale.

Everything that happens in the town acquires such spellbindingly surreal, fairy tale-like significance.  The death of a woodcutter who shortly before he fell under his sled was asking the painter what time it was.  The mischievous “showman” who exhibits crippled animals and children for money.  The gruesomeness and severity of provincial life, undiluted by any nature-idylls, becomes an allegory of “the great coldness.”  Two victims of a fall in the mountains.  The “cattle-rustling riffraff.”  The poorhouse.  The unheatable stone house of the village priest.  The burning to the ground of a farmstead, the death of a farmer’s wife, a funeral, conversations about the construction of the power station.  All these things are woven around the destiny of Strauch the painter; they weave around him like a spider’s filament constricting a trapped fly: escape to the outside world is impossible.

He gets all the more wildly tangled up in his own cocoon.  He retains no connection to the world, to his former life.  He has been written off.  Even his brother, the surgeon who has a stranger observe him, does so really more in the hope of breaking free of him than of getting closer to him.  The observer’s plea of “Answer your brother!” dies away unheeded.  He no longer “receives any letters.  Not a single one.”  But he repeatedly makes the same beeline for the railway station to buy newspapers—one final childlike apparent attempt at communication..  “Politics is of course really the only interesting phenomenon in human history.”  One senses that he is referring to something quite different, something on the far side of ideology.  He says that communism is on its way—he says it without offering any pros or cons, the way one would say “Another cold winter is on its way”; communism is “the provisional future of all mankind throughout the world.”  And yet: “What could this yapping (of the invisible dogs) still portend, when we already know everything, when we are already inured to the fact that we are living through the actual end of the world.”

In his reminiscences he tends to generalize; they are no longer of a personal nature.  He was once a substitute teacher; he speaks of “the life of a substitute teacher” as if he were speaking of the life of a hitherto undiscovered species of stink bug.  “All childhoods are the same.  It is just that one of them appears in a humdrum, the next in a gentle, and the third in a diabolical light.”  There is nothing painterly about his knowledge of life; it appears to him “in the colors of a dream.”  But also in mighty visions.  The black, wintry tree-trunks metamorphose into the figures of judges, “mighty judicial personalities!”  “They pass grand sentences!  Those colossal sentences!”  He descries colossality, grandeur, not only in the condition of his own potency but also in the precondition of his own helplessness.  He sees the “great ideas” being charged as petty embezzlers; he sees them being arrested, imprisoned; they have no one to plead for them, “not even a single lousy public defender!  Listen up!  Behold!  The mind has basically always given a wide berth to great ideas!”  He has held on to only one book—“his Pascal.”  It is unknown whether he still reads it.  At one point the knacker comes upon him in the glacial cold—“crouching on his tree-stump.”  He drags him back to the village.

He may have been crouching in such a fashion when he subsequently went missing.  “Because of the prevailing snowstorms the search for the missing man, in which members of the police force also took part, had to be called off,” reads a notice in the Demokratisches Volksblatt.  Thereafter he does not reappear, and with this announcement the narrator, too, disappears from our field of vision.  We learn nothing of how he finishes his assignment, of how he subsequently lives.

But the author gives us a hint in the first pages of the book.  He speaks of the difficulty of “exploring the unexplorable”—namely the extracorporeal.  “And it is quite possible,” he continues, “that the extracorporeal, by which I do not mean the soul, that this thing that is apart from the body without being the soul, the question of whose existence or non-existence I obviously cannot answer, although I expect that the soul does exist, that this millennially ancient supposition is a millennially ancient truth; it is entirely possible that the extracorporeal, namely that which is absent from our cells, exists, that everything owes its existence to it and not vice-versa, and that this existence is not merely a debt of one to the other.”

After reading this book one feels that one has set off along a trail that is as old as humanity itself and at the same time as new, and as vectored to unexplored regions, as travel into outer space.


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. 81-89.  According to the bibliography in this book, Zuckmayer’s essay was originally published in Die Zeit on June 21, 1963.

[1] “Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund”: “Every human being is an abyss” (Georg Büchner, Woyzeck).
[2] Translations of Zuckmayer’s quotations from Frost are my own and hence not identical to the corresponding passages in Michael Hofmann’s English version of the novel.