Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Translation of "Als ich »Verstörung« von Thomas Bernhard las" by Peter Handke

When I Read Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

Upon my arrival at the central railway station in Hanover, I rang up the acquaintance whom I intended to go see.  There was no answer.  But because I intended to stay overnight in Hanover no matter what, I decided to wait and ring the same number again later.  Then I bought a newspaper and went upstairs with my light cargo of luggage into the Hanover station’s café.  I was very tired, but the book refused to let me rest.

The doctor’s round of house calls, on which he had been accompanied by his son, was already behind me; only the visit to the Prince of Saurau at the Hochgobernitz castle still lay ahead.  Father and son were now making the perilous ascent to the fortress from the gorge down below, where they had just visited the mill.  It was not advisable to look around.  What they had seen before had been foretokens: a killer, still unapprehended, was roaming around the countryside; in all the houses the two of them had visited so far, the wretchedly moribund were lying or running rampant; in a building next door to the mill dead birds were strung up in rows; the miller’s dog, hazardous in its derangement [Verstörung], dashed to and fro amongst the putrescent mill-workers; every living creature seemed abjectly subject to its own nervous system.  In the eyes of the narrator, a young man studying mining in Leoben, Leoben was gradually coming to seem like a world apart as he accompanied his father; everything was growing further and further apart from everything else; an invalid, shortly before expiring, drew a sketch entitled “Death by Asphyxiation while Walking.”  All the characters were confessing something: the father as good as admitted it.

Shortly before the two of them reached the prince’s castle, they paid one more house call, to a one-story house[1] that was the dwelling of the insane young Krainer, who had been born with a head that was too narrow and who owing to the subsequent physical changes had completely lost the ability to speak.  In earlier life he composed harmonious music; now, according to his sister, his music was excruciating.

When the two of them arrived at the castle, they were afforded a view extending for literally hundreds of kilometers.

They sighted the prince on the outer wall of the castle; they caught up with him on the inner one.  He greeted them without halting.  They tagged along with him.  In their company he immediately resumed the monologue that he had been delivering all day long.  At every instant the prince found it natural to believe that the world was falling apart.  He always talked about himself as if he was talking about the entire world and about the entire world as if he was talking about himself.  The father had already told the student that the prince was totally mad; even the miller’s apprentices down below said that the prince said the most incredible things.

The prince talked as if his life depended on it.  He repeated many of the same phrases over and over again, varying nothing but their word-order.  To his interminable generalizations he suddenly appended the phrase: these colossal walls!  The prince did not say that he was in despair; he said: these colossal walls!  For the prince, all names, even place names, were names of despair.  By midday he had received visits from three applicants for the steward’s position; he had managed to torture one of the applicants repeatedly with words.  In conversing with the applicant he ascertained which words the man could not bear to hear and repeatedly used these words; for instance, mole, linen, miner, reformatory.  The applicant reacted to these words as if he were being tortured.

No matter which words the prince addressed to his listeners, they were words of sensitivity, words of torture.  I read on as the prince talked for hours to his visitors about the applicants, in the course of doing which he was incessantly vaulting from the picturesque, concrete particulars of these people—one of them lived in a landscape that was so gloomy that it actually precluded suicide, and his clothes were so neat that they must have hung on a nail and not in a closet—to certain incessantly iterated unpicturable abstractions that complementarily imparted picturesqueness to the prince.   The prince was possessed by speech; he spoke, he said, out of a fear of suffocation.

He often spoke in commonplaces, but this very accumulation of commonplaces highlighted his sharp-eared faculty of occultation.  He did not trouble himself about any sort of logic of grammatical structures; he could say that monologues were just as pointless as conversations, albeit far less pointless; he could say: he is completely rational but bereft of the slightest trace of rationality; he could utter a sentence like “Moser said, but he did not dare to say…”—I read on as the prince incessantly inverted his own sentence structures, as while speaking he made possible the dissolution of all concepts. 

Whatever he referred to in the external world was merely a sign of his inner world.  The prince spoke in signs rather than in metaphors.  He did not liken the flood of which he spoke to his inner self; rather the flood, which had actually taken place several weeks earlier, was his inner self, and the summer house in which his dead father had once been laid out and that used to be used for theatrical performances was what was happening inside his head, and even when the prince spoke of the catastrophic postal service in the Bundau countryside, he really meant that his own inner life was catastrophic.   The names of things and processes, I recognized, were merely signs for his conditions.  The place names Köflach and Stiwoll stood for derangedness and despair.  Agriculture, the prince said for example, is an error: he spoke as if agriculture were a way of life.

Every human being has his Ache, said the prince with all the banality of the deranged, the insane, and by now the Ache, which actually flows through the gorge, has simply become another word for lunacy.  As I continued reading I recalled that earlier on another invalid had told the doctor that only his visit had hindered him from drawing the “Hauenstein consequences”: the invalid resided in the village of Hauenstein; he used the word Hauenstein in place of the word suicide.  The prince spoke with a grammatical lunacy; he coined new words as schizophrenics are wont to do, and he interpolated mannered foreign words into his discourse: his use of these words, like his use of constantly shifting phrases referring to human beings, was a sign of his derangement.  The prince thought in in terms of opportunities for suicide.  He was not interested in who would be the first person on the moon but in who would be the first to travel through the earth.  At the castle the natural laws of Saurauean thought reigned supreme.

It is always your own story that is being told to you, said the prince.  He found nothing in the world bearable.  If he happened to find something nearly bearable, he said it was the least unbearable thing, or he said, reading is still the most bearable of all horrors.  Whenever he reported on a normal condition, he had to presuppose worseness, which was the normal condition for him.  When his mind was at peace for a change, the prince said he had not a trace of debility.  His discourse was a hospital report.

Having begun by walking on the inner wall of the castle, the three of them continued their circular stroll on the outer wall.  They walked ever faster, and it grew darker.  The prince continued talking in order to drown out the noises in his head.  He underlined, as it were, every word; he employed every word, not only adjectives, in the superlative degree: his son, who was slated to acquire the castle after his death, was going to let EVERYTHING ROT AWAY COMPLETELY.  Like many madmen the prince often likened events to the events in a stage play.  He veered from one idiom to another, from a philosophical idiom to, for example, a legalistic one: all deeds are prosecutable deeds, he said.  Then this man who now read nothing but newspapers, admittedly only old ones, suddenly began employing journalistic expressions: he said that his dead father had been an “unfortunate man” who had been found with a bullet in his head.  The prince spoke in foreign idioms that at the same time, when taken as a whole, were his own idiom: even foreign speaking conditions were signs of derangement.
On the walls of the castle he was still best able to bear his solitude.
Now and then he would very hurriedly and absently ask the doctor: have you brought my pills with you?  Is it very taxing for you to come up here?  What does your son do?  And then, without waiting for an answer, he would launch back into his conversation with himself.
The son listened.
The prince wanted to lead everybody through his brain until “it makes him ill.”
Afterwards he talked about a conversation that he had had with the doctor not long before: the prince had wanted to talk about the flood, but the doctor had wanted to talk about the recently performed play: “‘The more intensively I talked about the flood the further your father was distracted.  Namely,’ said Prince Saurau, ‘by the play […] the moment I began to talk about the flood, your father began to talk about the play.  Your father was more and more preoccupied with the play the more I was preoccupied with the flood.  I talked about the flood and he talked about the play.’  My father said, ‘the whole time I thought you had to talk about the flood, but I talked about the play.’  The prince said: ‘I talked about the flood and not about the play, because what else was I supposed to talk about if not the flood! […] And your father had thought about nothing other than the play.  Just as I was more and more preoccupied with the flood, your father was more and more preoccupied with the play, and the degree to which I, as I spoke of the flood, was irritated by your father, who was speaking about the play, was the same degree to which your father was irritated by me, who was speaking only about the flood. […] Over and over again I heard your father breaking into my endless floody ramblings with his commentary on the play.  That was what was so incredibly conspicuous about it,’ said the prince, ‘namely, the fact that as time passed I talked about nothing other than the flood, and your father about nothing other than the play.  And your father spoke ever more loudly about the play and I spoke ever more loudly about the flood.  Loudly, equally loudly, simultaneously loudly, did the two of us speak; your father about a monstrous play, I about a monstrous flood.  And then,’ said the prince, ‘there ensued a period when we both talked exclusively about the flood, and thereafter one in which the play was the exclusive topic.  But all the while we were talking about the play, I thought about nothing but the flood, and all the while we were talking about the flood, your father thought about nothing but the play […] When we were talking about the flood, I thought that your father wanted to talk about the play; when we were talking about the play, I wanted to talk about nothing but the flood […] When we were talking about the play, said my father, you were constantly exclaiming high costs!; whereas I, while we were talking about the flood, incessantly said words like the word gridiron, mimicry, exaltation, marionettism.  But basically,’ said the prince, ‘on that day no matter what we spoke about we were speaking about the flood.’

Meanwhile I had left the café and rung the number once again.  Again there was no answer.  When he spoke, said the prince, he could at least be misunderstood.  It had gotten completely dark.  I went to a park near the Hanover Opera and continued reading by the light of the street lamps.  The prince could not take them into the house because everything was in disarray.  By then I had gotten up and had continued reading in a pub, to the strains of a strolling violinist.  I had rung the number in vain a few more times.  I had had something to drink and had continued reading.   The prince had been constructed in complete defiance of reality.  He was freezing to death from within.  I read and read and read...


[1]  Although I have carried over a few words and phrases (like this "one-story house") from Richard and Clara Winston's English version, most of the translations of Handke's quotations from the novel, including the lengthy one in the penultimate paragraph, are my own.  I am afraid I have yet to work out anything like a consistent policy regarding passages from texts with well-established translations. 

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. 100-106.  According to the bibliography in this book, Handke’s essay was originally published in Zürcher Woche  on December 7, 1967.

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