December 10, 2008

Thomas Bernhard's Report

One thing first-time readers of Thomas Bernhard notice right away is the repetition of speech-attribution tags.  For me, this is ultimately a more idiosyncratic feature of Bernhard’s style, more of a signature, than the absence of paragraph breaks (which his novels share, for instance, with some of Claude Simon's).  I’ve underlined the attribution tags in this more or less random excerpt from Bernhard’s Old Masters

People always make the mistake in museums of embarking on too much, of wishing to see everything, so they walk and walk and look and look and then suddenly, because they have devoured a surfeit of art, they collapse.  That is what happened to my future wife when Irrsigler took her by the arm and led her to the Bordone Room, as we subsequently established, in the most courteous manner, Reger said.  The layman in matters of art goes to a museum and makes it nauseous for himself through excess, Reger said.  But of course no advice is possible where visiting a museum is concerned.  The expert goes to a museum in order to view at most one picture, Reger said, one statue, one object, Reger said, he goes to the museum to look at, to study, one Veronese, one Velasquez.  But these art experts are all utterly distasteful to me, Reger said, they make a bee-line for a single work of art and examine it in their shameless unscrupulous way and walk out of the museum again, I hate those people, Reger said.

 That’s six in this one short sequence of as many sentences, not bad.  We’re most familiar with these tags, of course, from the back and forth of directly presented dialogue, the “he said, she said” of so many novels that read like wannabe film scripts.  While Bernhard eschews dialogue of that type in favor of monologue, he still finds plenty of opportunities for the attribution tags of reported, rather than directly presented, speech (or writing, or thought).  From Correction:  

The question was not only, how do I build the Cone, but also, how do I keep the Cone, the building of the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  Half of my energies were concentrated on building the Cone, half of them on keeping the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  When a man plans such an enormity, he must always retain control of everything and keep everything secret, so Roithamer.  First based on my reading, then on the basis of reading no longer taken into account, so Roithamer.  My own ideas had led with logical consistency to the realization and completion of the Cone, when my sister was frightened to death, the Cone was finished, so Roithamer, I could not have taken her into the Kobernausser forest at any other than the deadly moment, she had dreaded this moment, when she dreaded it most deeply I took her there and so killed her, at the same time I’d finished the Cone (April 7), so Roithamer.  For supreme happiness comes only in death, so Roithamer.  Detour by way of the sciences to supreme happiness, death, so Roithamer.  The experts, the critics, the destroyers, annihilators, so Roithamer.  We always come close to the edge of the abyss and fear the loss of equilibrium, so Roithamer. 

That’s ten; if I had reproduced the whole page there would have been sixteen.  The page before has twelve and the page after six.  Sixteen is on the high side, however; this passage comes from near the end of the novel, as the narrator closes in on the grim inevitable ‘correction’ of Roithamer’s suicide.  Perhaps the repetition functions, in this instance, like the ritual behavior of certain obsessive-compulsives; it lends Bernhard’s survivor-narrator the equilibrium he needs to keep from tumbling into the abyss after his alter-ego.  But it is simultaneously, of course, a kind of knell. 

There are pages from earlier in Correction that don’t have any attribution tags, just as there are pages from later in the novel that have over a dozen.  Four or five tags per page, then, might be a reasonable average for the novel.  With a scanner and the right software program, of course, it should be possible to arrive at the exact number of overall tags in the entire Bernhard corpus, and thus also to calculate the precise numerical average of tags per page (tpp) for the entire Bernhard corpus.  One might arrive at a figure such as 4.85tpp, for instance, rounded up from, say, 4.8489tpp.

(Now I am thinking like one of Bernhard’s own obsessives.  Is the obsession what is bringing me to the edge of the abyss, or is it what is supposed to rescue me – the last fingernail-hold at the edge?  Or like the self-defeating compensations of the neurotic, is it both?)

To keep myself from going under, I turn my attention to The Under-goer (more commonly known as The Loser):

This crazy idea of visiting the hunting lodge had already occurred to me in Madrid.  It’s possible that Wertheimer never told anyone but me about his writings (and notes), I thought, and tucked them away somewhere, so I owe it to him to dig out these notebooks and writings (and notes) and preserve them, no matter how difficult it proves to be.  Glenn actually left nothing behind, Glenn didn’t keep any written record, I thought, Wertheimer on the contrary never stopped writing, for years, for decades.  Above all I’ll find this or that interesting observation about Glenn, I thought, at least something about the three of us, about our student years, about our teachers, about our development and about the development of the entire world, I thought as I stood in the inn and looked out the kitchen window, behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth.

Most writers would be searching for equivalents – “I mused,” or “I considered” or “it occurred to me.”  Not Bernhard.  He even sticks to the same order:  if he’s settled on “Reger said,” chances are you’re not going to be reading, “said Reger.”  Just the pounding of the one attribution, over and over and over again.  It becomes a kind of report, like a gunshot or a hammer blow.  Either the nail is long or the wood – maybe our blockheads – exceptionally unyielding.

They cook in this filthy kitchen, I thought, from this filthy kitchen they bring out the food to the customers in the restaurant, I thought.  Austrian inns are all filthy and unappetizing, I thought, one can barely get a clean tablecloth in one of these inns, never mind cloth napkins, which in Switzerland for instance are quite standard.

In more conventional fiction such tags exist only to be elided.  Their traditional function is to anchor the enunciation firmly in the narrator or character, to ensure the seamless procession of the “vivid, continuous dream,” the flow of vicarious experience and psychological identification.  They are lowly markers which do not enjoy the status of the other elements on the page.  When reading to oneself, they’re to be almost skipped over, registered by the eyes but not necessarily by the mental tongue.  Read aloud, the voice drops and gives their syllables a matter-of-fact little shove out into the cold, as if they were asides.  Less than asides: stage directions.  They are like the inert substrate in pills, the delivery system but not the stuff that is supposed to kill your pain or make you sleep.

But what happens when they metastasize?  When they proliferate and threaten to disrupt what they were meant to enable? 

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word.  After five or ten or twenty repetitions in more or less close succession, they get louder rather than softer.  They stick in the throat, won’t let the prose – no, the story – go down easily.  Compared with the “fine” writing of so much contemporary literary fiction (brought to us by the ethic of writing-as-craft that holds sway in the MFA programs), their effect is powerfully unlovely, brilliantly “bad.”  And suddenly, instead of tripping over them, you find yourself laughing. 

Even the tiniest inn in Switzerland is clean and appetizing, even our finest Austrian hotels are filthy and unappetizing.  And talk about the rooms! I thought.  Often they just iron over sheets that have already been slept in, and it’s not uncommon to find clumps of hair in the sink from the previous guest.  Austrian inns have always turned my stomach, I thought.  

There’s a high-wire quality to the performance – how many of these can he get away with, anyway?  But maybe that’s one reason the laughter is so anxious:  the wire is suspended over an abyss.  In places Bernhard even double-bunks the attributions:

But Wertheimer often ate in these inns, at least once a day I want to see people, he said, even if it’s just this decrepit, down-and-out, filthy innkeeper.  So I go from one cage to the next, Wertheimer once said, from the Kohlmarkt apartment to Traich and then back again, he said, I thought.  From the catastrophic big city cage to the catastrophic forest cage.  Now I hide myself here, now there, now in the Kohlmarkt perversity, now in the country-forest perversity.  I slip out of one and back into the other.  For life.  But this procedure has become such a habit that I can’t imagine doing anything else, he said.  Glenn locked himself in his North American cage, I in my Upper Austrian one, Wertheimer said, I thought.  He with his megalomania, I with my desperation.  All three with our desperation, he said, I thought.  I told Glenn about our hunting lodge, Wertheimer said, I’m convinced that that’s what gave him the idea of building his own house in the woods, his studio, his desperation machine, Wertheimer once said, I thought. 

But this abyss is without depth.  Again and again, the speech-attribution tags return us to the surface of the page.  They remind us that it’s writing we’re looking at.  In the absence of these repetitions, Bernhard’s narratives might read more like conventional free indirect discourse.  Their insistent interruptions, however, do more than merely answer the question of “Who speaks?” (or “Who thinks?" or “Who writes?”).  So far are they in excess of that function that they confound the question itself.  They take us out of the narcissistic pseudo-profounds of identification and put us back on the surface.  Their report highlights nothing so much as their own stubborn, interminable materiality. 

Thus Bernhard’s narrator in The Loser, standing in the Austrian inn and looking out the kitchen window – “behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth” – enacts an allegory of reading the very novel he is in.

Maybe this kind of abyss, a depthless abyss, is even more terrifying.  With depth – even a bottomless or an endless depth – there’s always the comfort, however cold or last-ditch, of a covert, a hiding place or refuge, or a recuperation:  an inside.  The writing is made to yield up a little bleak, desperately attenuated Romanticism of the diminished soul, but at least still a soul.  Persistence itself becomes its testimony.  Beckett, I think, is sometimes (wrongly) recuperated this way.  The agonizing equivocation of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is turned too blithely into a heroism. 

Bernhard narrates like Nietzsche philosophized – with a hammer.  And the goal is in some ways similar, the smashing of metaphysical idols.  Certainly Bernhard’s report is a species of defamiliarization, but even this assertion must be qualified.  The conventional take on defamiliarizing devices is that they are meant to break readers out of habitual or conventionalized modes of thought and perception, in the service of “new” or “refreshed” perception.  In other words, there is still the rehearsal of a moment of transcendence.  But Bernhard’s report awakens the reader only to sameness, utter repetition, bad infinity, just as his books don’t end so much as simply stop.  There’s no “new.”  I don’t wish to traffic in paradoxes for their own sake, but there’s something about this particular Bernhardian device that defamiliarizes defamiliarization itself, that estranges estrangement.   

I thought, I thought, I thought; Reger said, Reger said, Reger said; so Roithamer, so Roithamer, so Roithamer; boom, boom, boom.

Thus Bernhard.


Richard said...

There is a certain insistence. His "he said, I thought" always hit me like ba-dum, ba-dum; the repetition increases, it becomes like an intonation; it even becomes a source of the humor: sometimes the attributions seem gratuitous, even annoying, until there's another and another, and you have to laugh (just as a character's--Reger's, say--opinion, when first expressed, might seem absurd, or even offensive, but then it gets turned around and re-stated from all possible angles, taken to the hilarious extremity....)

Edmond Caldwell said...

Yes - it was great fun to discover Bernhard and go through the phases (or jump through the hoops), a lot of incredulity at first, then mounting hilarity, sloughs of boredom (the good kind, though!), giddiness, despair, exhilaration...

It's fun to hear his stuff read aloud, too. There's a YouTube video of Bernhard himself reading from Correction (but a passage without too many "so Roithamers" in it, as far as I can make out):

I was lucky enough to be in NY for that KGB evening of Bernhard readings a while back. Dale Peck was the worst reader and Ben Marcus (reading from Correction) the best, imo. Although maybe it was the Austrian . . . a kind of cultural attache from the Austrian consulate or something like that, and he read a passage (I forget from which work) in German and really tore into it, uber aggressive delivery - quick too - like he was rending apart a deer he had just shot with his bare hands and teeth. But also with this mechanical quality, like he was a Hoffmanesque automaton tearing apart a deer with his bare mechanical hands and shiny metal teeth. Yeah, maybe he was the best reader....

Robert Detman said...

Thanks for this.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bernhard in grad school and wondered if anyone else out there had. Also liked the youtube link, though I'm completely unable to understand German. I'd be curious to send you my two annotations on Bernhard ("On the Mountain: Rescue Attempt, Nonsense," and "Old Masters,"), just for kicks.


Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Robert.

I'd be interested to read them -- send them along to

when I read Bernard I have to be prepared to have his voice and his rhythms (or whatever it arhythmically is) ringing in my brain for a few weeks after, and even writing this piece, which didn't involve living with one of novels for a week or more, has done it to me....

Anonymous said...

great piece Edmond

Edmond Caldwell said...

danke, bob.