Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind-usually self-loathing, obsessive ones-and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment. “You wake up, and you feel molested,” Strauch says:
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers :a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundred fold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
Without a story to drive it, Frost builds not through unfolding events but by telemarking around Strauch’s bitter cosmology while the narrator follows him through the woods, fattening himself on the rage of his new mentor. A chart of Strauch’s worldview would produce a splotchy Rorschach of points and counterpoints, contradictions, reversals, and the occasional backflip, none of which could really hold up to a logician’s scrutiny, which adds to his mystery. Strauch, a failed artist who only painted in total darkness, is opposed to nearly everything, and lest you think he’s a humanist at the core, with a fondness for the arts (that classic virtue of the misanthrope), he claims that “artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet.”
From Ben Marcus’s 2011 essay “Misery Loves Nothing,” first published in Harper’s and available in full for free at Marcus’s site. I’m about halfway through Bernhard’s early novel Frost, a book that is very dark, bitter, intriguing, and funny. Very very funny.