Riff #2 on Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters

Authors, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about Bernhard’s (or, really, the translator Ewald Osers’) style and affect relative to, say, American prose traditions. I turned to some scholarship on old Bernie, and most of the articles focused on how musical forms (the fugue, sonata, etc.) frame Bernhard’s sentences (and, in some cases, the entire narrative, like The Loser). These were very welcome insights. But before I touch on that, I read a quote by the ever-excellent Deb Olin Unferth this morning that helps start a conversation about Bernhard’s style relative to American prose traditions. Here it is:

Prose can be what keeps you wanting to read. Strong prose contains conflict, even at the level of the sentence. If a sentence is pushing against itself, or if each sentence is contradicting what just came before it and you’re wondering how you can hold all these contradictory statements in your mind at once, that’s interesting to me. What you’re getting then is a complex psychology or philosophy as a result of the very sentences that you’re reading. That’s a Lishian way of looking at prose. I subscribe to it. I admire work and I strive to in my own work have that kind of pressure on the individual sentence, so that each sentence is in conflict with what’s around it in some way.

I think you could pick things out of this quote and posture Bernhard into them. Contradiction–surely. Self-imposed pressure–definitely. I would also say these qualities aren’t specific to Lish, though. So-called Lishians often default into a kind of prosody that depends on physical characteristics of sound to help move meaning within a sentence. In other words, sound thematizes presence and produces the emotional effect; and sound thematization is the affect of Lishian prose. So, for example, a sentence that evokes a sharpness and harshness would have a lot of alliterative K-sounds, or something. Diane Williams’ sentences are very proud of this prose. Look at this, from “One of The Great Drawbacks” in Vicky Swanky is a Beauty:

If left to themselves, they fight like fiends or yell out the great news and one of these girls is entirely out of danger.

Notice the alliteration and assonance in the first part of sentence on the F-sounds, the short E’s, and long I’s. From a “craft perspective,” I guess, there’s a sense that making the sounds of the words symbiotic take precedence before plot and character. Composition first depends on making the sounds interesting, and lead the other components into the story. It’s a very different set of restrictions on the writer to depend on the physical properties of language than what Bernhard is doing.

But, I think, Bernhard is one of the most musical writers I’ve ever read. There’s a quote by him somewhere that details his focus on style, and he calls it a “theoretical music.” Where Lishians want the reader to “hear” the prose in the head, Bernhard wants her to feel the consciousness of the ostensible narrator as if she were listening to music; namely, the composition of Old Masters, or Frost, or The Loser. Bernhard’s favorite technique to achieve this effect is repetition with slight variation which, if I remember correctly, is the most infantile way to describe the classical sonata.

Incidentally, he was speaking English, which I found agreeable, but then suddenly also German, very broken German, that broken German which all Englishmen speak when they believe they know German, which, however, is never the case, Reger said, the Englishman probably wanted to speak German rather than English in order to improve his German, and after all why not, when abroad one prefers to speak the foreign language unless one is a blockhead, and so in his broken German he said that he had in fact come to Austria and to Vienna solely for the White-Bearded Man, he was not interested in the museum as a whole, not in the least, he was not one for museums, he hated museums and had always only visited them reluctantly, he had only come to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum in order to study the White-Bearded Man because back home he had just such a White-Breaded Man hanging over his bed in his bedroom in Wales, in actual fact the same White-Bearded Man, the Englishman said, Reger said.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a sentence by a “Lishian” that was ever this long. Where the musicality of a Lishian sentence is in the very materiality of language, Bernhard performs his music in the construction of the melody (sentence) by arranging the phrases (clauses) in this sort of point-counterpoint call and response. English calls to German, and vice versa, and we get a sense of the character within the rant; all the phrases that repeat “German” respond to Reger finding the English “agreeable” perform his total ambivalence for the Englishman. It makes me think that “Lishian” sentences still aim for a kind of story in the traditional sense, and Bernhard’s aim to stage a mind at work, a mind paralyzed (This was touched on in the Frost post). Less a story than a confession, testimony, absurd anecdote.

(Read the first riff).

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