Douglas Robertson, who runs the blog The Philosophical Worldview Artist, has for some time been translating a selection of Thomas Bernhard’s interviews, reviews, and letters into English on his blog. A very welcome resource for English readers of Bernhard, as there is a giant dearth of this secondary material available. Have a look here.
Have I said it already? I am learning to see. Yes, I’m beginning. It is still going badly. But I want to make use of my time.
For instance, I never realized how many faces there are. There are lots of people but still more faces, for everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, of course it wears out, gets dirty, cracks in the folds, stretches like a glove one has worn on a journey. Those are thrifty, simple people: they don’t change it, they don’t even have it cleaned. It’s good enough, they maintain, and who can convince them otherwise? The question does arise, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them in reserve. Their children will get to wear them. But it also happens that their dogs wear them when they go out. And why not? Face is face.
Other people put on their faces with uncanny rapidity, one after the other, and wear them out. At first it seems to them as if they have them forever, but they are barely forty and this one is already the last. That of course has its tragic side. They are not used to take care of faces, they run through the last one in a week, there are holes in it, in many places it is as thin as paper, and then slowly what’s underneath emerges, the not-face, and they walk around with that.
From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Translated by Burton Pike.
In my last riff on Gerald Murnane, I wrote about his book Inland, and that he wanted to “craft a universally mutable and relational ‘I.’” And I started off with a quote. I’m going to do that now. This is a short passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks.
The word “I” does not mean the same as “L.W.” even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression “the person who is now speaking”. But that doesn’t mean: that “L.W.” and “I” mean different things. All it means is that these words are different instruments in our language.
Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. (Also, all that we say here can be understood only if one understands that a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.) The mouth which says “I” or the hand which is raised to indicate that it is I who wish to speak, or I who have toothache, does not thereby point to anything. If, on the other hand, I wish to indicate the place of my pain, I point. And here again remember the difference between pointing to the painful spot without being led by the eye and on the other hand pointing to a sac on my body after looking for it. (“That’s where I was vaccinated”.)—The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it (67-8).
The “I” in Barley Patch, as it is ostensibly used in the literary sense, merely implies the presence of the author. The “I” is as much of a fiction as the collection of words around it. Barley Patch is a strange, strange fiction. I’m honoring the narrator’s/implied author’s/personage’s/ghostly presence’s/reader’s/image-person’s wishes by not calling it a novel, an essay, a memoir, an autobiography. And though Barley Patch is all of these forms, often simultaneously, ultimately it is a “report,” to use the narrator’s term, of how a story becomes removed from itself. Some questions BP asks: How do I know that am I me? Am I the imagined personage of a writer in a “country on the far side of fiction?” How do I know where I am is really where I am?
After the young man of the upstairs flat had first disclosed his plans for the Black Mass in the building of several storeys, it became the custom on every Friday and Saturday evening for all of the young persons gathered in the upstairs flat, including the young woman who lived there, to spend some or another part of each evening in discussing how they might spend one or another Friday or Saturday evening in the building of several storeys after the young man of the upstairs flat had bought the building and had fitted it out to his liking. The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import. All of the persons gathered in the upstairs flat would look at one after another illustration of a bare-breasted young woman from the magazines and would cast votes in order to decide whether or not the young woman should spend some time as a guest in the building of several storeys. The young woman of the upstairs flat was interested in dance and music and would describe some of the items that she would later choreograph, as she put it, for performance by herself and other naked young women during banquets. The chief character tried to amuse the others by reading to them parodies he had composed of prayers from the Mass. In each parody words such as God, angels, and sacrifice were replaced by words such as Lucifer, devils, and farce. However, few of the persons in the flat knew anything about Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the parodies aroused little interest. The only means that the chief character found for amusing the others in the upstairs flat was his performing a brief mime in which he took the role of a priest first turning from the altar towards his congregation with his head bowed and his eyes closed, then seeming to notice something was amiss, and finally looking aghast. (The chief character never held back from discussing with the other persons in the upstairs flat the details of the banquets and the orgies in the building of several storeys, but he was never able to imagine himself as taking part in an orgy. Whenever the chapel of the building of several storeys appeared as an image in his mind, it was always fitted with a so-called side-chapel, a sort of alcove with a few pews to one side of the altar. If an orgy seemed about to begin, he would slip unnoticed into the front pew of the side-chapel and would there masturbate quietly while he watched the goings-on in the sanctuary.)
She fell into a pit that autumn. And she reached out for me. I didn’t understand what was happening. But it was so claustrophobic that I turned away from her, tried to maintain a distance, which she tried to close.
I went to Venice, wrote in a flat my publishing house had at its disposal, Linda was supposed to follow and stay for just under a week, then I would work for a few more days and return. She was so black, she was so heavy, kept saying I didn’t love her, I didn’t really love her, I didn’t want her, I didn’t really want her, this wasn’t working, it would never work, I didn’t want it to, I didn’t want her.
“But I do!” I said as we walked in the autumn chill in Murano with eyes hidden behind sunglasses. However, when she said I didn’t really love her, I didn’t really want to be with her, I wanted to be alone all the time, on my own, it became a little truer.
Where did her despair come from?
Had I brought it with me?
Was I cold?
Did I only think of myself?
I no longer knew what it would be like when my working day was over and I went to her place. Would she be happy, would it be a nice evening? Would she be angry about something, if for example we no longer made love every night, and so I didn’t love her as much as before? Would we sit in bed watching TV? Go for a walk to Långholmen? And once there, would I be devoured by her demands to have all of me, making me keep her at a distance and have thoughts shooting to and for in my brain that this had to come to an end, it wasn’t working, thus rendering any conversation or attempts to get closer impossible, which of course she noticed and took as proof of her main thesis, that I didn’t want her?
Even drunk on tepid beer we could not talk honestly. Our messages for one another were obliquely worded, or hidden behind childish mimes and antics. At a certain point in the evening Durkin would make a show of examining the tangle of blankets on my bed and finding evidence that a man and a woman had shared it not long before. I would point out what I claimed were signs that a young adult male had recently masturbated there, using a heap of pillows as a surrogate woman and seeing the furthest wrinkles in his blankets as the coastal hills of the Mornington Peninsula. Durkin would then tidy the bedclothes and demonstrate what I ought to do on the bed as soon as I had come to my senses and invited home one of the thousands of girls in Melbourne who were waiting every night by their telephones as anxious to meet a new man as Carolyn had been at Sorrento. Then, if I was drunk enough, I would argue that all those women must have once been to the Gold Coast of Queensland as Carolyn had been and must have learned there too much for a beginner like myself. And if I saw that he was drunk enough I would announce that my last hope was his sixteen-years-old sister. Had he guarded her honour? I would shout at him. Could he keep her from setting out towards the Gold Coast and deliver her to me instead? I would treat her honourably and do no more than read my poems to her until our wedding night and be a fine, boozy brother-in-law to him for the rest of our lives.
When his sister was mentioned he would offer to fight me, and we would grapple on the floor until our buckets of bottles were in danger. Whenever I was on top of him and had him by the throat I boasted that my strength came from my celibate way of life. But whenever he had pinned me to the floor I begged him to procure me his sister or any girl who would give me a strength like his.
Found in the collection Landscape With Landscape.
Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
Thomas Bernhard died today in 1989. He was buried on the 16th. Three people were present.
I’m getting closer to Altensam, but I’m not getting closer to Altensam in order to solve its mystery; for others to explain it to myself is why I am getting closer to Altensam, to my Altensam, the one that I see. While she lived I never asked my mother, never asked her all these unanswered questions, never once asked her a single crucial question, because I never could formulate such a question, I was afraid I might put such a question wrong somehow, and so I never posed it, and so I got no answer. Now the Eferding woman is dead, I can’t ask her, she can’t answer. But would it be any different now, if I could ask her, and she could answer? We don’t ask those we love, just as we don’t ask those we hate, so Roithamer. Actually I’m shocked by everything I’ve just written, what if it was all quite different, I wonder, but I will not correct now what I’ve written, I’ll correct it all when the time for such correction has come and then I’ll correct the corrections and correct again the resulting corrections andsoforth, so Roithamer. We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification and we correct the result of the correction of a correction andsoforth, so Roithamer. But the ultimate correction is one we keep delaying, the kind others have made without ado from one minute to the next, I think, so Roithamer, the kind they could make, by the time they no longer thought about it, because they were afraid even to think about it, but then they did correct themselves, like my cousin, like his father, my uncle, like all the others whom we knew, as we thought, whom we knew so thoroughly, yet we didn’t really know all these peoples’ characters, because their self-correction took us by surprise, otherwise we wouldn’t have been surprised by their ultimate existential correction, their suicide.
An Excerpt From The Chapter “Mycobacterium tuberculosis” in Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Inightby ryan chang
They had a difficult time with Kafka. His statements about the dangerous illness seem oddly self-assured, sensory, and at times downright theatrical, even to modern readers who have internalized the paradoxical forms of expression of literary modernity. But when we look over the correspondence of that little circle, it seems equally odd that Brod, Weltsch, and Baum had not developed any real feeling for Kafka’s psychological volatility after more than a decade of close personal contact, or understood his vulnerable, literally exposed life and his sense of reality, maintained in spite of it all. This sense of reality was what told him what to do and what not to do for his illness. But it was a far more basic need, over which he had little control, that compelled him to derive meaning from what had happened.
No sooner was Felice out of her mother’s sight, however, than she blossomed. At the train station in Marienbad, she greeted an anxious Kafka in the tender and natural way he had always hoped for in vain in Berlin. Even the stumbling blocks they had to deal with on their first days in Marienbad–switching hotels, constant rain, and of course Kafka’s sensitivities and rigid habits–did nothing to change that. “Tribulations of living together,” he noted on the third day, and although he was undoubtedly aware that Felice had far more reason to complain, he twisted the knife a little deeper: “Impossibility of living with F. Impossibility of living with anyone at all.”
You must also consider, Milena, the kind of person who comes to you, the 38-year journey lying behind me (and since I’m a Jew an even much longer one), and if at an apparently accidental turning of the road I see you, whom I’ve never expected to see and least of all so late, then, Milena, I cannot shout, not does anything shout within me, nor do I say a thousand foolish things, they are not in me (I’m omitting the other foolishness of which I have more than enough), and the fact that I’m kneeling I discover perhaps only through seeing your feet quite close before my eyes, and by caressing them.
… [But] one day I too shall no longer find a way out, everyone is destined, one day at some moment which is the crucial moment, to find no further way out, that’s how a man is made. … As I ‘d heard something that was different from what I’d been hearing till then, I’d gotten up and gone to post myself at the window, to look outside. The darkness was kept at bay by the workshop lights, Hoeller was busy stuffing a huge bird, I couldn’t see what kind of bird. It was a huge black bird which Hoeller held on his knees, cramming polyurethane into it with a stick. It was eleven o’clock, and inasmuch as Hoeller always got up at four in the morning, all his life, even as a child, he’d always gotten up at four in the morning, because his father also had always been up by four in the morning, everybody in the Aurach valley got up between four and five o’clock in the morning, and so because Hoeller is always up at four in the morning, keeping such late hours, such very long late hours as these in these circumstances, will undermine his health, I thought. From my window up in the garret I kept watching Hoeller down there in his workshop stuffing that huge black bird, how he kept cramming it with more and more stuffing, I thought I’ll watch him from this excellent vantage point until he’s finished stuffing that bird, and so I stood there motionless for a good half hour until I saw that Hoeller had finished stuffing the bird. Suddenly Hoeller had thown the stuffed bird down to the floor, he’d jumped up and run off into the back room where I couldn’t see him anymore, but I waited, looking into the workshop, until I could see Hoeller again, he came back and sat down on his chair again and went back to stuffing the bird, now I noticed a huge heap of polyurethane on the floor beside Hoeller’s chair and I thought this huge heap of polyurethane is now going to be crammed into thi bird which I’d supposed had already been crammed full long since. By stuffing this bird he is making the night bearable for himself, I thought (122-3).
I call this my literary archive, there are ten drawers, and each of them contains all of the material that went into the making of one or other of my books. But at the back you will find untidy hand written pages, at the front you will find a file copy of the finished book and even all the reviews and comments. … This is part of what I call my chronological archive, um, we just have happened to have opened one of nineteen drawers that we could have opened. And then, I have been a great writer of letters to people, and people write letters to me. In there must be… I couldn’t count them; there must be many thousands of letters in those cabinets. The equivalent for me of emails is the little box of envelopes up there.
Zadie Smith’s essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in the New York Review of Books asks us to
Imagine being a corpse. Not the experience of being a corpse—clearly being a corpse is the end of all experience. I mean: imagine this drawing represents an absolute certainty about you, namely, that you will one day be a corpse. Perhaps this is very easy. You are a brutal rationalist, harboring no illusions about the nature of existence. I am, a friend once explained, a “sentimental humanist.” Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse, even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor.
“Corpsed” letters may be characterized by a certain kind of desperation that contradicts itself in the act of speech (or writing); by writing, narrators acknowledge the necessity of communication and the inscrutable feeling that s/he has failed in that act of communication. That failure signals the desperation, and so on. How to figure/perform a “corpsed” perspective, outside of reality? Gerald Murnane’s Inland makes a kind of utopia out of death, but not a death as the absence of life. Death as the space wherein all people are irrevocably connected. Death and loss as, perhaps, the only thing that can be shared between us without the mediation of language, with fiction paradoxically as the sole vehicle.
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.
Bach, when his wife died, had to arrange for the funeral. The poor man, however, was in the habit of leaving all practical matters to his wife, with the result that when when an old servant appeared, asking him for money to buy mourning crepe, Bach, weeping quietly, his head resting on the table, said, “Ask my wife.”
–Heinrich von Kleist
Out of the four or five Bernhard works I’ve read, Old Masters is so far the least enjoyable, at least in terms of “heart.” Concrete and The Loser were both concerned with acceptance of one’s limits, his/her incapacity to be great in the face of their insistence on trying to get there. Here, it is mainly the folly of aesthetic representation, and how achievement and authority in an “old master” is false and arbitrary and patronizing. It seems like it is the most obvious excuse for Bernhard to rage against the art world, and of art making in general. On a formal level, though, it might be the clearest example of what Bernhard repeatedly performs: it is a “staged fiction,” insofar that techniques of theater are implemented through the mode of the “novel.” Bernhard, as always, beautifully writes paradox, ambivalence, and futility in this seamless meshing of form and content. This is the structural dipole–its largest–that is mirrored within the text on levels of theme, syntax, and joke.
Irrsigler has that irritating stare which museum attendants employ in order to intimidate the visitors who, as is well known, are endowed with all kinds of bad behaviour; his manner of abruptly and utterly soundlessly appearing round the corner of whatever room in order to inspect it is indeed repulsive to anyone who does not know him; in his grey uniform, badly cut and yet intended for eternity, held together by large black buttons and hanging on his meagre body as if from a coat rack, and with his peaked cap tailored from the same grey cloth, he is more reminiscent of a warder in one of our penal institutions than of a state-employed guardian of works of art. Ever since I have known him Irrsigler has always been as pale as he now is, even though he is not sick, and Reger has for decades described him as a state corpse on duty at the Kunsthistorisches Museum for over thirty-six years.
–Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, trans. Ewald Osers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.