Posts tagged ‘Correction’

February 12, 2014

“Actually I’m shocked by everything I’ve just written” (Correction, Thomas Bernhard).

by ryan chang

Thomas Bernhard died today in 1989. He was buried on the 16th. Three people were present.

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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.

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February 3, 2014

An Extract From Thomas Bernhard’s Correction on Death and Taxidermy

by ryan chang

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… [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).

August 19, 2013

Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard’s Philosophical Novel of Abject Madness

by Edwin Turner

In its English translation, Thomas Bernhard’s 1967 breakthrough novel Verstörung received the title GargoylesVerstörung translates to something like distress or disturbance, while Gargoyles (obviously) evokes Gothic monsters. Considered together, both titles communicate this philosophical novel’s themes of abjection, decay, and madness.

Bernhard explores these themes by dividing the novel into two sections that occur over the span of the same day. In the first section, “First Page,” a country doctor takes his son on his daily rounds in rural Stryia, “a relatively large and ‘difficult’ district.” The son, a mining engineer student and aspiring scientist, is ostensibly the narrator of Gargoyles. He tells us that his father “was taking me with him for the sake of my studies.” Their journey culminates in a visit to Hochgobernitz, the gloomy castle of Prince Saurau, an insane, suicidal aristocrat who mourns his own son’s self-exile to England, where he has gone to study. While the doctor’s son remains the narrator of the book in “The Prince,” the second part of Gargoyles, Prince Saurau overwhelms the novel with the force of his monologue, a tirade that gobbles up all that comes before it. His monologue ventriloquizes the narrator’s consciousness, echoing in the young man’s skull long after he’s left the castle.

The prince’s monologue is a prototypical Bernhardian rant that will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Loser or Correction (and undoubtedly other Bernhard novels I haven’t read yet). Unlike those novels, Gargoyles offers its first section “First Page” as a point of contrast to the monologue that will come later. These episodes are short and digestible, and while hardly conventional, they are far easier to handle than the sustained intensity of the prince’s monologue. The grotesque cavalcade that the doctor and son trek through in “First Page” allows Bernhard to set out his themes — not neatly or precisely, but clearly — before the prince commences to swallow and then vomit them.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

On the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o’clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hüllberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.

He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Köflach, the mother a servant in a butcher’s household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother’s sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. “I can say for a certainty that it won’t last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now,” he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words.

The specter of infanticide and the doctor’s resistance to it haunts the novel. We can also sense a cerebral chilliness in the narrator, who is “struck” by his father’s empathy. The doctor’s empathy repeats throughout the novel; we next see it clearly when he’s brought to attend an innkeeper’s wife assaulted in the early morning “without the slightest provocation” by one of the drunken miners who frequented her inn. Unconscious for hours before police or doctor are even called for, the woman dies. But—

It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained.

As the day unfolds, the “natural brutality” that the doctor is up against evinces again and again in the various gargoyles he attends to. The rumor of the innkeeper’s wife’s murder floats in the background as a reminder of violence and brutality that bizarrely unites this community of outsiders.

Those outsiders: a bedridden, dying woman with a feeble-minded son and a murderer for a brother; a retired industrialist, living “like man and wife” with his half-sister, who devotes “himself to a literary work over which he agonized, even as it kept his mind off his inner agony”; the school teacher whose death initiates the novel; mill workers murdering exotic birds with the help of a young bewildered Turk; an insane and deformed man, the son’s age, attended to and cared for by his sister. And the prince. But I’ve rushed through so much here, so much force of language, so much terror, so much horror.

These gargoyles live, if it can be called that, in abject, isolated otherness. The doctor diagnoses it for his son:

. . . no human being could continue to exist in such total isolation without doing severe damage to his intellect and psyche. It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsession. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves. The process always goes slowly at first.

There is something of a warning here for the doctor’s son, who tells us at one point: “Every day I completely built myself up, and completely destroyed myself.” Like Roithamer of Correction, the son is something of a control freak (“Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature”), and, like Roithamer and so many other Bernhardian figures, he has a frail (perhaps suicidal) sister who could perhaps fall prey to his idealism—who might indeed be the “creature who has entered the dungeon” with him.

There’s also the risk, one which the doctor perhaps did not account for when he set out to help his son with his “studies,” that the son might fall into the prince’s dungeon. But perhaps I’m making too much of the doctor’s empathy, of his resistance to brutality and his commitment to caring for those who repel all others. His own philosophy seems coded in misanthropy and failure. “All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together,” he says at one point. But also: “Communication is impossible.”

The resistance to abjection is paradoxical—as the doctor points out, the “philosophically oriented” and “imaginative scientific obsession[s]” often lead people deeper into the abyss—as the prince’s monologue will illustrate. Each of the gargoyles presented in the text offers a rare and special talent—art, music, philosophy, etc. Sussing out the novel’s treatment of the philosophies it invokes is beyond my ken, but I can’t resist lazily dropping a few names: Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Pascal, Diederot (all on the doctor’s reading list), and Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of the will surely informs the text more than I can manage here. (From the prince’s father’s suicide note: “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me”). And while I’m lazily dropping names: Edgar Allan Poe, King Lear, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, and Francisco Goya—especially his Los caprichos, a few of which accompany this review . (And although he came after, I can’t help but read Roberto Bolaño in some of the more grotesque, horrific passages).

The levels of ventriloquizing and the layers of madness set against the novel’s depiction of radical repression lead to an abyssal paradox, perhaps best figured not in the philosophers Bernhard invokes but in the novel’s backdrop: a dark, enveloping gorge, the yawning chasm that surrounds the high walls of the castle the prince walks with his auditors. These walls are the stage from which the prince performs his monologue; their visceral dramatic emphasis derives from the abyss below. In an ironic note at the beginning of “The Prince,” the son remarks, “From here, I thought, you probably had the finest view of the entire country.”

Upon this stage, Bernhard’s main characters function as asymmetrical parallels (forgive the purposeful absurdity of this oxymoron). The father and his son the narrator are set against the prince and his absent son. In a particularly bizarre episode, the prince recounts a dream:

“But my son,” he said, “will destroy Hochgobernitz as soon as he receives it into his hands.”

Last night, the prince said, he had had a dream. “In this dream,” he said, “I was able to look at a sheet of paper moving slowly from far below to high up, paper on which my own son had written the following. I see every word that my son is writing on that sheet of paper,” the prince said. “It is my son’s hand writing it. My son writes: As one who has taken refuge in scientific allegories I seemed to have cured myself of my father for good, as one cures oneself of a contagious disease. But today I see that this disease is an elemental, shattering fatal illness of which everyone without exception dies. Eight months after my father’s suicide—note that, Doctor, after his father’s suicide, after my suicide; my son writes about my suicide!—eight months after my father’s suicide everything is already ruined, and I can say that I have ruined it. I can say that I have ruined Hochgobernitz, my son writes, and he writes: I have ruined this flourishing economy! This tremendous, anachronistic agricultural and forest economy. I suddenly see, my son writes,” the prince said, “that by liquidating the business even though or precisely because it is the best, I am for the first time implementing my theory, my son writes!” the prince said.

Note the strange layers of narration and creation here. The prince’s son, a creation of the prince, exists in the prince’s dream (another creation) where he creates a manuscript. All this creation though points to destruction—of the father, of the ancestral estate. The prince’s impulses signal self-erasure, suicide as a kind of radical return of the repressed (here, Austria’s inability to speak about, reconcile, admit its complicity in the horrors of World War 2).

The doctor contrasts with the prince, perhaps representing an order, health, and sanity that serve to sharpen and darken the abject decay of the crazed aristocrat. “My father goes to see the prince only to treat him for his insomnia,” observes the narrator, “without doing anything about his real illness . . . his madness.” But can the doctor really treat the prince’s illness?

Both fathers in their respective philosophies signal the possible paths that might be inherited by their sons (and, if you like, by allegorical extension the sons could represent Austria, or perhaps even Western Europe). How to live against the promise of suicide, against the perils of infanticide, against the kind of “natural brutality” that leads to murder, insanity, the abyss?

This problem is encoded into Bernhard’s rhetorical technique. The prince’s devastating monologue consumes the narrative, reader and narrator alike. By the end of the novel, he’s infiltrated (and perhaps infected) the narrator’s consciousness, highlighting the dramatic stakes here—of being ventriloquized, possessed by the diseases of history and authority—an illness that trends to self-destruction. It’s worth sharing a passage at some length; the following section highlights and perhaps even condenses what I take to be the core themes of Gargoyles:

“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.

Such searing nihilism here—the prince angrily mourns the grotesqueness of the world, the lack of agency of people to control their own fate, to be but players, dummies mumbling someone else’s script. And it all leads to death. For the prince, dialogue is impossible in the face of this death: “All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.” But the prince, notably, is his own interlocutor; he pushes himself into abysses of his own contrivance.

Neither is love a solution for the prince:

“We face questions like an open grave about to be filled. It is also absurd, you know, for me to be talking of the absurdity,” he said. “My character can justly be called thoroughly unloving. But with equal justice I call the world utterly unloving. Love is an absurdity for which there is no place in nature.

And community?

We see in a person frailties which at once make us see the frailties of the community in which we live, the frailties of all communities, the state; we feel them, we see through them, we catastrophize them.

But is this necessarily the essential view of the novel? I don’t think it plausible to argue that the prince’s monologue be read entirely ironically, but it’s worth bearing in mind that both his auditors understand him to be mentally ill and terribly isolated. The guy is histrionic, a drama fiend holding forth on his stage. And while his acerbic misanthropy and nihilism may scorch, it’s also very, very funny. I chuckled a lot reading Gargoyles.

But yes—the prince is sincere in his pain. “We assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” he declares near the end of the novel. He’s a a prisoner in his own gloomy castle, the dungeon he refuses to leave. He resents his son’s self-exile to London, but also longs—literally dreams for—his son to return to destroy that dungeon.

Of his family: “But probably all these creatures deserve ruthlessness more than pity.” I think that But is important here. The doctor, like the prince, also situates everyone on an axis of ruthlessness and pity. The doctor is full of cruel observations about the gargoyles he encounters. But: But he gets up, goes out, does his rounds, tries in some way to mitigate some of the “natural brutality” of the world. And he tries to show this world—and this method—to his son this as well, for his son’s “studies.” In the room of the lonely, dying woman, the son remarks of his father: “I noticed that he made an effort to stretch out the call, for all his eagerness to leave.” The son, in thrall to the prince’s monologue, perhaps fails to notice that his father also stretches out his time on the castle wall despite an eagerness to leave the prince.

By the end of the novel, we see the prince’s consciousness inhabiting the son’s thoughts:

In bed I thought: What did the prince say? “Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me, an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes. The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed. 

The pessimism and sheer despair here erupts into black comedy with that last line, one echoed in Bernhard’s later novel Correction: “Waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.” If to simply get out of bed (which, of course, is where the son is as he work’s through the prince’s ideas) is to invoke and invite disaster and despair, it’s worth noting that this simple action—getting out of bed—is what the doctor performs each day, even if it means he wakes to a dead teacher, a boiled infant, a murdered wife. While hardly a beacon of optimism or hope, the doctor nonetheless figures an alternative to the prince’s abject madness. If we “assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” the doctor understands that it’s important to leave those walls, to not seek out dungeons—and drag others into dungeons with us.

Gargoyles is by turns bleak and nihilistic. It’s also energetic, profound, and at times very, very funny. Its opening section will likely provide an accessible introduction to readers interested in Bernhard, with the prince’s monologue offering the full Bernhardian experience. Dark, cruel, and taxing, Gargoyles isn’t particularly fun reading—except when it is. Highly recommended.

February 20, 2013

Ben Marcus Doing His David Markson Impression

by Biblioklept

In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.

Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.

But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.

I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.

Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.

They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.

If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.

When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.

Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.

If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it even the memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.

I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.

Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.

Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.

Do not read this, warned Plutarch.

Do not read this, warned Cicero.

Do not read this, begged Ovid.

If you value your life. Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.

No alphabet but in things, said Williams.

Correction. No alphabet at all.

The entirety of Chapter 35 of Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s a departure of style from the novel that seems to owe more than a passing nod to David Markson’s notecard novels.

 

November 30, 2012

A Riff on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel The Loser

by Edwin Turner

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1. I finished Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser (English transl. Jack Dawson ’91) a few weeks ago and then picked over some of it again this week.

I’m not going to try to unpack all of The Loser here—it’s too thick, too loaded, too layered—its density is monochromatic, or monoglossic really, a monologue that threatens to drown the reader. One big paragraph.

2. The Loser is the second Bernhard novel I’ve read, after Correction, which is an even denser novel: Correction’s sentences are longer, its tone grimmer, its humor less readily apparent.

Correction is a novel about repetition. The Loser reads like a repetition of Correction: Like CorrectionThe Loser is one long uninterrupted monologue by an unnamed narrator who attempts to puzzle out the motives and meanings of a friend’s recent suicide. As in Correction, the suicide in The Loser (eponymous Wertheimer, whose name recalls Correction’s Roithamer) is a ridiculously wealthy man who obsesses almost incestuously over his sister, repressing her in the process. Like CorrectionThe Loser focuses on three friends. And like CorrectionThe Loser is ultimately about how idealism leads to breakdown, insanity, and suicide.

3. (I riffed on Correction here).

4. You might want a plot summary (always my least favorite business of a book review).

Here, straight from the text:

Wertheimer had wanted to compete with Glenn, I thought, to show his sister, to pay her back for everything by hanging himself only a hundred steps from her house in Zizers.

That’s more or less the plot: Our loser’s sister (whom he sought to control and constrain and confine) elopes to Switzerland to marry a Swiss millionaire. This is the proverbial  last straw for Wertheimer, whose dream of being a great piano player was decimated the moment he heard Glenn Gould play piano years ago when they attended a conservatory together.

5. That’s like, the Glenn Gould of course—which is what our narrator calls him (that is, the).

Glenn Gould’s perfection—or rather the perfection Wertheimer (and the narrator, through whom Wertheimer lives (as a voice)) affords GG—stymies the pair forever:

Glenn is the victor, we are the failures

GG is their ideal, and the ideal shatters them:

. . . always Glenn Gould at the center, not Glenn but Glenn Gould, who destroyed us both, I thought.

And later:

. . . there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us . . .

6. Glenn Gould has the gall to die of a stroke, upsetting Wertheimer to no end. (Wertheimer’s not upset that Glenn Gould has died—no, he can’t stand the perfection of Glenn Gould’s death)

7. Glenn Gould’s own idealism:

. . .to be the Steinway itself . . .

—an idealized self-erasure; a self that doesn’t think, that doesn’t theorize; a self that only acts.

8. Glenn Gould’s perfection shatters Wertheimer, but when his sister leaves him he starts to go insane:

We have an ideal sister for our needs and she leaves us at exactly the wrong moment . . .

9. More on our loser Wertheimer:

Do you think I could have become a great piano player? he asked me, naturally without waiting for an answer and laughing a dreadful Never! from deep inside.

—and—

. . . ultimately he was enamored of failure . . .

—and—

. . . he was addicted to people because he was addicted to unhappiness.

—and—

My constant curiosity got in the way of my suicide, so he said, I thought.

10. In that last example, we see the layering of The Loser’s narrative: “so he said, I thought.” The novel is entirely the narrator’s internal monologue, moving through time and space freely—yet Bernhard constantly anchors the monologue in these layered attributions. The effect is often jarring, as we experience the narrator move from memory to thought to observation on the present continuous world he is currently experiencing.

Here’s an example:

Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.

We move from Wertheimer’s observation about throwing children into the “existence machine” to attribution of that thought to Wertheimer (“he”) to another layering of attribution (“I thought”) and then, bizarrely, to the narrator suggesting that he is “contemplating the restaurant” (the narrator’s concrete action for the first half of the book is entering an inn). The narrator simultaneously remembers and observes and contemplates—but there’s a deep anxiety here, I think, a refusal to slow down, to reflect.

11. Or perhaps this is just how “the existence machine”—consciousness—works.

12. More on “the existence machine”:

We exist, we don’t have any other choice, Glenn once said.

—and—(thus Wertheimer):

. . . we don’t exist, we get existed . . .

—and—-

Wertheimer had to commit suicide, I told myself, he had no future left. He’d used himself up, had run out existence coupons.

Existence coupons!

13. If you do not find the citation above (re: “existence coupons”) particularly and absurdly and perhaps cruelly funny, it is likely that you will not enjoy The Loser, a book that I found hilarious.

14. Another humorous passage—our narrator, having entered his “deterioration process,” elects to give away his piano:

I knew I was giving up my expensive instrument to an absolutely worthless individual and precisely for that reason I had it delivered to the teacher. The teacher’s daughter took my instrument, one of the very best, one of the rarest and therefore most sought after and therefore also most expensive pianos in the world, and in the shortest period imaginable destroyed it, rendered it worthless.

15. The Loser, like Correction, is very much about destruction, about breaking down both objects and ideas into a pure, idealized zero.

Take Wertheimer’s book, which echoes the narrator’s piano (and Glenn Gould’s own will to remove himself from the process of playing, to be “the Steinway itself”):

He wanted to publish a book, but it never came to that, for he kept changing his manuscript, changing it so often and to such an extent that nothing was left of the manuscript, of which finally nothing remained except the title, The Loser.

The narrator too plans to write a book, his Glenn Essay:

. . . everything we write down, if we leave it for a while and start reading it from the beginning, naturally becomes unbearable and we won’t rest until we’ve destroyed it again, I thought. Next week I’ll be in Madrid again and the first thing I’ll do is destroy my Glenn Essay in order to start a new one, I thought, an even more intense, even more authentic one, I thought. For we always think we are authentic and in truth we are not.

This is how idealism plays out in The Loser: a process of correction that leads to fragmentation, deterioration, nullification.

The fight against getting existed.

16. The Loser’s narrator repeatedly brings up the clash between idealism (theory) and existence (practice):

In theory he mastered all the unpleasantness of life, all the degrees of desperation, the evil in the world that grinds us down, but in practice he was never up to it. And so he went to pot, completely at odds with his own theories, went all the way to suicide, I thought, all the way to Zizers, his ridiculous end of the line, I thought. In theory he had always spoken out against suicide, deemed me capable of it however without a second thought, always went to my funeral, in practice he killed himself and I went to his funeral. In theory he became one of the greatest piano virtuosos in the world, one of the most famous artists of all time (even if not as famous as Glenn Gould!), in practice he accomplished nothing at the piano, I thought.

There is something simultaneously absurdly hilarious and tragic in the idea that even in his theoretical ideal state, Wertheimer is still not as accomplished as Glenn Gould!

17. For the narrator of The Loser, the tragic space between theory and practice is a deeply existential problem, the problem of the individual consciousness’s relation to other people:

In theory we understand people, but in practice we can’t put up with them, I thought, deal with them for the most part reluctantly and always treat them from our own point of view. We should observe and treat people not from our own point of view but from all angles, I thought, associate with them in such a way that we can say we associate with them so to speak in a completely unbiased way, which however isn’t possible, since we actually are always biased against everybody.

18. Watching some beer-truck drivers in the inn, the narrator undertakes a thought experiment that highlights a will to belong, to relate to others, coupled with the immediate dismissal—the internalized abject rejection—of this idea:

Again and again we picture ourselves sitting together with the people we feel drawn to all our lives, precisely these so-called simple people, whom naturally we imagine much differently from the way they truly are, for if we actually sit down with them, we see that they aren’t the way we’ve pictured them and that we absolutely don’t belong with them, as we’ve talked ourselves into believing, and we get rejected at their table and in their midst as we logically should get after sitting down at their table and believing we belonged with them or we could sit with them for even the shortest time without being punished, which is the biggest mistake, I thought.

19. Note in the later passages of The Loser ( including the two I cite in points 17 and 18) the dominant use of the pronoun we. The narrator’s we might be a simple rhythmic projection, a generalization of the narrator’s own anxieties displaced onto others. At the same time, the narrator’s we seems to hold the ghosts of Glenn Gould and Wertheimer, who possess, haunt, and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice—which is the novel, of course.

20. The Loser seems like a great starting place for someone interested in reading Bernhard. I think it’s a more manageable introduction to his themes than Correction is: the humor is more accessible, the book’s ironies perhaps more apparent, and its sentences are far, far shorter. (I feel the need to clarify: None of these comments should be interpreted as a knock against Correction, which I thought brilliant; neither should these comments be interpreted as a knock against the intelligence and abilities of readers interested in Bernhard).

21. I still have two Bernhards in the stack—Yes and Concrete—but I’ll hold off for a while. Dude’s writing is rewarding but taxing.

November 27, 2012

“All schools are bad” (Thomas Bernhard)

by Biblioklept

All schools are bad and the one we attend is always the worst if it doesn’t open our eyes. What lousy teachers we had to put up with, teachers who screwed up our heads. Art destroyers all of them, art liquidators, culture assassins, murderers of students.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser.

October 20, 2012

Reading-as-Nature or Nature-as-Reading (From Thomas Berhnhard’s Correction)

by Biblioklept

We couldn’t endure a life in nature, necessarily always a free nature, without respite, so we always step outside nature, for no reason but survival, and take refuge in our reading, and live for a long time in our books, a more undisturbed life. I’ve lived half my life not in nature but in my books as a nature-substitute, and the one half was made possible only by the other half. Or else we exist in both simultaneously, in nature and in reading-as-nature, in this extreme nervous tension which as a form of consciousness is endurable only for the shortest possible time span. The question can’t be whether I live in nature as nature, or in reading-as-nature, or in nature-as-reading, in the nature of nature-as-reading andsoforth, so Roithamer. To everything that we think and fill our own life and that we hear and see, perceive, we always have to add: the truth, however, is … as a result, uncertainty has become a chronic condition with us. Those abrupt transitions from one nature into the other, from one form of awareness into the other, so Roithamer. When we think, we know nothing, everything is open, nothing, so Roithamer.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction.

 

October 12, 2012

Suicide as a National Folk Art (Thomas Bernhard’s Correction)

by Biblioklept

Suicide, Luc Tymans

In this passage from Thomas Bernhard’s Correction we can see the strange, bleak, black humor that characterizes the novel:

It’s a folk art of sorts, I said to Hoeller, always longing to kill oneself but being kept by one’s watchful intelligence from killing oneself, so that the condition is stabilized in the form of lifelong controlled suffering, it’s an art possessed only by this people and those belonging to it. We’re a nation of suicides, I said, but only a small percentage actually kill themselves, even though ours is the highest percentage of suicides in the world, even though we in this country hold the world’s record for suicide, I said. What mainly goes on in this country and among these people is thinking about suicide, everywhere, in the big cities, in the towns, in the country, a basic trait of this country’s population is the constant thought of suicide, they might be said to take pleasure in thinking constantly, steadily, without allowing anything to distract them, about how to do away with themselves at any time. It is their way of keeping their balance, I said, to think constantly about killing themselves without actually killing themselves. But of course the rest of the world doesn’t understand, and so whatever they think about us and regardless of what they say about us and of how they always and invariably treat us, every single one of us, they are all wrong. It’s a simple fact, I said, that our country is misunderstood, no matter how well intentioned the rest of the world may appear, what it sees when it looks at Austria and its people is total madness as a stable state of mind, a constant.

(For those interested: Austria currently ranks 24th in the world in suicide per capita)

 

October 11, 2012

Three Notes on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Correction (Plot, Prose, and a Riff)

by Edwin Turner

1. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction is nominally the story of an unnamed narrator who leaves England after a severe illness to return to his native Austria to “sift and sort” the writings of his childhood friend Roithamer.

Roithamer, a brilliant but insane scientist, is the self-exiled son of an old, wealthy family. He uses an unexpected inheritance to fund an idealistic project: the building of a perfect Cone in the isolated heart of the Kobernausser forest. Roithamer envisions this Cone as the perfect home for his sister to live in (although he doesn’t bother to actually, y’know, talk to her about it). Roithamer’s sister dies almost immediately after taking up residence in the Cone. Roithamer then commits suicide.

Correction is divided into two sections, each a single, long, dense paragraph with no text break for the reader to rest upon. Bernhard’s sentences wind and unwind and rewind, sometimes snaking out for pages at a time; like Samuel Beckett, to whom he is often compared, Bernhard is a master of the comma splice. The effect is exhausting.

The first section of Correction is “Hoeller’s Garret,” named after the novel’s primary physical setting. Hoeller is a taxidermist who has built his own house in the Aurach gorge as a sort of dare to nature itself. Hoeller’s house inspires Roithamer’s Cone, and Hoeller’s garret becomes Roithamer’s work space—which is to say thinking space—for planning and executing his idealistic project.

Following Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator too moves into Hoeller’s garret, one of many formal repetitions in Correction (these formalizing plot repetitions are echoed in Bernhard’s syntactic repetitions).

In “Hoeller’s Garret” we learn about the childhood friendship between the narrator, Hoeller, and Roithamer. The paragraph (or chapter, if you will) includes details about Roithamer’s troubled family as well as an early horrific encounter with death, themes that will repeat throughout the novel.

The second section, “Sifting and Sorting,” finds the narrator working though Roithamer’s (mostly autobiographical) papers. The narrator appends a simple tag like “thus, Roithamer” or “so Roithamer” as attribution to Roithamer’s first-person statements, but this device pops up less and less as the book progresses, and it becomes clear that Roithamer has ventriloquized the narrative.

“Sifting and Sorting” focuses on Roithamer’s unhappy childhood, his endless fights with his mother, and his wish to perfect an idealization (namely, his Cone). The narrator channels Roithamer who channels the voices of his mother and father (and occasionally his detested brothers)—and of course, the reader channels all. The narrator slowly gives over to Roithamer’s voice as the novel’s final pages rush out in a series of diary entries, and Bernhard’s taxing syntax performs a mesmerist act on the reader, who, stunned, must return to the text in yet another repetition.

2. I’ve thus far failed to illustrate any of the above claims with an example of Bernhard’s prose.

It’s possible to plunder Correction for tight phrases, sharp, dark aphorisms, and other little bits of strange wisdom, but that doesn’t really convey the effect of what it’s like to read Bernhard’s sentences.

Better then to offer an example. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:

The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful to him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible.

If you’re interested, that’s 722 words (I wrote about 500 words before Bernhard’s sentence, if you need a point of contrast).

The repetition is easy to note even by absently gazing over the passage. The repeated phrase “Hoeller’s garret” stands out in particular, introducing the reader to the novel’s primary setting and establishing this “ideal place” in context against Altensam (the hated aristocratic home), England (self-imposed exile of a sort), and the Cone (the ideal ideal place).

We can also track a subtle shift in the final third of the sentence, as Roithamer’s voice ventriloquizes the narrator’s. Note how in the first third of the sentence, the narrator employs the first-person pronoun “I” which soon disappears in the middle third to be replaced by “he” (referring to Roithamer), until finally transforming into an “I” again in the final third—only this “I” is Roithamer’s “I.” This sentence demonstrates not only the demanding sentence structure that characterizes Correction as a whole, but also its narrative program of ventriloquism.

3. Okay. So I’ve offered plot summary, a lump of text, and a few comments on Bernhard’s prose—but I’ve hardly made a go of untangling the knotty density of Correction. (Although is that really what I came here to do? I don’t know. I hope not). Here are some stray, loose thoughts on Correction, offered here with little support (and the vague promise that I’ll write more about Correction in the future—shorter, more focused posts that hopefully expand on these ideas):

Correction shows how idealism, and specifically the will to create and perfect the ideal, leads to breakdown, death, insanity, suicide.

The Cone is a massive idealized phallus that reduces the agency of Roithamer’s sister, isolates her, and becomes her tomb.

Roithamer is part of a long tradition in literature of strange sister-lovers, dudes who dote on—and idealize—their sisters too much.

Roithamer seems to suffer from a sort-of reverse Oedipus complex, where he identifies with the strength of his father and hates his mother, who he sees as a cultural philistine, lower class, anti-intellectual. This complex leads to chauvinism against women in general, and possibly prevents him from better understanding his sister, who he essentially imprisons.

Correction reminded me often of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Correction reminded me often of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, although Correction obviously came first, and Sebald clearly cited Bernhard as an influence.

At some of its rantier points, Correction reminded me of Notes from Underground.

Correction took me forever to read, mostly because every time I picked it back up I had to twist my way into its circular, repetitive rhythms anew. Lots of rereading.

My auditory imagination: In time, it was Werner Herzog’s voice that read Correction to me.

Correction performs its own deconstruction.

Correction is often so scathing and harsh in its treatment of humanity as to be difficult to swallow. One has to step back repeatedly and remind oneself that Roithamer is not sane.

Correction is also very, very funny at times—astonishingly so, even. Its humor is truly absurd, the absurdity of a parent’s funeral, or the absurdity of simply having to go on. I can’t help but cite a favorite line here—”waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.”

The other side of “waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence” is of course death in general, or suicide in particular. Correction posits suicide as the ultimate correction, the final clearing gesture. The ideal.

And, not a thought on Correction, but a question for readers: What next? – ConcreteThe Loser, or Yes?

October 9, 2012

The First Sentences of Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Correction

by Biblioklept

After a mild pulmonary infection, tended too little and too late, had suddenly turned into a severe pneumonia that took its toll of my entire body and laid me up for at least three months at nearby Wels, which has a hospital renowned in the field of so-called internal medicine, I accepted an invitation from Hoeller, a so-called taxidermist in the Aurach valley, not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted, and then went on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoeller’s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret, to begin sifting and perhaps even arranging the literary remains of my friend, who was also a friend of the taxidermist Hoeller, Roithamer, after Roithamer’s suicide, I went to work sifting and sorting the papers he had willed to me, consisting of thousands of slips covered with Roithamer’s handwriting plus a bulky manuscript entitled “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.” The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful o him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible. It was in Hoeller’s garret that he found the conditions necessary and most favorable to thought, for getting the mechanism of his thought going in the most natural, most undistracted way, all he had to do was to come to Hoeller’s garret from wherever he might be, and the mechanism worked.

—The first sentences of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction.

January 17, 2012

Books Acquired, 1.13.2012 (Ezra Pound, Thomas Bernhard, Louis Zukofsky)

by Biblioklept

20120115-163012.jpg

Picked up these three last Friday.

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This is a collection of letters to and from Ezra Pound, as well as criticism, introductions, etc. I like the cover, which is a bit too busy.

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I picked up Thomas Bernhard’s Correction last year on reader recommendation (recommendation: read Bernhard). Saw The Loser in the shop used, so I picked it up. Any recommendation on which one to start with?

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A midcentury paperback of Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry. This is a strange book. I’d better let Zukofsky explain it:

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The back cover is lovely as well:

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November 3, 2011

Books Acquired, Sometime Last Week (I Don’t Know, Maybe on Thursday or Friday)

by Biblioklept

I picked up a bevy of books at my favorite bookstore sometime last week ; can’t remember the day, exactly. Anyway, some of these selections come from reader recommendations re: nonconventional lit.

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I ordered David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I’ve been meaning to read for yonks but had never found used. Horrible, horrible cover

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Bernhard’s Correction: Thomas Bernhard came recommended by a number of readers in the aforelinkedto post; dipping into Correction immediately recalled Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn for some reason.

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George Saunders: another reader recommendation. I actually read Pastoralia this week. I love short stories. Anyway, full review forthcoming. Short version: good stuff, but DFW casts a pretty big shadow.

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Georges Perec was another reader rec, but it was his novel Life: A User’s Manual that kept popping up. I found Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, his collection of essays and other stray bits, by sheer chance. I think I was looking for something by De Sade, actually. Anyway, I love, love, love this book—it kinda reminds me of Bolaño’s Between the Parentheses or even the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden—the kind of book I see myself dipping into again and again, a little mini-labyrinth of ideas.

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I also picked up Faulkner’s last novel, The Reivers; been wanting to read it for a long time now. I’ll try to get it in over the Christmas break.

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