Thomas Bernhard’s first novel Frost is (unless I’m mistaken) his longest, and of the several I’ve now read, the most taxing on the reader—bitter, caustic, depressive, nihilistic.
It’s also terribly funny, the story of a young doctor hell-bent on making a career for himself who heads to the remote village of Weng to spy on Strauch, “the painter,” on behalf of Strauch’s brother, who can presumably further the narrator’s medical career. The painter, long-estranged from his family, his health deteriorating, lives (if it can be called that) in a vile inn at the bottom of a gorge. The painter’s brother dispatches the narrator to report back in the minutest detail: “Watch the way my brother holds his stick, I want a precise description of it.”
A word I learned reading Frost: “knacker.” A knacker is a person who renders, buries, or otherwise disposes of dead animals. The knacker of Weng is one of the main characters of Frost. He’s having an affair with the innkeeper, a symbolically overdetermined plot device (in a basically plotless book) that thematically ties death to hearth. Frost is savagely morbid, its blank white snow the perfect canvas for Bernhard’s bloody strokes. The abject violence of his next novel Gargoyles seems refined in comparison to the brutality of Frost. The painter declares that “the abattoir is the only essentially philosophical venue. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!” Frost is an abattoir.
Frost is also a stage play of sorts—like the other Bernhard novels I’ve read, it takes something of its form from the conventions drama: limited sets, just a handful of characters, and dialogue that usually veers into monologue. Through the course of the novels, these monologues (usually delivered by an obsessive, sanity-challenged older man) eventually ventriloquize the ostensible narrator/auditor, a stand-in for the reader’s own consciousness. Bernhard designs, builds, destroys, and then rebuilds these consciousnesses; when the painter of Frost declares that he has mastered “perspectivelessness . . . because I am so full of different perspectives,” he offers us a condensation of Bernhard’s analysis of first-person perspective and its attendant imaginative capacity as simultaneously creative and destructive.
Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stufﬁng it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind—usually self-loathing, obsessive ones—and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment.
I can’t do better than Marcus, and Frost is too long a performance to try. I will say: Gargoyles or The Loser are probably better starting places for those interested in Bernhard’s work. This suggestion isn’t meant to slight the book at all—but it does read a bit like a first novel, occasionally weighed down by (what I perceive to be) its authors need to say it all, all of it, here and now. Of course, Frost features prose-passages that any first-time novelist would be proud (and probably terrified) to have in their debuts; I’ve featured several on the site already.
But this isn’t really a review of Frost. A proper analysis of Bernhard would take the time to work through his language. I marked so much in Frost, highlighted so many passages that I’m not really sure how to go about synthesizing it.
My initial thought was to dodge it all by making a sarcastic post, a parody of the so-called “listicle,” those non-articles that seek to boil a work down to a digestible (and forgettable) summation of quotes, often with the intention of offering the reader a modicum of self-help (under the pretense of “wisdom”). Something like “Forty Inspiring Quotes from Thomas Bernhard’s Frost” or “Timeless Wisdom from Thomas Bernhard” or some such nonsense. Anyway, the next section, VII, comprises 40 citations from Frost, mostly excellent one-liners too good not to share. I’ve enumerated them and lumped them into one big block quote; they are listed in the order they come in the text. I think that they offer a painful and funny overview of the novel.
- Suddenly I heard the story of a lineman who had been asphyxiated in a snowstorm, which ended: “He never cared about anything.”
- It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse.
- “Nature is bloody,” he said, “but bloodiest toward her own finest, most remarkable, and choicest gifts. She grinds them down without batting an eyelid.”
- Is it permissible for suicide to be a sort of secret pleasure to a man?
- Something was splendid, and the next thing was brutal, much more brutal than the first had been splendid.
- “You’ll get to meet a whole series of monsters here.”
- “Even dreams die. Everything turns into cold. The imagination, everything.”
- “People who make a new person are taking an extraordinary responsibility upon themselves. All unrealizable. Hopeless. It’s a great crime to create a person, when you know he’ll be unhappy, certainly if there’s any unhappiness about. The unhappiness that exists momentarily is the whole of unhappiness. To produce solitude just because you don’t want to be alone anymore yourself is a crime.”
- People don’t have favorite children, they just have a lot of them.
- I’m sure imagination is an illness. An illness that you don’t catch, merely because you’ve always had it. An illness that is responsible for everything, and particularly everything ridiculous and malignant. Do you understand the imagination? What is imagination?
- “There is a pain center, and from that pain center everything radiates out,” he said; “it’s somewhere in the center of nature. Nature is built up on many centers, but principally on that pain center.”
- “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.”
- Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms.
- Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet, or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterward?
- By and by it comes to your attention: the world around you, nothing but corruption, colossal misrule.
- “How everything has crumbled, how everything has dissolved, how all the reference points have shifted, how all fixity has moved, how nothing exists anymore, how nothing exists, you see, how all the religions and all the irreligions and the protracted absurdities of all forms of worship have turned into nothing, nothing at all, you see, how belief and unbelief no longer exist, how science, modern science, how the stumbling blocks, the millennial courts, have all been thrown out and ushered out and blown out into the air, how all of it is now just so much air … Listen, it’s all air, all concepts are air, all points of reference are air, everything is just air …” And he said: “Frozen air, everything just so much frozen air …”
- What is pain, if not pain?
- “I used to take sleeping pills,” he said, “and slowly boosted the number of pills I took. In the end, they had absolutely no effect on me, and I could have gulped any number of them, and still not have got to sleep. I repeatedly took such high dosages, I should have died. But I only ever vomited them up.”
- Everything torments me now.
- Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.
- He was just scraps of words and dislocated phrases.
- Things have lost their power to disgust me.
- The human race was the unfruitful thing, “the only unfruitful thing in the whole world. It serves no purpose. It can’t be made into anything. It can’t be eaten. It isn’t a raw material for some process outside itself.”
- “Men like rats, chopped up by street sweepers’ shovels. Too many negotiations with humans have done me in.”
- The ruin of mankind had been a child’s dream.
- The food had been better than for any corpse she could remember.
- “The frost eats everything up,” said the painter, “trees, humans, animals, and whatever is in the trees and the humans and the animals. The blood stalls, and at great speed. You can break apart a frozen human like a piece of stale bread.”
- There were no real humans anymore, just death masks of real humans.
- The nightmarish sweat of fear, that’s the air.
- Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss.
- The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!
- You wake up, and you feel molested.
- Everything is barbarous kitsch.
- “And when I saw the grisly chopped-up animals, I had to burst out laughing, I burst out into extraordinary laughter. Do you know what that means? It means horror demands laughter!”
- Various venerable old families would assemble “in a spirit of megalomania, to shoot holes in nature.
- It’s a mistake to count on people.
- Every object I see hurts me.
- ” . . . hopelessness … There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.”
- “The world is a progressive dimming of light,.”
- The breeding of a human being (thinking most rigorously of himself) is the decision of the father (first and foremost) and of the mother (as well) to sponsor the suicide of their offspring, the child, the sudden premonition “of having created a new suicide.”
“Art” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole. This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation but creation is the aim. In landscapes the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit and give us only the spirit and splendor. He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye because it expresses a thought which is to him good; and this because the same power which sees through his eyes is seen in that spectacle; and he will come to value the expression of nature and not nature itself, and so exalt in his copy the features that please him. He will give the gloom of gloom and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait he must inscribe the character and not the features, and must esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.
What is that abridgment and selection we observe in all spiritual activity, but itself the creative impulse? for it is the inlet of that higher illumination which teaches to convey a larger sense by simpler symbols. What is a man but nature’s finer success in self-explication? What is a man but a finer and compacter landscape than the horizon figures,—nature’s eclecticism? and what is his speech, his love of painting, love of nature, but a still finer success,—all the weary miles and tons of space and bulk left out, and the spirit or moral of it contracted into a musical word, or the most cunning stroke of the pencil?
But the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus the new in art is always formed out of the old. The Genius of the Hour sets his ineffaceable seal on the work and gives it an inexpressible charm for the imagination. As far as the spiritual character of the period overpowers the artist and finds expression in his work, so far it will retain a certain grandeur, and will represent to future beholders the Unknown, the Inevitable, the Divine. No man can quite exclude this element of Necessity from his labor. No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is. Now that which is inevitable in the work has a higher charm than individual talent can ever give, inasmuch as the artist’s pen or chisel seems to have been held and guided by a gigantic hand to inscribe a line in the history of the human race. This circumstance gives a value to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, to the Indian, Chinese and Mexican idols, however gross and shapeless. They denote the height of the human soul in that hour, and were not fantastic, but sprung from a necessity as deep as the world. Shall I now add that the whole extant product of the plastic arts has herein its highest value, as history; as a stroke drawn in the portrait of that fate, perfect and beautiful, according to whose ordinations all beings advance to their beatitude?
My mother dropped off several boxes of books, comics, and papers I hadn’t delved into in probably 20 years—stuff I’d left at my parents’ house, intending to retrieve at some point. One book I reacquired was a Czechoslovakian folk and fairy tale collection with the nondescript name Animal Fairy Stories (retold by Alena Benesova and translated into English by Ruth Shepherd), a volume collecting over a hundred stories from all over the globe.
These stories had a tremendous impact on me as a child. Most describe a time “when the world was still young and everything was very different,” an amorphous, shifting world full of tricksters and their dupes, kings always precariously poised to fall and fail, interspecies cohabitation, and lots and lots of death. As important as these stories were in forming my reading habits and taste, the book’s illustrations by Czech artist Karel Franta had an even more profound and unsettling impact on my imagination. His strange, marvelous paintings somehow imprinted on my psyche, mixing in with the horror and joy and fascination that all those early stories entailed. Reading over a dozen animal tales with my own children last night, I was taken aback at how precisely each of Franta’s illustrations was etched into my brain, and how each image burned with its own special humor or terror or confusion or weird delight.
Below are a few of his paintings; I’ve tried to share a sampling that showcases his mix of strange pathos, unsettling humor, and dreamworld evocation.
Edgar Allen Poe’s tale “The Oval Portrait” —
The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.
Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.
But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.
That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.
The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:
“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!