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? Continue reading ““Art” — Ralph Waldo Emerson”
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.