Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew
Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).
Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners
These books are essential.
Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.
I sort of graze on these books.
Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum
Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.
Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets
Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:
Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.
By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.
Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir
Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.
William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.
I do not care for walks either, and have been a reluctant walker all my life. I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is that I am a city dweller who can at best tolerate nature. It is only with reluctance that I live in the country, which on the whole I find hostile.
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew.
At last we found ourselves standing in front of one of the thousands of square marble plaques enclosed in concrete. On it was to be read, freshly incised, the name Isabella Fernandez. Anna Härdtl, with tears in her eyes, tried to fasten her husband’s photograph to the marble plaque, but was at first unable to do so. By chance I had in my pocket the end of a roll of adhesive tape and used this to stick the photograph to the marble. Anna had previous written the name of her husband, Hans Peter Härdtl, in pencil under that of Isabella Fernandez, and though partly obliterated by the rain, it could still be clearly read. Poor people, she said, or those who suddenly became victims of a misfortune such as she had suffered and could make themselves understood, were buried, when they died, the very same day in an above-ground concrete block like this, which is often meant not just for two, but for three bodies.
JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: Why since 1975 have you set aside novel-writing in favor of autobiography?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have never written a novel, but merely prose texts of greater or lesser length, and I’m going to take care not to describe them as novels; I don’t know what the word means. I haven’t ever wanted to write an autobiographical work either; I have a genuine aversion to all things autobiographical. The fact is that at a certain moment in my life I got curious about my childhood. I said to myself, “I haven’t much longer to live. Why not try to record my life up to the age of nineteen? Not as it was in reality—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.”
When I was planning the book I envisaged it as a single slim volume. A second one emerged. Then yet another one…until the point when I started to get bored. In the end childhood is always just childhood. After the fifth volume I decided to call it a day. In the case of each my books I’m always torn this way and that between a passion and a loathing for my chosen subject.
Every time my second thoughts get the upper hand, I resolve to give up intellectual pursuits for good and dedicate myself instead to purely material tasks, for example to chopping wood or plastering a wall, in the hope of recovering my good cheer. My dream is of a never-ending wall and never-ending good cheer. But after a stretch of time of greater or lesser length, I once again start to loathe myself for being unproductive, and despair about this drives me to seek refuge in my brain. Sometimes I tell myself my instability is something I’ve inherited from my ancestors, who were a very heterogeneous bunch. This bunch included farmers, philosophers, laborers, writers, geniuses, and morons, mediocre petit-bourgeois types, and even criminals. All these people exist within me, and they never leave off fighting each other. Sometimes I feel like committing myself into the custody of the goose-keeper, at other times into the custody of the thief or the murderer. Because you’ve got to make choices, and every choice means precluding other choices; this round-dance ultimately drives me to the brink of madness. Such that if I make it to the end of my matutinal shaving routine without killing myself in front of the mirror, I have only my cowardice to thank for it.
Cowardice, vanity, and curiosity are the three basic and essential impetuses to life, the things that keep it moving along, even though every conceivable rational argument gainsays this movement. At any rate, that’s the way it seems to me today. Because it may very well happen that tomorrow I’ll think something completely different.
From an interview with Thomas Bernhard originally published in Le Monde. The English translation is by Douglas Robertson. You can read the entire translated interview at his blog.
If we hear something, says Oehler, on Wednesday we check what we have heard and we check what we have heard until we have to say that what we have heard is not true, what we have heard is a lie. If we see something, we check what we see until we are forced to say that what we are looking at is horrible. Thus throughout our lives we never escape from what is horrible and what is untrue, the lie, says Oehler. If we do something, we think about what we are doing until we are forced to say that it is something nasty, something low, something outrageous, what we are doing is something terribly hopeless and that what we are doing is in the nature of things obviously false. Thus every day becomes hell for us whether we like it or not, and what we think will, if we think about it, if we have the requisite coolness of intellect and acuity of intellect, always become something nasty, something low and superfluous which will depress us in the most shattering manner for the whole of our lives. For, everything that is thought is superfluous. Nature does not need thought, says Oehler, only human pride incessantly thinks into nature its thinking. What must thoroughly depress us is the fact that through this outrageous thinking into a nature which is, in the nature of things, fully immunized against this thinking, we enter into an even greater depression than that in which we already are. In the nature of things conditions become ever more unbearable through our thinking, says Oehler. If we think that we are turning unbearable conditions into bearable ones, we have to realize quickly that we have not made (have not been able to make) unbearable circumstances bearable or even less bearable but only still more unbearable. And circumstances are the same as conditions, says Oehler, and it’s the same with facts. The whole process of life is a process of deterioration in which everything–and this is the most cruel law–continually gets worse. If we look at a person, we are bound in a short space of time to say what a horrible, what an unbearable person. If we look at Nature, we are bound to say, what a horrible what an unbearable Nature. If we look at something artificial–it doesn’t matter what the artificiality is–we are bound to say in a short space of time what an unbearable artificiality. If we are out walking, we even say after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable walk, just as when we are running we say what an unbearable run, just as when we are standing still, what an unbearable standing still, just as when we are thinking what an unbearable process of thinking. If we meet someone, we think within the shortest space of time, what an unbearable meeting. If we go on a journey, we say to ourselves, after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable journey, what unbearable weather, we say, says Oehler, no matter what the weather is like, if we think about any sort of weather at all. If our intellect is keen, if our thinking is the most ruthless and the most lucid, says Oehler, we are bound after the shortest space of time to say ofeverything that it is unbearable and horrible. There is no doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable and in not feeling that what is horrible is something horrible. Of course we have to label this art the most difficult of all. The art of existing against the facts, says Oehler, is the most difficult, the art that is the most difficult.
From Thomas Bernhard’s Walking. Translated by Kenneth Northcott and excerpted at length in Conjunctions 31.
So the other week, Turner wrote, at my favorite local bookstore—a labyrinthine maze you wouldn’t believe, formed from wooden frames filled with dusty paper stacks, obstacles of boxed books, unexplored (the boxed books, not the shelves), littering the pathways (the boxed books)—just under 2 million books (all the books, shelved, and boxed), if a certain clerk is to be believed (and I believe her)—and you wouldn’t believe, and I know you wouldn’t believe because I go there often enough, me, living just a mile away, sometimes walking, briskly, or at an even pace—and with this free time on my hands, and with all these unsolicited review copies, creating a little pool of credit, of trade of etc.—I know you wouldn’t believe because I so often hear the irregular clientele remarking on their own personal disbelief, or their own befuddlement, or, more often, I see them get lost, and even then I’m enjoying that, maybe offering (mis)direction, or, more likely, intercepting the high school seniors—What are you reading? Yes? Faulkner! No! Not that edition!—And so the other week at my favorite local bookstore, I happened upon, neatly stacked in a to-be-shelved shelf, a neatly stacked stack of Thomas Bernhard novels, or, more precisely, a compliment stack of Thomas Bernhard novels, a so-called stack of novels that I did not so-call “own,” a so-called stack of Thomas Bernhard novels that I had not read, not to mention have in my own personal possession, a little series of Vintage English translation editions that could be nestled next to my own meager collection, already, yes, Gargoyles and Correction and Concrete and Yes and The Loser and The Voice Imitator and Frost—but not Old Masters, and Old Masters not in this neatly-stacked bundle (it was never a bundle), no, not Old Masters, which, Turner wrote, Chang wrote about on this so-called website, no, no not Old Masters, not in the so-called bundle, but what to begrudge, begrudge that, no, Turner thought and wrote, and then, looking back over what he had written, thought, No, this is rubbish, I must delete all this, I must erase all this and not push publish.
“Amazon, the so-called bookseller Amazon” makes a grave mistake.
Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)
At his wonderful blog The Philosophical Worldview Artist, Douglas Robertson has posted his English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1962 story “Der Kulterer.”
The closer he drew to the day of his release from the penal institution, the more Kulterer dreaded returning to his wife. He led an existence that was completely withdrawn and completely unheeded by his fellow-inmates, and during his free time, which was often much too long, because in accordance with regulations they worked only five or six hours a day at the printing machines, he would write down his ideas, or as he termed them, “trifling thoughts,” which preoccupied him almost uninterruptedly.
Sexuality was drastically restricted in my case, because the moment it began to stir, you see, and I noticed somehow, aha, these are pretty mysterious forces, which suddenly set you in motion and toward certain objects. [Laughs.] That’s when I became mortally ill somehow. And that’s why it was all quite bottled up and kept in check for years. Which is a pity, really, because just at the time when sexuality has its greatest appeal, that is when it awakens so to speak, when that little weenie starts to stir, to put it plainly, you see, that’s when I was in the hospital. Everything was limp, more or less, and one lies there and is kept down, simple as that. When I finally got out, I was rather tired and a little weak. But, between twenty-two and thirty, everything was in place and normal, I believe, you see. With all the pleasure and all the ups and downs, literally and metaphorically–don’t be embarrassed now.
Krista Fleischmann, Thomas Bernhard: Eine Begegnung. (Vienna: Österreichische Staatsdruckerei, 1991), 53-4. Quoted in Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, Gitta Honegger. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 62. Trans. Gitta Honegger.
Douglas Robertson, who runs the blog The Philosophical Worldview Artist, has for some time been translating a selection of Thomas Bernhard’s interviews, reviews, and letters into English on his blog. A very welcome resource for English readers of Bernhard, as there is a giant dearth of this secondary material available. Have a look here.
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.
People brutalise everything. They get up noisily, go about noisily all day, and go to bed noisily. And they constantly talk far too noisily. They are so taken up with themselves that they don’t notice the distress they constantly cause to others, to those who are sick. Everything they do, everything they say causes distress to people like us. And in this way they force anyone who is sick more and more into the background until he’s no longer noticed. And the sick person withdraws into his background. But every life, every existence, belongs to one person and one person only, and no one else has the right to force this life and this existence to one side, to force it out of the way, to force it out of existence. We’ll go by ourselves, as we have the right to do. That’s part of the natural course.
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.
But what am I really like? Once more I was caught up in speculations about myself. I don’t know why, but suddenly I recalled that twenty-five years ago, when I was just over twenty, I’d been a member of the Socialist Party. What a joke! I wasn’t a member for long. As with everything else, I resigned my membership after a few months. And to think that I once wanted to become a monk! That I once thought of becoming a Catholic priest! And that I once donated eight hundred thousand schillings for the starving in Africa! To think that that’s all true! At the time it all seemed logical and natural enough. But now I’ve completely changed. To think that I once believed I would marry! And have children! I even thought at one time of going into the army, of becoming a general or a field-marshal like one of my ancestors! Absurd. There’s nothing I wouldn’t once have given everything for, I told myself. But all these speculations added up, if not to nothing, then to ludicrously little. Poverty, wealth, the church, the army, parties, welfare institutions — all ludicrous. All I have left in the end is my present pathetic existence, which no longer has very much to offer. But that’s how it should be. No doctrine holds water any longer; everything that is said and preached is destined to become ludicrous. It doesn’t even call for my scorn any longer. It doesn’t call for anything, anything at all. When we really know the world, we see that it is just a world full of errors. But we are reluctant to part from it, because in spite of everything we’ve remained fairly naive and childlike, I thought. What a good thing that I had my eye-pressure measured. Thirty-eight! We mustn’t pretend to ourselves. We may keel over at any moment.
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.
At the same time I had to tell myself that we invariably made excessive demands of everything and everybody: nothing is done thoroughly enough, everything is imperfect, everything has been merely attempted, nothing completed. My unhealthy craving for perfection had come to the surface again. It actually makes us ill if we always demand the highest standards, the most thorough, the most fundamental, the most extraordinary, when all we find are the lowest, the most superficial, the most ordinary. It doesn’t get us anywhere, except into the grave. We see decline where we expect improvement, we see hopelessness where we still have hope: that’s our mistake, our misfortune. We always demand everything, when in the nature of things we should demand little, and that depresses us. We see somebody on the heights, and he comes to grief while he is still on the low ground. We want to achieve everything, and we achieve nothing. And naturally we make the highest, the very highest demands of ourselves, completely leaving out of account human nature, which is after all not made to meet the highest demands. The world spirit, as it were, overestimates the human spirit. We are always bound to fail because we set our sights a few hundred per cent higher than is appropriate. And if we look, wherever we look, we see only people who have failed because they set their sights too high. But on the other hand, I reflect, where should we be if we constantly set our sights too low?
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.
If I go away, I said to myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall simply be leaving a country whose absolute futility utterly depresses me every single day, whose imbecilities daily threaten to stifle me, and whose idiocies will sooner or later be the end of me, even without my illnesses. Whose political and cultural conditions have of late become so chaotic that they turn my stomach when I wake up every morning, even before I am out of bed. Whose indifference to the intellect has long since ceased to cause the likes of me to despair, but if I am to be truthful only to vomit. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in my iron chair, in which everything that once gave pleasure to so-called thinking people, or at least made it possible for them to go on existing, has been expelled, expunged and extinguished, in which only the most primitive instinct for survival prevails and the slightest pretension to thought is stifled at birth. In which a corrupt state and a corrupt church join forces to pull at the endless rope which, with the utmost ruthlessness and callousness, they have for centuries wound round the neck of a blind and stupid people, a people imprisoned in its stupidity by its rulers. In which truth is trodden underfoot, and lies are sanctified by all official organs as the only means to any end. I shall be leaving a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which truth is not understood or quite simply not accepted, and falsehood is the only legal tender in all transactions. I shall be leaving a country in which the church practises hypocrisy and in which socialism, having come to power, practises exploitation, and in which art says whatever is acceptable to these two. I shall be leaving a country in which a people educated to stupidity allows its ears to be stopped by the church and its mouth by the state, and in which everything I hold sacred has for centuries ended up in the slop pails of the rulers. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall only be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going away from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country in which the language has become vulgar and the minds of those who speak this vulgar language have for the most part become deranged. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which the only model of behaviour is set by the so-called wild animals. I shall be going away from a country in which darkest night prevails at noonday, and in which virtually the only people in power are blustering illiterates. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be leaving the disgusting, depressing and unconscionably filthy public lavatory of Europe. To go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, means leaving behind me a country which for years has done nothing but afflict me with the most damaging depression and has taken every opportunity, no matter where or when, of insidiously and malignantly urinating on my head.
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.