“Horror Demands Laughter” | This Is Not a Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Frost

The Blind Man, Albert Bloch


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 hearthFrost 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.


Indeed, as novelist Ben Marcus points out in his review of Frost:

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.


  1. Suddenly I heard the story of a lineman who had been asphyxiated in a snowstorm, which ended: “He never cared about anything.”
  2. It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse.
  3. “Nature is bloody,” he said, “but bloodiest toward her own finest, most remarkable, and choicest gifts. She grinds them down without batting an eyelid.”
  4. Is it permissible for suicide to be a sort of secret pleasure to a man?
  5. Something was splendid, and the next thing was brutal, much more brutal than the first had been splendid.
  6. “You’ll get to meet a whole series of monsters here.”
  7. “Even dreams die. Everything turns into cold. The imagination, everything.”
  8. “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.”
  9. People don’t have favorite children, they just have a lot of them.
  10. 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?
  11. “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.”
  12. “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.”
  13. Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms.
  14. 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?
  15. By and by it comes to your attention: the world around you, nothing but corruption, colossal misrule.
  16. “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 …”
  17. What is pain, if not pain?
  18. “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.”
  19. Everything torments me now.
  20. Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.
  21. He was just scraps of words and dislocated phrases.
  22. Things have lost their power to disgust me.
  23. 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.”
  24. “Men like rats, chopped up by street sweepers’ shovels. Too many negotiations with humans have done me in.”
  25. The ruin of mankind had been a child’s dream.
  26. The food had been better than for any corpse she could remember.
  27. “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.”
  28. There were no real humans anymore, just death masks of real humans.
  29. The nightmarish sweat of fear, that’s the air.
  30. Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss.
  31. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!
  32. You wake up, and you feel molested.
  33. Everything is barbarous kitsch.
  34. “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!”
  35. Various venerable old families would assemble “in a spirit of megalomania, to shoot holes in nature.
  36. It’s a mistake to count on people.
  37. Every object I see hurts me.
  38.  ” . . . hopelessness … There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.”
  39. “The world is a progressive dimming of light,.”
  40. 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.”

“The air is the only true conscience, do you understand me?” (Thomas Bernhard)

We came out of the larch wood, making for the village and beyond into the deep forest. I was leading the way. The painter followed me, all the time I had the sense he’s about to lay into me, he’ll attack me from behind. I don’t know what prompted me to think that way, but I was unable to lose the fear that was oozing out of me. From time to time I picked up a word he was saying, it was completely incomprehensible to me, I couldn’t answer him when he asked me something, because really he was only asking himself. He growled at me: “Kindly stop when I ask you a question!” I stopped. “Come here!” he commanded. Suddenly I realized (it was in his tone, and I felt only I was in a position to realize this) the resemblance to his brother, the assistant. He said: “The air is the only true conscience, do you understand me?” I replied: “I don’t understand you.”—“The air, I say, is the only true science!” he repeated. I still didn’t understand, but nodded anyway. He said: “The gesture of the air, the great aerial gesture, you understand. The nightmarish sweat of fear, that’s the air.” I told him that was a great thought. In my opinion it was even poetry, to me what he had just said was the distillation of all memory, of all possibility. “Poetry is nothing!” he said. “Poetry as you understand it is nothing. Poetry as the world understands it, as the poetry hound understands it, is nothing. No, this poetry is nothing! The poetry that I have in mind is something else. If you meant that poetry, then you’d be right. Then I’d have to embrace you!” I said: “What is your poetry?”—“My poetry isn’t my poetry. But if you mean my poetry, then I’ll have to admit I’m unable to offer you a description of it. You see, my poetry, which is the only poetry, and therefore also the only truth, just as much as the only truth that I find in the air, which I feel in the air, which is the air, this poetry of mine is always generated at the center of its own thought, which is all its own. This poetry is momentary, is instantaneous. And therefore it isn’t. It is my poetry.”—“Yes,” I said, “it is your poetry.” I had understood nothing of what he had said. “Let’s go on,” he said, “it’s cold. The cold is eating into the center of my brain. If only you knew how far the cold had already advanced into my brain. The insatiable cold, the cold that insists on its bloody nourishment of cells, that insists on my brain, on everything that could make anything, could become anything. You see,” he said, “the brain, the skull and the brain within it, are an incredible irresponsibility, a dilettantism, a lethal dilettantism, that’s what I want to say. One’s forces are attacked, the cold bites into my forces, into my human forces, into the lofty muscle power of reason. It’s this ancient tourism of cold, billions of years old, this exploitative and pernicious tourism, that penetrates my brain, the entry of frost … There is,” he said, “no longer the category of ‘secret,’ it doesn’t exist, everything is just frigor mortis. I see the cold, I can write it down, I can dictate it, it’s killing me …” In the village, he popped into the abattoir. He said: “Cold is one of the great A-truths, the greatest of all the A-truths, and therefore it is all truths rolled into one. Truth is always a process of extermination, you must understand. Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss. Untruth is a climbing, an up, untruth is no death, as truth is death, untruth is no abyss, but untruth is not A-truth, you understand: the great infirmities do not approach us from outside, the great infirmities have been within us, surprisingly, for millions of years …” He says, staring through the open abattoir doors: “There it is clearly in front of you, broken open, sliced apart. And there’s the scream as well, of course! If you listen, you’ll catch the scream as well. You will still hear the scream, even though the facility for the production of the scream is dead, is severed, chopped up, ripped open. The vocal cords have been rendered, but the scream is still there! It’s a grotesque realization that the vocal cords have been smashed, chopped up, sliced apart, and the scream is still there. That the scream is always there. Even if all the vocal cords have been chopped up and sliced apart, are dead, all the vocal cords in the world, all the vocal cords of all the worlds, all the imaginations, all the vocal cords of every creature, the scream is always there, is always still there, the scream cannot be chopped up, cannot be cut through, the scream is the only eternal thing, the only infinite thing, the only ineradicable thing, the only constant thing … The lesson of humanity and inhumanity and human opinions, and of the great human silence, the lesson of the great memory protocol of the great being, should all be tackled through the abattoir! Schoolchildren should not be brought to heated classrooms, they should be made to attend abattoirs; it is only from abattoirs that I expect understanding of the world and of the world’s bloody life. Our teachers should do their work in abattoirs. Not read from books, but swing hammers, wield saws, and apply knives … Reading should be taught from the coiled intestines, and not from useless lines in books … The word ‘nectar’ should be traded in forthwith for the word ‘blood’ … You see,” said the painter, “the abattoir is the only essentially philosophical venue. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom! A-truth, truth, untruth, all added up come to the vast abattoir immatriculation, which I would like to make compulsory for humans, for new humans, and those tempted to become humans. Knowledge in the world is not abattoir knowledge, and it lacks thoroughness. The abattoir makes possible a radical philosophy of thoroughness.” We had gone into the slaughterhouse. “Let’s go,” said the painter, “in me the smell of blood turns into the extraordinary, the smell of blood is the only parity. Let’s go, otherwise I should have to uproot the possibility of new intellectual disciplines from my own thinking materiality, and I don’t have the strength for that.” He took large steps, and said: “The beast bleeds for the human, and knows it. Meanwhile the human doesn’t bleed for the beast, and doesn’t know it. The human is the incomplete beast, the beast could be fully human. Do you understand what I mean: the one is disproportionate to the other, the one is massively dark to the other. Neither is for the other. Neither excludes the other.”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

“His sentences are oar strokes” (Thomas Bernhard)

His sentences are oar strokes that would propel him forward if it weren’t for the powerful current. Sometimes he pauses, falls silent and listens, as though to check whether his present situation might not have been replaced by its successor. “It’s impossible to direct anything.” Things still in the future and the distant past all pull on one string with him, sometimes ten times in the space of a single sentence. He is a man who thinks continually of great losses, without any detachment. The sea surfaces in him, and in the sea is a boulder, part of an enormous sunken city, the end of an unanticipated story, far in the past. Death knots his net … Colors that are nothing but extrusions of flesh narcotize him philosophically … The adducing of extremes, so as to be able to spit them out. Tensions between eerie subaquatic scenes. The word “yoke” occurs frequently. The word “true”—but also “untrue” and “unreal.” The word “ear of corn” may acquire the same meaning as “the whole of our welfare state.” They are his eyes that speak, they enact his thought, they pitch wildness and quiet alternately at the disquiet of others. The painter is such an oddity, I think, that no one understands him. Not a type. Always reliant on himself, and always rejecting everything coming at him, he has taken advantage to excess of all possibilities. To look at him is to look at the millennia. “Mountains, you know, can serve as telescopes, through which one can see into the future.” Or “inhumanly human.” He is able to irritate people, where there are no people. To suppress effervescence, where there is no effervescence. “Isn’t that an animal speaking? Am I not vermin?” Everything purposes the acceleration of his decay. Everything indicates a decisive childhood which was soon injured, a “stung nerve center,” an organically fertile double significance of insanity.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

“The Story of the Tramp” — Thomas Bernhard


In the larch wood he ran into a tramp. His first thought had been that it might be the escaped showman, but the tramp was nothing to do with that. Not at all. The painter had been startled, because he had failed to see the tramp, and tripped over him. “Like a corpse lying in the middle of the road,” says the painter. A hypothermia victim, he had thought, and taken a step back. From the man’s clothes, he could tell he wasn’t from here. Where is he from? “Striped pants, you know, the sort that circus people wear, particularly circus directors.” Assuming the man was dead, he had tried to flip him over with his stick so that he could see his face, “because the fellow was lying facedown. It’s natural to want to see someone’s face,” said the painter. But no sooner had he applied the stick to the “dead man,” than he had emitted a scream and leaped to his feet. “Oh,” the tramp is said to have said, “I was just playing dead, I wanted to see what happened when someone comes across somebody else, lying flat on his front like a dead man, in the road, in the middle of the forest and the middle of winter.” With those words, the tramp had got up, and brushed down his pants. “If you think I’m the escaped showman, you’re mistaken, I have nothing to do with those showmen. You don’t have to worry about that. Let’s shake!” He held his hand out to the painter, and introduced himself. “He gave me such a complicated name that I was unable to remember it,” said the painter. “Then he buttoned up his coat, which must have come undone. A dignified but completely reduced appearance,” said the painter. “It could just as easily have been a trap, I mean, God knows whom I could have encountered.” That was no one’s idea of a joke, the painter had said, one did not simply play dead, that was a prank, a silly prank of the sort teenagers might indulge in, to give their parents a fright. “Just imagine if the shock had given me a heart attack!”—“Then I would have run off,” the tramp is said to have replied. Anyone could have a heart attack at any time. “Yes. Of course.”—“No involvement from any other party would have been suspected,” the tramp is supposed to have said. “Of course not,” the painter. In any case the road was full of tracks, who would have taken the trouble to trace all the different footwear. “No, of course not. If you should happen to be in financial straits,” the painter is supposed to have said, “then I must point out to you that I have no money. I am a poor man, and my situation is miserable.”—“Oh,” the tramp is supposed to have replied, “I’ve got enough money.” He was amazed that the painter should take him for a robber, was it perhaps the fault of the circus pants he was wearing. “Oh, no,” the painter is supposed to have said, “I’m an artist myself.”—“It’s remarkable how little understanding is displayed by people one would expect to have a lot of understanding,” the tramp is supposed to have said. Besides, he did not dislike the painter. “When I heard someone approaching, I lay down in the road. It was just an experiment.”—“An experiment,” the painter is supposed to have said again. “Yes, an experiment. And what happened is exactly what I thought would happen. I listened to every step you took. The way you walk, it’s as though you were on deer hooves,” the tramp said. “I had a fantastic image of you in my head as you approached. A completely fantastic image of you!” His pronunciation was a little northern, it might be that he was from Holstein or Hamburg. “A deer is coming to present itself to me,” he said, and: “That was pure poetry.” The painter: “I understand.” What profession did the tramp pursue, inquired the painter. “I am the owner of a movable theater,” he is supposed to have replied. “The way you’re dressed, one would have thought you’d just come from some rather dubious society piece,” the painter is supposed to have said. “You’re not a million miles out there,” the tramp: “I appeared in this costume three hundred times in Frankfurt am Main. Till I could stand it no longer, and ran away. You should try playing the same part in a play three hundred times, and a pretty boring play at that, a so-called George Bernard Shaw play, and you’ll go crazy too.” But he was surely a man who could live by his jokes. “Oh, I should say so too. I have always lived by my jokes.”—“And how do you propose to continue now? Since, as I am forced to assume, you are pretty much at loose ends, drifting here and there? How do you mean to continue?”—“I never asked myself that,” the tramp is said to have answered. Since he, the tramp, the theater manager, the director of a so-called movable theater, had no children, it wasn’t so very difficult to live “unto the day.” But was that entirely realistic, said the painter. Men of his (the tramp’s) type had freedom, disrepute, and humor written in their faces. “I am said to have picked up a few magic tricks from my father,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “that everyone likes. For instance how to make my head disappear. It’s very easy.” He could do a demonstration, “if the gentleman cared to see,” and the painter did care, and the tramp duly made his head disappear. “The man only extended as far as his Adam’s apple. What I say is true. It may strike you as thoroughly implausible, but it’s as true as the fact that I’m standing in front of you now. The whole appearance of that tramp … And just imagine this whole scene taking place in the middle of the larch wood, where we take the fork down into the ravine …” Then, in a trice, the tramp’s head was back in its original place. “That’s just a simple trick, making my head disappear,” said the tramp, “what’s harder is playing ball with your own legs.” Of course the painter wanted to see that magic trick as well. And suddenly the tramp’s legs came down from the sky, and he hunkered down on the ground and played ball with them, kids’ ball games. While he was playing, he said: “I’ll stop right away if you feel scared.” The painter could feel a shiver, but he still said: “No, no, I’m not scared.” He was, as you say, astounded by what was put on for him. “I have never seen such consummate magic tricks,” he said. “Now I’m too bored to go on,” the tramp is supposed to have said, and he stopped. “The thing with the head was as baffling to me as the other one, with the legs,” the painter said, “can you imagine it? Of course, as with everything, there must be some sort of knack to it!” All Paris had lain at the tramp’s feet, and if he felt like it, it would lie at his feet again, only he didn’t feel like having Paris lying at his feet again. “I’m bored.” In London he had been presented to the queen. If the gentleman would like it, he would be happy to give him the address of his movable theater. “It’s small, but exquisite,” he is supposed to have said, “and it can go into action anywhere you require.” It was the most exquisite of theaters. The most exquisite theater in the world. But one day he was fed up with magic tricks—“it’s so easy to get fed up with magic tricks”—and had turned instead to pure, true art, the sort of art that isn’t dependent on magic tricks. Now, he was sure the gentleman would love to know which was harder, to perform magic tricks of the sort he had just performed, and which were unquestionably among the best in the world, or else to act in straight theater, to put over a true art form, then, as exemplified by the theater, an art without tricks, as for instance, “playing King Lear.” They were both equally difficult, one was harder than the other, but it was a better thing to act in a play than to perform tricks, he personally found acting far more satisfying, and for that reason he had magicked up his movable theater “out of thin air,” as he said. “Though, of course that too was a stunt, a sort of trick,” said the tramp. Acting, moreover, was highly intellectual, whereas performing magic tricks wasn’t intellectual at all. Only the trick itself was. “Of course it always comes down to the audience.” And he said, supposedly: “The audiences for my magic tricks are a thousand times dearer to me than the audiences who watch me acting.” The audiences for his tricks would know right away what it was that was so astounding to them, whereas the audiences for his acting never seemed to know. “Theater audiences are invariably disappointing. Audiences for magic tricks never are.” And yet he would rather act, even though he was better suited to doing tricks. “Theater audiences don’t make me any happier than magic-trick audiences,” he said. “Audiences for magic tricks are as they are. Theater audiences are never as they are, they are always as they ought not to be, they want to be as they are not …” The audiences for magic tricks were never so stupid that they failed to realize how stupid they were, but theater audiences were, if anything, more stupid. “Most actors are so stupid they don’t even notice how stupid the audiences are. Because in general actors are even more stupid than audiences, even though an audience is infinitely stupid.” Why did he not demonstrate any more magic tricks, the painter wanted to know. “Magic tricks of themselves are not satisfying,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “but a play can be satisfying in itself.” He didn’t know, anyway, why he now preferred acting to demonstrating magic tricks. Right at the moment, he wasn’t doing one thing or the other. “But I will demonstrate my magic tricks again!” he is supposed to have said, “and Paris will lie at my feet again!” Then he supposedly asked what the quickest way down to the station was. “Go down the ravine,” the painter told him. Then: “I’d like to know at what age magic tricks of themselves are no longer satisfying.” The tramp reflected briefly and said: “That’s different in each performer’s individual case. But often the magic tricks are no longer satisfying, even before they have been mastered,” he is supposed to have said. The painter offered to accompany the tramp part of the way down the ravine. “I know my way around here,” he is supposed to have said. “You lose your footing somewhere, and you’ll break a leg. Come with me!” Before they parted, the painter asked him: “What was it that prompted you to try that silly nonsense out on me?”—“Silly nonsense?” the tramp is supposed to have answered. “You mean, playing dead in front of you? That’s a passion of mine, that’s all.” And then he suddenly disappeared. “He was as supple as you’d expect a performer of magic tricks to be,” the painter said. “I’ve never met anyone like that, who claims to be the proprietor of a ‘movable theater.’ Or do you think I’ve made up the whole story?” I think it’s true myself.

–From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“Lead us into temptation, and deliver us from no evil” (Thomas Bernhard)

“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. Then I would be unable for days to pursue the least thought, and it was precisely this inability to think that got me through long periods of complete horror … You have to be careful you don’t end up living for longer than your natural lifespan,” he said. “Life is a court case which you lose, whoever you are, and whatever you do. That was decided before any human being was even born. The first man fared no differently from us. Rebellion against this only leads to deeper despair,” he said. “And no more distraction. From the age of thirteen, no more distraction. After the first sexual experience, no distraction. Do you understand?” The only variety was thunderstorms, “and lightning the only poetry.” He said: “Seeing as you’re locked up, locked up in solitary confinement, you’re increasingly thrown back upon yourself.” The questions one asked oneself slowly became one’s death. “But you know, we’re all dead anyway from the outset.” There were simply “no more forms of assistance.” One lay on the floor of one’s cell, along with the shattered limbs of past millennia. “Deceits and subterfuges,” he said. Just as the handling of facts injected insignificance into the brain, whatever question one asked oneself. “Every question is a defeat.” Every question wrought devastation. Disinclination. With questions, the time passed, and the questions passed in time, “so meaningless that everything is just ruins … There, you see,” said the painter, “it’s quite black down there. Last night, I dreamed the workers climbed up the mountain, and flooded the village and the inn and everything. In their thousands and tens of thousands, they swarmed up here, and whatever didn’t belong to them, they trampled underfoot, or it was suffocated in their blackness. How calm it is now! Listen!” The butcher greeted us, and we greeted him back. The houses of Weng seemed jumbled together, as though crushed at the foot of the cliff. “Earlier,” said the painter, “I used to have no pity for human frailty. Any pain seemed to me unnatural! Suddenly I saw myself confronted with an abundance of frailty.” He said: “Will you be playing cards tonight? The knacker is a good cardplayer. The engineer as well. They’re all of them good cardplayers. I don’t know why I’ve always had such an aversion to cardplayers.” He muttered something about cretinism in the mountain valleys, in the high Alps. And then: “Our Father, who art in Hell, unhallowed be Thy name. No Kingdom come. Thy will not be done. On earth, as it is in Hell. Deny us this day our daily bread. And forgive us no trespasses. As we forgive none of those that trespass against us. Lead us into temptation, and deliver us from no evil. Amen. That one works just as well,” he said.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“everything has crumbled…everything has dissolved…” (Thomas Bernhard)

Before he retired to his room, “not to sleep, but to howl to myself in the silence of horror,” he said: “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 …”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


(Not Quite Reviews of) Stuff I Read in September


So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.

So, what have I been reading?

Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.

I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.

S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:


That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

Here’s his poem about The Purple One:



“Many ideas turn into lifelong disfigurements” (Thomas Bernhard)

“Many ideas turn into lifelong disfigurements,” he said. The ideas often surprised one years later, but sooner or later they would always make the one who had had them look ridiculous. The ideas came from a place they never left. They would always remain there, in that place: it was the place of dreams. “The idea doesn’t exist that can be expunged or expunge itself. The idea is actual, and remains so.” Last night, he had been thinking about pain. “Pain doesn’t exist. A necessary illusion,” he said. Pain wasn’t pain, not in the way a cow was a cow. “The word ‘pain’ directs the attention of a feeling toward a feeling. Pain is overplus. But the illusion of it is real.” Accordingly, pain both was and was not. “But there is no pain,” he said. “Just as there is no happiness. Found an architecture on pain.” All thoughts and images were as involuntary as the concepts: chemistry, physics, geometry. “You have to understand these concepts to know something. To know everything.” Philosophy didn’t take you a single step nearer. “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.” The observations of mathematics were foundational. “Oh, yes,” he said, “in mathematics everything’s child’s play.” And just like so-called child’s play, mathematics could finish you. “If you’ve crossed the border, and you suddenly no longer get the joke, and see what the world’s about, don’t see what anything’s about anymore. Everything’s just the imagining of pain. A dog has as much gravity as a human being, but he hasn’t lived, do you understand!” One day I would cross a threshold into an enormous park, an endless and beautiful park; in this park one ingenious invention would succeed another. Plants and music would follow in lovely mathematical alternation, delightful to the ear and answering to the utmost notions of delicacy; but this park was not there to be used, or wandered about in, because it consisted of a thousand and one small and minuscule square and rectilinear and circular islets, pieces of lawn, each of them so individual that I would be unable to leave the one on which I was standing. “In each case, there is a breadth and depth of water that prevents one from hopping from one island to another. In my imagining. On the piece of grass which one has reached, how is a mystery, on which one has woken up, and where one is compelled to stay,” one would finally perish of hunger and thirst. “One’s longing to be able to walk through the whole park is finally deadly.”

—From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“Childhood is still running along beside us like a little dog” (Thomas Bernhard)

“Childhood is still running along beside us like a little dog who used to be a merry companion, but who now requires our care and splints, and myriad medicines, to prevent him from promptly passing on.” It went along rivers, and down mountain gorges. If you gave it any assistance, the evening would construct the most elaborate and costly lies. But it wouldn’t save you from pain and indignity. Lurking cats crossed your path with sinister thoughts. Like him, so nettles would sometimes draw me into fiendish moments of unchastity. As with him, my fear was made palatable by raspberries and blackberries. A swarm of crows were an instant manifestation of death. Rain produced damp and despair. Joy pearled off the crowns of sorrel plants. “The blanket of snow covers the earth like a sick child.” No infatuation, no ridicule, no sacrifice. “In classrooms, simple ideas assembled themselves, and on and on.” Then stores in town, butchers’ shop smells. Façades and walls, nothing but façades and walls, until you got out into the country again, quite abruptly, from one day to the next. Where the meadows began, yellow and green; brown plowland, black trees. Childhood: shaken down from a tree, so much fruit and no time! The secret of his childhood was contained in himself. Growing up wild, among horses, poultry, milk, and honey. And then: being evicted from this primal condition, bound to intentions that went way beyond himself. Designs. His possibilities multiplied, then dwindled in the course of a tearful afternoon. Down to three or four certainties. Immutable certainties. “How soon it is possible to spot dislike. Even without words, a child wants everything. And attains nothing.” Children are much more inscrutable than adults. “Protractors of history. Conscienceless. Correctors of history. Bringers-on of defeat. Ruthless as you please.” As soon as it could blow its own nose, a child was deadly to anything it came in touch with. Often—as it does me—it gives him a shock, when he feels a sensation he had as a child, provoked by a smell or a color, but that doesn’t remember him. “At such a moment you feel horribly alone.”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.


“—you see you were always lost” (Thomas Bernhard)

“You just arrive in a place,” said the painter,“ and then you leave it again, and yet everything, every single object you take in, is the sum of its prehistory. The older you become, the less you think about the connections you’ve already established. Table, cow, sky, stream, stone, tree, they’ve all been studied. Now they just get handled. Objects, the harmonic range of invention, completely unappreciated, no more truck with variation, deepening, gradation. You just try to work out the big connections. Suddenly you look into the macro-structure of the world, and you discover it: a vast ornament of space, nothing else. Humble backgrounds, vast replications—you see you were always lost. As you get older, thinking becomes a tormenting reference mechanism. No merit to it. I say ‘tree,’ and I see huge forests. I say ‘river,’ and I see every river. I say ‘house,’ and I see cities with their seas of roofs. I say ‘snow,’ and I see oceans of it. A thought sets off the whole thing. Where it takes art is to think small as well as big, to be present on every scale …”

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

“Bernhard is an architect of consciousness” — Ben Marcus on Thomas Bernhard

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. “You wake up, and you feel molested,” Strauch says:

In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers :a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundred fold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.

Without a story to drive it, Frost builds not through unfolding events but by telemarking around Strauch’s bitter cosmology while the narrator follows him through the woods, fattening himself on the rage of his new mentor. A chart of Strauch’s worldview would produce a splotchy Rorschach of points and counterpoints, contradictions, reversals, and the occasional backflip, none of which could really hold up to a logician’s scrutiny, which adds to his mystery. Strauch, a failed artist who only painted in total darkness, is opposed to nearly everything, and lest you think he’s a humanist at the core, with a fondness for the arts (that classic virtue of the misanthrope), he claims that “artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet.”

From Ben Marcus’s 2011 essay “Misery Loves Nothing,” first published in Harper’s and available in full for free at Marcus’s site. I’m about halfway through Bernhard’s early novel Frost, a book that is very dark, bitter, intriguing, and funny. Very very funny.