By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German by David McLintock.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988 (From the 1982 German edition.)
Comments of Bob Corbett
On a chilly rainy Easter Sunday I walked over to the Braunerhof, the coffee house above which Paul Wittgenstein lived and where he and Thomas Bernhard often met. I thought it would be the perfect place to finish the last 30 pages of Bernhard's book and to write whatever notes I would write about it.
The Braunerhof was just closing as I went in around 6 P.M. so I walked another 20 minutes or so in the increasing rain out to the old and elegant Café Sperl in Vienna's 6th district. It seemed also appropriate to both Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard since it is not so different from the Braunerhof though more elegant and spacious, but a place where the literary crowd, whom Bernhard so disliked was not likely to be.
There is little real story line in this strange mix of fictional novel and biography/autobiography. Bernhard and Wittgenstein were both chronically ill. Bernhard with a lung condition; Wittgenstein with periodic madness. The "novel" opens in 1967 when both are in the lovely park-like hospital on the Wilhelminenberg on the fringes of Vienna. Bernhard is in the lung ward and Wittgenstein the psychiatric section. What little story there is details a bit of the history of their friendship and the last days of the dying Paul Wittgenstein.
Mainly these hundred pages are a vehicle for Bernhard's captivating prose, his bitter pessimism and anger and his clever, if sarcastic wit.
Like his uncle Ludwig, the famous philosopher, Paul Wittgenstein was born into one of Vienna's richest families and inherited a sizeable fortune. Like Ludwig, Paul gave most if it away and ended up poor and at the mercy of his wealthy extended family which seems to have rather generously taken care of him, even if they resented it as Bernhard claims. He also holds that just as Ludwig was always known as perhaps the greatest philosopher Vienna ever produced, Paul was one of Vienna's most famous madmen. Bernhard adds that Paul was probably as good a philosopher as his uncle, and Ludwig as mad as his nephew. Unfortunately he givs no evidence or details in defense of either claim.
This is only the second Bernhard book I've read, having reported on Correction in January of this year. I plan to begin his novel Concrete later this evening. The form of this 100 page single paragraph work is much like that of Correction, though unlike the sentences in Correction which often run on for pages, this book has rather normal structure of shorter sentences even if they are all in a single hundred paged paragraph.
The largest portion of the early pages is a rather bitter attack on the medical establishment, especially the psychiatric profession. This early third or so of the work, while partly fictional and primarily aimed at the case of Paul's treatment, is nonetheless in the same tone and argument style of Ivan Illich's Medical Nemesis and Thomas Szasz's Law, Liberty, And Psychiatry.
Bernhard is often at his best when his anger explodes and he rages at the world. His form of writing is to say the minimal essence of what he has say, then repeat it over and over and over, adding a bit more information or argument each time. After returning several times to the same theme, usually in closely consecutive sentences or pages, he creates sort of a spiraling argument or picture which often leaves the reader exhausted and gasping. Without giving you the entire long spiral, a sample of this is his denunciation of the famous Burgtheater of Vienna where his first play was first performed in a disastrous production. The section begins in remembering Paul, but doesn't return to the conclusion of the anecdote until after several pages of bitter diatribe:
"During the journey I recalled his behavior at the first performance of my play "The Hunting Party," an unprecedented flop for which the Burgtheater provided all the requisite conditions. The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it."
There follows a section in which Bernhard explains he wanted a famous Swiss actor to play the lead and a famous Viennese woman opposite him. This was, on his account not accepted by the actors of the Burgtheater. He continues:
"Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed, decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all the decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded -- on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public -- though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world."
This is just the very first level of the spiral, as Bernhard rages on and on, having been it would seem deeply wounded by this flopped version of his own play. It returns at the peak back to Paul Wittgenstein who was the only one of his own friends to tell him the "truth." The rest of his friends told him -- he left after the first act -- that it was an excellent performance and well received by the audience. It is significant that Paul's long "truth" was the story above -- the play was subverted by the actors themselves who didn't understand the play and didn't try.
On the other hand Bernhard has a crisp sardonic wit, often aimed at himself. Bernhard suffered from a lung condition and was sick much of his (short) life. Physicians advised him to live in the countryside, but he seemed to need the city for psychological health, thus he commuted between Nathal, a small village and Vienna. He says of this arrangement: Early in the spiral he describes the beginnings of his "condition."
"I am more at home in Vienna generally than I am in Upper Austria, which I prescribed for myself as a survival therapy sixteen years ago, though I have never been able to regard it as my home. This is no doubt because right from the beginning I isolated myself far too much in Nathal and not only did nothing to counter this isolation but actually promoted it, consciously or unconsciously, to the point of utter despair. After all, I have always been a townsman…therefore not without reason that once I am in Vienna, I find that I can breathe freely again. On the other hand, after a few days in Vienna I have to flee to Nathal to avoid suffocating in the loathsome Viennese air. Hence, in recent years I have made a habit of switching between Vienna and Nathal at least every other week. Every other week I flee from Nathal to Vienna and then from Vienna to Nathal, with the result that I have become a restless character who is driven back and forth between Vienna and Nathal in order to survive, whose very existence depends on this strictly imposed rhythm -- coming to Nathal to recover from Vienna, and going to Vienna to recuperate from Nathal."
Later he brings Paul into this pointing out that this is another common character trait they share and that Paul has done the same most of his life but on a grander scale. The peak of the spiral is reached a page or so later when he concludes:
"I did the same…[as Paul Wittgenstein] … switching between Nathal and Vienna, between Venice and Vienna, even between Rome and Vienna. I am the happiest traveler -- when I am on the move, moving on or moving off -- but the unhappiest arriver. Clearly this is a morbid condition."
In rounding out this sample of Bernhard's self-indulgent style I want to share a bit of his railing for and against the literary coffeehouse. As I sit here in the magnificent Café Sperl, and yesterday having worked for hours in Café Griensteidl, I'm utterly addicted to Viennese coffee houses (I'm even teaching an entire university course where the coffee house is a central part of the content).
Below I share some of Bernhard's self-deprecating look at his own contradictory relationship to the coffee house culture of his own time.
[If you would prefer to read the entire 5 pages of this section and to see one of what I have called his "style of the spiral" in its fullness, then see the full selection I offered in my coffee house section.]
"These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna's premier coffee-house -- not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims. At the Sacher I could get all the newspapers, which I have always had to have since the age of twenty-two or twenty-three……At the literary coffeehouse I could never have devoted myself to the newspapers for a whole morning without interruption; before so much as half an hour had passed I would have been disturbed by some writer making his entrance, accompanied by his retinue. I always found such company distasteful because it deflected me from my real intentions… At the Braunerhof, above which my friend had lived for years before we met, I am still put off by the foul aim and the poor lighting, which is kept down to a minimum -- doubtless from perverse considerations of economy -- and in which I have never been able to read a single line without effort. … The Braunerhof is inimical to all my daily requirements, yet this is precisely what makes it the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse -- like the Café Hawelka, completely downmarket. I have always detested the typical Viennese coffeehouse, famous the world over, because I find everything about it inimical to me. Yet for many years it was at the Braunerhof that I felt at home, despite the fact that, like the Hawelka, it was always totally inimical to me, just as I felt at home at the Café Museum and at the various other establishments I frequented during my years in Vienna. I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse, but I go on visiting them. I have visited them everyday, for although I have always hated them -- and because I have always hated them --I have always suffered for the Viennese coffeehouse disease. I have suffered more from this disease than from any other. I frankly have to admit that I still suffer from this disease, which has proved the most intractable of all. The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself….The truth is that the more deeply I detest the literary coffeehouse of Vienna, the most strongly I feel compelled to frequent them."
And he goes on and on! The spiral is only about two-thirds wound.
I find myself deeply drawn to Bernhard's strange prose, perhaps in the way that he is drawn to the coffeehouses. I don't share his negativity, his despair, his anger or his cynicism. I like people and he seems to abhor them. But somehow he grabs me, arrests my attention, fascinates me. He seems terribly honest. He sees a world he doesn't approve of and he describes it unhesitatingly in rhapsodic spirals of repetitive prose. In so doing he creates powerful and stunning pictures. But as in the coffeehouse rant I shared above, Bernhard allows some contradictions. He remains at his post; he writes about the world he disapproves of and does so with loving care.
I don't know where this fascination with Thomas Bernhard will go. I have at least 8-10 of his novels on my shelf awaiting attention, and I plan to begin reading Concrete in a few minutes. How long he will hold me in the palm of his hand we'll have to see.
If you've never read Thomas Bernhard I urge you to give him a chance. You may be rewarded in significant measure.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com