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Thomas Bernhard anew

Hello there. It is a crisp and windy morning in the quaint village near the Ruahine range in New Zealand where I am presently parked in a tranquil cottage not far from the railway line. That may seem a contradiction as the wagons roll along the track, but it isn’t – the noise, even at 3 AM, is not at all irritating.

For months I have been working through the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering evidence, the second of his non-fiction books I have read. That makes it sound like a chore, which in a sense it has been – I am not the only one to complain about the small type of the edition I bought that has made the physical act of reading literally tiresome. This is especially true as one of Bernhard’s  stylistic trademarks is not to have paragraphs. He starts, and keeps going. . .and going. . .and going. The writing is however a pleasure in itself; he is arguably the best post-war writer of all I have read. That’s saying a great deal when you consider wonderful stylists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, but for me it is true.

Even though I enjoy and admire his fiction, Bernhard’s memoirs show him at his finest. There is a gritty integrity to Gathering evidence that for any writer is a challenge, as there also is to his shorter piece, Wittgenstein’s nephew. Bernhard did not flinch from the world he saw, experienced and depicted, and did not hesitate to draw tough-minded conclusions plainly if without rancour.

Celine, whose approach and style must have influenced Bernhard, wrote that “first  you’ve got to pay for it – then you can use it”. Celine’s point was about fiction, made up stories that the French writer argued needed to be based on personal experience. In Celine’s case this experience was often harrowing, if self-inflicted. Bernhard started off badly, an unwanted child born out of wedlock in the Netherlands where his mother had gone to give shameful birth, and made his mark through tough-minded assertiveness. He paid for it and paid for it, then mined it, magically transforming the dross of an often terrible youth into gold.

There were differences between Celine and Bernhard. Celine’s anti-Semitism drove him unwillingly into the arms of France’s Vichy collaborators in their outpost in Sigmaringen, Germany, while Bernhard, who began his adult life as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, turned his most cruel microscope on Austria’s Catholics and Nazis and later on the poseurs of a rekindled Austrian cultural renaissance. Yet both were anarchists. . .and felt deeply for those whose lives were blighted by the system that surrounded and shaped them.

What makes them cousins of the pen beyond perspective, however, is style. Bernhard took his cue from an apparently unending scroll while Celine famously used the ellipse, but for both, the effect was the appearance of raving that is anything but. A film of a Billy Connolly routine shows the wonder comic’s style was very much like that. Connolly tells stories, seems to wander and then comes back to the beginning to make his point. “You thought I had forgotten, hadn’t you?” he scolded his audience. “This is my technique!” Just so. What seems to effortless and even artless, is high art.

Bernhard wrote the five parts of his memoir in a certain order, ending them with his earliest experiences. The translator of Gathering evidence (or perhaps an editor) chose to put the last one first, to keep the memoir chronological. I should have skipped that one, and read it last as was Bernhard’s intention. I understand what he was doing, and I may read that section again.

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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in Uncategorized


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First they came for the potty-mouthed…

Actually, they didn’t. If we take “potty-mouthed” as a marker for art and in particular avant-garde art, “they” came after they had dealt with many of their other perceived enemies. The Soviet style of repression left artists and writers pretty much alone till well into the 1920s. The change can be gauged by the life of the writer and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution at first, but who shot himself in 1930.

Now Vladimir Putin’s Russia is at it again with a new law against swearing in literature and the arts alongside a “swearingbot” computer programme to intercept online profanity before it reaches the delicate, so easily wounded eyes of Russian citizens. Of course any programme that can intercept four-letter words can intercept longer ones, for example “freedom”, or “corruption”.

A few years ago I wrote a thriller, The Russian Idea, set in Moscow and Berlin. Its main purpose was to draw attention to the work of Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. So far as I am aware, after being forgotten for a while, Berdyaev has enjoyed posthumous popularity of a sort, with all his books in print in English and a large number of articles by him available free online. Even so, most  people have never heard of him, or if they have, read his work.

The book I wrote concerns an oligarch’s plan to set up a global network of Russian cultural centres – like the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut – independent of the Russian government. The oligarch’s professed aim was to bring the pressure of enlightened Russian culture as typified and symbolised by Berdyaev to bear on the all too unenlightened power brokers inside Russia itself.*

I am not entirely happy with my book and wish it was better than it is.  It is not terrible – just not great.  I wish more people would read it, and go on to read and find out about Berdyaev and his own  inspiration, Fyodor Dostoevsky.**

But what is happening in Russia now also makes me wish some one with pots of dosh would decide to take up the idea of “Berdyaevian” non-governmental Russian cultural centres that could show that Russian culture is not simply the property of those who believe in censorship, in thought control and its many correlatives, especially propaganda, who intimidate as they expropriate their fellow citizens and others, and who harass, imprison, exile and murder their opponents. It would be, after all, very easy to conclude from what is happening now, that not much has changed from the Tsarism that seemed  to flow so naturally into Sovietism, and that has gone on to corrupt and all but end the democratic transformation of Russian society that began so hopefully with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Berdyaev’s book The Russian Idea, whose title I “borrowed”, was a history of Russian religious thought from the early 19th century to the Bolshevik Revolution. It is a serious and striking book. Berdyaev believed strongly in a Russian concept that is untranslatable as a word, “sobornost”, but which might be rendered, “unity in diversity”: that differences can strengthen rather than enfeeble society. As a Christian, he was suspicious of the organised Christian church anywhere but especially in Russia, and pointed out that few if any serious religious thinkers in Russia were functionaries – for example priests – in the Russian Orthodox church. For a religious philosophical tradition as remarkable as the one charted by Berdyaev, this can hardly be an accident.

Of course, it takes moral fibre to stand up for “sobornost” and the open society it is about. Some artists and writers and thinkers can go out of their way to insult those who disagree with them, and to express themselves vulgarly out of rage or frustration or ignorant silliness.. Yet the famous dictum attributed to Voltaire of disagreeing with a view someone may hold but defending (to the death!) their right to hold and express it, is an important plank of humane culture that when missing self-evidently leads to awful crimes, and Russia’s history has shown just how horrible these can be.

One can never quite tell for certain what the aims and motivations of Russia’s leaders really are. In Soviet times the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of Stalin and his henchmen (always men) were astonishingly opaque. The worst “excesses”, costing the lives of millions of people, could be put down to “mistakes”. The henchmen  could find themselves in front of a firing squad (one, according to Anne Applebaum, swearing to die with Stalin’s name on his lips).*** The line between “mere” censorship and more severe punishment today similarly weaves and wavers according to the whim of some autocrat or other.

The title of this post comes from a famous saying by German theologian Martin Niemoller and relates to the Nazis’ means of repression, not the Soviets’, much less today’s Russian techniques. These last are however more sophisticated than those of the 20th century’s most notorious monsters. Bizarrely, Putin instructed Russia’s regional governors to read a work by Berdyaev, The philosophy of inequality, as if the ideas of this great exponent of freedom and creativity could somehow be reconciled with the twisted rationales of the present regime. They can’t.

*Non-spoiler alert. **Berdyaev called himself a “sprout” of Dostoevsky and wrote a book about his relationship to his hero. For those who consider Dostoevsky as a novelist only, see the treatment of him as one of Three Russian prophets by Nicolas Zernov. ***See her Gulag, a history, readily available from public libraries

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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