Tag Archives: Sigmaringen

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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Sigmaringen sensations

Well, don’t I wish…

Sigmaringen is a small town in the southwestern German state or land of Baden-Wurttemberg. It’s a quiet and quaint wee spot that I first visited in 1984, returning a decade later, and then three years after that and several more times thereafter. Anyone who wishes can check it out on Wikipedia, only don’t believe any of the stuff about the Vichy regime there, or Celine’s book Castle to Castle*. The photo is nice.

Originally I went to Sigmaringen because of Celine. This writer’s hallucinatory style made me want to see the real deal. As the town was not bombed during the war much of what the writer saw and in his way described is still there, if not exactly the same. For a while I toyed with the idea of writing a comic novel about the place but in the end used it as an ironic site for my second novel, Evilheart, wherein there were two castles too, just like Celine’s book. In my case the second was the castle in Edinburgh that dominates the Scottish capital.

I like that book and you, dear reader, are welcome to like it too. After I finished I decided that I would set a number of my books there, wholly or partly, and these now make up a reasonable number: as well as Evilheart, The Kleiber Monster, Tobi’s Game, Savonarola’s Bones, Kaos, and now, when it appears, Attila’s Angels. Demented doesn’t manage to find a spot there and neither does The Russian Idea.

What I like about Sigmaringen for writing is that it isn’t much of a tourist town, especially for English speakers. The first few times I was there only a French tourist brochure was available. Yet it is pretty nice. It’s got romance by definition. Not only that, the countryside surrounding it is very pretty. And not only THAT, Beuron, a hamlet in the Danube valley upriver from Sigmaringen, is bizarre as well as nice, a home for “Beuroner kunst”, a religious art school contemporary with but apparently unconnected to, pre-Raphaelism. For English speakers this too is unknown.

So the place(s) give my locales a fun history/mystery basis and also something for a wee town that has been mostly nice to me. I think if my books one day take off, readers will walk the streets seeking the same sites I sought…Yo! I’d like that.

*Celine’s book did not chart the fall of the Vichy regime but the time leading up to it. He did not flee there but to Berlin seeking a visa to Denmark, and was sent there by the German authorities to be the Vichy doctor. Later, he managed to make it to Copenhagen. His book is not a history. Wikipedia is great but not always on the money.



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Posted by on December 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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