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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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Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Readers of The Written World will know that I am a great fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein. So, it seems, was Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose work is apparently peppered with references to the philosopher whose work so changed philosophical practice in the 20th century – according to me, not only our understanding of the world but our understanding of how we go about understanding it.

Of the three books by Bernhard I’ve read, all contain some references to Ludwig, and it is said that other of his books deal heavily with him and his thought.

One of these, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, is a short – 100 pages with big type – account of Bernhard’s relationship with the man in the title, whose name was Paul and who was not the full quid.*

Ludwig also had a brother named Paul who was famous in his own right. A pianist, he lost an arm in the First World War, yet continued to play. Among other pieces, he commissioned and performed a one-handed work by Maurice Ravel, and according to Wikipedia, developed one-hand techniques in er concert with his footpedals to allow music previously thought to be impossible to play one-handed. Readers can find performances on YouTube, at least one heavily criticised by commentators.

According to a biography of Ludwig, the Wittgenstein family didn’t scrimp their criticism either.

Bernhard, who was also a pianist and a graduate of the Salzburg “Mozarteum”, doesn’t mention the pianist. His account of his friendship with the nephew is variously described as a memoir and a novel. It is hard to know from this just how much of what he has to say is true. It has been common in the last generation, if not before, to rewrite history – in literature and in film and no doubt in other ways – to incorporate fiction. I’ve done it myself, in Tobi’s Game, putting a character through not just the Holocaust but also the final days in the Nazi leadership’s bunker in Berlin. Things happen in this book that really happened, but not necessarily as I described, and certainly not with a character I invented.

Bernhard is however something different. The echoes of Wittgenstein’s Nephew ricochet off the walls of Austrian society and for Austrians the clatter must be alarming. Despite spending most of his life in his native country, he doesn’t have much that is nice to say about it, and what he does have that is nice to say is compromised by confessions of his failing to dislike it. But underneath is something much more compelling and disturbing about life in any so-called developed society, a critique so savage and honest that few if any can emerge unscathed from a reading of a Bernhard book.

What Bernhard finds objectionable about life is life itself, especially as it is lived by us – we poor humans, who preen and prance and pretend in the face of certain decay and death. Much of what he says in Wittgenstein’s Nephew about how we behave does not actually accord with my thinking or my experience, but his attacks are often deceptive, their truths arriving from some other angle than they seem at first.

Like Nikolai Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, Bernhard is a very profound dialectician. He doesn’t mind working out the dialectics in plain view either. Was Ludwig mad as Paul? Was Paul as much of a philosopher as Ludwig? The Austrian explores these possibilities  positively, and while he is about it, tears strips off mental health professionals.nonetheless describing Paul’s illness definitely as an illness. What he objected to was not that Paul needed some kind of intervention, but the intervention that was prescribed. He is thus outraged – as we should be – by the psychiatric practice of the time (late 1960s, before and after): “Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science…the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience.”

Well!

Bernhard was hardly alone in his views at the time.The Austrian located the beginning of his book in 1967, when he and Paul were in different wings of a hospital in Vienna – he for thoracic surgery, Paul for electro-shock “therapy”. By then Thomas Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness had been in print for six years and R D Laing’s Divided Self, and The Politics of Experience would have been available to Bernhard as he wrote.

Bernhard attacks the cherished values of settled existence in favour of the life of risk and growth,and his works – the four I have read or am reading – could be described as rants against his targets and in support of his ideas. They contain narratives, like Celine typically in the first person, and in Bernhard’s case without bothering to start a second paragraph, but we read them for their views on life and death, put so often in ways that are at the same time appalling and hilarious. Celine was a master at the humorous sketch; Bernhard less so: the Austrian shared Celine’s wit, however, with asides skewering his targets as weakly flailing moths before the collector sticks them forever in his specimen tray.

No one would suppose that these two miscreant misanthropes were in every respect admirable – as writers, as thinkers, as people. Some would say that there was nothing admirable about Celine, and an afterward to The Loser suggests Bernhard’s disappearance would have been greeted with cheers by many Austrians. Yet Celine freed me when I encountered in him in the 1970s as he freed others before and since, to nod, smiling or chuckling or guffawing, in understanding agreement of the rank hypocrisy that both surrounds and invests us, and that surely is worth something. Kurt Vonngegut once wrote that Celine lacked “blinders” that most of us have to prevent us from seeing “the unbelievability of life as it really is” and Bernhard is no different in that sense. His hapless victims deserve their fates because they will not live a life worth living by their own standards as well as his.

It is hard to believe that Bernhard was as disagreeable in person as he makes himself out to be, reviled not only for his views but his manners but there is some evidence that it is true. Celine by contrast had a strong coterie of defenders and friends, even if some of these fell away when he used them as thinly disguised and thoroughly unpleasant characters in his novels.

The fourth of Bernhard’s book s I am now enjoying is his last, aptly titled Extinction. Naturally this can mean a lot of things on a lot of levels. He adopts a device favoured by Dostoevsky I’ve highligthed in Written World in the past – an observer observing the narrator.** This can make for great literature though I am not so sure Dostoevsky really needed it, and not sure either if Bernhard does. Celine was really only happy in the first person in a mad autobiography: “first you have to pay for it. Then you can use it.”

Like Celine – indeed, like Dostoevsky too – Bernhard makes me want to lift my sights in my writing. I care less for the experimental aspects of these giants of the written word than I do for the white heat of their commitment. Even if we are not really sure what they meant in their books, we are really sure that they really meant it.

So – Bernhard comes as a time in my writing life when I have written what I think is a pretty passable thriller and ghost story, with the aims that I have always set myself: to have a serious purpose in this frivolous genre, now genres. But I think now, maybe, it is time to go further and harder at what I want to do as a writer.

“First you’ve got to pay for it, then you can use it.” In my writing I’ve chosen never to base any character on a single living person, and even those who have passed through I’ve taken things away from personalities and added them too. My own life – I’m not on the bottom of the barrel watching greedy sadists shooting fish from up above, trying to dodge the bullets. But I’ve had a life that falls within Celine’s rubric all the same***. I can always write more in the lines I’ve done so far, but I can do better if I focus hard enough, and risk enough. Time to choose.

*”Full quid” = English/Australian/New Zealand and perhaps elsewhere for not all there, mad.**In Karamazov, Demons, Notes from Underground, and elsewhere.***Celine could have had a cushy life, and indeed seemed to be heading for it before he veered of into the Parisian demimonde to write his first blockbuster, Journey to the end of the night. Even later he often played it straight.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Blagh!

Blagh! Not only that, blagh-plus! I am not sure about this feeling. On 8 December at around 10 in the morning I finished my new book, Attila’s Angels. For someone who writes weird books he thinks are pretty normal really, this one seems quite weird to me.

This may be a good thing. However, it really really really may not!

It is a departure for me in that it is a ghost story. I enjoyed thinking about, researching and writing these aspects. But there were other aspects I either did not enjoy or felt that I was perhaps treading water despite my desire to move into new territory. Well, such is life. Apparently.

Just now I am reading a serious novelist named Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian of, as Celine put it, the pessimist school. The influence of Celine on his work is obvious, and a Google trawl shows that other readers see this as easily as I do. What is strange is that “serious critics” do not. They compare Bernhard to others, sometimes stretching a very long bow to reach the target but leaving the Frenchman out.

Bernhard has stylistic mannerisms that I find irritating. In the first novel of his I read, Woodcutters, mostly set in a dinner party in Vienna, the narrator – like Celine it seems Bernhard likes first person narrators – keeps remarking that he thought such and such “sitting in the wing chair”. He said this enough times – hundreds – to make me want to go to Vienna, find this piece of furniture, and remove it from reality. In the one I am reading now, The Loser, he says frequently that he thought such and such as in “He should not be so depressed, she said, I thought”. This may be clever but it wears. Really, Thomas, up there in writer heaven, it does!

All the same Bernhard had both writerly and personal courage that evoke Celine in me though the two were on opposite ends when it came to some things if we accept at least a great deal of what their narrators say as their own views. Events in their lives also chime to me.

Both are very shrewd and ferocious to their targets, and can be extremely funny. Woodcutters apparently was banned in Austria when it was first published for the hate crime of making fun of Austrian cultural pretensions.

When I began writing fiction I chose a “sub-literary” form deliberately, not being a great fan of the so-called “bourgeois novel”. People like the literary conceit of the “bourgeois novel”, but I don’t. Writers like Celine and Bernhard didn’t either. That is part of their attraction to me, though other features of their writing also make me drool and when I think I can get away with it, emulate.

“Sub-literature” is nonetheless literature and the best exponents move easily into the realm of the truly great. Shakespeare for example. What! Sub-literary? I can hear the bleats all the way from the green and pleasant land, and elsewhere, but at the time, it was so. Ben Jonson gently mocked his literary merit. But Will also happened to be a genius who could turn his bums-on-seats skills into turns of phrase that echo down the centuries.

Even if you, dear reader, don’t agree with that you might think of detective story writers like Dashiell Hammett (especially) or Raymond Chandler, or even Dame Agatha, all good writers, espionage masters like Len Deighton and John Le Carre, adventure writers like B Traven, another special case. Traven may be the one 20th century great to have escaped notice in that century, despite uneven work. Even so, The Bridge in the Jungle, while flawed, is a masterpiece. The cleverness of the so-called Jungle Novels and Treasure of the Sierra Madre are a treat. .

Where was I? Oh, sub-literature and me, where I have tried to sit for 15 years or so with my “serious purpose in a frivolous genre”. Bernhard and Celine give any would-be writer a glimpse of what is possible, even if we accept that their misanthrophy was real and their cynicism even worse. Bernhard, for example, was so enraged at establishment attempts to capture culture for shall we say inartistic purposes that when he gave an acceptance speech tor a state=sponsored prize he had won, the Minister of Culture and a large section of the audience left the room as his barbs found their targets.

Celine would have applauded.He was extremely mischievous and at one stage during WWII assured a high ranking Nazi that Hitler had been replaced by a Jew.

In his last novel, Celine confidently predicted that “in 200 years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”. He may not have to wait that long. About fifty of those years have passed and parallel text (French on one page, English on the facing page) editions of his work have started to appear. What Bernhard shows is that Celine can continue to inspire.

Meawhile it will be a little while before Attila’s Angels appears on the e-bookshelves ready to be read. I’ll let you know.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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