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.