three novellas by thomas bernhard


maybe not the bernhard book to start with, but very useful to see the young old master’s development–and the early, shocking bang of his talent.

AMRAS–originally published in 1963–shows the large ambitions of his theme and iconoclasm are already in place, driving the writing. this one literally breaks down. it begins coherently though darkly with the assessment by the sons of a family’s partially failed suicide pact (the parents were successful) and then becomes beautifully and infuriatingly fragmented. as if to document the approach to death or insanity…  if anything this earlier novella is more sincerely nihilistic than the later bernhard in that when bernhard arrives at his later method, at least there’s the minimal solace of continuous (albeit repetitive) form. and the dark jokes seem to have punchlines and don’t just break off into menacing silence like they do here. on the other hand, the devastation seems more complete and impressive in the (later) long, relentless, incantatory voice without the–in comparison–cheaper gimmickry of the fragmentation here.

on its structural self-decimation, brian evenson’s excellent, brief intro has this particularly good insight:
“[C]ollapsing into fragmentation… [AMRAS] opts for the modernist solution of using a formal collapse. GARGOYLES, on the other hand, offers a voice that tears itself apart from within while leaving the edifice of monologue intact. We have the sense that, like Becket’s Unnamable, Prince Sarau [in GARGOYLES] is probably only getting started” (ix).

PLAYING WATTEN i think is the most memorable of the three, maybe only because it has the most concrete central metaphor: four citizens travel to an inn–which is tucked into a treacherously disorienting wood–in order to play a card game (the eponymous WATTEN). dense, repetitive (and here, the repetition is boring in a way the later bernhard somehow manages to avoid), but also beautiful and (already) devastating. an early–maybe the first?–version of his unparagraphed style.

WALKING is at times (too) straight-forwardly didactic, so that bernhard’s fiction gets almost turgid (at least for me) carrying the freight of its philosophical rhetoric. but if it’s didactic, it’s also ambitious, marching uninhibitedly through its themes: the misery of existence; the baseness of the (austrian) state; madness; language, thinking itself.
the translation throughout seems incredible, almost transparent. WALKING in particular, with its dependence on abstractions and its recursive structures, would seem mind-bogglingly difficult to translate.

find used or find at your local library

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