YES by thomas bernhard


bernhard writes a devastating book, a poetry of mental illness — without romanticism but with music, true also to the horror. both an emulation of the sickness and an attendant commentary on its causes and end. we read bernhard for his musical eremitism, which takes the barest fact, the most stripped-down situation (here, a man living in the country, encountering a potential and temporary walking and talking companion) and creates a layered, bittersweet counterpoint at times as rich as bach.

But this release, of course, could only last a few days, after two or three weeks I had been back in a deep depression, but that is another story. The Swiss couple, in conjunction with Moritz and his family, had brought about a prolonged, indeed the most prolonged, period without an attack, never before had I had such a long interval between two attacks without being totally at the mercy of my sickness, in other words being almost entirely liberated from that sickness, as during the period when I went for walks with the Persian woman and that is the period under discussion here; had I not come to the country that sickness, which logically got worse with my existence in the country, could not have developed in that devastating manner, but had I stayed in the city I would no longer be existing at all, and therefore this new thought, whether I would not have done better to stay in the city and not move out to the country, is senseless (67).

here mental illness is both itself and synecdoche for the idea — and if there is a lingering romanticism it is this — that these ill, despite their illness and inability to function, perceive more accurately, more deeply, a crushing vileness, which is our inescapable condition. perhaps it’s a grandiose and deluded position, but how accurate does the following sound :

…and the frightful political conditions in our country and throughout Europe had perhaps triggered this catastrophe, because everything in politics was developing in precisely the opposite direction from what I had been convinced was correct and from what I am to this day convinced is correct. Political conditions at that point had suddenly deteriorated in a way which can only be described as dreadful and deadly. The endeavors of decades had been wiped out within a few weeks, and what had always been an unstable country had in effect collapsed within a few weeks, dim-wittedness, greed and hypocrisy were suddenly again at the helm just as in the worst times of the worst regime, and those in power were once again ruthlessly working towards the extermination of the intellect… Anyone thinking must be mistrusted and must be persecuted, that is the old slogan according to which they are once more acting in the most terrible manner. The newspapers speak a distasteful language, the distasteful language they have always spoken but which, during the past few decades, they had spoken only with lowered voices, which suddenly they no longer had any reason to do, almost without exception they were posturing like the people in order to please the people, those mind murderers. Dreams of a world of the mind had been betrayed during these weeks and thrown on the popular refuse heap. The voices of the intellect had fallen silent. Heads were ducking. There was now only brutality, vileness and infamy (61-3).

find it at the library


a pause for station identification

skimming blogs, i came face to face with the following verities:

Starting a small publishing company takes an angel’s combination of idealism, passion, unreasonableness, innocence, naiveté and blind obedience to an inner voice telling you to go heart- and head-long into something utterly likely to fail. It would in fact be a kindness if the venture failed, because success requires so much time and intellectual and emotional energy that it squeezes to death every last healthy impulse you had to start with.

& elsewhere:

Back in 1979/80 I remember talking with the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf after CORRECTION by Thomas Bernhard had been published. This guy reported to me that to date they had sold a combined grand total of around a thousand copies of all three Bernhard books they had published, GARGOYLES, THE LIME WORKS AND CORRECTIONS.

which reminded me of this from i believe the last, or one of the last, published stories of gilbert sorrentino:

But this was all he knew how to do. He wasn’t much good for anything else, and what he did know how to do — even when, he smiled ruefully — even when he knew how to do it, proved nothing, changed nothing, and spoke to about as many people as one could fit into a small movie theater.

but all that simply reiterating what, in 1941, edward dahlberg wrote in CAN THESE BONES LIVE:

“There has been no more clinkered land for the artist to live in than America. All artists, everywhere, are pariahs. However, some counties gravel them the more, and so hinder their fates that their lives, like the three throats of Cerberus, are brutishly peeled…”

dahlberg was talking about melville.


and… later that same day i come across this nice dose of schadenfreude for the trades–but it too is bitter tasting. E.g. Roth might’ve been optimistic:

“Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade.”

[but what that article doesn’t mention in its death-of-publishing prognosticating, is the renaissance of small presses, doing all the important work once done by the james laughlin’s and the barney rosset’s of yester-millennium. literary history of the 21st century probably will mention knopf and random house less, and maybe even FSG less, than that of the independents–both the more “established” like dalkey, fc2, green integer, and soft skull and the new and scrappy like calamari, dzanc, les figues, starcherone and clear cut.] [that is: publishing is dead; long live publishing; et cetera.]

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

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard


so far my favorite of his, which, i’ve to space them out.

consume via amazon.

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