The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel The Elder, 1563
Thomas Bernhard isn’t the subject of this essay. His style is—the tools he employs; the repetition; the bizarre speech markers; the tortured digressions; the violent interruptions of both voice and narrative arc; the rampant use of cliché to undermine his own originality; the dark humor poking through it all; the unreliable narrators telling stories that were told to them by unreliable storytellers who were in turn told the tales they’re telling by unreliable witnesses to the event being narrated; the massive paragraphs; and lack of chapters that refuse to give the reader any white space in which to pause, to catch their breath. His style—and his influence.
Austrian enfant terrible—a term condemning him to infinite infancy it seems, since his death in 1989; yet the term—given the angry, over-the-top angst of his works, the desperate, almost teen-age refusal of his protagonists to accommodate to the world, to accept the limits of human consciousness and of language’s ability to correspond to reality—may be a fitting one in which to cage him. Terrible infant, but also master of a certain type of literature of spite and fulminating rage and finally, exhaustion: “bilious, gloomy…known as one of the German language’s most challenging and original postwar writers,” so scholar Stephen Dowden wrote in the opening to his Understanding Thomas Bernhard. His style is consistent across his novels. His techniques and even the broad strokes of his plots are the same.
So why not start with his “novel,” Correction? The plot: Roithamer, the scientist and tragic figure who seems to be a parody of the philosopher Wittgenstein, goes home to his estate in Austria, an estate he hates, and decides to design and build, for his sister ostensibly, but he admits later it’s entirely his own obsession and his sister is only an excuse, a cone in which she’ll live. “The cone,” scholar Charles Martin wrote in his work the Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard, “is explicitly defined by Roithamer in terms of its total correspondence to the temperament and needs of his sister,” but in actuality it is supposed to accord to Roithamer’s needs, conceived by, designed by, built by, him. And he does design it and build it. The narrator, a friend of Roithamer, visits the estate to go through Roithamer’s papers after Roithamer has killed himself, hung himself in a clearing in the woods near the cone. The first part of the novel is the narrator staying with a mutual friend nearby. The second is his presenting, the narrator, sections of Roithamer’s notes, where the reader gets some insight into Roithamer’s state of mind and intention behind the cone, his suicide and so on.
As Roithamer wrote in his notes:
“I alone could have conceived such an idea, the idea of building such a cone, planning it and actually building it, everybody said so and they’re right. The need to understand what led to this idea, most likely everything led to this idea. What led to this idea and the realization of the idea as the effect of its original cause, so Roithamer, a matter of consistency, just as the realization of the idea led to perfecting the idea and so forth. To build is the most wonderful thing in the world, it’s the supreme gratification, ‘supreme gratification’ underlined. It’s what everyone longs to do, building, but not everyone gets the chance to build, and everyone who does build gets this gratification out of it. Especially in building something no one has ever built before. It’s the supreme gratification, ‘supreme gratification’ underlined, to complete a work of art one has planned and built oneself. To complete a philosophical work, or a literary work, even if it’s the most epoch-making and most important work of its kind, can never give us this supreme gratification, nothing like the gratification that comes with actually accomplishing the erection of an edifice, especially an edifice such as no one ever erected before. With this one has achieved all that is humanly possible. Even if going all the way in perfecting this work is sure to cost one all he has, in fact, destroyed him. The price for such an edifice as a work of art of one’s own, the only one of its kind in the world, cannot be less that everything, ‘everything’ underlined.”
Evident here is Bernhard’s use of repetition to heighten the sense of Roithamer’s madness and obsession, the hammering effect of the words “gratification” and “idea” and “build” over and over, which continues on, in the novel, for pages and pages, and a tactic which continues on in his work, as a whole, for novels and novels. Also, the unreliability of it all, both evident in Roithamer’s notes and the foreknowledge for the reader of his dissolution, possible insanity and ultimate suicide, and the narrator’s interjections—another Bernhard tactic, used in a limited way here, but present in all of his works, disruptions to undermine the reliability of the narrator and the believability of the story. Who’s talking? Who’s feeling? Bernhard’s narrators’ voices frequently blend with the people’s stories they’re telling, making it seem at times as if there are multiple narrators, and at other times, one universe-containing, multiple-personality disorder-suffering one.
This may be the meat of Bernhard, the marrow even: the power of disruptions. Bernhard’s originality is in the way his style complicates and disrupts the traditional plot structure of novels, the classic narrative arc. He considered himself a story destroyer in that sense. In his study of digression in literature, Narratives Unsettled, German literature scholar Samuel Frederick quotes Bernhard as having said: “I’m not a cheerful writer, not a storyteller—in principle I hate stories. I’m a story-destroyer, I’m the typical story-destroyer. In my work, whenever signs of a story begin to form somewhere, or even when I just see in the distance, behind a prose-hill, the indication of a story emerging, I shoot it down.”
Bernhard’s innovations lie in his determination to undermine plots and their inherent insincerity, as he sees it, since our lives, from his nihilistic worldview, cannot be plotted or neatly captured by rising action propelling characters toward a climax followed by a satisfying and tidy resolution. As Martin has argued, Bernhard thinks “concepts, species, forms, purposes and laws are all fictions.”
Martin links Bernhard’s writing, and the style that drives it, to a Nietzschean worldview where: “As consciousness becomes more sophisticated, so human existence becomes more imperfect. Metaphysics, morality, religion and science are all lies, formulated by man in an attempt to subdue a chaotic world to his own purposes…Bernhard’s work is set within this Nietzschean perception of the trajectory of modern society towards the destruction of all metaphysical values… Yet it is Bernhard’s determination not to accept the decay of values which prevents him from acquiescing in solipsism pure and simple. On the contrary, his entire oeuvre can be interpreted as a struggle both to explore and transcend that condition by writing.”
Or, in Roithamer’s case, by distilling all that he is in the construction of the cone, which is in-line with Quixote’s quest for meaning, for looking back to old virtues and values and trying to resurrect them or refashion them to fit and function in, albeit necessarily tragically, what Martin claims was Bernhard’s view of the world as chaotic and decaying.
Thus, plot structure and traditional narrative arc are contrivances and deny what the world is really like—are unrealistic, even antirealistic—because in the Bernhardian universe, thinking and writing about life necessarily limits it. Or, as Frederick puts it, writing about Bernhard’s aversion to plot and his attempts in all of his works to disrupt it, “Bernhard here gestures toward a mode of storytelling that would be more accommodating of this raw continuum of existence,” this is the free-wheeling, uncapturable, Nietzschean world, even Heraclitan, that Bernhard sees as real and that traditional fiction cannot accurately depict or actually, in embracing plotted narratives, is guilty of falsifying, “not seeking to subjugate it or force it into structures by dividing it up into a determinate sequence and then imposing a specific relation among its parts,” i.e. plot.
Bernhard’s attempts to access this flow of chaotic existence necessarily make use of plot, since, as Frederick goes on, “there is no way to access ‘raw existence’ without having ‘processed’ it, without having place it in a narrative context.” But how does Bernhard reconcile these contradictions? How does he write truly while acknowledging that all writing is inherently false?
Another of Bernhard’s novels (or as he preferred to call them, “prose texts”) might help us grasp it. One more explicitly anti-narrative, such as Gargoyles, which starts with a walk, a son accompanying his father, a country doctor, on his medical rounds in the Austrian countryside, and, like Correction, a two-part novel, except this begins with a walk—father and son visiting the father’s patients—and ends with an explosive monologue, by, as Frederick characterizes it, “the deranged prince, whose relentless discourse—ranging from trivial matters to his father’s suicide, from his relations with his son to his quotidian life at the castle,” which thus ends “discussion and effectively swallows up any chance of the preceding narrative to continue or even to come to a close.” The Prince’s rant destroys the plot. In some ways, it prevents the novel from being a novel which, operating within Bernhardian logic, may make it closer, than traditional plot-driven novels, to accurately capturing the unstructured, random world we live in.
Just as the plot is continually interrupted, so too is the father and son’s trip and the Prince’s own endless pacing while he delivers his rant. Somewhere mid-rant, the son (and narrator) says: “I had wanted to go into the castle to see the inside, but the prince had no intention of terminating his ‘walk’ for any reason whatsoever.” The Prince and his father always walk along the walls, circling the castle but not entering, just as Bernhard toys with the idea of plot, several plots within a single narrative, and disrupts them, digresses from them, abandons them. This pointless, often manic movement, appears in most of Bernhard’s novels—in Correction, with Roithamer going back and forth between Austria and England, in The Loser whose narrator is forced to live in the countryside for the fresh air but despises nature so often tries to make his home in Vienna, until the air exasperates his sickness, driving him back into the hated countryside. This constant movement gives the reader a sense of the world as a state of flux.
But movement isn’t central, is it? It isn’t the only glue that binds Bernhard’s characters and plotless plots together. Perhaps the most powerful binding agent across his works is the unreliability of the narrators and the discourse markers Bernhard uses, the way they create distance between the reader and the event being described and the way they draw the reader’s attention to the fact that what’s written isn’t a neutral and objective and accurate depiction of reality so much as a product of a process, of the messy and flawed and limited process that is human consciousness.
Consider The Lime Works, his novel which may best explore the unreliability of storytelling. The novel is narrated by a traveling life insurance salesman who gathers bits of information, often contradictory, from the neighbors and officers involved, however elliptically, with Konrad, the main character, the typical overly-sensitive, misanthropic, striving Bernhard character, whose particular project involves purchasing a defunct lime works so he can write a masterwork, an all-consuming and doomed work, about hearing. For years, he lives in the lime works writing the book in his head while conducting bizarre and maddening auditory experiments on his wife who lives, if one can use that word here, with Konrad in the lime works. Konrad eventually kills her—shoots her in the head—and hides in a pit of sewage under the outhouse until the police find him. The insurance salesman pieces together the tale with such lines as: “Konrad is supposed to have told Weiser…;” “On one occasion Konrad is supposed to have confided the following thoughts to Weiser…”; “Weiser reports Mrs. Konrad saying to her husband…” Sometimes the salesman provides three different accounts of the same event in one sentence, further calling the event into question, thereby conducting an investigation that serves to obfuscate rather than clarify. This obfuscation might be the central point Bernhard is trying to make about the mercurial nature of nature and the limits of knowledge and perception.
The Lime Works also serves as another narrative of disruption since Konrad, in the end, realizes he’ll never be able to write his masterwork on hearing and that his suffering, his wife’s suffering, their joint suffering in the lime works, was for naught. And what effect does this have on the reader? What influence has Bernhard had on contemporary writers?
John Edgar Wideman, in a quote on the back of my copy of Correction, makes an astute observation: “Little by little, with supernatural patience, prodigious cunning and craft—-like Joseph Heller in Catch-22—-Bernhard fashions an original angle of vision that transforms our understanding. We see elephants beside us in a room where no one mentions elephants.” I’ve experienced that feeling of reading about one thing, such as in Correction with the construction of the cone, and feeling like something else is being said, something dark and menacing and inarticulable head-on.
In Correction, as a reader I sensed that the cone was the construction of a self, an identity, as it encapsulates all that Roithamer is, so Bernhard writes Roithamer saying: “As if I had lived, existed, all along, all those years of development in the direction of the Cone, the direction of this monstrousness.” Monster, I read, as in the Frankenstein sense. As in a mishmash thing, an ugly amalgam that, no matter where it falls on the spectrum of normalcy, is doomed to a certain sense of isolation. Even the final correction (Roithamer corrects his notes, redacts and erases so much of them that there’s nothing true left) which is his suicide and the end of the novel.
Novelist Claire Messud’s recommendation, on NPR, that people read The Loser, is also a strong endorsement, the fitting title of which is Fiercely Unlovely ‘Loser’ Doesn’t Need to Please. Messud states, speaking about the style of it: “It is a book about anger. A book without paragraphs, which in its very form enacts anger. A book prone to wildly long sentences, preposterously violent judgments and enraging constructions. A deeply musical novel, about music — about Glenn Gould, or a fictional Glenn Gould, with all the structural complexity of The Goldberg Variations, to which allusions are repeatedly made. The Loser is willfully oppressive and agonizing to read, hilarious and awful by turns. And, above all, it couldn’t care less about the reader.” Messud finds this freeing, especially as a writer. The Loser, as she says, “a ranting monologue, more naturally than a novel,” allowed her to write from the perspective of unlikable characters, and certainly, all three major characters of the novel are despicable and unbearable in their own ways. She also admires Bernhard’s discipline: “What I strive for, and what makes him crucial for me literarily, as in life — is his passionate, principled decision to please no one but the truth, his truth. And let the conventional pleasures of fiction be damned. There is, for this reader, a great deal of pleasure, as well as truth, in that.”
Reading more Bernhard shows the author only further entrenching his position, hewing closer to his principles. And though Bernhard isn’t (very) widely read today, he does have other passionate readers. Ben Marcus, writer and advocate for experimental fiction, is an outspoken fan of Bernhard, especially as a stylist. Marcus, correctly I think, views Bernhard as a different sort of writer. In his review of Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, Marcus writes: “Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stufﬁng it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind—usually self-loathing, obsessive ones—and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment.”
How does Bernhard keep the reader engaged in his experiments, readers raised on stories with arcs and plots and resolution? Frederick points to the movement within the Prince’s monologue:
“This frenetic, repetitious discourse—characteristic of the prince’s monologue throughout—is part of how the novel enacts movement without any one direction, a frantic, erratic course that participates in preventing any conventional (end-directed) narrative progression, though it does not bring the narrative to a standstill, either. Rather, this kind of repetition is one of the methods Bernhard uses in commissioning digression to do the work of textual movement. Repeated words, phases, and variations of utterances move the narrative forward as a stylistic construct not determined by the story conditions (expectation/fulfillment).”
As a reader, writer and writing teacher, I constantly hear, am asked about, am told to focus on and look for, plot. What’s the plot? Where does the plot grip the reader? Where does it fail or lag? Which part of the novel or story sags? This explains why Bernhard is so perplexing and frustrating, both attractive and repellant. Are Bernhard’s novels devoid of plot? No. Some of them have clear plots. Correction: man builds something. Doesn’t like it. Kills himself. The Lime Works: man buys lime works. Experiments on wife. Fails to write book. Kills wife. Is arrested. What Bernhard does, then, through his style, is complicate the plots, subvert them with digressions and repetition and unreliable narrators, which can make his novels dissatisfying reads—where’s the resolution? The rising action? The climax?—but can also make them feel so freeing and engaging and unique. Though they are certainly claustrophobic, even suffocating, they aren’t closed worlds. They aren’t tidy. They possess multiple narratives and multiple perspectives on the narratives. They possess lots of arcs, broken arcs, beginning arcs, unfinished arcs. Perhaps Bernhard can teach us that a novel that strives to be realistic, must avoid, or at least complicate, plot. Must somehow acknowledge or gesture towards the fact that life is too big to be plotted but, hey, it’s all we have to make sense of the world and tell stories so let’s get on with it, with that caveat in mind.
His works may not be the bells of any recent literary balls—as our collective capacity to focus erodes, works with thousand-word sentences and hundreds of pages without paragraph breaks aren’t winning points for approachability—his influence underlies many acclaimed contemporary works. He is present in Marcus and Messud’s writing, of course. But he is also lurking in the basement of W.G. Sebald’s meandering prose texts that are marketed as “novels;” Nicole Krauss’s award-winning Great House; Teju Cole’s Open City; Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s Organs of Sense; Bennett Sims’s short story collection White Dialogues; Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novels, and not just the one titled Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador; Rachel Cusk’s lauded Outline Trilogy—all owe a debt, indirectly or, in Sebald’s and Moya’s case at least, even self-professed, to the infuriating manias that haunt Bernhard’s characters and the original, liberating—maybe even sublime?—and no less infuriating way in which he wrote them.
Kent Kosack is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Sonora Review, Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Normal School, Hobart and elsewhere. See more at www.kentkosack.com.