Some Austrian citizens were relieved when Thomas Bernhard died, in particular humorless, government-worshiping androids (no different than our demented myopics) who insist they love the literary arts, just as long as they're sanitized and minty fresh. But many more Austrians and people throughout Europe and the United States were devastated by his passing. He was one of the bravest and most unusual (and prolific, thank God) novelists of the post-war world. Hyper-conservative factions in Austria didn't want to hear another word about Mr. H.; let's get on with the 20th Century, they say. Well, that's impossible, I say, especially if they press for silence and brush the bile under the carpet, as sugar coaters are apt to do.
Kurt Waldheim vacated the office of president a few years ago and the Nazi-sympathizing Jorg Haider is the leading candidate in 1996. Hitler turned everything in the German language-world into a reflection of himself and it has not gone away in the least. Not in America, nor over there. German craftsmanship, Austrian landscapes, et cetera, all reek of killing, and that is what Thomas Bernhard has written 30 books in 30 years attacking.
Bernhard is frequently compared with Samuel Beckett for his use of the repetitive lyrical sentence. Side by side they read like similar caged beasts, and on the surface share some cool stylistic qualities. Both were committed to a poetic nonsense (Beckett, the contemplative, ephemeral, Zenned-out monologuist; Bernhard, the long-suffering, fire-breathing, geopolitical rapper). But nowhere in Beckett will you find Bernhard's constant jolts of reality that occur either in his unflattering descriptions of certain despised fellow humans or his constant references to cities, hotels, restaurants, and other writers (Schopenhauer figures in most of his novels). Beckett's world was fictive inner universe, initiated by language. Bernhard tells a skewed version of his personal history over and over again, mixing autobiographical details with a fanatical subjectivity that's obsessed with exaggeration.
In "Extinction," his last and longest novel, Bernhard begins as he always does, attributing the entire text to one character. In this case it's an Austrian named Franz-Josef Murau, who lives in Rome. Murau, the character-narrator who Bernhard refers to only twice, in the first sentence of the novel and in the last, is a veiled Bernhard himself. Several times on every page Murau/Bernhard reminds the reader that he's telling all this to his student Gambetti, who he is tutoring in German literature, or to himself, often while he's staring out a window. These interruptions serve to objectify the text, a self-reflexive device to keep the reader aware of the narrative mechanics.
Murau returns to his native Austria, to the town of Wolfsegg, to handle the details of the death of his mother, father and brother, who died in an automobile accident. Contemplating their corpses sends him reeling in several directions, railing about all things Austrian: the Catholic Church, Nazis, opera, theater, German literature, architecture, photography, food, clothes, as well as a thorough history of each family member, including his two surviving sisters, one of whom is married to a man referred to a hundred times as "the wine cork manufacturer." He sets the record straight about his family; death shouldn't falsify what they were really like. "Extinction" lines up an array of grotesque figures and comically tears them to smithereens. Below are a few snippets.
"My sisters, it occurs to me, have a habit of hopping, a hysterical condition acquired in early childhood, which became one of their most striking characteristics. They hop all day long--they don't walk. They hop from the kitchen into the hall and back, into the drawing room and back. They really don't walk--they hop. I always see them hopping, like the children they were 30 years ago. Although they now walk normally, they always seem to me to be hopping. I cannot see them walk without imagining that they are still hopping as hysterically as they did when they were little girls with long pigtails. They are 40 and graying, but I still see them hopping when they are actually walking. When I thought I had finally escaped them they would suddenly turn up, hopping and giggling; they never left me in peace but drove me half demented with their giggling."
Thirteen pages later:
"Not wanting to be a doll in a doll's house, I soon removed myself from this doll's house, I told Gambetti, and its surroundings nothing more or less than a doll's world, ruled by my mother in the most ruthless and inhuman fashion. Gambetti laughed loudly, accusing me of monstrous overstatement and telling me that I was a typical Austrian pessimist with a grotesquely negative outlook."
Bernhard's idea is a worsening of everything. The novel as nightmare infinity. His stories thrive on adversity. He loves to explore peoples' differences, everything they do not have in common, item by item. Bernhard relishes the pleasures of bad news. The worse things become the happier the prose gets. That is, happiness of the wounded hysterical variety. There really isn't a cheerful moment, the delight comes more from the effect it has on the brain when reading. His aesthetic is grounded in the giddy complexities of hate and revenge. It's satire, that quickly shifts into other terrain.
Bernhard took the spiel to heights never before spieled. "Extinction" is two paragraphs, 326 pages long. This isn't a gimmick. He's done it in every novel, with few exceptions, to the point where he makes you think the existence of paragraph breaks in other authors' work is an intrusive formal abrasion.
One of Bernhard's pet methods is to weigh one human flaw against another, to go over something again and again, to alter it slightly, tilt it, push it further to a saturation point, until one is lightheaded. So much of his tone is emphatic. Arguments work themselves up to a big oceanic pitch, crash to the ground, subside, and then build up again. Another Bernhard constant is to have his narrator be in one place for the entire book, not moving a muscle, to have everything pass through the cranial depot, maybe a protracted version of the so-called flash-vision of one's life passing before one's eyes prior to death. The novel as singular moment of truth. It sounds completely reasonable and its effects are profoundly absurd. Only the virtuoso can write great novels where nothing "happens," because it all takes place in the mind. And Thomas Bernhard is "The Mind Overdrive."
If we had an American equivalent to Bernhard. . . . Well, we don't. Only Mark Twain's body-slams on American culture ("A pen warmed up in hell") come to mind. Twain had soft spots. Bernhard, zero. Serious literary fiction writers here don't have the kind of impact here that they do in Europe, and if there was an American Bernhard his manuscripts would all be piled in his closet. No one would publish him. Our low wattage, mainstream-appeasing editors would all say the same thing, ". . . wouldn't be able to sell two copies, Mack." In German-speaking countries almost everyone who reads is familiar with Bernhard and has a strong opinion of him.
David McLintock's translation of "Extinction" is exquisite. It presents an English far richer than most English language books. He is able to turn the complex German compound nouns into great English inventions. Bernhard writes at a high pitch, something well beyond what's normally called shrill, and McLintock is able to keep the vibrancy of words fresh, disturbed and punchy.
A lot of great wild writers from the '60s and '70s have completely softened. When they ripened into middle age and beyond they no longer felt the need to blast. Whatever the reason (nature?) it's usually a rotten fact that forces a reader to either change with the writer or to call it quits. The over-rated fellow Austrian Peter Handke went from his radical first book "Offending the Audience" to a pile of flaccid, navel-packing novels and essays. Sometimes you'll find an oldster try to get down and do the nasty like they did once upon a millennium (a 1995 Phillip Roth goes NC-17 in his most recent novel) but the results can be forced and embarrassing. I'm happy to say that Bernhard came into the world a monster and he left it the same way, sharp and deadly.