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Misery’s company

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

“WE are limited in all things; why are we limited so little when it comes to suffering?” Walter Benjamin wrote in a 1931 book review. Today, the entire literary career of Thomas Bernhard reveals his attempt to exhibit, examine or simply come to some kind of stalemate with the actuality of the unappeasable truth contained in Benjamin’s question.

Whether you start at the end of Bernhard’s career with the grand, imposing, awe-inspiring “Extinction” or read those earlier works that defined his life and career -- “Correction,” “Gathering Evidence,” “The Loser,” “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” -- or read his first novel, “Frost,” now being published in English for the first time, you realize that, until his death in 1989, Bernhard demonstrated a profound understanding of the core sadness of human existence. Reading him, though, doesn’t make you feel sadder but a little less alone in the world.

“Frost” was published in 1963 and immediately established his reputation among that great range of mountains in modern German literature: Kafka, Junger, Walser, Broch, Benn, Bachmann, Johnson -- each unique in vision, having and seeking no disciples. As with all of these writers, Bernhard’s uniqueness exists in the tone and thrust of his words -- not his subject matter, which is often commonplace.

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“Frost,” for instance, concerns itself with 27 days spent by a young unnamed medical surgical assistant in Weng, a remote Austrian village. He is there as a favor to his hospital superior, a famous surgeon, who wishes him to look in on the surgeon’s brother, Strauch, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. At one time, Strauch had been a promising painter, and then he burned his paintings and fled Vienna for the obscurity of Weng. The young man travels to the village and must get close to the painter without revealing why he’s there. He must also report back to the painter’s brother. “ ‘My brother,’ he told me, ‘is unmarried, as I am. He lives, as they say, in his head. But he’s terminally confused. Haunted by vice, shame, awe, reproach, examples -- my brother is a walker, a man in fear. And a misanthrope.’ ”

Whether this assessment is really true is left for readers to decide. The bigger mystery that occupies anyone reading Bernhard is this: How do his characters -- such as the unnamed medical assistant who enjoys reading Henry James or Strauch who reads only Pascal -- insinuate themselves into our imaginations, into our very lives? The answer may be that the novel offers no plot, which often distracts us from learning who characters are as we think only about what they do.

So, nothing much happens in “Frost” beyond the recording of what Strauch and the young man think. The lives of various villagers are mentioned, lives frightfully debased by work and a hostile natural world. Awful deaths by misadventure occur, funerals are attended, drunken meals are endured. Always we are aware that the young man and Strauch are thinking and giving voice to those thoughts. We, as readers, participate with the same intensity as eavesdroppers.

Bernhard is hardly morbid, hardly, as they say, a downer: He’s a comic writer. At one point, Strauch irreverently intones his own version of a familiar prayer: “Our Father, who art in Hell, unhallowed be Thy name. No Kingdom come. Thy will not be done. On earth, as it is in Hell. Deny us this day our daily bread. And forgive us no trespasses. As we forgive none of those who trespass against us. Lead us into temptation, and deliver us from no evil.” This darker humor is different from the trivializing slapstick that so often mars the work of Beckett and others.

Toward the end of the novel, the young man reflects as he makes his report:

“The material about Strauch (in my memory) is monstrous. What is written down is the best I can do.... But it’s not possible to describe the condition of a human being in the same way as one can describe the state of an animal.... I am able to say what he says and how he says it and why it makes waves of insanity and revulsion ... but in reality [he] has always been alone, much more miserably alone than one will be able to imagine even after reading my report, alone in the way that a fly is alone in an apartment in a city in winter, being chased by the occupant and his cohorts, and finally is splattered against a wall, if these people feel hounded and maddened and under attack by this fly, so that they band together in their dwelling, and silently decide to kill it off, that vile monstrous creature as they call it in their aggression, that poisons their air and their evening -- not knowing what a fly is, and what goes on in one, much less a fly in a city apartment in the winter.”

Strauch is a forceful character, unforgettable because of his words. In the course of the novel’s 27 days, the young man finds himself being overcome by the unquenchable, energetic outbursts of this man. At one point, as they walk in the woods, Strauch suddenly stops at an abattoir, or slaughterhouse, and steps inside:

“ ‘Cold is one of the great A-truths, the greatest of all the A-truths and therefore it is all truths rolled into one. Truth is always a process of extermination, you must understand. Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss. Untruth is a climbing, an up, untruth is no death, as truth is death, untruth is no abyss, but untruth is not A-truth, you understand: the great infirmities do not approach us from outside, the great infirmities have been within us, surprisingly for millions of years....’ He says staring through the open abattoir doors: ‘There it is clearly in front of you, broken open, sliced apart.... The lesson of humanity, and inhumanity and human opinions, and of the great human silence, the lesson of the great memory protocol of the great being, should be tackled through the abattoir! Schoolchildren should not be brought to heated classrooms, they should be made to attend abattoirs; it is only from abattoirs that I expect understanding of the world and the world’s bloody life. Our teachers should do their work in abattoirs. Not read from books, but swing hammers, wield saws, and apply knives.... Reading should be taught from the coiled intestines, and not from the useless lines in books.... The word “nectar” should be traded in for the word “blood.” 'You see,’ said the painter, ‘the abattoir is the the only essentially philosophical venue.’ ”

Is Strauch a misanthrope, as his brother said? It seems so. But caution, readers. Questions are never so easily answered in Bernhard’s works. “Frost” remains as fresh as it was when first published more than 40 years ago: It is a testament to a constant, nagging reality that time never erases. *


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