1. i’ve been cajoling myself to write something longer than a short story, to distract myself from the horror of nearly being 37. In the last 3 months i’ve begun writing four novels, three of which i’ve discarded. Number four is going okay so far but so far is only 4000 words.

It’s been difficult to find the right approach. My only finished novel, The Better Maker, taught me that i can’t do conventional fiction, and shouldn’t use myself as a protagonist. Unfortunately, i find experimental fiction (e.g. most Joyce, William Burroughs, David Foster Wallace, Kerouac’s freakier works, all Italo Calvino save Invisible Cities, Georges Perec, all Thomas Pynchon save Mason & Dixon, half of Michael Ondaatje’s corpus, and Robert Bolano) quite unrewarding. The only writers i’ve found useful are Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, though i’m also re-reading W.G. Sebald to counter their   interiority and madness. i delayed writing for a while as i can very easily do pastiche and it’s important not to merely write “in the style of”, but to use and discard, to adapt and refine and finally inhabit the style completely, as your own. It would, in any case, be extremely strange to write knock-off Thomas Bernhard.

2.

thomas-bernhard-straight

Bernhard is probably my closest model, though fortunately, our characters are significantly different. Roughly speaking, i would say the circle of my thoughts & obsessions is wider, less concentrated, less powerful. And, i think i could be quite happy if my circumstances were fitting – or so i judge from the times in my life when i have been so – whereas Bernhard, or my last life for that matter, carried their dissatisfaction within: it was a deeper unhappiness than mine, for mine can be resolved by circumstance (having a rewarding job, intelligent friends, enough money to pay the rent). Here’s an example of some classic Bernhard, from Der Untergeher, The Loser:

It took me three days after Wertheimer hanged himself to figure out that, like Glenn, he had just turned fifty-one. When we cross the threshold of our fiftieth year we see ourselves as base and spineless, I thought, the question is how long we can stand this condition. Lots of people kill themselves in their fifty-first year, I thought. Lots in their fifty-second, but more in their fifty-first. It doesn’t matter whether they kill themselves in their fifty-first year or whether they die, as people say, a healthy death, it doesn’t matter whether they die like Glenn or whether they die like Wertheimer. The reason is that they’re often ashamed of having reached the limit a fifty-year-old crosses when he puts his fiftieth year behind him. For fifty years are absolutely enough, I thought. We become contemptible when we go past fifty and are still living, continue our existence. We’re border-crossing weaklings, I thought, who have made ourselves twice as pitiful by putting fifty years behind us. Now I’m the shameless one, I thought. I envied the dead. For a moment I hated them for their superiority.

In one of my habitual frenzies, i have ordered most of Bernhard’s books and will probably re-read the best once i run out of new works. Such obsession comes to me from time to time, and i want to read everything of a writer, over and over; i feel nourished, guided even, by a particular “voice”. These coincide with periods of uncertainty and dissatisfaction. 12 years ago, i entered a student friend’s room and slowly began to wonder about the unignorable, beautiful, odd music she was playing. She said it was Radiohead, Kid A i think, and said when she first heard it she had known it was exactly what she needed at this point. i’ve had this feeling with various albums, films, books since i was 19: it goes beyond entertainment; it seems that your soul requires the influence of, e.g. Dante, to develop – as if the book contains, in highly concentrated form, qualities you can extract and consume and use. Once you have consumed these qualities, they are yours and you may even forget that you once lacked this particular power or element, that you felt depressed and frustrated, stuck in an earlier stage of life and mind, unable to progress.

i have Sebald, Beckett, and Bernhard in my mind as writers who habitually & fruitfully operated beyond the conventional. It’s not that i want to sound like them, but i think one can pick up the odd idea here & there, unexplored possibilities; and in any case i’m not interested in being experimental and innovative; i only want to be original in the sense that these are my own thoughts (even if, as is likely, someone else has had them first); and something like Beckett/Bernhard’s loose, unpredictable rhythm feels right, at the moment.

3. Having these writers in mind, and the great Werner Herzog (who has become my new hero), i note that Bernhard, Sebald, and Herzog were all raised in or around my present home just to the west of Munich. Herzog was raised in a small village called Sachrang, on the border to Austria; Bernhard was raised a mere 50 km away in a village called Traunstein, and also in Seekirchen am Wallersee, another 50 km further east. Here’s a map showing how to get from Traunstein to Sachrang (click to expand):

herzog and bernhard

It’s about 110 km from Sachrang to my flat (slightly west of Munich). And Sebald is from Wertach in the Allgäu, 130 km southwest of my home; here’s a map showing the car route from Herzog’s village to Sebald’s:

sebald and herzog

This whole area is a bit strange. The language is especially impenetrable, varying considerably – so i’m told – from village to village. One of my students is from a village close to Traunstein and has some interesting tales of local hunters, Wilderer, who kill animals indiscriminately, without a licence, and inhabit their own psychological world.

The dialect is so strong here, so different to standard German, that i think it must inculcate a sense of doubleness in those who leave these little villages – the “mother tongue” which no one outside of the village could understand, alongside the Kaiser’s German. Bavarian is actually a mixture of Latin and German, and indeed it sounds at times like a (sexually perverted) Italian dialect. Perhaps, compared to the bizarre, hillbilly mother tongue, even High German – let alone English – would seem prissy and sterile, and so one could push it around and distort and play with it.

4. My father could barely speak English, despite living in England since his 30s; my mother spoke a pinched, pretending-to-be-posh English, very artificial and full of malapropisms; and my sister spoke in a crass, affected trans-Atlantic idiom. It wasn’t until i began reading “literature”, when i was 19 or so, that i encountered elegant, precise, readable language. i thus had no experience of correct or skilful use of language for my first two decades, and perhaps for this reason i prize it all the more, and regard it as magical – at first this was a mere metaphor but in time it has come to be a literal account. i have never become accustomed to good English, never taken it for granted or regarded it as natural or normal. i have no real mother tongue, no idiom from my earliest days; my father spoke a barbarous, ungrammatical, mispronounced, bellowing, rage-filled English, my mother a prissy, fake upper-middle-class English, and my sister a put-on American television English. i barely spoke as a child, because i had nothing to say and because i found it hard to find the words. Without books, my only language would have remained exceedingly diminished and confined and i imagine i would have remained a diminished and confined human being, and perished in some sordid manner. No great loss, of course, and some readers wish i had died; however, here i am and in 3 weeks i’ll be 37, fancy that.

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