1. i’ve been walking in the rain like Travis Bickle, thinking about Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is an oddbod to be sure, a kind of literary Werner Herzog. i googled the two names together and was surprised to find almost nothing. Both men study extravagant madmen; they were born in roughly the same area, only 11 years apart; both had early success; both created their own forms. i found an early auto-documentary of Herzog’s, in which he comes across as arrogant and something narcissistic:
i much prefer the present Herzog, who seems to have been purified, made bleakly humorous by age and rejection:
2. Bernhard likewise seems very different in his later interviews – harder and wilder. Perhaps had he lived another 20 years he would have undergone a Herzogian transformation; though one life can only contain so many changes. Bernhard seems to have found his “voice” very early. i haven’t read all his books but the distinctly Bernhardian voice is already present in his first novel, Frost (1963). This is the only Bernhard book i’ve found totally uninteresting. The next, Gargoyles (1967 – the German is Verstörung, which could be better translated as Disturbance) is better but still falls short of the next i’ve read in order, Correction (1975). From Correction on, he is Bernhard.
There isn’t much point quoting Bernhard as he takes force from the cumulative force of an entire paragraph, but here is an example from Correction:
When I concern myself with Roithamer, with what order of magnitude am I dealing? I ask myself, clearly I am dealing with a head that is willing and compelled to go to extremes in everything he does and capable, in this reciprocity of intellectual interaction, of peak record performances, a man who takes his own development, the development of his character and of his inborn intellectual gifts to its utmost peak, its utmost limits, its highest degree of realization . . . and who must force everything he is, in the final analysis, to coalesce in one extreme point, force it all to the utmost limits of his intellectual capacity and his nervous tension until, at the highest degree of such expansion and contraction and the total concentration he has repeatedly achieved, he must actually be torn apart.
3. Today, in the rain, i was thinking about Bernhard’s voice, and why the first two novels aren’t very good (though Gargoyles is readable at least). All his novels are about obsessive lunatics. Frost is about a young medical student who is sent to spy on a deranged painter by the painter’s brother (a doctor). Gargoyles is about a doctor’s young son, accompanying his father on his rounds, and meeting various lunatics, culminating with the deranged Prince Saurau. In both books, the narrator is passive, sane – merely observing the further extent of human insanity. That is, in these novels Bernhard stands aside from madness, attempting some kind of objectivity.
Correction is, i think, his masterpiece; it was also the first Bernhard i read back in 2007 in Manchester – in a garret high over a street featuring 2 synagogues and a house of Sufism, 5 minutes’ on foot from Wittgenstein’s old lodgings, a century ago. i read Correction, then George Steiner’s introduction remarking on the importance of old Wittgenstein to Bernhard; which then moved me to read Ray Monk’s bio of the earlier Austrian, when i chanced on it in the Manchester library a few weeks later. In Correction, Bernhard dissolves the walls between narrator and subject, as he would do in every later book: the narrator is just as nuts as Hoeller, in whose garret he lives, and almost as nuts as Roithamer, about whom he writes. Likewise in Old Masters, the narrator is almost indistinguishable from the subject (Reger) and even from a gallery attendant who has been as it were possessed by Reger, thinking & speaking in Reger’s voice. There are novels without a separate protagonist – so in both Woodcutters and Extinction the narrator is also the subject; but in these, the narrator is so extreme as to be not so much untrustworthy as just something you have to accept, or you may as well stop reading.
Bernhard began writing as a crime reporter. Perhaps this encouraged him to stand aside, to be objective, neutral. His great books required untrammeled subjectivity, to become the lunatic about whom he writes. In real life he was, it is clear, obsessive and maniacal – but not to the degree of his characters. Hence, his Übertreibungskunst – art of exaggeration. He takes elements of his own mind and instead of projecting them onto wholly distinct characters, he exaggerates them and allows this mania to fill the entire novel – to infect the narrator and even minor characters. And this grants the whole book enormous vitality.
4. i’ve experimented with voices. My novel (and aborted novels) failed because i took a lesser form of myself as protagonist or narrator – a curiously muted me, with some buffoonery; i don’t seem capable of doing otherwise, i think because i instinctively recoil from granting myself any grandeur or depth: it seems ludicrous and i feel to be on very thin ice; but then the protagonist is negligible. My short stories are different: here, i have no difficulties, but i think this is because the story itself compels a certain voice; and while i would like to write on demand, to say “it’s a Monday, so I will write a 2000 word story”, every such attempt has fallen horribly flat. This failure is useful and chastening, or would be if i could attend.