||A Review of: Three Novellas
by Jeff Bursey
The Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), has created
controversy in his homeland. Right-wingers protested his last play,
Heldenplatz (1988), its English translator relates, by depositing
"horse manure in front of the theater" on opening night.
Earlier, a Minister of Culture and Education had implied Bernhard
was mad. Though he is invoked with admiration by the unnamed narrator
in William Gaddis's Agap Agape (2002), his writings are insufficiently
known to English readers. Three Novellas is not a major work, unlike
Concrete and Wittgenstein's Nephew, but it does present an early
version of the complex world Bernhard devised for his aesthetic
purposes. Each novella is economical and slight in plot. Each shows
two main features: his development of the narrator who captures the
speech of others within his own, and the compulsions, usually
political and social, which force characters to question everything.
When answers are arrived at, the temporarily self-aware characters
regard them as provisional, and demands of themselves further
scrutiny. Any answer expresses in disguise that person's ulterior
wishes and hopes, as if Narcissus was continually forgetting whom
he regarded in the pool.
"Amras" (1964) features two brothers, separated from their
parents, who are recluses on the property of their uncle. They
indulge in morbid self-examination, and are attuned especially to
each other's thoughts. However, the preciousness of the language
and the inbred nature of the narrators' perceptions are relayed
with little stylistic distinction. The narrator of "Playing
Watten" (1969) is a disgraced doctor who is writing a report
to a scholar on his thoughts from a particular day. Most deal with
why he will never play cards again with a familiar group of men. A
visitor identified as "the truck driver" acts as society's
stand-in, and endlessly interrogates the self-proclaimed outcast
on his decision. Frustrated with himself for making the truck driver
leave him alone, the doctor almost wails, "A person like the
truck driver gradually reduces a person like me to despair..."
Unable to practice medicine, withdrawing from human contact, the
narrator in his hut waits for death. "But all thoughts can be
used for the total destruction of our own life, just as they can
be used for the destruction of every life." This novella is a
good depiction of the cramped life of the intellectual who denies
empathic connections with others, and who self-indulgently ascribes
the possibility of his own death and the impersonal slaughter of
millions equal weight.
In "Walking" (1971) Bernhard most fruitfully works on
philosophical concepts which intrigue him, while refining his style.
Two men talk about a mutual friend confined to a mental institution.
Oehler, the narrator's friend, speaks most about madness, children,
how horrible Austria is, and also about holes in trousers. His
appraisal of life is strict and rigorous:
"If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly
with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest
possible space of time. The fact is that our existence is an
unbearable and horrible existence, if we exist with this fact, says
Oehler, and not against this fact, then we shall go under in the
most wretched and in the most usual manner, there should therefore
be nothing more important to us than existing constantly, even if
in, but also at the same time against the fact of an unbearable and
Oehler's words are rendered by the narrator, along with quotations
from their absent friend, from the doctor treating him, and from a
tailor. Repetition of utterances and agonizingly defined ideas build
a narrative maze where air is removed and horizons lost. For some
readers, Bernhard's reported speech technique may not overcome an
inculcated preference for conventional representations of dialogue.
Having characters dwell obsessively on fine points might seem nothing
short of maddening, in which case reading Bernhard will be like
death by pushpin. But for those who can bear the hypnotic sentences
and who will engage the grim mind behind them, Three Novellas,
particularly "Walking", will be refreshing, and a stimulus
to thinking about other ways to conceive of fiction.