Thursday, July 29, 2010

A year of Bernhard

I first attempted to read Thomas Bernhard four years ago. In early 2006, Vintage Books published a paperback edition of his novel Gargoyles, which told the story of a doctor's rounds through a desolate mountainous countryside in Austria. Accompanied by his idealistic son, a post-graduate medical student, the doctor makes several stops, each grimmer and more despairing than the last, culminating with a visit to the insomniac Prince Sarau, a character who would be one of the most singular in all of modern fiction if Bernhard hadn't outdone himself in several other of his novels.

Prince Sarau - hysterical, hypersensitive, and above all overflowing with words - is given free reign to rant for upwards of a hundred pages. He is, as I would learn last summer when I (finally) found myself able to return to Bernhard's work, the prototypical Bernhard character. His venom and world weariness consume him, his anguish is of the most universal type, casting Life under the pall of Death: "The catastrophe," he says, "begins with getting out of bed." And yet... what redeems this novel from being nothing more than angst-ridden railing at the injustices of the world is, among other things, Bernhard's adroit manipulation of tragedy and comedy. This oscillation - comparable to that of an alternating current - effects a great pathos in Bernhard's work: a character you want more than anything to hate can become, in the turn of a phrase, one with whom you sympathize. Because you understand what has wounded him.

As alluded to, it took me a couple of years to navigate my way back into Bernhard's work. This was for reasons practical - most of his novels were out-of-print (more on that in a moment) - and personal: it takes an iron-willed constitution to be able to withstand the emotion onslaught of these books. So, I waited. I was certain the time would ripen.

It did, and with beautiful coincidence it seems I've stepped into a Bernhard renaissance: Vintage has reprinted several of these long out-of-print works (Wittgenstein's Nephew, Correction, The Lime Works so far with Concrete and Woodcutters to be released on August 10); Seagull World Books, an impressive newcomer, just released the previously untranslated story collection Prose (pictured above) and will be publishing another of Bernhard's early (decidedly twisted) fairytale-like stories, Victor Halfwit, later this year; and Knopf is releasing a slim volume of Bernhard's account of his attendance at award functions, My Prizes. (For a taste of the scandalous fun of My Prizes, see the Complete Review's take on the book.)

All of this is by way of saying, urgently, IN ALL CAPS, &c.: if you are a serious reader, if you are interested in what it means to be human in an imperfect world, if you are at all curious as to how anguish can be transformed into art, you NEED to read Thomas Bernhard. And now, gratefully, you have no excuse not to.

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