~s ~othing - thomas bernhard · the inimitable thomas bernhard by ben marcus discussedinthisessay:...

of 6/6
itarian hopes the movement inspired should be rejected. This was the cru- cial period of Reconstruction and of the ratification of the 14th Amend- ment to the Constitution, which es- tablished the full rights of citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in this country. Its passage was the work of emancipationists, and it was meant to create meaningful political equality for African Americans, among others. The vanguard in the period in which Huxley wrote were those Christian abolitionists whose intentions he dis- missed as, of course, at odds with sci- ence. Huxley's racism, like Hitler's, is nota standard from which ineluctable progress can be inferred but instead a proof of the power of atavism. Dawkins allows that our upward moral drift is a "meandering saw- tooth"-he is admired for his prose- but he seems not to be alert to his- torical specifics. The United States never suffered a more grievous moral setback than when it allowed thinking like Huxley's to make a dead letter of the 14th Amendment. As for the less- er issues of justice that arose in the wake of slavery, .Huxley had this to say: "whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of so- cial gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between Nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian con- science be void of reproach for ever- more. And this, if we look to the bot- tom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy." No, he wasn't joking. Finally, there is the matter of atheism itself. Dawkins finds it inca- pable of belligerent intent-"why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" It is a pecu- liarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against reli- gion-in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China". In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape so- ciety by excluding certain forms of thought, by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness 88 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / NOVEMBER 2006 appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not ac- quainted himself with the history of modem authoritarianism. Indeed, Dawkins makes a bold at- tack on tolerance as it is manifested in society's permitting people to rear their children in their own religious traditions. He turns an especially cold eye on the Amish: There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificingof anyone, espe- ciallychildren, on the altar of "diver- . sity"and the virtue of preservinga va- riety of religioustraditions.The rest of us are happy with our cars and com- puters, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches,yourhorse bug- gies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, oth- erwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a parr of the wonderful diversityofhuman culture. The fact that the Amish are pacifists whose way of life burdens this belea- guered planet as little as any to be found in the Western world merits not even a mention. Yet Dawkins himself has posited not only memes but, since these mind virus- es are highly analogous to genes, a meme pool as well. This would imply that there are more than sentimental reasons for valuing the diversity that he derides. Would not the attempt to nar- row it only repeat the worst errors of eu- genics at the cultural and intellectual level? When the Zeitgeist turns Gor- gon, the impulses toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves rea- son and science. ~lISERY LO\~S ~OTHING The inimitable Thomas Bernhard By Ben Marcus Discussedin thisessay: Frost, by Thomas Bernhard. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pages. $25.95. m omasBernhard, the ranting, death-obsessed Austrian nov- elist and playwright who died in 1989, was the ultimate Nest- beschmutzer, soiling his country with screeds against the landscape, the people, and their history. Not content with the limitations of his own mor- tality, Bernhard darkened his will with Ben Marcus is the author of Notable American Women, among other books. His most recent article for Harper's Magazine; "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction," appeared in the October 2005 issue" the dictum that his works could not be published or performed in Austria af- ter his death, as if to suggest that his homeland was not even worthy to " bathe in his hatred. Although Bern- hard's executors have sashayed around his stipulation, his wrath has since ma- tured into something far more univer- s.allytoxic. In the end, Bernhard's con- cerns are not a single country and its political crimes but rather the sheer af- front of life itself, what the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran referred to as "The Trouble with Being Born." Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, fellow countrymen of Bernhard's, re-

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  • itarian hopes the movement inspiredshould be rejected. This was the cru-cial period of Reconstruction and ofthe ratification of the 14th Amend-ment to the Constitution, which es-tablished the full rights of citizenshipto everyone born or naturalized in thiscountry. Its passage was the work ofemancipationists, and it was meant tocreate meaningful political equalityfor African Americans, among others.The vanguard in the period in whichHuxley wrote were those Christianabolitionists whose intentions he dis-missed as, of course, at odds with sci-ence. Huxley's racism, like Hitler's, isnota standard from which ineluctableprogress can be inferred but instead aproof of the power of atavism.

    Dawkins allows that our upwardmoral drift is a "meandering saw-tooth"-he is admired for his prose-but he seems not to be alert to his-torical specifics. The United Statesnever suffered a more grievous moralsetback than when it allowed thinkinglike Huxley's to make a dead letter ofthe 14th Amendment. As for the less-er issues of justice that arose in thewake of slavery, .Huxley had this tosay: "whatever the position of stableequilibrium into which the laws of so-cial gravitation may bring the negro,all responsibility for the result willhenceforward lie between Nature andhim. The white man may wash hishands of it, and the Caucasian con-science be void of reproach for ever-more. And this, if we look to the bot-tom of the matter, is the realjustification for the abolition policy."No, he wasn't joking.

    Finally, there is the matter ofatheism itself. Dawkins finds it inca-pable of belligerent intent-"whywould anyone go to war for the sakeof an absence of belief?" It is a pecu-liarity of our language that by war wegenerally mean a conflict betweennations, or at least one in whichboth sides are armed. There has beenpersistent violence against reli-gion-in the French Revolution, inthe Spanish Civil War, in the SovietUnion, in China". In three of theseinstances the extirpation of religionwas part of a program to reshape so-ciety by excluding certain forms ofthought, by creating an absence ofbelief. Neither sanity nor happiness

    88 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / NOVEMBER 2006

    appears to have been served by theseefforts. The kindest conclusion onecan draw is that Dawkins has not ac-quainted himself with the history ofmodem authoritarianism.

    Indeed, Dawkins makes a bold at-tack on tolerance as it is manifestedin society's permitting people to reartheir children in their own religioustraditions. He turns an especiallycold eye on the Amish:

    There is something breathtakinglycondescending, as well as inhumane,about the sacrificingof anyone, espe-ciallychildren, on the altar of "diver-

    . sity"and the virtue of preservinga va-rietyof religioustraditions.The rest ofus are happy with our cars and com-puters, our vaccines and antibiotics.But you quaint little peoplewith yourbonnets and breeches,yourhorse bug-gies, your archaic dialect and yourearth-closet privies, you enrich ourlives. Of course you must be allowedto trap yourchildren with you in yourseventeenth-century time warp, oth-erwise something irretrievable would

    be lost to us: a parr of the wonderfuldiversityofhuman culture.

    The fact that the Amish are pacifistswhose way of life burdens this belea-guered planet as little as any to befound in the Western world merits noteven a mention.

    Yet Dawkins himself has posited notonly memes but, since these mind virus-es are highly analogous to genes, ameme pool as well. This would implythat there are more than sentimentalreasons for valuing the diversity that hederides. Would not the attempt to nar-row it only repeat the worst errors of eu-genics at the cultural and intellectuallevel? When the Zeitgeist turns Gor-gon, the impulses toward cultural andbiological eugenics have proved to beone and the same. It is diversity thatmakes any natural system robust, anddiversity that stabilizes culture againstthe eccentricity and arrogance thathave so often called themselves rea-son and science.

    ~lISERYLO\~S ~OTHINGThe inimitable Thomas Bernhard

    By Ben Marcus

    Discussedin this essay:

    Frost, by Thomas Bernhard. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Alfred A. Knopf.352 pages. $25.95.

    momasBernhard, the ranting,death-obsessed Austrian nov-elist and playwright who diedin 1989, was the ultimate Nest-beschmutzer, soiling his country withscreeds against the landscape, thepeople, and their history. Not contentwith the limitations of his own mor-tality, Bernhard darkened his will with

    Ben Marcus is the author of NotableAmerican Women, among other books.His most recent article for Harper'sMagazine; "Why Experimental FictionThreatens Publishing, Jonathan Franzen,and Life as We Know It: A Correction,"appeared in the October 2005 issue"

    the dictum that his works could notbe publishedor performed in Austria af-ter his death, as if to suggest that hishomeland was not even worthy to

    " bathe in his hatred. Although Bern-hard's executors have sashayed aroundhis stipulation, his wrath has since ma-tured into something far more univer-s.allytoxic. In the end, Bernhard's con-cerns are not a single country and itspolitical crimes but rather the sheer af-front of life itself, what the Romanianphilosopher E. M. Cioran referred to as"The Trouble with Being Born."

    Hermann Broch and Robert Musil,fellow countrymen of Bernhard's, re-

  • ported on this trouble also, but inprose that was far more stately, tem-pered, and quite less given to spleen.Bernhard was altogether unconcernedwith immunizing a reader against hissurgical attacks on humanity, and if hemade a blood sport of novel writing,he did it with a zeal and a gallows hu-mor that is unrivaled in contemporaryliterature. His formally radical novels,which sometimes blasted into shape asa single, unbroken paragraph, weremanic reports on such fixations as thefutility of existence; the darkappeal, and inevitable logic,of suicide; the monstrosityof human beings; and theabject pain of merely beingalive. Bernhard's languagestrained the limits of rhetor-ical negativity: if his prosewere any more anguished, itwould simply transmit asmoaning and wailing. Build-ing interest in the grief ex-perienced by people wholook at the world and findit unbearable was a dark artof Bernhard's, and his char-acters do not resist the longwalk to death's door but runto it and claw at the surface,begging for entry. After all,says Strauch, the agonizedpainter in Bernhard's firstnovel, Frost, "there is anobligation towards the depthof one's own inner abyss,"even if meeting that obliga-tion destroys you.

    A debut work of nearlyunbearable bleakness, by awriter who would go on to producesome of the most severely nihilisticliterature of the twentieth century,Frost, which wasfirstpublished in Ger-man in 1963, isnot so much a novel asa persuasive case against happiness,written .in the relentless prose stylethat would become Bernhard's signa-ture. An Austrian medical student ac-cepts a perverse task from a teacher: goto Weng, where "the roadsides favorpromiscuity" and "children fall intosudden fits of weakness," and clinical-ly observe Strauch, the teacher's es-tranged brother. "Watch the way mybrother holds his stick, I want a precisedescription of it," says the teacher.This is a perverse thing to want, par-

    Illustration by Andrea Ventura

    ticularlv from someone who has notseen his brother in years, and it creepstoward suggestingthat such cold, love-less interest from a family member hassomething to do with Strauch's mis-erable loneliness. It will turn out thatother forces are bearing down onStrauch as well, and that misery hap-pens to be one of his guilty pleasures.This is a man who excels at futilityand unhappiness, and the performanceof his grief will overpower every oth-er spectacle in the novel.

    scape that seems carved out of a cruelfairy tale. The language is gothic andclinical at once, affecting the airs ofanthropological rationality. WhenBernhard imagines beyond reality, it isto color the world worse,and he can bevery convincing about it: "Cities thatare long since dead, mountains too,long dead, livestock, poultry, even wa-ter and the creatures that used to livein the water. Reflections of our death-masks. A death-mask ball." About hisdank, mountainous environment,

    Strauch warns the narrator,"It's not possible to be sohealthy that being here won'tcripple you inside and out."

    Crippled inside and outis certainly a good workingdiagnosis of Strauch, al-though geography, mutilat-ing or not, seems hardly toblame, however convenienta scapegoat. He is menacedby headaches, convincedthat frost is eroding hismind-a destroyed manwhose hyper-articulatedeath throes seem to spout,without cease, not from thelandscape but from hisamygdala, the nut-shapedcluster of worry in the brainthat might as well be calledthe anxiety fountain. In-deed, the treachery of land-scapes in Bernhard's workcannot compete with thepoison and peril emanatingfrom within his characters.

    The narrator registersat thelocal inn where Strauch is liv-

    ing and passes himself off as a studentof law rather than medicine. As sub-terfugegoes,the deception provesmost-ly irrelevant to the novel, but Bern-hard clearly requires some establishedliterary devices to keep the book fromreading like a hatchet job on life itself.Yet the only character who could pos-sibly care about the narrator's secretidentity is Strauch, and he's too busycombing his own hair shirt to detectthe lie. Strauch would much rather"make the world die in me, and myselfdie in the world, and everything ceaseas though it had never been." That's apretty ambitiousgoal, and by the end ofthe book a kind of success has beenachieved, as if the book has fallen on its

    The narrator arrives in Weng and issoon promised that he'll "get to meeta whole series of monsters," whichproves to be true:

    Ireallywasfrightenedbythis landscape,in particularthisonespot,whichispop-ulated by small, fully grown peoplewhomonecancertainlycallcretins.Notaller than fivefoot on average,begot-ten in drunkenness, they pass in andout throughcracksin the wallsand cor-ridors.They seemtypicalof thisvalley.

    Readers of Bernhard will recognize thisdistottion ashis default, fantastical takeon the real world; the people who pop-ulate it are crushed into grotesqueshapes, colliding with a brutal land-

    REVIEWS 89

  • own sword. The world depicted byStrauch -becomes fairly cold to thetouch, and the narrator, not to mentionthe reader, issuckedheadlong and flail-ing into his death-ship perspective.

    Bernhard is an architect of con-sciousness more than a narra-tive storyteller. His project isnot to reference the known world,stuffing it with fully rounded charac-ters who commence to discover theirconflicts with one another, but toerect complex states of mind-usual-ly self-loathing, obsessive ones-andthen set about destroying them.Bernhard's characters are thoroughaccomplices in their own destruc-tion, and they are bestowed with alanguage that is dementedly repeti-tive and besotted with the appurte-nances of logical thinking. The devi-ous rationality of Bernhard'slanguage strives for a severe authori-ty, and it tends to make his charac-ters seem believable, no matter howunhinged their claims. Phrases don'tget repeated so much as needled untilthey yield graver meanings, with in-cremental changes introduced asthough a deranged scientist wereadding and removing substances inthe performance of an experiment."You wake up, and you feel molest-ed," Strauch says:

    In fact:the hideousthing.Youopenyourchest ofdrawers:a furthermolestation.Washinganddressingaremolestations.Having to get dressed!Having to eatbreakfast! When you go out on thestreet.youaresubject to the gravestpos-sible molestations. You are unable toshieldyourself.Youlay about yourself,but it's no use.The blowsyoudole outare returned a hundredfold.What arestreets,anyway?Wendingsof molesta-tion, up and down. Squares?Bundledtogethermolestations.

    Without a story to drive it, Frostbuilds not through unfolding eventsbut by telemarking around Strauch'sbitter cosmology while the narratorfollows him through the woods, fat-tening himself on the rage of his newmentor. A chart of Strauch's world-view would produce a splotchyRorschach of points a~d counter-points, contradictions, reversals, andthe occasional backflip, none ofwhich could really hold up to a logi-

    90 HARPER'S MAGAZINE/NOVEMBER 2006

    cian's scrutiny, which adds to hismystery. Strauch, a failed artist whoonly painted in total darkness, is op-posed to nearly everything, and lestyou think he's a humanist at thecore, with a fondness for the arts(that classic virtue of the misan-thrope), he claims that "artists arethe sons and daughters of loathsome-ness, of paradisiac shamelessness, theoriginal sons and daughters of lewd-ness; artists, painters, writers andmusicians are the compulsive mas-turbators on the planet." Yet thereare even worse evildoers, in his esti-mation: "I've never hated anythingas much as I hated teachers." A no-table assessment, given that he wasfor a long time employed as one. Ofhis students, he says: "I never toldthem the name of one single floweror tree. Nor gave them one countryof origin .... Because I am opposed tothe enlightenment of children whereplants are concerned, in fact, wherenature is concerned." Indeed, he be-lieves that schools should be abol-ished and that young people shouldbe required to visit slaughterhousesinstead, which can teach them farmore, and far more quickly: "Theonly wisdom is abattoir wisdom!" Heswears he does not exaggerate, andthat "imagination is an illness." Onhis' own powers of observation: "I dis-covered that my surroundings didn'twant to be explained by me." Whichdoesn't keep him from trying.

    Strauch is too deranged to makesense, or, more worryingly, he's tooperceptive and intelligent to strait-jacket his explosive declarations withcoherence and consistency. Nevermind the beautiful paradox of Beckett'smotto: I can't go on, I'll go on'. Bern-hard's version of the phrase removesBeckett's compulsion to live: I can'tgo on, I'll kill myself. I am a coward fornot having already killed myself. Butsince all pursuits are futile, suicide is fu-tile. Better never to have been born.

    One of the unbalancing pleasuresof Frost is how frequently we canchange our mind about Strauch as hehimself obsessively changes his ownmind, shifting our diagnosis fromAngry Genius to Brain-Addled SadSack to Poet of UncomfortableTruths. Not knowing the limits of hishatred and fear makes Strauch fasci-

  • nating, and Bernhard, even this earlyin his career, knew how to use char-acters as shock treatments for thereader, dialing up the intensity beforeboredom can set in. The most chill-ing idea that recurs in Frost involvessuicide, which is offered up byStrauch as the one authentic solu-tion to the problem of being alive.But it is spoken of as such an in-evitability-the question is only real-ly when it will happen for each per-son-that it's considered "thedecision of the father (first and fore-most) and of the mother (as well) tosponsor the suicide of their offspring,the child, the sudden premonition of'having created a new suicide.''' Sui-cide is a project initiated by all par-ents, and giving birth is likened toplotting a death. It feels violent, andviolating, to have suicide threatenedin one's presence, even from a char-acter in a novel, and to ignore it islike walking away from a drowningperson. If there's something voyeur-istic to this role we're forced into, italso imposes an unwanted responsi-bility, which is quite different fromthe routine empathy one might feeltoward a more typical fictional char-acter. This difference of literary ef-fect begins to describe how assaultiveBernhard's work can be. Strauchforeshadows the kind of characterBernhard would go on to create innovels like Woodcutters, The Loser,Correction, and Extinction-a rantingmalcontent on a filibuster, staginggrand disquisitions on the awful dis-comfort of being human, frequentlyendorsing suicide as not only appro-priate but desirable. He so loathesthe fact that he was born that hewants to erase himself.

    A:ivewith rage and shouting inour faces, a character of thisrt eats up so much of the stagethat story and plot are crowded out tothe perimeter, obediently clamoringfor attention now and again, but ap-pearing dim and perfunctory at best.The compelling happenings of Frostare mostly interior, and the physicalworld and its objects are rotelyattendedto. The narrator, innocent of the worldat the outset, isso poisonedby Strauch'sperspective that he turns into a kind ofdestroyed madman himself-as if he

    has witnessed an atrocity that he willnever recover from-and we see thatcertain ideas can be so corrosive as toruin the mind that hosts them. Thenovel closes with the narrator's "re-port" back to his teacher, a series ofletters that regurgitatesomeofStrauch'stirade with a degree of desperation,strugglingto find a languagewith whichto diagnose Strauch, settling finally onthe awkward phrasing of "an amoralinterstitial thinking without any de-clared purpose," a disorder that hasprobablynot yet made it into the DSM.Banging his head against "the unre-vealing mysticism of one who ison therun from clarity," the narrator in theend declaresStrauch to be "much moremiserably alone than one will be ableto imagine even after reading my re-port." This isa beautiful bit of modestythat defeats any sense that Strauch hasbeen exaggerating his condition, deep-ening the already terrible black holethat surrounds him. It seems thatStrauch isn't the only one who paintsin total darkness. His creator is ratherfond of doing so as well.

    Bernhard's ambivalence toward thedramatic shape of a plotted story isalready in evidence in Frost, yet hehadn't quite determined how to sup-plant it, which leads to a static, some-times overexcited investigation ofStrauch and his manias: a novel thatcan function more as a perverse dis-closure of a disease than as a sus-penseful revelation of character. Thesubplots and secondary characters inFrost-intrigue at the inn and theneighboring village, which Strauchand the narrator sometimes gossipabout-serve as peripheral animationsto throw Strauch's tirades into greaterrelief, but they also work to allow thereader some much-needed rest fromthe scorched-earth intensity ofStrauch's anger. The knacker, haulingaround animal carcasses, is sleepingwith the innkeeper, whose husbandis in jail for murder; as characters theyare somewhat less than human, dri-ven entirely by their lower facultiesand made to seem unduly crass andpetty. A farmhouse bums, incinerat-ing the animals within, which promptsa cheerful description of their burntflesh. A woodcutter iskilled. But thesecharacters, and their intrigues, aremore like hand puppets bobbing atop

    REVIEWS 91

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  • cardboard scenery, a bit of over-rigged,cartoon ish entertainment in betweenbracing doses of death talk. Bernharddoesn't seem particularly convincedof the dramatic potential of this ma-terial either, and so it is only lightlyand erratically sketched, while Strauchis held in abeyance before he bom-bards us again with his rant againstlife. One senses the young Bernhardtrying his hand at conventional nar-rative (an interest he would later aban-don), dutifully serving up novelisticmaterial to spackle together the farmore potent torment issuing fromStrauch, but it's curious in a novelwhen adultery and animal fires,as wellas general mayhem in the Austrianforest, can serve as light comic relief.

    Bernhard finds little use forcheerful thoughts, happypeople, or positive outcomes.Says the narrator of The Loser: "It's al-ways correct to say that this or thatperson is an unhappy person ...whereas it's never correct to say thatthis or that person is a happy one."Facile reasoning aside, his charactersmight be regarded as arguments, con-structed to stifle any possibility ofhope or joy, the opposite of what any-one-anyone, that is, with an interestin self-preservation-should wantfrom a book. They petition, with abarrister's authority, a bleak space, in-terrogating the purpose of life andregularly finding it hollow and terri-ble. "Who had the idea of lettingpeople walk around on the planet,"asks the narrator, "or somethingcalled a planet, only to put them in agrave, their grave, afterwardsr'

    Who indeed? Yet the techniqueprecisely describes the kind of jeop-ardy in which Bernhard routinelyplaces his characters, choosing tonotice them just when their sufferingis at its most intense. This procedureallows readers the unusual experi-ence of witnessing people who oper-ate under virtually no illusions, inthe most extreme emotional circum-stances, at war with fears that noneof us can rightly deny. These arecharacters without the routine pro-tective carapace of denial and eva-sion, and their raw assault on mortalproblems can make them seem bothheroic and doomed. As psychologi-

    92 HARPER'S MAGAZINE I NOVEMBER 2006

    cal specimens, they are among themost dour, depressed, angry, andalarmingly death-obsessed charactersin the history of literature; an anec-dotal assessment, of course, but if adevice existed to measure the ni-hilism of a fictional character, it ishard to imagine that Bernhard's cre-ations would not peg the needle ofthe machine.

    Bernhard's mortal impulses placehim in the company of another con-temporary German-language writer,W. G. Sebald. Both were perfect ad-herents to Kafka's credo to pursuethe negative, because "the positivething is given to us from the start."Each produced portraits of devastatedcharacters, ruined by both circum-stance and self-generated torment,but their techniques diverged in starkways. Whereas Sebald built a tran-quil moat around his characters'pain, Bernhard wheeled out the cata-pult and flung his characters into thefire, paying close attention to thesounds of their screams. In Sebaldthe emotion is buried under the ve-neer of manner and etiquette, and itsrepression and concealment createan exquisite pressure. We tiptoearound his characters and their elab-orate denial, which, by its very ba-nality, suggests to us extraordinarylevels of pain that cannot be etchedin language. They are so obliteratedas to be beyond direct communica-tion. Instead, they can talk about theflora and fauna in wistful ways, theycan reminisce dully, and we are leftto infer the depth of their grief. Se-bald promoted his credo of subtletyand indirection when he declaredthat atrocity could not be rendereddirectly in literature, a rule thatwould seem to stuff rags into themouths of Bernhard's characters,who are so far from standing on cere-mony that they may as well be crawl-ing on their bellies through the dirt.

    What does bind Bernhard and Se-bald, beyond their instinct toward theinner darkness, is an interest in narra-tive techniques that moderate, andoffset, the pain and anguish of theircharacters. Each frequently presentsnarrators whose chief function is tolisten in on characters in pain, har-vesting their suffering. Sebald's quietnarrators work like mollusks on the

    encoded confessions that come tothem, and it's often the patience andcuriosity of the narrators, or their sim-ple drive to listen, that slowlydraws inreaders, until our own powers of de- .tection are heightened and we can seethe delicately buried signs of anguish.It is as though authorial choreographyis not enough; an ally must be sentabroad into the text to witness thecharacters' wounds firsthand.

    Bernhard, too, would prove to beobsessed with narrators who spy, ef-facing themselves in order to feed ona vaster world of feeling. In Frost, whatkeeps all of the madness and vitriolcaptivating is how elaborately it is me-diated through the narrator, whobreaks from direct quotation into styl-izedparaphrases, allowing the raw, spo-ken material from Strauch the refine-ments and range of literary prose.Strauch's consciousness is artfullyparceled for us to sound both more de-ranged and more provocative than itwould ifwe were to listen directly to hismonologues. This is not your bestfriend's narcissism: boring and self-centered, repetitive, ignorant of its au-dience. Yet whenever Strauch worrieshis wound for too long, the relentless-ness of the wrath quickly becomesnumbing and theatrical. It strangelyloses its conviction.

    Brnhard would develop a keeninstinct for techniques that al-owed him to complicate whatis sometimes the very basic messageof his books (i.e., it hurts to be alive,and we might consider killing our-selves). Frequently, he would pair hischaracters with mute sidekicks, likethe narrator in Frost, who absorb andfilter the rage into readable form.This is Bernhard's version of literarysuspense: dangling his characters oversharp rocks, wringing from them theirtortured confessions, which are thencorseted into elegant prose by ablechaperones. Frost is but a tentativestep toward the mediation and rage-processing that Bernhard would con-tinue to hone in his later work. Inbooks such as Extinction and Yes,Bernhard's ranting narrators moveaway from their private testimonyand manage also to shoulder a story-

    Continued on page 94

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    REVIEWSContinued from page 92

    telling burden, saving these novelsfrom overdrilling their own resources.A more refined antidote Bernharddiscovered to this problem was to in-crease the curatorial range of his nar-rators, giving them access to largerand more varied territories, deepen-ing the tragic circumstances thatwould provide the context for thenovel. Correction, for example, plantsits narrator among the posthumouspapers of an architect who has justkilled himself, since the perfect struc-ture he built for his sister-a cone inthe middle of a forest-has allowedher to consummate her own lifelongdesire: to kill herself. The narrator,again unnamed and emotionally mut-ed, can access both recollections andwritings of his subject, Roithamer, inaddition to his own memories of theman, which allows for a more compli-cated, contrapuntal force to develop,with multiple channels of contentflowing into his shaping hands. Thenarrative moment of the novel is it-self static-a man sits in a garret sort-ing through papers-but the territo-ries the narrator can access to build astory are expansive and rich, allowingfor a layered unfolding of circum-stance and consequence.

    1Frost is an apprentice work, a blastof raw feeling without the formal el-egance of his later novels, it alreadyheralds Bernhard's urge not just tolook death in the face but to climbdirectly into its mouth and produce afearless report of the architectural di-mensions of a place that few of us careto imagine for very long. In writingthat is remarkable for how close ittakes us to our own ending, Bernhardis, finally, uplifting and revelatory, be-cause he does not turn away from themost central and awful part of reality.His characters are so ruthlessly deter-mined not to be fooled that theyruin themselves before our eyes. Thisis mercilessly honest work that showsthe moral consequences of being high-ly alert to life, and it is terrifying toread. As the narrator of Frost saysof hisown report, "I could read the wholething back, but I would only give my-self a fright." _

    94 HARPER'S MAGAZINE II'OVEMBER 2006

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