Monday, March 19, 2007

Thomas Bernhard And The Monotony Of Repetition

It seems to me, after reading Correction, that Thomas Bernhard only wrote one novel. I have read his yes, old masters too and intend to read a few others. But if I start comparing the loser with Correction and with yes, then I am actually forced to come to this conclusion.

The Benhardian oeuvre, if there is something like that, is repetition - the style, the substance, the theme, the story. There is almost no difference between Correction and The loser.
In both novels, Bernhard's themes are suicide, a destructive, repetitive obsession and an unhealthy lack of perspective on the protagonist's part. The suicide has happened before the story begins. If in one it is Wertheimer, in the other Roithaimer. Notice the almost similar name. Both these men are almost in incestuous relations with their respective sisters. Wertheimer even kills himself in front of his sisters house, while Roithaimer kills himself inspite of her.
In the loser, the obsession is with the Goldberg varaition whilst in Correction it is with the cone. The style of both novels is similar,the repetitive pattern the same, so Wetheimer, so Roithaimer, so.

The narrator is a friend of the supposed hero, now dead. The narrator speaks to us, so we can assume he is alive or chooses to be so.
I think the major difference between the two novels is in that while the loser is infinitely more funny and makes one laugh, Correction is not so. Both books are well written but similarly written.

My other point is this: how is the reader supposed to know that to know the loser we must know who Glenn Gould is and we must know Wittgenstein to try to understand the cone in correction. Why should the reader bother so much? Are not our lives convoluted enough without these games?
What then is the purpose of Bernhard's obsessive style?

As a way of writing, it is fantastic. But what is the message? That Bernhard did not end his own life means that the suicides in his novels are acts perhaps of men without hope, lost in their unhappy unhealthy obsessions, detached from the opinions and rules with which others want to live.The main characters fail to inspire confidence. They do not even pretend to be metaphysically ill. Their rhetoric is nauseating. They are narcissistic. I do not trust them.

As caricatures of society, the novels will definitely live. As everlasting art, I mean really great literature, I fail to understand how and why. There are usually comparisons between Kafka and Bernhard. Kafka's heroes are usually perplexed because they cannot understand what is going on, while in Bernhard, the hero thinks he knows too much. In Kafka, the problems arise from the surroundings into the protagonist, whilst in Bernhard the problems arise from the heroes into the surroundings. Apart from the fact that both wrote in German, any other comparison is superfluous.

Bernhard is a great novelist, poet. But one must ask oneself....do I actually know any Wertheimer in real life?

12 comments:

Antonia said...

πόλλ οἶδ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

with love,
Archilochos/Isaiah Berlin

Alok said...

this is true, he is one of the most obsessive writers imaginable. in fact last year i read his first novel Frost which he wrote when he was in his late twenties, the same voice and the same subjects are there too! the sentences are sure a little less odd, and there are more conventional descriptions of scenery and appearances but still it feels like written by someone who had already found out what he wants to do in writing. he just kept on doing the same thing over and over again.

steve m said...

You said of Pale Fire that it is important because it stop over-analyzing or over -interpreting any work of art. And look at what you go and do all over the greatest novelist of the post- war era!

You really need to ask yourself WHY you're asking these questions. You've grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick and are waving it crazily.

"Are not our lives convoluted enough without these games?"
Who's playing them? Who said you need to know who Glenn Gould or Wittgenstein are? GG is called "the greatest piano virtuoso of the century" on the first page. What more do you need to know?

"What is the purpose of Bernhard's obsessive style?" Obsessive? Purpose? To me it's as obsessive as a Bach fugue. It is beautiful. It's purpose is irrelevant; it's action is manifold: it isn't classical mimesis admittedly but since when is the world like any narrative?

"But what is the message?"
Messages are for pigeons.

"That Bernhard did not end his own life means" ... means that you don't know how his life ended.

"As everlasting art, I mean really great literature, I fail to understand how and why."
Indeed you do. Anyway, I'd rather have Bernhard than everlasting art.

Your comparison of Kafka and Bernhard is also flawed. Gregor Samsa's problems arise from within himself, his dreams. The same with Georg in The Judgement, his daydreams. Both FK and TB are aware of the play of inside and outside. That's clear from the experience of reading.

And you say you don't know a Wertheimer? Maybe that's your problem or good fortune. Who knows which it is? But you do know one in "The Loser"; and that's the great and awful thing about art. It opens up new worlds. Maybe you would rather have them all closed up because they don't match your particular one?

Bernhard is also like Kafka in that both are men of joy. I rejoice in their work. Leave great art to the committees.

KUBLA KHAN said...

antonia:this sounds greek, and i am at a loss, even with the translation.
please decipher it.
ciao
alok:i am pleased you agree. my intention is not to criticise Bernhard for thats the prerogative of serious students of his. i was trying to point towards what you have noticed as well.

Antonia said...

oh that was just a reference to Isaiah Berlin who always said one can distinct people into foxes and hedgehogs. Bernhard with his repetition - his variations of a theme clearly is a hedgehog since he focusses on one thing while foxes always write differently on different stuff....so this is roughly the difference.

KUBLA KHAN said...

antonia: does it mean that i or we are foxes?
anyway, thanks for your comments.
much appreciated, as always
ciao

KUBLA KHAN said...

steve:
Many thanks for your comment.
Why cannot I or anybody else ask questions?
To ask is to know, to reflect, to understand.
I have decided, maybe wrongly, not to be FAZED by ANY writer. For that is what these writers would like us to do.....they were iconoclasts in their own ways, so time is too. we must always ask why we should hold on to things that don't want to stick to us. In the end, if men and women, nature itself, falls and peels away, what worth anything?
To think is to abandon myth. To criticise or value is to acknowledge worth.
All these seemingly great writers give me equal pain and pleasure, as i hope they do to others.
our task, as readers is not to construct myths, useless edifices for valueless reputations, fake metaphors for death and decay.
From your reply,it seems that one cannot ask, question, even dare to ask.....
surely that is neither useful nor neccessary?
we must not make fake heroes out of paper, out of words for sometimes, often i think, words are un-necessary.
As for great art for the committees, what are those?
I wrote this post precisely for this debate, but i am not sorry i did it.
'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter'
There are other shores, other words, other stories. And yes, Bernhard is one of those.
Ciao

Antonia said...

Don't know whether we are foxes or you are. It is just a playful distinction,nothing more and nothing less, but there is some truth in it. I would myself rather regard as hedgehog for I am constantly thinking about the same things.


but thinking and myths are not necessarily an opposition. No? In case you think them as opposition you are into the myth of rationality :)

KUBLA KHAN said...

antonia:
i doubt whether one can constantly think about the same things, always. it is a manifestation of unhealthy thinking, also called idee fixe.
how can we do so.....we are chimeras, we change, we move, we are moved, we emerge, we seek, we linger, we wait, we leave, we are in shadows, we are ignorant, we are dreams.
i wont for a moment question your thinking but i was referring to ordinary people, like the writer of this blog.
as for myths, rationality......what is that, pray?

Antonia said...

you know it is a playful distinction, like stated above, and note I used the plural form of 'thing' asIwrote about constantly thinking about the same things. Sure one cannot do this all the time, thinking about the same things. This hedgehog/fox issue just means hedgehogs have a thinking like bernhard that evolves around the same or similar topics while foxes think about lots of different things...one could subscribe to foxes superficiality of course if one would want while the hedgehogs are bound to their idee fixe...

the myth of rationality is that rationality rules ;)

jakobvongunten said...

this is a ridiculous article written by someone who has clearly failed to understand Bernhard's work. Absolute shite article!

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