Friday, October 16, 2009

A kind of Frost

Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost, is a remarkable one, a novel that has the seeds of all his further works and perhaps one that is more complete, more whole than his other works. What follows below is an attempt to highlight certain aspects of this novel that I think are vital in his oeuvre and in the reader's attempts to surmount the difficulty of reading Bernhard.

In order to access the main character in his novels, the narrator and the reader must leave their usual habitat. He or sometimes she is always in the country side, in remote and desolate parts, besides torrents, having left some form of an easy life behind. The protagonist has usually been living there for some time or is considering living there, an action that is considered new for that person or exaggerated or strange. The protagonist must leave something or end something to begin anew or come to a standstill altogether. This refrain is not unusual in Bernhard and in Frost, our narrator, a medical intern, has been assigned to study the protagonist, who has been living in the Klamm valley for years without any external contact. This is indeed novel, for in his later novels, there is no specific contract for a case study, or it is not revealed so candidly. Thus the tone is set for an encounter between us and the painter, simply called Strauch.

The painter has been living in an inhospitable pub for years in this remote place and our narrator has been assigned by the painter's brother to observe him and prepare notes. It seems that there must be something wrong with the painter, a man who is isolated, who is isolating himself and is by all accounts strange.The narrator must not reveal his true identity for that will expose his brother in the city and will not lead to a true account, a true description of the painter, in his usual state, habitat. I do not propose to write a summary of this novel but to approach it from those perspectives which are so well known and liked by Bernhard's readers, an art that reached frenzied pitch in his later novels. But, I feel that in Frost, not only does Bernhard reveal the full force of his later menace but he does it with exquisite charm, sarcasm, wit and astounding lyricism, a factor not seen in his other works to this extent.

A case for paranoia

In my opinion, the painter Strauch suffers from paranoia, and it seems, a case for delusions and a more florid psychosis can be made.This must not be done hurriedly but I will quote the painter to illustrate the point. It is quite clear that the painter lives in isolation and is stressed. He has chosen to remain so. Right from the first moment, he launches into a tirade, an uncalled for aggressive rant against the villagers and yet, he does not ever substantiate his claims with facts, which could prove him right. His claims and thoughts are based on his perceptions alone, and these perceptions are internal, based again on opinions which he has elaborated over the years. He does not have a direct case against the village or villagers but his reflections are a consequence of his interaction with them, which to some extent, are one sided. The ideas are not just bloated and over valued, thay are clearly dominating his internal and external landscape. However, the cause of such methodology is also a process of communicating something, which is however, closed to us.

Exaggeration as a schema

To exaggerate, to repeat, to create from that exaggeration a suffocating pervading sense of restlessness, and then to build from that a picture of doom and gloom, Bernhard achieves that all in Frost. He build that dichotomy in this text, wherein everyone apart from tha narrator is a misfit, mentally unwell and so on. This exaggeration leads to the buildup of a flavour of an environment where everyone is either dead or dying. Whatever moral leverage left is lost and from that distance itself, the narrator's own exaggeration is evident too.Bernhard uses the same method in most of his novels and it serves his purpose admirably. This exaggeration makes another case for paranoid assumptions, only we can guess that Bernhard has created a distance from his characters and this paranoia in itself is a warning to the reader.

Degenerate nature

One of the consistent themes in Bernhard is of the vileness, the immorality of the landscape and the diseased state of the people, as if everyone is ill or malformed. This forth in the light of the things after the war. This valley is death to any tenderness of feeling. The whole region is sodden with disease. He goes on to enumerate the various congenital diseases that the villagers have, their festering ills and at one point says that everyone has tuberculosis. The impression that we get is not just of a physical dimension but that of a moral one, for with repetition, a device that he uses with sinister effect, we are scared into thinking of a more dangerous, more sinister and unnatural affliction, rather than a curable one. Since nothing can be cured, nothing can be saved. However, no one realizes that they are ill and this makes them more sinister and hence to be shunned. The painter is the only one who thinks so for neither the landlady nor the knacker ever talk of epidemics of hydrocephalus or tuberculosis or the inefficacy of streptomycin.

The very landscape, water, trees, snow and animals are degenerate and diseased. Is it because of the war or any political complicitness during the war? Is it because of Austrian silence during the second war? This theme is central for Bernhard, for in all his major works, he alludes to this.

I think that frost is Bernhard's most lyrical novel, as close to poetry that he allows himself to get to in his prose.
The poetry of repetition, of a sonorous lyricism, of a melancholic intonation is quite evident here. In his poems, Bernhard achieves a pilgrim mystic, prayer like litany and though Frost is prose, there is evidence of such melancholy here. Some of the passages are beautiful but the beauty is blighted by the sense of a desperate doom, not only clinging to the skins inside but also hanging from the icicles, in the gorges, near the torrents that pervade this resolutely impervious landscape.This poetry is both open and closed to us. The beauty of this poetry is a warning, a disease, a death, a dying.

Frost is a brilliant novel and like all Bernhard fiction, the terror is not just in the reading but in the atmosphere that pervades that terror. One returns to Frost again and again and that is its lasting triumph.

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