Sunday, March 09, 2014

An excursion via Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes

After days of inert wondering why Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes felt like more than "a weakish book" and thereby, according to the dictates of professional reception, valuable only for throwing the so-called greatness of his novels into finer relief, or, rather, why it felt that this so-called weakness was in fact a strength in the same way that the illness, or, to be more precise, the double illness that I was enduring, demanded the choice of an episodic book to read was fortunate, as it enabled me to consider basic questions rather than suffering to read another product of industry-friendly dilettantism, I read Ingeborg Bachmann's brilliant short essay on her friend and discovered she had asked questions about Thomas Bernhard that had also nagged at me:
The fact that a certain person writes at a distance from contemporary literature and increases this distance through solitude... is already a reason for not knowing how to begin to do him justice. Where does he belong, what does he want, where are his points of reference (to what end?), in which conversation, hence in which non-conversation, does this monologue of his participate, what does he have to say and to whom?     [Translated by Flowerville]
Yes, I thought, what makes Bernhard uniquely disturbing appears to have something to do with his personal reticence, a silence reminiscent of the terrible solitude out of which his characters begin to speak and yet which seems to have been Bernhard's only way of speaking, a kind of self-stifling game, or something to do with how his work emphasises the solitude necessary to all writing, its remove from Sunday Supplement profiles, bookshop signings and prize ceremonies (hence their spectacular proliferation) and why it is best to go, like Bernhard, in the opposite direction, even if that means reinforcing exceptional solitude.

The Notting Hill Editions' edition

After reading Bernhard, one is left with the impossibility of doing justice to the silence behind the game. Clearly this is due to the moderating activity of the critical act and its tendency to orchestrate traditions rather than self-blinding before singularities, but this is also present in the malady of existence, as brought forth by Thomas Bernhard so clearly in his narratives. So, yes, My Prizes is a minor work, a collection dredged from the publisher's bottom drawer and dilute compared to the novels, and, yes, while the anecdotes expose the grotesque vanity and philistine violence of municipal art culture so brilliantly that it is probably enough only to celebrate the comedy, the anger and the excess of My Prizes, none of this would express anything new or worth saying. Every week someone announces to a startled world how funny and dark Bernhard is or how unfunny and dark Bernhard is, and everything they say is true or not true and not worth saying again

The Alfred A. Knopf edition

But what might be worth saying again is the significance of the recurring ambiguity of the reckless acts in Bernhard's fiction, something repeated throughout My Prizes. In the first essay he needs a suit for a ceremony and at very short notice chooses one from the rack of a posh menswear store. After the event he decides it's too small, takes it back to demand a replacement, which, to his surprise, he receives. For the next prize he decides the money should go towards buying a house, so an estate agent lines up twelve farmhouses in upper Austria for a full day's viewing. The first is mouse-infested, has damp-rotted floors and is much too big, but, before he's seen the second let alone the twelfth, he decides to buy it there and then. Days follow in which he frets over the decision: the prize money will pay only an installment – so where will he find the money to pay the remainder let alone refurbish the building? We don't find out but we know from elsewhere the farmhouse became his country retreat for the rest of his life. Later, another prize pays for "storm windows".

Another prize prompts him to buy a car despite having never driven one. In a showroom he sees a Triumph Herald and once again buys it on the spot, demanding the example on show to drive away immediately. He drives to Croatia where he and his "aunt" had rented a villa. In his room he writes the terrifying novella Amras, sends it to his publisher and, to clear his head, goes for a drive along the coast and promptly has a life-threatening accident. Back in Vienna, he hires the best and most expensive solicitor to deal with the case and frets about the extravagance given the regular ill-fortune of cross-border justice. But once again things work out and he gets more money in compensation than he had ever hoped for.

Not My Prizes

These are just a few examples of reckless behaviour from the nine essays but, as I said, they appear throughout his work. I've mentioned before the famous bike ride in Gathering Evidence and the abrupt changes in habit that recur in various novels, such as the beginning of Gehen, translated as Walking, apparently his breakthrough work stylistically. Except in My Prizes he doesn't talk about his work! The car and the crash are discussed in detail but Amras itself, this extraordinary work whose 50th anniversary it is this year, is mentioned only in passing and almost dismissively as "romantic, something born of a young man who'd been reading Novalis for months".

The most notable example of behavioral change comes at the beginning of the valedictory novel Extinction, with perhaps the greatest opening sentence in modern literature.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.                                            
                                                                [Translated by David McLintock]
The implicit connection of the change in Franz-Josef's routine to the change in his fortune comes from the excess of detail within the proliferating clauses and the desolate two-sentence telegram that follows immediately. But how can they be connected? The connection is both obvious and absurd. However, rather than seek cause and effect, we need only see this perplexity as the birth of the narratives we are reading and the voices of individuals rising from the predicament of "exigency, necessity, inexorability", as Bachmann describes it.

This is the key to Bernhard's radicalism and why he is more than a scourge of bourgeois pretensions, or whatever else the critics say, and why it's impossible to pin him down. His prose soars, exploding like fireworks illuminating the landscape for a moment before plummeting to earth in darkness. If he knew where he belonged, what he wanted, what he had to say and to what end, in what conversation or non-conversation he might participate, his work would be very different; das gewöhnliche Zeug, to borrow Kafka's uncle's phrase: the usual stuff.

In 1970 – during the Mexico World Cup in fact – Bernhard starred in Drei Tage, a filmed monologue (a translation of which you can read here) in which he suggests why his style of writing does not escape what is written about:
The thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose. Of course I could have done something completely different. I have studied many other disciplines, but none of them are terrifying.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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