Monday, May 05, 2008

Only disconnect

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature.
Yes, welcome to PEN World Voices!

Not Thomas Bernhard's words - though they suit him - but Nabokov's (quoted in link via The Literary Saloon). The Millions and The Arts Fuse report on The Art of Failure, the panel discussion of Bernhard that hasn't quite received the coverage as those featuring our finest purveyors of said pseudo-literature.

As a confessed newcomer to Bernhard, Garth Risk Hallberg on The Millions can be forgiven for accepting unchallenged phrases like "Bernhard's misanthropy". Only, whenever I read such casual summaries - "a man who turned his ferocious hatred of his native Austria and obsession with misery and failure into literature" as Bill Marx puts it on The Arts Fuse - I don't quite recognise the author to whose work I feel so close. (Nor indeed "Bernhard is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison." from Horacio Castellanos Moya in the panel discussion itself). Perhaps Bernhard has "so many loving fans" - those who turned up to this event despite it clashing with an audience with Ian McEwan - because there remains a readership for whom a work of art that manages to produce aesthetic bliss while facing the worst for what it is and what it does (to literature as much as to us) is far more vital to their lives than incontinent exoticism or polite novels "about global warming".


  1. Bernhard would just *love* the latest news from Austria: the man with a hobby concentration camp in his basement (his daughter and children/grandchildren as Jews-in-effigy). One doesn't need to spend time in Austria to "understand" Bernhard's work, but doing so would be only fair if one is going to call him names...

  2. Anonymous4:22 am

    Sorry I was so casual about Thomas Bernhard in The Arts Fuse, but not everybody is glued to a Nabokovian hobbyhorse. Readers enjoy Bernhard for a number of different reasons, ranging from the crass to the sophisticated. Most of the PEN World Voices sessions I attended had little to say about the pleasures of reading; instead, potted egos blathered on about art and politics. In contrast, Moya and others at the Bernhard panel were passionate and personal about his writing. They talked about his humor as well as his generosity, radical disdain, and yes, the cobraesque spell Bernhard casts once he gets under a reader’s skin. (What was overlooked during the proceedings is that Bernhard’s anger is generated by real horrors, such as anti-Semitism and xenophobia.)

    You are right -- the panelists did not stick to enthusing about aesthetic bliss, but the audience appeared to be interested nonetheless. You never know, sometimes hearing about someone else’s enthusiasm and the reasons behind it can be illuminating. Besides, nobody can take your Bernhard away from you.

    As for the notion of a work of art providing “aesthetic bliss while facing the worst for what it is and what it does (to literature as much as to us),” Bernhard burlesques that attitude quite nicely in “The Woodcutters,” one of my favorite of his novels.

  3. "Cutting Timber" (the trans we have over here) is one of my least favourite Bernhard's. Have never understood why Harold Bloom chose it among all TB's novels to put in "The Western Canon".

    I haven't read it in 20 years, but isn't the narrator writing in the aftermath of the suicide of his friend, sitting in the wing chair while those around him are not only ignoring the death but also somehow responsible? Perhaps the work burlesques itself.

    When "Old Masters" launches attacks on Heidegger and Stifter, it doesn't make me rush to my bookshelves to throw their books out. I'm not living in fear of contradicting what Bernhard might have said. The statements in the novels are not stable enough to become an argument. The work burlesques everything. I hate the word burlesque by the way. It's really painful to use it.

    Who knows, Bernhard may loved wet noodles.

  4. Anonymous2:40 am

    You might get a kick out of my review of "The Loser" <here. I'd never read anything by him, though I'd seen a number of those summarizing, categorizing pronouncements. Mine is a satiric reaction to the book from the point of view of a frustrated unpublished American novelist.

    Jim H.



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