Monday, November 07, 2011

Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale, by Thomas Bernhard

As a child I didn't read books. At least, I have no memory of doing so. My teacher in primary school once read to us James & the Giant Peach, and I enjoyed that, so why didn't I rush straight to Roald Dahl's other books? I don't know. Still, it can't be true that I didn't read because, a few years ago browsing in a small shop dedicated to children's books, I found a display of Ladybird Books' Well Loved Tales, reprints of editions I recognised as part of my childhood.

The moment I saw the cover of The Gingerbread Boy, involuntary memory washed over me. My fascination with the image of the gingerbread boy himself is particularly distinct. I can see now that he is running away but then, as a child, it wasn't so clear. I could see only a two-dimensional figure, though of course "two-dimensional" meant nothing to me. His odd way of running must have made me wonder what he was doing exactly; it didn't look like running. And why is he smiling? I'm sure I didn't know, and this is why I found it mysterious and captivating. But the distance between the content of my innocence then and my knowledge now is almost impossible to close outside of that momentary wash.

Other features in the series have a similar if slightly dimmer aura: the size of the elves against the shoes in The Elves and the Shoemaker, the presence of the pea beneath the layers of blankets in The Princess and the Pea, the contemplative demeanor of the ape in The Beauty and the Beast and the disdainful remove of the black goat in The Three Billy-Goats Gruff (which looks like it influenced the cover of U2's October). I should be clear: these are not Proustian reveries in which remote times and places merge into one, but something less grand, a fleeting sensation, a shadow of memory. I have no memory of the stories, only the images and the fascination they summoned then returns to me in placeless, wordless memory.

I am now fascinated by this fascination: what is its cause? If the gingerbread boy's oddness stands out, the others are not so clear. With adult knowing one may apply Freudian analysis to the blankets, aligning perhaps with Kafka's disgust at his parents' unmade bed, but I think the explanation is much simpler: they each manifest the part of the story that writing cannot contain. That is, the fascination created by storytelling itself, the inexplicable enchantment of the imagined world. Perhaps this is why graphic novels are so popular now, and my own puzzlement at this popularity – and an inability to share in it – is due precisely to my lack of childhood reading. This is no doubt true, but I think there's a deeper reason.

In 1837, Soren Kierkegaard wrote there were two ways of telling stories to children with "a multitude of false paths in between".
The first is the way unconsciously adopted by the nanny, and whoever can be included in that category. Here a whole fantasy world dawns for the child and the nannies are themselves deeply convinced the stories are true […] which, however fantastic the content, can’t help bestowing a beneficial calm on the child. Only when the child gets a hint of the fact that the person doesn’t believe her own stories are there ill-effects – not from the content but because of the narrator’s insincerity – from the lack of confidence and suspicion that gradually develops in the child. The second way is possible only for someone who with full transparency reproduces the life of childhood, knows what it demands, what is good for it, and from his higher standpoint offers the children a spiritual sustenance that is good for them. [Trans. Alastair Hannay, the ellipsis is in the original]
I suspect with graphic novels the problem for me is that the graphical content cannot bestow a beneficial calm, and this is because, put as simply as possible, the novels that drew me into reading (and thereby bestowed calm) were adult novels aware of what they cannot contain, an awareness necessary to form and content (Proust's would be the earliest example) which nevertheless sought that lack against nature. And the addition of graphics to a text is a shortcut, an unwitting act of insincerity. Perhaps I was too far from childhood fascination to maintain ready access to it, while those readers with an uninterrupted passage from the freedom of childhood books to reading for social integration and acceptance feel drawn to the beneficial calm afforded by the gesture of sincerity implicit in graphic novels, even if that means they are told, inevitably, by someone who knows the stories are not true.

Kierkegaard contrasts the two paths of storytelling to the false paths which "crop up by coming beyond the nanny position but not staying the whole course and stopping half-way". But how can modern writers stay the whole course if full transparency means knowingness inimical to fascination? It can't be a coincidence that the most popular children's books of recent years – JK Rowling's and Philip Pullman's – are enjoyed by many of the same readers, albeit "ironically". Postmodernists need sincerity too.

Thomas Bernhard's story for children, Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale, first published in Austria in 1966 with the subtitle "a winter's tale not just for kids", and now translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books in an extraordinarily extravagant illustrated book, may be an example of Kierkegaard's false path. Had it been closer to a graphic novel, it may have found one of the other two.

The story itself is typical Bernhard: dark and charming, brutal and funny, moving and disturbing, all at the same time. That is, not each of these in turn but all at the same time. A doctor in Traich is walking to Föding through the "high forest" late one night – "this is what you have to picture" he says, the time of night is important – on his way see a patient with "an ailment of the head", when he stumbles upon a man lying in the snow, unable to move. From his prone position he introduces himself as Victor Halfwit, a man with two wooden legs: "the locomotive tore them from my body!". Victor is delighted as, had the doctor not arrived just then, he would surely have died of the cold and, "as you know, the most horrible death occurs when one freezes to death." You can expect children to love this. The rest of the very short story is taken up with Victor's explanation of how he came to be trapped in the high forest and what the doctor does to help him.

From Victor Halfwit illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee
I've noted before how interrupted routines, particularly interrupted walking routines, recur in Bernhard's fiction: the early novel Gargoyles and the later novel The Cheap-Eaters are not included there but suit comparison with Victor Halfwit, the first featuring a doctor on his rounds meeting grotesque characters, the second a scientist missing one leg changing restaurants on a whim. So what difference does having illustrations make to the Bernhardian experience? One particularly effective feature is emphasis of the comedy. The doctor notices that Victor is even more delighted when he learns of his rescuer's profession. He is happier than if he had been a plumber, an electrician, a baker or a farmer. In a normal book, this information would take up two lines of text, three at most, which one would scan without pause. Here it covers ten pages! Two pages count for the doctor's comments, then there are two for each profession mentioned. On first reading, each page provokes smile upon smile as the unnecessary excess increases. Each page-turning pause is a perfectly-timed caesura. Yet while the collages representing each profession in the abstract are impressive and fun, they seem more decorative than illustrative. (You can see more at Sunandini Banerjee's Facebook page.) Had each been related directly to the story and the interaction of characters, I wonder how much more captivating they would be. A regular graphic novel reader, one for whom illustration itself is a narrative, would be a better judge. Perhaps they would be enchanted by the illustrations just as I was by the Ladybird books. However, I longed for the straightforward representation offered by the latter. In the former, nowhere is the doctor or Victor Halfwit depicted. Sometimes there was little compulsion to look at anything but the words before turning the page. Perhaps, however, if they had been depicted, each caesura would have been missed as one studied the relation of one character to the other before reading the text.

Late on, there is a two-page spread featuring eight wooden grotesques in a distinctly medieval Germanic style, one of whom I decided looks like Victor Halfwit. This emphasised to me what the rest refuses and which I missed. Perhaps though, as the doctor says: "this is what you have to picture".


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