Saturday, June 26, 2021

The opposite direction

The arrival of Douglas Robertson’s new translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Die Billigesser in a compact paperback from Spurl Editions came just as I had given up hope of ever discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about a feature of Bernhard's prose-texts. A fascination intensified because, from what I could tell, it had never been discussed by anyone, but regularly postponed because I had no idea what it might mean in regard of what Bernhard called his prose-texts. However, after reading The Cheap-Eaters, I re-read several other prose-texts and wrote a long introduction summarising each example of what fascinated me. I assumed I would then become able to say something new and interesting about his prose-texts, a rare thing I believed at the time, having first read Bernhard in 1990, long before he became well known in English-speaking countries, and having become very bored since reading articles invariably repeating the same lines about misanthropy, ranting and hilarity, and for Bernhard being known as a Nestbeschmutzer, which invariably nudges the innocent reader toward the familiar figure of the enfant terrible, which is probably all the same reader needs to know before returning to the latest genre package "taking the book world by storm". None of this has much to do with what has long fascinated me about his work. So, to get to the point: what I believed had long fascinated me is that which propels a great many of his prose-texts into existence, with the latest translation being a prime example. 

The narrator reports that his friend the scientist Koller had told him how he became reacquainted with four men who every day eat cheaply at the same table in the Vienna Public Kitchen after sixteen years because, instead of his ending his daily walk at the old ash tree in the Wertheimsteinpark, he had walked on to the old oak tree in the Türkenschanzpark in order to follow a scientific train of thought, which happened to be the same day that Weller the glassmaker walked his dog in the Türkenschanzpark and he, the dog, had broken free of its lead and bit Koller, which led to the amputation of his, Koller's, leg. This was, he says, the “great misfortune of his life”. And yet:
What at first he had been bound to regard as an impermissable interruption of his train of thought, which for days had again been concentrated on physiognomy, his memory of the cheap-eaters whom he had forgotten about for so many years, and the thoughts resulting from this memory, his suddenly all-consuming preoccupation with Einzig and Goldschmidt, Grill and Weninger had suddenly and effectively unforeseeably proved to be not only useful for his Physiognomy, but even decisive for this work that he had been pursuing without interruption and intensively for nearly sixteen years, and possibly even proved fundamentally explicative of the essential points of this work in an unprecedented way.
So the novel comes into existence with the narration of a change in routine and a chance event which often leads to a change of direction in life and, of course, though easily neglected, the prose-text we're reading. These are surprisingly common in Bernhard’s work. The short story Two Tutors from 1967 begins when, also on a walk, a tutor who had until then remained silent starts to speak. The first sentence of Walking from 1971, recognised as the breakthrough work for Bernhard’s famous style, translated by Kenneth Northcott, also begins with a change in routine:
Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesday, now I go walking—now that Karrer has gone mad—with Oehler on Monday as well.

There are variations: on the first page of Yes, the narrator is interrupted by strangers just has he’s beginning to break his silence about his ailments to the local estate agent, and Woodcutters begins with the narrator’s regret for accepting an invitation to an artistic dinner from long lost friends who he had bumped into earlier that day. One can even go into Bernhard's life and note that he began to write because he passed the long hours in the tuberculosis death-ward by reading and was impressed by the elemental force of Dostoevsky's Devils. He had been in training to become a singer until the TB ruined his lungs. And then there’s the waltz into a brick wall that begins Extinction, quoted here in David McLintock’s translation:

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.

The implicit suggestion here is that Murau’s parents' and brother's death is somehow connected to Murau's happy mood and subsequent decision to change the routine of his walk home. I wondered if this could this account for what makes Bernhard's work so uncomfortable, obscured by the more overt features; something to do with the comedy and horror of the determinism that constitutes all novels, all stories, where chance has no chance, with everything is preordained by the puppetmaster, even where there are attempts to disrupt it, such as in BS Johnson's The Unfortunates or Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London.

However, just as I had revived hope of discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about Bernhard's prose-texts, I read Nathan Knapp essay in Review 31 prompted by Douglas Robertson's new translation of The Cheap-Eaters.

We must forgive him when, so often, we find him making too much of chance events or seemingly innocuous decisions. [...] His narrators spend page after page belaboring the impossibility of chance in events and situations attributable to nothing else, as when the narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew devotes half the book to considering the fortuity of his presence in the chest clinic while his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the philosopher is in the lunatic clinic next door. What seems like a stylistic tic, and is a stylistic tic in certain of his lesser works, such Yes or The Cheap-Eaters, is also one of the truest things about the man: his life—and by his life I mean his suffering — was the product of the cruelest chance.

This shook me. So it wasn't something only I had noticed and was in fact a feature so common that it was worth only our forgiveness. Everything I had written until then taunted me with its naivete. How pathetic, I thought, to spend so much time preparing to discuss something that was only a stylistic tic. Of course, I told myself, every life is determined by chance – the oxymoron revealing only the ubiquity of the paradox that is necessary to making our lives uniquely, randomly meaningful and meaningless – so why make such a big deal of it? 

My humiliation was compounded when I read Thomas Bernhard's Afterlives, a collection of essays on Bernhard's presence in European and American literature, but for different reasons. It was because, in 1990, I felt alone in my enthusiasm for Bernhard's writing, a solitude renewed each time I read even the so-called lesser works, as if that time sitting in a park reading a copy of Concrete with its stiff cardboard covers was an ever repeating revelation. I still wonder how anyone reading Bernhard for the first time can then go back without gagging to novels stuffed full of descriptions. So it was also a shock to read the roll-call of names in the French, Spanish and Austrian literary scenes going back to the 1970s who admired, loved, promoted and engaged with Bernhard's prose-texts. I knew already about WG Sebald and László Krasznahorkai, but there are many others famous authors discussed here: Susan Sontag, Imre Kertész, Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante, Claudio Magris, and then several German, Spanish, French and Austria authors many of whom are yet to feature in English translation. There are also discrete essays on his relation to certain works by Geoff Dyer, Gabriel Josipovici and William Gaddis, and a more general discussion of cultural inheritence in comparison to the work of Philip Roth. It was embarrassing to realise I was very much a Johnny-come-lately in my Bernhard admiration journey rather than an intrepid literary radical. But, I told myself, it is no wonder I was such an enthusiast when the English literary scene is dominated by leaden novels. Bernhard's prose is to English literature what the light d'un altro sole is in Dante's paradise. And I'm not alone in that either: Michael Hofmann has said he craves an English Bernhard. 

 

"I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example" – Nietzsche

Not that we would necessarily recognise such a writer. As the illustrious careers of the names above should suggest, this collection does not expose imitators but examines instead how writers profited from Bernhard as an example. Stephen Dowden's essay shows how Sontag discovered in Bernhard a style could also have an ethical force. This gives nuance to the regular notion of influence. When a review of a recent novel said to be Bernhardian begins with Geoff Dyer's comment that "all writers go through a Thomas Bernhard phase" it implies that there is a base style from which the phase-goer departs in youthful protest only to return with his pen between his legs to write in description-heavy novels for ever more (in a discussion on BBC radio, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan said writers of their generation all went through a Borges phase, and I imagine many younger writers go through an Amis phase). But this base style is itself only a phase prolonged until it produces the morbid symptoms of Booker Prize fiction. Style is noticeable only when it is true to experience: Bernhard said that whenever he visited a particular street in Salzburg he could still see the limbs of bodies, smell the burnt flesh and hear the desperate voices of survivors clearing the rubble of shattered buildings following an air raid he witnessed as boy, yet nobody he questioned still saw or heard them: "Time makes its witnesses forget." And what had happened to bodies and buildings happened to writing, and yet writers carried on as if the war only supplied new material. Bernhard wrote against the style that makes its readers forget. 

His novels do not describe these events firsthand. Dowden's cliché-busting introduction to the collection quotes WG Sebald's observation that Bernhard's "periscopic form of narrative" brought a radicality to postwar German literature whose forms he says were morally compromised and aesthetically insufficient to what Europe had experienced, and adds:

If a novel is to have a claim on truth-telling about that experience, then the sleight of hand whereby a conventional writer creates the illusion of reality must be alienated or "framed", so to speak. Bernhard refuses to engage in the illusionism's parlor tricks. He may not be able to nail down a final truth either, but his way of writing embodies the nature of the failure that is inevitable.

While others writers continue to respond to insufficiency by packing novels with ever more descriptions of incidents within elegantly modulated narratives, Bernhard elevates insufficiency to a principle to the point at which, because it has become impossible, telling the truth in writing becomes the most important act, hence the character's deranged frustration in The Lime Works and Concrete, the unsorted stash of Roithamer's notes in Correction, and the indefinitely deferred monographs in The Loser and The Cheap-Eaters. Kata Gellen's admirably self-conscious contribution looks at Geoff Dyer's book about the failture to write a book about DH Lawrence that channels Bernhard's "rhetoric, mood, and style" and asks whether the failure to write itself produces a kind of writing. If there is, it is the kind of writing that is most distinctive about Bernhard's work once one gets beyond the headlines, part of what Dowden calls its "irreconcilable otherness" governed by a refusal to offer a "merry wink of the authorial eye to signal ironic intent". For the anxious reader worried about the opinions coming through the periscope, there is never any easing of the pressure imposed by failure: its comedy, its horror, its melody and dissonance, its mania and misery, and how all six are indistinguishable. It never offers peace just as Glenn Gould's versions of the Goldberg Variations never sends one to sleep. Dowden makes a point relevant to this about the "much-remarked, little-understood musical character" of Bernhard's prose: 

[The novels] do not primarily communicate the subjective thoughts and ideas of his demented protagonists and vouch for their veracity. Rather, they express the nature of a spiritual situation that is neither subjective nor objective.
It's wise then not to get caught up in the details. Gellen's essay takes encouragement from Susan Sontag's critique of critical distance by questioning her own attachment to Bernhard's work: "why am I so drawn to him? And why, in turn, am I drawn to writers who are explicitly and implicitly drawn to him, too?". Her answer is that Bernhard and those drawn to his example offer a way out of the purely negative model of failing to write. When I asked myself this question, I realised that my attempts to write something about the chance events in Bernhard's work had always failed to begin because it isn't what had long fascinated me at all. It was that the chance events always happened at the beginning of a prose-text. Beginning is what had long fascinated me, or, rather, how Bernhard's novels continue to begin and don't stop beginning until they end.

It appears to be because twists in the tale, that a staple of storytelling, always appear at the beginning of Bernhard's work, with walking playing a role in them all. He began his adult life by refusing to return to the TB clinic for life-saving treatment. He walked in the opposite direction to what was wise and never went back, and began his life as a writer by going in the opposite direction to singing. He explains in the film monologue Drei Tage that:

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.

There is nothing wise in Thomas Bernhard's life and work: he caught tuberculosis also by going in the opposite direction. In the third part of his autobiography, he says that as a fifteen-year-old he chose to work in a bitterly cold grocery store in "the roughest and most dangerous district" of Salzburg after rejecting all the jobs in the safer, wealthier areas, telling the official he "wanted to go in the opposition direction". He uses the phrase thirteen times over two pages: "she offered me a number of apprenticeships, but none of them was in the opposite direction", I did not just want to go in a different direction – it had to be the opposite direction".

I kept on telling her this, but she was not to be put off and went on taking what she regarded as good addresses out of her card-index. I was unable to explain to her what I meant by the opposite direction.   (Tr. David McLintock)

He must have known at some level. It may well be a physical equivalent of Paul Celan's Gegenwort, the "counterword" he spoke about in his Meridian speech, which Dowden compares to in literary terms to Bernhard's "speaking against: against exhausted narrative ploys and forms" and "against Austria's complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century". And given that Celan's example of a counterword is spoken before an execution, Bernhard's life decisions might be compared to the Persian woman's answer to the narrator's question at the end of Yes, or perhaps Roithamer's self-destruction in the forest clearing: in Celan's own words the counterword is "an act of freedom. It is a step." The step is always forward and wilful, reminding me of the character in a film who clings to the edge of a balcony, asking why he shouldn't jump, and jumps, and CK Williams' poem This Happened.

All of which leads me to understand why, despite admiration and envy, Bernhard's recent accommodation into English literary culture in several superb overviews and reviews in mainstream press, notably those by Chris Power, Dustin Illingsworth and Missouri Williams, nevertheless discomfort me. This is also the translation of words Bernhard uses in Drei Tage when responding to critical plaudits. The form tends to leave the reader in a state of knowledge and acceptance as one might following the dissection of a corpse; forgetful of what is absent. I want to appreciate what going in the opposite direction might mean for living writers. What would it mean for writing to step into the clearing?

An answer may be present in my ignorance of the meaning of what sets Bernhard's prose-texts into existence. "The difficult thing is getting started" he says in Drei Tage. "There are brute resistances right from the start, probably always have been. Resistance is material. The brain requires resistance. While it’s accumulating resistances, it has material". 

Resistance when you look out the window, resistance when you’ve got a letter to write—you don’t want any of this, you receive a letter, again a resistance. [...] You read books—resistances. You don’t want to have anything to do with books, you don’t want have anything to do even with thoughts, you don’t want to have anything to do with language or words, or sentences, you don’t want to have anything to do with stories—you pretty much don’t want to have anything to do with anything. Nevertheless, you go to sleep, you wake up. The consequence of going to sleep is waking up, the consequence of waking up is getting up. You must get up, stand up, take a stand against all resistances. You must step out of your bedroom, the paper rises to the surface, sentences rise to the surface, really only the same sentences over and over…you have no idea where from…uniformity, right? Out of which new resistances emerge, while you’re noticing all that. You want nothing but to go to sleep, to know nothing more about it. Then suddenly pleasure drops back in… [Translated by Douglas Robertson]

The repetitions of opposite direction and resistance may appear at first to be a stylistic tic but, as the phrases assert themselves, and as we assume Bernhard asserts himself, assertion is undone, opening a void in language, just as a gaping void opens to Franz-Josef Murau as he thinks of his childhood in Wolfsegg – a phrase also used thirteen times over two pages. This may be the reason why Bernhard was unable to explain what he meant to the official at the labour exchange. The words become a void in which the infinite drops into the finite, at least something other drops into life, creating a propulsive force from the coincidence of opposites: of silence and speech, of madness and sanity, of joy and grief, of life and death, and, if we include Bernhard's work in such a list, of brute existence and the irreconcilable otherness of art. It's no coincidence that Stephen Dowden says Bernhard's work offers a "backhanded affirmation by way of total negation". 

Going in the opposite direction then isn't necessarily as rebellious or revolutionary as one might assume, just as negative theology is not atheism; it was Nicholas of Cusa who defined God as the "coincidence of opposites". Bernhard may be the least theological of novelists but, if Dowden is right that Bernhard is "fundamentally an ironist and a moralist", there may not be so much between him to the poet for whom the lion, leopard and wolf were resistances driving him towards total negation in hell.

Earlier I referred to Michael Hofmann craving an English Bernhard because, he says, the nation needs a "bard for its unmanaged or mismanaged decline". I realise now that I crave one less for that, which could be done in journalism by an English Chris Hedges, than for one who goes in the opposition direction to the literature of finitude. The finite is present everywhere in contemporary literature; what I have called 'about' novels tackling issues aligned to a market defined and managed by newspapers. This does not mean a rejection of the world; Dante's example should be enough to refute that. Maurice Blanchot says that all of Nicholas of Cusa's work presupposes a twofold truth: "total immanence and real transcendence"; a phrase that perfectly captures the experience of reading Thomas Bernhard's prose-texts. This is why they remain an ever repeating revelation.

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