A Double Shadow: Re-reading Thomas Bernhard

‘we say he is, then suddenly he was, this terrible was’ — The Loser

I first read Thomas Bernhard sometime in 2011 when M., a colleague of mine who I did not know very well at the time but is now one of my very closest friends, gave me a copy of Old Masters, a duplicate he had bought in error. His library had been packed away in storage and he had forgotten what was there until he unpacked the boxes at his new house. Old Masters felt like nothing I had ever read before: the impossible rhythmic circularity, the unrelenting invective, and the strange musical texture of the work, something that felt both carefully constructed and layered and at the same time wild and propulsive. M. also introduced me to a group of writers, readers, and students, friends of his who became friends of mine, who would meet every month at a pub near Lancaster Gate, to discuss books, drink, and eat chips. There was no agenda except what you had been reading since the last meeting and to me, having only recently moved to London and managed to find work, it felt like the opening of another world. Here Bernhard was like a codeword, a marker of something different, a pathway to a new way of thinking about literature that changed the way I read forever. Bernhard was like a gateway drug where the gateway drug is morphine.

Five of Bernhard’s novels reissued in 2019 by Faber and Faber

These monthly meetings taught me to listen to what I was reading much more carefully, to think about the strange spaces a text could open up; the gaps and glitches that inhere in the practice of language. I also learned to examine my impressions of the work and to trust these impressions, these uncomfortable feelings a text could produce, a lump or a knot that indicated there was something lurking, something which might never be excavated but which must be tunnelled for nevertheless. It began to lead me towards an idea about literature as being at its best when it is uncertain, when it is questioning (however obliquely) its own presence, its existence as literature: literature as something always almost but not quite.

From here I started to understand why so many of the books that were called ‘literary fiction’, and many of those that won major prizes, seemed to me to be so vapid, so empty; novels narrated with a realist smugness, a middle-class sureness that both rankled with me politically but also, in their lack of questions, were devoid of any closeness to being, their weight was not existential, merely turgid. The drug of Bernhard took hold very quickly indeed. It led to other discoveries which I quickly wondered how I could have ever done without: writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Ann Quin and Anne Carson and Rosalind Belben, Maurice Blanchot, Gabriel Josipovici and countless others. It also transformed my understanding of writers whom I already admired: Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf in particular, Muriel Spark, Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, and J.M. Coetzee.

A number of years have passed since then and Faber’s decision to reissue five of Bernhard’s novels: Wittgenstein’s Nephew, The Loser, Concrete, Extinction, and Woodcutters, presented not only an appropriate moment to re-read his work, but also to think about why I continue to read and write about literature in the way I do. Re-reading Bernhard, the judgement that he represents one of the finest European writers since the war, feels no less true now than it was then. Bernhard has an exceptional flair for openings and any of the beginning passages to his books are usually enough to be spurred on to devouring the novel, especially given their unrelenting style and sense of motion:

In 1967, one of the indefatigable nursing sisters in the Hermann Pavilion on the Baumgartnerhöhe placed on my bed a copy of my newly published book Gargoyles, which I had written a year earlier at 6o rue de la Croix in Brussels, but I had not the strength to pick it up, having just come round from a general anesthesia lasting several hours, during which the doctors had cut open my neck and removed a fist- sized tumor from my thorax.

This flair of Bernhard’s for beginnings, this sense of motion, is paradoxical since the mood they convey is more often than not one of sickness, futility, of the foolishness of carrying on. In Extinction it is death which sets the novel in motion; in Wittgenstein’s Nephew illness, both the narrator’s and the eponymous Paul Wittgenstein’s. In Concrete; the very impossibility of beginning serves as the beginning, as the musicologist Rudolf extols his frustrations at being unable to begin writing his study of Mendelssohn Bartholdy, convinced as he is that his sister will arrive and interrupt him at any moment; and in The Loser it is both death and the impossibility of beginning. Every propulsive force is unleashed from a place of total stasis. From the very beginning, uncertainty abounds.

Central to this uncertainty is the mode of narration Bernhard adopts. Largely comprising single-paragraph monologues, Bernhard’s narrators feel both excessively close to the author himself and oddly displaced: often being writers who have experienced the same events as Bernhard experienced, occasionally sharing his name or initials and usually struck down with the same pulmonary disease. However, they are writers who cannot quite get to work, cannot bring themselves to write. Or else the events described are relayed as notes taken down and given after the fact, or a series of thoughts conjured up upon entering an inn, or something worthless, jottings to be disposed of or burned at a later date. This displacement creates a kind of double shadow, that of the narrator over the novel as it unfolds, their deliberate presence in the narration, and that of the author, Thomas Bernhard, over the narrator as they seemingly produce the work. These two shadows, as with so many elements in Bernhard’s work, function paradoxically: both emphasising one another’s presence and undercutting one another at every turn. This shadowing gives space for the polemic to breathe, cutting it free from being merely the wild expostulations of an angry author. At the same time the shadow is one that is deliberately thin, we feel like we can see through it, sure that Bernhard is there just beneath the surface. This is part of what makes the works so volatile and exhilarating.

How then, does one write beneath this twofold shadow? The answer, naturally, is that one does not, just as certainly as the answer is that one must. Writing is at all times everywhere and nowhere in Bernhard. The works which are attempted by the characters are given up before they are begun, or else are destroyed. Wertheimer, the one dubbed the loser by the fictional Glenn Gould, in attempting to write continually alters his manuscript until a complete deletion occurs, leaving only the title: The Loser. Rudolf never manages to complete his essay on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. The idea of writing is not only never begun or abandoned but actively shown to be futile, even fatal. The innkeeper’s husband is crushed to death in a paper mill, countless others are mangled. These are creatures ‘thrown into the existence machine’; beings who can ‘no longer tolerate stories’.[1] The idea of being an artist is ridiculous and empty. This is why, however much polemic is directed against all forms of (particularly Austrian) society and however much seemingly uncontrolled rage is unleashed upon the ugliness, deceitfulness and weakness, of the human character or of particular professions, Bernhard is never simply misanthropic. Not only because he is capable of showing great love, great admiration, (things which are unquestionably woven into the texture of all his works) but because his hatred, his misanthropy is self-cannibalising. The rage, the disgust, is turned inward as well as outward, and the narrators lambast themselves as the most wretched, disgusted creatures of all.

In this way there is something potentially perverse in re-reading Bernhard. Murau in Extinction tells us that most writers, ‘on a second reading, make us ashamed of having read them even once’. Bernhard makes us ashamed to be reading at all, a shame that only feeds our compulsion. Like some of Beckett’s later prose works, what appears between a Being we can never attain and a nothingness to which we shall inevitably return, is a violent, shuddering, stammering tongue, but one which is the only material available to us.

Form and content in Bernhard present themselves as completely unified and constantly contesting that very unity. The novels continually risk becoming something else even as they reject their own transformation. Bernhard appears to be critiquing the very method he is practicing at the same time as rejecting that critique, circling as a way of moving forward, as a way of showing the futility of both circularity and moving forward. Sentences are repeated and repeated in slight variations, a musicality, but also a kind of individual ugliness in isolation which gives way to the texture, the rhythm which carries them. Bernhard’s characters too are only ever happy in motion, if and when they are capable of happiness, the place that is making them unhappy, that they cannot stand, is wherever they happen to be. Which is why so many spend their time wanting to leave or else leaving to find another place they immediately despise, moving back and forth ‘from the catastrophic big-city cage into the catastrophic forest cage’. One might suggest in this regard that Bernhard is a writer who pushes Keats’ notion of negative capability to its limit: one who is not only ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ but one whose irritability demonstrates the very idiocy of reaching after fact and reason in the first place.

Bernhard’s novels then are always at risk, at risk of dissolution, at risk of crumbling into polemic, at risk of failing to be novels at all. In one of her essays referring to her own poetry collection The Cow, Ariana Reines writes:

I am speaking clearly because I am going to explain why sometimes THE COW speaks clearly and why sometimes it is a voluptuary, a vat of mushy ideals and disgusting feelings. The reason is that I am often a voluptuary, a vat of mushy ideas and disgusting feelings, and I have resented the cleanliness and elegance of tight and perfect writing. I have felt that writing should be dirtier and more excessive. I still feel this way. Often. Not all the time. A person has the right to feel in many different ways.

Writing can be more than good.

Like Bernhard, Reines in her poetry puts a great deal at risk: obscenity, direct autobiography, structural dissolution, traditional lyricism, sentimentality, raw sexuality, knowing philosophical wryness and so on. Things which even by themselves can threaten a text’s collapse into something entirely uninteresting but which instead manage to produce remarkable poems, as though by spinning as many plates as possible at once, their motion were capable of holding one another aloft. It is not that these things are transformed, they do not become something else, more that they are held together and used by Reines in such a way that they dampen and ignite one another, creating something more than good.

This, in part what makes me return to Thomas Bernhard: the ability to risk literature itself in the creation of literature. It is writing that shows that failure, not success, is what goes beyond. The narrator of The Loser suggests that what Wertheimer was unable to grasp which could have saved him from suicide was that:

Every person is a unique and autonomous person and actually, considered independently, the greatest artwork of all time

Literature and art are the only things capable of revealing such a thing to us, but, in doing so they must reject that very statement by creating something other: a shadow, a veil, something dead. The impulse toward art leads toward despair and failure because it denies the recognition of life by seeking to go beyond it. This is why any such work must always be uncertain, stumbling, collapsing, risking its own destruction; because it is the only way to even attempt to get closer toward that very thing from which writing moves away: life. The double shadow of writing cast by Bernhard’s work shows up literature as a frail and fragile thing, a thin pretence. It will not save you. And yet, despite this, indeed because of this, it just might.


[1] A phrase which parallels Blanchot’s magnificent La Folie du jour: ‘no, no stories, never again’.