In 2015, Suhrkamp Verlag published Werke in 22 Bänden, the definition edition of plays, novels and stories by the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, to commemorate his death twenty-five years previously. This review considers his life and work from the vantage of his novel Auslöchung, (1986), published in English translation as Extinction (1995).
“How do you tell a true patriot?” asked the Viennese cabarettist Helmut Qualtinger a few years ago. “He’s ashamed of his countrymen.” The remark goes further than Austria, but Thomas Bernhard’s writings, slabs of lyophilised bile from his first mature work Verstörung (1967) through the numerous novels and plays and six volumes of autobiography, are characteristic of a pronounced strain in Austrian literature: the writer as malcontent and whinger. It is a love-hate relationship which precedes this century, it can be found simmering away in Grillparzer and Nestroy, for example; the age of the great coffee houses and newspapers refined it to exquisite parody, and Austria’s ignominious collapse in the First War envenomed it. Karl Kraus, something of a scold himself, even inserted a grumbling character called “Der Nörgler” in his docu-drama, The Last Days of Mankind. After the terrible disclosures of the Second War, it was left to Bernhard to add his own withering definitions of “Austrian brainlessness, in all its subtle shades.”
This kind of invective follows its own dynamic, of course: the Austro-Bavarian adjective for it is grantig and nearly all of Bernhard’s prolific writings can be seen as various kinds of qualitative variations on its noun-form Grant—a uniquely middle European blend of melancholic dissatisfaction and choleric tetchiness. In his theatrepiece Heldenplatz he suggests “the Austrian is unhappy by nature”; rubbing salt in the wound, his writing represents the quintessence of a creative attitude which needs as subject what it can hardly bear to live with. It justifies itself as a kind of hyperbole and licensed clowning, although it surely takes querulousness of a perversely metaphysical order to sustain the high flight of Bernhard’s wrath: its fluency is inversely proportional to any real or continuing friction in the writer’s social situation or standing.
Scandal accompanied Bernhard through his writing career, but nothing catered for quite such scandal as his death in 1989. Anticipating the vulture-like habits of the keepers of the culture—Austria is home to that other odd tradition, the splendid cadaver (die schöne Leiche)—Bernhard stipulated in his will that none of his works, “published in his lifetime or posthumously, in any form whatsoever, written or edited, shall for the duration of its legal copyright be performed, published or recited within the Austrian state.” He thereby proved himself to be a major strategist of Grant: by smothering the expectation that once he was dead, he would return to his public rather than embarking on a kind of necrological emigration, he set off a rumpus that had his German publisher in Frankfurt accusing Austrian journalists of posthumous defamation and the director of the Vienna Burgtheater bemoaning the fact that, for two generations, there will be no opportunity to present on stage the work of one of the few Austrian writers of international rank.
Grouchiness in writers is not that rare, usually something of a highly developed mannerism or tic; but it often diverts attention from the substance of the work at hand. In Bernhard’s case the grumbling is how he advances. Style was his mask, a severely elegant and demanding one which bore the imprints of philosophical writers like Pascal and Schopenhauer, and one he used repeatedly to test the self-proclaimed tolerance and beneficence of those in power. Terse descriptiveness, stylised indirect speech and cursory characterisations—with not so much as a paragraph ending in sight—are the techniques he uses to propel his fictions. His declaration in Extinction that “to think is to fail” brings him, as many commentators have observed, close to Samuel Beckett.
Although he was actually born in the Netherlands, in 1931, Bernhard had a representatively miserable boyhood during the Nazi period; illegitimate and a chronic bed-wetter, he was humiliated at school and by the local Hitler youth group, and ended up at a correction camp in Thuringia. Life between the red and the brown, and the torment of spending much of his eighteenth year in a TB sanatorium looking at the same view of mountains seems to have instilled a fierce determination in him to become a writer. Like all his novels, Extinction returns seamlessly to the single story Bernhard insisted every genuine artist was always refining; like many, it presents a character who has just inherited an estate: the dilemma of what to do with this estate, corrupted at different levels of its existence, forms the novel’s initiating event.
In so much as the novel has a plot it can be summed up in a few lines. Franz-Josef Murau, disaffected intellectual and family black-sheep has recently returned from the marriage of his sister Caecilia on the family estate of Wolfsegg in Upper Austria to his self-imposed exile in Rome, where he is tutor to a young Italian, Gambetti. He receives a telegram informing him that his parents and elder brother Johannes have been killed in a car crash. His musings on his earlier life, growing up in the gloomy family demesne of Wolfsegg, form the first half of the book, entitled “The Telegram”.
Wolfsegg is presented as a stifling place dominated by an awful mother who, he suggests, has been conducting a regular tryst with the papal archbishop Spandolini. A colonel during the war, the opportunist father is portrayed as a Nazi fellow-traveller. Afterwards, he shelters SS on the run while vaunting his Catholicism and his title (this seems a special term of abuse) as Master of the Hunt. Denazification is a hollow joke: “the National Socialists are the people they look up to and secretly acknowledge as their leaders.” The children regularly persecute and inform on each other. The only family member to show an interest in nurturing the young boy is his Uncle Georg (very much like the maternal grandfather in Bernhard’s autobiography), who opens up the five libraries in Wolfsegg for Franz-Josef.
The second half of the book “The Will”, details Murau’s return to the family property and preparations for the funeral in the Orangery, “the unmistakable smell of bodies lying in state.” But once returned to oversee the funeral, the black mystery of Wolfsegg dissolves and the only point of tension comes from Murau’s barely suppressible desire to lift the lid off his mother’s sealed coffin and look at her face, which had been disfigured in the fatal car accident. His detailed description of the catafalque and the burial under the presiding presence of Spandolini point toward his realisation that the moral prevarications of his parents, and the hypocrisy, blight and ugliness he sees as inextricably linked to most people who have anything to do with the estate, are part of his own condition too. When it dawns on him that the childhood he nullified in his attempt to survive it also pushed him into transforming his “fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art” and tainted his adult life, he both admits and rebuts the implications of what he is saying: “With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavour. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I sent up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations.”
A calamity endured as event has a different grammar from a calamity perpetuated through one’s own actions: Murau might have advanced in years, but the Children’s Villa has come to haunt him with the sense that identity is an inverted evolution. The Russian philosopher Leon Shestov once remarked, apropos the idea of the good in Nietzsche and Tolstoy: “men… with souls in which some fracture is usually trying to hide, often taking revenge with their works for an inner defilement, often seeking with their exaggerations forgetfulness of an all too faithful memory.” More than three hundred pages of exacerbated monologue, of excess and anathema, come to rest on the final page when he decides to turn Wolfsegg, and everything belonging to it, over to the Jewish community in Vienna.
Bernhard’s tirades still display all his reckless and sometimes exhilarating ex cathedra finality. “This state [Austria] is unspeakable.” “Belgian doctors are notorious as the most stupid in Europe.” Bruch’s violin concerto and the Brucknerhaus by the Danube join familiar targets such as the Austrian press, dirndls, “Catholic histrionics” and post-war socialism. A whole page ridicules the idolisation of Goethe—“the classifier of stones, the stargazer, the philosophical thumb-sucker of the Germans, who ladled their spiritual jam into household canning jars, to be consumed at any time and for any purpose.” Some of the kicking against the pricks is funny and inspired, such as his exposition on the role of three-ring binders in the development of “bureaucratic” German literature. Only Kafka, (actual working bureaucrat in his daytime life), escapes the general sweeping-out: “anyone who writes so much as a postcard nowadays calls himself a writer.”
Referring to himself during the book as an “expert in extinction”, and announcing his intention, like so many Bernhard protagonists, of writing the great work, a book called “Extinction”, Murau suggests that his own death will follow swiftly from the dissolution of the estate. On the first page of the novel he relates that he has given his pupil Gambetti five classic books in German to read including one by “Thomas Bernhard”. Gambetti, who says little but coaxes the author into gratifying his need for “understated exaggeration” at the beginning, fades away entirely as the book progresses, thereby allowing its author to start writing it—Gambetti has not been given the ears to hear Murau talking himself into recognition of the self-exculpations of “great art”. His enlightenment is in fact a kind of dumbfounding.
This commingling and subtilising of reality, identity and morality is typical of Thomas Bernhard’s writings: it got one of his previous novels Holzfällen (1984) banned in Austria as libellous. But it also suggests that the failure of the inner life to mesh with outer reality is Bernhard’s driving force; it gives his work its tragicomic note of moral and linguistic urgency and suggests why he found Nietzsche’s prescription for “exaggerated honesty” the great organizing principle he needed—in the intense sense of duty he brings to being a writer: “those who are most successful at tiding themselves over existence have always been the great exaggerators.” That neatly organic phrase conveys much of the productive rage and stylistic verve of Bernhard’s via negativa. Otherwise we might as well accept the Austrian version of Murphy’s Law: nothing much need happen in the world before we have to bury it.
© Iain Bamforth. Review of Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, tr. David McLintock, in Times Literary Supplement, 6 October 1995, and published in The Good European, 2006.