Here’s a teaser from a new essay of mine, just published at The Brooklyn Rail. This essay is from Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing published by Biblioasis. Out in March. Other essays include the latest version of my novel lecture, “How to Write a Novel,” also “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” “The Drama of Grammar,” and “The Mind of Alice Munro,” and others.
The Man and his Books
Thomas Bernhard is dead. He had a terrible life, at least the early part. He was born in Holland where his Austrian mother had fled to escape the shame of her unwanted pregnancy. He never knew his father who died far away and in obscurity (and obscure circumstances). His mother mistreated him because of the shame he represented. Back in Austria he wanted to be an opera singer and studied music but caught a cold working at a menial job to make ends meet; the cold turned into tuberculosis. He was hospitalized repeatedly, his treatment was bungled, he was given up for dead, and survived just to prove how stupid his doctors were. Since opera-singing was out, he became a writer. He became a famous writer of deadpan, mordant, hilarious, difficult (modernist) novels and plays that often portray depressed characters with lung diseases.
Another common theme is Bernhard’s disgust with his native Austria which he continually berated for its Nazi past, its stupidity, sentimentality, and philistinism. In his will he stipulated that none of his works could ever be published in Austria. Paradoxically he rarely left Austria and lived quietly in a country retreat outside of Vienna (many of his characters live in country retreats outside of Vienna).
Despite the fact that he seemed to put himself in every one of his novels, little is known about his intimate life. He wrote a five-volume memoir, Gathering Evidence, which is quite beautiful but, as all memoirs are, unrevealing. His first biographer somehow managed to discover that he liked to masturbate while watching himself in the mirror. This is both comic and significant; over and over Bernhard presents his narrators as characters watching themselves think about themselves. In fact, his narrators seem more interested in watching themselves think about themselves than in telling the story which often seems, upon analysis, more of an occasion for baroque invention than an end in itself. Reading Bernhard one is often reminded of the American experimentalist John Hawkes who once famously said:
My novels are not highly plotted, but certainly they’re elaborately structured. I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme…structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of my writing. (Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 1965)