Far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. —Joseph Schreiber
Translated by James Reidel
Seagull Books, 2016
87 pages, $21.00
Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.
Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.
A prolific poet, playwright and novelist who so often placed himself at the heart of his writing, Bernhard, the man behind the work, has remained somewhat of an elusive character. In interviews he could be as contradictory and misanthropic as one of his own narrators, or thoughtfully philosophical, depending on his mood. Born to an unwed mother in 1931, Bernhard lived with his grandparents in Vienna until he moved with his mother and stepfather to Traunstein, Bavaria, in 1937. He never knew his natural father who had died under suspicious circumstances, but he was very close to his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, an author of some local renown who insisted that his grandson have a firm grounding in the arts. Bernhard’s great love was, and would remain, music. However, tuberculosis contracted in his youth left him with chronic lung disease and made his desired career as an opera singer impossible. Once he turned his attention to writing full-time, he would bequeath his illness to many of his protagonists. He never married, but spent almost thirty-five years in a close relationship with a woman thirty-seven years his senior, personally caring for her at the end of her life. The exact nature of their relationship is not known, but Bernhard managed to project the image of the socially uncomfortable loner until his own death in 1989 at the age of fifty-eight.
Over the course of his career, Bernhard developed a unique and distinctive style and form. His major novels are conceived and elaborated within a structural framework that exploits repetition as an essential and insistent narrative device. His stories revisit the same themes again and again; key phrases, words and ideas are repeatedly invoked, dismantled and reworked; and the narrator often stands to the side of the story, or plays a secondary role, reporting what has been told to him by the protagonist or first-hand observers. At times, as in the novel Concrete, the formal narrator has receded so far into the background that he exists only to bookend the ostensible first person narrative, a letter written by the doomed musicologist at the heart of the story.
With Bernhard’s tendency to return to the same themes repeatedly, a reader encountering almost any of his prose pieces, long or short, will have some sense of entering familiar terrain. But far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. His narrators tend to come from or aspire to the arts and sciences. They are typically self-absorbed and internally focused, often to the point that they become paralyzed by their own thought processes, with perseveration replacing action. His protagonists often suffer from chronic diseases, are preoccupied by their own physical well being, burdened with serious persecution complexes, and prone to excessive, often vitriolic rants targeted at people or places. Austria fares particularly poorly in this regard. Bernhard paints his native country as corrupt, its citizens as facile. But, in the end, every treasured institution or art form, city or country is a fair target.
The pieces in Goethe Dies, first released together in Germany in 2010, offer an indication of Bernhard’s maturity and confidence as a writer at this point in his career. Written during the period that would see the publication of Concrete, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, and The Loser, his creative energy is closely focused to fit within the smaller format. And although this is, after all, an author accustomed to a much longer runway, nothing is sacrificed in spirit.
The title story, written to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Goethe’s death in 1982 is possibly the most elaborate piece, structurally and thematically. It opens, significantly, on the 22nd of March, as the narrator, presumably Bernhard himself, is being prepared for an impending meeting with Goethe who is by this time, confined to bed, subject to moments of apparent absence, and stone deaf in one ear. The end is near. The narrator’s mediator and primary source of information is the German scholar and historian Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer, a factotum to Goethe who jealously guards his closeness to the great man against two of Goethe’s secretaries who also feature in this tale, Friedrich Kräuter and Johann Eckermann. And then, there is the one man whom Goethe himself longs to meet before he dies, the thinker whose small volume he believes has superseded everything that he, Goethe, produced in his entire lifetime, the philosopher whose dictum, as Bernhard imagines it, The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing has come to obsess the German writer in his final months—Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In the span of 19 pages, Bernhard skillfully constructs and unwraps a conceit as absurd, elaborate and thoroughly entertaining as that contained in any of his novels. Temporal continuity is tossed to the wind as Bernhard conducts the intellectual intersection of two great minds and allows himself a supporting role as reporter and assistant in the effort to facilitate a meeting in person. Mind you, it is never really clear that away in “Oxford or Cambridge”, Wittgenstein has any knowledge of or interest in Goethe, but elaborate plans are made to send Kräuter to invite the philosopher to visit his ailing admirer and stay at his home. True to form, repetition is key to the story’s structural framework, one that, even in this small format, is multi-dimensional. Wittgenstein’s skeptical philosophy is echoed in Goethe’s preoccupations and obsessions that are in turn channeled through and expanded in the possessive attentions of Riemer, which are ultimately shared with and reported by Bernhard as narrator. It might even be argued that the rhythm of the prose calls to mind the flow of the systematic logical expositions that form the core of the argument laid out in Wittgenstein’s most famous text:
When I am with him again this evening, thus said Riemer in respect to Goethe, I will ask him to expound further about The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing. We will organize the topic and, thus said Goethe always, attack and destroy it. Everything he has read and thought until now is either nothing or almost nothing when compared to the Wittgensteinian. He no longer knows who or what brought him to Wittgenstein. Perhaps that small booklet bound in a red cover from the Suhrkamp Library, Goethe once told Riemer, thus said Riemer, I can’t say any more to it than that. But it was my lifesaver. Hopefully, as Goethe said to Riemer, thus said Riemer, Kräuter will come through in Oxford or Cambridge and soon Wittgenstein will come. Allegedly Goethe spent all day in his bedchamber and, as Riemer thinks, simply waited for Wittegenstein. And that is what happened, he simply waited for Wittgenstein, who is to him the one man and thing highest, thus said Riemer. He had slipped the Tractatus under his pillow. The tautology has no truth conditions, for it is unconditionally true; and the contradiction is on no condition true, so he, Goethe, often said trembling in these days.
The fact that the story is staged around the day of the anticipated visit from Wittgenstein which also happens to be the actual date of Goethe’s death allows Bernhard a delicious opportunity to illuminate the “truth” of his famed last words: “More light.” And will a certain Austrian philosopher be present? In a fitting end to the game, Bernhard plays out his absurd hand beyond its logical extreme—Wittgenstein, it is learned, has died before the invitation can be extended, but it is decided by his attendants that is best that Goethe, still waiting, not be told.
Invoking Wittgenstein to honour Goethe is at once a contrary and appropriate gesture. Wittgenstein was one of the many models Bernhard drew inspiration from and quoted regularly in his work. But unlike Schopenhauer, Montaigne, or Pascal, for example, his relationship with the philosopher was more complicated—not only did their timelines overlap by twenty-years, but his grand-nephew Paul had been good friend, the tragedy of their relationship immortalized in the autobiographical novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew which appeared the same year as this story. One might wonder if, in imagining Goethe in awe of Wittgenstein, he is not reflecting himself:
Bernhard had memorably expressed the potentially destructive effect of the encounter between the admired master and his disciple when he described his problematic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The question is whether I can write even for a moment about Wittgenstein without destroying either him (Wittgenstein) or myself (Bernhard). . . . Wittgenstein is a summons to which I cannot respond. . . . Thus, I do not write about Wittgenstein not because I cannot, but rather because I cannot respond to him.” 
The second story in this collection also involves, in a different manner, another of Bernhard’s heroes. “Montaigne: A Story in Twenty-Two Installments” first appeared in Die Zeit in October of 1982 to inaugurate a series of “miniature serial novels”. As translator James Reidel informs us in his generous endnotes, in keeping with his reputation for breathless, single paragraph narratives, Bernhard playfully supplied the first novel in miniature form as one continuous text marked up into twenty-two paragraphs or “installments.” The theme is a common one, a narrator with chronic lung disease retreats to a tower to read his precious Montaigne, but rather than reading he launches into a tirade against his family and the injustices they continually inflict upon him.
The crippling effects of a suffocating family environment are similarly central to the narrative that drives the third and longest piece, “Reunion.” Here the narrator carries out an intense, one-sided conversation with a childhood friend he has chanced to meet, calling to mind their parents’ soul destroying cruelty, exercised explicitly by forcing them to endure endless Alpine holidays (“And your parents always had on bright green caps in their bright green stockings, I said, mine bright red.”). Again, hallmark Bernhard themes are on display here, pushed within the narrow focus of the story, about as far as they can go. It is a perfect illustration of the way that he can take a few key concepts, build them up by running them them back and forth against each other, employing contradiction and counterpoint to create tension and drive the narrative forward to an ultimate climactic moment. At its most basic, as in this instance, it’s a solo dance—one self-obsessed character cataloging the litany of indecencies perpetrated against him, continually framing and reframing his experiences against others, empathy turning caustic as the rant builds.
Within the limited scope of the stories in Goethe Dies, some of the intensity of Bernhard’s longer works is necessarily dialed back a notch. However, that is not to imply that in short form he becomes complacent. There is always room for a little hyperbolic vitriol. In the fourth and shortest story, “Going up in Flames: A Travelogue to an Erstwhile Friend” Bernhard manages to unleash a vision worthy of Revelations in a mere eight pages.
For the Bernhard fan, Goethe Dies is a welcome addition to any serious collection. It is unlikely to disappoint. And for those who have been a little anxious to dive straight into a longer work, it may even be an ideal place to become acquainted with one of the most original and engaging prose stylists of the 20th century. Kolkata based Seagull Books, a publisher with a very strong list of German translations and a particular fondness for Bernhard, never fails to produce well-crafted, beautiful books and this little gem is no exception.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.
- A selection of interviews can be found here.↵
- Thomas Cousineau, “Thomas Bernhard: an introductory essay”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 21, No.2 (2001), reproduced with permission at www.thomasbernhard.org↵
Thanks for this excellent review…I must have this book.
Thoughtful, focused on the work itself, informative — what a good review should be. Many thanks.