Critical Context

The narrator of Bernhard’s Concrete continues in the same vein established in his previous narrative monologues such as Verstorung (1967; Gargoyles, 1970), The Lime Works, and Korrektur (1975; Correction, 1979). Like the narrator, the characters of the latter two works are obsessed with writing treatises that they can never complete or even begin. They are preoccupied with composing the definitive text in their fields, with finding the ultimate truth. This vision of existence is a bleak one in which torment and suffering seem to be the norm. Bernhard’s characters are all deranged by the horror of life. Yet these figures do not commit suicide; they all possess a spirit of resistance to the nihilism they see around them. The attempt to write a treatise or essay of some kind, to create meaning, is indicative of their efforts to resist the meaninglessness they perceive. This is a literary parallel to the spirit of Bernhard’s own writing. His novels are documents of a profound pessimism, and their composition is the attempt to resist that despair by transforming it into art. Unlike the efforts of his characters, his works are completed. The characters’ failed attempts are testimony to the author’s own obsession and struggle with his writing.

Concrete is part of a tradition of monologue narratives which includes works such as Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864) and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953). Like the Underground Man of Dostoevski’s novel, Bernhard’s narrator is an obsessive, neurotic intellectual who exists on the fringes of society, unable to participate. He harbors vindictive feelings toward everyone and everything. Both are tormented and crippled by their heightened awareness of their existence. The protagonists of Beckett’s novels are much the same: all caught within the confines of their minds and desperately seeking an exit where there is none. Dostoevski’s, Beckett’s, and Bernhard’s characters are typical representatives of modern existential literature, which details the dilemma and paradox of human consciousness in a universe that resists all efforts to give itself meaning.