Thomas Bernhard defies readers to like this book. For more than three hundred pages without a single indention, much less dialogue, Franz-Josef Murau disappears into the black hole of a cursed soul. Cast in the form of interior monologue, the novel consists of an extended attack on Murau’s family and Austrian homeland written in a rambling, discursive style that manages to be simultaneously vitriolic, claustrophobic, and hypnotic. The ordinary bookstore customer will barely open Extinctionbefore reshelving it with a shudder, and Bernhard would surely wish him good riddance.
Readers familiar with Bernhard’s work, however, would know to ignore this show of disdain. Bernhard’s bluster is meant more to shock—and amuse—than damn. All the novels and plays of this uncompromising Austrian are imbued with an “honesty” that compels him to insist on the absoluteness of death’s extinction of individual identity. Those who deny this irritate him, to say the very least, but the ranting aimed at the overly complacent also serves to mock the despair attendant on his own pessimistic world view. The self-laceration in his books often carries far more conviction than the diatribes. He cannot take either completely seriously and cannot expect the reader to take them seriously. Neither can he stop. The only way out of this dilemma is through the bitterly comic exaggeration that is the hallmark of his style.
Bernhard knows better than anyone the bind that people are in. The ephemeral nature of individual existence does not make life meaningless, but it complicates life’s meaning far more than most people can endure, certainly more than Bernhard’s protagonists can. Alternately embittered and panicked by their night sweats, the men who narrate Bernhard’s novels tend to be recluses or invalids whose overdeveloped intellects encase hollow cores and whose defiance of the world’s lies only gives voice to their own fears. Often writers, they can never start anything, much less finish, because they are depressed by the certainty of falling short of their aim. They embrace death too soon, if not eagerly; believing they are not good enough, they decide they are no good at all.
Bernhard, who obviously had no trouble churning out book after book after play, uses this paralyzing perfectionism as a way to represent a general existential problem which arises from the puzzle of the mind-body connection. How does something so abstract as intellect coexist with something so concrete as the body? In Bernhard’s fictional world, the mind and spirit ache for a perfection which the body cannot attain. The question that seems to transfix Bernhard’s narrators is how to accept life’s limitations. The mere raising of such questions quickly ensnares these obsessives who begin to wonder how anyone can do anything at all, much less reach perfection. Trying to resolve this dilemma, they merely get entangled in a personal Gordian knot that drives them to insanity or self-destruction.
At first, Franz-Josef Murau, one of Bernhard’s most finely drawn narrators, seems to be one of these doomed souls. As the final pages ofExtinction make clear, however, Murau cuts the knot and acts purposefully.
In the first of the novel’s two sections, “The Telegram,” Murau, who has just returned from his sister Caecilia’s wedding, learns of the deaths of his parents and older brother in a car accident. He can hardly mourn people “to whom . . . shame, sensitivity, and consideration meant virtually nothing.” Examining family photographs, he remembers his horrid childhood at Wolfsegg, the stultifying family estate in Austria—all five libraries closed up—which he escaped with the encouragement of his cosmopolitan Uncle Georg. It is a “crushing burden that I won’t take up again,” he thinks at the same moment that he knows he must return, perhaps forever.
Murau stares into his plight and does not know what to do about it. “The Telegram” takes place in his Roman apartment in the Piazza Minerva, surely an ironic designation (as is Franz-Josef’s name, calling to mind the last Austrian emperor as Murau sets about destroying his family’s empire). Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, but here there is only spleen.
Murau’s ruminations give Bernhard the opportunity to elaborate ideas about the identity-warping weight of the past and man’s willful blindness to death. Bernhard might sum up this condition with one word, “Austria,” his homeland and favorite target of his trademark exaggerations. In his books and plays, Austria represents all that is false in human culture, a philistine society that pretends to honor nature and culture (twin fonts of truth in Bernhard’s universe) while reducing both to commercial transactions and ledger entries. Bernhard’s money-fixated Austrians, their characters further deformed by the authoritarian heritage of the Catholic church and National Socialism, have deteriorated so far that “To be an Austrian today is a death sentence.”
It is no surprise then that Murau has fled the soul-killing order of Austria for freer, chaotic Italy. His family envies his “megalomaniac self-sufficiency,” but he knows not only that they are using him as a scapegoat but also that he has not really escaped. Because he carries the curse of his family’s hatred, freedom brings only isolation and worse, doubt. Doubt is far better than the crippling certainty of the Catholics and Nazis, but Murau cannot be sure of anything he says. Paradoxically this leads him to speak out all the more forcefully, turning complaint into a...
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