Critical Context

Gargoyles was Thomas Bernhard’s first novel and, in its bleak portrait of the human condition, closely resembles the work of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In particular, Bernhard’s style is reminiscent of that of Kafka, whose settings were often the eternally depressing present of places, recognizable yet unfamiliar. Similar to the settings of these three authors, Bernhard’s landscapes are spare and gloomy, with the darkness originating from within the characters rather than emanating from the landscape itself. The tone of the fiction is one of menace, a menace that never fully manifests itself. The reader cannot identify this menace and, therefore, fails to deal with it satisfactorily; thus Bernhard increases the tension. He depicts a world whose barren landscape and lonely people are more horrifying because he demands that the reader see beyond a character’s immediate plight to the horror within, to the terror stemming from alienation, madness, and isolation—a spiritual condition explicitly identified in the novel’s German title, which means “derangement.”

While Gargoyles introduced the themes that have continued to obsess Bernhard throughout his career, this novel differs noticeably from his later works. The episodes prior to the encounter with Prince Saurau are darkly grotesque, yet they remain within the boundaries of conventional narrative, and the prince’s extended monologue is framed by the narrator’s comments (though in fact the prince has the last word). Bernhard’s later novels, in contrast, are monologues unbounded by any narrative frame; from the first sentence, one is in the grip of a relentless voice.