Thomas Bernhard Essay - Thomas Bernhard World Literature Analysis

Thomas Bernhard World Literature Analysis

Thomas Bernhard’s syntactically difficult prose can be made accessible to the reader by reference to his life, particularly his early years, and thus by a careful reading of his collected memoirs, Gathering Evidence (1985), the English translation of five German-language autobiographies published from 1975 until 1982. His illegitimate birth, the fact that he never knew his biological father, his strained relationship with his mother, his apparently ambiguous relationship with his stepsister, and particularly the chronic lung ailments that brought him to the brink of early death and dogged him all his life—all these would serve to explain the bleak outlook on life of his narrators and protagonists. His early acquaintance with the works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as his negative experiences with the Catholic religion and the Austrian bureaucracy, particularly the national health system and its iniquities, could offer an ample explanation for the curmudgeonly alter egos in his novels. Most of Bernhard’s protagonists are obsessed hypochondriacs, trying to isolate themselves in pursuit of unobtainable ideals, and blaming women, politicians, the unsupportive cultural and intellectual climate of their homeland, and other imaginary distractions for their inability to act.

Such a biographical approach can yield much insight into Bernhard and his work, but it will be only of superficial and limited usefulness. Bernhard’s prose has its sources in a venerable literary tradition, which it simultaneously rejects and refines. In many ways, Bernhard’s novels are literary illustrations of his personal debates with artists and philosophers, past and present. Besides Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, there are intertextual references to Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fyodor Dostoevski, Samuel Beckett, and French existentialist philosophers, as well as to many German and Austrian authors that prove Bernhard to be much less the self-created genius he pretended to be.

While some of Bernhard’s early novels use the more traditional form of the epistolary novel and the fictional diary, his mature works are modeled on the irascible and lonely monologists of Beckett’s novels and the hypochondriac ranter of Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground). At the end of most of Bernhard’s novels, the narrators, after an uninterrupted and often frantic monologue in which they try to explain and justify themselves, fall silent or listen to music, since language is not adequate for expressing their thoughts. This confirms and illustrates the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein and his famous dictum that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Bernhard believes that music is the medium which can rise above the limitations of verbal communication. Several critics have pointed out that Bernhard’s novels, in particular Der Untergeher (1983; The Loser, 1991), are not constructed according to traditional principles of novelistic plot structure but follow the formal parameters of contrapuntal musical compositions, principally that of the fugue. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1741) have been shown to serve as the formal basis for The Loser, Bernhard’s novel about pianist Glenn Gould.

Considering this structural principle, it is no surprise that Bernhard’s mature novels are all repetitions and variations of the same themes. An eccentric loner, a man of high social standing, education, and intellect but always afflicted by a real or imaginary disease, is engaged in a project that will produce a perfect masterpiece. This project can be literary, critical, architectural, or musical; in every instance, the protagonists-narrators find themselves incapable of completing the project because they are hindered by their environment, frequently by a sister they accuse of being intrusive and interfering. The main reason for their procrastination, however, appears to be their subconscious awareness that their project will not live up to their own lofty expectations of perfection, even if they did complete it, but completion is impossible since it cannot be complete unless it is perfect. This desperate paradox leads some of the protagonists to suicide; others, facing the same dilemma they observe and describe in their friends, finally come to the realization that such perfection is not possible, but that human existence is made meaningful by persevering in the attempt to attain perfection, even though it is inevitably doomed.

In addition to this fundamental existential anguish that pervades Bernhard’s novels, there is the more obvious and sometimes shrill dissatisfaction with the cultural and political state of affairs in the author’s native country, Austria. The author never missed an occasion—even when the Austrian government awarded him prestigious and lucrative prizes and stipends—to revile his countrymen for their unwillingness to face their fascist past, their political opportunism, their adherence to outmoded social and artistic models, and their disdain and lack of support for contemporary art that questions their petite bourgeois tastes. Bernhard’s dyspeptic narrators become virtual mouthpieces for his criticism of Austria and its political and cultural institutions. In some cases, his characters’ diatribes against leading politicians and fellow artists were so transparent that legal action was taken against him and attempts were made to prevent the performance of one of his plays.

Bernhard was quickly recognized as one of the leading prose writers of the twentieth century by fellow writers and critics; despite their complexity, his novels found a wide readership in Europe. Readers in England and the United States were somewhat more reluctant to accept him, but the increasing praise of his prose by British and American critics has increased the readership in these countries, and excellent translations of almost all his prose works are now readily available. His compatriot, Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, compellingly argues that all future German and Austrian novelists will have to measure themselves against the high standards set by Thomas Bernhard.


First published: Beton, 1982 (English translation, 1984)

Type of work: Novel

An ailing would-be musicologist once more fails to start his study of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and relives a troubling experience from his past on the island of...

(The entire section is 2712 words.)