Study Guide

Woodcutters

by Thomas Bernhard

Woodcutters Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Set in an upper-middle-class household in contemporary Vienna, where life revolves around the arts and the artistically pretentious, Holzfallen (woodcutting) focuses on a dinner party given for an actor of the prestigious Burgtheater. The actor’s late arrival, after the evening’s performance, delays the beginning of the actual meal until past midnight. Up to this midpoint in the novel, the narrator, a writer, observes the empty social chatter and ruminates on his past ties to the people around him from the vantage point of a comfortable chair at the outer edge of the activities. He ponders the circumstances which several days earlier brought him into renewed contact with his host and hostess, the Auersbergers, former friends whom he had abandoned twenty years ago. On the very morning when he learned of the suicide of Joana, a mutual friend from their past, he met the Auersbergers by accident on the street. In a state of emotional confusion, he accepted their invitation to the dinner party—despite the long estrangement and his declared loathing of them.

The party itself takes place on the evening following Joana’s burial, almost all the guests still dressed in black. Particularly until the actor arrives, the narrative perspective is severely limited to his musings, and he catches only muffled echoes and sketchy shadows of the external world. Among these shadows the most prominent are the figures of the drunken host doing finger exercises on the piano and his wife constantly reassuring her hungry guests of the eminence of their guest of honor as well as the imminence of his arrival. From his seat in a dimly lit anteroom, the narrator watches others pass by him to the center of the party in the music room, consciously avoiding conversation and giving himself over to his reflections.

His failure to refuse the Auersbergers’ invitation becomes a core question that he poses to himself over and over, each time adding associations that gradually accrete to form a larger, more detailed picture of their common past. This past had its roots thirty-five years before, following the narrator’s graduation from the Mozarteum, an academy of music and the arts in Salzburg. Apparently jaded by his studies at the time, he had renounced his artistic ambitions until his acquaintance with the Auersbergers and, through them, with Joana. With Herr Auersberger accompanying him on the piano, he spent entire afternoons and evenings singing the classical repertories of Italian, German, and English arias and lieder. As a frequent guest at Joana’s home, the nascent writer came into a setting supportive of intellectual and aesthetic growth, a setting populated by the elite of...

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Woodcutters Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One evening the Auersbergers give a so-called artistic dinner at their home in the Gentzgasse to honor the Actor who is playing the role of Ekdal in a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck, 1891) at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The nameless narrator observes the guests in the music room from his vantage point in a wing chair (in German, an Ohrensessel, literally an easy chair with ears) situated in a dimly lighted anteroom.

The narrator’s invitation to this gathering is the result of a fortuitous meeting with his hosts several days earlier in Vienna’s inner city. The Auersbergers assumed the role of the city’s patrons of “high culture” during the past two decades, a position that gives them high status in Viennese society. The narrator was a member of their circle twenty-five years earlier, but he fled to London when he realized that his fellow artists merely continued to live off their early reputations rather than develop their artistry.

Sitting in his wing chair and speaking only to himself, the narrator directs his greatest malevolence toward Auersberger, who was once described as a “composer in the Anton von Webern tradition.” In all the intervening years he never progressed musically beyond being a poor imitator of that composer. At the time of the dinner he is known for such works as his four-minute chorus, twelve-minute opera, three-minute cantata, and even a one-second opera. On the evening of the dinner Auersberger contributes nothing of artistic value to the conversation. Indeed, the narrator observes that he just becomes more and more inebriated, to the point of falling asleep in the presence of his guests, who are also all “well-known” and “celebrated” artists. His wife is described as a light-minded but charming host who bubbles about...

(The entire section is 754 words.)