Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In neo-Romantic flight from social reality reminiscent of characters in the early prose of Thomas Mann, the narrator in Bernhard’s novel has isolated himself in order to protect and nurture his artistic talent. Fundamental to the truth of his art, he believes, is his capacity for detached observation and contemplation of other human beings. The narrator had seen the talents of his former circle of friends, particularly the musical genius of Herr Auersberger, contaminated and ruined by the trivialities of Viennese society. Both by rejecting this past network and by isolating himself, the narrator demonstrates an extreme version of a romantic ethic which views social intercourse as inimical to artistic activity. On the final page, however, when the narrator realizes the truly ambivalent nature of his relationship with the city and the people he had loathed, Bernhard underlines the problem this ethic poses. Despite the parallels to Bernhard’s life, Holzfallen is not an autobiographical truth but rather a fictional study of subjectivity that is fascinating in its hyperbole and linguistic grace.

Characterized by the absence of subdivisions into chapters or paragraphs and by sentences of breathtaking length and complexity, Bernhard’s prose style accounts for much of the momentum that, in the traditional novel, is borne by the linear development of plot. The rhythms and pauses in the novel’s language carry the reader forward as pieces of the narrator’s past, out of sequence with the occurrences as they happened, accumulate rather than develop in his mind. Bernhard also uses language to reinforce the novel’s thematic center, the isolation of the narrator. With his consciousness crowded with linguistic remnants of the past, he has little mind space to register the present. Through the dense web of memory, the dinner party appears strikingly remote.