Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
Like all of Thomas Bernhard’s mature novels, Concrete is written as one long paragraph representing a continuous interior monologue. In this novel, the monologue is in the form of a manuscript perused by an anonymous narrator, possibly after the death of the manuscript’s author, Rudolph. The unnamed narrator is noticeable only by brief editorial references, such as “writes Rudolph,” or “so Rudolph,” which appear mainly at the beginning and the very end of the novel.
At the outset, Rudolph, who fancies himself a musicologist, once again attempts to start his magnum opus, a study of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, as he has done several times for the past ten years without ever writing a line. Convinced that he has only a few more years to live because he suffers from sarcoidosis, a usually nonfatal lung disease, he is determined to start writing. He attributes his inability to begin to the constant interruptions of his sister, whom he depicts as an anti-intellectual but apparently very successful business woman. Further excuses for his procrastination are the adverse cultural conditions in Austria, his health, and the climate, but the reader senses that the very completion of his project would deprive him of any reason to continue living—the completion of his life’s work would also be the end of his life.
After a long rant about these obstacles that takes up two-thirds of the novel, Rudolph decides to follow his sister’s advice to go to Mallorca for a change of scenery. However, shortly after arriving there, he remembers a young German woman, Anna Härdtl, whom he had met by chance in the same place two years before. At that time, Anna told him that her husband had just fallen from their hotel balcony, either by accident or by committing suicide due to the failure of their business, for which he had no talent. Rudolph had helped Anna find her husband’s grave, which turned out to be in a huge concrete bunker he shared with a woman who was a total stranger. The self-absorbed Rudolph had left Mallorca and the young woman behind and returned to Austria. Now, two years later, Rudolph is seized by curiosity and possibly feelings of guilt. He revisits the grave site and discovers that Anna is now buried in the same concrete grave bunker as her husband. He finds out that Anna has committed suicide, news that leaves him in a state of extreme anxiety at the end of the novel.
Concrete—the title is obviously taken from the concrete grave that becomes Anna Härdtl’s final resting place—is Bernhard’s most accessible novel. The protagonist, a self-absorbed intellectual wracked with doubt and self-loathing, incapable of decisive action, is the prototypical Bernhard “hero.” His long monologue, written to explain and to justify himself, is full of contempt for practical people who are capable of acting, if only in a sphere the narrator finds vulgar, but at the same time he envies people like his sister and Anna who actively take charge of their lives, even when that means committing suicide. The reader is left to ponder whether Rudolph’s most recent epiphany will lead him to also act decisively, but it is more likely that his extreme state of anxiety will lead only to further excuses and procrastination.