Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2556
Since 1960, the Austrian Thomas Bernhard—author of poetry, plays, novels, short prose, autobiographical works, and essays—has become one of the most prolific, controversial, and important contemporary writers in Germany. Since the publication of his first novel, Frost, in 1963, Bernhard has simultaneously fascinated and irritated literary critics and readers in the German-speaking world. He has been awarded virtually every literary prize available to German-language authors, but he has also caused more than his share of literary scandals and attracted sharp criticism, usually because of a perceived monomaniacal preoccupation with disease and death in his works as well as the fact that he is highly irreverent and recognizes no sacred cows, sparing no one and nothing from his hyperbolic tirades. His style and the frequently acclaimed power of his prose to provoke, challenge, unsettle, and move his readers in profound ways have elicited comparisons with Heinrich von Kleist, Georg Büchner, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett.
In spite of his widely recognized significance as a writer in the German-speaking realm and increasingly in other parts of Continental Europe, his reputation in the Anglo-American sphere has been slower to develop. The English-language translations of two earlier novels (Gargoyles and The Lime Works, which appeared in 1970 and 1973 respectively) failed to arouse much critical interest and rather quickly went out of print. His extraordinary novel from 1975, however, translated as Correction in 1979, is now available in paperback and has generated substantial critical acclaim in English. Concrete (published in Germany in 1982 as Beton), the novel under discussion here, has also attracted a number of favorable reviews. A further indication of Bernhard’s growing stature in the English-speaking realm is the announcement of the publication in English translation of his five-part autobiography and an additional prose work, Wittgenstein’s Neffe: Eine Freundschaft in 1985.
Like Kafka’s, and those of numerous other great artists, Bernhard’s works offer almost endless variations on certain key themes: in this case, isolation, misanthropy, strained familial relationships, psychological impotence, illness, decay, death, and suicide, but also art and the intellect and the power of the creative urge. All of these themes are present in Concrete as well.
Rudolf (spelled Rudolph in some editions), the protagonist and first-person narrator, has suffered from a lung disease for some time and is consequently preoccupied with his medicines, his physical limitations, and his general lack of strength. He is also acutely aware of his own mortality and anticipates, with both fear and an ounce of ambivalence, his (imminent?) death. Some time earlier, Rudolf had withdrawn from society, trading Vienna for a semi-abandoned and an isolated country estate in Upper Austria that had belonged to his parents, now dead. He fled the city in part on account of his health, in part because of his increasing misanthropy and sense that the city he once found exciting no longer had anything to offer him, and in part, he claims repeatedly, in order to be alone and able to concentrate on and finally begin to write his “definitive” study of Mendelssohn Bartholdy, for which he has been doing research for more than ten years.
Rudolf is clearly unusual, even strange, and is an outsider. In many respects, he is a typical Bernhard protagonist, reminiscent of Strauch in Frost, Konrad in The Lime Works, or the nameless narrator-protagonist in Der Untergeher (1983). Backed with sufficient personal wealth (all inherited), he has been able to pursue an idiosyncratic life-style of travel, study, and directionless philosophizing, totally free of the burden (?) of work. Rudolf is an autodidact, a self-made intellectual who is both musicologist and philosopher, but one who has never had to produce any tangible results of his musings, thinking, and research. Free of the necessity to be a part of it, Rudolf has always stood outside of society, even of the intellectual or academic community with which he should have the most in common. By both circumstance and disposition, then, he has been able to isolate himself, seeking company only when the isolation is too much for even him to bear. This isolation, however, intended to benefit his writing, proves insufficient to bring about the desired result; even when he is far from the distractions of society, something is always not quite right, and interruptions, both real and imagined, hinder him in all attempts to put the first words on paper. Rudolf, it is apparent, has become virtually immobilized not only by his physical illness but also by a broad ambivalence, pondering and being pulled back and forth between the extremes of practically every question or topic he considers.
Perhaps the major hindrance to his concentration, and thus to writing the study, is Rudolf’s older sister. She is a very capable and accomplished property developer who lives in Vienna, a person of society, action, and activity whom Rudolf both despises and admires. He resents and rejects her on practically all accounts, many of them principled, but he is also tied to her by jealousy and emotional dependence. As the book opens, Rudolf’s sister has recently left the country estate after a lengthy visit; nevertheless, in spite of his resolution and expectation that he can begin writing as soon as she departs, her residual presence is enough to block that beginning even further.
While waiting for the “right” moment to start writing, the moment when his powers of concentration will be at their peak, Rudolf soliloquizes, in characteristic fashion for a Bernhard protagonist, lashing out with arguments and pronouncements which are hyperbolic, sometimes circular, and often contradictory, at his “corrupt” sister, present-day Austrian society, its government, academic and cultural institutions, Austria’s stifling and provincial intellectual atmosphere, the upper classes, the masses, Vienna, and even the Austrian countryside. His attacks and condemnations frequently begin locally or specifically but soon grow to global proportions. Consequently, it is clear that Bernhard is not merely railing against Austria and things Austrian.
Mixed in with these often heavy-handed criticisms of virtually everything, some of which are easy to agree with, the reader also finds, however, numerous words such as “but,” “on the other hand,” “nevertheless,” or “yet,” which serve to call into question, challenge, and sometimes clearly refute that which has been unequivocally (or so it seemed) asserted. Ambivalently—and despite the apparently self-righteous and certain manner with which his judgments and pronouncements are delivered—Rudolf also calls himself and his existence into question. “Perhaps,” he often considers, his sister, who constantly belittles and criticizes him, is absolutely right when she claims that his intellectual work is a mere “pretense to justify” his “absurd way of life.”
Realizing that his attempts to begin writing his study in Austria are doomed to failure, Rudolf begins contemplating a trip to some place that is more “cosmopolitan” and conducive to his work, and he selects Palma on Mallorca. In this, too, he is ambivalent and vacillates between wanting to go and to stay, between the advantages and disadvantages of each, and ponders the dangers to his fragile health both if he remains in Austria for the winter and if he undertakes such a “strenuous” trip. Finally, however, he breaks through his paralysis, inspired by a personal anecdote told to him by an unusual, elderly neighbor, and travels to Mallorca in spite of his fears.
Exhausted by the strain of the trip, Rudolf eventually drags himself out of the hotel and to a terrace café which he has frequented in earlier visits to Palma. Suddenly, he recalls a young German woman he had met there two years earlier and is unable to get her sad story out of his mind. This woman, Anna Härdtl, had come on vacation to Mallorca with her husband and infant child shortly before, in part to escape, if only temporarily, troubles they were experiencing in setting up a small business in Munich. One night, however, her husband rose from bed, went out to the balcony of their hotel room, and either fell or jumped to his death onto the concrete pavement several stories below. His body was subsequently taken to a nearby cemetery and placed in an above-ground concrete tomb together with two or three other bodies. Several weeks passed, and Anna was still in shock, aimless and emotionally paralyzed, and unable to “leave” her dead husband and return to Germany. At the same time, she also lacked the means to remain for long. Rudolf recalls that he subsequently accompanied the desperate young woman to the cemetery, viewed the generic tomb which displayed no marking that referred to her husband, but then lost track of her and forgot all about the incident.
Rudolf’s return to the café where Anna had first related her traumatic story serves the mnemonic function of making him recall her and her plight very vividly. Almost compulsively, he hires a taxi to take him to the cemetery, where he discovers to his dismay and shock a new marking on the tomb: “Anna and Hanspeter Härdtl.” After asking the cemetery porter if he knows the cause of Anna’s death and hearing him repeat the word “suicido,” Rudolf returns to his hotel room, swallows a handful of sleeping tablets, and awakens twenty-six hours later in “a state of extreme anxiety.”
Several essential features of this novella will be familiar to anyone who has read a Bernhard work previously. The protagonist, as suggested earlier, possesses numerous characteristics of other Bernhard figures. Like them, Rudolf displays clear autobiographical qualities: Bernhard has suffered from various lung diseases since his late teenage years, and he too has had to withdraw from the city to the Austrian countryside for reasons of health; like Rudolf, Bernhard claims for himself the need to move, almost compulsively, between isolation and society; he, too, by most accounts, is a difficult and eccentric individual who certainly stands outside—aligning himself with no movement, literary or otherwise—and fits no neat category; and like Rudolf, Bernhard is notorious for lashing out regularly, in fiction as well as nonfiction, at the same ills of society and mankind in the same hyperbolic fashion.
Nevertheless, Concrete is not a straight autobiography: Whereas Rudolf, for example, suffers from writer’s block, Bernhard’s literary productivity has been immense and shows no signs of abating. It is true that Rudolf displays in the extreme a kind of paralyzing, post-Romantic alienation and artistic sensibility which is of concern to Bernhard in most of his works, and at least by inference, personally, and which in this extreme form usually leads to utter failure and suicide. Yet, failure—either of nerve, of intellect, or of creativity—is not descriptive of Bernhard, nor is it what this work depicts.
At first glance, at least, Rudolf is clearly a rather disagreeable character: Obviously neurotic, hypochondriac, complaining, solipsistic, and misanthropic—hardly characteristics normally associated with pleasant or positive persons, even literary figures. Nevertheless, much of what he complains about and condemns—superficiality, consumption, greed, hypocrisy, social, political, and commercial corruption, for example—clearly deserves it. In a way, Rudolf could even be described as a moralist (although hardly a pure one) in an ailing, corrupt, and immoral world. In a world full of dulled conformists and dulling conformity, an eccentric outsider such as Rudolf (or Bernhard) who is willing to open himself up to ambiguity and frightening truths—“The truth is always terrible, but it’s always better to stick to the truth than to resort to lies, to lying to oneself”—and peer into the abyss which surrounds him and is within him, can be viewed as a refreshing and important exception. In comparison to Rudolf’s sister, who is far more successful, far more capable of dealing with reality, and who, in fact, seems to represent a kind of robust—although calculating, mercenary, and amoral—reality principle, Rudolf attracts far more of the reader’s sympathy and, ultimately, understanding. Obviously, her qualities and life-style, displayed in direct opposition to Rudolf’s, offer no viable alternative.
While one can even admire Rudolf’s principle vis-à-vis a corrupt society and inhumane institutions as well as his moral courage in his willingness to confront the naked and frightening truth, the dark sides of life from which society in general consistently averts its collective eyes, how can one accept his neuroses, his self-destructive isolation, his egomania, or his apparent intellectual and creative impotence? Has he not literally “entombed” himself before his actual death? The reader obviously cannot accept them, nor does Bernhard, for that would be tantamount to endorsing a self-indulgent death wish. At the end of the book, it also appears as though Rudolf cannot accept them either.
Although the plot of Concrete moves very slowly, if one can speak of plot at all, Rudolf does undergo a discernible development which, in spite of his precarious health, removes him from death’s grip, both literally and figuratively, and draws him back toward life. All along, Rudolf has enough self-insight to recognize the dangers of his isolation and solipsistic views, and he often condemns them: At times, he is even very self-critical. In spite of the imaginative litany of excuses he presents for not being able to begin writing his study, he occasionally admits that he simply lacks the courage to do so. Finally, in an apparently insignificant scene, Rudolf is made acutely aware of his terrible isolation: He stares out the window of his country house, into the gray and foggy winter, and sees across the courtyard the large concrete wall that surrounds it (like a tomb?). He decides, almost immediately, to go out and pay a visit, simply because he cannot stand being alone any longer, to an elderly neighbor. The anecdote about how the idiosyncratic old man has determined to dispose of his estate after death (by selecting an heir at random from the London phone book) strangely inspires Rudolf to act. He is forced out of his paralyzed state and decides to take a trip to Mallorca: “I suddenly had the refreshing idea of catapulting myself out of my morgue at the last moment, the very last moment.”
Although it is tenuous at best, like his health, a transformation for Rudolf is indicated. It develops further when he reaches Palma, where, significantly, he is confronted with and is deeply disturbed by someone else’s tragedy, that of Anna Härdtl. Temporarily, at least, his isolation is broken by hers, which—symbolized initially by the concrete pavement on which her husband had landed in his death plunge and now in the concrete tomb in which she too lies dead—has become complete and final. Rudolf’s anxiety at the end of the book holds within it a rejection of the isolation in which he had entombed himself, and it contains clear creative potential.
Although one does not read at book’s end that Rudolf has actually begun the Mendelssohn Bartholdy study, one realizes that the narrator—Rudolf—has written subsequently, about himself at first but also—and perhaps more important—about someone else. All along it has been clear that Rudolf’s intellectual and creative aspirations, as far as they were from being reached, had kept him “alive” and looking forward in spite of all else. Finally, however, it is his contact with other human beings and their fates which lead him away from his exclusive egomania and toward a real creative act.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128
Sources for Further Study
Bartsch, K., et al., eds. In Sachen Thomas Bernhard, 1983.
Book World. XIV, August 26, 1984, p. 7.
Booklist. LXXX, May 15, 1984, p. 1292.
Dierick, A.P. “Thomas Bernhard’s Austria: Neurosis, Symbol, or Expedient?” in Modern Austrian Literature. XII (1979), pp. 75-93.
Fetz, Gerhard. “The Works of Thomas Bernhard: Austrian Literature?” in Modern Austrian Literature. XVII, nos. 3/4 (1984), pp. 171-192.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, March 15, 1984, p. 261.
Library Journal. CIX, May 15, 1984, p. 994.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 17, 1984, p. 1.
Meyerhofer, Nicholas. Thomas Bernhard, 1985.
The New Republic. CXCI, August 13, 1984, p. 37.
New Statesman. CVII, April 6, 1984, p. 35.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 1, 1984, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, April 6, 1984, p. 68.
Quill and Quire. L, October, 1984, p. 37.
Wolfschutz, Hans. “Thomas Bernhard: The Mask of Death,” in Modern Austrian Writing, 1980. Edited by A. Best and H. Wolfschutz.