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...
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