Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

Correction, and all Bernhard’s writings, should be considered in the context of modern existential literature. The experience of the alienation of consciousness from being that pervades his texts is akin to the fundamental assumptions that inform the works of French existential writers and thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The former’s well-known novel, La Nausee (1938; Nausea, 1949), for example, highlights the same kind of experience that motivates Bernhard’s figures. Roquentin, the narrator of Sartre’s work, repeatedly confronts the brute otherness of existence and becomes, much like Roithammer and the narrator in Correction, a lone and solitary individual, estranged from society and from his own consciousness. Roquentin does not, however, commit suicide.

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The issue of suicide also links Bernhard to Camus. In his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus suggests that, given the ultimate absurdity of human existence, the first question of any philosophy must be whether one commits suicide. If one rejects that alternative, then one turns to “revolt” against the meaninglessness of life. For Camus, the highest form of protest is art or “absurd creation,” the temporary transcendence afforded the individual through the creative use of the imagination. Art allows humankind, if even for only a moment, to escape the suffering that existence inevitably entails. This is closest to Bernhard’s project as author. He and his characters are engaged in the monumental effort to write, be it a novel or some great intellectual dissertation that stands as a revolt, a rejection of the despair that plagues them. Bernhard’s texts also carry a distinct resemblance, both in themes and style, to the writings of Samuel Beckett. They both create extended monologues of isolated characters who reflect upon the horror and absurdity of existence. Bernhard can justifiably be called an “Austrian Beckett.”

Within the tradition of modern German literature, Bernhard stands in close relation to earlier authors such as the pessimistic German poet Gottfried Benn and the unparalleled writer of existential alienation, his fellow Austrian Franz Kafka. Benn’s early poetry and novellas are some of the most nihilistic visions of the pointless suffering and horror engendered by human self-awareness in its confrontation with the indifference of existence. Bernhard has sometimes been referred to as a latter-day Kafka. The former’s themes—estrangement, despair, and acute self-awareness—are in the same vein as those of Kafka. Of contemporary German language writers, Bernhard also stands in close relation to the Austrian author Peter Handke, whose texts also deal with the themes of alienation and the search for transcendence through art.

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