Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2292
Thomas Bernhard defies readers to like this book. For more than three hundred pages without a single indention, much less dialogue, Franz-Josef Murau disappears into the black hole of a cursed soul. Cast in the form of interior monologue, the novel consists of an extended attack on Murau’s family and Austrian homeland written in a rambling, discursive style that manages to be simultaneously vitriolic, claustrophobic, and hypnotic. The ordinary bookstore customer will barely open Extinctionbefore reshelving it with a shudder, and Bernhard would surely wish him good riddance.
Readers familiar with Bernhard’s work, however, would know to ignore this show of disdain. Bernhard’s bluster is meant more to shock—and amuse—than damn. All the novels and plays of this uncompromising Austrian are imbued with an “honesty” that compels him to insist on the absoluteness of death’s extinction of individual identity. Those who deny this irritate him, to say the very least, but the ranting aimed at the overly complacent also serves to mock the despair attendant on his own pessimistic world view. The self-laceration in his books often carries far more conviction than the diatribes. He cannot take either completely seriously and cannot expect the reader to take them seriously. Neither can he stop. The only way out of this dilemma is through the bitterly comic exaggeration that is the hallmark of his style.
Bernhard knows better than anyone the bind that people are in. The ephemeral nature of individual existence does not make life meaningless, but it complicates life’s meaning far more than most people can endure, certainly more than Bernhard’s protagonists can. Alternately embittered and panicked by their night sweats, the men who narrate Bernhard’s novels tend to be recluses or invalids whose overdeveloped intellects encase hollow cores and whose defiance of the world’s lies only gives voice to their own fears. Often writers, they can never start anything, much less finish, because they are depressed by the certainty of falling short of their aim. They embrace death too soon, if not eagerly; believing they are not good enough, they decide they are no good at all.
Bernhard, who obviously had no trouble churning out book after book after play, uses this paralyzing perfectionism as a way to represent a general existential problem which arises from the puzzle of the mind-body connection. How does something so abstract as intellect coexist with something so concrete as the body? In Bernhard’s fictional world, the mind and spirit ache for a perfection which the body cannot attain. The question that seems to transfix Bernhard’s narrators is how to accept life’s limitations. The mere raising of such questions quickly ensnares these obsessives who begin to wonder how anyone can do anything at all, much less reach perfection. Trying to resolve this dilemma, they merely get entangled in a personal Gordian knot that drives them to insanity or self-destruction.
At first, Franz-Josef Murau, one of Bernhard’s most finely drawn narrators, seems to be one of these doomed souls. As the final pages ofExtinction make clear, however, Murau cuts the knot and acts purposefully.
In the first of the novel’s two sections, “The Telegram,” Murau, who has just returned from his sister Caecilia’s wedding, learns of the deaths of his parents and older brother in a car accident. He can hardly mourn people “to whom . . . shame, sensitivity, and consideration meant virtually nothing.” Examining family photographs, he remembers his horrid childhood at Wolfsegg, the stultifying family estate in Austria—all five libraries closed up—which he escaped with the encouragement of his cosmopolitan Uncle Georg. It is a “crushing burden that I won’t take up again,” he thinks at the same moment that he knows he must return, perhaps forever.
Murau stares into his plight and does not know what to do about it. “The Telegram” takes place in his Roman apartment in the Piazza Minerva, surely an ironic designation (as is Franz-Josef’s name, calling to mind the last Austrian emperor as Murau sets about destroying his family’s empire). Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, but here there is only spleen.
Murau’s ruminations give Bernhard the opportunity to elaborate ideas about the identity-warping weight of the past and man’s willful blindness to death. Bernhard might sum up this condition with one word, “Austria,” his homeland and favorite target of his trademark exaggerations. In his books and plays, Austria represents all that is false in human culture, a philistine society that pretends to honor nature and culture (twin fonts of truth in Bernhard’s universe) while reducing both to commercial transactions and ledger entries. Bernhard’s money-fixated Austrians, their characters further deformed by the authoritarian heritage of the Catholic church and National Socialism, have deteriorated so far that “To be an Austrian today is a death sentence.”
It is no surprise then that Murau has fled the soul-killing order of Austria for freer, chaotic Italy. His family envies his “megalomaniac self-sufficiency,” but he knows not only that they are using him as a scapegoat but also that he has not really escaped. Because he carries the curse of his family’s hatred, freedom brings only isolation and worse, doubt. Doubt is far better than the crippling certainty of the Catholics and Nazis, but Murau cannot be sure of anything he says. Paradoxically this leads him to speak out all the more forcefully, turning complaint into a kind of clowning: Since nothing can be stated for sure, all statement is exaggeration, and he plays it up.
Murau has a very hard time placing himself in a social system whose values he despises while it supports him materially. He insists on his intellectual independence because he is so dependent in other ways, especially financially. Even his intellectual freedom is a sham because it has only a negative, protective function. He would like to be capable of more purposeful action, but, observing the lives of others, he thinks all such efforts must be ineffectual and self-serving. This makes it even harder for him to commit himself to anything. He worries that he will lose control of what he does start just as he worries that he is creating a monster double of himself by tutoring Gambetti, an Italian aristocrat, who might actually act on the basis of Murau’s diatribes.
Murau cannot act because he doubts even his doubts. Not surprisingly, he admires people who show no doubt in themselves no matter how much they may question the certainty of others. He calls the too-smooth Spadolini a “born falsifier” and so “born prince of the Church,” but is fascinated by him and even, to some extent, condones his love affair with Murau’s mother. He also admires his cousin Alexander, far more honest than Spadolini and deeply involved in helping the world’s disadvantaged. Murau sees the weaknesses of both, their vanities and blind spots, but he respects them far more than he does the mass of people, proletarians, as he calls them, who have no goal in life other than blindness.
This theme is developed at length in the book’s busier second section, “The Will.” (Although this document is merely a piece of paper, like the telegram, that hardly figures in the plot, it determines everything else.) In the first part of the book, readers hear Murau’s complaints; in this section, they see his actions—or lack thereof for the most part. He returns to the family estate, intending to “open a few windows,” but until swift, unexpected action at the end, Murau hardly acts at all. Once the spurned black sheep, Murau entertains fantasies of becoming the master of Wolfsegg, but he can barely help his sisters with the funeral, much less assume the reins of power.
“The Will” consists of scenes which Murau watches from a distance. Fixated on the exterior, he reduces human interaction to a charade of manners and hypocrisy which he dismisses as “theater.” Despising the act that others put on, he expects childlike spontaneity from himself though he ruins any chance of it by holding back, paralyzed by the anticipation of disappointment and over-intellectualization. Somewhat to the surprise of both the narrator and the reader, his frequent ruminations on the impossibility of action are always followed by action, albeit abrupt, often awkward action that hardly registers in the thick of his thoughts.
So there is movement in spite of stasis, but it leads mostly to more stasis. The return to Wolfsegg has split the discordant parts of his character apart, and, unable to re-integrate, Murau is thrown back into the role of aristocrat. He is haughty with maids, tyrannical with his sisters, contemptuous of his brother-in-law (whom he insists on calling “the wine cork manufacturer” in a fine display of class crassness). Losing all rationality as well as civility, he entertains paranoid thoughts of conspiracy and murder. Despairing of his own lack of self-control, he envies master manipulators such as Spadolini (whom everyone awaits) and does not scruple to manipulate others.
Although Murau considers his hatefulness proof of a bad conscience, his inexcusable behavior does not offer the possibility of either refuting or proving his claims about his family made in “The Telegram.” It merely verifies that he is maimed. Murau can think like a free man, but he can only act like an aristocrat, the curse of his birth. He cannot play another role; he can only hope to extinguish the role by playing it.
“Beastliness has its limits,” he tells his sister in beastly fashion because, of course, beastliness does not. Worse by far than Murau’s easy disregard for the feelings of others and the truth are the crimes of the Nazis, the real “extinguishers,” who cast their ever-lengthening shadow over the book. While flirting with the idea of becoming the master of Wolfsegg, he decides to restore the Children’s Villa, one of the few places that retains any pleasant associations for him. Of course, as he soon realizes, this is a futile attempt to return to an Edenic childhood (of which nothing remains but “a gaping void”). The connection with Eden is made even more obvious by Murau’s fondness for gardeners in contrast to his parents’ and brother’s preference for the huntsmen, whom Murau identifies with the Nazis. Then Murau reveals that Nazi war criminals were given asylum in the Children’s Villa after World War II, thereby fouling it both literally and figuratively.
It comes as no surprise that it was his mother who invited the Nazis into Wolfsegg. Murau, misogynistic in the way of men embittered by unloving mothers, blames her for too much. He does not think very highly of women, in general, considering them anti-intellectual, manipulative, and deceitful, but he loathes his mother for ejecting him from his childhood Eden; only when he stops blaming her can he let go of Wolfsegg.
Perhaps to be expected from a misogynist, one of the few people whom Murau admires without restraint is an idealized woman, Maria, a poet whose naturalness contrasts so painfully with his own obsessive, calculating nature. He admires her particularly because, trying to escape his past, he considers writing his way out with a book to be calledExtinction.
Bernhard is not just playing mind games with his readers. He is trying to get at the paradox of art, which more than any other human endeavor demands perfection. Of course, nothing man makes can fulfill the artist’s creative inspiration or capture experience (photographs infuriate him just because they suggest otherwise). What is the use of trying then? Murau has begun writing about the family before, “only to be defeated by the first sentence.” He is doubly frustrated because he knows that art does exist that achieves something despite its limitations. Though angered by his family’s taunts of “failed genius” that is exactly what he considers himself—as he does all genius.
The world’s greatest thinkers have “committed themselves to false conclusions” to approximations of what they seek. “The vital thoughts are those we keep secret”—so his refusal to write guarantees his thoughts remain vital. Or so he tries to convince himself. “To think is to fail,” he thinks.
He resolves this paradox by making the failure at the heart of creativity purposeful. Maria has belittled his ability, telling him that he extinguishes whatever he tries to write. So he will use this “talent” on himself. “This idea of self-dissection and self-extinction appeals to me,” he thinks, “for the sole purpose of my account will be to extinguish what it describes:” his family, Wolfsegg, and himself.
By accepting less than perfection, he gets part of what he wants. When readers come to the end of the story, they come to the end of Murau, who for good measure announces that he is dying. Wolfsegg goes, too, deeded swiftly away to Rabbi Eisenberg and the Jewish community of Vienna, a thrust at both the Catholic church and the Nazis. These things, in a way then, are extinguished; yet how thorough can an extinction be that leaves behind this book?
At the end it comes down to this: A man who cannot act, does, a writer who cannot write, has. Bernhard seems to be saying that it is just that complicated, that it is just that simple.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXX, August, 1995, p. 114.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 8, 1995, p. 3.
New Statesman and Society . VIII, October 6, 1995, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. C, September 10, 1995, p. 42.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, July 24, 1995, p. 49.
The Spectator. CCLXXV, October 7, 1995, p. 50.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 10, 1995, p. 11.
The Wall Street Journal. October 5, 1995, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, October 8, 1995, p. 1.
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