Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252
Konrad, an eccentric scientist who is working on the definitive scientific treatise on the sense of hearing. He is a highly intelligent and sensitive man in late middle age. Konrad lives in an abandoned lime works in Upper Austria with his handicapped wife. He subjects her to endless experiments in which he forces her to make ever more subtle aural discriminations. She torments him by constantly making requests that interrupt his train of thought. He is obsessed with writing his great work, which he claims to have worked out in his head, but remains unable to put anything down on paper. One day, he loses his mind and kills his wife with the rifle that is strapped to her wheelchair. He is found by the police several days later, nearly frozen and cowering in a manure pit. He is awaiting trial for her murder.
Konrad’s wife, a woman who is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. In late middle age, she is forced to serve as a subject in her husband’s ongoing experiments on the sense of hearing.
The narrator, an unnamed local insurance salesman who is gathering information on the Konrad couple. He interviews the local people and the police, but much of what he gathers as evidence is merely hearsay and rumor.
Wieser, two local estate managers who provide much of the information concerning the Konrads to the narrator. They often report what they have heard from others.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
Since the narrative provides conflicting information assembled by an obscure narrator from many different, often unreliable sources, it is treacherous to make any definitive statements about the central characters, Konrad and his wife. Even Konrad’s extensive self-revelations, reported by Fro and Wieser, that constitute a sizable portion of the novel are highly contradictory. Konrad, depending on whose testimony one is to believe, is a genius, a madman, or a fool. He himself likes to think of himself as a brilliant scientific philosopher. Similarly, it is unclear whether his crippled wife is cared for or shamelessly used by her husband
As far as Konrad is concerned, it is safe to say that he is a misanthropical monomaniac who has totally lost himself in what was to become a major “medico-musico-metaphysical-mathematical” study. Much of the novel reflects his convoluted, compulsive thought processes, which invariably return to his unrealized study. He tries to create favorable conditions for writing and, upon failing to write, tries to justify his inability to commit his thoughts to paper. He alternately blames his failure on interruptions from the outside world, on nature, on the lime works, and on his wife, but all these justifications are negated in time. The most likely cause for his foiled aspirations is mentioned at the very end of the novel, where Konrad is said to have lacked courage, decisiveness, intellectual audacity or, what was perhaps the most important quality of all, “fearlessness in the face of realization, of concretization.”
Konrad’s wife and half sister, whose maiden name is Zryd, is only referred to as Mrs. Konrad or the Konrad woman. Once a tall and stately beauty, she was almost totally crippled by an accident and, the reader is told, by decades of the wrong medications. She has for years pitted herself against her husband’s work, because she considered it nothing more than a delusion and told him so whenever he reached the point of utter defenselessness. In fact, one theory has it that Konrad killed his wife because she had once too often called him a fool, a madman or, her favorite expression, “a highly intelligent mental case.” Earlier, she had made every effort to sabotage their move to the lime works; she had even bribed the nephew into not selling the estate to her husband. Once at the lime works, she too exhibited compulsive behavior patterns. She set about knitting mittens for her husband, who loathed mittens, as she knew very well. She worked on them for months on end and had him try them on only to unravel them as soon as they were done. As time wore on, she simply sat in her chair, half asleep and in a state of deepest depression, unless she was subjected to his increasingly torturous hearing exercises. Over the years, she slumped over more and more in her wheelchair until her dependence on him was absolute.
The two central characters are caught in a beneficial yet destructive symbiotic relationship. As Thomas Bernhard put it so aptly, by marrying they moved “from the purgatory of loneliness into the hell of togetherness.” For years, they managed to save themselves from total despair only by lies. In some ways, they are exact opposites. She would like to live in her idyllic hometown, Toblach, and he prefers the isolated, dilapidated lime works. She craves contact with friends and relations, whereas he insists on severing all contact with the world. Yet they are very much alike in other ways. Both seem capable simultaneously of slavish obedience and the utmost cruelty toward each other. He, for example, threatens to withhold food from her, to prolong the exercises, or not to air her room in order to get his way. She nags him incessantly about his criminal record and prevents him from writing by demanding his constant attention. The true motive for the murder—if there is one at all—is not revealed.
The other individuals in the novel—for example, the rather obscure narrator, Fro and Wieser, the public works inspector, the forestry commissioner, and the handyman Hoeller—are minor figures whose main function is to provide conflicting information about the Konrad couple.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 117
Craig, D.A. “The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: A Report,” in German Life and Letters. XXV (1970/1971), pp. 343-353.
Dierick, A.P. “Thomas Bernhard’s Austria: Neurosis, Symbol, or Expedient?” in Modern Austrian Literature. XII (1979), pp. 73-93.
Fetz, Gerhard. “The Works of Thomas Bernhard: Austrian Literature?” in Modern Austrian Literature. XVII, nos. 3/4 (1984), pp. 171-192.
Goodwin-Jones, Robert. “The Terrible Idyll: Thomas Bernhard’s Das Kalkwerk,” in Germanic Notes. XIII (1982), pp. 8-10.
Lindenmayr, Heinrich. Totalitat und Beschrankung: Eine Untersuchung zu Thomas Bernhards Roman “Das Kalkwerk,” 1982.
Rossbacher, Karlheinz. “Thomas Bernhard: Das Kalkwerk (1970),” in Deutsche Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts: Neue Interpretationen, 1983. Edited by Paul M. Lutzeler.
Schwedler, Wilfried. “Thomas Bernhard,” in Handbook of Austrian Literature, 1973. Edited by Frederick Ungar.
Sorg, Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard, 1977.
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