Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Thomas Bernhard, whose work defies easy categorization, is perhaps the most widely discussed and controversial Austrian author of the 1970’s and the 1980’s, comparable only to Peter Handke in stature and productivity. His oeuvre, highly original and always provocative, has found increasing acceptance. For the Lime Works, which now ranks as one of the finest experimental novels in postwar German literature, Thomas Bernhard was awarded the prestigious Georg Buchner Prize and the Prix Seguier. Critics link him with Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett and are quick to note the striking affinities to Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

If Thomas Bernhard’s numerous plays and prose works enjoy considerable popularity in spite of their decidedly depressing subject matter, it is largely because of their seductive language. Bernhard, an accomplished stylist and a trained musician, takes the German language to its limits. By working extensively with repetition, variation, modulation, intensification, and leitmotif, he has developed a distinctive, highly musical style that is very captivating. Words and phrases are repeated over and over; they are combined and recombined, varied and intensified, which gives his language its famed relentlessness and compulsiveness. The most distinctive feature, however, is the frequent occurrence of hyperbole. Bernhard’s world is no less extreme than his language. It is a cold and gloomy world of illness, suffering, pain, decay, anger, hatred, crime, failure, insanity, and above all else, death, from whose vantage point all human endeavor ultimately becomes ridiculous.