Thomas Bernhard Bernhard, Thomas (Vol. 3) - Essay

Bernhard, Thomas (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernhard, Thomas 1931–

Bernhard, a Dutch-born Austrian poet and novelist, is the recipient of several European literary awards.

Knowing it isn't what it seems to be will help you penetrate Thomas Bernhard's formidable novel, The Lime Works. What it seems to be at first is a perverse, self-indulgent anti-novel. But it becomes a masterfully dense set of esthetic, social and political metaphors about contemporary life, about art, about obsessive commitment to any thing. And like certain works of Kafka, Camus and Dostoyevsky (Notes from Underground) which seem to be Bernhard's models, the metaphors open up to reinterpretation on second and third readings.

The novel is 1973's Christmas present to literary exegetes and to readers in search of something besides narrative sweep. It is, to suggest a few interpretations, a parable about the death of archaic romanticism at the hands of soulless modernism, an attack on anarchy as ultimately self-destructive, an exposé of the bankruptcy of inhumane scholarship, a study of failure, a treatise on the imperfectibility of art, a probe of the symbiotic relation between the analytic and the poetic, an anatomy of an artist's madness, a diagram of a marriage of inimical opposites—spirit and intellect, revolutionist and reactionary, Communist east and capitalist west, and a cautionary tale of the impotence of life stripped of sweetness. The book is none of these above. Neither is it a gothic horror tale that can stand independently of them, though it sometimes seems that. The metaphors are too frequently and obviously intrusive for any conventional story to survive. The book is a jungle of meaning, the opposite of simplistic allegory, and a major achievement because of this….

Thomas Bernhard is surely an artist…. The Lime Works is more than enough for anybody: a Byzantine work of art.

William Kennedy, "Many Metaphors," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 15, 1973, pp. 28-30.

Thomas Bernhard's protagonists exist in intense, unnatural isolation. The isolation is self-imposed. They seem to choose it not only because they cannot cope with or comprehend the world at large, but also because there is something in their makeup that drives them to extremes. They are unable to achieve a psychological or a philosophical balance. They lose themselves in themselves, with the result that they are pushed to and, in some instances, beyond the borderline of sanity….

At times Bernhard's overriding concern with the process of physical and psychic entrapment and deterioration frustrates us, for we desire causes as well as effects. But the little rituals themselves are amusing and unusual enough to carry us on, and we always sense that some revelation, some illumination concerning the two people is imminent. One of the faults of [The Lime Works] is that no such knowledge really comes our way, and we are left with quite abstract characters….

The Lime Works is a more successful book than Gargoyles. In the earlier novel Bernhard recorded his ideas (too often truisms) without providing a dramatic structure for them, with the result that the book appeared static and general. Here, ideas are dramatized rather than stated, and at least some sense of structure and tension is present. Again Bernhard proves himself to be one of the most substantial and intense of today's young, experimental German writers, far less whimsical than Peter Bichsel and more stimulating and coherent than the somewhat overrated Peter Handke. The Lime Works is a difficult, sometimes trying and repetitious novel that demands the reader's patience and attention. It is rewarding only if you work with it. But it seems to me that this is one of its chief virtues—it is a novel that forces you to think, that compels you to measure your life and rituals against those of its strange, though frequently all-too-human, protagonist.

Ronald De Feo, "The Terror of Expression," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 1, 1974, pp. 152-53.