(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The first novella, Amras, is set in an ancient tower on the outskirts of Innsbruck, capital of the Austrian Tyrol, an Alpine region which for author Thomas Bernhard is the dark heart of the darkest beast in his tormented mythology, Austria itself. This novella, his second, shows that early in his career the writer was already grappling with this beast with the same deadpan humor, as well as the deep spite, that carried him throughout his entire career.

Though Amras is dominated by the voice of a narrator, as in all of Bernhard’s fiction, missing is the single uninterrupted monologue that becomes customary later on. Amras is narrated by K, who, along with his brother, Walter, failed to die in a suicide compact with their parents. The many sections and paragraphs of the novella contain letters, a journal, and even the writings of Walter about a circus.

K gradually reveals that the family’s wealth had been absorbed by their maternal uncle, who is a man of the world, unlike the other members of his family. Over the course of the story, the two brothers are whisked away by their uncle to ever more secure and isolated locations, with the narrator finally ending up in an insane asylum. It is never clear whether they are protected or imprisoned, or if, indeed, there is a distinction. Similarly, the contrast between the worldly and the incompetent is paralleled by the difference between the brothers. Walter is a musician (like Bernhard), and the narrator is a scientist. This distinction between the abstract and the concrete—which Bernhard believes to be completely fallacious—is examined throughout all three novellas in the book. Despite being false, it plagues and destroys many of the characters, in this case Walter. A year younger than the narrator and more delicate, he allows fear, or the so-called Tyrolean epilepsy, to destroy him.

Though Amras is a tower in the novella, the inspiration for this structure was the Hapsburg castle of Ambras, which serves Bernhard as a symbol of failure. Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595) gave it to his morganatic wife, Philippine Welser, whose knife figures in the novella. Her children could never inherit from the archduke, though his branch of the Hapsburg dynasty died out, just as in this novella the narrator’s branch of the family dies out. Phallic in appearance, the tower forms a womb where the brothers are reborn as imperfect, needy halves of the other. Inside the womb there is fraternal incest that leads to fraternal fighting outside. The two halves cannot hold together, leaving the narrator a shadowy half-soul looking for his soul mate. When Walter commits suicide, the narrator, who no longer has any chance of being a full human character, breaks down completely. This is mirrored on the page, where the text breaks into fragments. This device results in the voice petering out, instead of becoming tighter—one reason this novella is not as compelling as the next two.

Watten, in the novella Playing Watten, is a card game with four players; in this game it is fair to give hints to one’s partner, unlike, say, the game of bridge. Watten is played mostly in the Southern Tyrol, with local variations, and so represents both local society and the failure of local society when the narrator refuses to play. As nothing Bernhard writes has just one theme, this novella reads like a whirlpool of ideas on everything from death to religion to the stupidity of humankind.

A truck driver comes to the hut of the narrator, an aristocratic doctor who has abandoned his family castle, apparently giving it over to house eighty drug addicts, after having his medical license revoked for his own morphine use. The truck driver wants to lure the narrator back to the watten table after the fourth player, Siller, committed suicide—not by jumping into the convenient river, as everyone thought, but by hanging himself in a tree on the riverbank. The truck driver tells about the discovery of the body, but his account is embedded in the doctor’s monologue, a device perfected in Walking. Here it is a bit confusing as to who is recounting the events, but because the narrator’s voice dominates, as intended, and the story line is never confusing, the final impact is not lessened.

The doctor will not return to the table, Siller’s place having been taken by Schausteller, a ruthless landlord who represents everything that is repugnant to the doctor (and Bernhard) about commercial, bourgeois Austria. Bernhard mocks a society that appears to be collegial but can never be anything but a burlesque in which people take on false faces. On the other hand, Bernhard does not have any romantic notion of individualism. For him, the end is always insanity, because the individual mind is too weak to withstand reality. However, there are different kinds of insanity, and the “society” represented by the old group of players is one in which...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)