Reading: Attack of Conscience | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Reading: Attack of Conscience

Austria Nursed a serpent in Thomas Bernhard, author of a lacerating assault on her Nazi past

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

Most people who see themselves as unassailable--detached, complete, a whole world in their heads--just look lonely to others. It's a familiar pose of city life, where the looming human spectacle allows isolation to pass for aloofness; alienation, a tonier, more artistic version of the same thing, is an old favorite with writers who presume to be observers of that spectacle by trade. But they're mostly shams too. You no more expect to meet a truly unassailable mind on the printed page than you do at a dinner party, so when it actually happens the shock of the experience is likewise immediate and bracing, if not altogether pleasant. That's pretty much what it feels like to read Thomas Bernhard--Austrian, lung patient, unyielding foe of Nazis and Catholics.

America has never produced anything like Bernhard, a literary celebrity who was also his nation's chief nemesis, a peerless novelist and playwright who's waged an all-out war against his country's conscience and its tranquility. Bernhard was the Doberman that broke its chain in Austria's own backyard, a mad dog. We don't stand for that here; we won't shoot the beast, we just ignore him to death. We've had our complainers, to be sure, like Henry James (we have no taste), Ernest Hemingway (we have no balls), and now Gore Vidal (glands don't matter, it's democracy we need). But they're piddling next to the torrent Bernhard aimed at the heads of his fellow Austrians, a bitter stream that ended only with his death in 1989, at age 58. Even the English "angry young man" seems mild by comparison: he may hate his society, but it's the people Bernhard hates. In Salzburg, for example, the world-famous capital of music and art, he finds "a city which has been ruthlessly ground down by Catholicism in the course of many centuries and brutally violated by National Socialism in the course of a few years....A young person born and brought up here almost invariably grows up to be either a Catholic or a National Socialist, and so when we have dealings with people in the city, we only ever find ourselves dealing with either hundred-percent Catholics or hundred-percent National Socialists, the minority who are neither being ludicrously small. All the year round, therefore, the spirit of this city is in reality a Catholic-Nazi denial of the spirit; all else is a lie." This is typical. "Just to think of Austria," he says elsewhere, "a country that's disfigured, degenerate, and done for, is enough to make you vomit."

The Austrian response to Bernhard was fierce. He was denounced by politicians, picketed by patriots, and damned by the Church. He enjoyed the kind of artistic notoriety, in other words, that America bestows on rap stars and schlock-TV impresarios. In Austria it was Bernhard the public enemy and Bernhard the menace to society, a writer despised by the high-minded the way Snoop Doggy Dogg is despised here. Like the young musician, Bernhard even found himself dragged into court from time to time. Although the beef was libel, not murder, these legal troubles still added to his charm just the way Mr. Dogg's do to his. Austrians, heedless of their self-esteem, packed into Bernhard's plays, cleaned his books off the shelves, and along the way gave him every literary award at their disposal. The author took the prize money but considered it "the greatest indignity imaginable" to be honored by these people, "no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on."

Say what you will about Austria, but for a country with about as many people as you find in the gentle curve between Gary and Kenosha, it is serious about books. It nursed a serpent in Thomas Bernhard, but nurse him it did, for an author of his stamp needs nothing so much as he needs something to hate. While having his say in more than 20 books and as many plays, Bernhard became one of the most famous writers in Europe, an undisputed master of modern German prose. To discover why, you could do no better than begin with his last book, Extinction, which has finally been translated and published here.

The first thing you'll notice is an unbroken wall of words. Save for a single division in the middle of the book, there are no chapters, breaks, or pauses of any kind. There are no paragraphs. There is only one sentence after another from beginning to end. All of Bernhard's books are like this: if there is no rest for me, he seems to be saying, there will be none for you. It is daunting to look at, but once you begin to read you see that this peculiar style, which in any other hands would be a cheap and mediocre trick, is essential to Bernhard.

Extinction, like his other books, is a first-person narration devoted to the mind of a single character. There is little plot and no dialogue in the usual sense; the flow of sentences is simply the flow of the narrator's thoughts as he moves back and forth between introspection, analysis, and tirade. You might call it stream of consciousness, but that gives you the wrong image: some beatnik punching a typewriter beneath the bare bulb of his muse, a roll of teletype paper trailing off the back of his machine and a jug of Lambrusco by his side. That style of composition--typing, not writing, as one uncharitable critic said--has nothing to do with Bernhard. The beatnik imitates jazz, he wants to be free; Bernhard is a slave to form, though one of his own making. His books are like fugues: if he doesn't pull up every minute or two for a paragraph, neither did J.S. Bach. His breaks, where they exist, are stops between extended movements of prose. The movements themselves are perfectly seamless. Rhythms shift and moods vary, ideas come, go, and repeat, tension gathers, then subsides, and as one passage gives way to the next Bernhard effects transitions that, like Bach's, can be even more stunning than the themes they connect.

While I can do no more than hint at the oddities of Bernhard's style, the story of Extinction can be told in a sentence: a man gets a telegram from his sisters telling him that his parents and brother have been killed in an accident, and he goes home for the funeral. For the first half of the book we are inside the head of this man, Franz-Josef Murau, as he stands in his apartment in the center of Rome considering the news he's just received, and for the second half inside his head in Austria, where he deals with his sisters, sees to the burial, and decides the fate of Wolfsegg, the family estate he's just inherited. The thoughts attending us inside Murau's head are all charged with his disgust for his family: his weak and ineffectual father, whose greatest desire was to be left alone on his tractor and who never read a book; his scheming, domineering, social-climbing mother, who carried on with an Italian archbishop for decades and flaunted it; his indolent, dull, and obedient brother; and his sisters, bitter and spiteful because they lacked the gumption to leave Wolfsegg.

Murau's ruthless dissection of his family is Bernhard's chance to ventilate his customary grievances. There is first of all the provincial bigotry and narrow-mindedness of the Muraus, who kept Wolfsegg's five fabulous libraries under lock and key because they feared the likes of Voltaire and Schopenhauer as "spiritual poison"; there is the hypocrisy of people who make a show of art and culture but who actually despise it, worshiping appearances and money above all else; and there is the family's dire Catholicism, "the supreme annihilator of the child's soul, the supreme inspirer of terror."

In these ways the Murau family afflicted itself; far worse were the crimes it committed against others in giving itself over to the Nazis. The narrator was a boy during the war, like Bernhard, and he saw his parents fly the swastika over Wolfsegg "year in, year out" until just a few hours before the Allies arrived, at which point they threw themselves into the arms of the Americans. The Muraus' opportunism was naked, but they had their convictions too: Herr Murau was a party member, and he had been pleased to make all the resources of his estate available to Nazi officers and storm troopers and to the Hitler Youth; his wife was a "hysterical National Socialist" who cherished her faith "at the bottom of her heart," as her son says, "notwithstanding her Catholic hypocrisy." For several years following the war the couple harbored a group of war criminals in a building at Wolfsegg called the Children's Villa, keeping them safe and well fed until the Nazi hunters had gone. When the men came out, the charges against them were quashed and they were given state pensions, "subject to half-yearly increments of four or five percent."

It will be obvious that what we have here isn't just a tale about some degenerate family: Wolfsegg is Austria, and the Muraus are the corrupt inhabitants of a corrupted state. Bernhard's allegories are always transparent. This is a book that aims straight at the one great taboo of central European politics and propriety, and if its author had no reason to be coy, he had no need to exaggerate either. It may sound grotesque when Murau says that Nazis "are the people my countrymen regard as heroes, not just as yesterday's heroes, as is frequently maintained, but to an even greater extent as today's heroes"; but to judge by the career of Kurt Waldheim, Murau is stating the simple truth.

When Waldheim ran for president of Austria in 1986 (the same year Extinction was first published), he was already well known as a former secretary general of the United Nations, but the campaign brought to light some of the more obscure pages of his resumé: his membership in two Nazi party organizations as a young man, including the paramilitary brownshirts, and his subsequent service as a staff officer in the German army. Waldheim was attached to the command of an Austrian general who put down partisan resistance in the Balkans with an infamous campaign of atrocities. Entire villages were wiped out. (In 1942 the future secretary general was decorated by the Nazi puppet state of Croatia; five years later his commander was tried and executed in Yugoslavia as a war criminal.) Their operation then moved to Greece. In his autobiography Waldheim put himself back in Vienna as a law student during this period, but in reality he was in Salonika, still on the staff of this same general, who was now carrying out the deportation of 48,533 Greek Jews, mainly to Auschwitz, where 37,386 were exterminated on arrival. As these facts were brought into the open and documented during the presidential campaign, and as Waldheim's earlier statements about his war record were exposed as lies, his popularity with voters actually increased. In the end they elected him by a large margin, in part to spite those around the world who had dared to say that a man like that was not fit to be president of Austria. "This state is like my family," says Murau/Bernhard, "devoted to Nazi criminality."

National socialism, family breakdown, the Church, official perfidy--these are some of the elements that make up Extinction. In itself this material is not remarkable, but there's nothing else like the singular intensity with which Bernhard puts over his effects. If I had to reduce him to one word, it would be vehemence. His mind is clenched by a fury, and page after page he casts that fury into art--the proper term, as Aristotle said, for what takes shape in the soul. That's not to say those pages are always gratifying; in fact, they're often repellent.

But as you're repelled, so are you riveted. Murau faces the same problem himself right after his return to Wolfsegg, when he goes into the kitchen for coffee and finds some newspapers left there by the servants. The death of his parents and brother on the highway was a sensational story in the local press, and now this stack of tabloids is confronting him with the most lurid and gruesome details of the accident. He assumes he ought to be grieving, he knows how tasteless and vile it is even to think of reading these "provincial garbage sheets" at such a time, yet he can't help himself. So with one eye on the door and another on the papers before him, his hands trembling, Murau sits down and devours one report after another, finding them all "unutterably vulgar yet at the same time strictly factual." The car had plowed into the rear end of a truck loaded with metal rods, one of which smashed through the windshield and nearly severed Frau Murau's head: "They even printed a large photograph of my mother's headless body. I gazed at the picture for a long time."

To read Bernhard is like wandering into someone else's nightmare. What you see is distorted, but at the same time you feel it's absolutely true, for him. To me the scariest thing about Bernhard is just that sincerity. There are never any compromises in his books; no idea, no matter how appalling, is ever burked. When Murau goes with his sisters to view their parents and brother lying in state, he begins to think about raising the lid of his mother's coffin: the other two are open, but hers is closed. He tries to expel these "obscene thoughts" from his mind, he distracts himself with meaningless chatter, but the idea keeps coming back. He can feel the disappointment of his sisters as he stands there without weeping or breaking down in any way, apparently so composed. They don't know that he's actually getting more and more obsessed with the thought of seeing his mother's mutilated body. Suddenly he steps forward, grabs the lid of her coffin, and tries to force it open as his sisters look on, horrified. "The facts are always frightening," Bernhard wrote in a memoir of his boyhood, "and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled." Even so, when Murau steps up to the coffin it isn't his mother he wants to confront, it's simply his own hatred. Bernhard's "facts" are not the kind familiar to journalists; they are all internal to the life of the solitary artist. To live that life, and then to examine himself living it whatever the cost in self-reproach, failure, even madness--this is Murau's one true obsession. And so it has been for every Bernhard protagonist.

They're all different renderings of the same man: a misanthrope consumed with philosophy, eccentric if not deranged, who gets lost in some huge creative project that eventually destroys him. One secludes himself and his invalid wife in an abandoned lime works so he can finally get down to writing his definitive study, The Sense of Hearing. He's got all nine sections of this treatise mapped out in his head, but for 20 years he's been "constantly missing the right moment for capturing it all on paper." He never writes a word, and ends up blowing his wife's head off with the Mannlicher carbine she keeps strapped to the back of her wheelchair. Another spends years working on the perfect house for his sister, a cone set down in the precise geographical center of the Kobernausser forest. He believes the cone is exactly suited to her needs, but the minute he presents it to her she's overtaken by a terminal disease. While she's dying he continues to correct a manuscript he's written about the cone, and to correct the resulting corrections, until he makes "the ultimate correction" at the end of a rope. A third is a concert pianist who gave up his career after meeting Glenn Gould when they were both students. The transcendent genius of the Canadian gradually destroyed his own ability to play, so instead he devotes himself to philosophy, which he doesn't understand, and to his Essay on Glenn, which he can't seem to finish. He doesn't commit suicide, but a friend of his--another failed piano player whom Gould nicknamed "the Loser"--hangs himself.

This is just a sample from what has to be the greatest gallery of nut jobs in literature, and every picture in it is a self-portrait of the artist. In the five volumes of his autobiography, which cover only childhood and adolescence, Bernhard then turns the mirror around: he appears as one of his own characters, a sufferer driven to war with the world by its baseness and absurdity. In tone there's very little to distinguish the memoirs from the "novels" (a term Bernhard always disclaimed anyway), and in content they are, if anything, even more hair-raising. As a child he did time in a Bavarian camp for troubled boys, a real-life parody of Germanic "punctuality, cleanliness, and obedience" where he was made to march and shout "Heil Hitler" while getting drilled in the proper execution of the Nazi salute, and where the bedsheet he wet during the night was displayed in the breakfast room the next morning, after his name was announced. From there he went to the National Socialist Home for Boys in Salzburg. It was the kind of school, says Bernhard, where "the idea of suicide comes first, the subjects on the syllabus second." Many boys actually did take their own lives. Although the institution reverted to a Catholic boarding school at the end of the war, it never wavered from its mission to break the spirits of the students: "Our relations with Jesus Christ were in reality no different from those we had had with Adolf Hitler six months or a year earlier."

These trials were mild, however, compared to the passage that began with a severe chill when Bernhard was 17. The chill led to pleurisy and then to a coma, landing him in the death ward of a local hospital. His doctors nearly killed him with their blunders and indifference before sending him off to a sanatorium for lung patients: a trip from purgatory into hell. In the sanatorium Bernhard contracted tuberculosis and, not yet out of his teens, ruined his health for life. When he arrived he'd been horrified to see the inmates shuffling down long corridors in worn-out slippers and grubby robes, their fever charts wedged under their arms, constantly racking their eroded lungs to cough up a little sputum for the bottle that each carried in front of him like "his own private monstrance." Eventually he turned into one of those people, and after that, he escaped.

With Bernhard it's the same thing book after book,whether fiction or memoir: hypocrisy, disease, isolation, suicide, and above all artistic failure. A lot of novelists seem to be writing the same book over and over, but I can't name another who's even half as obsessed. For them repetition is a tendency; for Bernhard it verges on mania, a kind of literary autism. Yet there is something different about Extinction. Like all of Bernhard's alter egos, Murau is convinced of the futility of the intellect--"to think is to fail" is his melancholy axiom--but unlike the others he actually completes what he set out to write, the very book called Extinction: "The sole purpose of my account will be to extinguish what it describes, to extinguish everything that Wolfsegg means to me, everything that Wolfsegg is, everything." Murau also comes to terms with his inheritance. What he does with Wolfsegg forms such a fitting conclusion to the book, and in a way to all of Bernhard's books, that his readers may be forgiven if they detect in it a small satisfaction, if not quite a resolution, of the old rage. In any case Extinction was the last book Bernhard published. Three years later, alone in his upper Austrian farmhouse with black lacquer floors, white walls, books, a few sticks of furniture, and no telephone, he died.

When I first heard that Bernhard was dead I assumed it was suicide; after Extinction he seemed to have timed his end as cunningly as Socrates timed his. Perhaps he did, though not with a cup of hemlock. Bernhard had explained it this way: "Whoever commits suicide never commits suicide at the perfect moment, whereas a so-called natural death always occurs at the perfect moment." Like the philosopher, he'd done his work attesting to the corruption of the state, each of them driven as much by a simple wish to annoy people as by any moral purpose. Socrates was delighted to be known as a busybody; Bernhard once told an interviewer, "To shake people up, that's my real pleasure." Both were never more serious than when they were joking, both made things hot for those in power, and both held a strange attraction for a large number of their fellow citizens--evidence, perhaps, of an immemorial desire in people to be told they're full of it.

Each man also carried his convictions into the grave. Socrates refused to outrage himself by saying the simple words that would have gotten him off, preferring to needle his judges and so be condemned. When Bernhard died, he left a will that forbids the reprinting, recitation, or performance of his published work within the boundaries of Austria--"however this state identifies itself"--for the length of his copyright, 70 years; it also bars any study of his manuscripts in that country for all time. (One exception is his last play, Heldenplatz, which was commissioned to mark the 50-year anniversary of Austria's Anschluss with Nazi Germany. Its title refers to the place where hundreds of thousands of Viennese screamed "Sieg Heil!" as Hitler goose-stepped into their city in March of 1938. The play debuted at the Burgtheater, the citadel of Austrian dramatic arts, just three months before Bernhard's death, and it continued to run afterward in the midst of a huge uproar. Kurt Waldheim, then two years into his term as president, called it a "crude insult to the Austrian people.")

"A person who perceives everything and who sees everything and who observes everything, moreover continually, is not popular, more often feared, and people have always guarded themselves against such a person, because such a person is a dangerous person and dangerous persons are not only feared but hated, and in that respect I have to describe myself as a hated person." That's Bernhard speaking through one of his many personae, though he could well have been quoting Socrates at his own trial, nearly word for word. Yet there is a vast ocean between the Austrian and the Greek. The Socratic maxim that "the unexamined life is not worth living" meant something to his century, presumably; what Bernhard indicated to his is that the examined life is worth living even less.

Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard (translated by David McLintock), Alfred A. Knopf, $24.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration / David Nelson.

Add a comment