Thursday, 24 February 2011

Thomas Bernhard: Correction

I finshed reading Thomas Bernhard's excellent Correction last night. It was the second Bernhard novel I'd read, after The Loser which is probably a better place to start, particularly those interested in music. The Loser follows its unnamed narrator's recollections of of his time studying under Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1953 with two pianist friends: one named Wertheimer, the other named Glenn Gould. Dismayed by Gould's brilliance and aware of the futility of continuing their piano studies, Wertheimer commits suicide while the narrator ponders this suicide and questions the useless course his life has taken.

Correction, widely considered Bernhard's masterpiece, is certainly a more difficult book. It employs the same structure as The Loser (and from what I hear all his post-Frost books): a continuous first person interior monologue, unbroken by paragraph indentations, full of run-on sentences, obsessive repetitions, random use of italics, and alienating leaps (without transition) from verb tense to verb tense. The central premise is that 'correction' is a process without end, and that all corrections lead to destruction.

The central character Roithamer, based loosely on Wittgenstein (who Bernhard befriended), has committed suicide (much like Wertheimer in The Loser), leaving the narrator to review his manuscripts in the garret of a third friend Hoeller. Roithamer's writings chiefly concern his final completed project, the building of the Cone, a habitation for his beloved sister situated in the centre of the Kobernausser forest. The long, repetitive sentences present in The Loser are here further extended and convuluted, prompting frequent re-reading, but also creating a more frenzied, artfully frustrating, and frequently hilarious text. Here is one such passage:

From my window up in the garret I kept watching Hoeller down there in his workshop stuffing that huge black bird, how he kept cramming it with more and more stuffing, I thought I'll watch him from this excellent vantage point until he's finished stuffing that bird, and so I stood there motionless for a good half hour until I saw that Hoeller had finished stuffing the bird. Suddenly Hoeller had thrown the stuffed bird down to the floor, he'd jumped up and run off into the backroom where I couldn't see him anymore, but I waited, looking into the workshop, until I could see Hoeller again, he came back to stuffing the bird, now I noticed a huge heap of polyurethane on the floor beside Hoeller's chair and I thought this huge heap of polyurethane is now going to be crammed into this bird which I supposed had already been crammed long since. By stuffing this bird he is making the night bearable for himself, I thought... with what incredible energy Hoeller was now stuffing that bird with polyurethane, I couldn't imagine that so much polyurethane could be crammed inside that bird, yet Hoeller kept stuffing more and more of the polyurethane into the bird, suddenly I felt repelled by the process of stuffing polyurethane into the huge black bird, I turned around, looked at the door, but found it impossible to look at the door for more than a second or so because even looking at the door I kept seeing the huge bird Hoeller was stuffing with polyurethane, so I turned back again and looked out the window and into Hoeller's workshop, if I must see Hoeller stuffing this huge black, really horrible bird, then I might as well see it in reality and not in my imagination, clearly I could not possibly expect to get any sleep now, full as I was of my impression of Hoeller stuffing that huge black bird with polyurethane, constantly accelerating the speed with which he was doing this job, it was nauseating, still I had to keep looking out the window and into the workshop as if hypnotised...

And on he goes. There's some equally amusing passages concerning Roithamer's family in the second section. Indeed, I was surprised to find that this book had two parts, meaning the uninterrupted paragraph rant was broken midway. Still, waiting for a paragraph break was never an option; I even found myself putting it down for the night mid-sentence, so long were the sentences. I think the opening sentence goes on for some pages. Nonetheless, Bernhard's crazed and obsessive style is uniquely intoxicating, getting under your skin like few contemporary writers.

People seem divided over whether Bernhard's ceaseless pessimism is for real or a joke. In all the photographs I've seen he seems to be smirking, a cheeky grin rising the corners of his mouth. And he's more savoury - and far more pleasing to read - than that other literary misanthrope Celine.
Some interesting reviews of Bernhard have appeared recently in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books (unfortunately the NYRB is subscriber only):

LRB - Michael Hofmann Reger Said

NYRB: Adam Kirsch The Darkest Comedian

No comments:

Post a Comment