Thomas Bernhard
Knopf, 2006, ISBN 1400040663, 352 Pages, Hardcover $25.95. [

Review by Michael Cisco

For the first time, Thomas Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, published in German in 1963, is finally available in an English translation. Bernhard, who died in 1989, is perhaps best known for his novel The Loser. His many plays don’t seem to have attracted the same degree of international attention as has his fiction, although more than a few of them have been published in English.
While it is not difficult to find literary associations with Bernhard’s style, his work is entirely distinctive and instantly recognizable. Most of his novels consist of three or fewer paragraphs, at least one of which will fill most of the book. They are monologues delivered by one person about another person, whose characteristic speeches will be cited at length by the narrator. Bernhard’s narrators are never the discursive focal points of his books. They are relays for someone else. These someone-elses are often artists and/or intellectuals, usually trapped in a state of suspense, unable to work. The subject of his novel The Lime Works, for example, is a man who has been preparing for years to write the definitive scientific work on the sense of hearing. To date he has produced nothing but voluminous notes, but nevertheless he believes he could write the entire work out in a single sitting, or nearly, if he could only find the right moment. The artist who doesn’t make any art is like the chaste lover who exercises the special discretion, and maybe gets to experience the intoxication, of Milton drinking water from his wooden bowl, in the sense that this forms a kind of devotion to a higher conceptualization of art altogether. While it may seem like failure, something more intriguing has happened, what Deleuze called “jumping in place” – the problem, whatever is bringing about decomposition, becomes an element of a new composition, not just a new thing, a statue or a song, but a new way of composing.
It is hard to imagine Bernhard without Beckett, but this has nothing to do with any idea of “influence.” They both travel in the same circles, and they have the same incomparable power to surprise a reader with tragic and humorous passages. In the work of both, and arguably in their careers as well, there is a similar rejection of status, wealth, fame and so on, which each necessarily must have been able to get in order to be able to reject; and a related desire for poverty and rejection. The rejection of social mediation, the sense of getting down to earth among common people, is present, but is inoculated against stupidity, to an extent, by an equivocal loathing of humanity, “common” or otherwise, which is especially intensely turned against themselves, so they are not martyrs among the philistines but, in Beckett’s case, intellectual cripples, and in Bernhard’s case, intellectual invalids, plagued by their own incessant mental activity. Both of these authors have jumped in place by making failure a way to proceed, or to make stopping into the way to go on, without simply writing about failure or stopping but by actually failing and stopping in writing that therefore succeeds and endures.
Repetition is another critical element in Bernhard’s style, and he does with it something like what Beckett does with fragmenting. He will repeat phrases with minor variations many times, making a statue of writing that can be turned this way and that. It is a hallmark of obsessive thinking, the incessant rephrasing of an idea, that he manages to transform into music.
Frost, as anyone might expect, provides anyone familiar with Bernhard an opportunity to see the aspects of this style as they begin to assemble. It is however broken up into chapters and individual paragraphs, and uses quotation marks extensively as they are almost never used in his later work. 
Here’s the situation. A medical student interning at a hospital in Schwartzach is given an unusual assignment by his mentor, an important surgeon named Strauch. The surgeon’s brother is the proper inhabitant of that name, however. This brother is a painter who no longer paints and hasn’t for some time, and who lives at an inn, alone, in a remote mountain town called Weng. The surgeon asks his student, who is not named, to go to Weng, posing as a law student, and to observe Strauch the painter as closely as possible, sending back reports on his brother’s condition and character. The medical student does this, and the book consists mainly of transcriptions of Strauch’s monologues.
There are dramatic episodes, but Frost does not does not strive to achieve formal unity except perhaps in the simplest and least intrusive ways. The book is unpredictable. For the most part, it simply follows Strauch’s endless, sometimes stifling and overwhelming, production of language. There are moments that are simply music, although it’s nearly impossible to have more than a vague sense whether or not I am responding to the translation or the original; there are also moments when the language becomes precariously overwrought and threatens to collapse. This is an especially acute problem with Frost because the passages of beautiful writing aren’t descriptive but strictly abstract, involving thoughts and descriptions of thoughts. The novel is also replete with beautiful images, but these are economically introduced and not subject to any effusive description.
A lesser writer might have assigned direct narrative to Strauch, but Bernhard has made Strauch the figure around whom the narrator will orbit and whose distinctive, phantasmagorically negative philosophical propositions and observations he will relay in random order. By this means, Bernhard has figured out a way to retrieve ephemeral isomorphisms of thought, that break off from any particular context, that being the essential gesture that links them all. And he does this without having to deform them by jamming them into a single consistent framework of thought. It’s remarkable to note how consistent Bernhard’s style is, even in this first attempt, with what will come after. There is always the same passionate mania for thinking, not for analysis but for aphoristic thinking, so that each hermetic statement is like the most intense line of an unwritten poem that haunts it or condenses illegibly around it. The student always controls things, it being up to him to determine the outcome, give the book its shape, and in a way the novel can’t really end because it is written to destroy the possibility of a complete Book. It does develop over its duration, mainly insofar as it thematizes the viral invasion of the student’s voice by Strauch’s, and Bernhard’s own voice does this as well, so that the attentive reader experiences this relationship to Bernhard as the student does to Strauch (although Strauch and Bernhard are not the same, which strengthens the analogy).
Toward the end, Strauch relates to the narrator a performative story about a teacher, which is reminiscent of the final, murderous story in Malone Dies. It is revealing in the relations it takes up with the reader, and the student, and less so in its content. It isn’t really Strauch’s story, not the story of his life, but it is a representation of Strauch’s condition. The story resists the temptation to adopt any reductive idea of the student as Strauch’s student or any stupid dichotomy between the medical man and the thinker, dreamer and political man, the practical brother and the impractical and so on. The doctor-brother is the dichotomizer, while Strauch is about the delirium of endless dichotomies that re-blend together into another solid uncut fog wall. Strauch’s story isn’t a story-in-a-story, it’s more of the same narrative in which his own story appears, referring to nothing else, not allegorizing but taking part in the overall representation, and so it has a truly eerie feeling of self-awareness, as though the book were alive. Something similar happens in another of Strauch’s anecdotes, occurring much earlier in the novel, about a traveling showman he mistook for a tramp. This piece I find I don’t know how or why to describe; I’ll say only that I immediately knew it was on the short list of the things I’ve loved reading the most.
Frost is “timeless” in the sense that it doesn’t knot itself to ephemeral things or to a historical moment, but to a kind of problem of living. The problem is insoluble, except perhaps insofar as Strauch is jumping in place. The result of the isolation of the setting is both highly abstract and weirdly regional, as if rejection of the region were a regional characteristic. Weng seems completely real, the business with the factory, the power plant, the secondary characters like the landlady, the knacker and the engineer, none of whom are named – that privilege is reserved for Strauch, even if he isn’t the sole possessor of that name he is the only one habitually addressed in that way, making him something other than a functionary. The passages about the plant and so on are all Kafka like. I don’t always believe in Strauch, but he is more often believable than not, and unreally vivid. There are times when Strauch threatens to become too transparently a vehicle only, and when the fascination he exerts seems exaggerated and implausible. These moments are an unnecessary gilding of the lily, as Strauch is already sufficiently fascinating, and the exaggerated descriptions of his fascination only raise suspicions of something self-serving or of a cheat, imposing a fascination by decree.
There are moments when the whole novel seems on the verge of unraveling, as if Bernhard could lose it all by overplaying a little more; but there are more great moments when the relentlessness of Strauch’s complaining really makes itself felt, when the stifling atmosphere and endless nullification begin to get to the reader too, who also can’t wait to get out from under it. Strauch is allowed really to lay it on – this is very playlike, histrionic as Bernhard named his collection of plays Histrionics, performative and great. Frost is unusually demonstrative in comparison with Bernhard’s later novels, and it is structured like an extended play.
This is a long citation – the ellipses and emphases are all original – but the effect of the style unfolds in time and in the steady barrage of its astonishments:

“You see,” he said, “this tree comes on and says the line I told it to say, an incomprehensible line of poetry, a line that will turn the world on its head, a so-called line against God, you understand me! The tree walks on from the left, the cloud comes on from the right, the cloud with its softer voice. I view myself as the creator of this afternoon drama, this tragedy! This comedy! Now listen, the music has come in right on cue. The music plays on the difference between my words and all others. Listen, the instruments are perfecting it, my tragedy, my comedy, the instruments, all the high-pitched and low-pitched instruments, music is the only mistress of the double killing-ground, the only mistress of the double pain, the only mistress of the double forbearance ... Music, you hear me ... language approaches music, but language hasn’t the strength to circumvent music, it has to directly approach music, language is nothing but weakness, the language of nature as much as the language of the darkness of nature, as the language of the depth of leave-taking ... You hear me: I was in this music, I am in this music, I am made of this language, I am contained in the quiet poetry of this afternoon ... Do you see my theater? Do you see the theater of apprehension? The theatre of God’s un-self-sufficiency? What God?” He turned to me and said: “God is a cosmic embarrassment! An immense embarrassment of the stars! But,” he said, and set his index finger against his mouth: “let’s not talk about that. I want the tree to finish its lines, I want the stream to finish its lines, I want the sky to finish its lines, and I want Hell to master the rationale of its fires, to the very end. I want these fires, you must know. I want these shadows, I want these shadows to kill ... to kill each and every thing ... I have compassion with this tragedy, with this comedy, I have no compassion with this tragedy, this comedy, this self-invented tragicomedy, with these self-invented shadows, with these torments of shadows, with these shadow torments, with this endless sadness ...” He said: “Such a spectacle is a product of absurdity, of divine absurdity, such a spectacle, you see, you must know, is nothing but laughter ... And now listen,” said the painter, “the world arises into the air from its own dark, just as air, just as the water in the air, the relation between the air and the other air ... ”

These wild histrionics are acts, so that, rather than failing to become fully musical, the language succeeds in becoming a hybrid of language and music. It might be said it is histrionic, musical language about drama, music and poetry, but then if anything this passage shows us these things as actions in action, rather than presenting them as stable unities with fixed definitions about which we can talk or write. Frost is filled with moments like these, and they aren’t illustrations of exceptional sophistication in a theory of fiction or prose; they don’t anticipate criticism, even though they lend themselves too generously to critical readings. They radiate an intense eeriness in their untheoretical, unmediated self-consciousness, as the writing actually starts to writhe portentously with a life of its own, which does not mean an image of life or a lively bit of something or other, but with life.
I am exaggerating, although it’s hard to know by how much, but I can say that Frost arouses that kind of enthusiasm.

Michael Cisco
21 February 2007

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.