The TFT Review of Prose by Thomas Bernhard
This newly translated collection of Thomas Bernhard’s prose, Prose (Seagull Books), should be welcomed as a major event in contemporary letters. Most of these stories, in classic Bernhard fashion, take as their subject a failure who will not fail, a madman who will not go mad, an impossible suicide—a suicide always reverting back to what the “I,” the voice which insists itself, can or would do—has, would have, or will have done. Translator Martin Chalmers renders Bernhard’s German with poetic precision, and without missing any earmarks of the latter’s dense and rich writing style: sentences which wind around themselves, and which constantly, in multiform ways, miss and re-encounter their subjects—which are always ending and beginning again, repeating or forgetting themselves. Each one of the seven stories in Prose shimmers with the shadow contained in—and containing—any one of Bernhard’s novels.
A sublime experience of the most inelegant and violent failure.
The stories in Prose are high dramas that return to laughter—to the form of a comedy whose punchline always and necessarily falls flat—the moment before their narrators unravel and lose ground, lose any “I” to speak of, completely; that is, they stop before the point of dislocation at which the stories would cease to tell themselves. This transformation of drama into comedy is not a climax which one could pinpoint in a given story. It is, instead, happening from moment to moment. Each narrator is irreducibly split, and bound to decide, between laughter and suffering, suicide and life.
Bernhard’s suicides incessantly come back to life. The repetition which marks stories like “The Cap” and “The Carpenter” (and, really, every story in this collection) is simply the repetition of the narrator’s failure: failure to escape an abandonment to suicide, and failure to perform the suicidal act. The stories of Prose are produced by and in that contradiction—the bind of the “auto-without-autonomy”—each one a vertiginous tightrope-walker always at once preparing to fall, falling, and finding repose in the stillness of preparing to fall. Each story is a sublime experience of the most inelegant and violent failure.
The most disquieting—and shortest—story in this collection, “Attache at the French Embassy,” is also the story which lacks Bernhard’s most recognizable gestures. It is not the narrator’s monologue but a character’s—and a character who is not a foil for the narrator—recorded in the form of a journal entry by the narrator, paragraph breaks abound. On its surface it is not a monologue in dialogue with itself—the shape typically taken by Bernhard’s work. In fact, the dominant mood of the story is indiscernible in a way atypical of the other stories in Prose . In “Attache,” the narrator’s uncle, a forest inspector, regales his family with a story in which he meets a young Frenchman in the forest. The two discuss literature, philosophies of nature, and politics, all in which the Frenchman proves himself a studied and eloquent expert.
That’s the story—all of it—until it explodes, in its two concluding sentences—a brilliant and absolutely novel move which I wouldn’t dare spoil for any reader, and which will inevitably, in an unforeseen way, require one to read the story anew. The story thus ends by the signature of its beginning, by beginning again and revealing that the story never was that simple, that Bernhard qua Bernhard was always there, manipulating the story to conceal that he was always there, entrenched, at its very beginning, arranging the stakes for us, guiding the eye along.
The narrator of Prose ‘s concluding story, “The Carpenter,” counsels an unemployed and unhinged ex-con: “His crime, as one of hundreds and thousands of juvenile crimes, was, I said, pardonable. The whole world was a world of the excluded, society as such did not exist, each person was alone, no one had an advantage over the rest.” Yet he later on suggests: “The world was not only dreadful. Matter was tremendously precise and full of beauty. Irrespective of place and time, the individual was all the time capable of the most astonishing discoveries for the sake of which life was worth living.”
It is the contraction and bursting of this contradiction, tension, even this paradox—between the absolute subjectivity of the life worth living and the society of absolutely equal and alone individuals in which anyone is capable of anything whatsoever—that, I think, propels Prose and, perhaps, Bernhard’s entire body of fiction. “The whole world was a world of the excluded”; that is to say, the whole world was a world of those who had none. The excluded do not share the world; they share nothing, which is not nothing in the sense of not anything, but the nothing revealed by an “I” which evacuates itself—the shared ______ of nothing. Bernhard at once celebrates and mourns this sharing. For we can conclude that “the most astonishing discoveries for the sake of which life was worth living” were in fact the potential failure of life to murder itself, the ecstatic failure which, it might be said, can only fail to evacuate life itself, the nothing, in failing to evacuate the “I”—Bernhard’s salvation, his every salut, is that of failure. But, at the very same time, of a failure which cannot bring itself to fail.
Illustration by Lane Hagood for the Faster Times.
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