You Want Gloomy? He Delivers

Book cover
Frostby By Thomas Bernhard, Trans. by Michael HofmannAlfred A. Knopf. 342p $25.95
The poet-novelist-playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) had much to be miserable about. He was born out of wedlock to an Austrian carpenter (who never acknowledged him and committed suicide in 1940) and a maidservant, who promptly passed him on to her father, a minor writer named Johannes Freumbichler. Freumbichler was kindly enough; but young Thomas said he always felt alone, abandoned and unloveda state that wasn’t helped by his being sent to a Nazi boarding school during World War II. In his teenage years Bernhard developed tuberculosis, which landed him in a sanatorium from 1949 to 1951 and plagued him even afterward until it took his life a few days after his 58th birthday.

Intensely scornful of Austrian chauvinism and its false claims of victimhood, Bernhard was labeled a Nestbeschmützer (nest-fouler) by right-wingers, whose hatred he returned in kind. Though hailed by academic critics, Bernhard was always a difficult, metaphysical writer who made few concessions to readers (his novels, like Wittgenstein’s Nephew [1982], typically consist of one long paragraph), and the forbidding nature of his work guaranteed him permanent outsider status. Appropriately enough, newspapers reported him as having fallen ill, after he was already dead and buried.

Given Bernhard’s reputation as one of the major figures in 20th-century German letters, it might seem odd that his first novel, Frost, published in 1963, which he meant as a programmatic introduction to all his future work, has lain untranslated for over 40 years. Then again, maybe not. This relentlessly bleak tale about an unnamed medical intern who has been sent by one of his professors, Dr. Strauch, to track down and report on the condition of the latter’s brother, an erstwhile painter, is a hard slog. The Famulant finds his subject living by himself in a remote, grungy Alpine guesthouse surrounded by a repulsive collection of sodden, stupid, violent, lust-crazed brutes. For four weeks the young man, who pretends to be a law student, spends all day every day walking and talking with the semi-demented, utterly desperate oldster, who, having burnt all his paintings, delivers swirling poetic monologues about his own physical and philosophical agonies.

Though the painter’s disease is as indeterminate as his age, it is equally real; and his furious indictments of the universe in general and the frozen-pighole portion of it he happens to inhabit are powered by a palpable rage: Our Father, who art in Hell, unhallowed be Thy name. No Kingdom come. Thy will be not done. On earth, as it is in Hell, etc. The old man’s rancorous fury increasingly sucks in his companion, who keeps a diary of all the rants but has nothing with which to counter them.

In the end, after sending off six limp, inconclusive reports to his professor, the narrator leaves. A farewell note tells us that the painter seems to have vanished into a blizzard. Whatever actually happened, one doubts that he, or his corpse, will ever be found. (And would it matter if it did?)

Bernhard has often been compared to Samuel Beckett, whose unsparing absurdism, if not his immaculate prose, he shares. Another forebear is Kafka (dead from tuberculosis at 40), who was just as alienated from the world around him. There are more than a few echoes of The Castle here, including the slovenly inn, the loutish rural proletariat and the Klamm valley. But Kafka never managed to finish any of his novels (he famously asked his friend Max Brod to burn them); and one of the reasons for this failure has dogged all absurdist literature: If life makes absolutely no sense, then any kind of old-fashioned shapely story, with beginnings, middles and ends, heroes and villains, exciting adventures (see Sartre’s Nausea) and dramatic developments, is ipso facto impossible. Art always imitates life; and when life is seen as chaos now and forever, you can pretty much forget about plotit is too good to be true. Denying the very possibility of plot may make for a striking aesthetic experience, as in Waiting for Godot (and some of the painter’s howls are reminiscent of Lucky’s famous tirade in Act I). But such protests, however passionate, however honest, will eventually induce tedium; and Bernhard is no exception to this dilemma.

The frost in his title is an all-purpose metaphor for the continuously worsening frigidity of a heartless, soulless, death-bound universe; and, not accidentally, the temperature plummets during the four weeks covered by the narrative. But after a while, the reader cannot help objecting: wait a minute, isn’t there any skiing, skating, sledding or ice hockey in this frozen high-altitude hell? (One snowman does get made, but it is terrifying.) Isn’t there any beauty? Strauch is a world-class nihilist; but he is also a self-hating loser (he calls art that greatest of all abortions), a cranky misogynist and an incorrigible whiner. (Bernhard knows this, of course, but he can’t seem to find the hook.) If a deus ex machina was too much to ask for, a little Stoicism would have helped.

Meanwhile, Michael Hofmann’s translation has energy and inventiveness, but some grating lapses into literalism (Both of them have only ever seen the train from outside, After conceiving she came to me with friendly traits, reading mass for saying mass) and clumsy constructions (the only lately shamelessly dark world, It is known why, transpires for happens). But Bernhard is a trying author, and his deliberate attempts to defamiliarize language are meant to sound weird.

In the final analysis, what gives Frost and all Bernhard’s fiction its bold, sometimes fearsome, strength is the unmistakable sense that everything he says, even in his most abstract moments, is written with the blood that, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, is spirit. Bernhard’s real suffering led to real insight; and readers who make it through Frost, though they are bound to get restless along the way, will get a jolting dose of that tormented spirit.

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