Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

English translation, 1967, 224 pp.

Thomas Bernhard was not a happy man, and it shows. He wrote about fourteen novels, several plays, and some poetry in his lifetime, most of it either critical of his native Austria or about nihilist suffering, or both. He suffered his entire life from a painful lung ailment, fought constantly against his country's right-wing nationalists and Nazi apologists, and eventually died in an assisted suicide. He left a provision in his will that none of his works were to be performed or published in Austria for the rest of the duration of their copyright.

Gargoyles is the story of a young science student who accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his daily rounds through the gloomy, mountainous Austrian countryside. For seventy-five pages they meet a procession of grotesques: an innkeeper whose wife has been pointlessly murdered, an insane musical prodigy kept in a cage, a diabetic industrialist who lives alone in a house empty of people and possessions, an old woman dying slowly and alone whose children never visit. A miller has died, and his sons systematically break the necks of all the exotic birds in his collection, to stop the noise they make. The student (who narrates in first person) has strained relationships with his father and his sister, and his mother is dead. The landscape is bleak and austere, and we seem to be reading a catalog of suffering internal and external, received and transmitted. The only beacon of light is a persecuted Jewish intellectual who is friends with the doctor and who lends him philosophy books.

The last patient is Prince Saurau, the great landowner of the region, who lives in a high, gloomy castle overlooking the entire desolate region. The prince starts talking. He talks about a want-ad he placed in the local paper, and about interviewing three people for the position of castle steward. My goodness, you think, this chap certainly has been talking for a while. You put your finger in the book and flip ahead a few pages to see just how long this goes on. You flip some more pages. And some more. Finally (a mirage? you think) you find a paragraph break buried thirty pages deeper, and it exists only to mock you, inserting as it does only three words: "We stood still." Then the monologue resumes. The prince talks for 107 pages with perhaps two or three brief interruptions. He begins with fairly concrete reality (the job interviews, life in the castle) and gets increasingly philosophical till eventually he sounds like he's just spouting lunacy. Apparently this is classic Bernhard: reviews of his other novels The Loser, Concrete, and Correction all mention similar hundred-plus-page monologues. Occupying as it does over half the book, it is tempting to argue that the conventions of the novel are subverted to such an extent that Bernhard's work is an example of an entirely different art form. Granted, there are a few existing parallels: most obviously Samuel Beckett's Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable "trilogy" and with the first half of Notes from the Underground, but Bernhard is probably alone in how he slips casually and without warning into one hundred solid pages of dialogue within an otherwise first-person descriptive narrative.

This is not nearly the ordeal it sounds. Bernhard's prose is clear and evocative. Some of the prince's rambling is quite compelling (for instance, a passage in which the words flood and play are interwoven in contrapuntal opposition) and since there can be forty pages without a paragraph break, there is no obvious stopping place, so the reader is somewhat compelled to continue reading. The weight of words eventually becomes too much, though, and it is difficult to remember any startling or innovative insights in the prince's philosophizing. The book ends abruptly when the prince trails off: rather more with a whimper than a bang, or even a debriefing. I was sufficiently interested, though, that I intend to read at least one more of Bernhard's novels in an attempt to figure out just what the hell he's up to, or if he really just has endless contempt for the reader, for Austria, and for life in general.

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