Thomas Bernhard, one of the most distinct, celebrated, and perverse of 20th century writers, took his own life in 1989. Perhaps the greatest Austrian writer of the 20th century, Bernhard's vision in novels like Woodcutters was relentlessly bleak and comically nihilistic. His prose is torrential and his style unmistakable. Bernhard is the missing link between Kafka, Beckett, Michel Houellebecq and Lars von Trier; without Bernhard, the literature of alienation and self-contempt would be bereft of its great practitioner. Woodcutters is widely recognised as his masterpiece. Over the course of a few hours, following a performance of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, we are in the company of the Auersbergers, and our narrator, who never once leaves the relative comfort of his 'wing-backed chair' where he sips at a glass of champagne. As they anticipate the arrival of the star actor, and the commencement of dinner, the narrator of Woodcutters dismantles the hollow pretentiousness at the heart of the Austrian bourgeoisie. The effect is devastating; the horror only redeemed by the humour.
On the surface this is a satirical novel about a bunch of pretentious artistic people spending an evening in fatuous, self-important posing, and about the way artists and critics live by chopping down whatever is beautiful around them. And it's also presumably a roman-à-clef, since it became a runaway bestseller in Austria as soon as it emerged that Bernhard was being sued for libel by a composer with a name very like Auersberger. (Not that Bernhard was any stranger to libel actions: this one, eventually settled out of court, must have been at least his third.) But the real joy of it, as with everything Bernhard wrote, is the way he uses language to drill down and discover meaning. He manipulates words and phrases the way a composer would in a piece of music, modulating, transposing, inverting, repeating, saying something in three or four or a dozen slightly different ways to help us explore exactly what he might mean by using that particular term or expression. He can take a complete cliché and make us see a profound and quite unexpected meaning in it, or he can make an innocent-looking phrase bounce back and expose the shallowness and hypocrisy of the person who used it (you can imagine the unfortunate Frau Auersberger having nightmares about the expression künstlerisches Abendessen for the rest of her life, even as she strikes Bernhard off her guest-list...).
Wonderful, seriously depressing and hilariously funny all at the same time.
This book may finally have cured me of my Bernhard addiction. It's a late work, and it's been praised very highly for its social satire. (It was apparently the object of a lawsuit by one of the main characters, who is depicted as an alcoholic composer who has failed to live up to his early claims about himself.)
The narrator, who speaks as the author, despises everyone he meets at an "artistic dinner" that occupies the entire book. In a brief review of the English translation in the New York Times in 1988, Mark Anderson noted that "the narrator's own credibility is constantly undermined by the anxious excessiveness of his attacks, which one gradually comes to see as being aimed as much at himself and his own fear of death as at the guests." This is too little, for two reasons: the "realization" shouldn't be gradual, because it is explicit; and it shouldn't undermine the narrator's "credibility" because he himself turns the invective against himself a number of times, most importantly when he says of one of the characters that he realizes he had abandoned her, and not the other way around--exactly opposite to what he thinks about another character at the end of the book.
We are to understand that the narrator is conflicted, in the current way of putting things, and that is why he has to run home, at the end, and write everything down immediately--before he becomes either more or less lucid. That balance is nicely done, but it is undermined by several traits that I read as naked or poorly articulated versions of writing strategies that are much more effective in other books:
--In other books Bernhard, the author and narrator-as-author, keeps his distance from actual people he knew, providing crucial breathing room for his invectives, rants, and polemics, which are at their best when they are free to make the broadest possible gestures.
--In other books that same concatenation of narrative voices keeps clear of actual cultural details, which again lets the invective grow and spread without limit. "Woodcutters" names many actual artists--Webern, Ibsen, Strindberg--and even individual works of art. In doing so it pinches off the metastasizing hatred that flowers so wonderfully when its object is generalized. (As Wittgenstein is in other books; here, one of the characters has "the complete Wittgenstein" in a bag.)
--In other books, the narrator is not so narrowly Bernhard himself. Because he is himself here, the many passages in which people talk to him--especially about his own writing--have to be truncated or muted. Several times people turn to him but don't speak, and several other times he doesn't answer. He's supposedly known as a fiction writer, and has talent, but no one talks to him about it, and he doesn't tell anyone about it--even though the kind of fiction he was actually writing was exactly what he puts in the mouths of everyone around him. Bernhard solves this problem in the first half of the novel by planting the narrator in a dark corner, where he sits in a wingback chair unnoticed, making his acid observations. But that can't last forever, and later he's seated between the host and the guest of honor, and yet no one talks to him. To accept this would be to accept an unexplained gap between the realism of the dinner party and the conceit of an invisible guest, and nothing in the narrative itself addresses or solves it. The result is that the narrator seems to be outlandishly egocentric, despite his intermittent self-accusations: his work is simply too large to find a place in the story that's being told here--a story that involves friends he's had for most of his life.
For me, this is the book Bernhard should have written when he was young, before he learned how to generalize, how to expand, how to distance, how to relinquish realism. But it also shows, in retrospect, a weakness of some earlier books: they avoid the trope of narrator-as-author, even when they seem to have solved it.
I've read this in German a long time ago. This time round I wanted to tackle him through an English translation.
I've chosen the McLintock translation, due to the raving reviews, and I must say it never felt I was reading a translation. At the end of this English version, I wanted to read again the German version, just to feel the flow of reading a book in the form of 192-pages-no-chapters paragraph in Bernhard's German "prose"... After reading it no one will be able to forget it! How I'd love to see it on stage.
This book embodies what I love the most about Bernhard intense prose. It just drags you in as though you are the narrator. Advantages of the Ich-ErzÃ¤hler (first person narrator), but not every writer can give the sense of absolute narrative immersion...
As usual I won't bother detailing with the plot. Not important...
The novel takes place in Vienna, also known by the Austrians themselves as "Die KÃ¼nstlervernichtungsmaschine" (the artists killing machine ...) By this mouthful of a term in German, you can see what it's all about. If not read a synopsis in Amazon.
Only Bernhard can write like this. It's glorious to read how he, sentence after sentence, depicts a very bizarre but not foreign world from the point of view of an observer (the narrator - Bernhard himself?). While reading it, I found myself reading and re-reading several sentences as not to miss anything.
Definitely one of the greatest testimonials of the German Language of the 20th century.
PS. I still remember it was with this novel that I came across the german word "Ohrensessel" ("Wing Chair") for the first timeâ€¦ lol