by Thomas Bernhard

Hardcover, 1987




New York : Knopf, 1987.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
The action of Holzfällen can be summed up in a single paragraph - and that's exactly what Bernhard does, but the paragraph in question is 320 pages long. The narrator has been invited to an "artistic supper party" in the rather grand Gentzgasse apartment of some old acquaintances, the Auersbergers (a composer and a singer), whom he happened to bump into in the street after having been away from Vienna for a long time. The guest of honour at the party is an actor, who keeps everyone else waiting until long after midnight before he arrives from the Burgtheater, where he's starring in Ibsen's Wild duck. In the first half of the book the narrator thinks in a wing-chair about the party, the pretentious literary guests, and the funeral of his old friend Joana, which he and most of the others had attended that afternoon. Then the dinner starts, with the actor dominating the conversation in a fatuous monologue (Bernhard carefully constructs this so that Ibsen is never actually mentioned, and several of the guests are left with the impression that he's talking about where you can eat the best wild duck...). After the meal, the guests move into the music room, and the actor gets so drunk that his pretentious façade drops and in a mock-Joycean epiphany he actually talks good sense for a short while. This inspired monologue ends with the enigmatic words "Wald, Hochwald, Holzfällen, das ist es immer gewesen" (Forest, high forest, tree-felling, that's what it's always been), which the narrator takes as an ironic summary of Viennese cultural life, and then the party breaks up, with the narrator deciding as he walks home (in a typical Bernhard touch, he's going in precisely the wrong direction) that he must write about this evening right away, before it's too late.

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.
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LibraryThing member Brasidas
The great paradox of this Bernhard narrator is his hypercritical nature, which is often in conflict with itself, and, for the entire book, his utter static physical presence. Indeed, he never moves, except to the next room and back for the whole of the book, which takes place during a single day. The phase he uses constantly is: "I thought, sitting in the wing chair." This unnamed narrator has returned to Vienna for the first time in thirty years, from his self-imposed exile in London. Since his return he has spent a portion of each day walking up and down Vienna's streets, most recently the Graben and the Karntnerstrasse. Here he runs into old associates, the Auerbergers, who were lovers and mentors thirty years before, but whom he now despises with a passion that is often laughable in its boundlessness. The entire book is an internal monologue of rage. Everyone he was friendly with 30 years ago he now despises. He is appalled by the fact that he has actually attended this so-called artistic dinner. Why did he come? He doesn't know. He is indifferent to nothing. Anything and everything provokes an almost out of control rage. He seeths with perceived slights. Yet, he says nothing. He is as much controlled by the social contract as anyone at the dinner. Indeed, perhaps more so, since a few others are at least not afraid to make their displeasure known when they hear an opinion they disagree with. Coincidentally, on the same day as the dinner Joana, an old associate hangs herself. So all the action takes place during a single day. In the morning, everyone is at the funeral who will that evening attend the artistic dinner in honor of an actor currently playing Ekdal in a production of Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK at the Burgtheater. He knows better than to get worked up. He repeatedly berates himself for giving into his hysteria, but then just as quickly he is right back at it. He cannot help himself. Now why? Why does he sit there and seeth and yet bottle it up. He is a writer. This is his process and his subject matter. The book we have just read is the product of that terrible evening.… (more)
LibraryThing member GeorgMayer
The subtitle says "An Agitation" and that is exactly what this book is - Bernhard tells the story of an evening during which he curses everything that happened during the last days and weeks - during his whole life. His sentences have no endings, he does not bother to split his thoughts into chapters or paragraphs, everything that is said gets repeated several times, is torn over in his thoughts again and again. This book is so dense and energetic, it first makes you as angry as the person telling the story and in the end leaves as disturbed as him.… (more)
LibraryThing member stef7sa
This isn't really a novel, being a long monologue of a single man about his meeting with old friends and subsequent artistic dinner. A fast read, also as a result of the continuous repetitions which characterize the mode of speaking of the protagonist. Funny at times, it is a rather annoying story, predictable and without a real conclusion. Disappointing.… (more)
LibraryThing member antao
Before the year 2012 was out, I needed my usual fix of Thomas Bernhard... I've picked my favourite: Holzfällen" (meaning literally "Lumbering").

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-Erzähler (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 Künstlervernichtungsmaschine" (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 time… lol
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LibraryThing member stillatim
It says something about modernity that Austria chose to ban this Bernhard novel, the one that ends (spoiler alert, but really, this is a Bernhard novel, and you're not reading for plot) with a (for Bernhard) grand affirmation of the worthwhileness of human and specifically Viennese existence, to wit, everything is worth hating, but everything is also worth loving.

Austria, c'est nous: more worried about being personally offended than about rampant nihilism.

That aside, this is great. Not quite the stylistic brilliance of The Loser, but very good. I occasionally worry about diminishing returns with Tommy, but so far so good. It helps that he mocks people who claim to be interested in Wittgenstein:

"That Joana should commit suicide was the last thing they would have expected, the Auersbergers had said in the Graben, and before rushing off with all their parcels they told me that they had bought *everything by Ludwig Wittgenstein*, so that they could *immerse themselves in Wittgenstein during the coming weeks.* They've probably got Wittgenstein in the smallest parcel, I thought, the one dangling from her right arm."

I imagine that they, like so many readers of Wittgenstein, will both be ravished by his construction of the ideal logical system, outlining everything that can possibly be said in philosophy, which turns out to be nothing, and thus leaves philosophers with nothing to do--and thrilled by his belated recognition that that probably wasn't the case, nor is such a thing possible, and that academic philosophers should stop thinking it is. They will be ravished and thrilled despite not being academic philosophers.

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LibraryThing member JimElkins
When the "late style" is an unraveled "middle style"

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.
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