Instead of the book he's meant to write, Rudolph, a Viennese musicologist, produces this tale of procrastination, failure, and despair, a dark and grotesquely funny story of small woes writ large and profound horrors detailed and rehearsed to the point of distraction. "Certain books—few—assert literary importance instantly, profoundly. This new novel by the internationally praised but not widely known Austrian writer is one of those—a book of mysterious dark beauty . . . . [It] is overwhelming; one wants to read it again, immediately, to re-experience its intricate innovations, not to let go of this masterful work."—John Rechy, Los Angeles Times "Rudolph is not obstructed by some malfunctions in part of his being—his being itself is a knot. And as Bernhard's narrative proceeds, we begin to register the dimensions of his crisis, its self-consuming circularity . . . . Where rage of this intensity is directed outward, we often find the sociopath; where inward, the suicide. Where it breaks out laterally, onto the page, we sometimes find a most unsettling artistic vision."—Sven Birkerts, The New Republic
"People exist for the sole purpose of tracking down the intellect and annihilating it" 8.
Bernhard has a difficult trick, I think. He wants to use exaggeration to shock the reader into seeing our own complicity in injustice, and our stupidity and self-righteousness. His narrators are equally complicit, stupid and self-righteous, though they recognize all of this. And Bernhard himself, presumably, must be equally complicit, stupid and self-righteous. Except that he can't be stupid; if he were, he couldn't write such novels. And his self-righteousness is the self-righteousness of the intellect, not of the will. All of this means that his novels are more emotionally and rhetorically affecting when they're most artificial, ironic and ludicrous, as in the above quote, which is obviously not an attempt to say something truthful, but a pointing at something else in the world. Similarly, take the narrator's statement that
"Ninety percent of the time today we are up against subtle exploiters, ten percent of the time against unpardonable idiots," 40.
Again, obviously not true, obviously hyperbolic, points us to something true. But when Bernhard's narrator draw back slightly from the hyperbole, you get revolting things like:
"Poverty can't be eradicated, and anyone who thinks of eradicating it is set on nothing short of the eradication of the human race itself, and hence of nature itself," 41.
Unlike the annihilation of intellect or the fool/knave ratios, there are a great number of people who *actually, seriously* think things like this. By putting them in the mouth of his narrator, otherwise so intelligent, Bernhard allows me, his reader, to separate myself from the narrator. In other words: paradoxically, the less exaggerated the text is, the less rhetorically effective and the less true it is.
"The world spirit as it were, overestimates the human spirit. We are always bound to fail because we set our sights a few hundred percent higher than is appropriate... but on the other hand, I reflect, where should we be if we constantly set our sights too low?" 84-5.
Ridiculous, exaggerated, fundamentally true. Whereas the nihilism of 106-7 ("All I have left in the end is my present pathetic existence, which no longer has veyr much to offer. But that's how it should be. No doctrine holds water any longer... When we really know the world, we see that it is just a world full of errors"), or 110 or 117 is cringe-worthy.
None of which will stop me reading his little sausages, which show that one can be interesting, enjoyable and challenging in straightforward, beautiful prose books that are less than 800 pages long.
** "Friendship—what a leprous word! People use it every day ad nauseam, so that it's become utterly devalued, at least as much as the word Love, which has been trampled to death." (p51)
But other than these lamentations and contradictions—the imminent arrival of death yet the expectation of a hundred tomorrows; the eventual hope to do what one endeavoured to do—Concrete is an intricate and intimate observation of the human condition despite its misanthropy at face value and harsh realisations of a life yet to be lived.
** "We always demand everything, when in the nature of things we should demand little, and that depresses us." (p84)
Concrete culminates to a devastating piece of memory, that of the tragic story of Anna Härdtl and her husband; remembrance cuts as sharp as papers. Rudolf is stricken with all kinds of pain. Bernhard knew the hard life and the suffering existence brings; the utmost and futile desire, its dangers and pitfalls, for perfection.
** "Very often we write down a sentence too early, then another too late; what we have to do is to write it down at the proper time, otherwise it's lost." (p151)