Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) has no less than six entries in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition), and now that I’ve read Concrete (1982) I am certainly going to read the others: Correction, Extinction, Old Masters , Wittgenstein’s Nephew and Yes. From what I read of his profile at Wikipedia the author is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era but was Austria’s Bad Boy, continually writing novels and plays that were hyper-critical of Austria and its sacred cows. But the picture I have of this author from a guest post by Andrej Nicoladis at Winston’s Dad is entirely different:
Bernhard writes about society in collapse: society rotten with dishonesty, corruption and deep-rooted lies. … The narrator of the story is caught up in a fundamental battle with that society … [but eventually realises that] his conflict with society is an externalization of an inner conflict: that his true enemy with whom he must fight to the death, is in fact his own existence.
1001 Books tells me that Concrete is ‘perhaps Bernhard’s most accessible novel and his best example of self-parody.’ It is the tale of Rudolf, a Viennese musicologist who is supposed to be writing his masterwork, a book about Mendelssohn. He’s been planning it for ten years, and if this account of his procrastinations is anything to go by, it will be double that amount of time before he so much as takes the lid off his pen…
Naturally this misanthrope has to have someone to blame for his failure, preferably a woman, and indeed he has three. First of all there is his ‘monstrous’ sister, who, attempting to make him face up to the fact that he ought to get a grip on himself, is (he says) annihilating him, his work, and his ambitions. Then there is his cleaning lady, who (he says) requires his constant supervision in order to prevent the house from becoming a quagmire of filth. And finally there is the hapless Anna in Majorca, who has destroyed his peace of mind with her tragic widowhood so that he can’t write any more.
Here he is moaning about his sister:
At first I gave myself up to listening to music, then to studying the theory of music; first I devoted myself with the utmost intensity to the practical study of music, then to the theoretical, but my plans were all frustrated by my sister and everybody like her, whose lack of understanding dogs me day and night. She destroyed Jenufa for me, and Moses and Aaron, my essay On Rubinstein, and my article on Les Six, in fact everything I held sacred. It’s terrible: no sooner am I capable of a piece of intellectual work than my sister turns up and destroys it. It’s as if her sole aim in life were to destroy my intellectual work.
(Kindle Locations 62-67)
Detailing every moment of his inconsequential daily life, Rudolf shares his reflections on how his ambition to start writing first thing in the morning is thwarted for all sorts of petty reasons, and then he launches into the diatribe against his sister. Even now that she has left his house, he anticipates being interrupted.
Then, suddenly, I said to myself, Go to your desk, sit down, and write the first sentence of your study. Not cautiously, but decisively! But I hadn’t the strength. I stood there, hardly daring to breathe. If I sit down, there’ll at once be some interruption, some unforeseen incident. There’ll be a knock at the door, or a neighbour will call out, or the postman will ask for my signature. You must quite simply sit down and begin. Without thinking about it, as if you were asleep, you must get the first sentence down on paper, and so on. On the previous evening, when my sister was still here, I’d felt sure that in the morning, when she’d finally left, I should be able to start work, selecting from all the opening sentences I’d considered the only possible one, hence the right one, getting it down on paper and pressing on with the work relentlessly, on and on. When my sister is out of the house I shall be able to start, I kept telling myself, and once more I felt triumphant. When once the monster is out of the house my work will take shape automatically; I’ll gather together all the ideas relating to the study into one single idea, and this will be my work. But now my sister had been out of the house for well over twenty-four hours, and I was further than ever from being able to start work. My annihilator still had me in her power. She directed my steps and at the same time darkened my brain.
(Kindle Locations 142-152)
Rudolf’s failure is droll, but at the same time it is tragic. His petty self-delusions are grotesque, and his self-pity reaches its exasperating nadir when he tells us that Anna will have got over her husband’s tragic death long before he recovers from the anxiety he felt about it – but he is every author’s nightmare personified: writer’s block has imprisoned him and he cannot get free of it. All he can write about is this narcissistic rubbish, a denial of his intellectual aspirations and a catalogue of his lonely life.
I read this novel as a contributor to Stu’s Thomas Bernhard Week at Winston’s Dad.
Author: Thomas Bernhard
Title: Concrete (Beton)
Translated from the German by David McLintock
Publisher: Faber Finds, Faber & Faber 2013
Source: Personal copy, on the Kindle