Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2022

Correction, by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Sophie Wilkins

Germans may be considered to be more severe, but the works of the best-known Austrian authors available in English make the Austrians seem even less jolly.  Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) at least does display a wicked sense of humour in much of his fiction, but he, Peter Handke (b.1942) and Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek (b.1946) show a lot of angry intensity, tempered only by some melancholy, especially in Hendke’s later works. (The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by Michael Orthofer, Columbia University Press, 2016.)

Well, I can vouch for that.  Despite his recent Nobel, I am not inclined to read Handke, but my experience with Jelinek is that once was enough. And now that I’ve read two by Thomas Bernhard, that might be enough of that angry intensity too.

(Though Joe from Rough Ghosts enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Nephew so I remain open to trying that one too.  After a bit of time to recover.)

I enjoyed Concrete.  It amused me.  But as Orthofer says, Bernhard is master of the extended rant, and 250-odd pages of extended rant in Correction is A Lot.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 Edition) tells me that…Correction is Bernhard’s most sustained expression of his fascination with Wittgenstein.  While I am open to howls of derision when I say so, I reckon he was playfully channelling Wittgenstein in the logic of his thought, ‘atomising’ facts and systematically taking them apart to their logical conclusion.  Yes, I’m well aware that I’m reading a translation, but I’m thinking of recent discussions about the art of translation so I regard Sophie Wilkins’ translation as a collaboration with Bernhard and therefore close to his intention.

(As I confess at Goodreads) while I make no claim to have understood it, I have actually read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  (All of it.)  If (ignoring the layout) you follow the train of thought in T L-P, it’s not unlike Bernhard’s relentless logic.

1*         The world is all that is the case.
1.1        The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11      The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12      For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13      The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2        The world divides into facts.
1.21      Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.  (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Routledge Classics, 2001, first published in 1921)

(The layout of Correction, BTW is two long continuous paragraphs, separated into Parts 1 and 2.)

Bear with me…

The unnamed narrator tells us in Part I that he is the literary executor of Roithamer — who has some correspondences with the real-life Wittgenstein, except that Roithamer has committed suicide, and Wittgenstein did not.  This narrator is obsessed with Roithamer and is angst-ridden about the possible posthumous publication of Roithamer’s papers, especially his study of Altensam, which was his childhood home and a place that he loathed.  (Along with the rest of Austria).

Roithamer finished this paper in a great burst of energy after his sister died, but soon afterward…

…destroyed it again by starting to make corrections in it and correcting it over and over again until in the end he destroyed it entirely by his incessant corrections, during his stay in Hoeller’s garret after his sister’s death, he felt he had corrected it to death and so destroyed it, but as I know now, as I have ascertained in the shortest possible time of my stay here in Hoeller’s garret, he did not really destroy it by his utterly ruthless, hence utterly perfect corrections, but turned it into an entirely new work, because the destruction of his work by his own hand, by his keen mind which dealt most ruthlessly with his work was, after all, merely synonymous with the creation of an entirely new piece of work, he had gone on correcting his work until his work was not, as he thought, destroyed but rather a wholly new piece of work had been created.  (p.55)

Got that?  How many times did you have to read it to make sense of it? QED*, just like Wittgenstein… (only more loquacious.)

Anyway, the plot…

No, it’s not really a plot at all…

This unnamed narrator a.k.a. literary executor (and utterly unreliable because he’s losing his grip) is exploring the (crazed but hyper logical) mind of Roithamer through his extant writings.  Holed up in the same garret where R had lived before his suicide, the N is trying to understand R by experiencing what R did, and can’t start the work of sorting the papers until he’s absorbed the same ambience, looking down on the rushing waters of the river below.  He notes that it was a crazy place for Hoeller to have built this house, and it was while R was there that he conceived the idea of building an eccentric structure called The Cone for his sister, who had deliberately not been consulted and who didn’t want it at all.

Wittgenstein’s House, Vienna (Wikipedia)

(Wittgenstein did this too.  Wikipedia tells me that:

Bernhard used Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biography to intersperse aspects of Roithamer’s life with similarities and create at times a parallel narration. Wittgenstein was born into great wealth, taught at Cambridge, lived austerely, worked obsessively, and spent years carefully designing and building a house for his sister (currently the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in ViennaHaus Wittgenstein).

The Cone however, is not a Brutalist box, it is exactly that, a cone.  And Roithamer laid down very strict instructions for how his sister was to live in it.  Part 2 is where the narrator has resurrected the papers after a process of sifting and sorting, so we are meant to assume that these are Roithamer’s words. (But who knows, by now the reader has grasped the fact that the narrator has identified with all the weird aspects of R’s identity and has rewritten the text and ‘corrected it’ again.)

If the person domiciled in the Cone, my sister, in fact, should be tempted to assign specific functions to the individual chambers, for she is sure to be suddenly inclined and then impelled to designate the individual chambers as, say, a bedroom here and a workroom there and thirdly a kitchen andsoforth, she must remind herself, if necessary tell herself aloud, that the individual chambers are undesignated, though it is only natural for the chamber constructed as a meditation chamber to be designated as a meditation chamber.  The chambers are all whitewashed.  No windows but look-outs that are neither to be opened nor shut, natural airing of the inner-spaces always without having to open or shut the look-outs. Solar energy for heating.  Stone, bricks, glass, iron, nothing else.  The Cone is whitewashed outside and well as inside.  (p.150)

Along with his obsessive nature and intolerance for his native land (including even its education system), Roithamer is an example of extreme misogyny. He hates his mother.  He loathes her.  I tried to keep track of how many pages he devotes to ranting about her, and after five pages (pp.197-212) I thought it had come to the end but no, off he goes again until page 223.  He rants about her breeding and — when not calling her The Eferding Woman — he calls her The Butcher’s Daughter; he tells us about his petty arguments over the colour of a farm building; he raves about her vulgarity and how his father should never have married her and how he excluded her from Altensam society.  He goes off topic to blame his cousin’s suicide on an equally unfortunate marriage, and then comes back on track to tell us that his mother hated everything he did and didn’t do.  He even accuses her of hating Goethe’s Elective Affinities when she was trying to trap him into having some kind of accord with her.  That was going a bit too far, I thought…

It was Stu at Winston’s Dad who recommended this novel to me, and he was right when he wrote that…

…it’s hard to describe Bernhard’s books and not get lost in them.  He is a writer that twists and turns likes a snake.  His prose is slippery and hard to grasp hold of, thus making you as the reader take your time over them.

But the search for the perfect text is something that I admire too — thanks, Stu!

*Loved this, at Hacker News via Google: Is QED pretentious?
QED means you’ve proven something. It’s pretentious to use it when you’re not discussing a proof, and embarrassing to use it you’re just ranting and not even remotely proving anything.

Image credits:

Author: Thomas Bernhard
Title: Correction (Korrektur)
Translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins
Preface by George Steiner
Publisher: Vintage UK (Random House), 2003, first published in German in 1975, and in English in 1979
ISBN: 9780099442547, pbk., 249 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. I gave up on this after about 30 pp. wasn’t in the right place for this slippery stuff.

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    • I would have too, if I hadn’t promised Stu.
      But now I’m not sorry that I pressed on, even though it was difficult.

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  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I think that Bernhard is an interesting writer but not easy to comprehend in it’s entirety. I found aspects of Wittgenstein’s Nephew intriguing. The book is much about illness and depression so not always easy to read. Nevertheless even in translation there is a musicality to the prose. I remember the section on the Viennese café and the comments on the theatre. There is some ironic and dark humour too so definitely worth reading. On Wittgenstein I would recommend Ray Monk’s engaging biography.

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    • That’s encouraging, thank you. With two recommendations for it, maybe I should give Wittgenstein’s Nephew a go….

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  3. Gosh. I’ve not read Bernhard, though I do have a copy of Goethe Dies. I’m intrigued but a little intimidated, I confess…

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  4. Is there a thematic reason you think why he had Roithamer commit suicide, when Wittgenstein did not? Anyhow, it sounds like you’ve just read a sort of plot-less book like I have, but I think I like the sound of mine better!! Sorry!

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    • Well, finer minds than mine have grappled with this book (and all of them would probably say you should read it twice before having the temerity to say anything about it). but I think it’s because this Roithamer despite his verbosity, *thinks* like Wiitgenstein, and in the Tractatus, everything is reduced to its ultimate endpoint. Roithamer sees annihilation in this way as the goal of his writing, (his writing being his thought) to reduce it to the minimum, deconstructing everything unwanted or unnecessary until it is atomised, and then he destroys it. (Houellebecq wrote a similar book actually called Atomised in English, which I loathed, reducing everything to its crudest essence).
      So logically, he must annihilate himself,

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  5. Your description of counting pages reminded me that I had that experience myself once; when, as a reader, you are more often wholly engaged in story, the idea of stepping out, to recognise that a particular exclamation (or oration?) is hyper-extended really stands out!

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    • Indeed.
      Actually, it’s happening a bit with my current read, (Golden Miles) which is interesting because Katherine Susannah Prichard was a highly skilled mature writer when she wrote it, but it seems to me that she lets her ideology get a bit out of control in this one.

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  6. I’m going to stay away from this one.

    I thought that Concrete was funny too (and poignant in a way) I’ll stick to his theatre plays: the rants on stage are fabulous when well played.

    (PS: avoid Eve of Retirement, the characters are nauseating.)

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    • HI Emma, I’d love to see one of his plays on stage… I shall keep an eye out for a production.
      PS Thanks for the tip.

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      • If you have the opportunity to see the play Elisabeth II, go for it.

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