Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reading Bernhard - Gargoyles

It is true that perhaps I would have paid little attention to Thomas Bernhard and his writing if Sebald had not been compared to him. By Sebald's own admission, Bernhard's influence on his writing is tremendous - an admission which makes it hard to ignore Bernhard.
It was surprisingly hard, then, to find Bernhard's books. Even on the online bookstores, his books have remained elusive. I am still hunting for Wittgenstein's Nephew (actually just recently found and ordered it), Old Masters - even the Losers. What I did manage to find, were two of his books - Frost & Gargoyles. I have already picked up and shelved Frost - it perhaps requires a different frame of mind, one upbeat enough to net the despair in stead of getting caught in it, and it will take me some time to get there.
Gargoyles, on the other hand has been a great read. (To describe Thomas Bernhard's books a joy or delight would be perhaps a defeat of his oeuvre). Each of the character in the book, except for the narrator, seems to be a gargoyle - an ugly oddity which serves a vague role.
The narrator has come home from his mining college for a weekend, and goes out with his doctor father on one of his medical rounds of the region. As expected from a medical visit, there is an engulfing sickness, but wrapped with it is also the unsettling oddity of human nature. The road that starts with a senseless battering of an innkeeper's wife, goes to a writer living in seclusion with his half-sister, to a caged young cripple tended by his young sister, to an old lady who had once sheltered her murderer brother. And then a mad prince, who rants about a flood, about some applicants for the role of his stewards, about family and a long long dream about what his son is writing. In this dream writing, he imagines his own death, his son's insistence on the destruction of his estate and a dialogue between his son and the town clerk.
What could be more insane - everyone who is met seems to have a dark life. The despair seems to become most pronounced in the story of an avian massacre in a haunting gorge. The stench of the scene is so strong that it permeates through the book into the living room.
Why would someone want to write of so much misery, monstrosity? Bernhard seems obsessed with the idea of human fallacy and sees only the worst in humanity. The city of Salzburg which charms so many people visiting it, was to him a 'terminal disease'.
But it would be wrong to refuse to face the fact that everything is fundamentally sick and sad...
This single statement seems to define his work, his outlook, his themes.

Reading Gargoyle, or even the few pages of Frost, I find it difficult to see the parallel between Sebald and Bernhard. Sebald's affair with misery is more of an external nature - a catastrophe, a natural decay, the destruction wrought by passage of time, a holocaust. His people are helpless people caught in this destruction, marked emotionally with the destruction. And his misery is as much about places as about people, while the harshness of Austria remains only a backdrop to Bernhard's writing. What is common, perhaps are the monologues of their characters, but while Sebald's stories are melancholic, Bernhard's monologue is more desperate, taunting and bleak.

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