A Final Observation
In 1963 Thomas Bernhard published his first book of prose. In this novel, Frost, he drafted the blueprint of a system (of a self-contained world) that remained in place in his succeeding books. With a minimum of exponentials—a spoken discourse and an ear (witness) that assimilates it—a maximum field of play (field of tension) is opened up for an unlimitedly monotonous, magnificent, ludicrous, terrifying, fascinating drama, a drama that is always the same and that is of such a universal nature that not merely a single situation, a single place, but even a single sentence (every sentence) a single word (every word) should be capable of expressing it. Every premiere performance of this drama is a repeat performance; every repeat performance a premiere performance. This drama is always, perhaps even in its very history of repeat performances, a trial of destruction. A trial whose origin is conceivably nature. Nature or the incestuous coupling of antitheses. Literary criticism, that court of first instance in the reception of contemporary literature, has been confronted with the output of this author for seven years. Very early on it was torn between two mutually contradictory positions, attraction and irritation. Approval and disapproval were not without pathos. Criticism was working with literary criteria and existential categories. It applied the usual catchphrases touching on thematic concerns and characterizing the author’s temperament. It recognized and accepted that his development consisted in repetition. The critics all agreed, in various shades of approval, that whether this person was truly modern or not, he certainly could write.
The parallels that were allusively drawn between Bernhard and other writers of the past or present afforded some degree of illumination. The sole attempt I know of to place his books under a conceptual umbrella—that of the anti-Great Austrian Novel—has misfired. At a relatively late point, considering that literary criticism has had sociological, psychoanalytical, and linguistic methods and perspectives at its disposal for quite some time, people began to ask whether these books could be come to terms with at all by means of purely literary criteria.
Thomas Bernhard does not make public pronouncements about his books. He does not engage in any literary debates. If the soundless interchange between the author writing his books and the critics writing about his books counts as a dialogue, the dialogue in this case has pursued a course not unlike that pursued by the conversation about the flood and the theatrical performance in Gargoyles. Doubtlessly literary criticism has a share in this complex process—an enigmatic one even on the level of clear-cut facts—that is termed an author’s “effect.” Thomas Bernhard was a well-known author before he had a sizable readership and before the attraction or irritation emanating from his books could be substantiated.
It is evident that the younger generation has recently begun to take a more attentive interest in this author, to auscultate his books. At any rate, thanks partly to the university seminar room, the past year has seen the almost simultaneous and mutually independent emergence of a series of critical works that have provided new starting points and outcomes. Books like those of Thomas Bernhard, books whose austere architecture is hidden under a semblance of anarchy, are highly susceptible to being misunderstood. With the utmost lucidity, the individual investigations highlight the systematic character and almost vertiginous consistency of a mode of thought that proceeds integratively rather than discursively. When read out of context, words like “theater,” “forest,” “dispersal” suddenly become relevant to the whole. In Bernhard the detail may in fact afford the shortest path to the center.
Thomas Bernhard’s body of work is not yet complete; equally incomplete is the controversy in which he is involved. The texts collected in this volume delineate a study of this incomplete corpus. The trial is not yet over.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Über Thomas Bernhard. Herausgegeben von Anneliese Botond [On Thomas Bernhard. Edited by Anneliese Botond] (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), pp. 139-141.