“Did I drive them away, all these people, or did they withdraw from me?”
John Self in the Asylum loved Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters while Tom at a Common Reader found it pointless. I wondered how I would feel about Bernhard and when the chance came to review Concrete , I grabbed it. Full review over at Mostly Fiction.
I’m not going to repeat the review, but I will say that Concrete is the closest thing I’ve ever read to the first section of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. Concrete (and the meaning of the title is horribly obvious by the end) is a 156 page rant narrated by a forty-five year old man named Rudolph who lives in Peiskam, Vienna. He suffers from sarcoidosis and is hopped up on prednisolone. Rudolph is the ultimate procrastinator who blames everyone else for his lack of progress on his masterpiece about Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Anyway for the full review go here.
Notes from Underground is wonderfully described by translator Richard Pevear as the “dialectic of isolated consciousness.” Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete is another example of the “dialectic of isolated consciousness,” and by its fundamental nature such a dialectic is contradictory, logically flawed, and repetitive. How can 156 pages of bitching and complaining be so funny? Here’s Rudolph ranting about dogs (btw, this is mid-rant; he’s already been at it for about a page when this quote takes place.)
People keep a dog and are ruled by this dog, and even Schopenhauer was ruled in the end not by his head, but by his dog. This fact is more depressing than any other. Fundamentally it was not Schopenhauer’s head that determined his thought, but Schopenhauer’s dog. It was not the head that hated Schopenhauer’s world, but Schopenhauer’s dog. I don’t have to be demented to assert that Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders and not a head. People love animals because they are incapable even of loving themselves. Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. They give the dog pride of place in their hypocrisy, which in the end becomes a public menace. They would rather save their dog from the guillotine than Voltaire. The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul. I don’t belong to the masses, I’ve been against the masses all my life, and I’m not in favour of dogs. What we call our love of animals has already wrought such havoc that if we were to think really hard about it we should be positively frightened to death. It isn’t as absurd as it may first appear when I say that the world owes its most terrible wars to its rulers’ love of animals. It’s all documented, and one ought to be clear about it for once.
There’s about 2 more pages ranting about dog ownership.
Here’s another quote mid-rant about a sortie Rudolph made into society with his sister. His sister announces to the “assembled company” that Rudolph is writing a book about Mendelssohn:
This evoked uproarious laughter from all these brainless people sitting in their repulsively soft armchairs, and one of them, a specialist in internal medicine from the neighbouring town of Vocklabruck, actually asked who Mendelssohn Bartholdy was. Whereupon my sister, with a devilish laugh, blurted out the word composer; which brought forth yet more sickening laughter from these people, who are all millionaires and all brainless, among them a number of seedy counts and sterile barons who go about year in and year out in leather shorts, the stench of which has been building up for decades, and occupy their pathetic days with gossip about society, illhealth and money.
Rudolph never stops. He’s always ranting about something, moving seamlessly from one rant to another. If you were trapped in a corner by this person, the rant wouldn’t be funny–it would be rather alarming, but here it’s funny. After ranting, repetitively (as ranters are wont to do) about whether or not to go on holiday Rudolph describes himself as “a man of quick decisions” and when there’s a slight delay in his plans, he notes to himself: “A damper has been put on your murderous impetuosity.”
If this is typical Bernhard style (and from reading other reviews, it sounds as though it is), as much as I loved Concrete I won’t want to read another novel too soon. To do so would be to spoil the flavour of Bernhard, and it’s probably time to step away from the loony. That said, The Lime Works will be my next Bernhard. It sounds even more demented than Concrete, if that’s possible. Now I’m ready for something completely different–a very rational set of essays about George Orwell.
My review copy is from Vintage with a translation from German by David McLintock.