August 2003

Matthew Kirkpatrick


Three Novellas by Thomas Bernhard

Reading Thomas Bernhardís Three Novellas was like revisiting my teenage obsession with gothic music and The Metamorphosis and realizing that maybe it wasnít so corny after all. The subject matter in the three short works in this collection ranges from suicide and madness, to suicide and addiction, and back to madness (without the suicide), but does so deftly and stylishly, giving audiences unfamiliar with Bernhardís longer works a good introduction to this challenging Austrian writer without feeling too goth.

It is easy to draw comparisons to Kafka and Beckett, especially considering the themes in these novellas, but Bernhard is one of a kind. More audiences should familiarize themselves with his skillful, challenging writing, but his bleak subject matter and unfamiliar style will turn off those who cannot live without paragraphs and space breaks. Readers up to the challenge will be absorbed by the hypnotic rhythm of Bernhardís unique, philosophical voice.

Two of the three novellas were previously unavailable in English. "Amras," published in German in 1964 and Bernhardís second published fiction, opens the collection. It is the story of two brothers who commit themselves to live in a tower after they survive execution of a familial suicide pact. The novella is part epistolary, part journal, and partially composed of the secret writings of epileptic Walter, one of the brothers, who later succeeds in killing himself. Intensely psychological and fragmentary, "Amras" deals with the brothers' ponderings on life and death and the living brother lamentations that he himself is not dead. Of the three novellas in the collection, this is probably the easiest to read because it predated Bernhardís paragraph-less stylistic mode.

"Playing Watten," first published in German in 1969, is a more upbeat, almost humorous story. It is still very dark--suicide again is a main theme--but, after reading "Amras," I suspect this is as light as Bernhard gets. This novella is about a junkie doctor who quits his regular Wednesday card game after another player kills himself. The doctor is visited by a truck driver who tries to convince him to return to the game, and Bernhard details the doctor's feelings about life and the game and how he cannot be consoled.

While the story takes a tonal swing toward the positive, it introduces the reader to two of Bernhardís greatest challenges: a lack of paragraphs and frequent repetition. Reading the word "watten" (a card game comparable to bridge) written again and again can be a bit maddening, but then, that repetition is part of the enjoyment of this novella.

The third novella, "Walking" was first published in German in 1971 and is the most mature, most difficult work in this collection. "Walking" is structured around two men out for a stroll and discussing their insane friend who has recently been committed. Through their conversation, the narrator recounts their political and philosophical views, always leading back to their crazy friend.

Much of the novella's structure provides a framework for Bernhardís socio-political meandering, such as the friend's suggestion that humans stop reproducing so the species will die out. The writing is again repetitive, but the repetition eventually seduces the reader into the strange nature of the friends' discussion. Despite its difficulties, the writing is beautiful; even if you donít enjoy weighty writing or agree with Bernhardís sometimes heavy-handed views on society, the prose can be appreciated for its beauty alone.

The narrator of "Amras" could be talking about Bernhard when he says that "We were, as you know all too well, sworn enemies of prose." Bernhard certainly set out to create something unlike any other prose by broaching uncommonly dark themes in his unique style. It is easy to get lost in the maze he created, and at times I felt like I myself was going mad and destined for suicide while waiting for a paragraph, but the journey was ultimately rewarding. So dust off your Bauhaus records and throw one on the turntable, enjoying them again as the soundtrack to Bernhardís bleak, beautiful landscape.

Three Novellas by Thomas Bernhard
The University of Chicago Press
174 Pages