Thomas Bernhard's novels constitute perhaps the most enigmatic prose reading experience of my life. His novels are brilliant puzzles, and a single reaThomas Bernhard's novels constitute perhaps the most enigmatic prose reading experience of my life. His novels are brilliant puzzles, and a single reading will probably not vouchsafe you all of a given novel's secrets. Correction seems a prime example. Here we are again with the typical first-person Bernhard narrator, a highly unreliable, socially connected but insensitive individual, who's circular in his reasoning, repetitious in his verbal style, almost monomaniacal in his focus, and whose torrent of words cunningly excludes subjects about which we would like to know more.
At the start of Correction, Roithamer, the polymath, an Austrian-born scientist teaching at Cambridge University, has just committed suicide shortly after the completion of a massive, rural architecture project, known as the Cone, for his beloved sister. The unnamed narrator, a peer and boyhood friend of Roithamer, presents a hagiographic overview early on of the late man's work; though in fact it is remarkably devoid of specifics. This fellow was named by Roithamer as his literary executor. The book starts when he shows up at a house of a taxidermist by the name of Hoeller, another boyhood friend of Roithamer, whose new home on the Aurach gorge contains the garret in which the great man did most of his intellectual work. It was here, inspired by Hoeller's daring new house, that Roithamer devised the Cone and planned and executed its construction over six years.
It is never made clear what the narrator, who seems an eerie doppleganger of the dead Roithamer, or the deceased genius himself for that matter, are supposed to be famous for. All we know about Roithamer is that he's in the natural sciences, and that he both teaches and studies at Cambridge. Of the narrator we know even less, except that he was once upbraided by Roithamer for following his (Roithamer's) ideas with too slavish an allegiance. No one but the unnamed narrator is even allowed to speak in the novel, except Roithamer himself, and then only through the texts he's left behind. There's no dialogue per se, no real-time verbal exchanges. This is very strange, and suggests a kind of jealous guarding of the narrative by the narrator. Hoeller is not allowed to speak even when spoken to, nor his wife, nor their children, nor are recollected friends and acquaintances ever allowed to say anything. So we're left with a single ranting voice, page after page, dense pages without paragraphs. The novel is in fact a single unbroken chunk of text. (Question: Does the narrator's repetitiveness of key phrases remind any of my GR friends of a similar device used by Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans?)
Anyway, slowly, up there in Hoeller's garret, like Roithamer before him, our narrator begins to unravel. Is he, in his dopplegangerness, intentionally repeating the pattern of behavior that took Roithamer's life? Is he that much of a sycophant? Or is he being subjected to the same stresses that drove Roithamer to take his own life? Will the narrator soon take his life? The setting of Hoeller's house on the edge of the Aurach gorge, amid the rush of turbulent waters, and the craziness not only of building a house there, but of living in such a house, is a large part of the narrator's, as it was Roithamer's, fascination with the place. It's when the narrator begins to go bonkers in the garret himself that the doubleness and connection of narrator and acolyte seems to crystalize.
Moreover, Roithamer has built his Cone for his sister in the depths of the Kobernausser forest without ever talking to her about either her willingness to live in such an isolated structure, or even if she wants such a place, even as a occasional retreat. He bases his design, he tells us, on his lifelong "observation" of his sister's character. Apparently this does not include one-on-one conversation. Right after this revelation, which left this reader astonished and a little breathless, he turns right around and lambastes contemporary architects for their inability to "investigate" their clients. The suggestion is that some kind of intellectual assessment, apart from anything a client might have to say, should be the overarching design criterion; though this something is never explicitly named.
This section seems to resolve itself into a statement on the prerogatives of the artist or creator and the manner in which the artist or creator should think and process his thoughts. Roithamer's approach is idiosyncratic, to say the least. For instance, not only should his sister not be consulted about the construction of the Cone, to which, we soon learn, she is averse to living in. But Roithamer must undertake the actual construction of the Cone, not on-site where the building will rise, but from Hoeller's garret, because this is where his thoughts can most readily reach fruition. A large portion of the posthumous writings are dedicated to a rant-filled recapitulation of injustices done by his parents to Roithamer during childhood. Each offence, it seems, is remembered. Each is deplored at length. Here is someone who never got over his dysfuctional childhood. He's stuck with a chip on his shoulder. He has never undergone the growth of character necessary to put those early experiences behind him, something I believe all adults must eventually try to do. He is self-pitying. This is tragic and pathetic. 'Get over it,' one thinks. But Roithamer cannot. He was long ago arrested in his emotional development, and his inability to move on--to recognize the fundamental imperfection of daily life and yet to live it fully and purposefully anyway--kills him. Character is fate.
Highly recommended, but brace yourself for a dark, dense, sexless, misogynistic, icy-hearted read....more
This is the story of the creation of the modern day Ukraine. The author has used the biography of a Habsburg archduke to tell the tale, much in the maThis is the story of the creation of the modern day Ukraine. The author has used the biography of a Habsburg archduke to tell the tale, much in the manner that Neil Sheehan used the life of John Paul Vann in A Bright Shining Lie to tell the story of America's involvement in Viet Nam. As late as 1918, it turns out, "Ukraine" was little more than a Russian backwater, though a highly productive one agriculturally. The Russian revolution was the direct result of German foreign policy. In the spring of 1917 Germany sent Lenin and Bakunin back to Russia in a sealed train. On arrival Lenin stated that Russia should exit the war. When the Russian civil war started, allies Germany and Austria pushed deeply into Russia, capturing land that would ultimately be claimed as the homeland of the vast Ukrainian-speaking population. Actually, no such state ever existed before. But there were numerous local legends and folk tales that Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg used to create the modern myth of a united Ukraine. Now Wilhelm had a genuine love of Ukrainians and their culture, and he was enormously beloved by Ukrainians even though they knew he was a Hapsburg. That's the strange part.
This severe, judgemental little book is solely about the politics -- internal and external -- of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary in the yearsThis severe, judgemental little book is solely about the politics -- internal and external -- of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary in the years stated. There is nothing in it about wars fought, just passing references to their having occurred. There's virtually nothing in it about cultural life. The biographies of those involved are kept slender. The focus is exclusively on the Emperors' courts at Vienna and the many permutations that the monarchy went through -- who its ministers were and what their mistakes and successes were and who they dealt with abroad -- to manage a vast, polyglot state which eventually collapsed along nationalist and cultural lines. Lacking descriptive color, it can be very dry. On the other hand, I know of no more condensed survey of all the socio-historic trends and economic pressures the state was subject to in that period. Especially recommended for those with an interest in how Austria handled the Revolution of 1848 and it's run-up to the first world war....more
A portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparentlA portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparently little in the way of strategic planning. The growth of nationalism among its polyglot population is viewed by Emperor Franz Joseph with trepidation, but ultimately the official attitude is wait and see. We as readers know these nationalist pressures will tear the Empire apart in 1914 when, in Sarajevo, Serb Gavrilo Princep blows a hole in Archduke Franz Ferdinand's neck. But in 1888 the monarchy seems either oblivious or in denial, perhaps a little of both. Only Crown Prince Rudolph and those of his immediate circle possess insight into the unsustainable imperial trajectory.
The Crown Prince is a fascinating paradox. He's well educated and liberal, a noble who's at heart a republican. His fondest wish is to see his kind expunged from state affairs. He knows the government is in desperate need of reform. Yet despite his lofty rank, his legions of admirers, he possesses no real power to effect change. The emperor employs his intelligence apparatus to spy on him. Agents follow him about and monitor his telegrams. The burden of protocol is overwhelming, but Rudolph seems to bear up well until the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The occasion is Emperor Franz Joseph's fifty-sixth birthday. Rudolph, who prefers the company of the so-called commoners to the moribund aristocracy, despises Wilhelm for his empty pan-German rhetoric. Yet he must toast him, must follow him about like a puppy, so the Kaiser won't grandstand at this or that reception about the virtues of the Greater Reich. He's stuck in this empty diplomatic role, smiling and toasting a man he despises. He's good at it. His manners are Old World. Understandably, he grows depressed.
There can be no question of Rudolph taking a mistress from among the nobility. His marriage to a cipher was a function of politics, not love. The noble ladies set their sights on him but he is emphatically not interested. Things look bleak indeed. Then he sees Mary Vetsera at one of the few social events where commoners and nobles can intermingle. At the new Court Theater they observe each other with opera glasses. Mary is 18 and Rudolph is 30. He's heard of her, of course. Mary's mother is a skillful social climber who's handed her gifts on to her daughter. Mary's a "lady of fashion" whose every new ensemble makes the society pages. Their liaisons are complex, arranged by a Vetsera family friend. There is much scuttling about labyrinthine corridors, much zigzagging about town to shake persistent tails.
Soon they are both dead from a suicide pact. Mary's corpse is spirited away by family members and buried without ceremony. Rudolph is given a funeral the likes of which are perhaps no longer seen in our day. His death rocks the empire. Of his final messages for others, he leaves not one word, not a syllable, addressed to his father.
The book is a portrait of a vanished era as much as it is a tale of star-crossed lovers. Along with Rudolph and Mary's story we're given a look at the cultural life of Vienna. The artist bios are beautifully compressed. We peek into the young lives of Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Wolf, and Sigmund Freud--all in their twenties--as well as older established artists like Aaron Bruckner and Johannes Brahms. Vienna is a vast overwrought Baroque wedding cake. Morton brilliantly transforms the boulevard of braggadocio, the new Ringstrasse, into a fitting central metaphor for the posturing and decorum of a vast, fragmenting empire oblivious of the ticking clock. Wonderfully vivid and highly recommended....more
This is a wonderful novel. The title is ironic. The writing dazzles. Occasionally, just occasionally, I come across a book that wallops me into silencThis is a wonderful novel. The title is ironic. The writing dazzles. Occasionally, just occasionally, I come across a book that wallops me into silence. . . . ...more
This is about a European walking tour begun by the author in 1933. He was 18 at the time and his budget was 4 a month, sent poste restant to him alongThis is about a European walking tour begun by the author in 1933. He was 18 at the time and his budget was £4 a month, sent poste restant to him along his route. The book’s unusual intellectual depth derives from the fact that he did not write the memoir until much later in life. This first volume, of three, appeared in his 62nd year.
Leigh Fermor’s departure from London takes the form of a lengthy description of his steamer, the Stadthouder, pulling away from Irongate Wharf under Tower Bridge on a rainy night. His literary technique here is to slow the moment down through excess description as if to savor it. This is just the first spate of very rich description that one gets throughout.
He naps in the pilot house and is in snowy Holland in a blink. Here everything reminds him of Dutch painting. On the third or fourth night he sleeps above a blacksmith's shop. Promptly at six he’s awakened by the clanging hammer, the hiss of hot metal in water, the smell of singeing horn as a horse is shoed. Heading for the German border, he comes across a belfry and, almost reflexively, climbs it:
The whole kingdom was revealed. The two great rivers loitered across it with their scattering of ships and their barge processions and their tributaries. There were the polders and the dykes and the long willow-bordered canals, the heath and arable and pasture dotted with stationary and expectant cattle, windmills and farms and answering belfries, bare rookeries with their wheeling specks just within earshot and a castle or two, half-concealed among a ruffle of woods. (p.34)
His trek across Germany comes at the very start of the Thousand Year Reich. Hitler has been Chancellor just nine months. The people he meets are wonderful. He picks up two fräuleins in Stuttgart--he was strikingly handsome--who don't let him go for days. The parents happen to be away at the time.
There's a funny evening when one of the girls must attend a party held by a business associate of her father. The German host is a Nazi and a man of high, conspicuous style. His ghastly modern villa is deprecated at length. Leigh Fermor watches as the host hits on each young woman in turn, cornering them in his study, and is rejected by both. This does nothing for his standing among other guests. (He styles himself the young woman's cousin, named Brown.) His host introduces him around as the "English globetrotter," which PLF resents. Most amusing is their departure. To protect the girls' reputation he must tell the host he's staying at a nearby hotel, when of course he's sleeping on their sofa:
We had to take care about conversation because of the chauffeur. A few minutes later, he was opening the door of the car with a flourish of his cockaded cap before the door of the hotel and after fake farewells, I strolled about the hall of the Graf Zeppelin for a last puff on the ogre [his host's] cigar. When the coast was clear I hared through the streets and into the lift and up to the flat. They were waiting with the door open and we burst into a dance. (p. 80)
Then he's in Bavaria wrestling strapping peasants on beer hall floors for fun, losing his precious notebook, his walking stick, and waking "catatonic" with hangover, or, as it's called in Germany, katzenjammer. The holidays pass and on 11 February 1934 he turns 19.
He undertakes a recapitulation of his reading at the time, much of it Latin and Greek, which left me envious of his failed classical education. Though he was a terrible student — a scrapper and practical joker it seems — he ended up a formidable linguist, who, only a few years later during the war, along with his unit--he was in uniform by then--successfully kidnapped a German general in Crete. This would make him a national war hero, but I rush ahead.
In Austria, as in Germany, he has occasion, between his nights in peasants’ stables and hutches, to find himself lodged amid extraordinary grandeur. He had the foresight to arrange a number of introductions on the continent. In Austria he fetches up at the schloss of K.u.K. Kämmerer u. Rittmeister i.R., Count Gräfin of the late dual monarchy.
The count was old and frail. He resembled, a little, Max Beerbohm in later life, with a touch of Franz Joseph minus the white side-whiskers. I admired his attire, the soft buckskin knee-breeches and gleaming brogues and a gray and green loden jacket with horn buttons and green lapels. These were accompanied out-of-doors by the green felt hat with its curling blackcock's tail-feather which I had seen among a score of walking sticks in the hall. (p. 137)
We move on to an assessment of the quintessential Austrian schloss. It myriad details are considered, as well as certain regional variations. The disquisition on German painting (Cranach, Bruegel, Altsdorfer, Dürer, etc.) has the righteous authorial tone of Robert Hughes. Especially interesting is the author’s point about the lush technique of the Italian Renaissance hardening into a grotesque and visceral style in the north due to the brutal wars of the period. (See C.V. Wedgwood's fine The Thirty Years War which he extols in a note.).
We also get details of the Danube's history, its flora and fauna (including a predacious 15-foot catfish known as the Wels). The author's not infrequent late nights at the various inns along the way are colorful. The one five miles from Ybbs "was made of wood, leather or horn and the chandelier was an interlock of antlers."
A tireless accordionist accompanied the singing and through the thickening haze of wine, even the soppiest songs sounded charming: 'Sag beim Abschied leise "Servus,"' 'Adieu, mein kleiner Gardeoffizier,' and 'In einer kleinen Konditorei.' . . . The one I liked most was the Andreas-Hofer-Lied, a moving lament for the great mountain leader of the Tyrolese against Napoleon's armies, executed in Mantua and mourned ever since. (p. 170)
The section on the migrations of peoples I found particularly dense. One thing you have to say for PLF, he does not write down to his reader. He assumes you have much the same knowledge or educational grounding as he does, and for those of his generation this was by and large true.
Always hovering is the horror of the Holocaust to come. It's 1934 after all. But it's not until he enters Köbölkut in the marches of Hungary, and finds himself among the roughhewn peasantry in a local church on Maunday Thursday, listening to the Tenebrae, then, in search of a bed for the night, when he finds himself talking to the local Jewish baker, that the weight of the inevitable hits the reader and the effect is is one of deep dread.
The church had lost its tenebrous mystery. But, by the end of the service a compelling aura of extinction, emptiness and shrouded symbols pervaded the building. It spread through the village and over the surrounding fields. I could feel it even after Köbölkut had fallen below the horizon. The atmosphere of desolation carries far beyond the range of a tolling bell. (p. 299)
I gave the book four stars because the style is very dense and I never quite acclimated to it. I find PLF here at times too humorless and didactic. There's a smell of the lamp, true, but there’s also much that’s wonderful. He's clearly drunk on the history of the Danube basin and he has a gift for making languages interesting on the page even for those who do not speak them. That cannot have been an easy task, but he does it. Particularly interesting was how one almost watches him pick up German, writing about the change of dialects along the way.
There’s so much more I’m not touching on. Bratislava and his friend there, Hans, the banker; the last-minute train trip with Hans to Prague in the snow, a backtrack to the only city on his 2000-plus mile route he does not enter on foot; his discussion the following morning with the Jewish baker's Hasidic heritage; the time he's held at gunpoint on the Austria-Czech border when he's thought to be a smuggler; his contemplative loitering on the bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, the Basilica of Esztergom looming overhead, the Danube rushing below.
But for all it’s verbal richness A Time of Gifts can be at times a bit of a slog. One never careers happily through it. One is always aware of the great erudition, the trumping vocabulary, etc. It is in the end like a cloying, too rich desert. If you’re inclined to indulge, as many will be, (for the book is very highly regarded), so much the better for you....more
This book is a masterpiece of intellectual biography. If you have an interest in WWII or National Socialism--especially the operational aspects of theThis book is a masterpiece of intellectual biography. If you have an interest in WWII or National Socialism--especially the operational aspects of the war for Speer was head of war materiel toward the end--this is the book for you. If you have an interest in the twisted mind of Hitler, with whom Speer was about as close as another human could be, this is the book for you. There's also a critical review of Speer's architecture; much of it overscale and ghastly but with a few successes such as the Cathedral of Light. Sereny worked closely with Speer on the book, though he had no input into its content or structure. Her prose has great moral weight. She readily exposes Speer's rationalizations and half-truths, his prevarications and denials in the most direct and meaningful way. Speer squirms under her scrutiny. He is plainly a doomed man. He can know no repose in this life, only the final release of death. There is the sense that he knows he has to cooperate, that he knows his Spandau memoirs lack crucial insight and rigor. Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth may be the finest biography I have ever read. I will re-read it soon. ...more
An Austrian musicologist has been trying to begin work on a book about a favorite composer for ten years, but he's blocked. He lives in a rather grandAn Austrian musicologist has been trying to begin work on a book about a favorite composer for ten years, but he's blocked. He lives in a rather grand family house bequeathed to him by his parents. He's the most equivocating, self-contradictory man on earth. He hates his sister, despises the Viennese social life and business career she's made for herself, but at the same time he loves her and believes her correct in everything she says. He extends this vacillation to himself and his projects, the Austrian winter, the house he lives in, his country's politicians, on and on. It all makes him want to "vomit" For the first 100 pages or so the writing is very chatty. It's all voice with little description, certainly no plot or development of other characters. It's a monologue, a single individual's solipsistic rant about how difficult and awful his life is (how he's suffered and why he deserves better). He's oddly loquacious on the subject of his misery, but he can write nothing about the maestro. So he turns the dysfunctional critical apparatus on himself and others. He's nothing if not opinionated. The only problem is that no opinion he possesses ever holds for long. He's always eager to quickly embrace its opposite. He has no set positions in his view of himself. Nothing is known, nothing can be known. There is no center, no balance, no perspective. Just a continual acceptance and subsequent rejection of self, work, society, family and so on. The critics I have read tend to embrace positions only after years of deliberation. Our narrator possesses nothing like this capability. Everything's in flux. There's the sense of someone's thoughts hurtling along at breakneck speed, not knowing from one moment to next how they will change. Finally he is able to get himself out of Austria and to a favorite vacation haunt: Palma, Majorca. Once there the velocity of the narration slows as he begins to tell us the story of someone he met in that city 18 months before. Her name is Anna Hardtl. A year and a half ago Anna told him the story of the death of her 23 year old husband. Our narrator's own travails seem truly puny by comparison. Worse is the implied understanding on his part that he could have helped Anna 18 months before but chose not to do so. The opportunity for compassion was there, but he fails to follow up on it. This is the note on which the novel ends....more
The great paradox of this Bernhard narrator is his hypercritical nature, which is often in conflict with itself, and, for the entire book, his utter sThe great paradox of this Bernhard narrator is his hypercritical nature, which is often in conflict with itself, and, for the entire book, his utter static physical presence. Indeed, he never moves, except to the next room and back for the whole of the book, which takes place during a single day. The phase he uses constantly is: "I thought, sitting in the wing chair." This unnamed narrator has returned to Vienna for the first time in thirty years, from his self-imposed exile in London.
Since his return he has spent a portion of each day walking up and down Vienna's streets, most recently the Graben and the Karntnerstrasse. Here he runs into old associates, the Auerbergers, who were lovers and mentors thirty years before, but whom he now despises with a passion that is often laughable in its boundlessness. The entire book is an internal monologue of rage. Everyone he was friendly with 30 years ago he now despises. He is appalled by the fact that he has actually attended this so-called artistic dinner. Why did he come? He doesn't know. He is indifferent to nothing. Anything and everything provokes an almost out of control rage. He seeths with perceived slights. Yet, he says nothing. He is as much controlled by the social contract as anyone at the dinner. Indeed, perhaps more so, since a few others are at least not afraid to make their displeasure known when they hear an opinion they disagree with.
Coincidentally, on the same day as the dinner, Joana, an old associate, hangs herself. All the action takes place during a single day. In the morning, everyone is at the funeral who will that evening attend the artistic dinner in honor of an actor currently playing Ekdal in a production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck at the Burgtheater. The narrator knows better than to get worked up. He repeatedly berates himself for giving way to his hysteria, but then just as quickly he is right back at it. He cannot help himself. Now why? Why does he sit there and seeth and yet bottle it up. Well, you see, he is a writer. This is his process; this is his subject matter. The book we have just read is the product of that terrible evening....more
A highly readable work of dazzling intensity. The novella is based in part on a true story: author Bernhard's friendship with philosopher Ludwig WittgA highly readable work of dazzling intensity. The novella is based in part on a true story: author Bernhard's friendship with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's grand nephew, Paul. Prepare yourself for a blast of intellectually dense but very compelling--and funny--writing. The book is at bottom a great howl of rage against death. Bernhard in his day (1931-1989) was perhaps Austria's most controversial novelist/playwright. The narrator, based on Bernhard, and his familiar, Paul Wittgenstein, share a rare friendship. They're the sort of people who laugh at others in public places out of a false sense of superiority. They are compassion-free. Neither ever transcends his own boyish rage. Bernhard, in fact, made his name on his rage. Paul Wittgenstein's rage, by contrast, turned to madness.
We start with the Bernhard character lying in the lung ward of a Vienna hospital, the Wilhelminenberg. Here he begins the tale of his friendship with Paul. Bernhard is in the lung ward, and Paul is in the mental health ward. They have astonishingly similar tastes. They both love philosophy and music. Paul, like his famous relation, is from a family of mercantilists (munitions, I think). And Bernhard does his best to paint them as philistines, notoriously hostile to art and culture. Paul, like Ludwig, must reject his family if he is to survive. For the first half of his life, he is fabulously rich and travels widely. Then he exhausts his pile and must live like a pauper for the rest of his days. He's in and out of the Wilhelminenberg mental facility every six months. There he receives shock treatments and is locked into a cage that surrounds his bed. Bernhard describes Paul's treatments as a kind of breaking of his spirit. Once his spirit is broken and his weight dramatically down he is released. Then the cycle starts over again.
But wait--it occurs to me now that I was not really precise in saying that the two friends are compassion-free. Certainly, based on this brief text, it can be said that the two main characters' friendship, no doubt intellectually rich, was floated upon a certain cynical rage and hatred of others. Wittgenstein's Nephew by contrast is an exercise--albeit a tardy one--in compassion. Bernhard has written this tribute to his friend in which he excoriates himself for abandoning Paul during his final sad days. But he could not, being an invalid himself, meet death face on. He was too afraid. He admits his cowardice. So Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's apologia. He wants us to know who his friend was and how he failed him. He is nothing if not painfully honest. A wrenching but enthralling novella....more