Ben Winch's Reviews > Gargoyles

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
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bookshelves: mainland-european, austrian

I notice some bad reviews for this one by folk who otherwise love Bernhard, and I have to say they puzzle me. In fact, the whole cult of Bernhard - which I've only really discovered since coming to Goodreads - puzzles me in some way, as does (I suppose) my own cultish behaviour towards him in the years when I read him often. Not that I ever really worshipped the guy, but I kept reading, partly just from a desire to find out why anyone would be driven to write as he did. Thus, after starting with the middle-period (The Loser, Concrete, Wittgenstein's Nephew, Woodcutters), I then turned backwards, to The Lime Works and Correction, and possibly would have stopped there, feeling that with Correction I'd at least grasped something of the deeper feeling that might motivate him; but still I wanted to see the style evolve, to catch it at its genesis, and so I went back still further to Gargoyles.

The reason why I find the 'cult of Bernhard' puzzling is that I can't understand why anyone would want to give each of these books so much attention in isolation, as if they really were the unique works they purport to be rather than just successive chapters of the same book. (I can almost see it, this book: an endless roll like Kerouac's On the Road manuscript, from which the master simply cuts off suitably-sized chunks when it's time to publish.) Once he reaches Concrete, especially, it seems to me he's boiled it down to its essence: the setting that made Correction so powerful is gone, as is the grotesque crime and heresay surrounding it of The Lime Works, and though the style is more streamlined and effective and funnier than ever, in the end the book elicits more of a shrug and a half-perplexed/half-excited looking to his other works for clues than an inherent feeling of recognition. The Loser, too. Woodcutters was brilliant, though mainly for the thrill of hearing him rip apart state arts institutions and the 'scenes' they foster, but still it seemed more of the same only slightly more focussed again, and maybe slightly more personal.

So I was excited to see that Gargoyles was, on a superficial level at least, not more of the same. And to my mind, even without the single-paragraph-rant structure that defines the later books, Bernhard's prose is something special. I liked that it was simple, that it concerned itself (for once!) with things and scenes and actions and not just emotions. I loved the scene with the birds (I can still see it) and the horrible characters the narrator and his father met along the way. But Jeez, if I was looking for a clue as to what made Bernhard Bernhard I didn't find it: suddenly, about halfway through, he just is, as soon as father and son meet that crazy prince and start listening to his draining, baffling and unmistakeably Bernhardian rant. And yes, I agree that this rant is less satisfying than the others - unfocussed and cryptic and straight-up annoying. But the getting there, from memory, was pretty great, and it's that part that stays with me.

Other works outside of the generally-accepted (in English) Bernhard mode are the plays (Histrionics) and the early stories (Prose), both of which I found as illuminating as many of his better-known works and - in the case of Prose - about as helpful as Gargoyles in understanding his later direction (which is to say you can see the connection if not the transition). Frost I couldn't get into (perhaps I'd had enough by then) and I haven't looked at the 3 early novellas. As to the poetry (In Hora Mortis), for me that was the last straw: cosmic joke or poe-faced juvenilia, I just couldn't tell. Not that it seemed pointless necessarily, but in English, and with so little clue as to how to read it, it was definitely abstruse. And I never got to Extinction.

One thing I will say about that 'Bernhard phase': even as I went through it I began to suspect that there was something indulgent about it - almost... decadent, for want of a better word - despite that on the surface these would seem to be the most austere of novels. It didn't help that those Phoenix editions were so beautiful (even before I'd read him The Lime Works had always attracted me simply for its cover, and the texture of its paper, and the binding), or so expensive and rare in Australia. By the time I made it to Gargoyles I remember distinctly feeling almost guilty at buying it, as if it were really 'only' a luxury. Not only that, but I played up my love for him to justify my buying it! But now I wonder, was it partly just that I didn't know who else to read? And at the same time, was I self-flagellating by forcing myself through the torturous mental gymnastics of his novels, as if to say, 'Well, if I can't read something that really moves me I'll at least read something challenging,' to keep my mind in training, so to speak?

The guy's amazing, no question. And the translations are second to none - incredible, in the new understanding they bring to our grasp of what can be done with English. Also you can see his influence everywhere: from German-speaking proteges Jelinek and Sebald to Bolano and Krasznahorkai. But I guess after all I've read of him I remain to be convinced that he's quite on the level of Kafka or Beckett. Kafka? Bernhard could probably write circles around him technically but Kafka's imagination, his heart, his vision, his scope - all seem of another order entirely. And Beckett? Maybe I'm wrong, but at first glance he'd have to be the single biggest influence (in fiction, at least) on the ornery Austrian, and again his scope is broader by far. (Not for Bernhard that reinvention-with-every-text that defines his antecedent.) Added to which, where Beckett or Kafka have crossed over into a world apart, Bernhard's narrators seem always to be on the threshold of that world, half-dissolved in the fog that separates the two, but unable to go further, and this (whether it's the author's intention or not) can get preternaturally frustrating. In one sense, the first half of Gargoyles is imaginitive writing of another order from what Bernhard achieves in much of his fiction, because it fleshes out a world that is matched in intensity only by the Aurarch Gorge and Kobernasser Forest of Correction (the fact that I remember those foreign names to this day, 5-10 years after reading them, is testament to that world's power) and, maybe, by the infamous lime works where Konrad shoots his wife with the Manlicher carbine strapped to her wheelchair. By the later phase, Bernhard's narrators rarely move from their wing-chairs or writing desks, adding to the sense that they are secretly the one character.

I realise Bernhard is an author for whom the normal standards do not apply. I also admire him off the scale for having the balls to rip to shreds the institutions he does. But I guess I question how often he really engaged us with his heart in these books and how much was just flash and luxuriant verbage. In another world, where he didn't have this rapturous cult following, I'd possibly be saying the opposite (and usually it is me recommending him, to fans of Sebald for example); maybe I'm just playing devil's advocate. But someone's gotta do it. Until I start re-reading I probably won't know the answers to these questions, but Bernhardians, I'd be curious to know where you stand. Is Bernhard, even slightly, a guilty pleasure? And is it necessary to have masochistic tendencies to enjoy him?

One last thing: Normally I recommend Woodcutters as the best introduction to Bernhard, but it's been too long since I read it for me to offer an intelligent review just now. I will say that psychologically it seems (along with Correction) the most well-rounded; it is also the funniest and it's a treat to see the narrator deep in enemy territory (amid Vienna society) rather than hiding out in the country as usual. Alternatively, for a concentrated dose of what makes Bernhard Bernhard I recommend Concrete. But for those who already have the bug, I advocate a dip into his early work.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 1, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Well done on this Berhardian review! So you reckon Concrete is Bernhard's Sleeping Muse (Brancusi), the pared down distillation of all the work so far? I don't know if I have the courage for it - I did read Correction and, while I felt compelled to keep turning the pages until I reached the end, the narrator/Roithammer combined voice nearly destroyed my sense of the world as a place of comfort and sanity. But you are right about the translation. There is no other writer in English who uses language that way, so Roithammer....

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Winch Thanks Fionnuala - I wasn't sure if I'd managed to say anything much in this one! Re Concrete, it's not quite the distillation of his work so far, but of what those works have in common. In a sense it's the most formulaic of his novels, perhaps the one in which he discovered there was a formula. It's kind of like 'another day in Bernhardland' - business as usual. And in that sense, almost a bourgeois indulgence. Honestly. Like bitter chocolate.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Offering you up a healthy portion of bonox for this one, my friend! Well done.

message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Winch Hmm, don't mind if I do. Cheers.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion I mean, your presentation of ideas, the movement of thoughts, even just your relationship to Bernhard---all show a deft touch. A deft touch!

Jimmy Beautiful review, and I like your thoughts on where Bernhard stands in relation to others like Kafka and Beckett... To answer your question about guilty pleasure... I think I oddly know what you're talking about. Because when you fall into a Bernhard book, at least the more formulaic ones, you sort of know what you're getting, it's like you're just succumbing to a rhythm, and it's just so easy and enticing, and requires very little effort. My first Bernhard was Wittgenstein's Nephew and I loved it. I think that narrator that barely does anything is a brilliant formula, though I see what you mean... it does get to a point where it becomes a little bit too insular, like in Extinction, and some interaction with the bigger world may be just what's needed to expand that vision... perhaps bernhard is too singular.

message 7: by Ben (last edited Aug 16, 2013 08:49PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Winch Wasn't sure how to respond to your comment, Jimmy, until I reread my review and browsed through my book of Bernhard poems and its foreword, trying to remind myself 'Who is this Bernhard again?' Also I've never really followed that train of thought about guilty indulgence - it just occurred to me as I wrote the review, as something that had lurked in the background through my readings. But I suddenly see (or think I see) what I was getting at: it's escapism. The vitriol is so exaggerated it's the antithesis of rainbows and happy endings and saccharine love affairs and whatnot, but that's its appeal. You could argue it's a necessary antidote to all that saccharine, and maybe so, but it's not balanced and I wonder if at times it's just not 'real' (in the sense we want our fiction to be real) either. I remember feeling this in Correction (around the time Roithamer won a paper flower(?) at the fair, I think), that it had slid over into sentimentality, and that the whole thing seemed consequently on the verge of crumbling apart. From then on I read with only half my attention, I think, and despite my love for the conceit of it (the cone in the forest for the sister) I always had mixed feelings about that book. Yet paradoxically, I think this was a rare instance of Bernhard showing his cards, dispensing with the bluff. Bitter chocolate, as I said. I love it, but in the end it ain't that nourishing.

Jimmy Another good observation. You may be right. Everything taken to its extreme can be a form of escapism. Perhaps Bernhard is like a cynic's pornography?

message 9: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Winch Ha! Well you said it. Could be. But I'd hate to have that soundbite attributable to me.

Jimmy Hey, I'm no prude... I'm all for pornography ;)

message 11: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Winch Hmm. Can't say I'm 'all' for it myself, but everything in moderation. I guess pornography in prose is harmless enough.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Well done, gents!

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