Szplug's Reviews > Gargoyles

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
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Mar 14, 2010

it was amazing

The original German title for Bernhard's third novel is Verstörung; this translates as Disturbance, as in something not quite right but not fully insane. This is an apt reflection of a novel that walks and teeters precariously around the bubbling edges of incapacitating madness; yet Gargoyles presents an image that also accurately describes the procession of twisted and grotesque beings that litter the frigid and menacing hinterlands of the Austrian province of Styria - a series of wracked figures that are encountered one after another as the reader wends his way towards the denouement with the most fractured personality of them all.

Bernhard is a scribe who pens stories, in matter-of-fact prose that weaves a poetic intensity from its measured pace, that rip open the quotidian facade of human interaction to reveal the madness and rage, terror and bewilderment, estrangement and longing that course through minds that are all, in some shape or form, crippled: physically, mentally, spiritually. Yet his stories have a compulsion and exhilaration to them that capture the reader; and this is because all of his splenetic anger, his tortured monologues and wild despair at the unforgiving, relentless assault the world mounts upon its hapless and overmatched human victims is always the roiling armour that shields an immensely human core of hope, longing, and aching belief in redemption - in the longing for human contact amongst those who seemingly revile mankind - that works its own magic in leaving the reader (this one at least) uplifted.

Each of us is completely isolated, although we are close.

All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together.

Gargoyles is a direct step between Bernhard's style and method in Frost and his later novels; and it shows in that, at this still early stage of his brilliant career, its sythesis of the two styles is yet inferior to either. The first half of the book - featuring the rural meanderings of a Styrian doctor and his visiting university student son as they make the physician's rounds to his stable of eccentric and miserable patients - is wonderfully done, yet not at the level of the stunning interplay between Strauch and the Intern in Frost. The second half is a wild, free-flowing, deranged monologue delivered by Prince Saurau to the two mute visitors as they wander the inner and outer walls of the Prince's castle of Hochgobernitz. The frenzied paranoia, accusatory ravings, and hopeless despair of the aged Austrian aristocrat is a kaleidoscopic, breathless, exhausting marvel; yet it lacks the more focussed structure and concentrated force that would blossom in later masterpieces like Old Masters and The Loser. One of the most fascinating aspects of this slim novel is the way that Bernhard delineates the differences between the bucolic, banal eccentricities and grotesqueries of the lower-class Styrians - an admixture of violence and abuse, crushed hopes and crippled dreams, iced with ill-health and drudgery - as against the aristocratic armoire of dementia available to the Prince: philosophical rants; complaints against family, servants, and workers; tirades launched against capricious nature and the relentless lure of the suicide siren; the impending dissolution of his estate and the state; newspapers read and torn to pieces, along with the desperate clinging to the words of Pascal and Schopenhauer as buoys floating the roiling seas of madness. In Bernhard's world, privileged upbringing and advanced education merely lead their benefactor to a fuller range of travails and tribulations and delusional whispers cast forth by a gleefully savage life.

But we do so many things which remain a mystery.

I love Bernhard and rank him among my favorite authors - a bitter offspring of Kafka and Beckett but somehow more human than either - and thus feel affectionately duty-bound to deliver a five-star rating to Gargoyles, though it probably should hover closer to four; but even 4+ Bernhard blows the cobwebs out of the reader's dusty consciousness and firms him up for another day's grind through the steady cycle of everyday life.
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message 1: by Jim (last edited Mar 23, 2010 03:18PM) (new)

Jim Coughenour Wow, Chris. Major credit for even reading Bernhard. I can't say I've ever enjoyed his writing; reading him feels like a penance imposed for being a human being. Wittgenstein's Nephew was almost readable; I made it about halfway through the endless sentences of Correction; but surrendered trying to read The Lime Works. He seems monomaniacally estranged and embittered by absolutely everything. (I won't deny he has a certain mystique, that there's even a kind of bracing ascesis in reading him.) I knew I'd given up when I recently re-sold my copy of Woodcutters, still pristine in its plastic wrap.

Now I'll have to flip through my volumes of Cioran, if I make the mistake of feeling hopeful.

message 2: by Szplug (last edited Mar 23, 2010 08:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug I've had a mixed bag - to say the least - with recommendations of Bernhard to friends. I love him - perhaps the dark episodes I've passed through in my life have attuned me to the rage-hope that I find so captivatingly entwined in his books. There's really no story, just brutal country hicks running interference on tortured, obsessive souls who make a living out of circular thinking. Yet somehow the endless paragraphs, the repetitions and interruptions to traverse blind alleys, the overarching despair punctuated by that bile towards the world - and Austria, always Austria! - works with me. I also see in his books a real wounded vulnerability in his madmen, wanting to express to the rest of the world the truths and beauty they can see in their minds but can never, ever adequately convey in words. Even in Gargoyles, the father can relate warmly to everyone but his son; and the stiffness between the two, the awkward, in-and-out manner they make to break through their incomprehension when they've both been squeezed too tight is amazingly done.

Nonetheless, I can certainly see that he could be a chore to get through if he isn't punching those buttons in a similar manner. I read some four Bernhard novels back in my late twenties. Now that Vintage is re-releasing a good majority of his works, I've bought all of them available and am working my way through - reading and re-reading - beginning with his very first novel On The Mountain. Next up is that very Lime Works you mention above. A terrible story, a black ordeal...yet I can't wait to start!

BTW, I've never read Cioran. The bleak one's seem to all appeal to me: Celine, Bernhard, Houellebecq - do you at all think he'd be worth my investigating?

message 3: by Jim (last edited Mar 23, 2010 10:16PM) (new)

Jim Coughenour With that company, you should definitely check out Cioran. Start with The Temptation to Exist or The Fall into Time. Actually, all his books are more or less the same – a revolving gnostic protest against creation. And if that sounds as if I'm saying, if you've read one, you've read them all… well, that's true too. As George Steiner pointed out long ago, there is a certain facility about Cioran's pessimism.

I didn't know Vintage was republishing Bernhard. I bought all my copies in the 80s, except for Wittgenstein's Nephew. Maybe I should give him another try.

Have you read Michel Tournier? If not, I think you'd probably enjoy him too. The Ogre is – well, it's in a class of its own.

message 4: by Szplug (last edited Feb 02, 2011 08:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks for the Cioran recommendations - he sounds tempting enough that I've placed an order for your first suggestion through the Book Depository (I won some $575 on this year's football pool, which I've been steadily expending on book purchases since that glorious January day!).

On The Mountain is tough to find, and hasn't been reissued. It's his very first novel - written around 1958 but only published posthumously. Its rawness shows, and I would recommend it only to fans. The Vintage release contains his first four books - Frost, Gargoyles, The Lime Works, and Correction, in that order. They've also put out new copies of Wittgenstein's Nephew and The Loser. In mid-August they will be issuing The Woodcutters, Concrete, and Prose Works. Other than that, copies of Yes, Three Novellas, and Old Masters - the last highly recommended - can be found on various internet book sellers. Unfortunately, The Cheap-Eaters and Extinction (which I've heard is the darkest of Bernhard's darkness) are exceedingly rare, and don't seem to be available save through second-hand outlets at exorbitant prices. In other words, there's enough nihilism there to keep me depressingly elated for a long time!

I've never read any Tournier, but I've yet to meet a funereal French author that didn't impress.

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