Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wittgenstein's Nephew, by Thomas Bernhard

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I can't really say that the enjoyment was primarily intellectual. I realize that Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's most accessible work (which is why I chose to read it first among his novels), but I'm not really certain on how it exceeds a half-hearted toying with some themes from Mann.

I found it very difficult not to think of Mann throughout my reading—particularly The Magic Mountain, with its weak lungs and over-enunciated philosophy. (Don't get me wrong—I love Mann and wanted my whole freshman year to be Hans Castorp. The philosophy is just a little bald, and piebald.) There was also the re-run of Mann's Trilemma: if one is two of the following three attributes, then one will soon be all of the three: brilliant, German, and mad. (Bernhard extends this to Austria.) Maybe it is just the shared influence of Schopenhauer, but there were moments in Wittgenstein's Nephew in which I thought I detected homage, or parody. Paul Wittgenstein is as much Bernhard's allegory for an enfeebled, self-destructive Europe as Leverkühn was for Mann. For example:
It was difficult now to imagine that thirteen or fourteen years earlier he had been in love with an American soprano who played the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta in nearly all the world's great opera houses and that he had followed her around the world, though in the end he had to give her up and be content to dream about her. It was inconceivable that at that time, not so very long ago, he had attended the most famous motor races in Europe ad taken part in them himself, and that he had been one of the finest yachtsmen—inconceivable that for decades he had spent most of his nights in Europe's most famous bars and had never gone to bed before three or four in the morning, that he had even been a professional dancing partner at one time, in defiance of all the principles and precepts of the Wittgensteins—that this was the man who had once frequented all the best hotels of old-time Europe and fashionable Europe. And it was inconceivable now that this was the man who had shouted or whistled when the Viennese opera reached its most splendid heights or most abysmal depths. During the last sad years of his life everything he had lived through became inconceivable.
I was also almost disappointed not to find Bernhard difficult to like—how can you not like someone who writes:
I have known the Sacher for thirty years, since the time when I used to sit there nearly every day with friends belonging to the circle of the brilliant composer Lampersberg, who was also as mad as he was brilliant [see the Mann Trilemma?]. At this time, around 1957, I had just completed my studies, and it was the most difficult period of my life. These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna's premier coffee-house—not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims.
The scene where the narrator (who calls himself Thomas Bernhard) receives the Grillparzer Prize is even better—like something out of Roth almost. (Actually, come to think about it, Wittgenstein's Nephew has more than a little in common with Bellow's Ravelstein.) I was told Bernhard would be difficult, a challenge to appreciate!

I fully recognize that this is not Bernhard at full strength—I've actually peeked into some of his other books on occasion in bookstores or the library, and it does look satisfyingly forbidding. Yet I was surprised to find this book so charming, even effortfully so.

Of course there are some important differences between Mann and Bernhard. Most abundantly clear is that Bernhard has given up on or rejected the dialectic as any part of the undergirding of his work; Mann is the king of novelistic dialectics. The dialectic is present in this work, but is trivialized down to mere taste (Paul and the narrator's disagreement over Karajan, for instance) or is completely undesirable and sterile (the narrator's shuttling back and forth between city and country to keep his lungs healthy—the narrator hates the country and gets nothing from it other than clean air). Paul simply never becomes a productive antithesis for the narrator, and the instances where he speaks are never in dialogue.

I am eager to read more Bernhard, of course, and am looking forward to it. And perhaps I've missed quite a lot in this book, and would benefit from some deeper analysis of its subtleties. I didn't find it shallow so much as, well, almost populist.

Edit: This weekend there is a review of The House of Wittgenstein in the NYTBR, making this post inadvertently topical (?).

4 comments:

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

"I chose to read it first among his novels"

It's not a novel. Gitta Honegger calls it "a sequel to his autobiographical subject" (i.e. Gathering Evidence).

"I was told Bernhard would be difficult". Who by?! Someone who hasn't read Bernhard I bet. His greatest novel - Extinction - is lightness itself. But Concrete, The Loser and Old Masters are very easy to read too.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

By "subject", I meant "project".

Andrew Seal said...

Stephen,
I didn't mean "difficult to read." I meant, as I actually said, "difficult to like" or "a challenge to appreciate."

As you have said yourself, "he too is presented as one of those miserable Germans who can’t accept that life is actually wonderful." That's all I meant—he's dreary, a little antagonistic to the reader, glum. I think I got this idea from Michael Hofmann—I have a book of his essays, and one is from a review of Bernhard's play Elisabeth II. Hofmann writes: "Words like 'curmudgeonly' and 'crotchety' and 'crusty' suggest themselves, but they are all short-run and Bernhard is marathon and epic, and never draws breath. He stays crusty to the bottom of the glass. Bernhard isn't funny, though, he is so frighteningly sour that people laugh out of fear…" Hofmann may be wrong (in your estimation) but he has certainly read Bernhard, is widely respected, and I was going off his characterization.

As for the "novel" or "autobiographical project" stuff, I guess I should have been prepared for this to be contested after reading Richard's great post on "what is a novel, really?" which includes Bernhard as one of those tricky cases, but a number of critics have treated it as a novel, and nearly everyone acknowledges it as incorporating some fictionalized elements. Furthermore, I'm not really sure anything I said above would change if I were to call it a memoir or 'autobiographical project.'

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

He is presented wrongly Andrew! That's what I meant at least. I don't recognise Bernhard's work in Hofmann's words, or as dreary or glum. I'm not sure if I laugh so much as breath more easily. I'm dubious about people who claim to scream with laughter at him. Dan Gunn (editor of the Beckett Letters) said that after discovering Bernhard, he'd wake up with a big smile on his face. That seems to be as far as one should go.

Maybe MH is referring only to the plays. I don't care for the theatre (in general) and prefer prose works.

And you're right: nothing would change if we called Wittgenstein's Nephew a fish.