Ever been so pissed off about something that you wrote a long letter (or more realistically, an email) that you never intended to send, something you wrote just to get all the ugly emotions out of you?
Well, so did Thomas Bernhard, except he published them as novels and became one of the most important German-language authors post-WWII.
Pissed-off, though, is too weak to adequately capture the intensity of Bernhard’s literary universe. Acidic, venomous, indignant, jagged, and wounded are closer. Perhaps the best word is obsessive, because when it comes to expressing obsession, there’s simply no one better than Thomas Bernhard. And you owe it to yourself to read him.
There’s something astounding about a writer who can so vividly express what it feels like to be human. Why listen to sad songs, for instance, if we aren’t comforted by hearing our own inner hurricane of unnamable emotions translated into language that is specific enough to pertain to us yet universal enough to feel specific to everyone? Likewise, Bernhard is a master at expressing indignation, obsession, and all the other rough words I mentioned. Unpleasant feelings, but feelings we all have nonetheless, and I have yet to find anyone better at evoking the sheer depth of turmoil certain emotions can stir up in us.
Depth is another word that belongs to Bernhard. On the surface, his narrators seem to be focused on one or two people or things. But the depth to which they’ve been affected by these people or things is incredible, even terrifying. For instance, in Concrete, the narrator is a musicologist who has spent decades failing to write a biography of a composer. He mocks his sister for mocking him and mocks himself for being defensive about her justified mocking. But beneath this surface it’s obvious that this project is not just a book to the narrator. It is a core element of his identity. Being the person writing this book is so integral to his vision of himself that he probably doesn’t want to finish it. The way that obsessions can define and trap us in destructive cycles of endless self-analysis is another hallmark of Bernhard’s fiction.
This isn’t just communicated by what the narrator says or implies. No, Bernhard’s books are themselves expressions of the narrator’s state of mind. Often, the entire novel is composed of one unbroken paragraph. This can be intimidating, but the monologue structure is part of what draws you into the neurotic minds of these characters. By the end of his disorienting stories, you are so enmeshed in the psyches of his characters that you feel just as imprisoned by their states of mind as they do.
Bernhard’s novels are sudden plunges into unrelentingly harsh realities. But if you read his novels, I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how writing can do more than just describe emotions, but be them in a far more fulfilling and indefinable way.
And just in time for the end of this blogpost, I thought of the quintessential word for Thomas Bernhard.