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Will the Real Alienator Please Stand Up (Thomas Bernhard or Dale Peck?)

Thomas Bernhard (not Dale Peck)

Complaining about the The New York Times Book Review is simply shooting fish in a barrel.   It’s particularly infuriating when a reviewer uses a book merely as a soapbox on which to stand and expound.  That extra inch or so of height allows certain writers to believe their heads now reach into the stratosphere where they think they suddenly have access to oracular visions.  I don’t rant very often on Vertigo, but hardly a week goes by now that The NYTBR doesn’t embarrass itself.  (Don’t even get me started on Kathryn Harrison’s unbelievably horrible piece on Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary.  Don’t take my word for it, night rpm says it better here.)

In the Sunday December 26 issue, it takes two slim books by Thomas Bernhard (Prose and My Prizes) to do the trick, but Dale Peck uses them to raise himself above the indentured slavery of being mere book-reviewer to muse on larger issues like Bernhard’s reputation, the literature of alienation, and a bit of other writerly stuff.  In his cover review called “The Alienator,” Peck states his belief that Bernhard’s better-known books constitute “the most significant literary achievement since World War II.”   But those two books under review?  Swatted away like annoying flies.  Prose, which “feels amateurish” to Peck, is dismissed in a half a paragraph without any exploration of why it might or might not be amateurish.  And My Prizes, which Peck feels contains “a dozen or so pages” of real interest, is given only a couple of paragraphs that consist mostly of quotations from the book itself.

As a literary oracle, Peck has access to the secret pecking order to which writers are assigned and he graciously gives us a glimpse of the hierarchy as he sees it from his lofty perch.

Bernhard’s international reputation has never solidified in the manner of a W.G. Sebald, Christa Wolf or Peter Handke, let alone the three most recent German-language writers to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller – all of whom, one wants to say with a dash of Bernhardian bile, are vastly inferior talents when compared with the master.

What’s really going on in this claim?  Does Peck really believe that Wolf, Jelinek, and Müller really have more “solidified” reputations than Bernhard?  (Just for starters, go Google their names and see how many results there are; Bernhard outstrips each of these writers by a range of 800,000 to more than 2,000,000 references.)

Peck seems to have come to the conclusion that the chief attribute for a writer is to say cute things that sound amusing but signify little.  Here is how he concludes his non-review:

What I mean is, perhaps it’s a good thing Bernhard isn’t more popular in the wide world.  Perhaps acclaim of the kind he describes in My Prizes would smother the idiosyncrasies of his texts with bland, universalizing exegesis.  No doubt I’m contributing to that process with these words, in which case probably the best thing you can do is forget everything I’ve just told you and go read one of Bernhard’s books instead.

Or, better yet, don’t.

I happened to be reading Prose when Peck’s piece came out.  First published as Prosa in 1967, the seven stories in Prose reflect back to Bernhard’s experiences as a newspaper reporter assigned to the Salzburg courts.  As translator Martin Chalmers writes, in a brief Afterword that is considerably more lucid and thoughtful than Peck’s disastrous piece, these stories deal with crime and punishment, the nature of evidence, and the types of petty issues one would find in any court system.  In other words, this is core Bernhard territory.

What is so wonderful about Prose is Bernhard’s unmistakable voice.  These are stories to read aloud, to catch their narrator’s breathlessness and the way Bernhard’s sentences veer and backtrack, halting and yet full of boundless energy at the same time.  The quote below, from the story The Cap, demonstrates the discordance between Bernhard’s formality (“when and as I walk”) with the raw, emotional, violent actions of a man on the verge of going mad, as if clinging to the veneer of language is the last remaining hope for sanity.

I will have to run out of the house again and again…And it happens like this: I can no longer bear it and run out, I lock all the doors behind me, all my pockets are then full of keys, I have so many keys in my pockets, especially in my trouser pockets, that when I walk I make a frightful noise, and not only a frightful noise, a dreadful jangling, the keys pound, when and as I walk, when I chase over to Burgau or, as this evening, to Parschallen, my thighs and my stomach, and those in my jacket pockets pound my hips and injure my pleura, because, due to the great speed which I must attain immediately after leaving the house, they obstruct my restless body, from the trouser pocket keys alone I have several injuries, now even suppurating wounds on my stomach, above all, because in the darkness I again and again slip, fall on the brutally frozen ground.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. i’ve read a lot of mixed reviews for “my prizes” all of which – even when it got a drubbing – made it sound worth reading. i have to say so many of my favorite books were initially discovered through ranting reviews (hermann broch, near the top of my favorites was one of them). thanks to dale’s rant, i’ll have to get off my butt and pick up both books :-)

    December 27, 2010
  2. P.T. Smith #

    Thanks for this. Not only does it make me feel better knowing I’m not the only one who thought that piece was trash, but it also reminds me to send the piece onto a friend who doesn’t understand why I loathe Dale Peck, and something to send onto a friend who doesn’t understand why I dismiss so many print publications on literature and turn to online writing instead, when I’m not normally someone who values one over the other.

    December 28, 2010
  3. Peck is vile and stupid. Of course there is much more of TB to publish. The collected stories for one. DP has not really read TB. By not quoting TB you can tell he just doesn’t get it.
    Just discovered your site via google Adler + WJS… I was one of the first reviewers of WGS in Chicago tribune when I was required to also review a now forgotten German writer who joined the dreary Sontag in calling for the literary murder of Peter Handke

    December 28, 2010
  4. antonia #

    this is stuff they wouldn’t get away with in the non-english speaking world. but because it’s english, correction, american, they can say it. there’s no chance in hell stuff like this could be published in a major german paper. not that these are great, but still.
    i’m just waiting for the day they discover arno schmidt. now that’s gonna be exciting.

    December 28, 2010
  5. Peck also make factual errors. He says that Bernhard studied piano with Glenn Gould. Gould never studied in Austria, and I don’t believe Bernhard ever studied piano (he studied singing and acting.) Bernhard and Gould certainly never met.

    December 28, 2010
  6. Sorry- he made those claims in a Times Book Review podcast, not in the article itself.

    December 28, 2010
  7. Its sad Peck is such a bad reviewer (of Berhard anyway),as i am reading his book “F###### Martin”, which, though by no means a masterpice, has some parallels with Sebald in its blurring of personal identities ; in Peck between protagonist and lover, for instance; in Sebald, between narrrators and protagonists , who often seem to have the same melancholy, catastrophising view of mankind and life. Though Sebald would have probably disliked Peck’s overtly sexual writing, in parts of the book, Peck shows the same concern too with marginalised human beings: here it is rent boys and people with AIDS; in Sebald, interestingly, Jews, homosexuals/bisexuals, Jewish homosexuals/bisexuals and people of generally ambivalent sexual orientation. Those who are aware, and/or have written of Sebald’s interests inthe homosexual marginalised “group” are sitting on a treasure trove of research: I know of only myself, Helen Finch, Eric Santner(in”Creaturely Life”), Maya Barzalai(in “Sebald: A Critical Companion ed Long and Whitehead)and Lisa Diedrich(in “searching for Sebald”), the latter two to a lesser extent, who have even discussed the subject; there are a few more references to the homosocial relationships formed by the sebaldian narrators and many of the protagonists. If you are interested in talking re Sebald and this marginalised “group, in particular,the dealing with which, in his literary fictions and characters, was very dear to Sebald’s heart(just by its very repetition alone!), please email me on thanks Steve. PS. i am not an academic nor am i doing nor intend to do a thesis on Sebald!but a flavour of my work on the subject is here

    July 26, 2012
  8. Very Good Views. Thanks!

    January 20, 2016

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