Bernhard’s Prose/Bernhard’s Voice
Prose is a group of seven short stories that Thomas Bernhard first published as Prosa in 1967, the same year in which he published his second novel, Verstörung (Gargoyles). While marked by the spleen and sputtering of later works, the stories in Prose aren’t yet boiled down to the intensity that the works of the late 1980s attain. It would be tempting but ultimately cheapening to call these stories Bernhard-lite. Perhaps it’s better to say he’s finding his voice, as the phrase goes. As I said in a recent post, these stories cover core Bernhard territory – crime and punishment, the ills of family and state, the ills of the body and soul – and I found them fascinating, if uneven. Admittedly, some of the appeal comes from watching Bernhard testing out various voices and playing with the volume knob.
In perhaps the most intense story of the group, The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son, the narrator, a student, maps out the boundaries of the life that led his roommate (the shopkeeper’s son) to commit suicide. Family is nothing more than a license to abuse with impunity. Business suppresses all hope for altruism. Provincial towns are poisonous while the capital city Vienna is a cemetery. And history is a “monstrous excess.” Faced with these prospects, the narrator and his roommate Georg set up “a system of protective conduits” by which they attempt to outwit their fate, but which nevertheless leave them physically stunted and with shrunken souls. In the end, both students fall prey to the “illness” of “fatal over-sensitivity.” But something differentiates the two young men, and one wonders if Bernhard isn’t making an important point here. While Georg became nothing more than a stain, the narrator survived to tell the story. “Wherever [Georg] went, wherever he stayed, he was an ugly spot of colour on the beautiful calm background.” “When he looked in the past, only terrifying occurrences were visible to him.” Whereas the narrator, for unexplained reasons, manages to see the past as comic.
It feels as if Bernhard was still fine tuning his tragicomic voice in Prose, and I think the best example is the brief story Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? The narrator, a scholar of the theater, vacillates outside a theater: should he go in to see a play or not? Even though he is currently writing a treatise on the theater, he is repelled by the theater, he despises actors, and he can’t stand plays. At eight o’clock, the moment that he must make his decision, a man asks him the time. They strike up a conversation. Eventually, the narrator observes that the man is wearing a pair of women’s shoes. They decide to talk a walk together and continue their conversation. Several pages and many blocks later, the narrator suddenly notices that the man is also wearing a woman’s hat on his head, which leads to the surprising revelation that the man is actually wearing women’s clothing from head to toe. They continue their walk to a bridge over the Danube Canal, where the stranger stops and, for the first time, acknowledges his clothing. “At this spot…I pushed her in quick as a flash. The clothes I am wearing are her clothes.” Bernhardian humor is often based on the size of the discrepancy between what is observed and what is missed. For us as readers, there is something deeply comic and oddly rewarding by watching his hyper-sensitive narrators’ perpetual inability to see the obvious.
In the story called The Carpenter, Bernhard switches gears and employs a more or less reliable narrator, an attorney who is visited by a released convict (the carpenter of the title), whom he once defended unsuccessfully. To my mind, this is the least successful of the seven stories in Prose, but in some ways it’s the most instructive because it shows us Bernhard’s themes without Bernhard’s voice. The attorney has none of the typical qualities of Bernhard’s usual narrators; he’s quite normal, in fact. But from his position in the legal profession he is able to observe the lives of the criminal and the poor and he tries his best to understand and be understanding. In fact, as he explains to the carpenter, everyone is really a criminal at some level. And by extension, everything is criminal. “Nature is by nature criminal.” But sympathy was not really a state of being that suited Bernhard very well and his lack of enthusiasm for his ordinary lawyer/narrator is obvious.