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.
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.