Saturday, 16 November 2019

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The four stories in Goethe Dies were first published in German-language periodicals in the early 1980s, and in them we can see Bernhard exercising the devices and themes he used to greater extent and effect in some of the novels written in his last decade. The title story displays Bernhard’s puckish tendency to appropriate and subvert the biographies of actual people, as he did with Glenn Gould in The Loser. In this story, Goethe, on his deathbed, requests a visit from Wittgenstein, who is living in England (and, in reality, was born nearly 60 years after Goethe’s death). Apart from travelling to England and finding Wittgenstein to have died eight days previously and returning too late to report this to Goethe, who has by then also died, the nameless narrator has no role other than to report the words of another character, or, more commonly, what one character reports of the words of another character, or, often, what one character reports of another character’s report of the words of yet another character. This device of narratorial passivity witnessing not so much the subject but what may well be little more than hearsay (about hearsay about hearsay) about the subject is a favourite of Bernhard’s, continually calling into question any certainty a reader may think they draw from the text. The story ‘Reunion’ destabilises the operations of memory and satirises the narrator who claims to have freed himself from the influence of the tyrannical parents who in fact still dominate him through his memories, compared with the old friend who listens to his rant, who, the narrator claims, never escaped the influence of his parents, and yet who seems not to remember any of the obsessive details of the narrator’s oppressive memories and may therefore be less affected by the shared unhappiness of childhood. These and the other stories display Bernhard’s resentment of reactionary and traditional power, whether that be in a nation (his will states that his books may not be published in his native, hated "Catholic, National Socialist" Austria) or in a family — although he also portrays his resentment is a base and ludicrous act. “Parents make a child and strive above all else to destroy it, I said, my parents just like yours and every parent altogether and everywhere.” 

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