Saturday 2 May 2020


Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard     {Reviewed by Thomas}
While being generally uncomfortable about comfort, he wrote when asked what he read for comfort for an article about what booksellers read for comfort, in times of particular stress or despair I do find that re-reading any of the novels of Thomas Bernhard makes me feel better, though I am also uncomfortable about the concept of feeling better, he wrote. Apparently, as Level Four was approaching its end, an end he declared himself to be resisting, at least internally, though resistance is useless, so they say, and it was unclear in any case what form such internal resistance could take, he had been re-reading Thomas Bernhard’s novel Woodcutters, a book that he had read before, and, indeed, reviewed before, so, he thought, he would not review it again, he would just read it for what he, not without irony, called comfort, not that he understood the word. Bernhard’s sentences are unrelentingly beautiful and his negativity so intense that it becomes ludicrous, he wrote. Everything exaggerated moves towards its opposite, so I often find my negativity turned, too, he also wrote, and then, he thought, I have finished answering the question I have been asked, not only answering it but explaining my answer, too, which was more than I had been asked to do, even though I have done it rather briefly. The first time he had read Woodcutters, he had been younger than the narrator, and younger than the author when he wrote the book, the narrator and the author sharing rather more than their age, he thought, but now he was older than the narrator, and older than the author was when he wrote the book, though admittedly not quite as old as the author was when he died, or, rather, committed suicide, whichever is the better description of the author’s death. The narrator of Woodcutters has not committed suicide, obviously, and does not do so at the end, but the entire novel is narrated in the evening of the day of the funeral of one of the narrator’s former friends, who, finding herself denied artistic success merely through mediocrity of talent, which is not necessarily sufficient to exclude someone from success, depending on how you understand the word success, but perhaps sufficient to exclude someone from success in what the narrator calls Vienna’s art mill, the art mill that grinds even those with talent into powder, most effectively by acclaiming their talent, and, by doing so, destroying it, whereas Joana, losing all that she had going for her, which is a strange turn of phrase, spent many years in alcoholism and despair, in decline, so to speak, and hanged herself in the village in which she was born, just before the narrator’s return to Vienna after an absence, apparently, of some twenty years. The host of the dinner party at which the narrator observes the proceedings without involving himself in them, as he says, was once a talented composer, or at least so it had seemed to the narrator when he had been involved with him twenty or even thirty years before, before the narrator had left Vienna in disgust with Vienna and with the artistic and literary circles of Vienna, but now the host has been destroyed by his talent, or by the acclaim accorded his talent, and in this way relieved of this talent, and the host, one Auersberger, or so he is called in the novel, though it is perhaps interesting to note that the book was banned in Austria after one of Bernhard’s former patrons reognised himself in the character, is now little more than ludicrous or pathetic. And the same could be said, and indeed is said by the narrator, albeit to himself, as he sits in a chair just off the main room, observing them, of the other guests at the dinner party, the dinner party styled by its hosts an artistic dinner held in honour of an actor who is rather late to arrive, but really more of a gathering of members of the artistic and literary circles that included both the narrator and Joana twenty or thirty years before, when the narrator, like the author, if the author can be distinguished even a little from the narrator, was an aspiring writer who was supported by persons like Auersberger, or by the person who recognised himself as Auersberger, writers who had talent but whose talent has been destroyed by Vienna’s art mill and other persons whose talent has been similarly destroyed. “As I see it they haven’t become anything. They’ve all quite simply failed to achieve the highest, and as I see it only the highest can ever bring satisfaction, I thought.” But, thinks the narrator, these people, the people of this so-called artistic circle, have been more than complicit in the destruction of their talent. “All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, they’ve managed to make everything depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have.” When the celebrated actor finally arrives and the narrator moves with the other guests to the dining room, the narrator’s focus moves, if the narrator can be said to have a focus, from his opinions formed in the past of those present, attitudes which caused him to leave Vienna twenty years ago, when his love for those present, and for Joana, had turned entirely to disgust, when he had taken from them all he could, to his observations of what is said and done, though not said and done by him, who only observes the proceedings and does not participate in them, or so he says, in the present, at the artistic dinner itself, observations, it must be said, no less vitriolic but rather more ambivalent, by which I mean, the bookseller thought as he paused in his train of thought, a train of thought that had begun to resemble a review but was not a review but only a train of thought, unless a train of thought can be called a review, and he thought not, he thought, not the popular misconception of ambivalence as some wishy-washiness, if he was writing a review he would replace wishy-washiness with a better word, or at least an actual word, but ambivalence in its true, etymological and Freudian sense of being beset with equally overwhelming but opposite inclinations. The narrator, he thought, loathes those most like himself, all his loathing is self-loathing, and to loathe, therefore, is the greatest act of sympathy, the strongest form, he thought, of identification. “We are not one jot better than the people we constantly find objectionable and insufferable, those repellent people with whom we want to have as few dealings as possible although, if we are honest we do have dealings with them and are no different from them. We reproach them with all kinds of objectionable and insufferable behaviour and are no less insufferable and objectionable ourselves — perhaps we are even more insufferable and objectionable, it occurs to me,” the narrator of Woodcutters says. To grow older, the bookseller thought, is not to become more certain but to become less certain, certainty is for the young, he thought, certainty is for those who do not think, not that it is necessarily true that the young do not think, there are, no doubt, some who are young who do think, but they have not thought long enough, being young, to realise that all thought leads to the destruction of certainty, all thought leads to ambivalence, to the undermining of anything that might be said to be one’s own identity, there’s no such thing as one’s own identity, he thought, except in the thoughts of others, and hardly even then, all thought is its own undoing. As the guests depart from the dinner, the narrator, the last to leave, thanks the hostess for a lovely time, after apparently hating it the whole time and hating everything about it and everyone who was there and everything they said and did, kisses her, and then runs through the streets of Vienna, away from his home, towards the centre of town, in the wrong direction, in a dishevelled state of mind, so to term it, completely dishevelled and confused. “To think that I was capable of such hypocrisy, I thought as I was speaking to her,” he says to himself about the only words he actually speaks in a book full of words. “To think that I am capable of telling her to her face the precise opposite of what I feel, because it makes things momentarily more endurable.” Well, thought the bookseller, I can understand that, we all tell others to their faces the opposite of what we feel because it makes things momentarily more endurable, and, in fact, we also do feel what we tell them, that is how we survive and that is how we destroy ourselves, we destroy ourselves by surviving and we survive by destroying ourselves, this is what thinking tells us if we think our thoughts through to the end, this is the truth that is hidden from the young by their youth, this is why I resist the end of Level Four, at least internally, whatever that means, whatever form that resistance could take, and, at the same time, this is why I long for Level Four to end, for my isolation to end, though my isolation cannot end, it can only be obscured, for a chance to take refuge from thinking in busyness, so to call it, in the busyness of others, the others I therefore both long for and resent. He felt comforted by this thought, he thought, my negativity has become so intense, he thought, through reading Thomas Bernhard or through the thinking that accompanies reading Thomas Bernhard, through thinking like Thomas Bernhard and not thinking like myself, that it has become ludicrous, and always was ludicrous. Everything exaggerated moves towards its opposite like this, he thought. I find my negativity has turned, he thought, and this, he thought, is a comfort.

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