Saturday, May 20, 2017

Variations On What We Know

The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]
[thirteen instances of lunacy]
[twenty surprises]
[four disappearances]
[twenty-six murders]
[two instances of libel]
[six painful deaths]
[three character attacks]
[five early deaths]
[one memory lapse]
[four cover-ups]
[eight suicides]

If you have never read the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator may be the perfect place for you to start. Comprised of 104 roughly paragraph-length stories that resonate with the dark profundity of parables, the collection captures—writ small—the very eye and obsessions of this grave and exacting writer (see George Ovitt’s earlier post: Climbing Mount Mordant). Best known for his novels, Correction and Extinction, each an ardent defense of the life of the mind, each a dazzling screed against the perennial scourges of bigotry, dogmatism, hypocrisy, and greed, as Bernard found them flourishing in his native Austria, a country out of which, in his fiction and plays, he fashioned a veritable gospel of loathing. In these novels (in which he is all but indistinguishable from his narrators) he is no Tartuffe, but raves like a prophet of old. 


And what he says will shake you. Of photography—that sacred cow of our age—the narrator of his ultimate novel, Extinction, declares brilliantly, outrageously:

Photography is a vulgar addiction that is gradually taking hold of the whole of humanity, which is not only enamored of such distortion and perversion but completely sold on them, and will in due course, given the proliferation of photography, take the distorted and perverted world of the photograph to be the only real one. Practitioners of photography are guilty of one of the worst crimes it is possible to commit—of turning nature into a grotesque. The people in their photographs are nothing but pathetic dolls, disfigured beyond recognition, staring in alarm into the pitiless lens, brainless and repellent. Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and the human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures—his and theirs. I have yet to see a photograph that shows a normal person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature. Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.*

His novels are like a purgative, like a ritual cleansing of the intellect and soul. Dark, relentless, seemingly unforgiving as reflections on the human race, his vision is ultimately anything but cynical, anything but unctuous or pedantic, shot through as it is with a mordant, bitter-black wit that not only saves the reader from drowning but sets him firmly on his feet again, then hands him a flower to sniff! It is almost a reflex for me now that, whenever I’m feeling depressed, whenever I feel I’ve lost my way in the world again, I read a few pages of Bernhard and grin. 

Reading The Voice Imitator is not nearly as demanding as reading his novels, yet still bears the unmistakable stamp of his intelligence and eye. Wry, quirky, provocatively understated, the simple stories set one’s eyes askew. Here—a favorite of mine—is the first from the collection:

Near Oslo we met a man of about sixty who told us more about the old people’s home than we already knew from reading Hamsun’s accounts of the last year of his life, because he had been working in the home at precisely the time  during which the greatest of Norwegian writers was living there. The man’s taciturnity had attracted our attention in the inn near Oslo—usually so noisy on a Friday evening—where we were staying for several nights. After we had sat down at his table and introduced ourselves, we learned that the man had originally been a philosophy student and had, among other things, spent four years studying at Göttingen.  We had taken him for  Norwegian ship’s captain and had come to his table to hear some more about seafaring, not about philosophy, from which, indeed, we had fled north from Central Europe. But the man didn’t bother us with philosophy and said he had actually given up philosophy overnight and put himself at the disposal of geriatrics at the age of twenty-seven. He said he did not regret his decision. He told us his first task had been to help an old man get out of bed, make the bed for him, and then put him back into it. The old man was Hamsun. He had looked after Hamsun every day for several months, had taken him out into the garden that lay behind the old people’s home, and had gone to the village for him to buy the pencils that Hamsun used to write his last book. He was, he said, the first person to see Hamsun dead. In the nature of things, he said, he was not yet certain who Hamsun was when he pulled the sheet up over his face.  

Here, in much the same tone, is another, this one called ‘Charity’:

An old lady who lived near us had gone too far in her charity, She had, as she thought, taken in a poor Turk, who at the outset was grateful that he no longer had to live in a hovel scheduled to be torn down but was now—through the charity of the old lady—allowed to live in her town house surrounded by a large garden. He had made himself useful to the old lady as a gardener and, as time went by, was not only completely re-outfitted with clothes by her but was actually pampered by her. One day the Turk appeared at the police station and reported that he had murdered the old lady who had, out of charity, taken him into her house. Strangled, as the officers of the court determined on the visit they immediately made to the scene of the crime. When the Turk was asked by the officers of the court why he had murdered the old lady by strangling her, he replied, out of charity.

Now ‘The Milkmaid’:

Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them all cut to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.

Finally, to conclude this post, a simple, haunting story called ‘Giant’:

In the cemetery in Elixhausen, some workmen who had been hired to build a crypt for the late owner of a cheese factory excavated, at a depth of about two feet, the skeleton of a man who must have been nine feet tall and who had apparently been buried 150 years ago. As far back as anyone can recall, only very short people are thought to have lived in Elixhausen.

* My apology for having quoted a part of this passage in an earlier post. I simply couldn’t resist.

Peter Adam Nash

No comments:

Post a Comment