On the evidence gathered in Thomas Bernhard's memoirs, the verdict must be guilty. That is clear enough. From birth, the Austrian writer has burned with a succession of prosecutorial fires: infantile, adolescent and adult. His very bed sheets reeked with accusation. He wet them each night, and his mother hung them from the window each morning for the instruction of the neighbors.
What is less clear is who the culprit may be. Society, for one: the narrow-minded Nazi bourgeoisie of prewar Austria and, barely transformed, the narrow-minded Catholic bourgeoisie afterwards. Salzburg, the city he grew up in. Life itself; hence, the author's occasional threat to punish it with suicide. The reader, perhaps, whom the author treats with reiterations, a trackless and un-paragraphed sea of denunciation, sudden shifts and fearsome exaggerations.
The sun in Bernhard's world rises each morning under a strong suspicion. It has made no provision for him. "We are without parents," he wrote in "Gargoyles," an earlier book. "We are orphans. That is our condition and we shall not, Europe will not, escape from this condition ever again."
Some European critics have called Bernhard the heir to Franz Kafka and Robert Musil. He comes two generations deeper into the wreckage of Middle Europe's self-assurance. Kafka could write of the human experience as hope monstrously sabotaged. There was an initial light wending its way through his darkening labyrinth, and it gave his writings the delicacy that went with their anguish.
Bernhard, born in grievance, lacks such a light. He announces every frustration in advance and denounces it afterwards. Kafka and, to a lesser degree, Musil, imparted a universal quality to alienation. Bernhard is a resolutely local phenomenon, constricted in the mountain hollows of his Austrian landscape and the shriveled ways of the cities.
What he retains is great energy and--despite his use of suicide as a perennial symbol (Austria has one of the world's highest rates)--an indomitable will to survive. His memoirs record modern times as a fulminating bomb-blast followed by the hopeless but unquenchable demands of the buried victims to be dug out.
Written in five separate parts, and containing a good deal of overlapping material, the memoirs begin with Bernhard as an unhappy school boy living with his mother and stepfather on the Bavarian side of the Austro-German frontier. He joins the Hitler youth organization, and distinguishes himself as a sprinter without overcoming his sense of life as implacably hostile.
He moves to a secondary school in Salzburg, living in a squalid boardinghouse and undergoing mindless discipline and a course of instruction that seems totally alien. He takes up the violin, mostly because it gives him a precious interval of privacy in the broom-closet where he goes to practice. Later he studies singing; music becomes the only form of instruction that he can accept.
He survives the daily bombing raids that devastated much of the city. He leaves school to work briefly as a grocer's assistant, but contracts pleurisy. It is the beginning of years of illness and a horrendous pilgrimage through public hospitals and sanitariums, one of which gives him the tuberculosis it was designed to prevent.
There are passages of great brilliance. His description of the bombing and the deadly atmosphere of the bomb shelters is nightmarish. So are the scenes in the hospital. The nurses, regularly stripping the beds of the dead patients, came to assume the image of figures whose job was to organize death. His own job, as a patient, was to die.
The TB sanitarium is a grotesque version of the Magic Mountain. There is a pecking order in which the older patients excel in the skill and copiousness of their expectorations. "They played on their lungs as though on a stringed instrument with matchless virtuosity," Bernhard writes. "I didn't have a chance."
The single note of brightness comes from his grandfather, a persistent and only rarely successful novelist. He is self-educated, original and indomitably buoyant. He encourages Bernhard's youthful disobedience by telling him: "When we make life difficult for our parents we make something of ourselves." He takes the boy for long walks in the country, discoursing. "One must learn, at least, to put a name to everything."
Bernhard loved him, almost simply. Not quite, though. He had renounced his grandfather's errors and illusions, he tells himself. "The world was not as important as he believed it to be." He also renounces his grandfather's charm, and his ability to encourage and inspire.
In this third literary generation, alienation strips away everything, even the artistic redemption of writing about it. Bernhard's denunciation of whatever consolations modern life erects for itself--he prefers Salzburg under the bombings; its beauty is a cosmetic over rot; he can't stand the music festival--has its counterpart in his style.
He writes, deliberately, a gray torrent. There are no paragraphs from beginning to end. To paragraph is to declare order, distinction, successiveness. Without the slightest signal or transition, he will go from a description of delivering bread, to his work at a carnival, to the air-raids. Signaling a shift of subject would assign importance to what went before or to what followed.
He reiterates on principle. After 50 pages describing the satisfaction he took working in the grocery store, he tells us, quite as if the 50 pages had not been written, that he found satisfaction working there.
Bernhard is declaring the bankruptcy of speech; as if, having said something, it remained unsaid. "Listen to me," he commands his readers. "But don't hear me." There is nothing to hear. Peremptoriness survives in his destroyed world; it is all that does survive. This is poor news; and just a little poorer for being written in the German.