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Dead Man Walking

January 25, 1998|THOMAS McGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

Thomas Bernhard is one of the indispensable writers of the 20th century. That he is little known in America is cause for sadness at what has been missed. Yet we must steel ourselves against going down the usual path of castigating the reading habits of the public, which, perhaps instinctively, knows that reading a book by Bernhard is a painful and frightening experience. He provides an overwhelming sense of intellectual and emotional exhilaration unmatched by any contemporary American author.

"Tragedy, that's what life is, a tragedy that can't be stopped, featuring a few ridiculous characters," wrote Bernhard at 28 in his first book, "On the Mountain," unpublished until the year of his death in 1989 at 58. In English, there is a refreshing absence of intimidating scholarly criticism (the kind that makes it difficult to enjoy a book on its own) on Bernhard's work.

Bernhard did not mellow, develop or grow as one might expect writers to do. In his 1974 play, "The Hunting Party," a character says in a typical Bernhard stance:

As soon as we look at a person

very clearly

we see

that he is dead

one existence after the other

and what we hear

is something already dead

what we are told

what we are taught

what we must practice and study

at all times

seen this way we must say

there comes a dead man

whenever we see a person

walking in front of us

As soon as we know

we know

that we are dead

But of course we love

our ways of dying

we make notes about them

we publish them

We trust death

This person I think

and everything is dead

thus we are afraid

to meet this person or another

since we can see then

we are dead.

Bernhard was an Austrian writer. Such a simple factual statement would twirl the corpse of Bernhard in the grave because, upon his death, having published more than 45 volumes of plays, fiction, poetry and memoir, he left a will forbidding the republication of his books, the staging of his plays and even the mere public reading from any of his works within the borders of Austria. And this was not because he had been neglected during his lifetime. Far from it. He had received every literary prize that the German-speaking world awards; his books had been well published; his plays staged by every major theater in Europe; and his death was front-page news all over Europe.

Bernhard did not want the Austrian authorities to sanitize his honed and hard-earned disgust with the besotted, self-satisfied neo-Nazi world of much of contemporary Austria. He was sure they would turn his work into another jewel in the crown of an Austrian culture that had been able to convince the world, as the old saw has it, that Beethoven was Viennese and that Hitler was German.

A reader can begin anywhere in the work of Bernhard and immediately hear the darkly exhilarating voice so accurately described by Nietzsche in his notebooks: "No one talks to me other than myself, and my voice comes to me as the voice of a dying man. With you, beloved voice, with you, the last vaporous remembrance of all human happiness."

The actual experience of opening a Bernhard book is presciently described by Bernhard himself (what a pleasure awaits if you have never read a Bernhard book): "One has to imagine the pages in my book as completely dark: the word lights up, this is how it becomes distinct and overly distinct. . . . If one opens my books . . , one should imagine being in a theater opening the curtain, with the first page the title appears, total darkness--slowly words emerge from the background, from the dark, gradually they transform into processes, external and internal ones, which manifest themselves all the more clearly precisely because of their artificiality."

And what a wonderful literary season this is, because it sees the publication of an earlier Bernhard text, "The Voice Imitator" (first published in Germany in 1978), which is composed of 101 stories, some no more than three sentences long and others, at the very most, a page in length. The stories owe much in form and voice to the typical short newspaper story of incident. As delineated on the cover, the book contains 18 suicides, six painful deaths, one memory lapse, four disappearances, 20 surprises, three character attacks, five early deaths, 26 murders, 13 instances of lunacy, four cover-ups and two cases of libel.

A short story is a piece of prose in which something happens and is elaborated upon. It has often been said that the problem with short stories is that they are never short enough. Well, Bernhard has removed all of the elaboration to allow these tender morsels of despair and disgust to shine: "Last week in Linz 180 people died who had the flu that is currently raging in Linz, but they died not from the flu but as a result of a prescription that was misunderstood by a newly appointed pharmacist. The pharmacist will probably be charged with reckless homicide, possibly, according to the paper, even before Christmas."

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