Skip to main content

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

A state of extreme anxiety.
I thought I'd talked about Thomas Bernhard here somewhere before - the vitriol, the bitterness, the hilarity that was Old Masters - but it appears not, or, more likely, that I search like I think; superficially. Nevertheless, at least I now have the opportunity to present him for your consideration, albeit with the oily glaze of my opinion applied liberally. 

An Austrian author and playwright, Bernhard had a curious relationship with the land of his birth. He was highly critical of both the people and state, regularly attacking the church, the government, the populace (who he labelled stupid and stubbornly contemptuous) and venerable old institutions like the concert halls and cultural venues of Vienna. Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays. His characters often deliver long monologues filled with bile and spite, frequently inhabiting considered but oddly irrational-seeming positions. Of this tendency, Concrete is an exemplar.

18 degrees - the perfect
temperature for considering
works of art.
Much like Antonio Tabucchi's Perreira Maintains (and to a lesser extent Kadare's The File on H) the narrative is delivered as a presentation of an author's work by a third party. In Tabucchi's novel, Perreira's words are reported by the secret policeman who takes his statement. In Concrete, Rudolph, Austrian scholar and musicologist, delivers his testimony through an intermediary of whom we know nothing, and who offers no commentary or addition to the story other than a repetition of two words, "writes Rudolph" which bookend the novel and offer us the 'true' author's name. More challenging to the reader, however, is the fact that the novel is a single paragraph, 156 pages in length, during which Rudolph vacillates and procrastinates in a diabolically perfidious attempt to both be honest to himself and to desperately maintain the thin veil of self-deceit over the non-production of his work on Mendelssohn, ten years in the making, and of which he has yet to write the first sentence. Whilst completely in keeping with the character of Rudolph, it presents an obstacle to enjoyment to a degree, if enjoyment is the correct term. From a personal viewpoint, as a chap with limited reading time available normally in ten minute pockets throughout the week, it was nearly impossible to seamlessly rejoin the narrative where it left off, having no natural breaks whatsoever - a success for Bernhard's model of delivery if nothing else. However, so complete (and completely untrustworthy) is the character of Rudolph that opening a page anywhere in the slim book meant re-immersion in his delusions without seeming to have ever left. 

I was planning to say that within this book, nothing happens. Written during a brief (and possibly terminal) sojourn to one of the Balearic Islands, in lieu of working on the study he's spent 10 years preparing, he reports no news of note. However, it is in fact a book filled with crises. Maybe not by my standards, but on every page there is evidence of critical changes in circumstance, meaning Rudolph may never be in a position to put pen to paper. His sister arrives - disaster! His sister leaves - catastrophe! He visits a neighbour and as a consequence must immediately leave Austria for Majorca. He arrives in Majorca and is struck down (as he himself predicted) by the mysterious illness he so stubbornly nurtures. A lazy stroll ends in the grim recollection of an event of pathos and misery, and new-found determination ends in terror and anxiety when he discovers the true extent of said misery. The New Republican reviewer Sven Birkerts says:
Where rage of this intensity is directed outwards, we often find the sociopath, where inward, the suicide. Where it breaks out laterally, onto the page,we sometimes find a most unsettling artistic vision.

I'm not so sure that rage is the primary motive. Behind all of this is a definite smirk, a keen sense of humour. It almost feels like Bernhard is pulling my leg, presenting the case of Rudolph to invite ridicule. Is Rudolph indicative of the Austrian he despises? Then why does he espouse many of Bernhard's own views? Is this a work of anger or of satire? What does Bernhard want? What does he want of me? Big questions, destined to go unanswered. 

Rudolph is quite the unreliable, some might say neurotic, narrator, but is still fascinating, as are most well-presented unreliable narrators. And despite the toying with form, Berhard's prose is simple, elegant and profoundly powerful. It'll bug the hell out of you, but you'll chuffing well love it.


How's about that then?

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…