Thursday, 16 May 2013

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 Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays.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.

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