Thomas Bernhard



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Thomas Bernhard

The structure of Verstorung/ Gargoyles (1967) is odd: the first half is a conventional novel in which a few eccentric characters are introduced, including a murderer, but the second half has nothing to do with the first half and is basically just one long incomprehensible philosophical meditation by a madman. The long monologue of the second half makes no rational sense but it radiates gloom, despair and nihilism. The novel is narrated by the son of the doctor who is curing the prince who is obsessed with a son who has abandoned him to study far away, which is precisely what the narrator is doing to his father.

The story is narrated by the son of a doctor. The doctor's son is a student of mining engineering. The doctor practices in a village of poor miners, amid insanity and violence, and has just witnessed the natural death of a young schoolteacher. A drunk miner, Groessl, kills the innkeeper's wife, apparently for no reason whatsoever, and then flees. The doctor tells the son that the innkeeper is no better man, and that the dead wife was repulsive. The doctor views everybody as evil. The doctor reminisces his wife's death: the woman knew that she was going to die even before the doctor diagnosed the disease. The son is taken along as a witness but hardly speaks. His relationship with his father and with his sister is difficult. His sister just tried to commit suicide. His father takes him to visit his only friend Bloch, a Jewish intellectual who owns a vast library. The father has been disappointed in his schoolmates all of whom became mediocre family men after graduating. Then they visit one of the lonely old widows who are dying abandoned by their children. This lady Ebenhoeh has suffered a lot: her brother killed his fiance and then killed himself, and her only son was born an idiot and now, married with children, is becoming a brute, and his wife is equally unpleasant. The lady is aware that she is dying alone in that humble room, and she despises the relatives who will survive her. Then father and son visit an industrialist who now lives in a secluded lodge with his half-sister, and is devoting his life to writing a mysterious philosophical book. Both he and his sister sound deranged, although he manages to run his large business from the lodge. Father and son then stop at a tavern for a meal and the father tells the story of the schoolteacher who died in the morning. The young man was accused of having a homosexual relationship with a student and had to flee abroad. After a life of small thefts, he returned and surrendered. Released from jail, he lived with his parents and started drawing surrealist pictures of monsters until his untimely death at the age of 26. Next, they visit a miller and witness the son and his Turk assistant killing all the gorgeous exotic birds left behind by an uncle, carefully killed to be turned into specimen of a bird museum. Next, they visit a cripple mentally and physically handicapped who is beginning to develop violent tendencies against his own sister, the only person who takes care of him. Their parents work for the local prince, Saurau. He is next in the tour of patients. Saurau suffers from mysterious noises that he hears in his head. He lives lonely after his son moved to England for his studies and his steward died. A flood devastated his estate and he has been interviewing candidates to replace his dead steward. He was particularly fascinated by a candidate who had absolutely no qualifications for the job but still felt compelled to apply. The noises in his head are getting worse: he can now feel them and see them. The devastation caused by the flood in nature seems to be mirrored by the devastation increasingly caused by the noises in his head. And he suffers thinking that he is going mad while his son is away. As the prince rambles on (a hundred-page monologue), the doctor's son realizes that the prince is indeed going mad. The father is curing the prince for his insomnia, but the real issue is his madness. At one point he even hints at his one coming suicide. Then he imagines a letter written by his son after his (the prince's own death) in which the son rambles on about his disgust for a town clerk named Moser, representing all the mediocre people of the world, the people who distract him (the prince's son) from his intellectual studies. The prince repeats that he can see precisely what will happen after his own death, this visceral hatred by his son for this Moser, all written to him (the prince) in a long letter. The prince has tried to involve his son into the affairs of their estate but the son is more interested in writing a political book in London. The prince suspects that the son is only interested in inhering the money and then the estate will be liquidated. The price admits that a horrible fate awaits the son: almost all the male members of the family committed suicide. The prince's father committed suicide after physically torturing himself and eating the pages of his favorite books. The prince himself is clearly thinking of killing himself. The doctor and his son leave the prince. The son learns that the murderer has been apprehended. He then recalls the prince's last words before they left: the prince feels that the son despises him and is slowly destroying him.

"Korrektur/ Correction" (1975), divided into two sections, is written in lengthy and convoluted sentences that often repeat the same concept sometimes with the same words. These expanding and evolving sentences slowly reveal the story, which at times has Borges-ian overtones, at times plunges in Kafka-esque surrealism, with two protagonists who are reminiscent of eccentric Dostoevsky characters who flirt with death, and echoes of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The plot is a story of a madness that mixes the extremes of rationality and irrationality, starting with the strange attachment that the dead protagonist felt for the sister that led him to build for her a prison so unhealthy that she died of it; a strange attachment mirrored by the even stranger relationship between the dead protagonist and the alive one, who seem to be alter egos of each other: the narrator lived in the shadow of the dead friend, and the dead friend killed himself in the place that had a special meaning in their childhood, the place where the two basically exchanged identities, one becoming the poor child and one becoming the rich one. But the prison was also a miracle of engineering and a work of art, so in a sense it was indeed a tribute to a brotherly veneration. The manuscript sounds like the document of a descent into madness, culminating with the self-destruction of the writer who himself admits that he has invented the whole story and tries to correct it repeatedly. The whole story is told by a narrator who admits being in a weak state of mind, and who eventually seems to become the posthumous voice of the dead friend. There is also a dark twisted psychological undercurrent in the story of the son who despised his parents. The more Roithamer vents his hatred for his mother the more we suspect that he was morbidly in love with her and resented her hatred towards him, and thus Roithamer built a feticist monument to the other woman in the family, his sister, a surrogate mother, a perfect rejected lover's revenge because his sister was hated too by his mother; but this ostensibly monument of love was actually a prison that rapidly destroyed his sister. And one can suspect that the father bequeathed him the mansion not to have the mansion destroyed (as the son thinks) but to finally gain the son's love. "Correction" is also a post-modern linguistic structure, all about correcting so much that everything becomes a rewritten, completely different, even opposite, entity of what it was meant to be. In fact, "Correction" is perhaps just a verbal game, a book about its own deconstruction. The novel can also be read as a political allegory: how idealism, and specifically the program to create an ideal world, can be a product of madness, of a self-inflicted captivity, leading to unhappiness, paranoia, and eventually to destruction and self-destruction; an allegory of Nazism and Communism, the idealistic paradigms of Bernhard's youth. "Correction" may also be a veiled reference to his good friend Wittgenstein's philosophical u-turn.

The narrator is recovering from a severe pneumonia. Defying his doctor's advice, he accepted the invitation of a friend called Hoeller, a taxidermist who hosted their common friend Roithamer before he committed suicide. The narrator is asked to sort through Roithamer's notes that describe how he built a funny house called Cone right in the middle of the forest. The narrator sets out to work in the same narrow garret where Roithamer lived and worked in seclusion. At the same time the narrator decides to write his own notes about this project that he considers a sort of therapy. Roithamer and the narrator spent 16 years at an English university, the narrator as a mathematician and Roithamer as a scientist. The Cone is a work of art that Roithamer took three years to design and specifically for his sister. Unfortunately, his sister died after moving into the Cone and Roithamer committed suicide shortly thereafter. Hence the Cone is already falling in disrepair. But Hoeller has preserved all the notes and drawings that Roithamer left behind. In order to build this odd structure, Roithamer had spent money inherited from his father. His two brothers, one older and one younger, had tried to stop him by declaring him mad, but most doctors confirmed that he was mentally sane, despite the contrary opinion of most people who knew him. Upon his suicide, Roithamer bequeathed the Cone to the state but with the provision that the Cone could not be demolished: it had to be left untouched to self-destroy. Roithamer despised his home country, Austria, and the narrator seems to agree calling it "decrepit" and "stupid", even "a horrible punishment for existing". His father bequeathed him the family's huge country estate, Altensamer, but Roithamer always hated it, since he was a child. He built the Cone, instead, for the sister that he worshipped. The climate of the forest, however, killed his sister. Every now and then, the narrator reminds himself that he has to be careful because his own mental state is vulnerable, especially when it comes to Roithamer matters. The narrator had followed Roithamer to England and had been clearly very influenced by anything that Roithamer did or thought. Roithamer's suicide has freed the narrator from such a hypnotizing influence. It is odd that the father chose to leave Altensamer to Roithamer because his father knew that Roithamer was likely to sell the estate, the family's ancient home. His brothers felt betrayed and humiliated. The narrator feels that the father wanted the destruction of both his middle son and of the family mansion. His brothers were technically penniless but Roithamer allowed them to live in the mansion and to cash the profits of its agricultural business. Roithamer himself lived with the bare necessities. His only colossal expense was the building of the Cone. He was determined and proud to build something that noone else had ever built. It took him years but in the end he succeeded, except that his sister immediately died in it, and the whole purpose of it had been to make her happy. Roithamer had a passion for music and had written about Purcell and Handel. When they were children, the narrator, born in a poor family of the nearby village, would walk to Altensamer, fascinated by the giant mansion, whereas Roithamer, son of an aristocratic, would walk in the opposite direction to his humble family home. They would meet halfway, at a clearing in the middle of the forest Roithamer never liked his own father but loved the narrator's parents, notably the narrator's father, the village's doctor; and viceversa for the narrator. Roithamer perceives Altensamer as a prison and instead loved the huts of miners and peasants. Roithamer wrote essays about nature, and a treatise about Altensamer; the latter rewritten completely. The narrator writes that he disobeyed the doctors who wanted him to stay longer at the hospital before accepting Hoeller's invitation. Hoeller is not sure about the will but he thinks that Roithamer's last will was to sell Altensamer and donate the profit to the ex-convicts of the region, thieves and even murderers, the lowest class of their society. Roithamer hang himself in the clearing where he used to meet the narrator. After Roithamer died, the narrator was notified that Roithamer had bequeathed to him all his papers. The narrator is convinced that Roithamer was influenced by Hoeller, who had built his home in the most unlikely place, in a gorge subject to floodings, the most dangerous place for a home, but had built it in such a way that it could never be destroyed. Roithamer had, in turn, picked an unlikely place for his Cone, and had worked on the project while secluding himself in Hoeller's garret. Over dinner, the narrator and Hoeller hardly speak: the narrator is waiting to hear details of Roithammer's last days from Hoeller, who is the one who saw him the last two weeks and who found him hanging in the forest clearing after a week from his disappearance (a week from the sister's funeral), while Hoeller is probably waiting for the narrator to explain how this could have happened. The narrator breaks the silence by saying that the Cone destroyed the sister, who was shocked (ashamed?) by such a gift. She after all had always refused to visit the construction site, incredulous. Roithamer went back to England after delivering the gift and the narrator believes that he was then aware of having made a mistake. Hoeller has told the narrator how Roithamer's Cone required scientific knowledge way beyond what Hoeller had used for his own house; it was indeed a major accomplishment, albeit a mad one. The narrator then brings up their childhood: the three went to school together, and he fondly remembers how they walked long distances from their homes, how Roithamer was the only sibling who didn't go to boarding school because he preferred the regular school and his aristocratic father granted him his wish, how his siblings came back from the city to live in Altensamer and Roithamer instead immediately left for England where he became a well-respected scientist. The narrator remembers how the three children found their teacher: he had hanged himself in their classroom, a fact that obviously influenced Roithamer. In passing, the narrator escoriates Austria, the country that has the highest suicide rate in the world. The narrator is intimidated by Roithamer's essay on Altensamer, which describes that place as the place that both made Roithamer what he became and destroyed him (with equal force). The fact that Roithamer corrects the manuscript until it destroyed the original makes it particularly authentic. The narrator believes that it is necessary to examine first the original and then the corrected version. He is intimidated by this task and suspects that Roithamer's purpose in bequeathing the manuscript to him was to destroy him the same way he had destroyed his sister and himself. In fact, this task has already taken a toll on the narrator: the narrator had planned to return to his research in England after the hospitalization and instead he is now in Hoeller's garret, captive by the papers that Roithamer left to him. The narrator watches Hoeller as he stuffs a giant bird and remembers how Roithamer claimed to be inspired by Hoeller's skills at stuffing animals, an art, passed down from generation to generation, that consists in turning natural creatures into artificial creatures. The narrator reminisces when Roithamer won a paper rose at a music festival, in fact won 24 of them and then casually gifted 23 to an unknown girl, keeping only one yellow rose for himself until the end of his days. The narrator cannot understand what meaning that paper rose had for the dead friend. The narrator hesitates to begin work on the Altensamer manuscript. He has the original 800-page version, the second 300-page version and the third 80-page version. Roithamer then "corrected" it again down to only 20 pages but, upon his sister's death, he destroyed the final version. The manuscript is just a heap of fragments. The narrator carelessly empties the knapsack where he has carried them and the papers fall on the floor in random order. He then stuffs them into a drawer, but the exact order will be impossible to reconstruct because Roithamer did not number the pages. Meanwhile, the narrator has been observing Hoeller at work until late night. Finally, Hoeller turns off the lights but the narrator feels that Hoeller is still in his studio staring at him. The narrator turns off his own lights and still feels that Hoeller is staring at his window. But then he accidentally hits an object that produces a big noise and Hoeller shows up at his door in his pajama: the narrator was just being paranoid.

The second section is basically Roithamer's diary, and also his manuscript. It confirms that he intended to sell Altensamer and donate the money to the ex-convicts. Roithamer describes how he kept his sister under observation and built the Cone to represent her mental life and the landscape around it to reflect her external behavior. The three-storied structure reflects her character. It contains 17 rooms, of which 9 without a view, one at the top with 360-degree views and one specifically for meditation. The whole structure is a giant totem to the sister, only for her, meant to liberate her from the captivity of the family mansion. The narrator informs us that Roithamer's suicide note, found by Hoeller, prohibited anyone else from ever entering it. The Cone is exactly the height of the forest and is reached via a zigzagging path so that it is not visible until one is exactly in front of it. Roithamer views the building of the Cone as the destruction of Altensamer. Roithamer narrates how his parents disliked each other and rarely spoke to each other, and disliked the children, terrorized them, behaving towards them like prison wardens. Roithamer did not visit his parents during their last 12 years. They died within one week of each other and he only went to their funeral. He was already busy with his Cone project. Roithamer's mother punished his rebellious spirit by locking him in a filthy and hot tower. His father had divorced the first wife because she couldn't give him a child, and married Roithamer's mother simply as a vehicle to get children. The second wife, however, was chronically sick, prone to fainting and afflicted by constant nausea. No wonder that Roithamer hated Altensamer since he had a miserable childhood there. Roithamer furiously attacks his mother, the daughter of a butcher whom the aristocratic father married simply because he was in a hurry to get a woman pregnant. His mother was constantly sick of all sorts of illnesses, while constantly being in a "repulsive state of slovenliness". Roithamer blames her for turning their father into a stranger. Roithamer and his mother had reached a virtuoso stage in the art of tormenting each other, ever more sophisticated and ruthless ways of psychologically hurting each other. His mother hated his sister and Roithamer loved his sister, and loved her porcelain miniatures. His negative feelings towards his mother become contempt for the whole female sex, whom he describes as "anti-intellectual", impulsive and narrow minded. It was after one of his arguments with his mother that Roithamer, on vacation from his English job, moved into Hoeller's garret. There he started studying the structure and got motivated to build something equally impossible. Roithamer was fascinated by suicide. A cousin and an uncle had committed suicide. Roithamer views suicide as the ultimate "correction". After his lengthy rant against his mother, Roithamer admits that the truth viewed by others could be completely opposite. In fact, he writes: "I'm shocked by everything I've just written". And pledges to "correct it", and then correct the correction, and so on, all the way towards the ultimate correction: suicide. He feels contempt for people like himself who postpone the ultimate correction and admires his uncle, a philosophizing business man who exerted a strong influence on him and was capable of killing himself. Roithamer says that what kept him from committing suicide during his very lonely time in England was the work on the Cone for his sister. That work in Austria proceeded in parallel with his scientific research on genetic mutations in England, the one influencing the other.

Now the narrative morphs: "so Roithamer wrote" and the first person "I" turn into a "He" narrated by the "I" of the narrator.

Roithamer is obsessed with the woodworms that are pervasive in the region. He thinks he can hear them at work in every object, like the millions of woodworms that are devouring Altensamer. He is also kept awake at night by details that annoy him. It sounds like he is truly going mad as he is writing this "corrected" manuscript.

He realizes that he destroyed and killed his sister by building that Cone for her. Everybody thought he was crazy (except Hoeller) and the expert thought that he didn't have the qualifications for designing a building. But he persevered and succeeded, except that he also succeeded in killing his sister.

He confesses that, when he took the train from England, he was fully aware that his Altensamer manuscript was not telling the truth, that the characters were different, and set out to correct it during the train ride.

The last pages (in the form of a collage of diary entries of various length) are devoted to nihilistic and cryptic philosophyzing presaging the decision to kill himself.


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