Now it may be thought that I will hoover up anything that is translated from German. Not so. There are authors that I steer clear of, particularly those with reputations for long, convoluted literary sentences. (I’ve never recovered from the trauma of trying to translate a 1.5 page long sentence at uni.) Any names come to mind? Here’s two. Sebald and Bernhard. While I’m in confession mode, let me confess this. I dnf’ed my first Sebald at the end of last year. Don’t see myself trying again either. So how have I fared with my first and my second Bernhards, which I read for Stu’s Thomas Bernhard fortnight?
Well, I finished them both. But then, they are both published by Seagull Books (and I will hoover up anything that appears on their German list.)
I suspect the first title, Viktor Halfwit, is anything but typical though. It’s a fable, and there isn’t that much reading to it. Viktor Halfwit makes a bet that he can walk through the dark, snowy forest from Traich to Föding in one hour. It is a foolish one, because Viktor is walking on his two wooden legs, which snap off during the walk. Yet he wins the bet. How so? That would be telling, but, even so, there is a sting in the tale.
When I say there isn’t much reading in it, that’s because it can be easily read in 5 minutes. So why such a huge volume? That’s because Seagull’s illustrator, Sunandini Banerjee, has gone to
Föding town on it and turned the story into the most colourful, sumptuous, feast of a book you can imagine. Often producing a double page collage for a single phrase, some sentences expand over ten pages.
Appreciating the references in these collages takes more than 5 minutes, let me tell you. Banerjee’s synapses must have been on rapid fire during this project. The result is astounding, and perhaps one of the most intriguing books in my collection. My thanks to Joe for bringing it to my attention all those years ago.
The second title looks paltry next to the first, yet it contains four short pieces, which are probably more representative of Bernhard’s oeuvre as a whole. Goethe Dies, which gives its name to the collection, is set in Weimar, where Goethe is lying on his death bed. The polymath of German literature, science, local government, philosophy, you name it, takes it into his head that he would like to converse with none other that Wittgenstein, and tasks one of his secretaries to go to England to collect him. The anachronistic reference (Wittgenstein was born 55 years after Goethe’s demise) must serve some other purpose than just being playful. It’s probably a philosophical in-joke. If so, it’s beyond my ken to understand, but it does place a marker for how clever Bernhard is going to be in the rest of the collection. The portrait of Goethe is less than flattering – he’s still holding court in his house on the Frauenplan – and he is a little imperious. Which to be honest, the greatest living German of his time probably was.
The following two stories have fractious family relationships at their core. In Montaigne the narrator, mid-40s is seen as a problem – he wishes only to lock himself in a tower to read. (Nothing wrong with that, say I.) For his business-minded family, however, this is a problem. But it appears that conflict started between child and parents way back when:
From birth I was against them, holding my very existence against them as this wicked, never-speaking child just perpetually staring at them, their perfidious monstrosity.
Difficult parents or difficult child? It’s open to interpretation, isn’t it?
The dynamic is turned on its head in Reunion. Here the parents are in search of that elusive peace and quiet. And yet … During a reunion with a childhood friend, the narrator – again middle-aged – reminisces on family holidays. Typical alpine outings – backpacks at the ready, walking-shoes on, kids dragging themselves through the forest or up the mountains behind their parents …. to the chosen restful destination of the day where reigns “the greatest piece and quiet, absolute piece and quiet”. Whereupon his parents pull out their musical instruments – mother, a zither, father a trumpet – to play some impromptu, and out-of-tune pieces. It’s as the narrator says: “
Twice a year they went into the mountains to find peace and quiet, but of course they only brought wherever they went their lack of peace and quiet
Both narrators are pillorying their parents, with no discernible affection. Yet the tone of both Montaigne and Reunion is muted in comparison to that of the final piece, Going Up In Flames. Bernhard’s loathing for his native Austria rages here. There’s not a target he doesn’t shoot at, not a target he misses. It is visceral and deeply uncomfortable. Ranting is, I believe, a Bernhardian speciality. Another reason why I’ve been so tentative in approaching his work. This piece is only 8 pages long and it was enough. I’m not sure I could cope with his longer works if they had similar prolonged intensity. Yet I’d like to read more. I appreciated the dark comedy of the first three stories, and the sly – nay, barbed, observations that made me LOL.
So where do I go from here? What would you suggest?