Thomas Bernhard’s Yes

“This book is here on the table in front of me,” wrote Ágota Kristóf, of Thomas Bernhard’s Yes, It “is the first book of his that I read. I lent it to several friends, telling them that I had never laughed so hard when reading a book . . . It is true that the content is terrible, for this ‘yes’ is indeed a ‘yes’, but a ‘yes’ to death, and thus ‘no’ to life”.

After reading Kristóf’s The Illiterate I turned next to Bernhard’s Yes. How could I not? This is how I like to read, have always read, led from one book to the next by that sometimes barely discernible thread, though more direct in the journey from Kristóf to Bernhard, about who she writes, “[He] will live on eternally as an example to all those who claim to be writers”.

I read Bernhard’s books singly. He is not for me a writer to binge-read, though I expect to read each of his books eventually. So far, none of the eight I’ve read have disappointed. Yes goes straight onto my list of favourite books. It has that immediacy that comes with Bernhard’s novels and the ability to deliver character and voice by the most economical means. The pervading sense of disillusionment is counterbalanced by a stream of not-quite humorous misanthropy, source, I imagine, of Kristóf’s laughter.

A pattern of truly serendipitous reading would next entail Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, but that maddening text and I have crossed paths before so I shall turn instead this evening to Bernhard’s protagonist’s other source of solace: Robert Schumann’s late symphonies.

“Mundus Imaginalis”

What, I wonder, would the world be like without this intermediate world of the imaginative consciousness that we enter when we read? This world that allows cognitive imagination to blossom. Reading this morning the pared down precision of Ágota Kristóf’s prose gives rise to a clear flow of mental images that eludes me in writing that is over-polished, that tries too hard, where the images and ideas clash and strain credibility.

I am rereading her series of novels considered a trilogy because the same characters reappear in each. Kristóf was less definite. The Notebook is bleak, sublimely intense while the subsequent books are lesser, but the part is in this case always equal to the whole. In Kristóf’s The Illiterate she mentions one of her favourite writers, Thomas Bernhard, specifically his novel Yes so, as is my habit, I also began to read that book.

Friedrike Mayröcker I continue to read to prolong the voice, just a few sentences can be sufficient. This weekend also Anne Carson’s solemn The Glass Essay which lead me to search biographies of Emily Brontë, a writer revered, I think, by Maria Gabriela Llansol. A few pages too of Woolf’s The Waves, browsing the text that I wrote in the margins thirteen years ago.

The perplexities of this world of reading, the books that fade completely away, the voices that stay alive, Llansol’s transformations into figures, the profusion of minds. This simultaneous narrative and its possibilities.

Life, Life, Life!

We create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry, and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.

When I was at junior school in London, my English teacher lent me a illustrated volume of poems that he had brought back from a trip to the United States. I read the book cover to cover as though it was a single continuous piece of prose. I have no recollection of the title of the book, though its cover is still retained in memory. That it was American gave the book an exotic air that seems risible now, but was common at the time with the emergence of films and comics from that country.

I read that book under the covers by torchlight discovering Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the first time. Children read poetry effortlessly and, of course, six or so years after discovering that I loved to read poetry I began writing poems too. Most of those poems have mercifully disappeared with only a single, painfully self-conscious example from my teenage years still surviving.

Virginia Woolf was not a poet, but I can sympatthise with the sentiment quoted above. These last few years I’ve read poetry with the seriousness that attended my childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, though these days I’ll more likely be reading Geoffrey Hill, Friedrike Mayröcker or Anne Carson, rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth, or scouring sixteenth and seventeenth century anthologies to chase down Geoffrey Hill references.

I resist the urge to write poems, but I almost feel able and I’m not certain that I’ll be able to hold out indefinitely. In 1945, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson edited an anthology of their favourite poems, including the following piece in the July section:

Let us go, then, exploring
This summer morning
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust-bin whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life! cries the bird
As if he had heard

No mention is made in the book of the poem’s origin, but the editors offer a thank you to Mr. Leonard Woolf for permission to include a passage from the works of Virginia Woolf. Although the poem did not appear in print as a poem before 1945, a remarkably similar prose version opens Orlando, published in 1928.

Fallen Time

Quote

You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membrane. . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago. . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination with ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!

Mircea Cărtărescu, Blinding, translated by Sean Cotter.

[This struck me as worth reflecting on at length. For some reason it brought to mind something that stayed with me from Augustine about fallen time: experiencing time as a succession of self-erasing moments. I’m reading Blinding as preparation for reading Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, possibly next year.]

Taste the Light

Quote

I was afraid the added light had made me lose my diffuse love. On my own I could certainly still be swept with enthusiasm, again and again, helped along by stillness, nature, pictures, books, gusting wind, as well as the roaring highway, and most powerfully by nothing at all, but I no longer took much interest in anything except certain thousand-year-old stone sculptures, two-thousand-year-old inscriptions, the tossing of branches, the gurgling of water, the arch of the sky, or at least I felt it was far too little interest, and far too infrequent.

Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, translated by Krishna Winston