Reading Thomas Bernhard’s Frost is exhilarating. Repeatedly I must put the book to one side while I let the writing coalesce. This is the first Bernhard book I have read, though he has been in my library for a while awaiting chance discovery. I know I will have to read everything he wrote.
Thus far, Frost is the anguished and harrowing howl of the tormented painter Strauch:
“There was a time I would have thought it impossible for me to give in to myself so blindly,” says the painter. He stops, draws breath and says: “I could be in a good mood, after all. Why am I not in a good mood? I’m not bored, I’m not scared. I’m in no pain. I feel no irritation. As if I was someone else, just now. And there it is again: I’m hurt and irritated. Yes, it’s my own doing. See: all my life . . . I’ve never been merry! Never joyful! Never what people call happy. Because the compulsion to the unusual, the eccentric, the odd, the unique, and the unattainable, this compulsion has wrecked everything for me, and in the creative field as well. It tore everything up, as if it were a piece of paper! My fear is rational, orderly, itemised, there’s nothing low about it. I’m continually testing myself! You can imagine what it’s like, when you open yourself like a book, and find misprints everywhere, one after another, misprints on every page! And in spite of those hundreds and thousands of misprints, the whole thing is <masterly! It’s a whole series of masterpieces! . . . The pain rises from below or comes down from above, and it becomes human pain. I keep banging into the walls that surround me on every side. I’m a cement man! But I’ve often had to hold on to myself behind my laughter.
My custom when deciding what to read next is to follow fiction with non-fiction. That way, characters stay where they’re supposed to. If I read two novels back-to-back, Beckett’s Celia from Murphy is liable to slip into the inn in Bernhard’s Frost.
That custom aside, serendipity and randomness determine my reading. A reference in Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory will resolve Thomas Bernhard’s Frost as my next fictional encounter. Meeting both a surgeon and an artist called Strauch in Frost may suggest Kennedy’s A Brief History of Disease Science and Medicine or Flux’s Matisse biography as subsequent non-fiction.
Frequently when viewed from a distance, a structure emerges within the apparent serendipity. Thomas Bernhard is an obvious choice after Beckett. The dark humour and repetition; the soaring, beautiful use of language make them seem natural bedfellows. More deliberate choice comes from sweeping, passionate obsessions that follow a new discovery. Discovering Philip Roth, Nabokov and Flaubert for the first time concentrated my reading for months to a single author. This compulsion to read everything by a much loved writer is still present but I am able to pace myself differently.
After writing the post above, the next blog that I read had posted this excerpt from Thomas Bernhard:
‘I have, in my life, turned pages a million times more often than I have read them, and always derived from turning pages at least as much pleasure and real intellectual enjoyment as from reading. Surely it is better to read altogether only three pages of a four-hundred-page book a thousand times more thoroughly than the normal reader who reads everything but does not read a single page thoroughly, he said. It is better to read twelve lines of a book with the utmost intensity and thus to penetrate into them to the full, as one might say, rather than read the whole book as the normal reader does, who in the end knows the book he has read no more than an air passenger who knows the landscape he overflies. He does not perceive the contours. Thus all people nowadays read everything and know nothing. I enter into a book and settle in it, neck and crop, you should realize, in one or two pages of a philosophical essay as if I were entering a landscape, a piece of nature, a state organism, a detail of the earth, if you like, in order to penetrate into it entirely and not just with half my strength or half-heartedly, in order to explore it and then, having explored it with all the thoroughness at my disposal, drawing conclusions as to the whole. He who reads everything has understood nothing, he said. It is not necessary to read all of Goethe or all of Kant, it is not necessary to read all of Schopenhauer; a few pages of ‘Werther’, a few pages of ‘Elective Affinities’ and we know more in the end about the two books than if we had read them from beginning to end, which would anyway deprive us of the purest enjoyment.’
In defending Beckett from a bitchy put-down, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence states:
Had Beckett read only Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson (odd that Donoghue does not include Shakespeare and Joyce), and read them deeply and across a lifetime, he would qualify as “immensely learned.” Of course, Beckett didn’t stop there. Few writers have woven their learning so inextricably into the texture of their work.
I am struck by the romance of being “immensely learned” from reading narrowly but deeply. How many authors, I wonder, would fit into this ultra-narrow literary canon if one was restricted to four or five choices?
Are there a handful of living authors, four or five, that one could read deeply over a lifetime and be considered learned?
Altogether I think that we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak.
From the NYT obituary of writer and scholar Alfred Appel Jr. –
Speaking at a memorial service for Nabokov in Manhattan in 1977, Mr. Appel recalled telling him about an antiwar protest at Northwestern during which a student had called Mr. Appel a eunuch. Nabokov said quickly, “Oh no, Alfred, you misunderstood him. He called you a unique.”
[Via About Last Night]
I’ve yet to read any of the recently published Beckett letters. As I am currently reading Murphy for the first time, this snagged my attention:
Beckett’s novel Murphy, completed in 1936, the first work in which this chronically self-doubting author seems to have taken genuine if transient creative pride (before long, however, he would be dismissing it as “a very dull work, painstaking, creditable and dull”), draws on his experience of the London therapeutic milieu and on his reading in the psychoanalytic literature of the day. Its hero is a young Irishman who, exploring spiritual techniques of withdrawal from the world, achieves his goal when he inadvertently kills himself. Light in tone, the novel is Beckett’s response to the therapeutic orthodoxy that the patient should learn to engage with the larger world on the world’s terms. In Murphy, and even more in Beckett’s mature fiction, heart palpitations and panic attacks, fear and trembling or willed oblivion, are entirely appropriate responses to our existential situation.
The recent edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the first I have read (with thanks to Vertigo for the introduction), introduced me to the ugly but useful new term loiterature. Coined by Ross Chambers to signify the digressive, category-blurring style of writing of authors like W. G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, Roger Deakin, Javier Marías and Iain Sinclair.
Warren Motte’s excellent article in the magazine is framed around a story by French author Jean Rolin, yet to find an American publisher, unfortunately). Writing about this “loiterly novel“, Motte explains:
What may be less immediately obvious is the idea of digression as a deeply purposeful narrative technique. However counterintuitive this notion may appear at first glance, upon further consideration it is perfectly reasonable – especially in the context of literary discourse. We easily accept that an author and the narrator that he or she constructs may be quite different in voice, character, purpose. Why should that difference not express itself in the attitude that each evinces with regard to digression? Or as Montalbetti and Piegay-Gros suggest, “If the narrator goes astray, the author, undoubtedly, knows where he’s going. In a literary text, digression is less a sign of going astray; it is not the sign of a lack of mastery in writing, but rather the fiction of a lack of mastery”.
James Salter’s Light Years juxtaposes several infinitely malleable themes. The oldest, in the tradition of Madame Bovary, dissects the flawed diamond that is the institution of marriage, and examines the inherent loss of freedom. The marriage is set within the politically and culturally empowering decades of the sixties and seventies. The individuals within the marriage are New York Jewish intellectuals, at once familiar and known to readers of Roth, Ozick and Bellow. This combination, in the hands of a talented observer and writer, is a precious and exotic combination.