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.

A Year End Post of Sorts

Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia is a world in miniature, and also, a people. In fervent minds such as Maria Gabriela Llansol’s and his, ideas come together from will to achievement to produce an extraordinarily rich vision, a higher synthesis in which contrasting ideas come forth to forge an incomparable unity. Like every brilliant work, Nostalgia and Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy need nothing. The tone and flavour of their work makes allusions to art that has gone before, but they are uniquely their own. Made of nothing but words they transmit  a vital atmosphere that seems freshly formed from nothing.

Of this year’s reading, a good year in which I’ve read several fine works that will stay with me for a long time, it is these two writers that give me both the passionate excitement and the contemplative rapture I find only from literature. Both stem the flow of time and leave me refreshed to perceive the world with altered lens.

I am reading Nostalgia again, so I shall begin the new years’s reading as I end this one. The list below summarises the books that stayed with me from this year’s solitary and mediative pursuit of reading literature. In Jon Fosse I think I may also have found another literary companion to accompany me through the dark forest of the next decade. I’ve long awaited a translation of Bazlen’s Notes and it was all I hoped it would be.

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (t. Willa and Edwin Muir)
Reading and re-reading Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy (t. Audrey Young)
Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (t. Robert Croll)
Reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle end to end (t. Don Bartlett)
Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
Roberto Bazlen, Notes Without a Text (t. Alex Andriesse)
Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (t. Jack Dawson)
Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (t. May-Brit Akerholt)
Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia (t. Julian Semilian)

A special thanks to Andrei, keeper of The Untranslated blog. It is through him that I discovered both Llansol and Cărtărescu and, of course, to the bold translators and publishers that interpret these remarkable texts into the English language.

All is Quiet

in his essay, Karl Ove Knausgaard captures concisely and perceptively the literary qualities of Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Jon Fosse and by extension his own writing; “the presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alertness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text. The strange thing about writing is that the self seems to let go, that what in our self-conception normally keeps the I together, becomes dissolved, the inner being reconfigurating in new and unfamiliar ways.”

I’ve yet to read Fosse’s fiction, but the essays that Knausgaard describes are collected in An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt) from Dalkey Archive. I require more time with the essays, but am fascinated with his singular way of looking at literature and art.

That it is influenced by Maurice Blanchot reminds me yet again to spend more time with his work, as what Fosse describes is close to what I seek and am fortunate to find in my literary touchstones: “Whereas telling connects with the social world, the narrative situation itself, and moreover comprises some element of entertainment, writing, Fosse seems to believe, connects with something else, with that part of our language which perhaps communicates only itself, like a stone or a crack in a wall.”

Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

Yesterday’s blog post recording the fact that I’ve just read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser was silly and pointless. I apologise for wasting anyone’s time. It’s symptomatic of my struggle to find a way to write about my reading life without adding to a profusion of largely valueless book reviews. My reading is helped by the foreknowledge that I may write something about what I am reading, even if that writing is confined to my private journal. That there still seems to be some interest in this blog encourages me to persevere to write in a public place.

In this 1992 Quartet Books edition of The Loser, a rewarding afterword by Mark Anderson is provided at the end, far more valuable than any introduction, which I tend not to read until after I’ve read a book anyway, if at all. Anderson describes how Bernhard’s fiction changed after writing the five volumes of his autobiography, projecting aspects of his self onto public figures like Wittgenstein, Mendelssohn and in the case of The Loser, Glenn Gould: ‘These later texts are all part of what might be termed Bernhard’s imaginary autobiography—his own life story rewritten according to the lives of his artistic and philosophical doubles.’

It is this tension that supplies some of the insistent pulse of this story, the coexistence of the autobiographical and the fictive, a narrator that is and is not the writer, voices that are both human and text simultaneously. The ambiguity of the narrator provides sufficient ironic detachment that the tirade is more comedic than serious. As this documentary reveals, little use is made of Glenn Gould’s actual biography, just sufficient to draw parallels with Bernhard’s own life. Our lives are only interesting when contrasted against another.

In his afterword, Anderson also points out that both Gould and Bernhard ‘shared a dislike for individualist art forms . . . based on progression, climax, and reconciliation.’ It is perhaps one of several reasons I am enchanted by The Loser—aside from a seemingly endless fascination with those drawn to reclusive existences—the apparently fugal structure that underpins Bernhard’s novel and the resistance of plot and conclusion.

Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s Art of the Fugue are a mainstay of my personal musical canon. If you share my fascination please read this lengthy, quite brilliant post, which argues strongly against applying a fugal metaphor to experience of the The Loser.