WOODCUTTERS BY THOMAS BERNHARD

Predictably I made the decision to review this Thomas Bernhard novel in the style of the man himself, I thought sitting in the computer chair. The reason being that writing like Bernhard is fun, that it is fun to rant in run-on sentences, but also because for anyone coming cold to the man’s work it is perhaps worthwhile to give them a taste of what to expect in terms of style. The actual plot of his novels, as the man himself once said, is at best of secondary importance, that it is the style, the composition of the piece, that is most important. This particular novel is very highly rated,  although I wouldn’t say myself that it is his best, I reflected sitting in the computer chair. I’ve been asked, as someone who has read almost all of Bernhard’s novels, which is the best and I have always consistently highlighted Extinction as a particular favourite, while maintaining that Correction is his masterpiece. Those two novels are by far his greatest achievements, I was adamant as I sat in my computer chair, which is not to say that Woodcutters isn’t also excellent. If I had to try and explain why I think that Woodcutters is so popular, why it is becoming increasingly the go-to work for people wanting to introduce themselves to Bernhard’s world, I would say that it is perhaps because Woodcutters houses his most accessible idea, the one set-up, in the whole of his oeuvre, that everyone can identify with, which is that of someone at a party thrown by and populated by dislikable people. Nearly everyone, at some point, has attended a bad party, a party where the hosts and guests are interminable bores, I thought sitting in the computer chair. In such a situation everyone becomes a Thomas Bernhard, sitting in their [wing] chair or standing in a corner and silently, to themselves, dissecting and judging the behaviour and attitudes of the people present. The set-up in Correction, that of a damaged genius building a cone for his sister in the centre of the Kobernausser forest, is far more difficult to relate to, for I imagine that not many of us, if any, have designed and built habitable cone-like structures for our sisters, or anyone else, in the centre of a forest, nor are many of us damaged geniuses. So, despite Correction being, by some considerable margin, Thomas Bernhard’s finest novel, his most devastating work, it is understandable that more people would be drawn to Woodcutters, with its entirely relatable set-up of a man at a dinner party who wishes that he wasn’t there, a man hating on everyone present at this party. The hate itself is, on this occasion, understandable, is, again, relatable, for the people at this party are pretentious, soulless hobnobbers, are vapid suckers of a man’s lifeblood and mental energies, are so lacking in self-awareness and integrity that the invective seems entirely justified. We all know people like that, and many of us have been to those kinds of parties, the kind of parties that the hosts in the novel call an artistic dinner. When I was away from home and spending a lot of my time in London I attended numerous artistic dinners or parties, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. I hadn’t myself been invited to these dinners or parties, but was merely the plus one of my girlfriend at the time, who was certainly not famous, but was for a short while thought to be destined for success as a model. These dinners or parties were excruciating affairs, attended sometimes by so-called celebrities and hangers on, but mostly by up-and-coming artists, photographers, hairdressers and fashion designers and models, including my girlfriend at the time, who seemed to revel in the artistic nature of these gatherings. I hated these parties, particularly the artistic element, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. I cannot describe how awful it is to have to converse with a hairdresser, how literally indescribable the extent of my boredom, how utterly insufferable it is having to speak to a hairdresser for thirty minutes, or a photographer, or some jumped-up fashion student from South Africa who has arrived wearing an apron as some kind of cynical display of so-called eccentricity. Half the time I would endeavour to get drunk out of mind, just to avoid having to listen or talk to these hairdressers and fashion designers and photographers, I would sometimes even try to get myself thrown out by emptying the wine bottles over the food, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. So, it is easy to be on Thomas Bernhard’s side as he mentally gives it with both barrels to the Auersbergers and the rest of the attendees at their artistic dinner, it is liberating and cathartic almost to read this novel wherein a man sits in a chair, drinking glasses of champagne, and mentally rants about and criticises the same sort of people you yourself would criticise in your mind if you were at this artistic dinner. It helps, of course, when considering the readability of his work, that Bernhard had a sense of humour, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. Woodcutters, more than most of his novels, perhaps more than any of them, is, despite the hateful ranting, a relatively lighthearted work. The passage describing a female Austrian writer who considers herself to be heir to Virginia Woolf’s crown, to have, in fact, surpassed Woolf, is particularly amusing; and the way that the repetition of the phrase sitting in the wing chair almost works like a punchline throughout the novel is also very clever. And the central characters, this time around, are not nearly as intense or crazy, nor is the Thomas Bernhard narrator as manic as he often is. Of course, there are still present those standard, expected, Bernhardian themes, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. Suicide, for example, still plays a part in the narrative, which makes my claim that the work is lighthearted seem particularly odd, but I meant only relatively lighthearted, as in when compared to Bernhard’s other work, some of which is amongst the batshittiest you’ll ever encounter. The narrator’s friend Joanna has recently hanged herself, and, of course, that isn’t lighthearted or amusing, but it is worth mentioning how Bernhard deals with it with what one may consider uncharacteristic tenderness, although it isn’t uncharacteristic as far as I’m concerned, more that it isn’t often noted how tender, how sentimental even, Bernhard’s writing sometimes is, especially when it is concerned with the fate of the special, talented, and, more often than not, severely depressed or troubled friends of the narrator. Woodcutters may even be his most moving work, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. The description of the party, which takes place on the day of Joanna’s funeral, as like a funeral feast I found to be particularly touching, so too the narrator’s observation that the idea of the party as a wake of sorts is simply an after-thought, that as a wake it is unacknowledged by most or barely acknowledged, or acknowledged only out of politeness or for effect. Yet, maybe I only find this so moving, I thought sitting in the computer chair, because I too knew someone who tried to hang themselves, a girl who was also called Joanna, although she’d be very upset at me calling her that in print, the fullness of her Christian name always being a source of embarrassment or irritation for some strange reason. In any case, Joanna’s and the narrator’s relationship is probably the most natural, the most believable in all of Bernhard’s fiction, what with their nights of cheap wine and collaboration, and therefore, of all the relationships in his work, it packs the greatest emotional punch.

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