It seems necessary when writing about Thomas Bernhard to use certain words or phrases to describe his work. I don’t think I have ever read an article or review that didn’t, for example, mention insanity, or ranting or run-on sentences or hate or tedium. If you wanted to you could play a Thomas Bernhard Review drinking game: suicide [take a sip], repetition [take a sip] and so on. The funny thing is that a positive review, and most of these reviews are positive, is meant to inspire people to read the book in question; and yet, even though I love Bernhard’s novels, reviews usually make them sound so unappealing [I came across a reviewer the other day who imagined himself going into a bookshop and requesting something by Thomas Bernhard; the employee asks which particular book he wants, and he replies ‘the interminable one.’ Ha!] It’s a tough gig, I guess, but it is my intention to try and convince you that The Lime Works is approachable and fun to read [at least relative to his other books].
Before I get to that, it is worth saying something about the plot. The Lime Works is the story of Konrad, who purchases a property [the lime works of the title] for an exorbitant amount of money and moves into it with his crippled wife. He then turns the place into a kind of prison, putting up bars at the windows, and making it essentially inaccessible from the outside. Konrad believes that the lime works is the only place in which he can complete his work called The Sense of Hearing, a work that he will, in fact, never even begin to put down on paper. Konrad’s work involves exhausting experiments, which, it turns out, appear to involve shouting weird phrases at his crippled wife for hours on end. Konrad, we are told at the very beginning of the novel, eventually murders his wife by shooting her.
Now, the reason I wanted to begin by outlining the plot, when ordinarily I wouldn’t, is because no matter how sexy I want the book to sound in my review, there’s no getting away from the author’s preoccupations. If the above summary seems to you to be too dark, or just excruciatingly odd, then there is nothing I could say to change your mind. Furthermore, Bernhard’s novels are, for the most part, entirely plotless. It’s strange that his narrators always give the impression of wanting to tell a story – they claim to want to tell you about such-and-such and what happened to them – but often they don’t, not in detail anyway, and certainly not in a linear fashion. The Lime Works is, however, the closest Bernhard came to conventional storytelling, in that it has narrative momentum, and I imagine that this, for many, would be a tick in its column.
On those preoccupations: most of Bernhard’s books are concerned with damaged genius, or artistic or creative or intellectual people who are falling apart or are at odds with society. Sure, you could label most of them dangerously insane [take a sip], but they are, too, clearly very vulnerable [as are, of course, the people around them, like Konrad’s wife]. It is this vulnerability, this sense of things falling apart, this deep unhappiness, that, to some extent, accounts for how moving I tend to find Bernhard’s work. His focus is often on people who can’t act, who are paralysed by their madness or obsession. That is something I know myself; for example, these last few weeks I have been unable to read, to actually choose something to read, to hit on something that I think is fit to be read [for I think most things aren’t; that there are, in fact, only a very limited number of books worth reading]. I haven’t given up trying, oh no, but have instead spent those weeks picking up books and putting them down; fifty, sixty books; there are currently high stacks of them around my bed, giving the impression that I am trying to wall myself in.
“But instead of thinking about my book and how to write it, as I go pacing the floor, I fall to counting my footsteps until I feel about to go mad.”
Yet what makes The Lime Works easier to digest is that it doesn’t get entirely bogged down in his personal preoccupations [I use the phrase ‘bogged down’ here not all negatively, btw]. As noted previously, the book features a grisly murder, the motive for which is explored but never explained. It is, therefore, possible to read it simply as a kind of existential thriller or mystery or as an insight into the mind of a demented or maniacal man. As such, one could legitimately place it alongside novels like Lolita, Crime and Punishment, The Outsider or Sabato’s The Tunnel. So, it is, I think, likely to appeal to a greater number of people, people who cannot identify with Bernhard’s themes and ideas, but who enjoy a bit of psychokiller voyeurism. Bizarrely, it is Konrad’s more extreme actions [more extreme than Bernhard’s other protagonists] that might mean that this book will connect with more people; murder is gruesome, yes, but it is familiar.
Moreover, it is worth noting that The Lime Works is also Bernhard’s most domestic novel. Unless my memory is faulty, I don’t think any of his other work is centred around a relationship between a man and a woman; in any case, this one is certainly the only one I’ve read that so heavily features a marriage, or, more specifically, a dysfunctional marriage. And, my God, is it dysfunctional. For example, one recurring episode is Konrad forcing his wife to listen to him reading from a book by the Russian anarchist Kropotkin, whom she hates, while she, on the other hand, tries to convince him to read her favourite writer Novalis. Throughout the novel, both Konrad and his wife [who is his half-sister!] antagonise each other; as a couple they are chronically ill-suited, and yet can’t seem to live without each other.
It is a cliché to call Bernhard’s work funny [take a sip]; everyone who writes about him, much like with Beckett and Kafka, wants to impress upon you just how hilarious he is. In a way, I think the comedy is overstated. Sometimes people laugh at things that are strange, or outside of their experience or understanding; it is a kind of nervous or confused laughter, and I think that is, at times, what is happening when people read Bernhard. Something like Correction, for example, is not a comedy. I truly believe that. It is about a man who builds a cone-like structure for his sister in the centre of a forest. Most of us have never built a cone-like structure in the centre of a forest, and cannot understand why anyone would, so we tend to find the absurdity of the undertaking amusing. That’s fair enough, but screamingly funny it ain’t.
Furthermore, a lot of the laughs come as a consequence of the ranting [take a sip]. Ranting is funny because it involves a loss of control; it is, as I have stated before, a little like someone falling over. Yet the thing about someone falling over is that they are not necessarily doing it to amuse you; and I feel the same way about Bernhard’s rants. Having said that, The Lime Works, in my opinion, features more genuine jokes, is more obviously comedic. One of my favourite episodes is when Konrad is describing how his wife has been knitting mittens for him, mittens that, like his work on the sense of hearing, she never actually finishes because she keeps unpicking them and starting again. In fact, she does this so many times that Konrad comes to hallucinate about her unravelling wool! After spending a page or two on discussion of these mittens, during which Konrad explains how he tried to impress upon his wife how much he likes the mittens she is knitting, Bernhard, via Konrad, then delivers the classic punchline: there is nothing in the world I hate more than I hate mittens! Amazing. And genuinely, intentionally, very very funny.
Finally, I want to say something about the complex, sophisticated structure or set-up of the novel. Nearly all of Bernhard’s work is written in the first person, as is The Lime Works. However, whereas the narrator is usually a stand-in for Bernhard himself, a narrator who is observing or telling the story of another person, or other people, who are close to him, in this book Konrad’s story is told by, essentially, a whole village. It is presented as hearsay, or anecdotes, or accounts given to one man [an insurance salesman], who is subsequently relaying these accounts etc to the reader. So, while in, say, Correction, one never doubts that what we are told about Roithamer is true, because the one telling us his story is a close friend, who had access to both the man himself and his work, in The Lime Works one is definitely meant to doubt the veracity of what you are told. Indeed, it is often noted how contradictory some of the accounts are. I found this meta aspect of the book entirely engaging, because what it means is that Thomas Bernhard has given us a murder-mystery thriller in which not a single thing can be taken on face value.