austria

THE LORD CHANDOS LETTER BY HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL

Dear Lord Chandos

This is not a review, of course; nor is it a letter, for what is the point of writing a letter to someone who cannot reply, who would not reply even if he were a real man, and not a fictional character? No, it is more a confession masquerading as a game. [How tedious these games are, the games I have so often played in order to distract myself from myself]. On Friday night I was in a pub with two friends. I had invited them there in order to seek their advice, and I had confessed to them too, which is to say that I talked about myself with the same lack of enthusiasm I bring to almost all human spoken interaction. And, rather absurdly, I tried to explain this, this state of mind, this near-constant feeling of being behind glass, such that having a chat in a pub with two friends strikes me as a chore and my confession more like a duty.

In your letter to Francis Bacon you state that you want to open yourself up entirely, or words to that effect, which seems like rather futile effort, in light of your issues and problems. Perhaps you feel as though you owe Bacon something, in return for his concern regarding your mental paralysis? [Go to the doctor’s, I was told, and tell him everything. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony]. You write about your previous achievements, and how you now feel distant from them, and from any future work. The phrase you use is an unbridgeable gulf. You cannot write; you will not write. How I envy you this [voluntary or involuntary] renunciation. I do not believe in words, I do not understand them either; they are, to me, like an oppressive frame, a border, a barrier; they are a large sheet of glass upon which I unenthusiastically claw for appearance’s sake.

‘And there were other projects I toyed with. Your kind letter brings these back too. They dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time, each of them engorged with a drop of my blood.’

You once lived in continuous inebriation. Drunk on intellectual stimulation, you might say. Yet there was, for you, no difference, at that time, between the spiritual, or intellectual, and physical worlds. The pleasures were equal. Therefore, your admission is that there has been a kind of breaking down, that something within you has given way. [Which is a sign of mental illness, of course]. Indeed, you write about how it came to be that words ‘disintegrated’ in your mouth ‘like rotten mushrooms.[Which is a lovely image, even to me, a man who does not believe in words]. In this way, your letter could be interpreted as something like a cry of anguish, a requiem for something precious that you have lost. It need not, as such, be directly, or solely, applied to language, but to any important object or thing that inexplicably loses its lustre or meaning. One of the most unfathomable, truly distressing aspects of human experience is the death, or extinguishing, of a passion.

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[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Isn’t it this passion that highlights the inadequacy of language? You do a very good job throughout your letter of giving voice, of applying words, to your feelings, and yet to what extent do they capture your inner life? Isn’t that the issue? Poor exhausted words; let them sleep, for they are over-taxed. Words, like time, is a cage we have voluntarily built around ourselves. I hate. I love. I want. I need. What nonsense. ‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued. I would argue we don’t, and can’t, understand each other; we stand, each at opposing ends of an unbridgeable gulf, shouting absurdities into the wind. We are a Spaniard and an Italian, who believe that they are conversing, that they are coming together, because certain of their sounds are vaguely familiar. Games again; always games.

Yes, the passion is important, to you and to me. Or let us say the feeling, the moment of transcendence, as experienced when in the presence of ‘a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard,’ these ordinary things that take on ‘a sublime and moving aura.’ How hippyish, your vast empathy, your harmony! And yet I too feel – although it is impossible to say that what we feel is the same thing, of course – the tremors of the supernatural. I was once, one early evening, sitting on a bench, in Rotherham bus-station, and within me there was a sense, an overwhelming, indescribable, sense of well-being. The irony, of course, is that this hippyish empathy, this melting butter oneness, does not lead necessarily to peace, but, just as likely, to frustration or bitterness or despair. These experiences are, alas, fleeting, and, once gone, one is left in the unenviable position of being completely unable to express, to others, and even to yourself, what exactly you have experienced.

So, what is the point of writing, the purpose of which is communication, when it will inevitably end in failure? Why did you write? Why am I writing now? I wanted to end this piece [for it is not, as stated, a letter, nor a review] with an expression of gratitude, for I was, prior to this, myself close to the point of abandoning for good this so often unpleasant activity. And yet this has reminded me that there is something in the grasping, if not for me then hopefully for someone else, someone who may read this and find some level of pleasure in it, as I did in your work.

February 2016

[P]

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THEY WERE FOUND WANTING [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 2] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

Within the music press there is a cliché regarding the second album, which is that often it will be a disappointment, usually because it is a re-tread or, more specifically, an inferior version of what the band or musician debuted with. The suggestion is that bands and songwriters will splurge all their best material and ideas on their first record and then find themselves at a kind of creative standstill when it comes to the next one. A good example of this would be The Strokes. I’m no fan but I know that their debut is much loved, while their second effort was largely seen as being the same but slightly worse and so was met with lukewarm praise. Of course, this need not solely apply to music, it can equally apply to literature. It is not an identical situation, because the books are not separate entities, but the second volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy could be described as a sophomore slump, in that it contains many of the same elements that I enjoyed in They Were Counted, but is less original, less startling, less interesting and ultimately less satisfying.

In fairness, They Were Found Wanting starts brilliantly, with an extended serenade scene involving a number of familiar characters. While I don’t like to simply describe, or retell, aspects of a novel it is probably worthwhile in this instance because the whole thing is so charming. According to Banffy serenading a woman you are in love with doesn’t simply involve turning up under her window and warbling your heart out, but is a coordinated, complex and expensive procedure. First you need to hire a band to accompany you, then you need a table and some champagne. Serenading is not, as I had thought, a singular pursuit either, but can be done with a bunch of friends. This is what happens in They Were Found Wanting; Pityu Kendy, Uncle Ambrus and others get together in order to pay homage to Adrienne, sharing the cost and taking it in turns to sing.

Perhaps the most engaging aspects of this second volume are Pali Uzdy’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and the continuation of Laszlo’s fall from grace, and both characters are present at the serenade. Laszlo is not, of course, interested in declaring his love for Adrienne, but rather tags along because he is a drunk and will go where the booze is. In my review of They Were Counted I said that Laszlo’s story is of a type, by which I mean that it is predictable. However, although his role is not as prominent as before, his story is actually less predictable in They Were Found Wanting. Banffy takes the young man’s sadness, his self-destruction to a greater level, so that Laszlo basically becomes a penniless, embittered alcoholic. I imagine a lot of readers will root for Laszlo from the very beginning; he is artistic and sensitive, and so to bring him so low is a brave move on the author’s part.

While Laszlo is only a kind of harmless bystander, Pali Uzdy’s appearance at the serenade is more disconcerting for those who are in earnest about paying homage to Adrienne. Her husband is, of course, meant to be away, but turns up in the middle of the operation, plonks himself down at the table, ruins the mood by making strange mocking comments, and ends up firing a shot at Laszlo. Uzdi is a fascinating character, an unpredictable and sinister man. As we found out in the first volume, he is a rapist, but his villainy in volume two comes to have a surreal, crazy, almost satanic quality about it. His shooting at Laszlo, for example, is absolutely without justification. Uzdy clearly gets off on frightening people; it is how he exerts power over them. Indeed, rape itself is often described as being more about power than sex. I would say that, as with Laszlo, Uzdy doesn’t appear frequently enough in They Were Found Wanting, or at least not until the final 60-70 pages, but when he does appear the book comes alive, if only because one has no idea just what exactly he will do next. He seems capable of anything.

Unfortunately, these small gains, or improvements, are not enough to cover for the series’ serious loses. Balint and Adrienne’s relationship, for example, which previously provided most of the excitement, here lacks momentum [again, at least until the final 60-70 pages]. Throughout volume one the action and drama centred around whether they would get together, but that issue was resolved at the end of the previous novel. In They Were Found Wanting their relationship coasts for long periods or, to put it more negatively, goes through the motions. Indeed, Adrienne’s vow to kill herself has been all but forgotten and, although they still speak about love etc in lofty terms, and even though there is some tension regarding whether she will leave her husband, their interactions struck me as oddly pedestrian and stilted. This change in tone and pace, and lack of drama, also has consequences in terms of how we respond to the characters themselves. Not only is a less despondent Adrienne less captivating, but, more problematically, Balint is revealed as pretty much a non-entity. Without his partner providing the emotional fireworks it becomes clear that he is little more than a well-meaning dolt. Over 1000 pages into the book and I don’t think he has done or said a single memorable thing.

Having said all that, I guess that one could view many of They Were Found Wanting‘s issues as typical of a very long novel. I am, of course, reviewing each volume separately, and perhaps that is not the best way to go about judging The Transylvanian Trilogy. True, this second volume may not stand up very well on its own, but it is also true that it does make more sense as part of a whole; it certainly is not gripping, but then life is not always continual sturm and drang, there are longueurs. However, if one wants to argue that the series ought to be read as one long novel, then there is one aspect of this particular book, one fault with it, that cannot be justified, which is that Banffy wrote it as though one either had not read the previous volume or one cannot remember anything about it. What I mean by this is that he, infuriatingly, tediously, consistently, repeats things – both in terms of plot and character traits – that you already know and can well remember if you are reading the two volumes back-to-back. It gets so bad at points that They Were Found Wanting is like reading a synopsis or summing up of volume one, much like one of those ‘last week on…’ voiceovers that precede a new episode of a TV series.

THEY WERE COUNTED [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 1] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

When, in the 1920’s, George Mallory was asked why he persisted in trying to climb Mount Everest his famous response was “because it’s there.” A pretty fucking brilliant retort, even though it isn’t clear what exactly he meant by it. Did he mean I’m doing it because I can? Or because it [climbing] is what i do? Or was he just taking the piss? The beauty of his response is how enigmatic it is, how insouciant. If I had to give my own interpretation of Mallory’s words, if I had to make a guess as to what is at heart of a desire to climb Everest, I’d say that what it truly comes down to is man’s conquesting spirit. That spirit is evident in many things – sex, war, business etc. Reading too. Why do so many people make repeated attempts to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. Because it’s there, right!? Sure, you could read The Great Gatsby but that takes no balls, no commitment; it involves no possible sense of achievement, no risk. The Great Gatsby? 170 pages? No, no, every so often one must step into the ring with a true heavyweight.

Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy weighs in at something like 1400 pages, broken down into three volumes. It is not a book to trifle with. It will punish your wrists; and while it may not be, like Ulysses is, difficult to read, it will, at times, test your patience, your endurance. As will this review, most likely. Before I get to all the things I have loved about the first volume, They Were Counted, I ought, because there is really only one issue or problem of note to discuss, get the negative out of the way. There is quite a bit of obscure politics in the book. Not so much that it becomes unbearable, but certainly enough for those of us who are not fascinated by the finer points of Austro-Hungarian historical political conflict to occasionally switch off. Truth be told, a good deal of that stuff not only left me cold [and I am a man who enjoyed the farming discussions in Anna Karenina!], but actually confused me. Banffy, probably not expecting his work to have a large international audience, appeared to assume that the reader would know and understand what he was writing about. Therefore, very little is explained in layman’s terms.

However, even if these sections are confusing or sometimes tedious, it is clear that the main thrust of the conflict was the independence of Hungary. Yet more importantly Banffy’s aim, his point, is also clear, which was to satirise and wag his finger at the Hungarian aristocracy and politicians. While the book is more popularly referred to as The Transylvanian Trilogy, Banffy actually titled his work The Writing On The Wall. My understanding of this title is that it is a judgement. Nearly all of the political sections of the book descend into farce, with egg-throwing or violence or general idiocy or silliness. The author appeared to be saying that these people, who cannot take this most serious of subjects seriously, are doomed, that they are, in fact, doomed because they are too frivolous, or silly or corrupt etc.

In any case, political conflict is only one of the three main narrative strands; and the other two are, thankfully, far more engaging. These involve the relationship between Balint Abady and Adrienne Uzdi and the ups and downs of Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. I won’t say too much about Laszlo because, while I very much enjoyed all his bits, there is nothing out of the ordinary about his tale. He falls for a girl, he loses the girl, he drinks, he has sex, and he gambles heavily. He’s a good man, but he is weak; and, more importantly, in terms of understanding his behaviour, he has a big chip on his shoulder about his status as an orphan. This inferiority complex makes Laszlo needy, both for affection and acceptance. It is the need for acceptance that leads him to gamble, and his need for affection, for constant reassurance, that leads to him ruining his chances of happiness with Klara.

If Laszlo’s story is pretty standard [but enjoyable!] fare, Balint’s and Adrienne’s relationship is, on the other hand, one of the most extraordinary and moving I have ever encountered. It is revealed early on that the pair had a friendship and perhaps a mild flirtation in their youth. Eventually Balint went away and Adrienne, desiring most of all her freedom, married Pali Uzdy even though she didn’t love him. When Balint returns the couple meet and rekindle their friendship, which develops into a love affair. So far, so predictable. However, when Balint tries to push his luck and get in Adrienne’s knickers she recoils. The reason for this gradually becomes clear to Balint over the course of They Were Counted, but from the very beginning it dominates their relationship. What is the reason? That her husband has been raping her since the start of their marriage.

Banffy handles the whole thing with admirable subtlety and sensitivity and, bearing in mind that rape within marriage is a controversial topic even now, bravery. Not only that but he, incredibly, manages to wrest beauty out of it. For example, there’s a wonderful scene when Balint asks Adrienne for a kiss. While he, being experienced, expects a passionate open-mouthed kiss, she responds with a closed mouth. She doesn’t do this because she is unwilling, but because she simply doesn’t know how to kiss properly. This kiss is a pivotal moment in their relationship. At first, Balint is astonished, confused. Previous to this incident he had thought that she was being physically standoffish, or prudish, or playing games; yet after the kiss he comes to realise that isn’t the case, that she is merely artless, like a child, because she has never been given the opportunity, due to being married to a brutal and violent man who cares nothing about intimacy, to learn. Honestly, there was a little lump in my throat. I actually knew a girl who kissed in the same way, in short bursts with a closed mouth. Unlike Banffy’s character she was sexually very open and willing, but it was obvious to me that, despite her age, she had never been kissed passionately by someone who cared about her enjoyment. It was very sad.

Adrienne is an amazing creation. I believed in her completely. In fact, in my opinion, she absolutely dominates the book. Her journey is one of self-discovery, of sexual enlightenment and empowerment; she literally becomes a woman before our eyes. For me, Balint is almost irrelevant in this, he is merely the conduit, he allows her to find herself. Yet, I do not want to give the impression that she falls into bed with him and all is wonderful. The first volume is over 600 pages in length; her journey is a long and often painful one. Adrienne spends a large part of the novel pushing her lover away, refusing to allow him to touch her. I have known more than one woman who has been the victim of rape and, although I am obviously no expert, Banffy captures the fear, shame, anger that, in my experience, they often feel; he also, crucially, captures the great strength of character as well as the vulnerability. I was so, so impressed by all this. In fact, nearly every female character in the book is wonderful; they almost all have great depth, which is not true of the male characters. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the abuse of women is one of the book’s major themes. The Countess Abonyi is ill-treated by Egon Wickwitz, who steals her money; Egon also cynically manipulates Judith Miloth; Balint’s mother is being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by her employee Azbej; Fanny Beredy is essentially used by Laszlo; a young maid is raped and made pregnant by the Kollonich’s butler; and so on.

Of course, I am less than halfway through the book, having only completed one volume. So it is possible that these ideas and reflections will not hold true for the whole of the series. I can, obviously, only write about my experience of the work at this stage. In any case, there is no question of me not carrying on, of not reading the next two volumes. Because they are there? No, because I expect them to be equally as brilliant as this one.

CORRECTION BY THOMAS BERNHARD

In 2013, after a period of unhappiness, of so-called depression, a period during which [P], as a member of the website goodreads, was stalked by numerous female members, hacked by who knows, and plagiarised by one who will remain nameless, a period that included the death of Margaret Thatcher, who [P] despised, [P] died, just like the despised Margaret Thatcher, although the despised Margaret Thatcher didn’t take her own life, unlike [P], who covered his body with his goodreads reviews using a biro and then jumped naked from the top of a high rise council estate; before his death [P] was working on a review of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard, much-loved by [P], who had read nearly all his novels, and so it was no surprise that he was working on a review of one of Thomas Bernhard’s much-loved novels before he took his own life, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard had also taken his own life but long before [P], or the despised Margaret Thatcher, had died. Thomas Bernhard had taken his own life in 1989, whereas [P] took his own life in 2013 after a period of unhappiness and so-called depression, [P]’s writings, including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, were left to me by [P], probably because [P] knew that I would appreciate them more than anyone else he knew, and he was right that I would appreciate them probably more than anyone else he knew as it was the case that at one time I even thought like [P], that his thoughts were my thoughts or that I was so influenced by [P]’s thoughts that I stopped having my own and could only think like [P], so of course I was going to appreciate [P]’s writings, probably more than anyone else he knew, including the review of Correction by the much-loved Thomas Bernhard; he did not leave his writings to his brother because he knew that his brother would not appreciate them, his brother was and still is Sheffield-to-the-core, he is still and always was and always will be the most Sheffield of Sheffielders, and this being Sheffield-to-the-core would have prevented him from appreciating [P]’s writings including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, [P] despised this Sheffield-to-the-core way of being and way of seeing things, this Sheffield-to-the-core way of not appreciating anything that wasn’t an example of the most Sheffield of attitudes, and this is one of the reasons he so loved the work of Thomas Bernhard and why he spoke in his writings about how he would have given Correction five stars, those writings which were bequeathed to me and which include the review of Correction; in Correction, the much loved Thomas Bernhard writes about a man, Roithamer, whose own brothers did not appreciate his genius, in the same way that [P]’s brother did not appreciate [P]’s genius, Roithamer spent an inheritance amounting to millions on building a cone in the centre of the Kobernausser forest for his sister who he loved more than anyone else, this spending of millions in order to build a cone in the forest for the sister who was loved more than anyone else convinced Roithamer’s brothers that Roithamer was crazy, Roithamer’s brothers were Altensam through-and-through and would always be Altensam through-and-through, as far as Roithamer was concerned, just like [P]’s brother is and always will be Sheffield through-and-through, and so they would never be able to appreciate Roithamer’s desire to build a cone in the Kobernausser forest for the sister he loved more than anyone else, [P] did not have a sister and he did not have millions of pounds that could have been spent on building a cone in the centre of a forest for a sister he did not have but he did spend a lot of money on a pedigree cat which hated [P] probably more than [P] hated people who are Sheffield-to-the-core; Roithamer’s sister, although loved by Roithamer more than anyone else, did not appreciate the cone either, the cone that Roithamer built for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, even though Roithamer spent millions on building it, a task that many thought impossible, but which Roithamer accomplished, a cone that was unique, the like of which had never been built before nor even designed before, a cone that was habitable, which is important if you’re going to build a cone-shaped building for a sister that you love more than anyone else. According to [P]’s notes Thomas Bernhard, who was much-loved by [P], wrote Correction in 1975, which is some time before he took his own life in 1989, and before [P] took his in 2013, and that it can be considered as possibly the fullest expression of his genius, Thomas Bernhard’s genius, in that it displays, unlike some of his earliest novels, a fully mature style and, unlike some of the much-loved Thomas Bernhard’s later works, is less ranting, more measured, than the books that came after it, although it should be noted that [P] loved these too, that he believed that these later books were funnier and easier to relate to, while the much loved Correction is stranger and darker and more intensely insular than anything else he wrote, if that is possible, yet is does still feature many of the standard and beloved Bernhardian themes such as suicide, sister-obsession, Austria-hating, and the mental processes of a damaged genius, in fact it is possible, as many have pointed out, to draw parallels between Thomas Bernhard’s damaged genius Roithamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, like Roithamer, and like Bernhard, who was equally damaged and possessed of genius, but in his notes and his review [P] glosses over these parallels or similarities as he believed that unless one had an interest in the damaged genius Ludwig Wittgenstein a discussion of these similarities or parallels may bore or isolate the readers of his review and ultimately dissuade these readers from checking out the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, in any case, [P] believed, one does not need to be aware of these similarities and parallels in order to enjoy the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, that perhaps the most interesting aspect of Thomas Bernhard’s book is alluded to in the title, Correction, which is the exploration of an obsession with the refining of practice, ideas, and perception, of Roithamer’s obsession with refining his practices, his ideas and his perceptions, this perhaps uniquely human ability to refine our practices, ideas and perceptions, to seek to improve, or correct, our practices, ideas, and perceptions, that an obsession with these things is a characteristic of genius, for it was certainly a characteristic of [P]’s genius, as it was Roithamer’s, that, as [P] said in his notes, he couldn’t stop thinking, that his every waking moment was taken up with intense thinking, that this thinking or introspection involved a process of refinement, a need to get to the root of something, to understand something from every possible angle, to improve and correct his intellectual mistakes, to the extent that he often put himself in danger because he was too taken up with this process and was known to have crossed roads without checking for traffic, and so this process could have led to his death, although ultimately it didn’t, because [P], like Roithamer, took his own life, and left behind only his notes, including his review of the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.

THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES BY ROBERT MUSIL

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil has been on my to-read list [or more appropriately my to-finish list] for about two years. [Two fucking years…my relationships don’t even last that long]. It is, along with Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time, part of the holy trinity of overly long and difficult novels. It is to novels what The World’s Biggest Gangbang is to porn: stupidly ambitious and inevitably exhausting. Anyway, I have finally finished it. I, to continue my metaphor, have taken all of Musil’s intellectual cocks and come out of it, aching and sore, but alive. But did I enjoy the experience? To a large extent, yes, but I have some reservations.

One of my main criticisms of the book is that reading it felt like being stuck in a traffic jam with an interesting and engaging companion. The thing is, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have been even more interested in what I was being told if I had actually been going somewhere; that the feeling of, the frustration caused by, immobility compromised my enjoyment and distracted my attention. The novel lacks what I would call narrative movement, or momentum. Now, this would not be too much of a problem if it were shorter. Yasunari Kawabata’s books do not go anywhere, they almost completely lack plot, but they work as short and evocative pieces. However, The Man Without Qualities is over 1000 pages, hundreds of pages of which are given over to quite rigorous philosophical essays. A plot relating to a campaign to celebrate the reign of a king is essentially wrapped around these philosophical musings, like a piece of delicate lace.

Upon finishing the book I was left with an impression of failure. It is neither a successful novel, nor a successful philosophy text. It tries to be both and therefore fails, because they are two separate disciplines. One has to lean more towards one type of writing, otherwise one ends up bobbing along somewhere between the two, and actually negating the benefits of either. Unlike his contemporaries Joyce or Proust or Mann, Musil doesn’t seem to be in control of his work. Over 500 pages in he is still wrestling with the nature of human consciousness and the questions what is greatness? and how should one live one’s life? It is as though he took on too many of the big questions and ended up being defeated by them [which was always going to be the case]. Having said this, there is something heroic about his endeavour, something moving even. Musil spent over 20 years writing The Man Without Qualities and died without finishing it, because what does it mean to be human? is a question not answerable by one man. You have to admire him for trying though.

Addendum

I actually wrote this review something like four years ago. I wasn’t blogging at the time, so I posted it on my facebook page. Oh yeah, I’m really that boring. In any case, since reading the book, and writing this review, I have had time to think about my experience of Musil’s epic work and have changed my mind somewhat. On reflection, I feel less convinced that it is a failure; i feel more well-disposed towards it. Yes, it is flawed, but, I dunno, like with a face, its flaws almost give it character. The Man Without Qualities is imperfect, is poorly paced and structurally somewhat of a mess, but life is imperfect, life is messy, and maybe, inadvertently, Musil’s flaws as a writer say as much about the human condition as the long philosophical passages in his novel.

THE LIME WORKS BY THOMAS BERNHARD

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.

THE SLEEPWALKERS BY HERMANN BROCH

“The whole world goes on crutches…a hobbling monstrosity…” – August Esch

The wonderfully named Heimito von Doderer, author of the monumental, three volume, novel The Demons, responded to comparisons with mad genius Robert Musil, author of the equally monumental The Man Without Qualities, by declaring that, on the contrary, his great work was not like Musil’s because he, at least, von Doderer that is, could complete his! Well, he was right of course, completion of a work is a tick in your column, although The Demons is, in no other way, the superior work. If I had to choose one existential Austrian novel fit to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Musil’s, one that could maybe even kick sand in it’s face, then that would be The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch. Broch was a strange man, one who appeared to consider novel-writing as an activity for plebs; it was, he suggested, an intellectually inferior pursuit, inferior to philosophy, which was his real passion. And yet he wrote two of the greatest novels in the German language, the one under review here and The Death of Virgil.

Structurally The Sleepwalkers is divided into three [largely distinct] parts, or short novels; indeed, it is often referred to as a trilogy, although the three novels are never published separately. The reason for this is that in order to fully understand what Broch’s was trying to say they must be read together, one after another, from start to finish without breaks. While in a narrative sense there is [almost] nothing linking the first two parts of the book, while there is very little continuity between them, and even the third, although it shares some characters with the first and second parts, has a distinct storyline, philosophically the parts hang together as a whole. To give you a sense of what to expect from the book I will discuss each part separately and try and say something about Broch’s ideas, his unifying vision, as I proceed.

The first novel, which runs to approximately 160 pages, is called The Romantic. It concerns Joachim von Pasenow, an officer, and his relationships with earthy working girl Ruzena and posh totty Elisabeth. Of course, the term romantic could be perceived as purely descriptive, as the action in this first part is centred around love and marriage and romance, yet its real meaning is a reference to Joachim’s state of mind and the state of Germanic [and possibly world] society-culture at the time the novel is set. So, what Broch means is not romance or the romantic, as we generally understand those words, but romanticism as a world-view. Pasenow is a man still tied to what Broch considers to be a disappearing set of values, such as honour, duty, and chivalry. However, what has sprung up around him is a new way of thinking about the world, about morality, a new relationship with the world, which is encapsulated by his friend, a civilian, Bertrand. Bertrand, who Joachim is both drawn to and suspicious of, is a business man, a capitalist, who cares little for the absurd dictates of honour, etc.

Broch expertly handles Joachim’s moral-ethical crisis; he makes you believe in the battle taking place within him, between the new and the old, between an intense longing for freedom or liberalism, encapsulated by Ruzena, and traditional conservative values, such as his duty, as he sees it, to marry and protect Elizabeth. At the beginning of The Romantic Ruzena is a dancer at a casino who Joachim’s father tries to buy, for one night at least, for his son. Joachim baulks at this, but eventually the couple start an affair and it is through her that he discovers erotic love. It is telling that they come together as lovers, not as client and whore, because while prostitution is a transaction subject to rules and expectations of behaviour, a state of affairs that Joachim is comfortable with and is used to, a love affair is different. Love affairs are wild and confusing and follow their own [il]logical course; there is no prescribed way of behaving, and this seduces and scares Joachim.

Almost surprisingly for a novel-of-ideas, it is not only the central characters who are well-drawn. One of the most impressive things about Broch’s writing is his subtle characterisation of all of the players in his novel-as-a-whole, no matter how small their part; for example, as someone indicative of a new way-of-being one would expect that Ruzena would be one-dimensional, be it brassy or hard-faced or whatever, that, furthermore, she would be uninterested in love or traditional values, and yet she is incredibly vulnerable and seems to yearn for the kind of life Joachim is running away from, even though she knows it is impossible for her. Elizabeth, too, is not merely a gilded void, not merely a blonde-haired virgin-innocent, even though that is how Joachim sees her. She is also seduced by, or drawn to, Bertrand [Ruzena being already of that world is the only one who isn’t], is also torn between [or, as Broch would have it, is sleepwalking through] the old and new moral systems.

The second part is called The Anarchist, which is set some time later [1903] than The Romantic and [mostly] features different characters. Here the focus is August Esch, a book-keeper, who loses his job and soon finds another with the Central Rhine Shipping Company, which is owned by Pasenow’s friend, Bertrand. Beyond this, the surface action of the story is Esch’s relationship with the ageing Mother Hentjen and his own foray into business as a partner in a female wrestling enterprise [I shit you not]; but, as in the first part of the novel-as-a-whole, it is what is happening psychologically to the main character, his existential crisis, and how that relates to the times, that is the real focus.

The anarchy of the title refers to Esch’s state of mind, and the moral-cultural state of Germany. Unlike Joachim, whose life has clear prospects and a clear line of progression [if he chooses to follow it], Esch’s life, and German socio-political life, is unpredictable, is unstable. Jobs are held then lost or given up, women are had and thrown away, and while capitalism has now taken over the country socialism has risen up in [apparent] opposition. In The Romantic Joachim found himself caught between two ways of being, two separate ways of approaching the world, one of which he must choose as his own, but Esch’s crisis is born out of not knowing what his choices are. The times are characterised by a moral-cultural murkiness, an ambiguity, while Esch strives for clarity, for concreteness; he feels, like a lot of people do these days actually, cut adrift with no rudder, with no one or no thing to direct him.

Abandoned, in the Sartrean sense, he appears to turn towards quasi-religious thinking. After being present during a knife-throwing act he becomes obsessed with the female assistant, the girl who has the knives thrown at her. He believes it is his task to save this girl from an act likened by Broch to crucifixion; not only that, but that he must somehow sacrifice himself in order to do it. Then, in an important scene towards the end of The Anarchist, during which Esch and Bertrand [a strangely God-like figure] meet, the idea of a redeemer is touched upon. The idea, voiced by Bertrand, is that humanity can only return to a stable state with the coming of a man who will bring in his wake almost total destruction, i.e. that only when society has reached its lowest point can it be rebuilt; this man, you might say, with hindsight, was Hitler, and the beginning period of necessary destruction is dealt with in part three.

The third novel, which is by far the longest, is called The Realist and takes place during World War 1. Aside from another jump forward in history, and the introduction of war-time conditions, what really sets it apart from its predecessors is its more experimental form. The Romantic and The Anarchist were both straightforward narratives, solely focused on one story, one set of characters, but The Realist is made up of multiple stories, including a Salvation Army girl, the critically injured Godicke, Hanna Wendling, and Huguenau; in addition Broch dabbles in poetry and includes a series of essays entitled The Disintegration of Values. Your enjoyment of this third part isn’t assured, even if you enjoyed parts one and two, as it seems, having read some reviews of the book on the web, that The Realist is either the favourite or the least liked amongst readers. I would say, though, that the essays and poetry etc are not that difficult, are not dry and humourless either, and they do serve a purpose, which is to elucidate Broch’s themes and ideas. In any case, if one needs a reason to persevere with part three then it would be that it is this section of the novel-as-a-whole that brings Esch and Joachim together, who team up in [philosophical] opposition to a new kind of man, Huguenau. Huguenau, unlike Pasenow, and even the anarchist Esch, is entirely without principle. He is prepared to act in any way, without conscience, and so the progression of humanity towards a state of being thoroughly self-serving is complete. To make absolutely clear that this man is without scruple his first act is to desert from the army; he then proceeds to con and swindle and ultimately murder.