prison

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS BY JEAN GENET

My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.

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[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.

EVERYTHING FLOWS BY VASILY GROSSMAN

It was with trepidation that I picked this up. As I wrote in my review, Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate is the only book I have ever snapped shut, not out of boredom or irritation or a desire to read something else, but out of fear, a fear of what I would be exposed to and how it would affect me. More than once – as I carried it around with me during the day, fitting in a few pages here and there – I made a fool of myself in public, especially at work, during breaks, sitting there damp about the eyes, with a pained expression on my face, and a lower lip starting to tremble. I had visions, as I came to read Everything Flows, of being solemnly escorted out of the building, a broken man, my head resting on the ample bosom of a stout motherly woman…’what’s wrong with him?’ my colleagues will ask her. ‘I have no idea! He was just reading a book.’

As one would expect of a book that only just breaches 200 pages, Everything Flows is much narrower in focus [in terms of its basic storyline], and less epic and panoramic, than Grossman’s masterpiece; it was, moreover, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, which perhaps accounts for how episodic it is. The man tying these episodes together is Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from prison [after a total of 29 years] following the death of Joseph Stalin. The passing of Uncle Joe is significant, because it led to the overturning of many unsound convictions – including, in this instance, Ivan’s – and this, this acceptance by the State that people had been locked up, and murdered, on trumped up charges, meant that ordinary Russians had some uncomfortable truths to confront, not only about how their government had behaved but in terms of their own guilt or culpability also.

“The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom…How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.”

What is most striking about Ivan is that, although he is so central to the plot, he is, as a character, almost non-existent. He is described as a once sensitive, timid and shy child, and, despite his experiences in labour camps, he has maintained a reserved bearing, calmness and politeness, so much so that other characters think him odd, or naïve, or simply stupid. Much like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, it is through this meek man, through their interactions with him, that others reveal their baser tendencies, or weaknesses or flaws. Take his cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who Ivan first visits upon his release. Nikolay has a guilty conscience, for he had not been denounced or arrested; he had, in fact, prospered under Stalin. He could not be said to have been entirely in favour of what went down, in fact he was much troubled by what happened to Jews and other prominent intellectuals, but he didn’t openly oppose it either; he didn’t speak out when they were relieved of their posts, when they were ostracised, etc.

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[Workers in a Soviet Gulag]

Throughout the opening stages of the book Grossman explores complicity in its different forms. He suggests that Nikolay was complicit in his inaction, in his reluctance to question the Party line, but most of all in his attempts to justify himself, or lie to himself, in order to have some peace of mind. It is a familiar story that those caught up in such large-scale abuses of power find it difficult to believe, or accept, what is actually happening; they doubt what they see or make excuses for it, because the truth is so awful, and, if accepted, the truth of things – that entirely innocent people are being systematically brutalised and murdered – necessitates action – because only a bad person could do nothing in the face of such horror – which is the last thing that most people want; they do not want to have to fight or oppose.

If challenged, those guilty of the complicity of inaction are likely to argue that they are but one man, so what can or could they do or have done? They also abdicate responsibility to the State or to authority. ‘It was not I, it was them; I trusted them to do the right thing…and so when they told me that such-and-such was guilty of a crime I believed them.’ I see this kind of passivity, this passing on of responsibility in the face of disgraceful authoritarian action, this moral weakness, all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ applied to criminal cases? The idea is that if someone is accused of something there must be a reason for it, even if we cannot see it ourselves. It isn’t that people really believe the State is infallible, it is simply that it is easier to think so, to tell yourself so.

“The criminals had, after all, confessed during the trials[…]they had been questioned in public by a man with a university degree[…]there had been no doubt about their guilt, not a shadow of a doubt.”

After leaving Nikolay’s house, Ivan crosses paths with Pinegin, who is the man responsible for denouncing him. Pinegin worries that Ivan knows that it was him, but assures himself that he is imagining it. Here the emphasis is not on what people will allow to happen, what they passively sanction, but what ordinary human beings are actually capable of. I wrote in my review of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we would never actively participate in mass oppression but normal people did and do. Grossman explores in detail why that is the case. Why do ordinary people condemn or murder for their governments? Are they evil? No, unfortunately not. Evil as a concept is, I’m afraid, simply another comfort blanket.

Some participate in order to get ahead, in order to prosper. If you help to oppress another group, not only can you take what is theirs, but there is less competition for what is not, for jobs, etc. There is also the pleasant feeling of being useful to the State, of being valued by the State. People like to be praised, they like to think that they are important or necessary. In Russia at the time, people wanted to serve Stalin, they admired him, loved him even. In terms of Pinegin, he denounced Ivan not because he hated him, but because that is what the State asked of him; he was, Grossman suggests, simply following orders or doing his duty. It isn’t, one could argue, for the common man to make these kinds of decisions, about what is right and wrong and fair or unfair, that is the responsibility of the State.* For me, there is an interesting subtext to all this, which is that morality is changeable, is malleable, and so if a State or an authority decide that someone is guilty, then they become guilty. It does not matter if another authority would declare them innocent. Therefore, those who participated in the functioning and application of that authority were also innocent, were in fact in the right, because they were behaving in accordance with the laws, rules and culture of their society.

Most of what I have discussed so far is found in the first fifty or so pages. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Beyond those first fifty pages the storyline disappears somewhat, and Ivan gets lost among a series of [admittedly, very engaging] essays, ranging from the nature of freedom and hope, to collectivisation and a number of chapters dedicated to understanding Lenin and his role in what followed him. Therefore, as a novel, as a work of fiction, Everything Flows is a bit of a mess, is, in all honesty, not successful at all. Life & Fate also includes philosophical essays but they ride alongside a well-crafted narrative, are fully integrated into the text. This is not, however, too serious a criticism, especially when one remembers that the book was unfinished at the time of Grossman’s death; one assumes that, if he had had more time, he might have developed Ivan’s story so that it would not simply trail-off.

More of an issue is that Grossman’s treatment of the Russian peasantry and the oppressed is romanticised, so that it has almost a propagandistic flavour; indeed, I felt as though I, as the reader, was being manipulated somewhat. For example, during the chapter on collectivisation – which is, I might add, possibly the most harrowing and upsetting thing I have ever read – Grossman writes about one mother reading fairy-tales to her starving, dying children in an effort to distract them from their pain. All the oppressed people throughout the book are so lovingly described, they are all so gentle, so noble, so kind and patient and forbearing in their suffering that it just does not ring true. They are, like Ivan, like Prince Myshkin, christ-like, they are representations of The Russian Soul. For the record, I want to point out that my sympathy is entirely with them, with the ill-treated, with the genuine, real victims of Stalinism; in fact, there is a certain level of guilt accompanying my words here, but I am trying to approach the book as literature; and, as such, Everything Flows is a failure. But, then, I guess that a believable, successful novel was never really Grossman’s aim; what he wanted to do was try to understand what had happened to his beautiful country, his beautiful people, and so one can overlook, even admire, a touch of sentimentality.

For a book that had such a powerful emotional and intellectual hold on me, I do not want to end on a criticism. I said to someone the other day that Vasily Grossman had a simple, direct way of getting to the heart of everything, that I find very moving. And on that note I’ll finish up with something from the text, something simple and direct, and pretty fucking devastating…

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*these arguments, where it appears as though one is trying to absolve those who participate in tyrannical regimes, are Grossman’s not mine.

KOLYMA TALES BY VARLAM SHALAMOV

I’ve written before about the idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ which means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me. I had a very difficult childhood, and I would fantasise a lot about getting away, but at no point did I ever not want to be here. Quite the opposite: I would often cry in bed at night because I was so scared of dying. There’s something very funny about that, in a way…some kid weeping…begging…please give me more of this excruciating, this horrible life!

Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviours. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. A few years ago my cat fell out of a window and smashed his legs and split the palette in his mouth in two, but rather than lie down and succumb to what must have been a strong desire to give in he actually managed to drag himself out of the way of immediate danger and under a car. His instinct for survival was, you might say, absurdly strong, but there it was, urging him to protect what was left of his pain-wracked body. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.

Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labour camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meagre rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].

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Translation: ‘goner’ or ‘doomed.’

If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?

On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering, does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasised by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.

In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasise just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.

Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.

I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.

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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.