ranting

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

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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.

NORTH

He emerged out of the swamp, to walk into the swamp, or so it seemed, leaving nothing but his dirty footprints, mud-stain, bog-stain, on carpets and floors. He was mad, or else everyone except him was mad. He remained calm – no: sullen – in the face of that madness, and threw everyone off. Some doubted his madness and believed in their own. He came looking, as others came looking after, for him. He found nothing, as they found nothing; for there is nothing. He circled nothing, circled empty space, and everyone was hypnotised by that circling, so that they didn’t notice how they’d been pulled into the circle itself, and how the circle expanded until it became a wrecking ball. The day he came back it rained buckets, not as portent, no, but to show that this city would not raise an eyebrow and would not be diverted from its own normal course due to the arrival, or return, of such as him. No, he wasn’t in control of the weather, at least. Or if he was he’d brought on the rain five years earlier, in leaving, rain like tears of relief, like my own tears that day. So he came back, and so it rained; came back like from the dead, bringing death. He’d tried to be better, to be clever, and found that he was worse and more stupid than anyone here, these people who he had rejected, had attempted to leave behind. So it was retribution, or corrective punishment, when Lily was taken; it was the north twisting his ear, caning the back of his legs, for running away. There was a while when he looked as though he might outrun his own nature, when he began to build and fortify the fence; his brother acted as his press officer then, and poured eagerly into my ear reports of his progress abroad, as though he was Achilles taking Troy; with the arrogance of Achilles, no doubt, and the preening of Paris. He prospered; aye, he prospered in that interim time, before he was blown back here as though by Aeolus’ winds. And, if you believed him, what greeted him as he stepped off the train was a multitude of miseries, like a welcoming party or homecoming guard of honour. No, it was he who brought his denizen of demons. Within weeks we were a city besieged, I tell you, by Poles and Slovaks, Pakis and Blacks. A coincidence? In every dark corner a darker, uglier face; he returns and the city becomes a Boschean hell. A coincidence? No, he stealthily led his legion beyond the walls of the Citadel, and there they set up camp. And before too long we were a populace possessed; a once peaceful people infected by the ogre-blood he had introduced. He circled nothing, I tell you, while our city burned. While everything seethed and writhed he looked on blank and calm, with sullen bewilderment, even while his self-created hell swallowed him up, while the demons and the possessed, for which he was responsible, ate him, and his kin, alive. And it was his choice; he came home, mark that. He came here: the place, I am under no illusion, he abhorred and was so intent on leaving permanently behind, dismissing forever from his mind. The north, this city, yes, those too, but more than anything: home, or not-home. Aye, he chose to come not-home, and yet quite shuddered at the prospect, no doubt, and, once here, continued to shudder and wince and, in private perhaps, claw at his face and curse the curse he undoubtedly felt he was under; except he was the curse, of course. And it wasn’t he who told me, no, he had his brother announce that the prodigal son was to return with his tail tucked between his legs. He couldn’t even tell me himself, not out of shame, a filial feeling of having let me down, but out of arrogance and anger and bitter disappointment. Not that I expected otherwise, no, I did not expect a humble plea for help or motherly affection. I had received no word from him for five years, except through the agency of his brother, would never have heard otherwise. He had become a myth to me, some strange creature far removed from my experience of the world, who existed only in his brother’s fairytales and was therefore of no importance to me except to serve as some cautionary parable. So why did he come back when to come back was so objectionable to him? Because, for all his so-called intelligence and maturity, he couldn’t smell crazy cunt even when it was under his nose, that’s why; or, because, like most of his sex, he couldn’t turn up his nose at any cunt, no matter how clearly crazy. Of course, that’s not how it was told, first to the brother, then, like flotsam moving on the currents of a river, from him to me. No, it was much more poetically put; it was, to hear it from my youngest, who’d had it from the lying lips of his brother, a veritable Greek tragedy, which cast him (my eldest son) as an unfortunate Agamemnon, and me and the north as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. But it took so little reading between the lines to see the truth; strip away the bombast, the melodrama, and there is my naked son, cowering and cunt-compromised. That he would not have had it that way doesn’t make it any less so. No. As he, in his severe self-pity, would have it he who never experienced any stability or normality – in his childhood situation, by way of his mother – subconsciously sabotaged himself. Ah, see, it was his malevolent mother who unbuttoned his flies and whipped out his perky prick and burrowed it deep in some slut’s slit – against his will, mark that – and brought him low. Not only his mother, but the north; we, in tandem. He sabotaged himself, we are to believe, because stability and comfort and loving-goodness made him panic, not having ever had any from his mother, nor the north; we, the north and me, sowed these seeds of self-destruction in my sad and sorry son, he merely, unwittingly, acted out the script we had written. So that he lost his lover, and his slut, and hobbled not-home with his trousers round his ankles. But he was not contrite. Sullen, aye, but contrite? No. To look at him, you’d not think he had taken all, had endured all, that a human heart could take and endure, which is how his brother had told it, the impression, in his epic re-telling, he had given of this courageous, ill-fated man, a man haunted by hopelessness and fallibility and, not ego, but, rather, the sins of his Machiavellian mother; a man who had stared into the depths of his bruised soul and found lurking there, no, nimbly moving from tree to tree, doing its best to hide, with only its head peering occasionally around the trunks of those close-standing trees, the evil gargoyle image of his mother. Yet how well he kept it hidden, this anguish, this internal sturm and drang. Docile? No. Say, sullen; but more than anything: closed. At least to his gargoyle mother, who, so his little brother said, he cast as something like the Iago of the piece, who was off-stage, yes, but still whispering hate into his ear; and yet it was he who hated, not me. No, I claim no hate; suspicion, yes, and fear, but not hate. He hated, in that passive aggressive manner so particular to him, by being in my presence so sullenly unresponsive, so unanimated, while pouring pestilence into the ear of his brother; he Iago, ironically. And I, yes, rudely stamped, deformed, disfigured, and deathless, but not hateful, although I have every reason to be. What reason, has he? He who left without a word, and lived without a word for five years. He who sought his glory abroad, who puffed himself up, when he thought victory assured, and looked down upon the mother, the place, he’d used as the motivation to better himself. What reason? Was it the realisation that the land he’d claimed, the spoils he’d claimed, weren’t ever really his? That what you steal, what you appropriate, does not ever truly belong to you, even if you never relinquish it? Someone should have told him: you are wretched with or without possessions, because you are you, regardless of your university education, your high-flying job or your pretty perky-titted partner, you cannot outrun yourself, even if you outrun your mother and the north. But they didn’t, or if they did he paid it no mind. And so, unwilling to blame himself – the real villain of the piece, mark that – he blamed the two things he’d so thoroughly rejected, the two things more removed from him than anything else, and did it convincingly. Someone should have told him: the fence you erect around yourself and your new life, in order to keep your mother and the north out, is pointless when the real threat to yourself is the one who erected it. He fenced himself in, and, in doing so, frustrated and enraged his enemy (himself), because suddenly everything (except the mother, the place) outside, everything beyond the fence, became more important, more necessary, more tempting, more alluring; and so he burrowed deep in some slut’s slit in order to claw, to dig his way out of the trap he had set, the prison he had built for himself. Yes, stability may have made him anxious, may have made him panic, but not because he who had never experienced stability couldn’t cope with it, as he claimed via his brother, but because it was only when he’d agreed to forsake all others, to settle in one place, to every day accept responsibility, in private and in public, at home and at work, that he realised how little excitement there was in that. So he burrowed deep, made a bid for freedom, with the only tool at his disposal; only, being a man, he didn’t actually want to escape, not completely, no, he simply wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased without consequences. And that may even have been possible had he been able to smell crazy cunt in front of his nose, but he could not, not until after he had had it and the slut had revolted, with the volatile, immolating, retributive fury of a crazy slut who has been treated like exactly what she is. Oh then he could smell it, certainly, when it was too late, when the whole infrastructure of his comfortable life had been torn down and set on fire. So, as much as he abhorred the place, he returned, because only here could be find a sympathetic ear (his brother’s, not mine), someone naïve enough to believe his cowardly lies and embellish and spread them, someone who believed entirely in his heroism; he returned, not merely out of financial necessity, as he claimed, but for that, for a credible, gullible, audience; and for revenge, let’s not forget that. He sought revenge against his mother and this city, because only in seeking revenge could he fully convince himself and his audience that what he said and thought about his gargoyle mother and his (yes, his) city was true, that without the desire for revenge he would be revealed as a charlatan. To his (little) brother he was extraordinary, be it in victory or defeat; or not-defeat, never defeat, because even though he appeared to have been brought low, even though it looked like he had lost all, and had come back, and filled his (his brother’s) ear with melodramatic psychobabble dressed up as high tragedy, I’d say he (his gullible brother) saw not real defeat in it, but a temporary, even necessary, regrouping of mental forces, a mere episode, one small, yet still engrossing, segment of his (his elder brother’s) tapestry of war and ultimate victory. Aye, he was, I think, in his eyes a sort of Zeus, a powerful, and sometimes gloomy, god of sky and thunder; which makes me a kind of Cronus, a child-eater. (Aye, and now banished to, and chained up in, the cave of Nyx; dreaming and prophesying). The perfect partner, the slut, the job, the swanky apartment: all were lost. (And Lily, too, later). And he a hero, still? Yes, it seemed so. His losses were heroic; when really it, the situation, could have, or should have, been, for him, for his little brother, like seeing his father bested in a physical confrontation. The scales ought to have fallen from his eyes, as he (his elder brother) fell. Yet, I’d say his admiration for him was never compromised, in fact he gained from his fall, which for him wasn’t a fall but a regrouping, a greater mystique, a quixotic gloss. Even the slut escaped the youngest’s ire, for she was necessary too, she was part of the fabric of his epic tapestry, the heroic narrative; she, with her madness, her looseness, her excoriating temper, was equally quixotic. (That some dangerous, and exotic, knickerless lass should want to ruin his brother was, doubtless, exciting; it screamed: femme fatale). My son never saw the slut, he never saw the lover neither; and wouldn’t have seen them even if he had stood in front of both, no, he would have seen the character, the part they had been given to play, the role they had been assigned. Believe it or not, my son saw no malice in his brother, no callousness; he exonerated him on the basis of the psychobabble he had been fed, while simultaneously elevating him to ever greater heroic heights in the epic narrative he was feeding himself. So, no, he saw not a flawed unfeeling man who had shlupped some slut out of boredom or vanity or that male need for distraction or novelty and then discarded her as though she was no more than what she was; he did not see an ignoble sordid soul who, although already attached, had pursued a crazy cunt, not yet knowing how crazy she was, and bedded her without bad conscience. No, he saw no evil in him, spoke no evil of he who had never laughed nor flirted with her (his slut) because he didn’t need to, because it wasn’t required, for she asked for no effort from him, no narrative, no promises, nothing other than to not be forced to acknowledge what she was. She knew, of course; of course, she knew what she was and what he was too, and how much of nothing they had, how little of lasting worth, but she needed to be able to convince herself in her quiet moments that they understood each other, that they were both the same and that they met each other’s needs, at least. So when he turned her out, literally turned her out of the hotel room 3am one morning as though she was his whore, not merely his slut, when she realised that he hadn’t sought in her what he found wanting in the other, that the other did her duty, that she satisfied just as well as she, she vowed vengeance and immediately put her plan into practice with the reckless enthusiasm that only a woman who has been given the means, the opportunity, to make another woman unhappy is capable of. No, my youngest son saw no malice in the slut, or at least apportioned no blame to her, for these things had to be, had to happen, so that the brother could come back and regroup his mental forces, and so that he (my youngest son) could be his audience, his collaborator, his confidant, his champion, and his messenger too, so that he could pass on to the mother the tall tale of a man who had looked deep inside himself and been stricken, panicked by the ghostly presence of his parent and the north, a mother and a city, let’s not forget, that had at no point pleaded nor prayed for his return. I would never have prayed nor hoped for his return, not even in my weakest moments, because I knew that if he did there would be no good in it. I thought: let him ruin, and spread his bad luck, his hurt, elsewhere, and, if I must record them at all, let me record the tremors from here, with him there, anywhere, away. My youngest son would be his champion, and his victim; aye, that I knew. And so it proved. He came back death-faced, bringing death. How could he? If he had had a slip of sense, a modicum of goodness, he would have known himself and stayed away. I lost, not he. They lost; all lost, except he. He endured, sullenly. Would that I had never pushed him out into the world. Let me not be accused of hate, for I don’t hate. Never hated. I don’t hate him, I fear him. Within weeks of his return I saw orgres on every corner, demons in dark places. It was an invasion, don’t believe otherwise. And he was at its head. Not that you’d have known it to look at him, not that anyone would have believed you. Did he control the demons? No, I don’t believe so, simply that he loosed them upon us. A coincidence? No such thing. Aye, it would have been better for us all had he never been born; for his brother, his mother, his lovers, his sluts (don’t presume that there was only one). And for his daughter too, who, having sprung from the loins of such as he, never stood a chance. Tragedy and misery, like twin dark-coated dogs, stalked her heels from her first breath, ever gaining ground. As father, lover, brother, son: he failed, he fucked-up. If he had one true talent it was for engineering endings, for full-stops. I don’t say that he always profited by them, all those endings he engineered; no, for he made also an end of the comfortable life that he had worked for, strove for, that he had rejected the north and his family for, when he threw, with such serenity, with perfect poise and composure, as though she was not even worthy of his anger, his slut out of that hotel room at 3am. Profitted? No. He was the bad penny in his own pocket, too. Aye, when you court chaos you may find that you cannot control that force and that it may do for you too, in doing for others. She did not rouse his temper when she woke him from his drunken and dreamless sleep that early-morning, armed with an accusation she expected him to deny; that is how deep his disdain ran. No, he merely threw her out, or, not even that: he told her to leave, without once raising his voice or displaying any hostility or ill will, as though he spoke in a sleeping state still. He did so without even getting out of bed, like a decadant young lord dismissing from his presence an incompetant servant. Would she have credited his denial? Maybe not, but she expected it in any case, out of politeness perhaps, or to prove his continued commitment to the status quo. But he neither affirmed nor denied the charge; it didn’t register with him at all. And to think she had spent all evening choking it back; while mounted and bucked she put in from her tongue, into her cheek, to let her low moans pass unobstructed. Of course, from the very beginning she could not have discounted the possibility, even the likelihood, that there was someone else, someone other than herself and the full-time lover. She knew that for a man relationships are a sliding-scale arrangement, that what you ask of them is precisely what they give. And she asked for very little, thus giving him more to spend elsewhere. Likewise, she knew that a man’s commitment to fidelity is like a hymen, that its strength and importance exists more so in the mind than in reality, and that once prodded it is shown to be thin and easily broken. So she could not have convinced herself that she was the only one to pass through that gaping hole. Yet, she tried, because she had to, because the alternative was to acknowledge what she was. And so she sought a denial from him, one that, if it was given, she would not truly trust in, but which was necessary to preserve, to keep going, the small fire she warmed herself on during her quietist moments, when the cold wind of doubt and self-loathing swirled about her. But he didn’t deny it, mark that. Oh no he did not deny that he had others like her, or at least one other. Nor did he confirm the truth of the charge; he would not even entertain discussion of that subject, because, in his bloodymindedness, he would not pay to this girl what he owed to his lover. He accepted that she (his lover, his partner) was entitled, should she ever enquire or accuse, to an explanation, a confession, an admittance of guilt, or at least a carefully constructed lie. That was his duty to her, or more likely his duty to himself and his self-interest; but with his slut he felt as though he had no duty whatsoever and, importantly, no long-term vested interest; and so he acted accordingly. Aye, he told her to leave and then went back to sleep. And she, while he lay once again drunk and dreamless and unfettered by conscience, had those hours in which to work her art unchallenged. Did she hate him? I don’t say that, no, though perhaps she had reason to, in her own mind and her own way. I don’t believe she would have hated him, not even when he threw her out of the hotel room at 3am and she contemplated the prospect of walking, unescorted, home. Yet, as my son, his brother, saw it, told it, she was, as she left the hotel, a raging Dido, beating her breast and fixing to throw herself onto a pyre; in the icy early-morning air, he said, she walked with crisp steps, conspicuously unaccompanied. She did not flag down a taxi cab, nor call one. No, she went forth with crisp steps, mouthing her threats into the icy air, under an early morning sky that hung over her head like a large bruise. The streets, he said, were not empty as, here and there, Shades slouched in shadows; and some – the youngest, the most lost – stepped slowly, forlornly, forward, come from the strange houses in which they had slept. But she in her agitation did not see them, he said. She, in chaos of mind, with all her elements convulsed, moved dark and jarring with perturbed force. But she did not hate him; he had dismissed her so nonchalantly and yet she did not hate. If she ever did after, she did not yet. No, she loved him, despite never having loved him before. Aye, suddenly she loved him with an intense and perilous passion, with a great and furious anger that struck hard at her heart and ignited her eyes and her terrible tongue. No, she loved, not hated, though she would have had him whipped to death, he said.

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.