The late, brilliant Austrian writer’s first (1963) novel, previously untranslated, is a characteristic excoriation of all things great and small and the tragicomedy of existence.
Bernhard (1931–89) is an anti-Whitman who celebrates and sings the omnipresence of non-meaning, an anti-Blake who sees the universe in every grain of sand that irritates the eye and obscures the vision. The perfect setting for his maiden voyage into nihilism is Weng, a remote mining village—to which his unnamed narrator, a young medical student, is sent by his surgical professor and mentor: his mission—to observe, study and report on the latter’s brother (Strauch), a reclusive painter who is lodging in a rundown inn (where the narrator also boards) operated by a venal Falstaffian landlady whose violent husband languishes in prison. The narrator forms conversational relationships with assorted villagers (a surly policeman who was once a medical student, an engineer who laments the despoiling of nature by man-made constructions, the “knacker,” or tradesman, who fulfills the landlady’s lust and supplies materials for her appalling cuisine). But he’s really a sounding board for fulmination incessantly voiced by the misanthropic, despair-ridden Strauch, who holds forth at inordinate (and often hilarious) length on such topics as his miserable childhood, inadequate education, unhappy personal relationships, artistic failures and intuitive conviction that the world is doomed, in every imaginable way (e.g., “The most beautiful flowers are cut first”). Images of darkness and cold predominate in a region where miners are perpetually endangered, relentless frost impedes construction of a vitally necessary bridge and death and dissolution seize every opportunity to work their will (“Tomorrow is the funeral of the woodcutter who was run over by his own sleigh”). The book is indeed redundant, but the unity and coherence of its mordant vision are, as in all Bernhard’s later, superior works, perversely exhilarating.
Great stuff, but it won’t make you feel good.