In one of his many interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard praised the work of Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer (1931-1989) of whom I had never heard. His work was placed in the canon of great 20th Century literature. He wrote in German. Scrolling through the list of titles translated into English I chose Woodcutters to get an idea of his work. First published in 1984, it was translated and published in English by Knopf in 1987. It references the atmosphere of the 1950s or perhaps the early 1960s.
A middle-aged man taking his daily constitutional along a popular avenue in Vienna sees old acquaintances who, in passing, invite him to a dinner soirée that evening. The man accepts before he remembers that he doesn’t even like these people. As the couple is walking on they mention the death that morning of a dear friend of the man. The soirée would honor her memory.
What follows is a harrowing descent into the twisted confines of one man’s mind as he “sits in the wing chair” in the well-appointed flat of the couple he does not like and passes judgment on all who circulate around him. His thinking is circular, observant, riven occasionally by memories. His thoughts are “morose, vulgar, repellant and self-indulgent,” attributes he assigns to the other guests. He does not participate, but sits in the corner “in the wing chair,” radiating disdain and waiting with the others for an actor the couple has invited to appear.
When the actor (how the man hates actors!) finally arrives, late, the man, “sitting in the wing chair” proceeds to dine with the group, exhibiting the same lack of control he displayed by accepting the invitation in the first place. Only when the actor openly attacks one of the guests does our man’s attitude begin to modify. Suddenly he finds himself admiring the actor, “enthralled” with his cruelty, who had “suddenly became a thinking human being, even a philosopher of sorts, transforming himself from a gargoyle into a philosophical human being, from repellent stage character into a real person.”
The man finds himself now enjoying the soirée, reveling in the atmosphere, loving the actor and the phrase he speaks as he stands to leave: ”The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal.”
The man, as he takes his leave, murmurs to his hosts “Perhaps it was best that [his good friend Joanna] had killed herself, it was probably the best time for her to go.”
This small novel has the whiff of a classic in that it takes the human condition and holds it boldly up for us to examine.
“To get ourselves out of a tight spot, it seems to me, we are ourselves just as mendacious as those we are always accusing of mendacity, those whom we despise and drag in the dirt for their mendacity; we are not one jot better than the people we constantly find objectionable and insufferable, those repellant people with whom we want to have as few dealings as possible, though, if we are honest, we do have dealings with them and are no different from them…I told [my hosts] I was glad to have renewed my ties…and as I said this I thought what a vile hypocrite I was, recoiling at nothing, not even the basest lie.”Ah, self-loathing—such a good topic for a novel. This is a difficult read in many ways, but it does highlight some important truths. And yes, I see the connection with Knausgaard.
For a brief look at each of Bernhard's novels, check out this book blog review by Blake Butler at Vice.
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