Having recently wound up living in a small, strange mountain town—the setting for a number of his works—Berhard’s writing has felt even more potent and visceral as of late. Frost is a bit of slog at times, mostly because it is quite long by Bernhard standards (being his inaugural novel, he has yet to arrive at his economical but devastating prose of the later works), and it doesn’t let up at all throughout. But it’s this massive, unkempt quality that gives the text color, and it also powerfully illustrates one of the core themes (which echoes throughout Berhard’s oeuvre): the unrelenting yet comical absurdity of life.
Which is not to say that there are not pointed passages, as the the novel is full of prose that is knee-bucklingly poetic and profound (I often set the book down to let the full import of a statement or idea sink in, usually after having read through it a couple of times). Full of confounding contradictions, whole passages are lyrical koans. Frost is also quite entertaining. It’s chock full of a supporting cast of eccentric townsfolk, and the interactions between the narrator and the main character–the painter Strauch–can be quite mordantly funny.
However untamed, Frost is unmistakably the work of Bernhard, most notably in the narration. On the surface, this novel is in the hands of an unnamed narrator, but all too often the first person is blurred with quotes and statements of other characters (interpreted by the narrator, mind you). Add to this the alarmingly infectious quality of the painter’s madness, and we are ultimately left with a narrative of odd synthesis. A novel that begins as an examination of one character’s madness, Frost eventually leaves the reader questioning the reliability (and sanity) of the narrator, and, thus, the entire text.
I can’t exactly articulate why, but something about living in the mountains as winter approaches as well as watching a number of Béla Tarr’s films recently has compelled me to attempt to read through Thomas Bernhard’s novels. A friend remarked that this is a rather bleak prospect, especially in winter, and while I understand where he’s coming from, I’ve long held the opinion that there are many facets to Bernhard’s work, and, as an artist, I do find illumination and inspiration in grappling with his powerful texts.
I’d initially intended to read the novels chronologically, but that seemed too rigid of an approach (not to mention his earlier texts have a reputation for being both unwieldy and particularly dark). So, I’ll tackle the works as I see fit, hopefully with some kind of theme arising as I go along. Or not. I’ve also yet to decide whether I’ll stray from the novels into his memoir or theatre pieces. (As you can see, this isn’t a terribly well organized project…)
With that said, below is my first response.
The Loser is a deep and personal meditation on the notions of genius, so precisely executed that the form of the text, which unfolds like a fugue, embodies all of the complexities of the subject. It is neurotic and disturbing but also hilarious and passionate, and Bernhard’s ability to strike a kind of balance, to offer this text as a witty and strange piece of counterpoint, is proof of his brilliance and singularity. This tale, which obsesses about misery, suicide, and failure is also a love letter to life in all its absurdity, and if the reader embraces this ambivalence, and if they can digest and then look beyond the very overtly dark and cynical elements, then they’ll see that there are crucial lessons of hope to be gleaned:
“Every person is a unique and autonomous person and actually, considered independently, the greatest artwork of all time, I’ve always thought that and should have thought that, I thought.” (p. 93)