Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

Published in German as Verstorung (“Bewilderment”) in 1967, and given the imprecise title Gargoyles in the 1970 translation by Richard and Clara Winston, this is Thomas Bernhard’s first novel. It is a bitter pill, describing the day-long trajectory of a young engineering student as he accompanies his country doctor father on his rounds among the hopeless inhabitants of Austria’s rural Styria.

The first 80 pages introduce us to some increasingly grotesque figures as the two make a Dantean pilgrimage deep into the granite defile of a remote mountain gorge leading upwards to the Saurau Castle, Hochgobernitz. Bernard’s pessimism regarding the human condition is laid out clearly in these vignettes. The first episode, which haunts the book, relates the casual murder of an innkeeper’s wife by a drunken miner. We also meet an old woman whose world has shrunken to the dimensions of a stale, unkempt bedroom as she awaits death, who relates her contempt for her stupid and brutish son, born of her and her educated husband, now dead. She dreads the Sunday visits of the son and his nasty family, whom she regards with loathing. There is also an industrialist with a mania for solitude, who lives sequestered in his country house, from which all comforts have been banished, with his nervous sister, with whom he appears to have formed an incestuous attachment. The industrialist works obsessively at a bare desk with pen and paper, preparing his great work “which might possibly boil down to a single thought.” Silently, as they make their rounds, the doctor and his son anguish over the ruptures and insurmountable obstacles in their own relationship, and in their relationship with the boy’s sister, who is apparently descending into psychosis.

Over lunch, the two discuss a former patient, a young schoolteacher who has committed an impropriety with a “nervous boy” and whose psyche had been shattered by his subsequent trials such that his only occupation had become the composition of remarkable pen drawings of a world “intent upon self-destruction,” with “birds torn to pieces, human tongues ripped out by the roots, eight-fingered hands, smashed heads, extremities torn from bodies not shown, feet, hands, genitals, people suffocated as they walked, and so on.” The doctor relates how he marveled at the teachers idiosyncratic surrealism, which has something original in that “there was nothing surreal in his drawings, what they showed was reality itself.”

Leaving the restaurant, the son’s eyes fall upon a group of schoolchildren and he reflects “what gruesome people these innocent creatures will inevitably become…” They approach a mill, where the workers torment a Turkish hired hand and engage in the systematic killing of the exotic birds in the proprietor’s aviary, for their cries, echoing through the gorge, are driving the denizens mad. They hope to preserve the birds, which they have laid out on a plank in full view of their doomed fellows, through crude taxidermy so that they may repopulate the aviary with the lush plumage of their silent remains.

Before reaching the castle, there is one more unnerving stop. They visit a violent and deformed young musical genius, kept safely locked in a caged bed. This young man has posted annotated portraits of the great composers around the room, labeling Hayden as “Swine”, Berlioz as “Horrible”, Schubert as “Womanish”, but noting Mozart’s greatness and the phrase “I am listening!” across Bartok’s face. As they leave, the son notes the broken necked violins hanging bundled by a cord.

Among the madness and degeneration of these subjects, we detect a theme relating to the inversion of creativity – futile attempts to come to grips with human reality through the artifices of philosophy, art, and music. A certain control, an ordering of reality, is sought, but slips away. One can only ponder the inexplicable vagaries - and the inconsistent bestowal - of genius, which lurks at the borderline of insanity. This descent into hell, however, is but a prologue to what lies ahead, for, like the immense Lucifer chewing the flesh of the arch-sinners in the icy pit of Hell, the mad Prince of the Sauraus waits on the walls of Hochgobernitz Castle.

Although patriarch of a small household, the Prince maintains a queer and solitary existence. He lives in a state of extreme misanthropic solipsism and despair, and the doctor seems to have become his sole confidant. He patrols the inner and outer walls obsessively, keeping an eye on his vast forested estates. He has, in fact, only this morning broken his solitude for the purpose of interviewing three potential overseers for his estates, a task he approaches half-heartedly, for he is convinced (through the testimony of a dream) that his son, currently studying and preparing a socio-philosophical thesis in London, is intent on not just dismantling the ancestral lands upon the Prince’s demise, but on allowing the forest and fields to rot into the ground.

The last hundred pages of the novel are a Beckettian tour-de-force of sustained monologue, a stream-of-consciousness binge of logorrhea, with its leitmotif being the utter hopelessness of human life and aspirations. The monologue is delivered in a voice once removed, as it is related to us through the recollection of the doctor’s son, who meticulously notes the old man’s obsessions. The Prince’s visitors are mostly silent, a state which the Prince clearly prefers (“Incidentally, the art of listening is nearly extinct. But I observe that you, Doctor, are still practicing it”, says the Prince in the novel’s only true comedic moment, coming over halfway into the monologue) - he has no interest in the opinions of others. He relates minute preoccupations and paranoias (he accuses the entire household, one by one, of having stolen and read a small notebook that he keeps and has inadvertently – or subconsciously – left on the kitchen table), and approaches his dreams as verified realities. He is clearly sliding down a steep slope towards madness.

The Prince’s monologue gives the book as a whole an apparent sense of unbalance, yet it is effective in that it touches the themes presented in the previous section, binding their ugly hopelessness into a complete whole, an apotheosis of pessimism. The sense of estrangement between the doctor and his son is mirrored in that of the Prince and his. When the visitors leave, it is with the clear (to us) knowledge that their estrangement, reflecting that of the human race in general, is unreconcilable.

Gargoyles reflects Bernhard’s publicized hatred of his Austrian patrimony – its uncouth, stupid (in his eyes) baseness, and his violently dim view of humanity with its self-delusions and hypocrisies. Bernhard may not have exorcised his demons in his writings, but he has cast them forward for all to see, and tremble before. With the Prince in a central role as a demented Superman, this book is a profoundly pessimistic and difficult work in the Germanic tradition of Bonaventura’s Nachtwachen and the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

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