While I enjoy keeping up with all the latest works to have been translated into English, it can keep me from my own books at times, so this year I’ve been doing my best to make time for those from my own shelves. In addition to doing quite a bit of rereading (for example, over the past couple of months, I’ve been slowly making my way through Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles for the umpteenth time), I’ve managed to clear a few days to get to some more recent purchases, books by writers I want to get to know in more detail – even if, as is the case with today’s read, they hardly seem the kind of person you’d want to know better anyway…
Thomas Bernhard’s Beton (Concrete) is another superb, bile-filled novel in which one of the Austrian writer’s alter-egos sets the world to rights from inside the safety of his spacious, yet depressing, house. Rudolf is a man of leisure, an intellectual with a passion for music who for years has trying to write a study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. As the novel begins, the time seems to be right for the work to begin, and Rudolf sits down to set pen to paper and let those all-important first words flow:
Ich werde mich beruhigen und anfangen, sagte ich mir. Immer wieder sagte ich mir, ich werde mich beruhigen und anfangen, aber als ich es an die hundertmal gesagt hatte und ganz einfach nicht mehr hatte aufhören können das zu sagen, gab ich auf. Mein Versuch war mißlungen.
p.11 (Suhrkamp, 2015)
I will calm down and begin, I told myself. Again and again I told myself, I will calm down and begin, but when I had said it around a hundred times and could simply no longer stop myself from saying it, I gave up. My attempt had failed.
*** (my translation)
Never fear – this is merely the latest of a series of failed attempts to begin his task, with Rudolf known for his inability to complete any of the projects he sets himself.
One of the reasons for his failure this time, though, is the lingering presence of his sister, who has just departed Rudolf’s home after a lengthy (uninvited) stay. As he thunders his anger regarding his sister’s disruptive influence on his work in the direction of the reader, we feel a sense of amusement and a certain sense of empathy for the frustrated writer. However, anyone who takes Rudolf at his word does so at their own risk; once he’s calmed down a little, we find that the relationship between the brother and sister is far more complex than he would initially have us believe.
Anyone who likes Berhard’s work will enjoy Beton, with the writer plunging us into the midst of Rudolf’s angst without so much as an introduction. While it’s true that the font is slightly larger than average, it’s still rather impressive that you search in vain for a full stop on the first page, and this is no isolated trend; when Bernhard gets on a roll, he finds it very difficult to give up on a sentence until he’s explored every last aspect of the point he’s making. When added to the repetitive nature of the writing, with Rudolf constantly returning to a few key ideas which he can’t seem to let go of, like a dog with a well-chewed bone, this might cause some readers to decide that discretion is the better part of valour – which would be a mistake😉
Initially, many readers will sympathise, at least a little, with the frustrated writer, as he paints a picture of his annoying sister, a woman whose sole purpose in life seems to be to sense when her brother is ready to begin writing and then swoop down on him, leaving him unable to put a sentence to paper:
Die Menschen sind dazu da, den Geist aufzuspüren und ihn zu vernichten, sie fühlen, ein Kopf ist bereit zu einer Geistesanstrengung und reisen herbei, um diese Geistesanstrengung im Keim zu ersticken. Und ist es nicht meine Schwester, die unglückliche, die bösartige, die hinterhältige, so ist es ein anderer ihrer Wesensart. (p.14)
People are designed to seek out genius and annihilate it, they sense that a mind is ready for an intellectual exertion and journey to nip this intellectual exertion in the bud. And if it isn’t my sister, this unhappy, malicious, crafty creature, then it’s another of the same sort. ***
Gradually, though, Rudolf begins to change his story somewhat, admitting that the purpose of his sister’s visit has less to do with any desire to annoy him than with her concern for a man who has shut himself away from the world, one whose mental state is somewhat questionable.
This sense of an unreliable narrator also comes through when Rudolf begins (inevitably) a thunderous tirade against the Austrian capital. As much as he dislikes being stuck in a small, provincial property in the middle of winter, anything is preferable to living in Vienna:
Lange Zeit hatte ich gedacht, Wien ist meine Stadt, sogar, daß es mir Heimat ist, aber jetzt muß ich doch sagen, ich bin doch nicht in einer von den Pseudosozialisten bis an den Rand mit ihrem Unrat angefüllten Kloake zuhause. (p.100)
For the longest time, I thought that Vienna was my city, that it was my home, but now I have to say that I am certainly not at home in this cess-pit which the Pseudosocialists have filled brim-full with faeces. ***
It takes a while to get to the point, around eighty pages in, when Rudolf (or Bernhard) gets around to criticising Vienna, but when he does, he doesn’t mess around, blasting out a three-page demolition of the city. And yet, once again, he later backtracks a little, admitting the capital’s role in his intellectual development, acknowledging that it is the one place which fuelled his passion for music.
What comes through as the story develops, all of which (naturally) is told in the usual breathless Bernhardian monologue, is a rather more nuanced tale than you might have expected from the first few pages, or from reading other Bernhard books (e.g. Holzfällen/The Woodcutters). The writer gradually reveals his creation as an angry, yet sensitive man, someone whose health is failing him and who knows only too well that he is unlikely to ever actually finish one of his many ambitious intellectual projects. His sister, a far more practical person, far from trying to disturb his work, is actually attempting to keep him occupied, urging him to return to the big city, or at least go on holiday to warmer climes – something he eventually decides to do.
And it is this trip, one he unexpectedly makes late in the novel (as a reader, you’re not even sure he’s left until he tells you he’s arrived…), which brings all the loose threads together. Up to this point, the title seems a rather odd choice, with a slightly abstract connection to the story despite its (ahem) ‘concrete’ nature. However, the word is an apt description of both what he sees in Mallorca, with the ugly, half-finished hotels, and his grey mood, and it takes a random encounter with a woman even more unfortunate than himself to finally ram home the horror of life and leave him flailing on the brink.
There’s a very nihilistic side to Beton, and much of that comes from Rudolf’s lack of a reason to live. Like many Berhardian protagonists, he comes from a wealthy family and has more than enough money to get by, meaning there’s no need to concern himself with anything as degrading as real work. Yet it’s exactly this luxury to make his own decisions which leads to his seeming disintegration, as he’s unable to actually settle down and make anything of his life. He may despise the idea of marriage, the church, theatre, business (everything, really), but there are only so many ways to live your life, and if you reject them all, you’re coming dangerously close to narrowing your options so much that only one choice remains…
Beton was written just before the three novels I’d previously read (Holzfällen, Alte Meister/The Old Masters and Der Untergeher/The Loser), and it provides a nice introduction to the themes and ideas of those novels, which are each slightly more specific in their approach to Bernhard’s topics. This book also alludes to events in later works, such as the death of a friend (which is expanded upon in Holzfällen) – and mentions another acquaintance, a relative of a famous philosopher…
…and it just so happens that Wittgensteins Neffe (Wittgenstein’s Nephew) is another book I have waiting for me on my shelves. I’ll wait a little while for the bile to wear off, but rest assured that I’ll be back to try more of Bernhard’s particular brand of pessimistic fiction at some point. At the moment, though, I’m sitting alone in my study, my family having gone away for a few days, so Bernhard’s torment might just be a little too close to home🙂