‘Wittgensteins Neffe’ (‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’) by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

img_5532After a few days in Berlin, the German Literature Month bus is heading south, in the direction of Vienna.  We’re hoping to catch up with an old Austrian friend, who (unfortunately) hasn’t been too well recently.  Still, it’ll take more than a few months in a sanatorium outside the capital to get this writer down, even if he was never that ‘up’ in the first place…

Wittgensteins Neffe (Wittgenstein’s Nephew) opens in 1967, with Thomas Bernhard, writer and narrator, recovering in a clinic in the hills from an operation to remove a tumour from his chest.  As he sees Professor Salzer, the star surgeon of the institute, walking past one day, he is reminded of the professor’s nephew, Paul Wittgenstein, Bernhard’s best friend – who happens to be only a few hundred metres away, in the neighbouring mental institute…

Wittgenstein, a relative of the famous philosopher, is a man of ideas himself, but unlike Ludwig, his never make it onto paper.  Instead, he has spent his life following his whims, giving money away, getting in a taxi to head off to Paris (for no reason) and drinking enough champagne to floor an elephant each day at the bar of the famous Hotel Sacher in Vienna.  Sadly, his mental illness can only be handled for so long, and his life consists of a series of swings between manic outbursts and forced stays in the institute, from which he emerges enfeebled and broken.

Wittgensteins Neffe, then, is Bernhard’s attempt to introduce his friend to the world, a sketch of an unorthodox eccentric whom his rich family would like to disown because of his embarrassing behaviour (which should sound fairly familiar to any Bernhard admirer…).  In real life, Bernhard’s friendship with Wittgenstein is well-known, meaning that the reader immediately wonders whether what they’re reading is fact or fiction.  In truth, the book is, like much of Bernhard’s ‘fiction’, a combination of the two, with the irascible writer perhaps coming closer here than ever to baring his soul.

From the start, when Bernhard, recuperating from his operation, is ready to risk his health to surprise Paul in his involuntary residence down the hill, the book describes a close male friendship.  The writer credits Wittgenstein with inspiring him to stretch himself intellectually, and with saving him from mediocrity.  Cue here the usual swipes at the Viennese cultural scene, which Paul stands above.  Bernhard describes his friend’s ability to make or break an opera, a fearsome sight in the standing area, ready to lead the cheers or start the whistles – he’s truly a fascinating character.

This portrait of Paul examines the gentleman of leisure, an aficionado of philosophy and F1 racing, from several other angles too.  We are treated to glimpses of both his obvious genius and his inability to cope with the ordinary world, and while the more illustrious relative doesn’t feature heavily in Bernhard’s narrative, a connection is made with talk of philosophers and the double-edged sword of genius:

In diesen Köpfen entsteht schließlich fortwährend und tatsächlich ununterbrochen ihr Geistesvermögen mit einer viel größeren und grausameren Geschwindigkeit, als sie es zum Fenster (ihres Kopfes) hinauswerfen können und eines Tages explodiert ihr Kopf und sie sind tot.  So ist der Kopf von Paul auch eines Tages explodiert und er war tot.
pp.39/40 (Suhrkamp, 2015)

Mental output is after all produced in these heads continually and truly uninterrupted at a much higher and more terrible speed than that at which they can throw it out of the window (of their heads), and one day their heads explode and they are dead.  In this way Paul’s head exploded one day and he was dead. *** (my translation)

This mental explosion, though is not what it seems.  While we fear another of Bernhard’s early, tortured deaths, what we see towards the end of the book is a picture of a sad, lonely old man shuffling his way to the grave.

Many people have praised Wittgensteins Neffe, and as a gentler work it would make for a good introduction to Bernhard’s work.  The blurb on my Suhrkamp edition has the legendary literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki saying that Bernhard never wrote more tenderly.  This is still Thomas Bernhard, though, and that’s merely akin to saying you’ve never seen a cuddlier porcupine – there are still plenty of spikes.  The bile starts early, and doctors are his first target:

Wie alle anderen Ärzte verschanzten auch die den Paul behandelnden sich hinter der lateinischen Sprache, die sie zwischen sich und ihrem Patientem als einen unüberwindlichen und undurchdringlichen Wall aufrichteten mit der Zeit wie ihre Vorgänger seit Jahrhunderten nur zu dem alleinigen Zweck der Vertuschung ihrer Inkompetenz und der Vernebelung ihres Scharlatanismus. (p.14)

Like all doctors, those treating Paul barricaded themselves behind the Latin tongue, which they built up between themselves and their patients over time to be an inscalable and impenetrable bulwark, just as their predecessors over the centuries had done, for the sole purpose of hushing up their incompetence and casting a fog over their charlatanism. ***

Try a little tenderness, indeed…

Much of this anger is reserved, however, for the cultural institutions of the Austrian capital, with Bernhard telling anecdotes about a few unfortunate events at award ceremonies (made even more piquant when you learn that they actually happened…).  On the night he is to be awarded the prestigious Grillparzer prize, nobody greets Bernhard outside the venue, so he goes and sits in the audience, making everyone wait nervously, wondering where the guest of honour is.  That’s nothing, though, compared to what happens when he receives the State Prize for Literature.  After a pathetic introductory speech from a minister who has no idea who Bernhard really is, the writer stands up and talks for a few minutes on how futile life is – leading the minister to shake his fist in Bernhard’s face and walk out, followed by virtually the whole audience.  Of course, Paul is left alone in the seats, smiling in the empty auditorium…

Wiittgensteins Neffe has much of the usual Berhardian style, taking the reader on the expected tour of upper-class Wien, with visits to the Opera, the Sacher and various literary cafés.  The novel consists of one, extended (*very* extended) paragraph, and the writer delights in long sentences full of deliberate repetition.  The musical variations on a linguistic theme push his ideas to their limits, and beyond, and when he gets it right, it’s a joy to read, even if it can be somewhat claustrophobic in places.

As much as Bernhard praises Paul’s genius, Wittgensteins Neffe is also about the writer glm2016himself, a tale of his own issues.  Plagued by self-doubt (although you’d be forgiven for doubting that after reading the book), he struggles to maintain his self-confidence, particularly given his health issues.  However, what comes across most strongly is a sense of the writer’s guilt, for while the book shows how Wittgenstein stood by him, we also see how Bernhard gradually distanced himself from the old man.  As the smell of death grew stronger, so did Bernhard’s dislike of visiting Paul, culminating in his failure to attend the old man’s funeral – or even visit his grave.

Yes, Wittgensteins Neffe is a more personal, and perhaps sympathetic, novel than many other of the writer’s works, but it’s still a Bernhard novel, and as we come to the end of the book, the gloom begins to overpower the lighter elements:

Aber diese Notizen, die ich in Nathal und in Wien, in Rom und in Lissabon, in Zürich und in Venedig gemacht habe, erwiesen sich letzten Endes doch als nichts anderes, wie ich jetzt weiß, als eine Sterbensgeschichte. (p.161)

But these notes, which I assembled in Nathal and in Vienna, in Rome and in Lisbon, in Zurich and in Venice, turned out in the end to be nothing other than, as I now know, a tale of dying. ***

In the vein of an R.E.M. album, that’s right kids – it’s another story about death.  Tender probably wasn’t the right word…

5 thoughts on “‘Wittgensteins Neffe’ (‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’) by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

  1. Wittgenstein’s Nephew (I read the David McLintock translation) is my favorite Thomas Bernhard book so far, probably because it is less crabby than the others — or maybe because it references classical music. I am also fond of Correction (translated by Sophie Wilkins).


    1. Nanosecond – Ah, but I’m a big fan of the crabbiness 😉 I haven’t read ‘Korrektur’ yet, but it’s certainly one on my radar for the future.


  2. I was surprised by how – not cuddly, I guess – but sad, genuinely sentimental, the ending of Old Masters turned out, so I am not shocked to hear that Bernhard can be a little gentler – to individual people, no to the corrupt and rotting mass of Austrian arts and culture etc. etc.

    I gotta read this someday. I think I called a recent review of yours “convincing” – this one, too.


    1. Tom – Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I suppose Bernhard does have his softer side, but when you step away from his books, what stays with you is the excess of bile and not the more contemplative moments buried within it…


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