After a hard couple of weeks back at work, I decided it was time to relax each evening with something by an old favourite of mine, and Thomas Bernhard is a writer whose books I always enjoy spending time with. Of course, ‘enjoyment’ isn’t a word you’d associate with his characters, though, and the ‘hero’ of my latest choice is no exception in this regard. This time around, we’re treated to the story of a man, a woman, a research project, a gigantic old building and a miserable existence going downhill fast, so you’d better make yourself comfortable – this might take a while…
Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works***) begins with a crime, the murder of an elderly woman by her husband, simply called throughout by his family name, Konrad. After noticing his absence from the small Austrian town the couple had settled near, curious locals call in the police, and after days of searching the enormous old lime works the Konrads called home, the man is eventually found shivering outside under the cover of an old sewage pit (his wife had been found immediately, dead from gunshot wounds to the head). The murder suspect is immediately taken into custody, and with little doubt as to his guilt, that seems to be the end of the story.
However, this is a Bernhardian tale, and the murder is of relatively little consequence, except as a logical conclusion to the story. Instead, Das Kalkwerk is an extended examination of its central protagonist, looking at the reasons for his move to the disused facility and showing how an obsession with a research project he has been working on for decades slowly drives him insane. The more he tries to escape from the distractions of the outside world, the more annoyances he finds, eventually realising that the peace he has been seeking for so long is an impossibility.
All of my Bernhard reading so far has been from the 1980s, so with this one first appearing in 1970, I was interested in seeing if there were any major differences evident in style or content. Initially, there were a few unfamiliar elements. The novel begins with some short paragraphs about the murder, comprising a fairly standard account of the case with little of the writer’s usual elaboration. In addition, while Bernhard’s narrators are usual heavily involved in the story (in The Loser, it’s a man attending his friend’s funeral; in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, the narrator is a close friend of the main character, and the story begins with an account of his own health issues), the story is told here by an outsider, an insurance salesman providing a more detached account of affairs. In fact, it’s a third-hand story, with the narrator recounting what he heard from two locals about their conversations with Konrad.
However, Das Kalkwerk is recognisably a Bernhardian work. Once the first pages are out of the way, the remainder of the novel is one enormous paragraph telling Konrad’s story, full of the features readers have come to expect, such as the looping nature of the narrative and the frequent repetition of words and phrases. The writer allows his creation to hang himself at great length, and over two-hundred closely-typed pages, the old man confesses how he has managed to take a comfortable life and turn it into a magnificent failure.
There are several major features to the novel, and the ‘Kalkwerk’ itself is foremost among them. The buildings once belonged to Konrad’s family, and his distant childhood memories lead him to buy it back from his estranged nephew (at an exorbitant cost…). After decades of travelling the world, the Austrian countryside seems the perfect place to get away from it all, and Konrad wastes no time in turning the property into a kind of fortress. The buildings are hidden by tall bushes and unapproachable from three sides; bars are added to windows, bolts to doors; there’s no telephone connection, and (perhaps most surprisingly) there are guns hidden in every room, just in case.
The reason for these elaborate preparations is to allow Konrad the peace of mind to finally complete the research on the human sense of hearing that is his life’s ambition. Having experimented for years and come up with a text that blends medicine, psychology and philosophy, the study is complete in his mind. He just needs to put pen to paper, and the isolated works seem like the perfect place for the task. Alas, getting information out of your head and into a finished work is easier said than done (this theme of a frustrated Geistesarbeit recurs in the later Bernhard work Concrete), and it’s no surprise that even in the isolated Kalkwerk, there’s little chance of a happy ending:
…schließlich müsse er jetzt, tatsächlich am Ende seiner Kräfte (!), einsehen, daß er sage und schreibe zwei oder gar drei Jahrzehnte lang vergeblich auf den idealen Moment, die Studie neiderschreiben zu können, gewartet habe,…
p.210 (Suhrkamp, 2015)
…he must finally now, truly at the end of his strength (!), admit to himself that he has waited a staggering two or three decades in vain for the ideal moment to to be able to commit his study to paper…
*** (my translation)
It’s a moment that, unfortunately, never seems to come, and one way to read the novel is as a description of the paranoia of a man who believes he can produce a work of significance if only the world would let him, and the gradual, crushing realisation that it’s never going to happen.
One reason for this is the many distractions to be found even in this isolated locale, with several visitors who always seem to turn up just when he thinks he can start his work. In one humorous scene, a local official asks if he’s disturbing Konrad, only to be treated to a lengthy, bile-laden response, at the end of which:
Dann habe er den Baurat vollkommen betrunken gemacht… (p.70)
Then he got the surveyor completely pissed… ***
However, the real cause of his frustration is his wife, a woman whose illness, unexplained and ill-defined, has gradually progressed over the years, leaving her confined to her chair and in the care of (and at the mercy of) her husband. She would rather have moved elsewhere to spend her old age in comfort among friends and family, and as frail as she is, you sense that she takes delight in frustrating her husband, choosing the perfect moment to make her simple requests, and in the process destroying any chance he has of getting down to work.
The wife’s neediness, though, is nothing compared to the way Konrad treats her. His ‘research’ has gradually driven him to the edge of insanity (some would say well beyond), and he mercilessly tortures her with lengthy sessions of ‘experiments’, which consist of him whispering and shouting words with similar sounds at her for hours at a time until she can no longer take it. Confined to her room, she’s unaware that her husband has gradually emptied the main building of all her possessions, selling off all her prized furniture in a doomed attempt to stave off impending bankruptcy. When it all gets too much, he heads off to a local pub to chat with Fro or Wieser (the two men the narrator gets his information from), leaving his wife, who is no longer even able to stand up, to fend for herself. No, he’s *not* a nice man…
The truth of it all is that the works, the place the couple have chosen to get away from it all, turn out to be their grave. The old couple are rotting away in the massive building, their money gone, the furniture all sold off, their clothes filthy and any pretence at personal hygiene a thing of the past. The years they’ve spent at the property have led to Konrad driving himself crazy, and his wife has given up all pretence of believing in his ‘study’, retreating to the tiny world surrounding her sick chair. Without realising it, the couple have sealed themselves off not only from the outside world but also from any chance of an enjoyable life. This is actually where the couple have come to die.
The reading experience of Das Kalkwerk will be familiar for anyone who’s tried Bernhard before, what with its lengthy diatribes and the continual reminders that this is all second- or third-hand information (“said Fro”, “according to Wieser”). There’s a gradual shift in our attitude towards Konrad over the course of the book; yes, he’s undoubtedly a monster, a privileged, arrogant fool who ends up killing his wife, but he’s also an old man, broken, disillusioned and at his wits’ end, and there are times when the reader will feel (some) sympathy with him. There’s also an interesting connection between Konrad and Bernhard himself in the way that the two play with words. The old man’s games with his wife, experimenting on her even when they’re having breakfast, may actually be rather similar to the writer’s own linguistic tricks, in which his repetition at times pushes the reader to breaking point. I suspect he’s often amusing himself and seeing just how much of this we can take…
Das Kalkwerk is another wonderfully bleak work and more evidence of Bernhard’s genius, an excellent novel with every part of the apparently rambling story carefully structured to provide an overall sense of despair and failure. How well Bernhard does this can be seen from the irony in one of Konrad’s early comments:
Ja, man kann schreien, soll Konrad zu Wieser gesagt haben, aber man wird nicht gehört (p.38)
Yes, you can shout, Konrad apparently told Wieser, but nobody will hear you. ***
This apparently simple sentence is a master-stroke of ambiguity and of how meaning shifts as we learn more about Konrad’s story. Initially, his comment merely refers to his need for peace to complete his study, but the reader soon takes it to mean that he has perfect privacy for the neglect and mental torture of his wife. In the end, though, there’s an even more sobering connotation to be found – nobody will hear the cries for help when his life finally falls apart.
*** An English-language translation by Sophie Wilkins is available from Vintage International.