‘Korrektur’ (‘Correction’) by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

It’s been a while, but I recently found time for another book by Thomas Bernhard, one that’s been calling to me from my shelves for a good while now.  My first experience of the Austrian writer was with Holzfällen (Woodcutters), back in 2013, and this one is my tenth, with many more to come (luckily, he was fairly prolific).  In some ways, today’s choice is slightly different to some of the other novels of his I’ve read, a story of two halves; in others, it’s classic TB, a grumpy, meandering affair with the usual lashings of bile – which is, of course, what we’re all here for.

Korrektur (Correction) sees an unnamed narrator, the usual thinly-veiled Bernhard avatar, heading back to his roots after a spell in a sanatorium.  Returning to the area of his childhood home, he’s come for a stay with an old friend, Höller, in the house he built by the river.  Our friend isn’t there for old time’s sake, or even for recuperation, though.  You see, he has a job to do, and Höller’s house is the only possible place to do it.

In occupying die Höllersche Dachkammer (Höller’s attic), the narrator is following in the footsteps of another of his friends, Roithamer, a wealthy intellectual and scientist who spent several years working on a unique building.  The Cone, a bizarre construction situated in the middle of a forest, was designed for Roithamer’s sister, who we learn died right after the building was completed.  The narrator’s role is to look at the papers Roithamer left behind to try to put them in order.  Left behind, you say?  Well, yes – he committed suicide, of course…

Any regular reader will have already crossed off half of their Bernhard Bingo card, and it’s true that there’s lots here that harks back to other works (or forward, since this is a relatively early novel).  The story is laced with his trademark wry humour:

Alles hier in der Höllerschen Dachkammer war von Roithamer und ich ging sogar soweit zu sagen, daß die Dachkammer Roithamer ist, während der Kopf doch vorsichtig sein muß in solchen Urteilen, lieferte ich schon im ersten Augenblick meines Eintretens meine ganze Existenz diesem Urteil aus.
p.22 (Suhrkamp, 2017)

Everything here in the Höller attic came from Roithamer and I even went so far as to say that the attic is Roithamer, while one must of course be cautious with such judgements, from the very first moment of my entry I offered my entire existence up to this judgement.
*** (my translation)

Korrektur features the usual Bernhardian style, too.  There’s the familiar repetition of phrases, with the plot, what little of one there is, moving along at a glacial pace, like a spiral moving us slightly further along each time we pass the same old points of interest.  With my rather slow pace of reading German, it occasionally seemed as if it were happening in real time, and in some cases, such as the narrator’s dinner with the Höller family, I’m pretty sure it actually was.

The focus of the novel, Roithamer, is another of Bernhard’s tortured Austrian intellectuals.  He’s torn between a loathing of his roots and a pathological need to return, shuttling back and forth between Cambridge and the Austrian countryside.  He’s always needing to flee the family home of Altensam when the stifling atmosphere becomes too overpowering, yet as much as he hates it, he’s unable to stay away, with predictable results.

The novel is another Bernhardian examination of the nature of genius, with our narrator whiling away his hours remembering his friend’s character, and especially his way of thinking:

…und Roithamers Eigenschaft ist es gewesen, ein solches aufeinmal aufgetretenes, durch was immer aufgetretenes Thema nicht aufzunehmen, und wie üblich, dann, an einem bestimmten Punkte wieder fallenzulassen, ein von ihm aufgenommenes Thema mußte zuende gedacht und auf alles in ihm überprüft worden sein, bevor er sich mit der Beschäftigung mit einem solchen Thema zufrieden geben konnte… (p.45)

and it was a characteristic of Roithamer not to pick up such topics that had cropped up, however they might have cropped up, only, as is the norm, to let them drop again at a particular point, a topic he had picked up had to be thought through to its conclusion and everything about it examined before he could be satisfied with his engagement with such a topic… ***

The extravagance of the Kegel, or Cone, is a prime example of this.  The project devoured the last six years of his life, not to mention enormous sums of money and hard work.  Was it an undertaking of genius or a complete waste of time?  Most readers would probably be leaning rather heavily towards the latter conclusion…

Yes, it’s all very TB, but with the slight difference of this being a book in two parts.  The first, ‘Die Höllersche Dachkammer’ (‘Höller’s Attic’), has the narrator arriving at his friend’s house and taking up residence in the very attic where Roithamer spent years on and off on his great project.  The writer describes the room and the surroundings in great detail while reflecting on Roithamer and his plan:

Jetzt sehe ich, sagte ich, daß das Leben Roithamers, seine ganze Existenz auf nichts anderes abgezielt hatte, als auf die Verwirklichung des Kegels, jeder Mensch habe eine ihn schießlich abtötende Idee, eine solche Idee, die in ihm auftauche und die er verfolge und die ihn schließlich früher oder später und immer unter der größten Anspannung abtöte, vernichte. (p.108)

Now I can see, I said, that Roithamer’s life, his whole existence was directed towards nothing other than the realisation of the Cone, every person has an idea that will eventually kill them, an idea that arises in them, and which they follow and which sooner or later and always amidst the greatest of strain kills them, annihilates them. ***

The narrative here muses on the destructive power of obsession, especially for those will the intellect and willpower (oh, and the money) to purse their plans.

The second half, ‘Sichten und Ordnen’ (‘Viewing and Organising’), actually consists of a different text.  Where the first half was the narrator’s story, now we get to hear it from the horse’s mouth, from Roithamer himself.  It consists of a lengthy text, all about his experiences, and with a particular focus on the horrors of his life at his family home, Altensam.  It’s here that we are provided with insights into the childhood of the deceased, and a look at a very dysfunctional family.  In fact, it comes as a bit of a surprise when we find out just what (and who) was at the heart of all his problems.

There are also noticeable differences in style between the two sections of the novel.  The first part is typically Bernhardian with its lengthy sentences (at times, you’ll search in vain on a page for a full stop – and as for paragraph breaks…), while the second half is slightly tighter, a little blunter and less meandering, with shorter sentences.  There’s a similarity, though, in how the two texts progress.  Both start out fairly soberly, but as they progress, they become slightly more ragged, fragmented, reflecting the mental state of the respective writers.

It’s from this second half of the book that the title comes, and it concerns the autobiographical text Roithamer had been working on for years, a draft of which we’re allowed to see here.  It’s a text he was constantly reworking, starting with a mammoth eight-hundred page work, reduced to a more manageable two-hundred pages, then cut again to eighty pages (in fact, I’d suggest an alternative title here – Revision…).  In the process, he’s changed everything, making so many alterations that it’s, in effect, a different text.  The narrator finds himself unwilling, or unable, to decide what to do with his friend’s papers, eventually presenting them to us as is (with occasional comments and the ever-present …so Roithamer (‘…according to Reithamer’), making sure we’re always aware we’re inside the text and leaving us to make of it what we will).

While there are times when Korrektur gets bogged down a little, overall it’s a fascinating story of a man and his mania, and a look at the background that produced it, and even if it’s not among my favourite Bernhard novels, it still makes for an enjoyable and fascinating read.  Before I go, though, there’s one final morsel of interest I’d like to point out, concerning our largely silent third friend, Höller.  You see, his name sounds very much like Höhle (a cave), which might reflect the retreat of the attic that both Roithamer and the narrator spend time in.  However, it sounds even more similar to another German word, Hölle – which means ‘hell’…

…I think I’ll just leave that there…

Correction is available in English from Vintage Books in Sophie Wilkins’ translation.

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