A unique, flabbergasting prose event; this sarcastic indictment of pseudo artistry in 1950s Vienna is both historically particular and at the same time universally resonant.
Thomas Bernhard / Austrian / 1984 / 181 pages
Translated from the German by David McLintock
Thomas Bernhard floats a test balloon on the first page of Woodcutters. It is a quote from Voltaire that doubles as the novel’s thesis: “Being unable to make people more reasonable, I preferred to be happy away from them.” If you think this quote is entertaining, then you should almost certainly read the book; if you instead find it unjustifiably misanthropic, then, well, you should still read the book for a half dozen other reasons that I will now articulate.
The first reason is the novel’s premise: a rather miserable and perhaps-ingenious-but-perhaps-also-insane man has been invited to an “artistic dinner” on the same day as the funeral of his long ostracized friend. The man’s friend committed suicide by hanging herself from the rafters of her parent’s home and anyone who knows much about Bernhard already realizes at this point that we’re dealing with a particularly Bernhardian situation here. The artistic dinner is hosted by another set of the man’s alienated acquaintances and this dysfunctional husband and wife team have convened the event in honor of one of Vienna’s most celebrated actors. The man (a.k.a. the narrator; a.k.a. Bernhard, himself, really) harbors incredible ill will toward the entire endeavor, barely speaks to the guests at all, and instead treats the reader to a 180-page internal monologue that at once both lampoons Viennese high culture and also explores the backstory of his friend’s — Joana’s — suicide. The sordid details of Joana’s death undercut any of the company’s attempts at serious artistic discourse and the narrator is a perceptive (but not at all subtle) destroyer of the evening’s conversation as well as the broader cultural milieu from which it emanates.
Indeed this narration is so pointedly critical, so precisely hilarious that it keeps the dense, compact pages turning. Bernhard was one of the pioneers of the chapterless, paragraphless, dialogueless novel and, to this end, Woodcutters reads like a rant. At points manic and extemporaneous, at others measured and expository, the narration never shifts from the first-person and it adopts a somewhat bizarre, almost beseeching, relationship with the reader. The narrator is from the get-go boxed into the awkward task of explaining to the reader just why it is that, twenty years ago, he thought all of the party’s attendants were amazing people with artistic promise, but now, twenty years hence, he has come to the realization that they are really the lowest of the low, vapid pseudo artists whose bodies of work are laughable (and also particularly “Viennese” in their composition, which seems, in this case, is a bit of a bad thing). The narrator’s proffered explanations of youthful indiscretion and shortsightedness are not exactly credible — in the course of the novel, the narrator either contradicts himself or changes his mind numerous times — but, to a certain extent, it does not matter. The reader is simply thankful that this hopelessly caustic and hilarious individual has been dropped into what is so obviously a sham event.
It feels like Bernhard wrote the novel to get the wiggles out of his system. Woodcutters was at some point banned in Austria for its allegedly libelous tone and several high profile members of the Viennese artistic community with whom Bernhard was personally acquainted recognized themselves in the novel’s characters. The author was clearly disgusted with the artsy side of Vienna, which, from the perspective of someone who has spent years reading about the intellectual excellence of Viennese society in the mid-1900s, seems a bit odd to me. But perhaps that’s the point. Bernhard may well have been attempting to punch a hole in the beautiful (but fake) facades of Austrian theater, literature, and music by exaggerating their ineptitude. He comes across as something of an overly harsh critic and many of his jokes might be a shade too specific to their time and place to ring clear for modern day readers of the English translation. But much of his attack still hits home.
One particularly useful narrative technique is the italicization of words spoken by other people that the narrator finds particularly ridiculous. So, for example, the words artistic dinner are every time italicized when they appear in the text because, presumably, the narrator finds the very premise of an artistic dinner laughable. Because there is not dialogue, as such, in the novel, Bernhard routes other characters’ words through his own prism. Thus, we never hear the actor’s words straight from the actor’s mouth; rather, we get Bernhard’s exaggerated and sarcastic reinterpretation of what was said, where the particularly pathetic passages have been italicized to drive home the fact that they are, indeed, pathetic. Generally, this technique is most often employed when characters are speaking hypocritically or falsely. A female writer, for example, calls herself the Viennese Virginia Woolf, despite the fact that Bernhard’s evaluation of her prose puts her far behind this English luminary. At other times, several people at the party refer to Joana’s suicide as such a tragic event, even though they are gathered at an artistic dinner mere hours after her funeral. If it was so tragic, then why are they in the mood to celebrate? How can the writer’s evaluation of her own work be so overblown? Does the actor really think that his dinner mates will listen to hours of his self-congratulatory praise?
Bernhard moves around the room, like a woodcutter in a forest, deftly felling character after character with his critical axe. But his metaphor is somewhat strained because, we must remind ourselves, all of these other characters were once the narrator’s very close friends. Bernhard is therefore a woodcutter only by metamorphosis and this makes his position — and his entire critical project — somewhat tenuous. But Bernhard never loses sight of the forest by focusing on individual trees and his broader speculations about the dubiousness of state-sponsored art, the role of the press in legitimating or sinking artistic projects, and the dangers for an artist of living in a larger community that is so self-consciously “artistic” in its character are all very interesting. Another of my favorite books examining these themes is Agapé Agape by William Gaddis, who borrows quite explicitly from Bernhard in his technique and content. To the extent that navel gazing has ever moved the artistic enterprise forward, I place a great deal of faith in Bernhard and Gaddis as practitioners of the craft.
Rating: 7 / 10