Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

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