Thomas Bernhard has always put me ill at ease. He possesses a unique style that promises much but is forever getting caught up in itself and carefully avoiding revelation. The intrusion of childish ranting in his later work is disappointing. And there is always the allusion to something missing, something very carefully left out as though it were anathema. The novella “Walking” does provide a partial key in a way that most of his other work doesn’t, but it’s only useful if you know the lock quite well. Bernhard’s exit from his most hermetic work is well known: you can see it from The Loser on, and even in his autobiographical fragment Wittgenstein’s Nephew. But the entrance is only revealed here.
The characters are typical of Bernhard: obsessive, ruminative, prone to running off at the mouth, and always men. Bernhard’s rhythmic style and intense repetitions come across regardless of the translator, though I think Sophie Wilkins always did the most convincing job of rendering them in English. When he gets going, as all but his earliest work does, his run-on style gives the impression of skipping across water…but in slow motion. He can be read quickly, but Bernhard avoids building momentum, preferring to secure his mood moment by moment. After a few dozen pages, his work inevitably comes to seem sludgy, as you wonder if you will ever be granted more than the myopic view he is presenting. (The answer is no.) Bernhard’s arid, obsessive elaboration on Beckett, Wittgenstein, and Broch is striking, but it can be limited.
“Walking” is an early novella, coming when Bernhard was just cementing his style, leaving the coherent grotesques of Gargoyles behind and beginning to focus on the minute (some would say petty) details of his Austrian world. Eventually this tack would turn into the extended anti-Austria cultural rants of Woodcutters and Old Masters, but in the 70’s, Bernhard managed to avoid the poles of both abstraction and curmudgeonness while digging very deep in his chosen idiom.
Here, the narrator (a Bernhard stand-in who is a shadow of the other characters) walks with Oehler, who talks about their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone insane and is locked up in an asylum. The book divides into three parts. The beginning of the first can be read here. (Thanks to wood s lot for the link.) In it, Oehler lectures on the decay of Austria, which, in its refusal to provide funding, caused the brilliant chemist and unofficial philosopher Hollensteiner to commit suicide, which helped tip Karrer over the edge. Oehler’s pronouncements are more rational and considered than Bernhard usually allows, and consequently they seem vapid. To someone who doesn’t know Bernhard, it’s an inauspicious start, with Bernhard failing to shrug off his predecessors.
Very, very few people have the strength to abandon their dislike of the country that is fundamentally ready to accept them with open arms and unparalleled good will and go to that country. They would rather commit suicide in their own country because ultimately their love of their own country, or rather of their own, the Austrian, landscape is greater than the strengths to endure their own science in another country.
There are two directions here: there is the unspectacular and derivative philosophizing, but there is also a buried reconsideration of from where it originates. The second is far more promising than the first, but it’s far from overt anywhere in the first third of the novella.
In the second section, Bernhard’s narrative redirection explodes as the narrator recounts Oehler telling him about telling Scherrer, Karrer’s doctor, about an incident in a clothing store where Karrer lost control and ranted at length about the shoddy “Czechoslovakian rejects” that are the cause of the near-transparent patches in his trousers. It’s a relief to see most of the philosophical pretense dropped, even as Oehler starts to look as badly off as Karrer, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen in Bernhard’s work:
I again recognized to what degree madness is something that happens only among the highest orders of humanity. That at a given moment madness is everything…Psychiatric doctors like to make a note of what you tell them, without worrying about it, and what you tell them is a matter of complete indifference to them, and they do not worry about it.
You get the impression that Bernhard agrees with this, but Oehler is not a stand-in for Bernhard. As Oehler details his conversation, which details the incident in the store, the frame of reference becomes narrower and narrower until the walls of the store are the limits of the world, and the only draw of attention the argument that Karrer is having with the owner’s nephew. It becomes a language game in the sense of Wittgenstein, with Karrer repeatedly throwing phrases like “Czechoslovakian rejects” at the nephew until their meanings are disconnected from their referents. Beckett’s How It Is works in approximately the same mode, but Bernhard is far more quotidian and approachable. The word “empirical” again seems appropriate. Beckett started from language, but Bernhard works his way backwards from situations.
In the third section, Oehler returns, somewhat different, to his philosophizing. Here he discusses the equivalency of “walking” and “thinking,” considers them as inseparable activities, as inherently un-self-conscious activities, how the constant approach of new thought/territory and recession of old thought/territory is unceasing, and, eventually, how, as Karrer says, “This exercise will one day cross the border into madness.” Oehler’s tone is the same as the first section, as is the style, unsurprisingly, but Oehler is a bit more detached, and the narrator has long disappeared, except for the steady interruptions of “says Oehler.” The second section acts as a key to the first section, since Oehler’s ramblings now read as a fancier variant of the same kind of language game as Karrer’s in the shop. The saner man’s self-assuredness and confidence vanish under the threats that Oehler reveals: the prisons of certain types of substance and style a person sets for themselves, and the endless, fixed track that they follow at varying speeds.
The odd thing is, I wouldn’t have figured this out had I not come to “Walking” late in the game. Wittgenstein’s name gets dropped in a few spots (Karrer is apparently an expert), but the connections aren’t as clear here as they are in later work. Read in isolation, “Walking” appears to have more in common with Schopenhauer because Bernhard isn’t especially precise about the nature of the thought that drives people mad. It’s as amorphous as the Will, and though Bernhard presumably intends the trousers scene to be a record of a moment of total loss of perspective, Karrer just seems existentially uptight. It doesn’t quite come off, nowhere near as well as Roithamer’s project to build a cone in the middle of the forest in Correction, where Roithamer is convincing as a Wittgenstein surrogate. But it’s only having read this book that the first section of “Walking” can be seen as a lab experiment rather than an uninspiring sermon. (I still have my doubts.)
By Correction, published in 1975, Bernhard had dropped the generalizations completely and moved into an even more rarified type of sludge. Why I find it both impressively focused and unsatisfying will have to wait until later, but “Walking” is more focused than most, less blinkered than what was to come, and underneath it all, contains more of a justification for Bernhard’s approach than anything else I’ve read by him. That first section makes the latter two damn near necessary.