David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard: Missing the Point

I was disappointed in Hofmann’s article on Bernhard, Reger Said, in the LRB, not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. Yes, there is a lot of ranting in some of his books, particularly the one Hofmann is discussing, Old Masters, as well as the contemporaneous Woodcutters, but it is only one side of Bernhard’s work, and it is always contextualized.  It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target. (And since Hofmann translated Bernhard’s rather rantless early novel Frost, for which I give thanks, he knows there is more.) But if Bernhard were the grumpy caricature Hofmann paints him as, his books would be nowhere near as affecting. So I will interrogate the article to draw out the depths.


They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.

I would say that the seams show, constantly. For all Hofmann makes of how the voices in a Bernhard book merge together into a unity, the constant lurch into the histrionic and the lack of proportion, the way in which a Bernhard narrator will go from attacking Nazis to, say, attacking cheese, makes his rants somewhat less than focused bursts of fury. He is not Karl Kraus and nor is he trying to be. (He’s better.) Extinction is where this agonized self-undermining is most on display. It’s his deepest rant, as the narrator constantly defers dealing with the real monstrousness at hand, a monstrousness for which he feels intensely responsible, by focusing on smaller topics and frivolous insults:

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.

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. 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. 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.


This is not a focused rant, nor even a curved one, but a looping spiral collapsing inward on itself. Opinion gives way to the very hatred of one’s self for expressing an opinion. To express an opinion is to lower yourself to the level of what you’re attacking, as the narrator of Woodcutters realizes over and over again, not that he can stop. But what can you do?


Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right.

The indefinite antecedents here–“all this,” “it”–are precisely the crux of the issue. He means what? All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount. Odd that Hofmann should mention Nietzsche, one pole of Bernhard’s rhetorical world-view, without mentioning the other: Beckett. Nietzsche was determined to be anything but a nihilist, to be the very greatest non-nihilist there could be, to say “Yes” to life. Though Bernhard grasped Nietzsche’s subversive tricks in his rhetoric and his staged exaggerations, Bernhard would never give that Yes. Hell, Bernhard wrote a book called Yes in which the titular “Yes” is the dubious answer to the question “Will you kill yourself some day?” Hofmann seems to have missed the other pole. Ranting is an affirmation of an opinion. The narrators are in no condition to make affirmations. Their affirmations are empty. They are evading.

The rant is a dodge. If the narrator shuts up for a second, the real wretchedness, the void and the evil and the pain, will come crashing down. And it always does. Philosophically, Bernhard is Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche exhaustingly rejected for his endless NO.


The book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

In fact, this is only the denouement, the final punchline. Considered apart from what has gone just before, it is only another insult. But that last put-down comes, crucially, after the veil has briefly fallen and the narrator’s energy has failed him.

A person today is at everyone’s mercy, unprotected, we are dealing today with a totally unprotected person, totally at everyone’s mercy, a mere decade ago people felt more or less protected but today they are exposed to total unprotectedness, Reger said at the Ambassador. They can no longer hide, there is no hiding place left, that is what is so terrible, Reger said, everything has become transparent and thereby unprotected; in other words there is no hope of escape left today, people, no matter where they are, are everywhere hustled and incited and flee and escape and no longer find a refuge to escape to, unless of course they choose death, that is a fact, Reger said, that is the sinister aspect, because the world today is no longer mysterious but only sinister….

The death of my wife has not only been my greatest misfortune, it has also set me free. With the death of my wife I have become free, he said, and when I say free I mean entirely free, wholly free, completely free, if you know, or if at least you surmise, what I mean. I am no longer waiting for death, it will come by itself, it will come without my thinking of it, it does not matter to me when. The death of a beloved person is also an enormous liberation of our whole system, Reger now said.

Old Masters

This is serious stuff. This is not a rant. What follows–the return to the rant, a few more tossed-off insults–is just the evasive engine turning over a few more times, the continuation of the futile effort to will one’s self out of the pain of living. It only further offsets Reger’s prior naked moment. And yet Hofmann ignores that moment. How could he miss it? It’s the wrenched heart of the book. Hofmann only disparages the wife, as though she meant nothing to Reger, when in fact she quite obviously meant everything, a fact Reger tries furiously to ignore, only to finally give up, at least for a moment. It’s as if Bernhard were writing a character named Michael Hofmann but forgot to insert all the self-doubt and self-hatred and sorrow. All the meaning, as it were.

Stefan Zweig

Paul Raymont reacted to Michael Hofmann’s incredibly nasty attack on Stefan Zweig by resolving to read more Zweig. I don’t particularly want to defend Zweig, but going after his suicide note was really a bit much:

Zweig left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide).

It makes my attack on Michael Haneke look like a paean to his work. But I don’t think Hofmann’s assessment is too far off. I was easier on Zweig five years ago, but now I’m inclined to dismiss most of his work. What gets me is not his writing style or pretensions, but the shallow psychologizing that infects his fiction, a crude caricature of what Broch, Mann, and especially Musil were trying to achieve concurrently (and with only partial success; Musil is the only one who I would rate on that front, and even he runs into deep trouble at spots). But even among the second-rate writers, I rank him below Werfel and Schnitzler because of his lack of originality. The more from that period (or elsewhere) that I read, the less Zweig seems to offer. And what I said before still holds true: the best book I’ve read by him is his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which is the work of a man surrounded by his literary superiors and quite aware of it. Contra Hofmann, who finds it smug and obnoxious, I think the autobiography does have a fair chunk of humility to it, with the smugness being a defensive posture.

So while Hofmann is busy thrashing Zweig for a multitude of sins personal and literary, the real problems get buried. Where Hofmann sees him as fake and commercial, I just see him as bland and conventional. Successful milquetoast writers do tend to annoy those with more fiery dispositions, but I think Zweig is too inoffensive to get to me. I feel the same way, though, about Hofmann’s beloved Joseph Roth (who, incidentally, had the poor taste to be friends with Zweig), the least innovative of the Germanic modernist writers. Still, the Zweig revival baffles me, though I’m less baffled when I see that Clive James is a Zweig fan. (Actually, it sounds like James wants to be Zweig.)

I notice, however, that Zweig has already had his posthumous revenge: Anthea Bell’s translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret has won the Schlegel-Tieck translation prize. The runner-up is Hofmann’s translation of Fred Wander.

Robert Walser: The Assistant

This novel was written in 1908. That seems just about right. And that’s odd for Robert Walser, because his other novels, whatever their connection to the German modernist and expressionist tendencies of their time, stand apart from their contemporaries. Walser does not fit into the puzzle in the way that Broch, Zweig, Canetti, Doblin, Roth, and other Germanic writers do. Perhaps this is because he is Swiss, perhaps it is because he has been rather ignored and excluded from construction of the period’s literary history, but I think it’s mostly because his ruminative short stories and his enigmatic, sui generis novel The Robber stand on a path that no one directly followed. Even his comparatively normal Jakob Von Gunten has a withdrawn airiness to it that is closer to Bruno Schulz’s detached aesthetic than to any Germanophone author.

What’s strange about The Assistant is that it is much more easily connected to those German antecedents and successors. This short novel about Joseph Marti’s life as a live-in assistant to the hapless inventor Carl Tobler and his family has clear affinities with the more pedestrian neuroses portrayed in the stories of Hofmannsthal, and the outsized characters (not just Tobler, but Joseph’s alcoholic predecessor Wirsich, and the two Manicheistic Tobler daughters) are a more subdued version of the histrionics of Schnitzler and Wedekind. But what’s most striking is how the tone and scenario anticipate that of early Kafka, particularly that of “The Stoker” and the novel it became part of, The Man Who Disappeared (aka Amerika). Walser is often compared spuriously to Kafka, but in The Assistant, and not in any of his other work that I’ve read, I think there’s some merit to the comparison. Marti, like Karl Rossmann, begins and ends as a bystander, pulled into the circle of affairs without becoming their center. Unlike Kafka’s later work, where the protagonists continually fail in their attempts to be mere quotidian bystanders in life–think of “Report to an Academy” as well as the last two novels–Walser’s protagonists steadfastly remain in the interstitial zone between observation and action. (Joseph’s only real decisive act ends the book.) Yet the concreteness of the situation here–absent in Walser’s subsequent work–is what gives it some of Kafka’s urgency.

Consequently, Walser goes off in a different direction, and Joseph’s mixture of passivity and inchoate loyalty result in very un-Kafka-like conversations like:

“Is your salary being paid?” the visitor inquired.

“No,” the assistant said, “and admittedly this is one of the things with which I am not fully satisfied. Often I have wanted to discuss this with Herr Tobler, but each time I am about to open my mouth to remind my superior of this matter which, as I have had occasion to perceive, is not exactly the most agreeable to him, the courage to speak deserts me, and so each time I tell myself: Put it off! And I’m still alive today, even without a salary.”

And Walser too lets things proceed languorously as Tobler fails and fails in his attempts to market dubious projects (most memorably the Marksman’s Vending Machine, which dispenses bullets). There’s even a disconnected, burlesque scene in which Joseph is picked up for evading army duty and dumped in jail for a night, which seems to have entered from another novel entirely. It distracts somewhat from the novel’s central pivot, which is the character of Tobler himself: desperate and arrogant, controlling and helpless, grandiose and pathetic, he is the very model of the petty capitalist cog that still exists today. Walser’s portrayal of his rationalizations and indignations is masterful, as when he begs his mother for more money for his business:

I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake–already being killed in advance…What would you say if one day soon, one fine morning or afternoon, you were to read in the newspaper that your son had taken his own li–…but no, I am not capable of uttering such a thing in its entirety, for it is to my mother I am speaking. Send me the money at once. This, too, is not a threat, I am merely urging you to do so, urging you desperately. Even in our household budget nothing remains, and both my wife and I have long since had to accustom ourselves to the idea that sooner or later there will be nothing left for our children to eat.

Confronted with such self-propelling desperation, what can Joseph do except be a bystander?

Schiller and Wittgenstein

If you’re looking for proto-Wittgenstein parallels from the era of German Idealism, this one seems pithy enough to me:

Warum kann der lebendige Geist dem Geist nicht erscheinen?
Spricht die Seele, so spricht ach! schon die Seele nicht mehr.

Why can’t the living spirit manifest itself to the spirit?
If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.

(Schiller, “Sprache”)

There’s a thread straight through to Hofmannsthal and Wittgenstein (early and late).

The Fall and Romanticism

K-Punk’s wonderful series on the aesthetics of Mark E. Smith and the Fall is wonderful nostalgia for any of us who spent months or years obsessed with Smith’s verbal acuity and ruminated over the cryptic lyrics (transcriptions c/o the invaluable Fall Lyrics Parade:

So R. Totale dwells underground
Away from sickly grind
With ostrich head-dress
Face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That draped down to his chest
Body are a tentacle mess
And light blue plant-heads
TV showed Sam Chippendale
No conception of what he’d made
The Arndale had been razed
Shop staff knocked off their ladders
Security guards hung from moving escalators

And now that is said
Tony seized the control
He built his base in Edinburgh
Had on his hotel wall
A hooded friar on a tractor
He took a bluey and he called Totale
Who said, “the North has rose again”
But it will turn out wrong

(The N.W.R.A.)

“The Fall’s Pulp Modernism:” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

K-punk begins with two of Smith’s avowed heroes–H.P. Lovecraft and Blake–and from there spins a chronicle of Smith’s embrace of pulp materials in the service of anti-romanticism in the tradition of Wyndham Lewis. And there’s something to this. Horror, science fiction, and conspiracy theories figure prominently in the lyrics, but they’re never properly shaped. Nazis pop up repeatedly as sinister figures precisely because they are cartoonish and inhuman; Smith is fatalistic about these matters, not humanistic. The dog-fucker of “Impression of J. Temperance” who impregnates one of his canines (hat tip to pastemob for explaining this to me many years ago) is clearly on the other side of normal, and so is his offspring:

The next bit is hard to relate.
(There are no read-outs for this part of the track.)
The new born thing hard to describe
Like a rat that’s been trapped inside
A warehouse base, near a city tide
Brown sockets, purple eyes
And fed with rubbish from disposal barges brown and covered

(Impression of J. Temperance)

Even “Spectre Vs. Rector,” one of the more outright narrative pieces, turns abruptly when Spectre possesses the rector and two more characters (the Inspector and the Hero) have to show up to finish the storyline. Yet I don’t see the modernism in this. Smith ladles on Gysin/Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques and Artaud-esque writing processes, but what results is not modernism, not even the collage and nonsense modernism of Dada and surrealism. The psychology and historicism of high modernism doesn’t exist in his lyrics, but neither do the word-poems of Tzara and Huelsenbeck. Smith’s referents are slippery, but with the exception of things like “Levitate,” where he slips into outright language poetry, he remains attached to Blake’s idea of language as invocation, and not as reality in itself. When K-punk says:

If pulp modernism first of all asserts the author-function over the creative-expressive subject, it secondly asserts a fictional system against the author-God. By producing a fictional plane of consistency across different texts, the pulp modernist becomes a conduit through which a world can emerge. Once again, Lovecraft is the exemplar here: his tales and novellas could in the end no longer be apprehended as discrete texts but as part-objects forming a mythos-space which other writers could also explore and extend.

I would argue the opposite. When Lovecraft goes on and on about how inexpressible his horrors are, and when Smith invokes Nazis and spectres, the world does not emerge, but instead it subsumes. The disorganization and cut-ups are not manifestations of authorial process as with Dada, but mimetic representations of a reality that corrupts language. (K-punk’s reference to Smith as “channeling” is apt, but again, I think the flow goes the other way: it pulls the listener rather than pushes.) I do not see Joyce in these words. If I was going to trace a lineage, it would be from Blake to Baudelaire to Hofmannsthal to Rilke to Pynchon and others who have taken up the pre-modern mantle. Anti-romantic, certainly, but hardly anti-Romantic. The world triumphant over the word, represented immanently in the broken, strained language of visionaries. Blake, Coleridge, Byron. Like so:

Hail the new puritan
Out of hovel, cum-coven, cum-oven

And all hard-core fiends
Will die by me
And all decadent sins
Will reap discipline

(New Puritan)

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