Thursday, November 12, 2009
Alternatives to Forward Motion--reading Thomas Bernhard
Frost is the second novel I’ve read by Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. The first was The Loser, which, written in initially-frustrating-yet-ultimately-captivating long, long clause-ridden sentences, describes the (fictional) relationship between two former music students and their colleague, Glenn Gould. The plot, as it exists, moves ahead by accumulation, rather than discrete action; the magnificent sentences loop forward and back and around again, picking up information in their wake and depositing it on the page. The reader either jumps in, or s/he doesn’t. I mention The Loser first because I was expecting something similar from Frost—written before The Loser, I’d thought I’d find at least nascent evidence of that book’s style. But while one could certainly point out similarities, Frost asks something different of the reader.
The basic premise of Frost is this: a young medical student is sent on an assignment by his supervisor-mentor to go, essentially, spy on the mentor’s aging brother, a former painter who’s taken up residence at a dismal inn in a grim mountain town in the Alps. The student, who narrates the book, is meant to pose as a law student and befriend the painter Strauch, take notes on him, and report back to the brother. We never find out the exact motivation for the mentor giving this assignment—maybe he feels guilty about having fallen out with the brother, maybe he wants to examine his mental decline as a sort of medical case study. It doesn’t really matter. What the book, essentially, ends up being, is at least 50% of the painter’s monologuing about his life and philosophy, which tends toward the idea that we’re all damaged people, living in the thrall of death and decay: “You are standing in a square, and everything is black, suddenly everything inside you and outside you is black, no matter where you look at it from, black and stirred smooth, and you don’t know what stirred it, and everything is broken…” (It is worth noting, too, that the painter expresses some pretty hardcore misogyny—I reconcile it by deciding I don’t need to like the painter as a character, but that might be a bit of a cop-out.) The narrator interjects, every once in awhile, to describe a brief reaction to the painter, to explain a walk the two went on, to paraphrase the painter, or to reveal some details about his own life. (I’ll get to those parts in a minute.)
The painter’s monologues/musings/insights/rants are difficult to get through. They’re repetitive, and grim, and often make very little immediate sense. For awhile, however, they’re oddly compelling, and the student gets caught up in them, too; through his brief interjections, we start to get the idea that some of the painter’s gloomy madness is permeating the student’s own thinking. It was around this point that I started to realize that I wasn’t really trying to comprehend the painter’s words anymore; I was just blazing through them, assuming I knew essentially the points he was making, letting them wash over me, waiting for the next oasis when the student’s voice entered the scene.
At first, I felt guilty about this—I’ve always read way too quickly, often concerned more with getting through a book so I can get to the next one that really taking the time to contemplate and savor. Then, a shift happened in the book. The student was starting to doubt the painter too, to get sick of him, to want to find some way out of his grasp. And I realized that, perhaps, the way that I was reading the book was in fact the way that Bernhard intended. Through the sheer abundance, incoherence, and pessimism of the painter’s speeches, Bernhard has created a text that many readers will find at some level interesting, but also difficult and insufferable, and the reader will push through, plug his/her ears, pick up lucid bits where s/he can, but, overall, just keep going. After all, this is what the student is doing, eventually, too. Not all books are meant to be read in the same way, and the ways in which we read are an essential part of the way we make meaning out of a text. There are different ways of entering the world of a novel, different kinds of readerly intention. Frost illuminates the fact that reading is always an (inter)active process.
I should say, too, that the rarer moments when we get to hear the student’s voice are lucid and beautiful, and not just in contrast to the painter’s chaotic ranting. Here he is on the joy he got out of doing manual labor—
“Down on the building site, I remembered the time I used to go over the big bridges in blue workmen’s clothes. The air was fresh, and the noise wasn’t roused yet. Morning came down off the mountains into people’s houses, where they were saying their goodbyes for the day…The rest of the world that wasn’t working on building sites struck me as crazy, and those people who weren’t standing in holes in the ground I looked at with sympathy.”
—or on the crisis of confidence he begins to suffer, as the painter’s ideas begin to get to him: “My future’s like a stream in the forest, of which there are many precise descriptions, but nothing more.” Or, one of my favorite moments in the book, which sums up the student’s reaction to the painter’s ramblings. Though this is the student speaking about the painter Strauch, it could just as easily be me, as a reader, speaking about Bernhard, in Frost, himself: “His sentences are oar strokes that would propel him forward if it weren’t for the powerful current.” The trick is to realize that unbridled forward motion isn’t the only mode of navigating.