Old Favourites: Woodcutters (1985) by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McLintock

The Austrian author’s work was a locomotive fuelled by spleen and a maniacal prose style

Austrian author Thomas Bernhard in 1976. Photograph:  Imagno/Getty Images

Austrian author Thomas Bernhard in 1976. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

 

All of Thomas Bernhard’s novels are the same, except that some of them are better than others, and some, such as Yes or Wittgenstein’s Nephew, shorter. So let’s choose Woodcutters, as enjoyable a showcase as any for Bernhard’s thrillingly maniacal prose style.

The ingredients in the Bernhard soufflé are as follows: caustic and unremitting misanthropy; long, obsessive, involuted sentences that generate a techno-like intensity; paragraphs so huge and airless that they usually take up a whole book. Among the targets of Bernhard’s inexhaustible derision are other people, Austria, intellectual weakness, and almost everything else.

As his sentences pile up with qualifications and reversals and repetitions, they combust into hilarity

In Woodcutters, we trace the bilious thoughts of a Viennese bourgeois at a midnight dinner party following a performance of an Ibsen play. The narrator spends the first half of the novel in a “wing chair”, holding a glass of champagne and silently taking the piss out of everything he sees. In the second half, a lauded actor arrives and the dinner unfolds. The pretensions of the Viennese cultural set are mocked pitilessly. The sycophancy, social climbing and cravenness that infest the arts scene are spared no insult. Bernhard made enemies with this novel. Fair enough: if you recognised yourself in one of the lampooned characters, you would want to pick up the author in his wing chair and hurl him from a high window.

Bernhard’s literary project was a locomotive fuelled by spleen. Life disgusted him. This might be merely annoying, like the moping of the heavy metal fan at school, if it were not for Bernhard’s funniness. As his sentences pile up with qualifications and reversals and repetitions, they combust into hilarity. You may still occasionally feel like smacking the author around the head for his faux-profundity and supercilious cynicism. But don’t smack him too hard, because without Bernhard there would be no WG Sebald (or not as we know him), and no Geoff Dyer when he draws dazzling comedy from the centrifugal blur of his neurosis. In Bernhard, the howl of laughter and the scream of despair are one.

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