Saturday 16 April 2016


Woodcutters - Thomas Bernhard
(translated by David McLintock)

"For twenty years I had not wanted to know anything about the Augsbergers; for twenty years I had not seen the Augsbergers, and in these twenty years the very mention of the name Augsberger had brought on third degree nausea, I thought, sitting in the wing chair."

Finally I have got around to Thomas Bernhard, and although late to the party, the cake still tastes fresh, or should that be refreshingly stale and crusty. Woodcutters is an internal monologue blasting away in the mind of the narrator who sits in a wing chair at a party to which he wishes he had never been invited.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this book but now that I have found Bernhard's voice I've a feeling I'll be returning soon. If only more people would discard their Bernhard's in Charity Shops. Maybe I just don't frequent Charity Shops in the right areas. Perhaps I need to return to the capital, perhaps frequent again the bars in the cultural quarters, the openings, the awards nights, the love-ins of the loveless narcissistic creatives desperately building charlatans into paper maché colossi so they can rub shoulders with giants.
Down here with the unpeopled woods, the rats, squirrels, crows and ticks I can get close enough, thank you. And yet, and yet...

Bernhard excavates his feelings dispassionately and dishonestly, appearing to peel back the layers of an onion when he is actually holding an apple, and one that is rotten to the core. Like a magician he knows that distraction is the secret of magic.

Thus it is that "sitting in the wing chair", a phrase repeated innumerable times, amid the grouses and diatribes he aims (inaudibly) at his hosts, fellow guests and uninvited friends and the dead, we gradually get more clues about the narrator's own faults which we are tempted to multiply as he so clearly dissembles.....

From the first we are made aware that this party is not where our narrator wishes to be, describing the stroll in Vienna that led him to meet his hosts as "walking straight into the social hell of Vienna and meeting the very people I have no wish to meet."

Why does he break his habit of keeping out of the way of these people. Perhaps he needs human contact? - "..I wanted to escape from the months of solitude in my Währing apartment, to get away from the isolation that had begun to deaden my brain." He even acknowledges that "This dreadful city of Vienna" which he "blamed" "throughout the winter for" his "mental and physical atrophy" was now responsible for his "restored vitality". This pattern of coruscating criticism partially ameliorated by grudging respect repeats regularly during the book, although far more time and space is given to the coruscating criticism. Which is what you read Bernhard for, I guess.

Sometimes the praise is quite as faint as praise can be: "the Ausbergers aren't the worst people in the world, at least not the very worst." Did he do eulogies?

Sometimes the (almost) praise is quickly reversed, reversed further than it had been driven forward:  "having perhaps once been a truly gifted artist, an artist of considerable merit, Jeannie has in the course of the last two decades developed into an unscrupulous, petit bourgeois  hypocrite of the most dreadful kind."

After a few pages we are informed that this is not just a party/dinner for an actor ("one of the mindless hams") currently playing in Ibsen's the Wild Duck at the Burgtheater. , it is also (by mischance) a wake for a mutual friend of the narrator and the Auersbergers who has taken her own life. This, he tells us, is why he made the mistake of agreeing to attend this party: "I momentarily gave way to the most shameful sentimentality, I thought, and the Auersbergers immediately took advantage of it; they took advantage of the suicide of our mutual friend Joana, I thought, to issue their invitation".

We also get a clue as to why the narrator exiles himself from the "artistic scene" of the Auersbergers, and a little bit of his personal history: "they were the people who, in the early fifties, drove you into such an appalling mental and physical state, into what amounted to an existential crisis, into a state of such complete helplessness that you ended up in the Steinhof mental clinic..."

It is clear that while he blames many for his personal woes he isn't going to point out his own influence on whatever "existential crisis" may be experienced by any of the other characters, including Joana. It does seem, however, that many of them are more clearly damaged than the narrator.

I'm not going to go into much more detail. It's months since I read this and I would probably veer from the actual story anyway. I felt that this was in many ways a modern reworking of Remembrance of Things Past, with Bernhard using his contempt much as Proust used his cork lined room to dampen the sounds of the outside world and create the space in which he could write. He looks back on his fashionable society life and recounts his journey from desiring to enter and belong to the best society to running away from it and realising the emptiness at the heart of its promise.

For in the eyes of many artists the world and the body are corrupted and mortal and it is only the page and the canvas that survive. The world is just a distraction. Whether his hate is love inverted or his love is hate inverted Bernhard creates a a world worth visiting in a voice that is compelling, uncomfortable and at a perfect pitch of absurdity.

I'll leave the last word to another man who was destroyed by the society he kept.

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die."


But I have to leave the appendix to Bernhard.
Some random rants:

"All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties, thirty years earlier, some of them forty years earlier, hoping they would go far, as they say, but the furthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists.."
"most of the time they believe fervently that they've become something worthwhile, although from my point of view they haven't become anything. Because they've made a name for themselves, won a lot of prizes, published a lot of books, and sold their pictures to a lot of museums, because they've had their had their books issued by the best publishing houses and their pictures hung in the best museums, because they've been awarded every possible prize that this appalling state has to offer and every possible decoration pinned to their breasts, they believe they've become something, though in fact they've become nothing, I thought."

"There has never, I think, been a time when it was not fashionable to pretend to comprehensive knowledge, and even if it has become somewhat less fashionable in the last two decades, it is now all the rage again."

Here's the actor, on Hemingway and himself (or should that be Himself and hemmingway?)
"And believe it or not, I have a passion for bullfighting. An affinity with hemmingway, he said, a real affinity with Hemmingway. But I'm not such a romantic as Hemmingway was - more a man of reason, said the Burgtheater actor. I don't have the romantic American view of bullfighting - I have a more scientific approach. Whatever is profound is naturally unromantic, he said. Nothing profound is romantic. Indeed, he said suddenly, suicide is a fashionable contemporary sickness."

"It was as primitive as all the other graveside addresses I have heard, and the voice of the priest, who seemed to have some kind of throat ailment, was so disagreeable and high-pitched that it hurt my ears to listen to it. Unfortunately, however, his address was also comprehensible and contained all the mendacity and hypocrisy the Catholic Church purveys on such occasions."

And how about this for an inspirational quote on "Friendship":
"People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives."

"it suddenly occurred to me that the blame for the spoliation of the countryside around Maria Zaal lay not with the little people of the region, whom our revolting age has infected with building hysteria, but with the Auersbergers - not with the people who are usually blamed, whose repulsive houses have wreaked havoc throughout almost the whole area around this once unique village, who have simply shat out their houses onto the landscape - not just here, but throughout Austria - because they have never been told how to build properly..."

Appendix to the Appendix
Some other reviews

Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos - (the review that led me to this book) http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.ie/2013/09/woodcutters.html
Tony at Tony's Reading List - http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.ie/2013/11/holzfallen-woodcutters-by-thomas.html


  1. It's funny how it can take a while to fall into step with the rhythm of a particular book. I've just experienced something similar with a novel that proved a little challenging at first - having just finished it though, I suspect it may well end up on my end-of-year list.

    Bernhard seems to be a favourite among some of the bloggers I follow, but I've yet to try any of his work. This sounds like a good one to pick up at some point. That's if I can find it in a secondhand outlet - I don't think I've ever seen any of his books in the charity shops either.

    1. Well, I can't compare this to the rest of his work but it is the one I was most recommended to start with.

  2. A German speaker has told me that the chair is in German literally an "ear chair," which is pretty funny.

    Old Masters is quite similar to this novel. A similar voice, more on the horrors of Austrian culture.

    1. Yes, sitting in the ear chair brings the whole echo chamber aspect of the book to the fore even more. why do I have to sit here listening to these people!!
      I think you were amoung those who sent me to this in a comment on Richard's post. I will look out for Old Masters.

  3. Glad you (finally) liked the novel, Séamus, and sorry I finally got around to commenting on your post despite having read it multiple times now. I'm a little all over the place these days, I'm afraid. Anyway, enjoyed your contempt/cork-lined room equation and your riff on Bernhard's inverted love or hate. Do consider reading The Loser for your next Bernhard--a musical twist on the war on theater and the art world of Woodcutters and Old Masters. P.S. Have just started my first Flann O'Brien at least partially in your honor. Good stuff!

    1. Thanks Richard- glad you found some interest in this. Which Flann O'Brien are you reading? At Swim Two Birds or The Third Policeman I presume. Hope you enjoy him and look forward to your response. You're probably less "all over the place" than me. I seem to be developing a sort of attention deficit disorder. I am also spending less time online which is probably healthy for everything other than my virtual being... I intend to return to Bernhard soon and will probably pick The Losers or Old Masters, both of which seem to be favoured strongly...

    2. I'm reading At Swim-Two-Birds, which in addition to being on your personal favorites list was raved about by Sergio Pitol in a book I read by the Mexican a few months back. Spending less time online is prob. a good thing, at least once in a while (I'm spending more time listening to music these days myself). However, I still might friend you on FB any day now just to be contrary!