Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McClintock
When Stu announced he would host Thomas Bernhard Reading Week this week, I first thought ‘Who?’. Just a little research revealed that he was considered one of Austria’s leading writers of the post-war era, and he was also rather controversial for constantly criticising Austria – a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest). I also ascertained that he was likely to be quite difficult to read, but I liked the sound of his books, so I took up the challenge, choosing one of his shorter novels…
Woodcutters was written in 1984 and the translation by American, McClintock I read was from 1987. It takes the form of one long unspoken monologue, written in one long paragraph too – I considered writing my review in similar fashion, but I shall spare you that!
The action takes place at a late-night artistic dinner-party in Vienna, hosted by the Auersbergers, who run into our unnamed narrator in town after not seeing him for over twenty years, (he had formerly lodged with them and they had fallen out). Surprised, he accepts. Frau Auersberger tells him the guest of honour is to be an actor, currently starring in Ibsen’s play The Wild Ducks.
However, earlier on the same day as the dinner is the funeral of one of the narrator’s dearest friends, Joana. She hanged herself, but the Auersbergers, who also knew her are continuing with the dinner. Our narrator arrives at the party in a real sulk, wishing he wasn’t there, brooding over the death of his friend and the events of the funeral, hating his hosts; he decides to sit in a tall wing-backed chair out of the way, to observe, doze and tell us about Joana and the Auersbergers.
Eventually the actor arrives after his evening performance and they sit down to dinner after midnight. The narrator hates the actor on principle – he rants to himself:
These actors are petit bourgeois nonentities who know nothing whatever about the art of the theater and have long since turned the Burgtheater into a hospice for their terminal dilettantism.
The narrator’s former lover, Jeannie, a writer of sorts, is also there – he hates her now, and she repeatedly tries to show off. She asks the actor inane questions, and the actor pontificates in response…
It was a wonder, he said, that The Wild Duck had been put on at all in Vienna – put on was a phrase he used repeatedly – since putting it on in Vienna was a risk. After all The Wild Duck was a modern play. He actually used the term modern to describe a play that was just a hundred years old, and was still as great, after a hundred years, as it was when written: to call such a play modern was patent nonsense. To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical play – it was a modern play, which might admittedly become a classic.
But finally the actor retorts with something that momentarily raises him in our narrator’s eyes – he wishes he was a simple woodcutter – ein holzfäller. But that doesn’t last, and eventually, they all go home at about 4am.
Essentially that’s all that happens, but it’s the way his tells it that makes the story. You know how it is when you worry at something, you mutter about it or fiddle with it repeatedly, and this is how it is with the narrator. Right from the beginning, when he arrived masking an angry sulk, he wishes he wasn’t there, that he hadn’t bumped into his former friends, the Auersbergers. Looking around the apartment, he settles on the library…
The Auersbergers, who inherited this library, have probably taken out no more than twenty or thirty volumes in the past thirty years, whereas I positively fell upon these collections in the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal with all the passion of the ignoramus, as I have to admit. And perhaps what tied me to the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal was not so much the Auersbergers themselves as the extensive libraries which their forebears had founded merely for show, a show of scholarship, culture and comprehensive knowledge – the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that is deemed to go with metropolitan life – things that have always been in fashion. … They’ve always gone in for show, I thought, because they lack any capacity for reality. Everything about them has always been show.
He sulks, he mutters, he reassures himself that he’s sitting the the wing-backed chair, and he sulks some more, sitting in the wing-backed chair. He wishes he hadn’t met the Auersbergers again, he disparages them some more as he sits in the wing-backed chair. Slowly, and with much repetition, the story gradually edges on, reaching the end of the evening.
You will have seen from the extensive quotes above, that this short novel is not an easy read, especially with no paragraphs to give natural pauses. When I put the book down for a breather, I found I had to go back a couple of pages to get into the flow again. It has a certain sardonic humour running through it though as the narrator constantly criticises everyone except the dead Joana – while sitting in the wing-backed chair, of course.
I’m glad I’ve read Thomas Bernhard – thanks Stu. I did enjoy it, but it was hard work and I was tiring of it in the middle, only for it to pick up again towards the end. If you like a challenge, Bernhard would be ideal – and this book could be a good one for you (6/5/10)
I shall leave you with a treat – Monty Python’s Lumberjack (ie: holzfäller) song in German, which the Pythons made for a special programme to show in Germany and Austria back in 1972…
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Faber paperback.