By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German by David McLintock.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986 (From the 1982 German edition.)
Comments of Bob Corbett
NOTE: At the end of the review is a reply from an internet reader.
The first third of this novel is a monologue of Rudolph, a would-be musicologist who plans and dreams of writing a major work on Felix Mendelssohn. He reveals himself a quite a failure at not only his plan, but about life in general. He is well off, having inherited enough wealth to live on and a large 9 room home in a rural area not far from Vienna. Rudolph's sister has been to visit. She is virtually his opposite: she is socially, professionally and economically successful, relatively happy and is in the process of realizing most of her life's dreams.
Rudolph's monologue is quite revealing. At first he blames his sister for the fact that he hasn't gotten to his work in the last few weeks of her visit. It is only in time that he slowly reveals the contradictions in his inner life and we realize this procrastination, currently blamed on his sister, has been going on for ten years. He is fixated on Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whom he always calls by his full family name (knowing his full name I now feel better qualified for games of trivia). Not only is his sister initially blamed for his inability to write that morning, but for virtually all the troubles of his life. Yet little by little he allows that he is a very troubled person and that his sister is probably the only positive factor and hope in his life.
Rudolph finally leaves the house, visits with a neighbor and resolves to go to Palma, on the island of Majorca, where he will, he is sure, finally be able to write his book. He loads his two suitcases, the small one for his clothes and the large one for his thousands of notes and papers on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Of course he doesn't write anything except this document which Bernhard calls Concrete.
The last twenty pages provide the name of the novel and the one experience of Rudolph's life in which he seems to have made serious contact with another person, a woman Anna Hardtl, who he had met in Palma a few years earlier and he now remembers in detail the sad story of her life and their brief relationship. Anna's young husband had died in a fall from a hotel balcony and was buried in a tall concrete grave bunker in a nearby town. Rudolph and a woman acquaintance of his had befriended the grieving widow and spent considerable time with her for a few days. It was an important part of Rudolph's life, perhaps his only serious move out of himself into another's life.
However, as is typical with the works of Thomas Bernhard, the story is not what the novel is all about. It's all in the telling. Since this is the third Bernhard work I've read this year, I begin to suspect that his works are filled with autobiographical material. Just two weeks ago I reported on Wittgenstein's Nephew which was written in 1988. Here in Concrete he tells some of the same things which he puts into the mouth of the character Thomas Bernhard of Wittgenstein's Nephew.
"What have I got in Vienna? I asked myself… For years I had Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the philosopher, as my friend, but I'm bound to say that his death, after a long and painful illness, came at exactly the right time, when Vienna had ceased to mean anything to him. He had walked the streets of Vienna for decades, and it no longer had anything to do with him. There was nobody as clever as he was, nobody as poetic and as incorruptible in all things."
It is fascinating to me that in that passage, as well as in the passages about Anna Hardtl, the writing style changes significantly, and it's as though we are reading a different person that the rest of Rudolph's long monologue.
In both the characters of himself, Thomas Bernhard, in Wittgenstein's Nephew, and of Rudolph in Concrete, the main characters live lives centered heavily INSIDE themselves, about themselves. Most people whom I've encountered seem to live mainly outside themselves in the various life projects they've assumed -- the job they have, their family life, a hobby, the world of spectator sports and so on.
Many even seem to live so outside themselves in their projects I often wonder if they have an interior life. I suspect there is some sort of healthy balance we need to achieve for a rich and full life. Excessively living outside oneself in worldly projects tends to create an atmosphere of unthinking acceptance of the standard cultural norms -- the unexamined life which philosophers since Socrates have warned us against. On the other hand, the excessive turning inside, and the characters of Bernhard and Rudolph are perfect examples, seems to lead to crippling self-absorption and even paranoia which make it almost impossible for them to act in the world. This is certainly true of Rudolph's ten years of waiting to write the first sentence of his planned Mendelssohn Bartholdy book. On the other hand the real Thomas Bernhard (as opposed to the character in Wittgenstein's Nephew) has certainly managed to produce a phenomenal spate of worthwhile books and plays.
I find this an interesting problematic. By turning inward and carefully examining the world, our relationship to it, the meaning and value of our acts and life itself we can enable ourselves toward an examined life of autonomy. By not turning inward with adequate seriousness of purpose and thus exploring the meaning of our own life seems to limit us to accepting and internalizing the cultural forms into which the accident of birth has thrown us. On the other hand, the excessive dwelling on the self can be so crippling that life passes us by as we agonize on how to live and what sense to give it. The puzzle then is to find the proper balance between inwardness and living our chosen projects in the world. What is this elusive notion of the "proper" balance between the two. I sense that this is a major question which is played out in Bernhard's novels.
I recall one short and seemingly insignificant passage in which Rudolph evidences this excessive inwardness (in addition to his inability to write his book). He says:
"Not long ago I had asked the specialist if I could contemplate travelling. Naturally, anytime, he has said, but the way he said naturally struck me a sinister."
One further example has to do with Rudolph's view of what friendship is. I think it's noteworthy that while what he says makes sense at an analytic level, it functions to make it unlikely that he will often begin the process which would lead toward genuine friendship. He says:
"Your mistake, my sister had said, is to isolate yourself completely in our house. You don't go and visit friends any longer, though we have so many. What she said was true. But what does one mean by friends? We know a number of people, perhaps even a lot of people; there are a few whom we've known since we were children and who have not yet died or moved away for good. Every year we used to visit them frequently and they used to come to our house. But that doesn't make them friends, not by a long chalk. My sister is quick to call somebody a friend, even somebody she hardly knows, if it suits her book. Come to think of it, I haven't any friends at all. Since I grew up I haven't had a single friend. Friendship -- what a leprous word! People use it every day ad nauseam, so that it's become utterly devalued, at least as much so as the word Love, which has been trampled to death."
There is something quite plausible in the negative analysis, yet given that friendship seems to name a process and not actually a state, by condemning the process on the grounds that it is seldom at some ideal place, seems to make the movement toward the other, which is so critical to the process, to be less likely, ensuring Rudolph's state remains as one who is alone and withdrawn from society.
Once again Bernhard uses his curious style that, in this case, presents a 156 page novel as one single paragraph. The monologue is actually divided into three parts (not visually, but in the writing), the long beginning monologue about his sister and his book, a short visit to his neighbor and then the visit to Palma with the important title-rendering story of the death of Anna's husband. Once again Bernhard presents a very thin story which is a vehicle for the reflections of a loner, a person who basically dislikes people and has an extremely negative assessment of himself and the world in general. Yet, once again the power of Bernhard's writing, his provocative and unusual insights and descriptions draw me in ways that I simply can't understand.
I've also noted another stylistic device which repeats itself a great deal in Bernhard. He likes the use of italics for emphasis. In the quote above about his doctor's use of "naturally" he uses three different italicized words to tell that story. Thoughout Wittgenstein's Nephew and Correction he uses them with great frequency. I'll have to make a mental note to watch for that as I read further Bernhard novels.
Despite the powerful attraction I find to Bernhard's writing, the weight of the negativity bears down. I think I'll set Thomas Bernhard aside. Three of his novels in the space of four months has its own special weight. I have more than 1/2 dozen of his works on my shelf awaiting me. I may just read a few other books in between to make the return more appealing when I'm ready.
An internet reader comments:
Your article on "Concrete" was the first hit on Google when looking for Bernhard's book.
A few points that I will mention in response to the book:
Beton is not appropriately read in any linear fashion: one must read AT the book: not process it it in any form of consumerist "direct reading": thereby I admonish the reader to pick it up at various points: read the ending and then begin it again: or perhaps just open to the middle and continue.
Concrete is about the distractions of the "expert point of view;" when one is an expert one is in hell. A brief dichotomy: expert-amateur.
And "distraction" is key here: he cannot focus on anything but his own distraction: and is driven to distraction. The amateur reading lacks sophistication, lacks something that will save the delicate soul of the dedicated professional from being "ruffled"
The amateur can maintain attention because the subject matter is not refined The professional cannot maintain attention because the subject matter is over-refined, while something inside of him is gravely imbalanced or incapable of refinement (such refinement borders on the miraculous or impossible): the main character is stuck in the genera of (what Louise Cowan might refer to in her genera wheel) is called "infernal comedy." in it's strictest sense: there is no movement.
The commentary on the back of the book always seemed to inspire me: introversion leads to suicidal ideation for Rudolf, extroversion to homicidal ideation, yet somewhere in between there are astonishing insights yet to be held.
Anyway your thorough article inspired me to write you about what I saw in the work.
Justin Ayres (if it is helpful for the sake of understanding these idle ramblings: my dissertation was in depth psychology, psychoanalysis, post-modern thinking and the problem of,,, research at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpenteria CA)Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com