By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German (AUSLOESCHUNG: EIN ZERFALL) by David McLintock.
335 pages
London: Quartet Books, 1995 (From the 1986 German edition.)
ISBN: 0-5043-7085-9

Comments of Bob Corbett
January 2002

When I look at what I have written below I realize these are not as much comments on Bernhard's EXTINCTION, as on my experience with reading Bernhard in general. This is the 6th novel of his I've read over the past year, and while my fascination with Bernhard continues, I have come to see him as basically a one book author. He writes it over and over and over, even if he writes extremely well.

As in his other novels the actual plot is razor thin. The main character who seems to be named Murau if I understood the last sentence correctly receives a telegram in the opening sentences. His mother, father and brother have been killed in a car accident. The first long section of the book is a typical Bernhard rant against Murau's family and especially his dead mother, father and brother, with a huge dose of venom tossed in for his two living sisters as well. He did love his Uncle George and even has a grudging respect for Roman Archbishop Spadolini, his mother's lover for 30 years. Or at least Murau's strange mind assumes that.

The bits of actual narrative have Murau walk us through the horrors of life in a tiny Austria village where his parents own and run the largest farm in the area and live in a palatial home which even has five extensive libraries. He then goes off to the funeral and makes his plans to give this rich property away, which he does at the very end. That's all there is to the plot!!!

However, what Bernhard is so brilliant and believable in writing about is the manic depressive personality and once again the narrator, Murau, is precisely just that. He will rave madly on for a dozen pages talking about how disgusting his father is for this reason or his mother that. Then go through some abrupt shift and begin to take it all back with contradictory data. I think that Bernhard is simply fantastically brilliant at writing that character, who is, most likely, Bernhard himself. What is most striking is that this could be the primary narrator of any of the other 5 novels. The character is the same and his relentless destruction of the character of any other person in the novel is just astonishing.

This novel is perhaps the most enlightening about the nature of this writing style. It is precisely what the title suggest: it is about the process of extinction, but Bernhard has a verbal form in mind, the extincting of people, places, situations or things. The narrator at times speaks to us of this task:

"And an account like this requires the writer to spend years over it, possibly not just one or two years, but several, I said. It's not enough simply to make a sketch, I said. The only thing I have fixed in my head is the title, EXTINCTION, for the sole purpose of my account will be to extinguish what it describes, to extinguish what it describes, to extinguish everything that Wolfsegg [ his parents' manor home] means to me , everything that Wolfsegg is, everything, you understand, Gambetti [the narrator's student whom he tutors) really and truly everything. When this account is written, everything that Wolfsegg now is must be extinguished."

Later he tells us that the reason for this annihilating is that it must be done before restoring things to a form that he can find tolerable

This sounds very much like the process of deconstruction which post-modern philosophers and critics speak of.

Toward the very end of the novel, while at his parents funeral, he returns to this theme:

When I get back to Rome I'll set about writing this new work, but it'll take me a year, I thought and I don't know whether I'll have the strength to commit myself to it for a whole year, to concentrate on Extinction to the exclusion of everything else.

And yet when it all comes together I don't much believe the narrator has achieved any significant "extinction," but has dabbled a bit unsuccessfully in this deconstruction project, but always ended up in invective, hatred and rehashing old wounds.

However, the narrator's failure to bringing about an extinction or a series of them in no way reflects poorly on Thomas Bernhard himself. He brilliantly and carefully creates this character of mental extremes and compulsions who is currently fixated on Extinctions in people's lives. And while Bernhard writes this character quite well, I am simply getting weary of the same tactic in novel after novel after novel.

Yet I am likely to go on reading. Why? I never cease asking myself this question. Bernhard's characters are misanthropes, brutal and nasty people who wallow in self-pity and hatred of all people. I am a fairly happy fellow who tends to give people major breaks in my assessing of them, usually expecting (and frequently getting from them) much more than they can ordinarily produce.

Perhaps it is the radical disjunction between the central characters of Bernhard and myself which fascinates me. I really don't know, but I would not be surprised if I'm not at another Bernhard novel within a few months!

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu