By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German (HOLZFALLEN) by David McLintock.
181 pages
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987 (From the 1984 German edition.)
ISBN: 0-226-04396-7

Comments of Bob Corbett
July 2001

This is at one level the story of a dinner party, an "artistic dinner party." The action, to whatever extent there is any takes place within a few hours, told from three chairs -- the wing chair, the dinning room chair and the sitting room chair.

The unnamed narrator, a writer, recently returned to Vienna after 20 years in London, has run into a former patron whom he claims to now dislike tremendously, even to hate. It is just after one of their common friends of the past has committed suicide and this artistic dinner in honor of a Burgtheater actor will be held on the evening of Joana's funeral. The narrator accepts the invitation and attends much against his own better judgment. What follows from the three chairs are his musings and reflections on how he's ended up there and on what transpires at the dinner party.

In a nutshell that's the story. But a Thomas Bernhard novel is not about the events it catalogues, most of which could always be adequately described in a dozen or so lines as I try to do above. I think the more adequate description of any Bernhard novel is that there is a narrator, sometimes named, often not, but who is always a rather thinly described Thomas Bernhard. He is revealing his own mind, his thoughts, and always through the filter of a person who is significantly manic/depressive.

I can't imagine any person has ever so well captured in words the experienced world of a manic/depressive as Bernhard does over and over. This is the fourth novel of his I have read and this one-book approach has never yet bored me. Rather it astounds me as I attempt to understand a world from his perspective. I think he's reaching me. I'm coming more and more to predict what may happen in the next few pages, something I couldn't do until this novel. Nonetheless, I'm ready to hurry back to my next Bernhard novel and have half-dozen waiting in the wings. He was one prolific writer!

The narrator talks to himself, not us. He rants a great deal, professing to utterly hate nearly everyone. He doesn't even know the Bergtheater actor, but he despises every Bergtheater actor and the theater itself. In an earlier novel, WITTGENSTEIN'S NEPHEW, when the narrator was Bernhard himself, he tells the story behind this hatred, what he viewed as a subverted performance of one of his own plays which harmed his career in Vienna.

However, four other characters come in for specific rather brutal treatment. First there are the Auersbergers. These people were his former patrons and it seems, though this is left rather vague, both were his lovers as well. He lived in their house, was subsidized by him, but, on his view, he paid a costly non-economic price in being there to save their marriage in some way. The husband is a composer, a follower of Webern, whom the narrator mainly holds to be a failed artist and a drunkard. The wife, source of the wealth of this couple, is a woman whom he allows has a very lovely singing voice, but who leads the couple in their using their wealth to control a large set of Viennese artists, thus reducing their ability to produce better art.

Perhaps his greatest bitterness is directed at Jeannie Billroth, a writer and critic who sees herself as a Viennese Virginia Woolf. The narrator had an affair with her more than 20 years prior and rails against her at ever opportunity.

The most curious object of his criticism and anger is one done in a rather muted fashion. It is Joana Slukal, the woman who committed suicide by hanging herself. She is mainly treated in a rather sympathetic manner, and he explains, again quite vaguely, that he had a long-lasting affair with her, and did so without much deception in the face of first her husband and then her long-term lover, or at least partner. Nonetheless, Joana comes in for very subtle and no less bitter criticisms for her use of other people and her self-centerness.

What is fascinating in all this spewing of bitterness and hatred is that it is often mixed with the most gentle and loving asides which seem almost to slip out, and it is in those revelations that we begin to see and measure the source of this bitterness and hatred. He cannot help himself but to allow that this drunken sot of a no-good, Herr Auersberger, an mere imitator of Webern, does indeed produce some fine music, and in fact has his music being performed all over Europe. In the midst of some nasty denunciation of Frau Auersberger for her use of other people, he waxes eloquently about her singing ability and her gracious manners and concern for her guests and others. Even the hated Jeannie Billroth is recognized for her writing and intelligence.

This flitting back and forth (though certainly not evenly -- the bitter self dominates) is more the sort of personality I would have associated with some sort of radical schizophrenia, but it is in the long-run clearer as to the nature of the narrator's persona.

Bernhard not only captures the mind and manner of the manic depressive, but writes with incredible skill, humor and economy. To say economy may be startling to readers of Bernhard. For the first 99 pages of this 181 page book he is "…sitting in the wing chair…" in the foyer of the Augersbergers' home. He tells us this well over 100 times in 99 pages. How can this be economy. Well, it depends upon what is being aimed at. The obsessive nature of his character, and the brilliant image of a hearing aid -- the wing-back chair, with its high sides which semi-surround him functions as a gigantic satellite dish from which he gathers in all the conversation drifting in from the other room and the bits and pieces of those conversations spark off the bitter assessments of his memories.

He writes with anger and bitterness, but with humor, dead-pan humor in which one gets the sense the narrator himself misses the humor, and one is almost convinced that the author does as well.

I did find curious the narrator's delicate hesitancy to allow that he had sexual relationships with the four main characters. There are places where he comes right out at reports it, but in the main he hints, he puts himself in very erotic situations with the two younger women characters and leads us to the edge of overt sexual acts, then just drops the topic. He plays around with the hinted sex with the Auersbergers until almost the end of the novel and finally admits that Herr Auersberger could hardly wait to get him to bed in the days when he was their young protégé.

The most curious treatment, however, is reserved for the Burgtheater actor who is never named. The narrator rails, rants, screams, denounces, debunks, excoriates and in every way he can think of debases the actor and the theater. I couldn't understand the title at all. Woodcutters. This is a drawing room farce or tragedy, an Austrian version of WHOSE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF -- could that association actually be why Jennie Billroth is seen as viewing herself as the Austrian Virginia Woolf? -- it takes place in the home of a very rich society couple in Vienna's better circles. Woodcutters? But an Austrian writer friend explained to me that the term Holzfallen (which is not cutters, but cutting of wood) is a play on words referring to a Viennese term for bitter denouncing criticism.

Yet in the wee-hours of the morning, after the dinner, the famous trout, after cigars and lots of white wine (not the best but the most expensive, and not really so bad after all), Jeannie Billroth takes off after the Bergtheater actor and wounds him. He becomes sad and reflective and allows in a maudlin and romanticized scene that he often believes he would have been better off to lived a rural life and to have been a woodcutter. The marvelous play on the word which allows both the romanticism of this world of the native savage, and yet refers to the super sophisticated and bitter criticism of the social cynic is a stroke of Bernhardian genius. When Billroth wounds the elderly actor so obviously, the narrator turns sympathetic and virtually shifts his view of the Burgtheater actor and even the Burgtheater into a 100% backhanded praising, that says in effect -- while the actor and the theater leave something to be desired, they may well each be the best in their field.

It is a long night of purging, and the narrator finally leaves last. He runs down the stairs and through Vienna, ironically conscious that he is running toward the inner city and away from his own home which is in the opposite direction. Perhaps this too is symbolic of the narrator and Bernhard's lives. His mind often takes him at such a fast pace and into disastrous understandings of everyday life. Bernhard seems more aware of this fact than most of his readers will be.

This night is an agony to him, his memory of it as he runs, runs, runs (the wrong way) is eating him up. Perhaps the most revealing lines of the novel are about Bernhard and are the last two sentences which tell us just what he does when his inner sensibilities so overwhelm him that he can't stand it any longer. It isn't to keep on running, that wouldn't help. He ends the novel with:

And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu