By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins.
271 pages
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
ISBN: 0-226-04393-2

Comments of Bob Corbett
Jan. 2001

Correction is a powerful if strange novel in both content and form. It is also my first Thomas Bernhard novel, and I had been forewarned what to expect. Nothing would truly have prepared me. I have purchased another 1/2 or so of his novels and hope to read more soon.

The story of Correction is slim. Roithamer, an Austrian scientist who works in Cambridge, England as a scientist and professor at the university, has committed suicide. The unnamed narrator has come to a small home, Hoeller's home, to sort and tend the papers of Roithamer, having been made literary executor by Roithamer shortly before his death. Roithamer lived in Hoeller's garret and the first paragraph of the book is called "Hoeller's garret." (The first of the book's TWO paragraphs is 140 pages long; the other is 131 pages long. More about that later.)

Roithamer is one of four children raised at Altensam, a palace which ruled over the area of the Aurach Gorge in Austria's mountainous northwest. Both the narrator and Hoeller were working class kids in the village below the palace and close friends of Roithamer when growing up. The narrator is also a Cambridge don in the sciences. Hoeller, who has never left the area, is a taxidermist and has built his own home in the gorge.

Roithamer has had an extremely unhappy childhood, or at least this is his memory and construction of it, and he has fixated on his sister, deciding he will "save" her by building the most incredible building in the world, a gigantic cone in the very center of the local forest, in which she will live. It is a home for Rapunsel if ever there was one. The home, in some strange way we don't actually know, kills her and Roithamer's grief and defeat lead to his suicide.

The time line action of the narration, in the sense that one can say there is one, is that the narrator has come back to Hoeller's garret, where Roithamer lived when in Austria, and from where he designed and oversaw the building of the cone, in order to sort through Roithamer's papers. It is from both the narrator's tale in the first paragraph, and from Roithamer's papers which the narrator studies in the second paragraph (entitled Sifting and Sorting) that we learn the above and much, much more.

The form is simply astonishing. I've already pointed out that this 271 page book of quite tiny print is only two paragraphs long. In some of the earliest pages it was not unusual for sentences to run well over 2 pages, so at first I had the sense there were more pages than sentences. Overall, however, I suspect the book must average about 3 sentences a page, perhaps fewer, I didn't count.

The novel is 100% the narrator's first person story with a very few remembered conversations and a few quoted passages from Roithamer's papers (normally identified by "so Roithamer" at the end of the sentence). The seeming time line of the novel itself is probably two to three days at the most, all of which the narrator spends in Hoeller's garret (Roithamer's garret?) except for one brief meal with the Hoeller family spent mainly in silence.

Roithamer's view of his relationship with his mother is just horrendous and would be a Freudian's delight and joy. He usually calls her "the Eferding woman" to emphasize her status as the daughter of a butcher in a near-by village, not up to the social standing of his father's family, the inheritor's of Altensam, nor, by implication, up to the blood which flows in the veins of Roithamer himself via his father. There is a clear sense of shame at her very being.

Along the way are simply fascinating discourses on such topics as existential authenticity (in which the only ultimate authentic act is suicide), on criminality and sickness, on the horrors of "common" people and society in general, and on the school as an annihilation of the child and the notion of learning.

But, the central theme of the book is the title concept: CORRECTION. Roithamer has keep immense journals and worked a great deal on them since his sister's death. Reality is an ever shifting notion. changing by the day, by the experience. One of the sentences on 60 pages into the book struck me and stuck with me as the central them. Roithamer wrote about the road he walked from Altensam down into the village below, and then of writing about the trip back. The narrator says: "A description of the road from Altensam to us in Stocket and a description of the road from Stocket to Altensam, naturally two entirely different descriptions…" That really drew me up short. Until then the structure had been constant repetition, the same sentence again with just a changed adjective, an added detail, then the sentence repeated. One could see the reality changing, but with the phrase above, I came to realize Roithamer (and the narrator's) position was that reality was constantly shifting, it was simply what was experienced in the moment.

And Roithamer keeps correcting his notes, and in correcting them he utterly denies them, destroys them, recreates new ones, destroys those. Correction for Roithamer (for Bernhard?) is denial of what was said before, not our everyday sense of correction as modification.

I had told some friends about my reading Correction early on and one of them purchased a copy, but a later copy than my own. He wrote me that his jacket cover claimed the book was, at least in part, a spoof on the later Wittgenstein's shift away from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations. When I read this I was only some 70 pages into the book. Since I know a fair amount about both the early and later Wittgensteins I watched for this theme with care, in fact it unfortunately obsessed my reading from that point on looking for this theme.

I have a very hard time seeing it! Oh the correction theme fits. Certainly the later Wittgenstein not only denied all of the early Wittgenstein, but even made conscious fun or and separation from the later Wittgenstein, referring to the author of the Tractatus rather than to himself. But I just couldn't see the theme working. Too much Freud got in the way; too much existential philosophy. Perhaps I will find critics later on who have developed this theme and can make some compelling case to me that I need to reread the book in a different light.

As it is I can't wait to return to another of my 1/2 dozen or more Bernhard books sitting on my shelf; I'm just not sure when that will happen. The sooner the better.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett