A Review of “Extinction” by Thomas Bernhard

In Literature on 05/04/2012 at 11:06

“We must produce a substantial account, not to say a long account, of what we emerged from, what we are made of, and what has determined our being for as long as we have lived.”

The most irritating thing about the things that have been written about this novel is the pseudo-profound statements comparing its style to music. To say something about writing such as that it “resembles musical patterns of theme, variations and recapitulation”, is in fact to say nothing about writing. Only bourgeois academics and the reviewers of bourgeois publications, two parties Bernard continually targeted in his work, can get away with doing their job in this way. Of course comparing “Extinction” to the Goldberg Variations is probably more profound than saying something outright stupid about the book, like the Los Angeles Times reviewer who described it as “Fresh, disturbed and punchy.”

The best way to think about this book is not to think about music at all. When a reader forgets about facile comparisons based on almost embarrassing trite cliché then a real possibility for understanding opens up. And this help may be necessary if one comes to the book in earnest and earnestly find it challenging, rather than disingenuously basing ones appreciation of it on its reputation as a big book.

Extinction” is in the first place relentless. In the Moriarty translation the book is over three hundred and twenty five pages of nearly unbroken prose. The only division is into two parts consisting of “The Telegram” and “The Will.” Bernard has thus dispensed with one of the main conventions of modern prose writing, the paragraph. In standard written work the paragraph is simultaneously the ideational container and the thing contained. It allows the writer to make a recognizable step from one fully developed idea to the next. The paragraph was a great analytical breakthrough and is to the craft of writing what the ladder is to the craft of carpentry. So why has the paragraph been dispensed with? Bernhard is, after all, a great who doesn’t need cheap gimmicks to dress up mediocre work. To get see the rationale for the unorthodoxy of over three hundred paragraphless pages one has to reflect on the content of Bernhard’s ideas in the book. That is to understand the form in terms of the story’s content.

Bernard is a moralist and therefore an iconoclast. The earliest modern intellectual forebear of “Extinction” is “Gulliver’s Travels.” Mr. Gulliver lived among the Houyhnhnms and then returning to England to be utterly disgusted by the barbarism of his countrymen. Murau, the protagonist of “Extinction” undergoes a parallel experience, substituting Roman and Italians for horse people and his family in Austria, at their estate called ‘Wolfsegg’ for the Swift’s English philistines. Murau comes to find himself in Rome and regrets ever returning to Austria at all. He claims that even on returning to Rome from his homelands it takes him at least a week to begin even thinking clearly again. There is a considerable difference between the two works, however. Gulliver, unless he is read seriously, that is existentially or even politically, will seem like something of a loveably petulant figure. He emerges as a sweet curmudgeon and an eccentric who would rather be talking to horses than people. But of course, this wasn’t what Swift intended. Swift wanted to indict the human situation as harshly as possible. For him humans were every bit the Yahoos as presented in “Gulliver’s Travels.” But if Swift and Gulliver still come off looking like they are exaggerated, this is only because the novel was written at an earlier point in modernity. Then it was still possible to be naïve about the potential for social development, for reason to reform and humanize our relations. And although Murau would likely have been a Swiftean in any era, he is responding to a world that had failed, that had revealed its elemental hypocrisy in a way that Swift’s world hadn’t. Murau is writing in a Europe after Belson and Auschwitz and this makes all the difference.

Bernhard ought not to be understood as playing the holocaust card for the sake of lending an authority otherwise mediocre art work. Throughout his life he was appalled by the way the Nazis of Austria escaped punishment, along with the Catholic Church officials who were complicit in the National Socialist regime. In his fictionalized treatment of this subject, which he doesn’t beat the reader over the head with, Bernard gives Murau a special relationship to the National Socialists. Murau’s family is portrayed as party members who went so far as to hide war criminals on their estate after the war. All the while they opportunistically sided with the allies and the new order that took over in Austria after war. This is perhaps the most convincing and scathing indictment Bernhard as Murau makes of Austria. And we see in this indictment that his criticisms of society go beyond mere subjectivist or emotivist distaste for his society. The Austria Murau despises really is filled with criminals who were never brought to justice, as well as innocent victims who never received much compensation for what they suffered, let alone justice.

Civilization as understood in “Extinction” is hopelessly corrupted, or very close to it. (Although there are some suggestions there might still be hope.) Hence Bernhard has adopted a literary form for his prose that will reflect iconoclastic position: long sentences all knit together in an unrelenting barrage, without the traditional gasp of air that a paragraph break gives the reader. In place of such divisions, Bernhard uses a certain technique of style. This style is usually explained in terms of music – scholars know Bernhard was a musician so for some reason he is credited with wanting to make his writing look like music. This is a questionable suggestion. Instead Bernard’s style of choosing a theme and then going over it again and again serves a grammatical function that is usually handled by paragraphs. He may choose photographs, sleeplessness, or a relative and repeat a phrase about them adding to it, modifying it and sometimes even thinking better and contradicting it. It is in moving from such intensive treatments, which incidentally is a good take on trying to portray how the conscious streams operate, that Bernhard signals the divisions between ideas. Another version of switching between the developing of ideas is to change person. He will go from addressing the reading in from the first person to suddenly have Murau address himself as “you”.

The valid question to ask is why Bernhard plays this game at all. Why not just go all the way and dispense with punctuation, identifiable speakers and so on? Why not offer something along the lines of a novel by Gaddis? The answer to this is that Bernhard has a social purpose. Whatever his bleak view of humanity, he wants us to face the reality of our cruelty and hypocrisy. To go too far into stylistic abstraction would be to distract the reader from the very serious moralism of “Extinction”. Bernard wants to show through his prose style that his is condemning civilization, but his condemnation doesn’t get so shrill that it degenerates into incoherence. And thus we arrive at a contradiction that makes this book and the character Murau unique.

Extinction” is interesting because it rejects the path that society has gone down in the 20th century. It also has a great deal in common stylistically with avant-garde writing. But it doesn’t valorize avant-garde culture as a possible replacement for the status quo. Bernhard has Murau damn tradition but at the same time develop a fairly exclusive canon of taste. Books and writers are frequently mentioned throughout “Extinction” since Murau is man of letters. But the books that are mentioned are never contemporary ones. Nothing from post-war Europe, except for a poet who is a personal friend of himself, is ever brought up. The closest thing to contemporary literature Murau praises is Kafka. In a memorable passage he compares all writing to “three ring binder literature”, that is three ring binders like the kind use by book-keepers. Even Thomas Mann and Robert Musil are guilty of writing like this. For the most part Murau seems preoccupied with 19th century of earlier writers. It is an attitude that is usually associated with a conservative viewpoint. Except, Murau’s position is to interpret these writers as authentically revolutionary. Murau is thus a rare bird: a revolutionary with a very high aesthetic standard.

It doesn’t take a stretch of interpretation to see a strong pathological or obsessive component to this book.  Why am I reading this man’s rant? Someone might be justified in asked. It is the critic’s job to mediate between the artist and the audience. Look closer, the critic should say. See first of all that Murau turns his withering ray of suspicion and merciless analysis as much on himself as he does on the world around him. This is evidence of a basically strong character. Murau is a little crazy, but there is a substantial core of a character worth paying attention to, worth learning from. Someone out of megalomania or guilty of compensatory rants against everything, is never capable of honest self-criticism. Such a person’s sense of themselves is too weak to withstand it, let alone see any need for it. This is not so with Bernhard as Murau. If he demands ruthless honesty from society, he also demands it from himself. He is quick to point out not only the points were he behaves unfairly, but even where his thoughts are unworthy or base. It is an admirable attitude to have and a much needed corrective to our 21st century’s climate of self-serving relativism and skepticism.

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