Stroke of genius

Yesterday I finished The Loser – a story of devastating consequences of meeting with perfection by an Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. I must say it was one of the most impressive books I’ve read recently. Bernhard has a very peculiar style of writing that some readers find very much disturbing. For one thing the whole 180 page book is written as a single paragraph. But this is not all – translator’s note at the beginning of the book warns readers as follows:

Bernhard’s sentences are very long, even for a German reader accustomed to extended, complex sentence constructions. Further, the logical transitions between clauses (“but,”, “although”, “whereas”) are often missing or contradictory, and the verb tenses are rarely in agreement. Bernhard’s frequent and unpredictable underlining also defies conventional usage. Sometimes he italicizes the title of Bach’s compositions, sometimes he treats them like a common noun. On the other hand, he often gives the names of restaurants, towns, pianos, and people an emphasis that conventional German or English ortography exclude.

This all has a very peculiar effect and in a suprising way it all makes perfect sense. It is almost as if Bernhard deliberately writes badly – in that sense The Loser reminded me of a movie by Aki Kaurismäki titled Mies vailla menneisyyttä where the actors perform as if they were in front of the camera for the first time in their life. The effect of it, however, is that characters appear somehow very vulnerable and surprisingly… real – with their insecurities, anxiousness and distinctive lack of witty punchlines. And same goes for Bernhard’s Loser – it has a level of intensity and intimacy quite unlike anything else that I’ve read.

Bernhard has been compared, among others by George Steiner, to Kafka, Canetti and Musil as one of the most unique voices in 20th century German-language literature – or in European literature in general, for that matter. Bernhard had a very complicated relationship with Austria – being referred to as Nestbeschmutzer during his lifetime because of his less than flattering descriptions and critical views of his home country. However, this all was trumped by Bernhard’s very last text – his will – in which he prohibited the publication, performance or recital of any of his works within the borders of Austria for as long as the legal copyrights remain in force – a kind of a posthumous literary exile by one of the nation’s greatest writers.


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