Why are these summer books indebted to an Austrian author of nihilistic rants?

On the shelf

Hot Thomas Bernhard Sommer

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The name Thomas Bernhard appears in the covers and in the pre-reviews of three novels coming out this summer, and it’s no coincidence. “Within the Bernhardian Universe,” means a jacket; “Told of the love child by Thomas Bernhard and Lydia Davis,” says another. An early review of the third calls it a “straightforward approximation of the style of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard”.

It’s an odd selling point, only more so in our attention-deficit era. Bernhard was a monologue driven by energetic misanthropy, disgust and spite. Sentences go on for pages. The narrators of his novels usually describe the plight of a close friend who, after years of artistic work, has recently ended everything. Bernhard, disgusted by the hypocrisy of his homeland and its complicity in the Holocaust, died in 1989 at the age of 58; in his will he forbade the performance of his plays or the publication of his works in Austria.

Despite his “difficulty” in the text and in life, we find ourselves in Bernhard’s summer. Jordan Castro’s debut novelThe novelist“, which was published two weeks ago, Bernhard not only mentions it on the cover, but also refers to one of his books in the text. Mark Haber’s second novelThe abyss of Saint Sebastian‘, which came out last month, is the closest thing to a simple homage. Emily Hall’s debut “The Long Cut‘, also released in May, follows an artist who wonders ‘what my work was’ on a meandering walk to a gallery owner.

"The abyss of Saint Sebastian" by Markus Haber

Each of the three books could be described as a Bernardian tirade, or in some cases a diatribe, focusing on the creation and purpose of art. Marked by lengthy monologues, emphatic hatred and revulsion for modern life, they implicitly pay tribute to a writer whose influence seems only to grow with the decades.

Bernhard himself would have hated an examination of his impact on contemporary literature. Thanks to several Twitter accounts Posting Bernhard quotes daily reminds me that he wrote: “I hated literary theories more than anything else in my life, but most of all I hated so-called theories about the novel.”

Some of his closest modern followers share this aversion to the boring and condescending formulas taught in many graduate writing programs. “I came out of an MFA program and it felt a lot like ‘this is what you have to do,'” Hall told me of her home in Queens, New York.

So Hall looked for other ideas. “I was bored to death,” she recalls. “I was at the Three Lives bookstore in New York and picked up Bernhard’s ‘Concrete’ from a table. ‘Right,’ I thought, ‘the guy with no paragraph breaks.’ But as I read it, I recognized all the things I thought were my faults—the digressions, the self-contradiction—about Bernhard that was the writing. I was very excited.”

The Bernhard fad likely dates back to the early 2000s, when Viking reissued a number of his books and sparked interest among Anglophone readers – most notably his later novel The Loser. Although all 13 of his novels have now been published in English, there is still plenty of untranslated material among his countless plays, short stories, short stories and memoirs. In October, Seagull Press publishes “The rest is slander”, a collection of five previously untranslated stories.

"The novelist" by Jordan Castro

Years later, Hall is so enthusiastic about his work that she tries to learn German. “I wonder what gets lost in translation,” she said.

Her admiration drew her into a group of like-minded writers. Hall spoke about the influence of Jen Craig, who is often compared to Bernhard. Reached via video in Australia, Craig said following Bernhard means learning to break the rules.

“He gives you the plot on the first page,” Craig said. “Once that’s out of the way, you can write anything else, anything that can’t be described by plot.” Craig is the author of Since the Accident and “Panther and the Fire Museum.” Since the Accident is out of print and Panthers was published by a small publisher, Craig’s work shamefully goes under the radar. I spotted “Panthers” on the staff recommendation shelf at my local bookstore. The small piece of paper under the book read: “For fans of Thomas Bernhard”.

“At first I was a little unsure because there was a connection between me and this obscure, possibly misogynistic, excessive writer,” Craig said of the frequent comparisons to Bernard. “But now I don’t care. I’m happy. For me, Bernhard is all about realism. I don’t think many think of him as a realist, but after grad school, writing became so much about theme, plot, and content. That stuff is so wrong. The scolding… that’s reality for me.”

Because Bernhard’s style is so unique, I wondered if the association with him inspires fear for these writers.

“One of the things I’m interested in is dispelling the myth of spontaneous creation,” Castro said. “We learn by imitation, and we have this myth of the self-made artist. I always wear my influences on the proverbial shell…. At one point in my book, the narrator says that you learn guitar by playing other people’s songs.”

"The Long Cut" by Emily Hall

Castro’s book is about a novelist who sits down to write and does anything but that. Finally veering into a tirade about an enemy, he writes: “I suddenly felt a heady surge of energy… I could write a novel just s— talking about Eric; I could write my own version of [Bernhard’s] ‘Lumberjack.'”

Castro’s novel is the only one of this summer’s Bernhardian books to explicitly mention the author, but all bear his stamp, though very different in subject and tone. Haber’s The Abyss of Saint Sebastian is told by a man on his way to visit his friend and colleague Schmidt on his deathbed; The two have built their careers obsessing over a single work by a fictional syphilitic painter, Count Hugo Beckenbauer.

“The style, the short-sighted sentences, I realized I could use it to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” Haber said at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, where he is operations manager. “His spirit is always present, but I don’t think I will ever come to the quality of his sentences. I like to think my books are sillier; I don’t think Bernhard would write a holy donkey.”

Many other writers have been compared to Bernhard or spoken of for his influence on their work, including Mauro Javier Cárdenas, Claudia Piñeiro, and the late Rafael Chirbes. But Bernhard’s influence, while far-reaching, is still a bit of a mystery. For fun, I entered Bernhard’s The Loser into the What Should I Read Next? generator website. The answer was more like Bernhard.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we haven’t picked up too much on the Bernhard boom yet. The prospect of his style being imitated too widely (and inevitably badly) is grotesque. “How far and how bad is that?” Halle asked. “Is Bernhard’s style becoming a staple of MFA?”

"Panther and the Fire Museum" by Jens Craig

This summer’s writers have learned from Bernhard’s ruthless approach to plot and what the novel can be, without losing their own voice; that’s a far better legacy than a flotilla of junkie copycats. “Influences are a set of permissions,” Craig said.

“I was relieved to realize that Bernhard always wrote about the same thing,” Hall said. “There’s always this idea that you have to do something different with each book, reinvent the wheel.” Craig said something analogous: Popular novels are more about now some: a historical period or character: “These days, to be a novelist, you have to become an expert rather than a writer.”

All four authors were thrilled to have the opportunity to talk not only about their work but Bernhard’s as well; Our conversations felt like the end of an Irish wake. Haber and I reveled in the numerous contradictions even in a single Bernhard sentence. His novel acknowledges this in the letter Schmidt sends to his friend, reading all nine pages of his “relatively terse email.”

Castro and I laughed at the episode of Schopenhauer’s dog in Concrete, a passage so funny we had to interrupt our partners’ bedtime to read it to them. “There’s such a joy there,” Castro said. “It’s not exactly pessimistic.”

That seems to be the key to understanding Bernhard: not his depression, but his joy. “He wrote, ‘Everything is ridiculous when you think about death,'” Hall said. “If you start there, everything is funny.” The warmth of destruction is not lost on Haber either. “In order to write, one must have a little hope, otherwise why would one write? There are dark ideas in Bernhard, but his writing is energetic and life-affirming place of deep affection.”

Above all, this distinctive crop of summer reads is Bernardian in its focus on the struggle to create art, which is an existential issue for the artist. “I thought I would choke on the error of believing that literature was my hope,” Bernhard writes in My Prizes: An Accounting. The gagging is productive. But at the heart of that statement is what makes his work, for all its nihilism, constantly electrify himself and his followers.

Ferris’ latest book is Silent Cities: New York.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-27/thomas-bernhard-the-novelist-saint-sebastians-abyss-the-longcut-panthers-museum-of-fire Why are these summer books indebted to an Austrian author of nihilistic rants?

Sarah Ridley

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