Experience I - Leaning Against the Wind: Bernhard's Gathering Evidence

Reading Gathering Evidence, Thomas Bernhard's five volume autobiography, I remember a story fragment of Kafka: 'If only one were an Indian instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind ...' Leaning against the wind: this is the great gesture of all of Bernhard's oeuvre.

In A Child, the first book of the English language edition of Gathering Evidence, little Bernhard is cycling, and cycling as far and as fast as he can. His bicycle belonging to his guardian; he has painted it silver and cycles all around the countryside. The little cyclist resolves to visit his Aunt in Salzburg, 22 miles away. It is a long trip; he is only 8 years old. How can a child cycle this far? But he is intent upon joining the cycling elite, even though he is too small to reach the pedals while he is sitting on the saddle. Little Bernhard knows the trip is forbidden, but he thinks his audacity will be so admired that it will cancel his offence. One of his stockings is torn and covered in oil; he grows weary; the road seems to become longer. Then - his bicycle chain breaks; entangled in the spokes of the back wheel, he tumbles into a ditch. Now what's he to do? It's dark, there are 7 or 8 miles to go, and the spokes of the back wheel of his guardian's bike rub against the frame each time it turns. Rain. His bike is ruined and his clothes torn; he has become an offender.

Hope: he thinks of his grandfather, his ally and mentor. He remembers his grandfather, who has taught him how terrible the world is and what comfort can be taken from activity. One must always be busy, his grandfather tells him on those long walks on which he takes his grandson. Walking with him, Bernhard can forget the miseries of his life: the weakness of his guardian and the cruelty of his mother, the tyranny of his schoolmasters and the viciousness of his peers. His grandfather who will not die, the boy of A Child tells himself. Other people will die, but his grandfather will not. So it is to his grandfather he goes when his epic journey fails him - wheeling his guardian's broken bike to the welcoming house of one who had himself lived in the great cities beyond Traunstein. Yes, his grandfather will understood what it was to have set forth for Salzburg:

In Salzburg, he said, he had acquired a taste for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I didn't know such things existed, he said. My father couldn't even spell, he often said proudly. And I planned novels, enormous novels.

In An Indication of the Cause, the second volume (thought the first one published; A Child was written after the others), the 13 year old Bernhard reaches Salzburg to take up a scholarship in a boy's school. Nazi Salzburg is being bombed from the air; there is devastation and death everywhere. Misery sweeps over Bernhard. He tries to hang himself almost as soon as he arrives. When he is not practicing his violin in the shoe closet, which at least allows him to escape from the company of the other boys, he thinks only of suicide. No time in his life will surpass this in horror, he notes. Bernhard's prose is delirious with horror from the first. But there is humour, too. The prose laughs up from the page as from the mouth of one dead.

He would quite consciously break off his thoughts of suicide and concentrate on the increasingly fascinating possibilities of the fiddle, which in time became less a musical instrument than an instrument for switching on and switching off his suicidal meditations and suicidal inclinations.

Against his grandfather's wishes, the 15 year old Bernhard drops out of school and takes another perverse journey. His stubbornness leads him, as he recalls in The Cellar, the third volume, in the opposite direction, taking up a position as a grocer's apprentice in the Scherzhauserfeld housing project where he would contract tuberculosis. 'I was pitting myself against everything', he writes. Against the school and its teachers, against the city of his school and its teachers, against his relatives, loved and unloved, against the chaos of his own past and even against the dreams his grandfather harboured for his protégé. Yes, against everything and once again leaning against the wind.

Now I was living in the present, with all its smells and stringencies. I had made my decision, and this is what I had discovered. I was alive, after being dead for years.

It is as a patient at a sanatorium, a period remembered in A Breath, the fourth volume, that Bernhard publishes his first story. That was in 1950; an event unmentioned in his autobiography. Soon he will publish poems, then stories, then novels. In 1967, the breakthrough: at last Bernhard's leaning against the wind is now marked in his prose. Bernhard's prose looks out ahead of itself, knowing what will occur is the same, the same as what has happened before, nothing will change, but leaning out nevertheless, leaning against the wind as against the meanness and pettiness not only of Traunstein but all of Austria, which is still caught in a denial of the crimes perpetuated there against the Jews, against the workers of the housing project and against its artists. It leans, too, against the death sentence of tuberculosis Bernhard received, which he will grant many of his narrators who will also lean against the wind that blows from Austria, Europe and from his own past.

The grown-up Bernhard finds literary fame. Bernhard remembers how his grandfather will lie dying in the same hospital where his 18 year old grandson convalesces, lungs full of sputum. Bernhard is able to take a breath; he breathes and he begins to write (he takes another kind of breath). Bernhard will become famous, albeit as a Nestbeschmutzer, one who messes his own nest. His grandfather, also tubercular, dies in obscurity. We learn from Bernhard's biographer that his grandmother wrote to his grandfather, 'Schreib für die Ungeborenen', write for the unborn. Bernhard sought in his will to prevent the unborn of Austria reading him, banning the publication of his books and the performance of his plays.

In the Cold, the fifth volume, tells of how Bernhard's mother died in great pain of cancer of the womb. His mother is dying and Bernhard cannot go back to work as a grocer's assistant because of his illness. What is left to him? He had dreamt of a career as an opera singer, but his lungs are ruined. He finds his grandfather's death liberates him to write and he reads his poems to his dying mother.

Bernhard writes. Now there is for him, as for his grandfather, the consolation of action. He writes - he must write - and after his breakthrough, book after book flows from his pen. His grandfather laid claim to the tradition of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, but with Bernhard a great leap has occurred, a leap past philosophy, what is called culture and the whole of literature. A knowing leap, braced against the whole of the past. He is the last of his line; he knows this. There will be no other.


Reading, rereading Gathering Evidence, I imagine the mature Bernhard as an action painter, spilling great loops of paint on a horizontal canvas. Bernhard always has his eye, like Pollock, on the whole, on the 'all over' of the book; there is structural cohesion, it is true, but cohesion in a kind of collapse. Every detail belongs to this collapse; thus there are not - once again, like the painting of the action painter - distinct compositional foci; no part matters more than any other; there is no release, except in the death of the narrator, which allows the book to reach completion. There is only the whole, the all-at-once reaffirmed on the canvas of each of his books.

Never need the characters in his fiction learn anything. They know everything already; the secret of the world was clear to them long before the deaths which, characteristically for Bernhard, set their narrative efforts on their way. What remains is to make a book, comic or tragic by dipping one's pen in the well of disgust and delirious laughter. But there is tenderness, too, in Bernhard. Austria is exhausted as are the traditions which sustained it, but he allows his narrators to write lovingly of the workers and farmers who endure unchanged in those valleys where Bernhard will eventually set up his home. But if there is hope for them, there is none for the one the narrators of the novels. Extinction and Correction are written at the brink of death. There remains for their characters only the hope of a kind of reparation. Thus does Murau leave his newly acquired estate to the Jewish community of Vienna. Thus does he dream of writing a book with the same name as the one in which he is made to speak. Thus Roithamer's attempt to build the Cone for his sister.

The workers and the farmers will endure, so be it. And the Jews of Bernhard's Extinction will receive a pitiful gesture of reparation. Meanwhile, what action is possible for Bernhard is extinction, staged over and again. The extinction of his narrator, that allows a book to be finished. The extinction of Austria and of the lies of Austria. Then the extinction of literature, or rather the extinction which happens as Bernhardian literature, for literature does not die so easily. And what of his books, now Bernhard himself is extinguished? What reaches us in translation, far from Austria?

Little Bernhard cycles, leaning against the wind. The wind is the past, the weight of history. Writing does not stop that wind. It does not challenge it in the manner of the tragic hero. It barely even affirms its contingency, the fact that what happened could have done so otherwise. But it acknowledges it, writing against that tradition of writing and against the traditions of old Europe. It marks the past in the present, struggling with it for life, for the future. This is where reading meets it, in the future, ahead of the charnel houses of the past and the charnel houses of the present.

Lars Iyer 2005 

Leaning Against the Wind: Bernhard's Gathering Evidence is the first in a series of articles to come from Lars which we are gathering together under the title Experience. His second essay is The Ninth Country: Peter Handke's Repetition, his third is Absalom's Hair: Gabriel Josipovici's In a Hotel Garden and his fourth is Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life.
-- Lars Iyer (11/08/2005)

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