Easy enough to lump Bernhard’s masterpiece into an arcane corner of Teutonic philosophical fiction, that palatial dungeon of intelligence where ferocious, rip-roaring minds mysteriously tear off scabs to make bleeding into saying. But no one wound, let alone a genre, so commandingly ignites the literary infinitive. Suddenly, “to be or not to be” is a real and raging question confronted by an intellectual genius, Bernhard (1931-1989), whose sadness is matched only by his lust for life.
Framework first. An unnamed narrator sulks into a garret room in the Austrian countryside where his best friend Roithhamer, who recently hanged himself, lived, worked and for to develop and build an elaborate coned-shape forest dwelling for his beloved sister, who has also died. The garret, “the meditation chamber,” is located in the home of a mutual childhood friend who left Cambridge mathematician and geneticist Roithamer, a self-described “contrary, refractory, quarrelsome character,” to his own increasingly obsessive devices. The narrator opens by bemoaning the shocking loss of his friend, to then shift into a fearsome accounting of Roithamer’s life and mercurial times, finally borrowing wholesale from his final work, an screed-style recitation so corrected it exists through negation. “Roithhamer,” says the narrator, “was the kind of man who had to create a reality, always a reality, out of what he had first only imagined, to make it a fact…”
The claustrophobic framework, filtered through Bernhard’s rhythmic and repetitive prose, acts as a magnifying glass that burns a beam on lives of men, and mankind; on mothers and fathers; on politics and society; on the meaning of meaning, or its absence (“…uncertainty has become a chronic condition…”)
Austrian Bernhard was devotee of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the story borrows liberally from the details of the philosopher’s life: He had a beloved sister, built a home for her, worked in Cambridge, loathed modernity, and sifted monastically through the glory that is hopelessness of overly intelligent life. Self-realization and perfection, once achieved, have no choice but self-destruction, since the world cannot comfort their eccentricity. “Everyone has an idea that kills him in the end,” says Roithamer. Not a sanguine analysis, but the hope is in the telling, which Bernhard makes into melody unlike anything in either philosophy or literature, a inimitable amalgam for the ages.