I’ve heard people tell me that Gathering Evidence may be Bernhard’s best. I’ve read seven of his books—which is only a fraction of what he produced—and it’s clearly the best so far. It’s a staggering, staggering work.
The first reason you must read this book is for Bernhard’s depiction of the caves he and his fellow Austrians stood in for hours as makeshift air raid shelters during World War II. If anything is a plausible root of Bernhard’s lifelong sense of paranoia and panic, being forced to stand in these cramped, pitch-black quarters for hours as a child as people fainted and the threat of being buried alive loomed, this would be it. This is frightening, frightening shit. In fact, his whole evocation of wartime life in Austria is amazing and must be read as something to help comprehend how the world could have come to such a juncture, and just how horrible that war was.
But that is just one small part of what is a monumental autobiography of Thomas Bernhard. It is written in five parts, each part roughly 80 pages long, and the sense of structure and voice that Bernhard conjures in this book could well make for a lifetime’s worth of apprenticeship. Bernhard is telling his adolescence and young adulthood, but he is doing so by fixating on just a handful of central incidents, and I mean “central” in a very uncentral way. At times it is difficult to grasp just why Bernhard fixates on the things he does, but of course this is true to how we remember our lives and how we construct ourselves from the things that happen to us. Bernhard is “gathering evidence,” after all, and I’m sure he wonders just as much as we do.
Some of the best parts of this book are in Bernhard’s evocations of the medical procedures he was made to go through for his bad lungs (I had to stop reading at many points in order not to faint), as well as being left to die in a ward that was mostly full of tubercular cases on their deathbeds. There are also strange philosophical asides where Bernhard begins to espouse something like a personal philosophy, or an ethics, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if he means us to take these as the things he believed in his youth, or statements of the mature man who writes the book. It is an important difference, one that I think he purposefully obscures, but regardless they are profound, provocative, and utterly Bernhard.
And then of course there is the voice of this book, which could very well carry me along if Bernhard had chosen to spend 400 pages narrating the drying of paint on a wall. Who else is so expert at constructing a a plot out of the way his narrator sounds? What other voice of the last 100 years sounds so true? And perhaps never truer than in this book.