How Thomas Bernhard Works

The Brooklyn Rail has a great essay by Douglas Glover about Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser (it is serialized from Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, published by Biblioasis.

The essay makes a fine rundown of the various rhetorical devices that makes Bernhard Bernhard. So if you ever wonder how he manages to attain those typically Bernhardian effects, look here. For instance:

This grid of receding narrators and repeating character traits and plot motifs supplies a matrix over which the author drapes his phantasmagoric riot of rhetorical substructures—repetition, antithesis, rant, digression, word play–all of which add drama, interest, and comedy to his text. It can’t be emphasized enough how exuberant, ludic and, yes, obsessive Bernhard’s style is.

One very common device, virtually a marker for Bernhardian prose, I call grammatical yoking. Grammatical yoking refers to grammatical structures meant to yoke two entities in a relationship of contrast or identity–e.g. just as, whereas, like/unlike, on the contrary, and some forms of subordination and psychological parallelism. In The Loser, there are multiple examples of each type mainly because much of the novel’s text is concerned with establishing similarities and differences between the main characters. Bernhard never leaves a character alone in a sentence, is always contrasting, differentiating, refining. These yoking devices are a tool for elaboration (form creating content)–they seem to come automatically, even compulsively, to the author’s pen–as well as a source of drama and conflict at the level of sentences.

[whereas] When it got cold, as Franz said, he would have his sister heat his room, whereas she wasn’t allowed to heat her room.

[unlike] Wertheimer always set about his life with false assumptions, I said to myself, unlike Glenn who always set about his existence with the right assumptions.

[in contrast] She herself had never had enough money and never enough time and hadn’t even been unhappy once, in contrast to those she called refined gentlemen, who always had enough money and enough time and constantly talked about their unhappiness.

[subordination by phrase] Wertheimer was the most passionate cemetery lover I have ever known, even more passionate than me, I thought.

[subordination by clause] Wertheimer hated Catholicism, which his sister, as I also know, had completely fallen prey to in the last years.

[parallelism] I never reproached myself for having money, I thought, Wertheimer constantly reproached himself for it,…

It’s important to recognize that Bernhard’s texts are dense with this kind of rhetorical elaboration, that it is possible to analyze much of the text as a string or assemblage of such devices, such that a limited amount of plot material is made to vibrate and echo from sentence to sentence and page to page. Here is a short list of some of the other more spectacular devices Bernhard deploys. I give a minimal set of examples for each—you have to imagine the riot.


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