Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard

Stop what you’re doing and read Michael Hofmann on Bernhard at the LRB. The book under discussion is Old Masters, which has an odd sort of story to it. We Americans can only buy the University of Chicago Press edition (published in 1992). If you look at the Kindle page for Old Masters, which is for the new edition, you’ll find that it’s not available to people living in the U.S.

Reason being, this book is part of Penguin UK’s recent Eastern European fiction series, which for some unfathomable and no doubt foolishly mercantile reason has not been published in the U.S. So I’m pleased that I had the presence of mind to pick it up from Shakespeare & Co. while in Paris.

And while I’m writing about Bernhard, Geoff Dyer has an interesting take on the Austrian in his essay “W.G. Sebald, Bombing, and Thomas Bernhard,” reprinted in the forthcoming anthology of all things Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Therein he makes the interesting claim that Bernhard’s biography, Gathering Evidence refutes the claim Sebald made in On the Natural History of Destruction, that there was a vacuum of post-war German-language writing about the firebombing of Germanic lands.

He also makes some non-trivial comparisons between Sebald’s and Bernhard’s styles and concerns, including at least one thing that I’ve noted myself:

It is possible that the similarities between the two appear more striking in the English translations than in the German originals, but it was, surely, from Bernhard that Sebald derived the inverse telescoping whereby the reliability of the narrative recedes and diminishes the more incessantly it is vouched for. “You concealed your shock very well, I said to the Englishman, Reger said to me,” writes Atzbacher, the narrator of Bernhard’s Old Masters. “I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz,” writes the narrator of Sebald’s Austerlitz.

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It may be hard to find outside Australia, but in ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, published in HEAT 07, Brian Castro makes a series of what he calls ‘outrageous claims’, including: ‘Stylistically, W G Sebald seems to me to be the literary son of Thomas Bernhard. As in all Oedipal relationships, Sebald tried to smother the influence in an attempt to cast his own work beyond the shadow of his precursor.’ This he achieves, Castro argues, through a kind of self-translation, (‘Sebald’, he writes, ‘”de-natures” English prose’) – a self-translation that developed from his way of working closely with his English translators.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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