By Christopher Benfey
Among 20th-century purveyors of gloom--think of Beckett, say, or Philip Larkin ("Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth")--some of the most distinctively doom-ridden wrote in German, though not necessarily in Germany. The unnerving Austrian poet Georg Trakl, whom Wittgenstein so admired, dosed himself with narcotics to allay the horrors of the front in 1914. Kafka wove his nightmares in bureaucratic Prague. Canetti and Sebald, safe in England, remained haunted by the war-torn landscapes they had left behind. Of this saturnine company, Thomas Bernhard, who spent most of his life in Mozart's city of Salzburg, may have had the darkest imagination of all. Born in 1931 to an unwed mother and a father who refused to acknowledge him ("Everything connected with my father has always been guesswork," he wrote in his autobiography, "Gathering Evidence") and plagued by lung problems, Bernhard published poems, plays and novels before his death in 1989.
The poet Michael Hofmann, who has translated works by Kafka and Canetti, has produced a vigorous version of Bernhard's first novel, "Frost," published initially in 1963 and until now unavailable in English. Possibly the bleakest of all Bernhard's books, "Frost" is a sort of "Magic Mountain" without the magic, though it's occasionally leavened by a quirky gallows humor. The grisly opening sentence sets the tone: "A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs and sawing off feet; and it doesn't just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead and hauling babies out into the world either."
The unnamed narrator, a young medical student, has been sent by his superior, a surgeon, on a "mission to observe the painter Strauch," the surgeon's eccentric brother. Strauch has abandoned Vienna for the alpine village of Weng ("the most dismal place I have ever seen," the narrator reports) and has holed up in an inn of unimaginable squalor ("It was the shortcomings of it that delighted him"). "The walls are so thin," Strauch tells the narrator, "you can hear people's thoughts through them."
The narrator poses as a law student on vacation, whiling away the time by reading a novel--we never learn which novel--by Henry James. Strauch reads only Pascal: "I'm not interested in anything made up." A hideous landlady runs the inn while her husband serves a term in prison for killing a guest. She trades sex for dog meat with a man known only as "the knacker," then serves the meat to the drunken laborers in her public bar. None of these characters have names, and we have little idea what they look like. The inn, the village, the monstrous power plant taking shape in the ravaged landscape--all these remain vague as well.
With such a minimal plot and cursory descriptions, there's plenty of room for Strauch's musings, as reported by the impressed and increasingly unhinged narrator. Strauch has little to say about art. He hates the art world and hasn't painted in years; when he still did, he painted in darkness. "When he thought his picture was done, he drew back the curtains, so abruptly that the light blinded him and he couldn't see." Strauch closely resembles other master-thinkers in Bernhard's subsequent novels: the central character in the surprisingly humorous "Wittgenstein's Nephew" and the architect-philosopher, another Wittgenstein stand-in, in the more ponderous "Correction."
Some of Strauch's observations seem profound. ("People always say: the mountain reaches up into heaven. They never say: the mountain reaches down into hell.") Others are appealingly odd. ("The sky would get goose bumps if it knew something we didn't.") But too many sound simply like the ravings of a lunatic. ("Breakfast is 'way too ceremonial' for him, 'it feels absurd to pick up a spoon. Meaningless. A sugar cube is an assault against me. Bread. Milk. A catastrophe.' ")
Occasionally, though, these ravings achieve a kind of lyrical grandeur, as when Strauch riffs on a barking dog: "Listen ... how the barking organizes itself, how it makes space for itself, listen, it's the cracking of canine whips, it's canine hyperdexterity, canine hyperdespair, a hellish serfdom that is taking its revenge, taking its revenge on its grim devisers, on me, on you." The reader wonders for a moment if Strauch has been reading Allen Ginsberg. Two pages later, Strauch returns to his room "not to sleep, but to howl to myself in the silence of horror."
Like every Bernhard hero, Strauch despises postwar Austria. ("Our state is ludicrous ... the bordello of Europe.") He's also hardly an admirer of women. ("I could name you any number of outstanding men who were ruined by their wives.") Bernhard's misogyny has been traced to his alienation from his mother--he was raised by his grandparents--but this hardly excuses such rants. As winter closes in and the snow deepens, along with Strauch's paranoia, the painter remarks, "Frost and women are the death of men." "There is only one way to go," Strauch concludes, "through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason." And what about that tantalizingly unnamed novel of Henry James, which the narrator has "almost finished" by the end of "Frost"? James wrote many stories about the unequal relationship of master and acolyte, but I suspect the novel in question is "The Ambassadors," where, as in "Frost," one character's task is to go on a journey and bring back confidential tidings of a loved one in trouble. The narrative styles could hardly diverge more sharply: James the master of nuance and the telling descriptive detail; Bernhard the blunt and moralizing abstractionist. In both novels, the traveler is transformed, but Bernhard's narrator learns nothing so heartening as Strether's famous injunction to "live all you can; it's a mistake not to." Bernhard's gloomier message, indelibly expressed at the icy dawn of his career, is that life itself is the mistake.
Christopher Benfey, the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of Degas in New Orleans and The Great Wave.