Thomas Bernhard – Extinction

Thomas Bernhard had a tough start in life. The unwanted first child of a single mother, he was initially brought up by his grandparents. He was eight years old when the Second World War broke out, and his mother who had married by this time, moved him to live in Germany. Later, as a teenager suffering from tuberculosis, he spent several years in a sanatorium. This is all recorded in his memoir, Gathering Evidence. But what is also recorded there is his fiendish determination and his resolute anger and determination to name all the shortcomings of people in his life. Starting with his mother, he works up to the Catholic Church, the political system of Austria, the health system, education, the whole people, rich and poor; all found wanting.

From his unpromising beginnings Thomas Bernhard went on to train  at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, but his compromised lungs made a career as a singer impossible. He worked as a journalist and then became a playwright and novelist. In his lifetime he wrote twenty plays and eleven novels. He died at the age of fifty-one, leaving a clause in his will that prohibited any his plays being performed in Austria.

Extinction is his final work, written in the last few years of his life. Although written in the voice of Franz-Josef Murau, unlike Bernhard a wealthy and aristocratic young man, it is clear he is Bernhard’s alter ego. The whole book is a diatribe against Austria, Germany, Central Europe, the Catholic Church, Socialism, National Socialism. For the narrator, who has an ailing heart and has been told he will not live long, it is pay-back time.

But a little about him. He is the son of fabulously wealthy landowners in a place called Wolfsegg. They own farms and woods and a huge estate which has five libraries. The only problem is that Franz-Josef is the second son, and according to him, his parents adore his older brother, Johannes and loathe him. Johannes is the perfect boy who conforms to his parents’ standards of behaviour and shares their interests. Franz-Josef, influenced by his unconventional Uncle Georg, incurs their wrath at every turn. He despises his brother, and even more his younger sisters, for being ludicrously under their parent’s thrall. He lives in Rome, visiting Wolsegg as infrequently as possible, but on the first page of his tale, he has news that means all this is about to change.

…at about two o’clock in the afternoon I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother Johannes, had died. ‘Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Ceacelia, Amalia’. Holding the telegram I kept a clear head…

The book is divided into two sections. The first is The Telegram in which he gets the news and spends one-hundred and fifty-three pages mulling over how much he hates his parents, his sisters, his brother, Austria, the Catholic Church and so on. He ruminates on all the wrongs ever done to him; all the times his parents have shown preference to his brother, all the times he has been unjustly blamed for getting his clothes wet when it is his brother who has pushed him into the stream. His pettiness knows no bounds. Some of it is extremely funny as in these perorations against his sisters. At first, he says his sisters do nothing, and are quite idle, But then he goes on to complain

If they ever agreed to darn my socks, the stitching was so wide the socks were unwearable, and the colour of the darning wool seldom matched. They thought nothing of darning green socks with red wool and were profoundly hurt when, instead of thanking them, I threw their frightful handiwork in their faces.

He then launches into one of his ‘divagations’ as he calls them on how ridiculous they look in their dirndls, how ridiculous their hair looks in little buns, how in fact they are really dolls. Then he makes fun of their attempts at knitting

In winter they used to spend most of their time sitting on the sofa in their room, knitting sweaters…the ugliest sweaters I have ever seen…The garments were sloppily knitted with excessively large stitches, because my sisters were of course incapable of concentration….My brother and I had to try on the half-finished sweaters: they would force us into them, pulling and stretching them in all directions, and finally pronounce them a success, though it was obvious from the start their knitting was incredibly amateurish.

By this time, we have come to learn that Franz-Josef is something of an unreliable narrator. He is narcissistic, given to whipping himself into a frenzy and launching into his perorations to his student Gambetti, his voice growing so loud that people turn to stare at him. We begin to doubt him. Was his mother really having an affair with Spadolini the Archbishop? Were his sisters really completely idle, given that they have organised a funeral for three people, which involves all the staff of the estate, all the notables in Austria, three Archbishops, (as well as their old National Socialist friends) while he, Franz-Josef, looks down at the spectacle from his bedroom window?

He gives a glorious account of the funeral but I was a little doubtful of his assurance that he, as second son, would inevitably inherit the whole estate.

But, dear Reader, he does. I won’t tell you what he does with it, except to say he has his revenge on all of them.

Pure Thomas Bernhard. If you only want to read one book by him, choose this. It is impossible to do it justice in a short overview

But be aware that while it is only three hundred and twenty-six pages long, there are no paragraphs; that’s a lot of words.

15 thoughts on “Thomas Bernhard – Extinction

  1. Thanks Gert. I am left with one question — it sounds interesting. Given your ambitious schedule for this year’s books, I am curious about why it is on your reading list? Is it in the category of classics that we should be familiar with?

    1. Will this do?
      Bernhard had a well-deserved reputation as the country’s most provocative postwar writer: he spent his career alternately mocking and mourning Austria’s Nazi legacy….

      from an article by Ruth Franklin in the New Yorker 2006

      His plays are quite wonderful too.

    1. His Wikipedia bio makes his childhood and youth sound terrible, and adequately accounting for his distaste for the country, church, etc. I will try to find time to read a bit and be charmed by his style.

      Enjoy your workshop; I am doing parts of an excellent writers’ conference that is Zoomed this year; the two sessions I did today were interesting and worthwhile.

  2. This does sound very good indeed, but I fear the density of the text might defeat me! That said, I know I ought to try him at some point, especially given his standing in the literary world…

    1. I think his memoir Gathering Evidence is a good place to start. He tells a story about riding twenty miles on a bicycle as a stubborn young boy who has no clue what he is doing. He can be very funny.

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