I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of him until I read Dale Peck’s NYT book review of two recently published works. Peck says he’s the greatest author of the post-WWII era, which is certainly saying something. But what captured my attention in the review is Peck’s way of locating Bernhard within one of two great traditions in western literature.
The first, what we might call the canonical or public or, more generously, the democratic tradition, finds its roots in ancient Greece, and traces a fairly straightforward line through Rome and the Renaissance and the European colonization of the Americas and other parts of the world. This is a literature that measures itself in successive aesthetic innovations, in language that, however manipulated, finds its idiom in the vernacular rather than the orthodox, and in an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors, from early ecumenical existentialism (the acts of the gods and their consequences for kings and heroes) to the domestic dramas of Tolstoy and García Márquez and Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. In other words, it encompasses about 99 percent of all books.
In contrast to this is a tradition that begins more or less with the novel itself, …, and wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky’s underground man, Knut Hamsun’s self-starving doppelgänger in “Hunger.” In lieu of offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one’s peers and one’s place in history.
If the democratic tradition continually updates the individual’s relationship to society, enabling the peaceful coexistence of private psyches with public consciousness, the alienating tradition reminds us that such constructs and relationships are necessary conveniences, and that no amount of clothing or culture can enable us to escape man’s nature — and man’s fate — as just another animal subject to the gross processes of lust and hunger, micturition and egestion, the permanent nothing of death. If the first tradition is ego and superego, the second is pure id; or, to borrow another Freudian metaphor, if the first is civilization, the second is its discontents. Freud taught us that the consequence of ignoring our “cultural uneasiness” is, on the individual level, neurosis, and, on the social, world war. Freud’s world war was the first, but Bernhard’s was the second, which is to say, Freud was writing to explain what had happened in the hopes of forestalling another such conflagration, whereas Bernhard, having seen the unthinkable happen again, could only lament.
OK, so now there are some more damn books to read.