On the jacket of his new novel, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is likened to Kafka and Beckett, while reviewers are quoted as linking him with Broch, Strindberg, and Musil. Whether these constitute sure-fire recommendations is a matter of opinion. Are we certain we need another Kafka? Or that we want another Beckett or Strindberg (or even Broch)? We could never hope for (what is he doing here?) a second Musil. In the event it is Beckett, though a more loquacious Beckett than we have met of late, whom Bernhard comes nearest to.
Not that the reader should worry too much about this cloud of elevated comparison: all he will need is an overflowing and impregnable stock of compassion, or else a very odd and insatiable sense of humor. Or, one had better add (though this supposes a rather less than common reader), a taste for sheer technical skill, in this case evinced in brio, a vivacious passivity, or a kind of confident dash that doesn’t actually go anywhere but wriggles a lot.
Rudolf, the narrator of Concrete, has for ten years been planning “a major work of impeccable scholarship” on the composer Mendelssohn. He is, by his own account, gravely ill, but resolved to begin writing at last. “We must be alone and free from all human contact if we wish to embark upon an intellectual task!” He cannot start until his sister, a domineering and destructive force, has left him to return to Vienna. She is “anti-intellectual” and has already put a stop to projects of his on Jenufa, on Moses and Aaron, on Rubinstein, and on “Les Six.” “People exist for the sole purpose of tracking down the intellect and annihilating it.” (Mind you, Rudolf believed he needed to have his sister with him; he did ask her to come.) Why, his sister married her husband only in order to drive him away to Peru—and (which appears to be worse) when she travels by sleeper she takes her own sheets, on principle.
Now she has gone, but Rudolf still cannot write that opening sentence. “We need someone for our work, and we also need no one”: unhappily, at any given time we never know which. He couldn’t eat breakfast when his sister was present, and now he can’t stand eating breakfast alone. His large house, out in the countryside, is like a morgue. He can’t sit at his desk, he hasn’t the strength, the postman will knock at the door, a neighbor will come by; perhaps he has overdone his research into Mendelssohn, publishing anything anyway is “folly and evidence of a certain defect of character,” though he intends to publish his work notwithstanding, it will be his most successful or his least unsuccessful; but before he publishes it he has to write it.
This state of animated paralysis, sustained through 153 chapterless and unparagraphed pages of print as though to oblige the reader to swallow it all down at one …