Extinction by Thomas Bernhard – a quick review

Yesterday I finished reading Extinction by Thomas Bernhard. The novel took about two weeks for me to read and during that time I have taken the train to Armadale, walked about 100km on the Bibbulmun track and traveled around north east Bali. My copy now has dried chocolate on the cover, some black residue on the outside from my girlfriends purse, a few dog ears and various notes in different coloured pen throughout. The Vintage edition has a pretty poxy cover but the contents inside make up for that.

I wasn’t looking for any technique or angle in particular as I read. Extinction is a novel I was able to sit back and enjoy and let the author take me on a ride through the main characters psyche. The novel is one long monologue inside the ideas and thoughts of Franz-Josef Murau after he receives a telegram that his parents and brother have died in a car accident. It feels more appropriate to say the novel is separated into two paragraphs than two chapters. The first chapter is one paragraph and the second chapter is one paragraph. There are no breaks. At first this seems a little daunting but after fifty or so pages you get used to it and by the end you start to wonder why all books are not written like that. Actually, Extinction is the kind of book that is unique. Without the paragraph breaks you can see how this would force the writer to examine closely how enmeshed each of their ideas are – how interlinked each event and scene is and if they are not seamless, more words need to fill out the gaps until the bridge is crossed.

With the long paragraphs and deep psychological examination of the characters you can draw comparisons to Austerlitz by Sebald. In an interview Sebald acknowledges Bernhard as an influence. [At the 14:50 section of this interview] The influence on Austerlitz from Extinction becomes clear once you start reading both. Sebald calls Bernhard’s unique form of narration ‘periscopic’, where we receive the story through the voice of one character inside of another of another. The sentences in Austerlitz are much longer than those found in Extinction. I’m not sure which novel influenced Bernhard to write Extinction, but finding out will be a great pleasure for me.

Sebald is much more tender with his characters, but both authors are uncompromising in their pursuit of challenging the power structures of our society that lead us away from being kind to one another. You could argue that Extinction deals with the aftermath of WW2 more directly than Austerlitz, but I would prefer to say that WW2 is more of an open wound to the character Franz-Josef Murau, than Austerlitz. Bernhard is more about subterfuge from within, whereas Sebald is more about personal understanding around the periphery.

I remember reading a few years ago in one of the many how to write fiction books, that your characters should have attitude. Murau, the main character of Extinction, has a lot of attitude. By attitude I mean the character has convictions and is not afraid of sharing them. This attitude will put a lot of people off Extinction. But this is what I liked. We are told that having strong convictions can be isolating, because you can be shown to be a hypocrite, or you never know what lead these other people to behave the way they do. Just because you don’t necessarily agree with someones convictions at least they have convictions, and it is this premise that appears to underline Bernhard’s work.

You could say Extinction is an exercise in ridiculousness. It is ridiculousness that verges on the hilarious. I’m not sure I would keep reading if the voice of the novel continued on ranting and ranting without dipping into the ridiculous from time to time, to remind us that he’s taking us to the extremities of his consciousness – as far as that can conveyed through words on a page. The rant, or stream of consciousness, unravels in a cascading swirl where the topic of discussion is repeated or referred back to until the subject is covered sufficiently. You’d think the repetition would be annoying, but because it works on a microlevel it reads more like a poem. Where subjects are recovered on a macro level they are enlivened with a new context so that you’re seeing them in a new light. I’ll try to quote a section that covers the elements I’ve just identified – periscopic narration, attitude, ridiculousness, swirl, repetition:

“My parents had told me that the village was a dangerous place, but I discovered that it was not in the least bit dangerous. I thought nothing of going in and out of all the doors and looking through all the windows. My curiosity knew no bounds. My brother never accompanied me on my expeditions. He’s been down to the village again, he would say, and look on shamelessly, not batting an eyelid, as I was punished for my offense. My mother would beat me with a rawhide that she always kept in readiness, and my father would box my ears. I had many whippings, but I cannot remember my brother being whipped or having his ears boxed. I was interested in anything that was different, but my brother was not, I thought, examining the photo of him in his sailboat on the Wolfgangsee. I once told Gambetti that my brother was always an affection seeker, but I never was. I tried to explain what I meant by the term. At mealtimes my brother was always silent and never dared ask a question. I constantly asked questions and was reprimanded by my parents for asking the most impossible questions. I wanted to know everything – no question must remain unanswered. My brother was a slow eater; I always ate hastily, still do. I always walked fast, wanting to reach my destination as soon as possible; my brother had a slow, one might almost say deliberate, gait. As for my handwriting, it was fast and careless and, as I have said, almost illegible, whereas he always wrote in careful, regular hand. When we went to confession he always spent a long time in the confessional, whereas I was in and out in no time. It did not take me long to list the many sins I felt obliged to confess, while he took at least twice as long over the few he had committed.” p44.

Some eighty pages later Bernhard returns to the rivalry between Franz-Josef and his now deceased brother Johannes. This time Franz-Josef is looking at some pictures of his family as he tells Gambetti:

“My brother, unlike me, was a calm person: at Wolfsegg I had always been the restless spirit, but he was the soul of calm. My parents always referred to him as the contented one and to me as the malcontent. If we got in trouble, it was always my fault, never his. They believed his explanations, not mine. If, for example, I lost money that had been entrusted to me for some reason, they refused to believe I had lost it, despite all my asseverations. They preferred to believe that I had pocketed it and only pretended to have lost it, but if my brother said he had lost some money they believed him. If he told them that he had lost his way in the wood, they instantly believed him, but if I told the same story they refused to believe me. I always had to justify myself at great length and in great detail. On one occasion my brother pushed me into the pond at the Children’s Villa. Whether intentionally or not, he pushed me in while passing me at the edge of the pond, where the wall is not wide enough for two people to pass. I had the greatest difficulty keeping my head above water and not going under. I actually thought I was going to drown, and I also thought that my brother might have pushed me in on purpose, not inadvertently out of clumsiness. This thought tormented me as I struggled for dear life in the pond. My brother could not help me without risking his own life. He naturally made many attempts, but failed.” p127

Maybe you have to read the entire book but I found this passage quite funny. I think it’s the language that gives away that the writer is having a laugh. What I like is that the novel isn’t packaged into sections. Bernhard focuses on making each individual scene as vivid as possible and lets one scene flow into the next without regard to how it fits within the overall scheme of the book. You could argue that the pond drowning passage could flow on from the earlier passage on page forty four. But Bernhard is able to reference back to the contrast between him and his brother with just a sentence or two, a topic that had been canvassed over a number of pages beforehand, and then continue on with an event that had come to his mind. This is how our minds work when we stare out the window in a reflective mood. At first we’re going over old ground but then something may come to us that we hadn’t thought of earlier.

As a writer do we then package the same subjects together or write about them as they occur to us? Bernhard could have separated the the book into smaller sections titled Johannes, Mother, Father, Sisters, The Wine Cork Manufacturer and so on, but this would detract from the swirling nature of the prose. The way the characters interlink is masterful. Without giving too much away, the juxtaposition between the values and apparent principles of the characters all coming together for the funeral elucidates such a realistic feeling inside of me that I understood exactly where Franz-Josef was coming from, why he acts the way he does and why he has such an attitude. Imagine having to greet Nazi SS officers at your fathers funeral because they were ‘friends’.


What I’ve been reading




This fortnight I have focused on two texts – Austerlitz by Sebald and On Creaturely Life by Eric Santer. A pdf of the latter is available online.

It was my first time reading Austerlitz and I had the usual experience of all Sebald texts of drifting from pure fascination to having read a few pages and not comprehending a single word of what my eyes had passed over – only to note that they were fine words and then to retrace where I had last understood what was going on and start again. I’m not sure Austerlitz will have as great an impact on me as Rings of Saturn – but only time will tell. I don’t really have any worthwhile conclusions about Austerlitz without reading it again, and I’m sure other people have already made such points and you’ve read a lot about it already.

One thing I was looking for as I read – a point made by Sebald in an interview – is that he is constantly reminding the reader that the author, and the characters – had given their preoccupations considerable thought. This is kind of reflexive, as they wouldn’t be preoccupations unless they demanded ones attention, but I suppose the interesting thing to note is the way Sebald handles this in the text – and how these become clues to the greater questions asked in the book. Here are a few examples:

“From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” p14

“Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrating over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.” p31

“Though I really gave up my architectural studies long ago, he said, I sometimes relapse into my old habits, even if I don’t make notes and sketches any more, but simply marvel at the strange edifices we construct.” p57

“He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in the chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgement awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss.” p64

These prompts, I think, are an interesting technique in giving the story and the characters sub-text. An issue that occupies someones thoughts doesn’t just explain events of their past but reveals, in a clever way, why they are where they are and what might motivate them into the future. This also echoes one of Stanley Kubrick’s axiom: concept as subtext.

On Creaturely Life: I thought this book might be a good segue between thinking about walking tracks and nature and the notion of Natural History in Sebald’s work. Maybe I’m stupid but the book lacks a coherent overall thread. For example, in the final chapter Santer begins discussing the references to animals in Sebald’s work – but it only lasts a few pages before switching to discussing humour and then Sebald’s use of photography. Maybe I’ll have to read the book again to gain an overall perspective but at the moment I’m seeing it all piecemeal. The piecemeal take away ideas I have identified follow.

One of the things I do when I go ‘out bush’ is think about animals and what their thinking capacity is. Seeing wild animals is what makes the wilderness wilderness, I suppose. Landscapes and their vegetation are managed, and wildlife populations are managed too, but the nature of animals and how we relate to them remains separate. Santer doesn’t discuss this in relation to wild places but some of the conversation is still relevant:

“For the animal, beings are open, but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity – that is, in some way, in a non-relation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animals poverty in the world from the man forming which characterises man.” p9 from Agamben.

Santer wants to use the contrast between the way animals think and the way man thinks to develop a picture of natural history and how that plays out in various literature. To be in a natural state is to be bored. This is certainly true when you’ve been sitting in a camp somewhere for more than six hours. Boredom, Santer states, is to be in a state that obstinately refuses itself. This may explain why bushwalking is simultaneously exhilarating and utterly boring. The thrill of starting a long walk is quickly tempered by the mundanity of the act.

Somewhere in the relationship between man and animal is the notion of the creaturely, the space between real and symbolic death. Natural history tries to make sense of these forces:

“Natural history is born out of the dual possibilities that life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms that give it meaning and that symbolic forms can persist beyond the death of the form of life that gave that human vitality.”

In the context of Natural history the universe doesn’t end when you die. The modes of understanding that make us human also exist and persist outside of us and continue on in a collective sense. The idea that “life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms” leads to a fascination with violence and war and the decay of human orders in order to give structure to the narration of natural history. All of this leads to allegory which is a signifier of temporality. In allegory, Santer argues, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history. (p18) The most extreme example as represented in the skull. A ruin, for example, is irresistible decay. Therefore, in allegory, as a expression of temporality, mans subjection to nature is most obvious.

When we look at the works of Sebald and some of the take away messages of Natural History – simply being there – the thereness – and grasping the changing face of history; the impact of the observation of death and decay, is experienced as trauma. For the characters is Sebalds work, observation is not a beholding, but recollecting traces of past lives and lost possibilities. They become a medium and photographic apparatus for communion with the dead. (p.53) Hence why we get the feeling history has a strangle-hold on these people to find out what they can.
Finally, past suffering has been absorbed into the substance of lived space, into the setting of human history. Basically, natural history is all around us, a kind of morphic resonance that lies beyond the books, but is present if you know how to read the landscape and people.

All this seems a bit dark and dreary, especially when thinking about wilderness walks and their apparent healing processes, but each track will have a story to tell, and having a sense of the natural history of a track will make the story I will try to tell more informative. Pilgrimages are predicated on the movement of people and automatically trigger within us the notion of the past and salvation. Songlines bring to us the past and carry with them the stories of the past. The Bibbulmun track, for example, has aboriginal, colonial, forestry, mining histories embedded in the landscapes that it passes through. Apparently the Wilson Inlet in Walpole is the oldest inlet in the world. The track itself has its own history and the way it developed and changes.

Bill Bryson spends a bit of time discussing the history of the Appalachian trail before the character in A Walk in the Woods sets foot on the trail. I’ll be reading that book over the next week or two to see how popular walking stories work.