Book Review: Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard

According to the Austrian dramatist Thomas Bernhard, his homeland was “a brutal and stupid nation…a mindless, cultureless sewer spreading penetrating stench all over Europe.”

Thomas Bernhard | Photo: Andrej Reisner/Suhrkamp

To the Point of Extinction

Both during his life and after his death, Thomas Bernhard excited controversy. When he was accepting a minor national award in 1968, he said by way of thanks, “It’s ridiculous, if one thinks of death.” He was also to insert a clause in his will that, if it had been respected  – which it wasn’t  – would have prevented his plays being performed in the country after his death.

Yet, even within Austria, the land that he so roundly condemned, he is considered to be one of the mightiest giants of 20th-century German-language literature. Nowhere do his dazzling attributes shine brighter than in Extinction, his last, and perhaps darkest novel.

In Extinction, (Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall) Bernhard brilliantly dissects reality and perception and plays with how our own selves differ from our existence in the minds of others.The narrator and central figure of the novel is Franz-Josef Murau, who has cut himself off from his Austrian landowning family and their home, Wolfsegg, and sought an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome.

At first, the misanthropic Murau presents his family, and, more generally, people and the world in a ghastly light. For the reader, lost in the gentle musicality of Bernhard’s spiralling sentences that fragment and repeat, whittling away at his obsessions, it takes a while to work out that these rants and conjectures are not dealing with objective fact, nor are they even the conclusions of considered arguments. They are instead mere whims of the moment:

“The truth is, Gambetti, that mothers shirk all responsibility for the children they bring into the world. What I’m saying is true of many mothers, indeed of most mothers. But I’m quite alone in saying it! We can think such thoughts, but we mustn’t express them… We must choke down such thoughts in a world that would react to them with revulsion…The world wouldn’t tolerate such views, because it’s accustomed to falsehood and hypocrisy.”

The narrator’s prose has such a persuasive and dreamlike power that we don’t realise this isn’t a position derived from logic, but is rather part of a fanatical superstructure of ideas that Murau develops to justify his own feelings of neglect by his mother. Similarly, Murau tells his student Gambetti (a long suffering pupil, on the receiving end of many diatribes, whose relevance to his studies must surely be questionable):

“Over time we’ve become accustomed to concealing everything, or at least everything we think, everything we venture to think, lest we be done to death, for we know that whoever fails to conceal his thoughts, his real thoughts, which only he is aware of – is done to death, I told Gambetti.  The vital thoughts are those we keep secret, I told Gambetti , not those we express or publish, which have very little common – usually nothing at all with those we conceal and are usually far inferior to them.”

The magnetic charm of expression flatters and beguiles the reader into an unquestioning acceptance. The sonorities echo each other, linking and clarifying elements within the narrator’s turbulent consciousness, misleading us into taking the idea more seriously than we ought, just as the Murau of Extinction, unable to get anything published and who sees his scripts torched by a poet friend in an almost ritualistic negation of his ability, finds solace in such a comforting notion: all the world’s at fault.

One of the axioms of Extinction is indeed that we see the narrator’s whims and perceptions as somehow objectified, for instance, his analysis of Austria as a beautiful land, spoilt by a moronic people, which does seem remarkably accurate as I write this on the banks of a splendid Wörthersee spoilt by the incessant thud of a rock festival. Yet, the modern world is itself full of similar perceptional traps, as Murau’s denunciation of photographs makes explicit. For him, photos contort a moment into an image, an idea, for eternity. Just think of our absurd perception of Albert Einstein thanks to a certain well-known photograph of a grinning lunatic with crazy hair.

As we progress to the second part of the novel, it becomes obvious that Murau’s appreciation of reality is subject to his moods, his desires and the moment. The narrator’s once categorical statements of contempt and loathing increasingly become more tentative, through his confrontation with his sisters and, more importantly, his and his family’s (Nazi) past.

He starts, firstly, to become aware that his thoughts aren’t accurate or fair:

“What good are the beautiful streets in these small towns, I asked myself, if they’re filled with such revolting people?… For ages I haven’t been able to feel any sympathy with them. I despise and detest them, yet at the same time I know I’m being monstrously unjust. But I can’t and won’t make friends with these people…”

And we begin to have the impression that the narrator is stuck – as, perhaps, to some extent we all are – in a tortuous world; trapped within his own criticisms, conscious of their falsity, but unwilling, and unable, to see them objectively.

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