Sunday, May 18, 2014

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984)

"And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late."

My latest read from Harold Bloom's western canon list is the Austrian novel Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984). Our unnamed narrator has recently returned to Vienna after nearly 30 years of living as an expatriate in London. After learning that a former friend, Joana, has killed herself, he goes walking on a familiar street from his youth and runs into the Auersbergers, a couple that he was uncomforably close with in the 1950s and who he now vehemently hates. Yet, when they tell him about Joana's death he pretends he hadn't heard, and when they invite him to an artistic dinner at their house, he accepts, even though it's the last thing he wants to do.  And then, to his professed surprise, he actually shows up.

Our story starts there at the artistic dinner while the narrator and the other dinner guests wait interminably for the guest of honor, an actor from the Burgtheater, to arrive. The narrator's thoughts bounce back and forth between his current horrible predicament, the scene at Joana's funeral earlier that day, and his memories of his days as a young artist in Vienna and his history with the Auersbergers, Joana, and the rest of them.

The book is often funny, always acerbic, and occasionally, when the narrator gives us some unexpected awareness of his own flaws and faults, a little sad. The book is written in one continuous paragraph which gives the already racing and circular thoughts of the author a manic quality (and, incidentally, makes the book really hard to put down since there isn't anywhere to stop). After a session with this book I found myself sometimes exhausted and sometimes exhilarated, but never bored. Highly recommended. Especially if you enjoy poking fun at the Burgtheater and/or love mentioning wing chairs.

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