Correction by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
Supreme happiness comes only in death.
Midway through reading this book I was struck down by a most vile stomach bug, one of such relentless eviscerating power that I was disoriented to the point where I, Sean, the reader, began thinking that Thomas Bernhard, the author, was trying to purge himself of his all-consuming contempt for Austrian society (easily extrapolated to Western society as a whole), whose anti-intellectualism he so passionately abhorred, and which he so graphically represented through metaphor by Altensam, his character Roithamer’s ancestral country home, and its inhabitants, particularly his mother, through me, Sean, his reader, a perhaps less-than-innocent though no more willing vessel than any other perfectly viable candidate for such purging by proxy.
At some vague point following this vicious purging I recovered, finished reading the book, and wrote the following review.
Correction is a novel that can be read on a few different levels if one learns a bit about Bernhard and his preoccupations. Some saw it as a study of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous Austrian philosopher whom Bernhard admired, and there are more than a few parallels between Roithamer and Wittgenstein to support this view. The book can also be seen, at least partially, as an attack on Austrian society and what Bernhard perceived as its anti-intellectualism, as noted above, which was a favorite target of Bernhard’s throughout his literary career. On a more basic level, the book can be read as a deep meditation on madness and suicide.
Bernhard does not use paragraph breaks, and so the novel consists of two continuous blocks of text: “Hoeller’s Garret” and “Sifting and Sorting.” At first glance, this can be off-putting; however, Bernhard’s prose is in fact mesmerizing with its musical repetitions cut deftly with a profusion of commas (how many commas in the original German, I wonder?). With the repetition comes a gradual layering in of new information so that the reader never has time to tire of repeated phrases. It is sing-song writing, like a chant, a style and technique likely tied to Bernhard’s initial grounding in musical education.
The novel opens with the arrival of Roithamer’s close friend at the house of another mutual friend, Hoeller. Roithamer has recently committed suicide and, following a prolonged illness, his unnamed friend has left the hospital to put Roithamer’s literary papers in order. Roithamer had been using Hoeller’s attic to draw up plans for a structure, known as the Cone, that he intended to present to his sister for her to live in. The narration begins with that of the unnamed friend, but over time begins shifting to Roithamer himself, as the friend “sifts and sorts” through Roithamer’s papers.
Bernhard was obsessed with greatness and the struggle of great scientists and artists in the face of adversity, namely society’s apathy, stupidity, and jealousy culminating in a desire to oppress greatness in all its forms. Particularly amusing in the novel is Roithamer’s frequent rants against architects and professional builders who mock him for what they see as his absurd (read: genius) plan to build a cone-shaped dwelling in the geographical center of a forest.
Always wanting the impossible and left with the possible in his minimal existence, the individual finds himself in the lowest depths of dissatisfaction. Nevertheless he always manages to create another life situation for himself, probably because he really loves life, just as it is. We always crave something other than we can have, than we have, other than what is suitable for us, and so we’re unhappy. When we’re happy we immediately analyze this happiness to death, […] and are right back in misery.
It’s those sort of thoughts that lead to even darker ones. There is a lot of suicide talk in this book. At one point, while beating around the bush in his attempt to nudge Hoeller into relaying his account of finding Roithamer’s body hanging in a clearing, the narrator talks about the prevalence of suicide in Austria:
It’s a folk art of sorts, I said to Hoeller, always longing to kill oneself but being kept by one’s watchful intelligence from killing oneself, so that the condition is stabilized in the form of lifelong controlled suffering, it’s an art possessed only by this people and those belonging to it.
When Roithamer gets started on talking about the “ultimate existential correction” what came to mind was that scene in The Shining where former caretaker Grady tries persuading current caretaker Jack to “correct” his family. In this case, of course, Roithamer is talking about correcting oneself. He says, “Instead of committing suicide, people go to work.” This may have been Bernhard’s mantra. He wrote prolifically and managed to avoid correcting himself, although in the end he still died prematurely.
Bernhard had a nihilistic outlook on the world, and yet, like his grandfather whom he so admired and very much patterned his life after, he knew there was beauty embedded in the ugliness if one was determined enough to go looking for it. Because of this, Correction, despite its dark tone and subject matter, is not a depressing novel. The book as a work of art is beautiful. Bernhard’s writing is a masterpiece to behold. At one point, Roithamer states the following:
[P]eople always tend to waver at a certain point in their lives, and always at the particular crucial point in their lives when they must decide whether to tackle the monstrousness of their life or let themselves be destroyed by it before they have tackled it.
It seems likely that Bernhard himself reached this point. Maybe it came after his first novel Frost won a minor award and, finding himself severely short of the amount he needed to purchase a coveted farmhouse in rural upper Austria, he threatened to leave his publisher if he did not give Bernhard the remaining balance. Bernhard left the office with cash in hand and purchased the property that he would live on, tackling the monstrousness head-on, for the rest of his life.
One has to be able to get up and walk away from every social gathering that’s a waste of one’s time, […] to leave behind the nothing faces and the often boundlessly stupid heads, and to walk out and down into the open air and leave everything connected with this worthless society behind
Some people say Bernhard told the same story over and over. Maybe it was the story of his life and of the world as he saw it. Maybe it was the story of all the people he admired. In this book’s case, it’s the story of Roithamer. His words fill the last pages of the book, growing fiercer and fiercer, the prose rising to a final tremendous crescendo.