Frost by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
It feels like glacial music, the prose with its slow-creeping angularity. The onset of frost. Rhythm punctuated by cacophonous barking of the dogs and then silence—the empty aching silence of the larch wood—the dark valley, the frigidity of the rock face looming above a forest floor that never sees more than a grey shadow of sunlight.
When the days get that cold, I sit in my bed, and stare at the frost flowers on my window, that in a succession of miracles evoke landscapes from painting, from nature, from inner despair, only to crush them again, and to draw from them such truths as, to my conviction, are dispersed in their hundreds of thousands and their millions in our lives, and portray more than an intimation of a world that lies alongside our familiar world, a universe we have failed to recognize.
The painter Strauch and the young medical intern sutured to him, at first out of obligation, growing later as a virus into unavoidable necessity. The mingling of their voices, much like those of Roithamer and his unnamed friend in Bernhard’s later novel Correction, the one man coming under the spell of the other man’s words. The way Strauch talks, so cryptic in its allure, so alluring in its vitriol…
Strauch’s language is the language of the heart muscle, a scandalous “cerebral pulse.” It is rhythmic self-abasement under the “subliminal creak” of his own rafters. His notions and subterfuges, fundamentally in accord with the barking of those dogs that he drew my attention to, with which he “scattered me to the air.” Can it still be described as language? Yes, it is the false bottom of language, the heaven and hell of language, the mutiny of rivers, “the steaming word-nostrils of brains that are in a state of endless and shameless despair.”
Strauch’s love-hate of the landscape, imbued with death, as he himself is consumed with death, his entire life seen by the intern as “a passion of suicide.” His obsessions with the petty goings-on around him, the everyday life of the inn, the landlady and her philandering ways, the engineer and his hungering ego, the ubiquity of the knacker. The incessant walks—to the station, through the larch wood, into the ravine, to the church, the cemetery, the poorhouse—movement as necessity to keep from freezing, quoting his Pascal: “Our nature is motion, complete stasis is death.”
We all live the lives of death masks. Everyone who is really alive has taken his off at one time or another, but as I say, people don’t live, it’s just, as I say, the life of death masks. […] A seeming life, no longer capable of real life. Cities that are long since dead, mountains too, long dead, livestock, poultry, even water and the creatures that used to live in the water. Reflections of our death masks. A death mask ball.
He grows irritated with his companion, the intern, who, in a rare moment of disagreement, objects to his “death mask ball” idea. “You young people don’t believe,” he said. “The whole world is nothing but a death-mask ball.” Strauch wonders if for his entire life he had really been someone else altogether, and had thus been denied “admission to myself.” Out of desperation then, he must write or tell about what preoccupies him, at all times. Death, truth, society’s insipid nature, the destruction of greatness by jealousy and apathy, the complex role of the artist (“the great emetic agents of the time”), the monstrous horror of life itself. The familiar Bernhardian preoccupations are all in evidence, sprouting up in their infancy, tiny seedlings that will grow into thick gnarled vines over the next twenty fierce years of writing. Here there is less of his later repetition, and with section breaks perhaps allowing for easier digestion than the monolithic text blocks that mark his successive novels, but his prose and themes are still recognizable. The book can be read as one massive smothering metaphor for Bernhard’s own feelings about his homeland. If you wanted to simplify it, that is. Strauch would likely draw your attention back to the dogs…
‘Listen, the dogs! Listen to that barking.’ And he got up and walked out and went up to his room. When I followed him out into the entrance hall and stopped, I could hear through the half-iced-up open front door the long-drawn-out howling of dogs, and sometimes their barking. The endlessly drawn out howling, and the sound of barking biting into it. In front of me I heard the barking and howling, and behind me the laughing and vomiting and smacking of playing cards. Ahead of me the dogs, behind me the customers at the bar. I won’t be able to sleep tonight.