Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
We are in an age of monologues.
The plot is simple. A widowed country doctor goes on his rounds, taking along his son who is home from university. (The man’s daughter still lives with him, existing in a fragile state and having just attempted suicide.) With each visit, the eccentricities of the patients grow more monstrous, culminating in the prince, a quintessential Bernhardian character: learned, monomaniacal, paranoid, suicidal, alternately caring and cold toward family, deeply conflicted, and occasionally lucid during long monologues. The prince is a man wedded to his ancestral home. His relationship to Hochgobernitz prefigures Roithamer’s feelings toward his own family home of Altensam in the later novel Correction. Both can be seen as metaphors for Bernhard’s homeland, Austria. The prince, a widower himself, feels perched on the brink of death. This is natural, though, for in these pages he is in the company of many others who are contemplating death, who are about to die, who have tried to die, or who have already died.
In this rural locale, land of dark stifling gorges and desperate isolated people, violence is an accepted fact of existence and madness is taken for granted (“All people are more or less crazy, of course, even my son,” the prince said). The grotesque is normal, sometimes even laughable, and by treating it as such, Bernhard humanizes it. Always in Bernhard’s prose there is a posture of detached resignation toward his favored themes of death (particularly suicide), violence, isolation, the vagaries of human nature (vague, yes), and misanthropy. As in many of his other works, here also he expresses his disdain for the medical profession:
To this day I believe that doctors are of all people those farthest removed from human nature, who know least about human nature.
Yet even though Bernhard has the prince speak these disparaging words, the doctor in this book comes across as caring and supportive of his patients (though admittedly distant toward his children). Rather than undermine Bernhard’s often uncompromising prose, however, these occasional contradictions imbue the text with a curious warmth, a strange form of empathy spreading across the pages (“Grasping the helplessness of all people, but without pity”).
This can be seen further in the loner’s experience of the perpetual dichotomy found in self-imposed isolation, as articulated by the prince:
“If I am out in the open,” he said, “I think that it is better not to be out in the open; if I am not in the open, I think I must be in the open. Such thoughts are aging me, are killing me.”
If I am alone I feel like being with people; if I am with people I feel like being alone.
And it is hard not to think of Bernhard himself, when the prince says,
I always read the writer’s bitterness at his fate. I see him communicating on the surface though he remains deep under the surface of his despair; I see his misled self misleading others, and so on…