The Lime Works by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
The most unusual characteristic of this third novel of Thomas Bernhard’s is the style of narration. It is also perhaps the most off-putting aspect of the book. While there is a first-person narrator, an insurance salesman, this narrator remains rather buried in the text and rarely surfaces to speak. The bulk of the text is told in a secondhand narration, in which the words of the main character Konrad are repeated by (primarily) two of Konrad’s associates, presumably to the narrator, who is then relating them to the reader. This distance in storytelling keeps the reader from getting too close to Konrad himself, who is admittedly not a particularly likable character, even within the realm of Bernhardian characters, who are not known for their likability.
Konrad is a grotesque caricature of the stereotypical ‘frustrated writer’ with a half-written novel sitting in the bottom desk drawer, or in this case, existing intact in his head, just waiting to be copied down onto paper. The megalomaniacal Konrad has barricaded himself and his disabled wife in his family’s lime works, which he acquired from his nephew after much delay and at great cost. Konrad’s great scientific work is concerned with the sense of hearing and his book, when he actually writes it, will be called simply The Sense of Hearing, which will be the definitive (and only, according to Konrad) comprehensive work on hearing. Obsessed with his hearing experiments using the so-called (many things are so-called in this novel) Urbanchich method, he repeatedly subjects his invalid wife to hours of listening exercises, which she has no choice but to participate in.
While he is dedicated to carrying out these experiments, Konrad is beset by numerous impediments to the actual writing of his book. These include, among many hundreds of others fully detailed within the text: the perpetual care of his invalid wife, the incessant visits to the lime works by minor officials and inspectors, and the noise of caretaker Hoeller chopping wood outside his window. Konrad and his wife have a combative relationship, aggravated by their collective isolation at the lime works, by Konrad’s wife’s sole dependence on her husband for care, and by Konrad’s manipulation of their living situation for his own perverse ends, which ultimately lead nowhere.
Throughout the novel, Konrad, through this secondhand narration, hits on many familiar Bernhardian refrains: incompetence of the medical profession; futility of marriage (‘the so-called ideal life together is a lie’); rejection of all authority figures; stupidity of hunters; injustice of all legal systems; oppressive brutality of nature; general misanthropy. There are a few bits of humor, as there usually are in Bernhard’s novels, but in general this is a brutal, uncompromising novel that tried even this reader’s voluminous patience with Thomas Bernhard as an oft-described ‘difficult’ writer, though certainly one of exceptional talent and vision.
Ultimately, reading The Lime Works is akin to visiting the actual lime works as described in the book, which is to say, stifling and generative of a strong desire to escape.