Book Review: Gathering Evidence
In addition to his plays, novels and poetry, Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard published an autobiography in five separate volumes in 1975, 1976, 1978, 1981 and 1982.
Soon after, it was compiled into one and reissued as Gathering Evidence, a memoir, translated from the German by David McLintock.
Never one for simple linear narration, Bernhard’s familiar twisting and looping iconoclastic prose becomes more wonderful still through the shifting perspectives of these reminiscences on boyhood.
Sometimes he writes from his boyhood self, at other times as an adult. At other times still, he comes from somewhere in between:
‘Perfection is nowhere attainable, certainly not in anything that is written, and least of all in a record like the present one, which is assembled from hundreds and thousands of scraps of remembered experience. All that is being offered here is a collection of fragments which may readily put together to form a whole, if the reader chooses to do so – that is all.’
Whether Gathering Evidence provides the whole story (or the whole truth, for that matter) is neither here nor there, especially if, like Bernhard, we are acquainted with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the idea that man is driven by Will.
Human desire is illogical and directionless, and to extrapolate, so is all human action in the world. Bernhard gives voice to these beliefs over and again, as when he describes his morning routine of rising before five, a habit he had acquired from his grandfather, despite recognising ‘the unremitting force of inertia and in full consciousness of the pointlessness of everything we do…’
What the memoir does give, however, is an uncomfortable insight into Bernhard’s first 19 years of life and, most notably, of his resolute energy – ‘The only thing that matters is to be active, never inactive’ – despite being born into grievance. This, and his obstinate will to survive: ‘I wanted to live – nothing else mattered. To live, to live my life, the way I chose and for as long as I chose. It was not an oath – it was a decision made by a patient who had been given up.’
Bernhard was an illegitimate child, whose existence his mother acknowledged only ‘when she realised there was no longer any way out’. The subsequent mother-son relationship, of which we hear more of throughout the memoir, such as when Bernhard writes of his bedwetting – My mother hung my wet sheets out of the window…to deter other children, and show them what you are! she said.’ – goes some way to explaining Bernhard’s membership in the ‘alienated’ brigade of writers, a perspective, to quote a reviewer in the The New York Times, that sees authors ‘deflating the hyperbolic claims to which writers and critics have grown increasingly prone in the absence of a teleological basis for literature’. Such authors articulate ‘the ennui/anxiety/Weltschmerz that we now regard as the core of postmodern existential identity’.
There are other significant contributors, too, that might help explain Bernhard’s choice to join the ‘alienated’ school; like the ill health that dogged him throughout his life, and that finally, in 1989, did him in. Gathering Evidence introduces us to this horror show. Bernhard was taken ill with ‘wet pleurisy’ immediately after his grandfather; something the author found ‘entirely logical’, as he felt at one with him. The illness, states Bernhard, ‘produced three litres of yellowish-grey fluid every few hours’.
The closing chapter of Gathering Evidence opens with the haunting lines: ‘With the shadow on my lung yet another shadow had fallen on my existence. Grafenhof was a word to strike terror to the heart: a sanatorium where absolute authority was wielded…’ This was a place that Bernhard found himself, yet again, shunned and outcast, until, that is, he succeeded: ‘After five weeks I made it at last: my result was positive. I really was a full member of the community. My open tuberculosis of the lung was confirmed.’
Gathering Evidence charts the perfect storm. Not only was Bernhard born to a harsh mother and dealt a debilitating hand in the health stakes, he had the added joy of enduring World War II and the ‘hundreds of thousands of droning, menacing aircraft which daily darkened the cloudless sky’. While studying in Salzburg, the author comes blinking from the shelters to a particularly devastating air raid:
‘…I stepped on something soft lying on the pavement in front of the Burgerspital Church. At first sight I took it to be a doll’s hand, and so did my companions, but in fact it was the severed hand of a child. It was the sight of this child’s hand that quite suddenly transformed this first attack on the city by American bombers from the sensation it had been up to then – a sensation which produced a state of feverish excitement in the boy I was at the time – into an atrocity, an enormity.’
Bernhard finds refuge in two separate places. First, in his grandfather, an intellectual writer, an anarchist, and most importantly, a man Bernhard adored: ‘We were bound together in a conspiracy against our surroundings…’ He was the muse for some of the book’s more optimistic passages, though they remain few and far between:
‘Grandfathers put their grandchildren’s heads where at least there is something interesting to see, even if it is not always easy to understand; and by always insisting on what is essential they save us from the dreary indigence in which, were it not for them, we should undoubtedly soon suffocate.’
Bernhard also took refuge in what he calls "the cellar", a grocery store in the Scherzhauserfeld Project – ‘the roughest and most dangerous district of the city of Salzburg and the source of most of its criminal cases’ – where he learned to be ‘useful’ again.
Asked in a 1986 interview if the fate of his books interested him, and translations of his books in particular, Bernhard replied: ‘I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books’. Translations didn’t interest him, ‘because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.’
But for this reader, Gathering Evidence retains a very recognisable style. Translator David McLintock, in his introductory note to the 2003 edition, states:
‘Bernhard insists that his style is characteristically Austrian and could never have been produced by a German, since it is coloured by Austrian pronunciation and speech melody. These of course cannot be conveyed in translation. However, Bernhard’s style is sufficiently idiosyncratic for the translator to hope that he has captured some of the syntactical and rhythmical characteristics of the original… and so done at least partial justice to an author who considers the content of what he writes less important than the manner in which it is written.’
Gathering Evidence is a valuable and important memoir, though we would do well to remember the Voltaire quote with which Bernhard chooses to open: ‘No one has found or will ever find’.
Gathering Evidence, a memoir
by Thomas Bernhard
Trans. David McLintock