One of these great writers needs no introduction. The other might, to those like me on the fringes of the central European literary scene - though two sets of French friends exclaimed incredulously, when I asked whether they were familiar with the works of Thomas Bernhard, 'but of course'. Ah, the French. Needless to say, the German-speaking world knows him even better.
I'd certainly never read anything by the Austrian maverick until friend Xandra gave J a slim but beautifully produced - by Notting Hill Editions - volume of essays about farcical award ceremonies usually sabotaged by Bernhard, the recipient. Frances Wilson describes him in her introduction as a notorious Nestbeschmutzer - great word, a soiler of the nest - who always manages to desecrate and ridicule the 'self-important, feeble witted' givers of the 'so-called' literary prizes. But he does it so wittily, with such scathing repetition and emphasis, that a whole new world is created. I read it all twice in two sittings, and shall revisit with pleasure.
My Prizes turned out to be a gentle introduction to an obsessive world. The protagonist of Old Masters, a revered music critic called Reger who has sat in front of Tintoretto's White-Bearded Man in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum for 30 years, railing Timon-like against humanity, seems to be an intensified self-portrait, perhaps a parody.
I got so impatient at times with the old bore. Is there anything sillier than decreeing that it's better to skip a hundred pages of a good book and light on a passage at will ('it is better to read twelve lines of a book with the utmost intensity and thus to penetrate into them to the full, as one might say, rather than read the whole book as the normal reader does, who in the end knows no more than an air passenger knows the landscape he overflies')? An argument easily demolished: unless you've read the whole, how would you discover the passages which are of real significance to you? I know I could never re-read Proust - not entirely jokingly, I suggest replacing the boring bits about Albertine and her girl friends with reams of much more entertaining Colette - but I know what swathes of that monster novel mean to me.
In Old Masters you're supposed to warm, I think, to the misanthrope when you learn about his domestic circumstances. I didn't. I found the codger simply annoying, but at least I had a dialogue with him, a bit more profitable than shouting at the telly. To read Bernhard's five slim volumes of autobiography, drawn together as Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, is to understand more: why he hates Salzburg, his home town, as an energy-sapping swamp in which there's nothing to choose between Nazis and Catholics; why his suspicion of most - not, as it turns out, all - teachers reaches insane heights; why he suspects mankind in the round; and how he suffered for years following a teenage health breakdown with pleurisy that seems to have escalated into tuberculosis.
It all becomes suffocating, if not by any means hopeless. Which is why, having seen and enjoyed the Union Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's flawed but admirably conceived Pipe Dream, I felt like I'd come up for air with the succinct Steinbeck novels on which the musical is based, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. While Bernhard writes long sentences, in one endless paragraph, which go round in manic circles of self-pity and recrimination, Steinbeck's are short, usually sunny even in dealing with the deepest questions of the human predicament, and often very funny (Bernhard can be funny, too, but in a black, demented way). Bernhard only ever, in what I've read, 'composes himself'; Steinback can see humanity in the round. The difference might be summed up in this quotation from Steinbeck in Jack Kerouac Alley near San Francisco's wonderful City Lights bookshop
and this from Bernhard, typical of how he gets round to the point and repeats it:
In Salzburg, with my family around, I had no time and no fresh air. As long as I was in Salzburg, I was close to suffocation, and during all this time I only had one thought in my head: suicide. But I was too much of a coward to commit suicide, and I was also too full of curiosity about everything. Throughout my life I have been consumed with a shameless curiosity which has repeatedly put a stop to thoughts of suicide. I should have killed myself on innumerable occasions had I not been held back on the surface of the earth by my shameless curiosity.
Same ends, different means. Here the two authors meet in the middle. But while Bernhard almost falls over the edge in his characteristic disgust, Steinbeck can wander into over-sentimentality. How is it that the bums, whores and tricksters of Cannery Row, Monterey, all end up being so goddamned loveable?
Maybe it's a matter of perspective. The first novel wonderfully ducks and dives between realism and metaphysics, announcing its intent in the second of its eagle-eye alternating chapters. Thus Steinback on the inhabitants of the Palace Flophouse:
Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavanged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come with his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.
Cannery Row eventually drops its Rimbaudian prose and settles for Orwellian simplicity combined with great, snappy dialogue that cries out to be turned in to a play. Which I believe Steinbeck wanted for Sweet Thursday, in which after the Second World War the central figure, kindly, much-loved Doc the marine biologist - based on Steinbeck's closest friend in Monterey Edward F Ricketts, who inspired the novelist to take up the science - finds himself assailed by mid-life discontent, brilliantly described in pages of aching beauty and pithy images.
Doc's unlikely alliance with wild girl Suzy - who becomes a hustler in Fauna's brothel in the book, while in the 'family musical' she just 'helps out' - is the subject of the more focused but softer-centred sequel. I certainly cared for the will-they-won't-they destined-to-be-lovers even more than I had in the Union show, where they were played with great charm by Kieran Brown and Charlotte Scott (pictured here by Kay Young).
On, then, to East of Eden.
I can't think of a smooth transition to telling the world that my own will-I-won't-I wooing finally achieved its aim 25 years ago today. Three weeks earlier all those years ago I took J on his birthday to a restaurant called Frederick's in Islington's Camden Passage.
I don't know if I'd have had the courage to be so persistent had Ed Seckerson not asked me earlier that summer, in Paris for Jessye Norman's recording of Carmen, whether I preferred boys or girls. No-one had ever put to me that very simple question. And so in a kind of coming-out I upped the pressure on what I really wanted, which only succeeded when J saw me in my natural environment up in Edinburgh for a City Lit Opera production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi on the Fringe with the Rehearsal Orchestra.
The rest is history, though not, in the first years at least, so smooth a ride. But here we are, as happy as any couple, I reckon, knows how to be, and we've been through a lot. On Saturday our own beloved Ochs Peter took us back, on request, to Frederick's with Florian, the dear old Houri - who had been there egging us on all those years ago with a certain Kansas-in-August number from South Pacific - and his partner Chung Chu (aka Chunkers, Chunquitita or Madame Mao).
Frederick's was unrecognisable behind the familiar facade - I dimly remember a small conservatory, but now there's a great space opening on to a garden at the back. A splendid setting, and the food wasn't at all bad either. So onwards to what we can only hope will be the next 25 years. And since Rodgers and Hammerstein have cropped up twice above, let this be the anthem of the day/week. Sing along with Mitzi, everybody.
Portraits of Bernhard and Steinbeck uncredited on the sites where I found them; credits happily supplied on request.