Monday 2 September 2013

Opposites: Bernhard and Steinbeck

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.


Susan Scheid said...

I will have more to say, but must get in here before the day goes by (at least in US time) to wish you both the happiest possible anniversaries.

Unknown said...

Congratulations on your 25 years together!

David said...

My dear blog pal Sue, how good of you to get in first; and, Sam, how wonderful to hear from you after a couple of years (was it singing in the choir for Noelle's concert that we last saw each other?), and thank you. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the dramatic shift of the Prokofiev Archive...

Susan Scheid said...

David, I love how sentimental you can be, A Wonderful Guy, no less! As for Cannery Row, well, I have stories to tell there. Dear old departed Dad spent his last years there and in the environs, and had Steinbeck been around, I'm sure Dad would have figured in as a Cannery Row denizen. Just one story: scads of piano lessons, and all he retained was Tuxedo Junction, which he played at a Cannery Row bar, probably nightly, when well in his cups. He did later get on and stay on the wagon, and in that guise, was the unofficial mayor of the street he lived on in Pacific Grove.

David said...

Extraordinary. A project for your wonderfully creative writing: memoir (or fiction) about your pa in the style of the two Steinbecks. I'd love to read it and what you write here is tantalising.

Trust we're agreed, as my old English master used to stress, that there's nothing wrong with sentimentality. Over-sentimentality, a term I see I've used above, is a problem, of course. But this is also nostalgia, as the soundtrack of South Pacific was one of the few records in my parents' collection along with My Fair Lady, Val Doonican and Perry Como...

David Damant said...

25 years means silver and although I am not sure that Horace was a Silver Age Latin poet, near enough -

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus [ Book I, Ode 37]

Now is the time to drink, now the time to dance footloose upon the earth

It does not mention that it is now time to swim in seas and waters but the sentiment is no doubt contained in these so-appropriate words

Happy Anniversary !

Catriona said...

Oh, boo! David.
Now I have to go and read Thomas Bernhard, as you have made it sound so intriquing.
That's on top of Laurie Taylor (in Thinking Allowed on Radio 4) dispelling the happy ignorance I had been living in as regards Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project.
Life is so unfair!

David said...

And so rich - at our age (speaking for myself) I am inclined to take up the Damantian notion of making sure to read Great Litshratoor which probes the human condition. Not sure how much more Bernhard I can take, but those slim masterpieces reminded me that I ought to 'do' the whole of the rest of Steinbeck that I haven't read (revisit The Grapes of Wrath, too, maybe) and then try Melville's Moby Dick again.

Life isn't long enough for all the Great Unread, is what I think you mean. And sometimes we need pointers to where it lurks. Intrigued about The Arcades Project...

And thank you, Sir David. You of course possess a silver rose from a beloved, and we did at least see Rosenkav in Dresden on my birthday. Here's to the great Horace (odi profanum vulgus et arceo is all that springs to my mind, I'm afraid).

David Damant said...

You have in your mind also, I think,

"Dolci et Decorum est, pro patria mori" (Book III Ode 2)

"It is sweet and right to die for your country"

But as Wilfred Owen added

" My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desparate glory
The old Lie; Dolci et Decorum est pro patria mori"

-as in the War Requiem

How powerfully are we humans born to be so ardent for some desperate glory

David said...

Of course, I'd wiped that 'old lie' out of my mind, wishing to think only of the rustic Horace. On my second Inter Rail summer, I took a train out from Rome and walked six or so miles from Subiaco to see the 'fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitrio' - and it was indeed more splendid than glass. Shepherds with bell-tinkling goats and the mosaic pavements of Horace's Sabine form visible if you brushed the dirt away.

Henrietta said...

A very belated happy anniversary to dearest both. As a couple, to those who know and love you, you are inspiring. There are few couples about whom you feel that is a love story or a life that I would like to have but in your endless concern and simple, straightforward, relaxed love for one another you are what a couple should be. There is an innate charm and honesty about your relationship that is simply beautiful to behold. I am the one that is being sentimental now.....

I love Thomas Bernhard because he so embodies the spirit of Mitteleuropa. The frustration, the kicking against the accepted truths and the hidebound conventions. I love the anger at his family and at the Austrians who lied about their part in war. I also love his simple affection for his grandfather and for music. I have a great French book on him with lots of natty pictures of him in Lederhosen and his very extravagant companion. Hxxx

David said...

Thank you with a sentimental tear in the eye, dearest Hen. Is the 'very extravagant companion' the much older woman Bernhard refers to in My Prizes as 'my aunt'? Curious about her.

David Damant said...

When looking at any aspect of Mitteleuropa one might bear in mind the effects on so many generations of the wars, the horrors, the displacements of lives - on and on. One has only to think of the Thirty Years war and, maybe especially, as Trotsky said - anyone wanting a quiet life made a mistake to be born in the 20th century. And this is in contrast with England where there were many villages and hamlets where NOTHING happened for a thousand years, or ever.

David said...

And yet, of course, many places in England where, similarly, too much happened, if not so recently. But I take your point that nowhere in Mitteleuropa escaped the ravages of the last war. There's a very moving passage in Bernhard where he talks about his teenage self finally 'unpacking' the events which led up to his worst stay in a sanatorium:

'And when I had unpacked it all - the war and its aftermath, my grandfather's sickness and death, my own illness, my mother's illness, my family's despair, the depressing conditions under which they lived, the hopelessness of their existence - I packed it all together again and tied it up. But I could not leave this firmly tied packet lying around; I had to pick it up and take it with me. I still carry it around with me, and sometimes I unpack the contents, then repack them and tie the packet up again. It does not make me any the wiser. I shall never be any the wiser, and that is what is so depressing. And when I unpack it all in the presence of witnesses, as I am doing now, by bringing out all these crude and brutal sentences, banal and sentimental as they often are, without any of the compunction I might have over different sentences, I do not feel the slightest shame. The writer is always devoid of shame. Only a person who has no shame is qualified to take hold of sentences and bring them out and throw them down. Only the most shameless writer is authentic'.

There are so many more wise and frenetic passages I'd like to quote. At least reproducing them one begins to understand the Bernhard style, though translation can only be a pale shadow.

wanderer said...

And belatedly but most sincerely our very best wishes from way down here, where preoccupied with the daily routine now find you have been celebrating the blessings of yourselves to each other in such true and honest constancy for 25 years, a joining to which we have been privileged to be witness, dear David and J.

They can do what they like but they can't stop us loving.

Love the clip; grinning ear to ear. Best backing ever, not to mention Mitzy.

David said...

Thanks so much, wanderer. You might have been hazarding a guess at the 'true and honest constancy', but I know it's true on my part and 100 per cent believe it on J's (the heavens would fall if not, less for the deed than the concealment. That's the meaning of faith in our lives, I think).

You must be doing pretty well yourselves (I forget the exact record). Thought you might like Mitzy. That's one hell of a great Lied, even if Sondheim questioned some of the extraordinary similes.

Anonymous said...

David -given the mentions of Mitteleuropa and your enthusiasm for Simon Winder's book Germania, will you be reading his latest book, Danubia.

David said...

Oh, without a doubt. A coincidence, though maybe not surprising as it's just out: I saw a copy on the coffee table of our friend Clare Asquith, Spectator books editor, with whom we were having lunch yesterday, and jumped for joy. Read the intro and of course was hugely entertained but must turn to the rest once I've got through East of Eden.

That's not John, is it?

Catriona said...

Sorry, David, Anonymous was me. I ticked the wrong box.

Laurent said...

My dear boy, how did I miss this paragraph in my first reading, I can only blame the fact, red faced, that English is not my first language and my failing eye sight , I am a pensioner.
Congratulations to you both on your Silver 25th Anniversary.
Good health and much happiness in the next 25.

David said...

Probably because I do go on - will NOT follow the prescriptions for 'successful blogging' - and it's at the end with pics that don't reveal much. But thank you! And here's to your 35 - which reminds me how, when we jumped in at the start with our civil partnership, we were smug before the official about our years, only to be told, 'oh no, there are people who've been together for 50 years. You're among the youngest'.