Thomas Bernhard's "Concrete" is a concentrated, excessive and disturbing stream-of-consciousness monologue by Rudolf, a reclusive, wealthy Viennese music critic who lives alone in a large country house. Rudolf suffers from sarcoidosis, a disease not described in the narrative, which is characterized by inflammation of the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, eyes, skin, and other tissues. Physically miserable and obsessively fearful of death, he also is a man paralyzed by his misanthropic, conflicted, exhaustingly relentless thoughts. Trapped in his own mind, Rudolf is a literary creation directly descended from Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Beckett.
Rudolf has been working for ten years on a biography of Mendelssohn, yet has failed to write even the first line of his work. "I had been planning it for ten years and had repeatedly failed to bring it to fruition, but now had resolved to begin writing it on the twenty-seventh of January at precisely four o'clock in the morning, after the departure of my sister." It is an intention to begin writing that recurs again and again throughout Rudolf's narrative, an intention to begin writing at a specific time in a specific location after the completion of specific preparatory tasks. And in each instance, Rudolf fails to begin, a sign of procrastination bred by obsession or of extreme writer's block or of extreme mental imbalance.
When Rudolf's sister leaves the house, he still cannot begin to write. Despite her departure, her aura remains: "Although she had gone, I still felt the presence of my sister in every part of the house. It would be impossible to imagine a person more hostile to anything intellectual than my sister. The very thought of her robs me of my capacity for any intellectual activity, and she has always stifled at birth any intellectual projects I have had . . . There's no defense against a person like my sister, who is at once so strong and so anti-intellectual; she comes and annihilates whatever has taken shape in one's mind as a result of exerting, indeed of over-exerting one's memory for months on end, whatever it is, even the most trifling sketch on the most trifling subject."
This theme, Rudolf's hatred for his older, worldly sister, runs throughout his narrative, the sister becoming one among many reasons (or excuses) for Rudolf's intellectual paralysis, his inability to write, even his inability to function in day-to-day life.
But it is not merely his sister that Rudolf despises. He also despises Vienna, the city where he once lived (and where his sister continues to live). "Vienna has become a proletarian city through and through, for which no decent person can have anything but scorn and contempt."
A complete recluse, his mental world bordering on solipsistic isolation, Rudolf no longer has any interest in social life of any kind. "To think that I once not only loved parties," he reflects, "but actually gave them and was capable of enjoying them!" Now he sees no reason or need for the company of others, for the people Rudolf spent years trying to "put right" but who only regarded him as a "fool" for his efforts. As Rudolf thinks, in a long, discursive interior response to his sister's claim that his desolate, morgue-like house, "is crying out for society":
"There comes a time when we actually think about these people, and then suddenly we hate them, and so we get rid of them, or they get rid of us; because we see them so clearly all at once, we have to withdraw from their company or they from ours. For years I believed that I couldn't be alone, that I needed all these people, but in fact I don't: I've got on perfectly well without them."
Rudolf is isolated in his own mind, a man who cannot accept the imperfections of others and of the world, but also cannot accept his own imperfections. And it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which explains his inability to get along in the world, his inability even to write the first sentence of his Mendelssohn biography. "Once, twenty-five years ago, I managed to complete something on Webern in Vienna, but as soon as I completed it I burned it, because it hadn't turned out properly." As Rudolf says, near the end of his short, but exhausting, narrative:
"I've actually been observing myself for years, if not for decades; my life now consists of self-observation and self-contemplation, which naturally leads to self-condemnation, self-rejection and self-mockery. For years I have lived in this state of self-condemnation, self-abnegation and self-mockery, in which ultimately I always have to take refuge in order to save myself."
"Concrete" leaves the reader exhausted from Rudolf's excessive and relentless narrative, giving truth to the remarkable power of Bernhard's literary imagination and narrative voice. It is a stunning literary achievement, perhaps the best work of one of Austria's greatest twentieth century authors.