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- Published on Amazon.com
In this review I'd like to focus on _Playing Watten,_ my favorite of the three novellas.
_Watten_ is only about 50 pages long, and like other works by Bernhard may appear easy to read at times, but the narration is dense and "musical," demanding that the reader pause to "listen" to the turns of phrase that Bernhard uses to express a single idea.
This technique of "restating" is not, as some reviewers might suggest, simple repetition of a sentence or a phrase leading to unintentional tediousness. More likely, it represents Bernhard's belief that there is more than one way to write a sentence. As two musical passages may sound alike, upon closer listening they are different. These nuances in sentence structure are explored by Bernhard at the peak of his skill.
Structurally, _Watten_ is right there with the classic Bernhard novels, written in first-person stream of consciousness and no paragraph breaks. (The only break occurs at the start of the second section, "The Traveler.")
From the outset, it is clear that the narrator is relating his impressions to another person (another Bernhardian technique of relating a narrative through some conveyance, rather than simply using the first person to "tell").
The narrator is a doctor who has donated a large sum of money to a charity. Again, as in many of his other works, Bernhard quickly dismisses the notion that his narrators have a pressing need for income. Thus, they are able to ignore the distractions of the working world. True, they may intend to write journals, medical papers, reviews, etc., but along the way they're detoured into writing deeply revealing narratives about themselves.
Now, some brief notes about the content...
We never learn the name of the doctor. He sends one-and-a-half-million schillings (one wonders how much this would have been in $US at the time of writing, in 1971!) to a fellow named "F. Undt," a social reformer who not only researches and publishes but who also is restoring a castle to house newly freed prisoners, so that they can begin new lives without their pasts haunting them.
And Undt agrees to cash the check on one strange condition - that the doctor write down all of his thoughts (impressions) that occurred during the day before the day the doctor received the letter of receipt of the money from Undt. The doctor is then asked to mail these thoughts in a letter to Undt, presumably for Undt's research.
The doctor, an admirer of Undt's writings, agrees to this, and the long letter comprises most of _Watten._
As the doctor begins about his task, it's hard for readers not to think that Bernhard might have been influenced by Camus's _The Myth of Sisyphus,_ wherein Camus writes:
"Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest - whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide]."
The doctor begins his written narrative to Undt by asking himself, upon awakening in his "hut," "Why am I still alive?"
Before the doctor can sink into too deep an existential despair, however, he is visited by someone known only as "the truck driver." The truck driver asks the doctor the same question over and over, "Why won't you come and play Watten, doctor?" (Note that the truck driver never poses the question in quite the same way to the doctor. Camus's _Myth of Sisyphus_ is again evoked - two people seemingly condemned to repeat the same action eternally; i.e., the truck driver asks; the doctor replies.)
As I read this, I thought of this cast of only two characters as reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's method.
I'll leave off what watten (the game) is, as it's explained in the Introduction, and the rest of the story at this point.
I will say only that Bernhard's narrator once again goes on a tirade against seemingly everything. However, the harangue does have many darkly comical moments. For example, the doctor requests from Undt a list of what Undt would consider his greatest published works, and listed among them are "Decrepitude I, Decrepitude II, and Decrepitude III; essay - Body and Chaos. ..."
There is also a wonderful passage about shoe buckles as they relate to the doctor's larger belief that nothing is made well any more.
So, if you have read Bernhard's relatively better selling and more widely read novels, such as _Concrete, Correction, Old Masters, et al.,_ you should consider this hardcover volume of three of Bernhard's novellas, if only for _Playing Watten._