If you really want to understand how your own mind works....the mechanics of thinking and reflection...consider the voice of Bernhard. This is the end piece in one of the most ambitious and interesting literary projects of the 20th century and hardly anyone knows about it...Bernhard stands in the first rank of cut-throat modernists and it will only be a matter of time before the true nature of his vision is finally appreciated.
Thomas Berhard is my favourite writer. I have discovered him late in life. We both lived in Salzburg in the same time and frequented the same café. I truly believe that we have seen each other either in that café or crossed each other during the late afternoon walks on Monchsberg. This book is one of his best if not the best. Yes, it is written brutally, but it is how he writes. His books are like un-retouched photographs. The raw truth. As far as I know no other writer wrote about this kind of feelings about his family. It needs a tremendous amount of courage to write about one's mother,father, brother and sisters in this manner. Such mixed feelings between hate and very, very small pieces of affection. Pity and understanding. Accusing yet again understanding. Very harsh feelings entangled with a deep understanding. A masterpiece in my humble opinion.
A steamroller of invective ostensibly highly critical of Austrians in general. But as the narrator's rants go on (and on), a more subtle picture is built up - the main character is himself an Austrian, and his criticisms therefore have an element of self-laceration, while the family estate, which can be seen to represent the country, employs not only huntsmen (Nazi types) but also gardeners (nurturers), with whom he empathises. The text rambles (in a good sense) as it takes its path through the character's thoughts, following his, sometimes contradictory, arguments. Beautifully written, very readable, a wonderful book.
`Extinction' is a lucid deconstruction of the façade of family life. Franz-Josef is an academic working in Rome when he receives a telegram informing him that his parents and brother have been killed in an accident, and that he must return to his familial home of Wolfsegg in Austria. The first half of the book focuses on Franz-Josef's feelings towards his family and upbringing, as told to Gambetti, his student in Rome. The second half covers his interaction with his sisters and family after returning to Wolfsegg to attend the funerals and take charge of the estate that has now passed to him. `Extinction' is an inner monologue describing Franz-Josef's antipathy toward his home, his family and Austria as a whole.
`Extinction' is a brutal piece of writing. Franz-Josef is a left-leaning intellectual, but his family, and his country, are portrayed as bourgeois and Nazi. Their priorities are a million miles from his, and he casts himself in the role of black sheep, aided and abetted by his Uncle Georg, his corrupting influence and fellow family `embarrassment'. Franz-Josef holds nothing back, telling Gambetti of his utter disgust for Austria and its way of life, and for his sisters, pursuing small-minded goals in short, ugly lives, and for his dead parents and brother. In Rome he is in his element. Back in Wolfsegg, he is the outsider, forced to play host to unrepentant Nazis and self-important middle classes in pointless jobs. He reluctantly performs his part, but the sights and places of his youth fuel his feeling of being an outsider. His goal for his time in Wolfsegg becomes the extinction of his past and his connection to it.
`Extinction' is obviously not a happy read, or a particularly easy one. All the negatives of Franz-Josef's life are poured out, and the vitriol is ceaseless. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly lucid, and anyone sharing some of his attitude towards past and family cannot help but recognise the truth behind his feelings. Many writers have written about family issues, but few that I have read have explored what it means to genuinely hate their relatives. Bernhard does this successfully, maintaining the reader's sympathy, but also exploring Franz-Josef's failings. It is written as large unbroken chunks of text, so does require some patience and perseverance to get through, but was fantastically rewarding for me to have read. Perhaps this isn't a book for everyone, but as an exploration of a politically and intellectually riven family, I haven't come across anything better.
In Extinction Bernhard creates his most indulgent, and most inscrutable work since On the Mountain - the likes of which only he can muscle into great literature. These two works can very much be seen as the brackets around all of his work, the beginning and the end. Extinction is the pile driving of Correction and Gargoyles, the lyricism of Old Masters and The Loser, and the sustained climax of Yes. I may even choose one of those novels as his most important work, or my personal favorite - Extinction will never be remembered as an example of Bernhard's work - it's artistry might just be too profound to be very useful. Bernhard's last novel flows very much like the last movement of a dark symphony - it borrows phrases, and alludes to even his first published words, but it is very clearly the end. To one who has read the complete works of Bernhard and who has seen time and again his genius use devices and set motion upon everything from the merits of artistic expressions and intents, to in other works, the fabric of cognition and existence, to the very fabric of the words on the page - the very reason for the work Extinction becomes unclear. It is not like any of Bernhard's other works. Page after page it challenges the reader to give up. Its almost as if Bernhard left this work as a special gift for only those who could really interpret and appreciate his art. Sticking with Extinction while Bernhard is shooing you and the collective literary world away is the greatest artistic experience one can undertake - because in the end, when you are sure you are the only one on the planet who has stuck with him to the last, he leaves you with one of his greatest surprise gifts. One which will float by silently and smash you in the face at the same time. It is all - only how its done. Over drinks, my friend the author, Rick Whitaker once said, 'Bernhard is the only author who ever succeeded in removing himself from everything.' Or at least he should have.
This strange book turned out to be a funny and biting novel. But don't expect a plot as such or much in the way of witty dialogue. Like most of Bernhard's books this is a monologue, with no paragraph breaks or speech marks. Almost all of the action takes place inside the narrator's head as he wrestles with the dilemma of whether to return to Austria to claim his family estate. He loathes his native country, but cannot escape it. Not easy to read, but a wonderful tone of hatred and black humour makes it very worthwhile persevering.
TB deserves to be better known and appreciated in the English-speaking world as he could write like a dream and he is exceptionally well-served here by translator David McClintock. Hypnotic prose rhythms are created by the narrator's (Franz-Josef Murau) frequent use of his friend's name, Gambetti, an effect also carried off brilliantly by WG Sebald in Austerlitz. Because of this addictive quality once you start reading the book it is hard to put down, especially as there are no paragraphs or chapters. Extinction focuses on the narrator's growing up on - and return to as its heir from Rome - the family farm in Wolfsegg, Upper Austria, about which he has strong views, for reasons that become clear. TB's hatred of much of his nation's history and culture, particularly its Nazism and embracing of Roman Catholicism (embodied by nuncio Spadolini), both of which he finds nauseating and intellectually stultifying, is given full rein, along with a good kicking for farmers, wine-cork manufacturers and detestable siblings. What he finally decides to do with Wolfsegg is breathtaking... but that would be telling. If the quality and intellectual depth of the prose was anything less than sublime this would be impotent ranting; but it is and it isn't.
Most of the narrator's family have been wiped out before the end of the first page. But despite this, Extinction soon establishes a deceptively light manner, with a pleasant picture of the writer's life in Rome and an entertaining list of the grudges he bears against his mostly now deceased immediate relations. The mood darkens as we discover more about this background of his and about his family's Nazi sympathies. His grudges turn out to be not so trivial. They begin to seem a personal manifestation of Austria's past. The book is in two sections, neither of which contains so much as a paragraph break, and it's written in a style which is almost monotonous, though never disconcerting. Such a continuous structure means that the unfolding of the narrator's situation is very gradual and convincing. The writer reaches a conclusion which is unquestionable on the one hand, and impossible on the other. It's a meticulously constructed and truly ruthless satire.
The much imitated Thomas Bernhard, makes with this book his greatest contribution to European letters, and writing with a persistent style, that is not matched or bettered anywhere, he, the much imitated Thomas Bernhard, achieves not only a narrative, but a veritable mind map, the layers of which the reader is obliged to traverse, and which layers contain not only lessons in pathos, and irony, but which layers reveal a truth about reading far greater than could be otherwise revealed. Unthinkable but true!