Suicide, murder, lunacy: The cover of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator features an inventory of topics the author continually mulled over with undetonated grief and a grim chortle. Amras, Playing Watten, and Walking—early novellas just published in English—reveal that the Austrian had a penchant for morbidity and isolation from the start. Zigzagging through suicidal mindsets, they read like the ultimate How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Walking‘s Oehler strolls with an unnamed narrator, ranting against Austria’s bureaucracy, decrying procreation (“nothing short of infamy”), and lamenting the fate of his friend Karrer, who suffered a psychic break in a clothing store after repeatedly shouting that a pair of pants were “Czechoslovakian rejects.” Difficulty, for Oehler, is a state of grace. He praises Hollensteiner, an uncompromising chemist, for “constantly giving offense,” adding, “there is no greater pleasure than being in contact with such extremely difficult people.”
That last quote is a pretty good description of reading Bernhard. His typical novel unfurls a relentless, contradictory rage against Austria, ex-friends, and the complacency that makes others immune to the narrator’s dogged complaints. The books’ unselfconscious absurdities are hilarious, but their near disregard for the reader also generates a peculiar intimacy: It’s as if you’re experiencing the thoughts firsthand, getting swept up in the ruminations as they approach a fever pitch. These three novellas lack the directness of later works like The Loser, Concrete, and Woodcutters, and only in Walking does Bernhard hit his trademark nonparagraphed stride. But it’s fascinating to watch the author slowly cordon off a space where characters can exist entirely on their own terms, no matter how tortured they claim to be by the world around them. In the ultra-gothic Amras, two brothers who have survived a familywide suicide pact ward off nosy psychiatrists and vulpine collectors while recuperating in, of all places, a tower. Playing Watten is the droll account of a discredited doctor, who agrees to write for a lawyer-mathematician a report on his perceptions, which drifts into a mournful explanation of why he suddenly stopped playing cards at the local inn.
As always, there’s a flurry of missed opportunities and didn’t-happens. A lifetime’s scholarly work is jotted on scattered papers. Watten‘s doctor puts aside his “work on chronic subchronic nephritis.” But Bernhard’s work never drifts into cheap hopelessness. He’s not stuck in the wavering ambivalence of “I’ll go on, I can’t go on.” It’s more like he’s shouting both statements at the same time, and then pausing to burst into maniacal laughter.