Yesterday I finished reading Extinction by Thomas Bernhard. The novel took about two weeks for me to read and during that time I have taken the train to Armadale, walked about 100km on the Bibbulmun track and traveled around north east Bali. My copy now has dried chocolate on the cover, some black residue on the outside from my girlfriends purse, a few dog ears and various notes in different coloured pen throughout. The Vintage edition has a pretty poxy cover but the contents inside make up for that.
I wasn’t looking for any technique or angle in particular as I read. Extinction is a novel I was able to sit back and enjoy and let the author take me on a ride through the main characters psyche. The novel is one long monologue inside the ideas and thoughts of Franz-Josef Murau after he receives a telegram that his parents and brother have died in a car accident. It feels more appropriate to say the novel is separated into two paragraphs than two chapters. The first chapter is one paragraph and the second chapter is one paragraph. There are no breaks. At first this seems a little daunting but after fifty or so pages you get used to it and by the end you start to wonder why all books are not written like that. Actually, Extinction is the kind of book that is unique. Without the paragraph breaks you can see how this would force the writer to examine closely how enmeshed each of their ideas are – how interlinked each event and scene is and if they are not seamless, more words need to fill out the gaps until the bridge is crossed.
With the long paragraphs and deep psychological examination of the characters you can draw comparisons to Austerlitz by Sebald. In an interview Sebald acknowledges Bernhard as an influence. [At the 14:50 section of this interview] The influence on Austerlitz from Extinction becomes clear once you start reading both. Sebald calls Bernhard’s unique form of narration ‘periscopic’, where we receive the story through the voice of one character inside of another of another. The sentences in Austerlitz are much longer than those found in Extinction. I’m not sure which novel influenced Bernhard to write Extinction, but finding out will be a great pleasure for me.
Sebald is much more tender with his characters, but both authors are uncompromising in their pursuit of challenging the power structures of our society that lead us away from being kind to one another. You could argue that Extinction deals with the aftermath of WW2 more directly than Austerlitz, but I would prefer to say that WW2 is more of an open wound to the character Franz-Josef Murau, than Austerlitz. Bernhard is more about subterfuge from within, whereas Sebald is more about personal understanding around the periphery.
I remember reading a few years ago in one of the many how to write fiction books, that your characters should have attitude. Murau, the main character of Extinction, has a lot of attitude. By attitude I mean the character has convictions and is not afraid of sharing them. This attitude will put a lot of people off Extinction. But this is what I liked. We are told that having strong convictions can be isolating, because you can be shown to be a hypocrite, or you never know what lead these other people to behave the way they do. Just because you don’t necessarily agree with someones convictions at least they have convictions, and it is this premise that appears to underline Bernhard’s work.
You could say Extinction is an exercise in ridiculousness. It is ridiculousness that verges on the hilarious. I’m not sure I would keep reading if the voice of the novel continued on ranting and ranting without dipping into the ridiculous from time to time, to remind us that he’s taking us to the extremities of his consciousness – as far as that can conveyed through words on a page. The rant, or stream of consciousness, unravels in a cascading swirl where the topic of discussion is repeated or referred back to until the subject is covered sufficiently. You’d think the repetition would be annoying, but because it works on a microlevel it reads more like a poem. Where subjects are recovered on a macro level they are enlivened with a new context so that you’re seeing them in a new light. I’ll try to quote a section that covers the elements I’ve just identified – periscopic narration, attitude, ridiculousness, swirl, repetition:
“My parents had told me that the village was a dangerous place, but I discovered that it was not in the least bit dangerous. I thought nothing of going in and out of all the doors and looking through all the windows. My curiosity knew no bounds. My brother never accompanied me on my expeditions. He’s been down to the village again, he would say, and look on shamelessly, not batting an eyelid, as I was punished for my offense. My mother would beat me with a rawhide that she always kept in readiness, and my father would box my ears. I had many whippings, but I cannot remember my brother being whipped or having his ears boxed. I was interested in anything that was different, but my brother was not, I thought, examining the photo of him in his sailboat on the Wolfgangsee. I once told Gambetti that my brother was always an affection seeker, but I never was. I tried to explain what I meant by the term. At mealtimes my brother was always silent and never dared ask a question. I constantly asked questions and was reprimanded by my parents for asking the most impossible questions. I wanted to know everything – no question must remain unanswered. My brother was a slow eater; I always ate hastily, still do. I always walked fast, wanting to reach my destination as soon as possible; my brother had a slow, one might almost say deliberate, gait. As for my handwriting, it was fast and careless and, as I have said, almost illegible, whereas he always wrote in careful, regular hand. When we went to confession he always spent a long time in the confessional, whereas I was in and out in no time. It did not take me long to list the many sins I felt obliged to confess, while he took at least twice as long over the few he had committed.” p44.
Some eighty pages later Bernhard returns to the rivalry between Franz-Josef and his now deceased brother Johannes. This time Franz-Josef is looking at some pictures of his family as he tells Gambetti:
“My brother, unlike me, was a calm person: at Wolfsegg I had always been the restless spirit, but he was the soul of calm. My parents always referred to him as the contented one and to me as the malcontent. If we got in trouble, it was always my fault, never his. They believed his explanations, not mine. If, for example, I lost money that had been entrusted to me for some reason, they refused to believe I had lost it, despite all my asseverations. They preferred to believe that I had pocketed it and only pretended to have lost it, but if my brother said he had lost some money they believed him. If he told them that he had lost his way in the wood, they instantly believed him, but if I told the same story they refused to believe me. I always had to justify myself at great length and in great detail. On one occasion my brother pushed me into the pond at the Children’s Villa. Whether intentionally or not, he pushed me in while passing me at the edge of the pond, where the wall is not wide enough for two people to pass. I had the greatest difficulty keeping my head above water and not going under. I actually thought I was going to drown, and I also thought that my brother might have pushed me in on purpose, not inadvertently out of clumsiness. This thought tormented me as I struggled for dear life in the pond. My brother could not help me without risking his own life. He naturally made many attempts, but failed.” p127
Maybe you have to read the entire book but I found this passage quite funny. I think it’s the language that gives away that the writer is having a laugh. What I like is that the novel isn’t packaged into sections. Bernhard focuses on making each individual scene as vivid as possible and lets one scene flow into the next without regard to how it fits within the overall scheme of the book. You could argue that the pond drowning passage could flow on from the earlier passage on page forty four. But Bernhard is able to reference back to the contrast between him and his brother with just a sentence or two, a topic that had been canvassed over a number of pages beforehand, and then continue on with an event that had come to his mind. This is how our minds work when we stare out the window in a reflective mood. At first we’re going over old ground but then something may come to us that we hadn’t thought of earlier.
As a writer do we then package the same subjects together or write about them as they occur to us? Bernhard could have separated the the book into smaller sections titled Johannes, Mother, Father, Sisters, The Wine Cork Manufacturer and so on, but this would detract from the swirling nature of the prose. The way the characters interlink is masterful. Without giving too much away, the juxtaposition between the values and apparent principles of the characters all coming together for the funeral elucidates such a realistic feeling inside of me that I understood exactly where Franz-Josef was coming from, why he acts the way he does and why he has such an attitude. Imagine having to greet Nazi SS officers at your fathers funeral because they were ‘friends’.