BOOK REVIEW / Every grimace, every garbage can: 'On the Mountain' - Thomas Bernhard, Tr Russell Stockman: Quartet, 5.95

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The Independent Culture
I really thought I was losing my mind in the course of reading this book. The blurb prepares us for 'a monologue in the guise of a dialogue between a Loner and a Lover, a Fat Man and a Beggar, out to climb a mountain on a wintry night after a party . . .' Doesn't sound very interesting, but Thomas Bernhard's novels never do . . . Anyway, I kept plugging away, often becoming tangled in the dense undergrowth of the narrator's consciousness, waiting to encounter a Loner, a Lover, a Fat Man or a Beggar but, for the life of me, I couldn't find any sign of them. By the last page they still hadn't shown up, so I turned for assistance to the Afterword (so what if the cover calls it an 'Introduction'?) in which Sophie Wilkins points out how this early work of Bernhard's can be seen in the same light as the young Kafka's Description of a Struggle, in which a Loner, a Lover, a Fat Man and a Beggar . . .

Now, we are used to blurbs hyping things up out of critical recognition but to have one which actually refers to a different book by a different author is, once the If on a Winter's Night frisson wears off, alarming to say the least. How careless can a publisher be? Did nobody at Quartet even read the book?

To be honest I had some trouble getting through it myself. On the Mountain was Bernhard's first prose work, completed in 1959 but not published until 1989, a few months after his death. It's very different to his first published novel, Frost (1963) which, like all his subsequent ones, presents the reader with a solid block of type, unrelieved by chapters or paragraphs. It comes as quite a shock, then, to open this book and find glades of white space, places to pause and rest. Technically the text may be one long sentence (the breaks are indicated by commas) but it reads like notebook jottings, unified only by consistency of tone.

While one can see the origins of Bernhard's distinctive register here, this tone is by no means unmistakably Bernhardian. True, there is a lot of huffing and puffing about how awful everything is but, despite the radical appearance of the text, this has a conventional - or, more precisely, a radically conventional - air to it. What is remarkable about many of these outbursts of loathing - 'this spongy, stupid, constantly compliant mass of humanity, composed of nothing but stupidity and water and countless watery compounds' - is how little conviction they carry. By the time of the mature works like Correction, The Loser, Cutting Timber, Yes (actually there's no need to list them individually, they're all pretty much the same) Bernhard will perform interminable and wonderful improvisations on this theme. The one-time music student is here just learning the scales of modernist abhorrence. 'I know (the city) through and through, every stone, every grimace, every garbage can, every glass of beer, every toilet.' This particular exercise in urban disgust is rhythmically bound to come to a lavatorial end.

Offputting though it seems at first, the relentless drone of the mature Bernhard is utterly compulsive. With nowhere to shelter from the perpetual drizzle of his prose you become soaked through with it and keep trudging on to the end. On the Mountain lacks this dismal narrative momentum.

Wilkins tries valiantly to salvage some kind of 'plot' or sequence of events from the book but you may as well read it as a series of youthful journal entries as a finished work. Even once you have made this concession there is the problem of the relative infrequency of outstanding entries. Bernhard is the opposite of an aphoristic writer. He is at his best (and he is at his best when he is at his funniest) when he is at his most exhaustive, when he is tracing every agonising reversal of, for example, psychotic indecision. There are some nice prophetic declarations here ('despair is the fame that I've always been in love with, that I've always scorned, that I've always dragged out of its hiding place') and glimpses of the sodden lyricism that will constitute the typical Bernhardian topography ('the trees are bare, the rain has drenched the countryside, the land is expressionless, desolate and empty: nothing that could remind you of summer') but such moments are few and far between.