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Authors: Thomas Bernhard

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Fiction

Frost: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: Frost: A Novel
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The knacker is a tall dark man; the engineer is a head shorter, brown-haired, talkative, very different from the knacker. “The work’s dragging on,” says the engineer. The work on the bridge, that is, a part of the construction of the power plant which is going on further down the valley. It was the worst time for concreting, but it had to be now. “Even overtime doesn’t help much,” he says. He is, as he says, “draconian.” Well on top of his crews. Talks like them. Drinks like them. Doesn’t stand on ceremony with them, as they wouldn’t with him. He calls their names out in the dining room. Every name gets an instruction for the day ahead. It seems the engineer has everything in his head: figures, deliveries, transports, structures, not quite secured sites, everything. He chain-smokes, and his belly hits against the table when he laughs. The knacker is taciturn. The engineer seems to bring enormous strength to bear against enormity. The workmen respect him. He doesn’t try to pull the wool over their eyes. “The rails need to be mounted,” he says, and everyone except for me and the painter understands what that means. The painter gets up and walks out without saying goodbye to me. I’m not bothered; I’m happy to stay at the table a while longer, and listen.

The inn was one of that type where you would spend no more than a single night, and only if you had to. The painter, for some reason, had always liked it. It wasn’t any amenity it
had, no, it was the shortcomings of it that delighted him. A loyalty to prewar days, when the inn had given shelter to him and his sister. He had always practiced hunger and primitive living. Unassumingness. “I’m acquainted with even the most unobtrusive sounds in this building,” said the painter. With the palms of his hands at night he could palp the familiar walls, whose every unevenness he knew. “I’ve stayed in every one of the rooms,” he said. “At one time I could have bought the inn. I even had the money for it, then. But that would have been the end, you understand,” he said. When he was fed up with everything, he came here. “If the walls could talk,” he said. “Every room has seen its own atrocity. The war has soaked into these walls. I mean, the room where you’re staying …” He said: “In my present mood, I don’t want to say anymore. It’s a matter of a decision taken by a former occupant of the room. Baffling to everyone. Godless.” There were different ways of doing it, but it was all ancient wisdom. And however antiquated a man’s thoughts might be, they did sometimes have radical consequences. Sometimes cold air entered the house when someone forgot to shut the windows, and everything in it perished. “Even dreams die. Everything turns into cold. The imagination, everything.” Never had he had any sort of “ennobling” idea while staying at the inn. Such thoughts, admittedly, did not come to him often, it was immoral even to
to have them. He tended to push them away. “A man can determine the type of thought he wants to entertain.” It was remarkable “how dismissive things can be when you approach them in a spirit of confidence.” Life at the inn was “among the great abuses,” which was where he aligned himself. Self-harm was something he had begun doing in his childhood. “It tired me out a few times. Then I caught fire.” Over the years, he had taken it to
the very edge of insanity. “All in all, the inn is a prosecution witness for my feelings and states. Everything says, ‘This is me,’ … there’s no more virtue, no simplicity, only inbreeding to unimaginable extents.”

“My time has passed as if I didn’t want it. I didn’t want it. Sickness is a consequence of my lack of interest in my time, lack of interest, lack of productivity, lack of pleasure. Sickness appeared where there wasn’t anything else … My research stalled, and all at once I saw: No, I’ll never surmount this wall! It was like this: I had to find a way I had never gone … The nights were sleepless, dull, gray … sometimes I jumped out of bed, and slowly I saw all thought become impossible, worthless, everything successively, logically, became pointless and meaningless … And I discovered that my surroundings didn’t want to be explained by me.”

Fifth Day

“My family, my parents, everyone, the whole world I might have tried to cling to, and to which in fact I repeatedly tried to cling, early on dissolved into darkness; overnight it just went black, withdrew from my vision, or else I’d taken myself away from it, into that dark. I’m not quite sure. At any rate, I was left on my own a lot, maybe I was always on my own. Being alone has preoccupied me, ever since I can remember. The idea of solitude too. Being shut up within myself. The
way I was, I couldn’t imagine being alone all the time. I couldn’t get my head around that, I couldn’t get it into my head, and I couldn’t find a way of expressing it either.” He said: “I kept going back to that point. I stood there helplessly. Stood there disconnectedly. Woke up there. Not where I should have woken up, to suit my nature. My childhood and youth were brutally alone, just as my old age is brutally alone. As if nature had a right to keep pushing me away, back into myself, away from everything else, toward everything else, but always up against the limit. You understand what I’m saying: one’s ears are full of self-reproach. And if you think what you’re hearing is song, some wild or domesticated music, then you’re deceived: it’s still nothing but being alone. That’s the way it is with the birds in the forest, with seawater, lapping around your knees. I never knew what to do for myself, and now I know it still less. That’s a little surprising, isn’t it? I think people only pretend not to be alone, because they’re always alone. If you watch them in their societies, aren’t they proof of the fact: the gatherings, the meetings, the religions, aren’t they all endless solitude? You see, they are always the same thoughts. Unnatural, perhaps. Too much continuity. Dilettante, possibly. If a little self-reliance is brought to solitude,” he said, “that makes it bearable, but I never had the least bit of self-reliance. I didn’t know how to go about anything. I couldn’t cope with influences, surroundings, self. With what it was I was full of. You see. Right!” He said: “People who make a new person are taking an extraordinary responsibility upon themselves. All unrealizable. Hopeless. It’s a great crime to create a person, when you know he’ll be unhappy, certainly if there’s any unhappiness about. The unhappiness that exists momentarily is the whole
of unhappiness. To produce solitude just because you don’t want to be alone anymore yourself is a crime.” He said: “The drive of nature is criminal, and to appeal to it is a pretext, just as everything people do is a pretext.”

He turned to face the village which lay before us: “It’s not a good cast of human being here,” he said. “The people are relatively short. The infants are given ‘brandy rags’ to suck, to keep them from screaming. A lot of miscarriages. Anencephaly is endemic. People don’t have favorite children, they just have a lot of them. In the summer they suffer heatstroke, because their frail tissue can’t stand up to the often fierce sun. In winter, as I say, they freeze to death on their way to school. Alcohol has displaced milk. They all have high squeaky voices. Most of them are crippled in one form or another. All of them are conceived in drunkenness. For the most part criminal characters. A high percentage of the younger people are in and out of prison. Assault and battery, and underage or unnatural sex are standard offenses. Child abuse, killings, are Sunday afternoon stuff … The animals are better off: after all, what people would really like is a pig, not a kid. The schools have very low standards, and the teachers are cunning and despised the way they are everywhere. Often suffer from ulcers. Tuberculosis suspends them in a milky melancholy, from which they never emerge. Gradually the farmers’ sons are integrated into the urban workforce. I have yet to see a good-looking individual in this region. And yet nothing is known of the people here, or of what they think: at the most you might brush against their occupations, existences, torments, their rapid increase. Just brush against it.”

•   •   •

As a child, he had been raised by his grandparents, and been allowed to run wild. In the wintertime, kept closely. Then he had often had to sit still for days on end, and learn combinations of words. By the time he started going to school, he knew more than the teacher did. The classroom in his country school in a quiet hamlet in Lower Austria “is unchanged to this day.” On a whim, he had gone back on a visit. The same smell, he said, that had always bothered him as a child, a mixture of tar, bathrooms, corn, and apples. Now he had breathed in the smell as if it were a spring morning. He often forced himself to put together the smell somewhere, quite suddenly. He almost always succeeded. As a master every now and then will come up with a masterpiece. His whole childhood had been put together from smells; the sum of these smells had made up his childhood. It hadn’t been inert, it was in continual flux. Also there were word games and ball games; fear of vermin, wild animals, gloomy lanes, raging torrents, hunger, and the future. In his childhood he had come across vermin, hunger, wild animals, and raging torrents. Also the future, and loathing. The war made it possible for him to see what people who are unacquainted with war have no knowledge of. City and country by turns, because his grandfather was restless, just as restless as he was himself. His grandmother clever, dignified, unapproachable to low-minded people. His grandfather acquainted him with landscapes, conversations, darkness. “My grandparents were masterful people,” he said. Their loss was the deepest loss he had experienced. His parents hadn’t bothered about him much; they were much more interested in his brother, a year older, and of whom they expected everything that they didn’t
expect of him: a settled future, just any sort of future. His brother had always received more love and more pocket money. Where he disappointed them, his brother never disappointed them. His connection to his sister was far too frail to endure. Later on, they took it up again over the ocean, wrote each other letters from Europe to Mexico, from Mexico to Europe, tried to parlay their mutual liking into a sort of love or dependency, in which they were possibly successful. “She writes me two or three times a year, as I do her,” he said. Within him and his solitude many thoughts were engendered, which became gradually darker. Once his grandparents died, he was in “a blackness that I will never come out of.”

And then his father died, and a year later, his mother. While his brother made his way, climbed up his career ladder rung by rung, to the surgeon he is now, he lost himself in the world in his head. First one way out, then the next were blocked off. Before long he was standing there, confronting ruin. There was little visible evidence of the fact: he always put on good clothes to go out in the street. But at home, in the privacy of his room, he slumped into the lowest frame of mind, into sleeplessness, into ponderings about science and art, into poverty. The more his poverty deepened, the more he shut himself away. His “artistic endeavors” didn’t impress him. He could see all too clearly that the work he produced, often effortfully, was nothing for anyone to remark on, much less celebrate. What he did struck him as ordinary. Everything was crumbling. And yet occasional tricks of fate, “pure accidents,” little hits of friendliness, kept him going. Where from? “Little excursions sometimes happened like a puff
of spring air,” whirling him along to a little town up the Danube, a forest village, yes, even across the border to Hungary, which he had never been able to see enough of, that “melancholy
But childhood was worst on that day when he no longer had his grandparents behind his parents. He was so lonely, he often sat on the steps in someone else’s house and thought he was going to die of misery. For days he went around, spoke to people on the street, who thought he was mad, unmannerly, disgusting. And in the countryside, it was just the same: he often wouldn’t see the fields and meadows for days, because of the tears in the eyes. He would be sent here and there, and be paid for. Or they didn’t pay, and then his being away, his being there, was even worse. He looked for friends, but never found any. It even happened that he thought he suddenly had a friend, but then it would turn out to have been a mistake, from which he hurriedly had to retreat. Into further confusion, apathy, uncertainty. The disruptiveness and blandishments of sex further complicated the situation, how to deal with forbidden sights, illnesses that he had to cope with alone, perturbed him. How different it was for his siblings, who were allowed to stay at home with their parents, and “live life to the full.” Since everything was so confused, he ruined his prospects at school, with the result that one day there was nothing left but to accept a desk job in an office, from which he was only able to rescue himself by a terrible scene, and then on to art school. He won scholarships, and took his final exams, as required. “But nothing came of it,” he said. His early manhood was still worse. He might have had a little more contact with somewhat like-minded contemporaries, but “it was pretty mindless.” His early years had been hard for him. In many ways they reminded me of my own youth. I was sad as well, but never
as bitter as he was, and at such an early age. And yet, childhood and youth were the only things in him “he found hard to say goodbye to.”

Today he admitted he had burned all his paintings. “I had to get rid of those things that were a perpetual reminder of my worthlessness.” They had been like ulcers, opening every day and silencing him. “I did it quickly. One day I realized I’d never make it as a painter. But then, the way everyone does, I refused to believe it, and protracted the agony for years. And then, the day before I was due to leave, it struck me forcibly.”

“There was a time I would have thought it impossible for me to give in to myself so blindly,” says the painter. He stops, draws breath, and says: “I could be in a good mood, after all. Why am I not in a good mood? I’m not bored, I’m not scared. I’m in no pain. I feel no irritation. As if I was someone else, just now. And there it is again: I’m hurt and irritated. Yes, it’s my own doing. See: all my life … I’ve never been merry! Never joyful! Never what people call happy. Because the compulsion to the unusual, the eccentric, the odd, the unique, and the unattainable, this compulsion has wrecked everything for me, and in the creative field as well. It tore everything up, as if it were a piece of paper! My fear is rational, orderly, itemized, there’s nothing low about it. I’m continually testing myself, yes, that’s what it is! I keep chasing my own tail! You can imagine what it’s like, when you open yourself like a book, and find misprints everywhere, one after another, misprints on every page! And in spite of those hundreds
and thousands of misprints, the whole thing is
It’s a whole series of masterpieces! … The pain rises from below or comes down from above, and it becomes human pain. I keep banging into the walls that surround me on every side. I’m a cement man! But I’ve often had to hold on to myself behind my laughter!”

BOOK: Frost: A Novel
10.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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