Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was an Austrian writer who never shied away from controversy, in fact he courted it. His formative years were of course lived during the Hitler era, this after an unhappy childhood where his father died having never met him, his stepfather a Nazi, his mother a bitter angry woman who often took this out on him. To top it all off he contracted TB and spent two years in a sanitorium, where he met Wittgenstein’s nephew Paul (which incidentally gave him the title of one of his novels, Wittgenstein’s Nephew), and they became friends. His body of work has been called “the most significant literary achievement since WWII” and he is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era. His writing is compelling, relentless, fugue-like, wherein he reiterates his themes again and again, in sentences as long as 300 words and no chapter breaks. He had very controversial theories regarding suicide, the role of the Catholic Church in post-war Germany (he posited that it took the place of the Nazis with the same effect, as well that Christ replaced Hitler), education, and parenting (believing that parents destroyed their children). He wrote things most people might think but would never say and has no compunction about saying them, feeling they need to be said. The writer he most resembles is Samuel Beckett, who admired him. A must read starting point is his 5-part memoir, a one-volume work entitled Gathering Evidence; my favorite novel is Correction, which is his exegesis of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, followed by Concrete; another, The Loser has a protagonist based on Glenn Gould , but you can’t go wrong with any of his 30 translated novels, plays, novellas, stories, and poems. A word of caution: not for the fainthearted, you will either be fascinated or repelled with/by him.
As promised in my “Writer’s Writers” post yesterday I’d like to talk about the writers on the list who toiled in anonymity. Wright Morris (1910-1998) was born in Nebraska, and the Plains were his main theme. I first heard of him way back in my drinking days when I was a callow aspiring poet who hadn’t written very much of anything. A guy I met in a bar, Bob Groves, was the person who first uttered his name; he was a reporter for the now defunct “Courier Express,” Buffalo’s venerated morning newspaper. Depending on what time you caught him, Bob could be very interesting, when he was in his cups you wanted to stay away. A failed writer he said he had no talent, which he blamed for his drinking; we often talked about writers, and one night he mentioned Wright Morris, whom I’d never heard of. I respected his literary opinion and set out to find one of his books, which sadly were mostly out of print. Buffalo has a very good Central Library and since I like to start at the beginning, I began with his first book, “My Uncle Dudley.” I liked it right away, it being a road book featuring a young boy and his somewhat shady uncle and his nefarious ways. I went on to read most all of his works (over 30), with my favorites being “My Uncle Dudley,” “Plains Song,” and “Ceremony in Lone Tree.” He was also a great photographer, wrote a multi-volume memoir, and experimented with the narrative form in many different ways. His writing is timeless in the way he shows how things once were and will never be again: frozen water on the water barrel, home burials, weddings, and funerals, hard unremunerative farm work, arranged marriages, harsh winters and unrelenting summers. His prose is quietly immaculate, concise, a pleasure to read, but while he won many awards he was unread. I know of no one except myself (and possibly Bob Groves) who has read him, although I have recommended him time and again. If this piece in some small way rectifies that, I would be very happy.
A writer’s writer isn’t just an excellent writer, but a writer who is admired/appreciated/respected by other writers, but may not be by the general public, a writer you can LEARN from. To that end, I will create a short list of those writers (prose only for now) I put in this category (its purely subjective of course), and then will devote a daily entry to each, explaining why they belong. I welcome any and all names you would like to add to my list. Forthwith is the list (in no particular order):
Henry David Thoreau
Karl Ove Knausgaard
The title of a story I set aside for months; one of those where the idea seems promising but the execution of it impossible. Finally had a breakthrough last night and was able to increase it threefold. Still have no idea how it is going to finish, I’m at the stage where I’m groping blindly in the dark for the slightest thread to keep it moving, with no idea why I’m writing what I am, which is usually the case with stories that are difficult to get out. This time, however, I’m not going to shrink at any of the conclusions I finally come to, i.e. the ending. I suppose the inspiration was the discovery of a blog (Eli Hopkins) on here I can submit it to, and for that I am grateful. Now I leave to sublimate it for a while as is my wont and is usually successful. We literally will see what happens.
A Week was published in 1849, with a note at the back announcing the imminent publication of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. A Week was not well received by the public, however, and only two hundred copies of it sold in the first few years after its publication. Thoreau financed the volume himself. When publisher James Munroe returned the unsold copies to him in 1853, Thoreau wrote in a journal entry for October 28, 1853, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself–”
the voice of one crying in the wilderness…
A 6-volume hybrid currently translated into english up to volume 3. The most honest writing I’ve ever read, it woke me up to the possibilities of writing fact as if it were fiction. I am embarking on my own version of My Struggle, vol. 1. I originally began it as my usual very autobiographical fiction, meanwhile reading Knausgaard among many other things when it hit me, why not try to write about your life as it is (the title is ‘The Way it Is’), stop making things up, stop censoring yourself, it’s all fiction anyway, no one can remember exactly the way it was as we are constantly evolving, but the attempt to be as honest as one can is not only very liberating but a whole new way of seeing things. My goal is to finally get through a first draft (I started it in December 2012 and have 150,000+ words so far) and then begin the real writing, that is using my real voice. I’d be willing to share some parts if anyone desires.