Extinction: A Novelby Thomas Bernhard
Extinction, Bernhard's last work of fiction, takes the form of the autobiographical testimony of Franz-Josef Murau, the intellectual black sheep of a
From the late Thomas Bernhard, arguably Austria's most influential novelist of the postwar period, and one of the greatest artists in all twentieth-century literature in the German language, his magnum opus.
Extinction, Bernhard's last work of fiction, takes the form of the autobiographical testimony of Franz-Josef Murau, the intellectual black sheep of a powerful Austrian land-owning family. Murau lives in Rome in self-imposed exile from his family, surrounded by a coterie of artistic and intellectual friends. On returning from his sister's wedding to the "wine-cork manufacturer" on the family estate of Wolfsegg, having resolved never to go home again, Murau receives a telegram informing him of the death of his parents and brother in a car crash. Not only must he now go back, he must do so as the master of Wolfsegg. And he must decide its fate.
Divided into two halves, Extinction explores Murau's rush of memories of Wolfsegg as he stands at his Roman window considering the fateful telegram, in counterpoint to his return to Wolfsegg and the preparations for the funeral itself.
Written in the seamless style for which Bernhard became famous, Extinction is the ultimate proof of his extraordinary literary genius. It is his summing-up against Austria's treacherous past and -- in unprecedented fashion -- a revelation of his own incredibly complex personality, of his relationship with the world in which he lived, and the one he left behind.
A literary event of the first magnitude.
Read an Excerpt
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-]osef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o'clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read. Holding the telegram, I kept a clear head, walked calmly to my study window, and looked down on the Piazza Minerva, where there was not a soul in sight. I had given Gambetti five books that I thought would be useful and necessary to him in the next few weeks, telling him to read them slowly and carefully: Jean Paul's Siebenkäs, Kafka's The Trial, Thomas Bernhard's Amras, Musil's The Portuguese Woman, and Broch's Esch or Anarchy. I opened the window so that I could breathe more easily and reflected that I had been right to give Gambetti these five books rather than any others, since he would find them increasingly important in the course of our lessons. I also remembered telling him in passing that next time we would discuss Elective Affinities and not The World as Will and Idea. It was a delight to talk to Gambetti again after the dreary and labored conversations I had had with my family at Wolfsegg, all of them confined to day-to-day concerns of a wholly private and primitive kind. German words hang like lead weights on the German language, I had said to Gambetti, and constantly drag the mind down to a level that can only be harmful to it. German thought and German speech soon become paralyzed under the intolerable weight of the language, which suppresses any thought before it can find expression. Under the German language, I said, German thought had developed only with difficulty and never come to full efflorescence, as Romance thought had under the Romance languages—as witness the centuries of effort that the Germans had invested in their thinking. Although I have a higher regard for Spanish than for Italian, no doubt because I am more familiar with it, Gambetti that morning illustrated yet again the lightness, effortlessness, and infinite versatility of Italian, which bears the same relation to German as a child reared in complete freedom, in a happy and prosperous home, bears to one who has been cowed and beaten into low cunning in the poorest of poor families. How much more highly, then, must we rate the achievements of our philosophers and writers? I asked. Every word inexorably drags their thought down, every sentence forces to the ground whatever they venture to think, and thus forces everything to the ground. That's why their philosophy and their writings are so leaden. Using my hands to simulate a balance, the left representing the German scale and the right the Italian, I quoted a sentence from Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, first in German and then in Italian, and showed Gambetti how the German scale sank and the Italian sprang up. For his amusement, as well as my own, I recited a number of sentences from Schopenhauer, first in German and then in an extempore Italian translation, weighing both versions in my hands and making what was at first intended as an object lesson into a kind of bizarre game, concluding with some sentences from Hegel and an aphorism from Kant. The sad thing is, I told Gambetti, that heavy words and heavy sentences are not always the weightiest. The game soon exhausted me. Standing in front of the Hotel Hassler, I gave Gambetti a brief account of my recent visit to Wolfsegg, which in the end struck me as excessively circumstantial and inconsequential. My aim had been to compare our two families, to contrast the German element in mine with the Italian in his, but in fact all I did was to play off my family against his; this was bound to distort what I wanted to say and to strike Gambetti as disagreeable and confusing rather than instructive and informative. Gambetti is a good listener and has a fine ear, trained by me, for the truth and logic of what he is told. Gambetti is my pupil, but conversely I am Gambetti's. I learn at least as much from him as he learns from me. We have an ideal relationship: sometimes I am his teacher and he my pupil, but at other times he is my teacher and I his pupil. And there are times when neither of us knows who is the pupil and who the teacher. That is the ideal situation. Officially, of course, I am always Gambetti's teacher, and for this I am paid by Gambetti, or rather by his well-to-do father. Only two days after returning from the wedding of my sister Caecilia and the wine cork manufacturer from Freiburg, who is now my brother-in-law, I thought, looking down at the deserted Piazza Minerva, I'll have to repack my suitcase, which I unpacked only yesterday and didn't even put away but left on the chair by my desk; I'll have to return to Wolfsegg, which has in recent years become more or less repugnant to me-and this time not for a ridiculous and grotesque occasion but for one that fills me with dread. Instead of discussing Siebenkas or The Portuguese Woman with Gambetti, I told myself, I'll be at the mercy of my sisters, who are expecting me. Instead of talking to Gambetti about Elective Affinities I'll have to talk to my sisters about the funeral and the inheritance. Instead of walking up and down the Pincio with GambettI, I'll have to visit the registry of deaths and the cemetery and quarrel with my sisters over the funeral arrangements. As I packed the clothes that I had unpacked the night before, I tried to work out what consequences the death of my parents and my brother would have, but I arrived at no conclusion. I was naturally aware, however, of what was now required of me after the deaths of the three people who were closest to me, at least on paper—all my strength, all my willpower. The calm with which I gradually stuffed whatever I needed for my journey into the suitcase, while taking stock of the disruption that this undoubtedly dreadful calamity would cause in my immediate future, did not strike me as at all unnatural until long after I had shut the suitcase. The question of whether I had loved my parents and my brother was one that I at once fended off with the word naturally, but it remained fundamentally unanswered. For ages I had not had what is called a good relationship with either my parents or my brother but had one marked by tension and, in recent years, indifference. The truth is that for a long time I had wanted to know nothing about Wolfsegg or about them, and they, conversely, had wanted to know nothing about me. Hence our mutual relations were more or less confined to the exigencies of existence. Twenty years ago, I thought, your parents not only released you from Wolfsegg, after wanting to chain you there for life, but dismissed you from their feelings. During these twenty years my brother had envied me for having left Wolfsegg, for my megalomaniac self-sufficiency, as he once put it, and hated me for my relentless insistence on freedom. My sisters' distrust had always exceeded the bounds of what is acceptable among siblings, and when once I turned my back on Wolfsegg, and therefore on them, they too pursued me with their hatred. This is the truth. I picked up the suitcase. It was, as usual, too heavy. I really don't need it, I thought, as I have everything I need at Wolfsegg. Why cumber myself with a suitcase? Having decided to travel without a suitcase, I proceeded to unpack my clothes and return them, item by Item, to the closet. It's natural to love one's parents, and it's equally natural to love one's brother and sisters, I thought, standing by the window again and looking down on the deserted Piazza Minerva. We therefore fail to notice that from a certain moment onward we hate them, without wanting to, just as naturally as we previously loved them, for all kinds of reasons that we become aware of only years later, often decades later. We can't determine precisely when we stopped loving them and started hating them, and we don't try, basically because we are afraid to. Anyone who leaves his family, against their will and as implacably as I left mine, has to reckon with their hatred, and the greater their previous love for him, the greater their hatred when he has done what he swore to do. For decades their hatred caused me suffering, I reflected, but I haven't suffered from it for years now; I've become used to it and it no longer hurts me. And their hatred of me inevitably led me to hate them, but in recent years they haven't suffered from my hatred either. They despised me, their Roman, just as I despised them, the Wolfseggers. Basically they stopped thinking about me, just as I stopped thinking about them most of the time. They always referred to me as a charlatan, a blatherer, a parasite who battened on them and everyone else. The sole term I could apply to them was blockheads. Their death, which can only have been caused by a road accident, I told myself, in no way alters the facts. There was no danger of my yielding to sentimentality. My hands did not shake as I read the telegram, and my body did not tremble. I'll tell Gambetti that my parents and my brother have died and that I must postpone our lessons for a few days, I thought. After all, I won't be staying at Wolfsegg for more than a few days; a week will be enough, even allowing for unforeseen complications. For a moment I considered taking Gambetti with me, fearing the superior force of the Wolfseggers and wishing for an ally with whom I could defend myself against their onslaught, someone of my own kind who would be a partner in a desperate and possibly hopeless situation, but I immediately abandoned the idea, as I wanted to spare Gambetti a confrontation with Wolfsegg. He'd see that everything I've told him in recent years is actually quite tame compared with the reality, I thought. At one moment I thought of taking him with me; the next moment I thought better of it. Finally I decided against taking him. I'd spend too much time with him, and this would cause something of a stir that I'd probably find disagreeable, I thought. They wouldn't understand a person like Gambetti at Wolfsegg, where harmless strangers are invariably greeted with hostility. They've always rejected anything unfamiliar, they've never welcomed anything or anyone unfamiliar, as I usually do. To take Gambetti to Wolfsegg would mean deliberately exposing him to insult, and he might be deeply hurt. I can hardly cope with Wolfsegg myself, I thought, and to confront Gambetti with Wolfsegg could be a disaster, and he himself would be the chief victim. I could of course have taken Gambetti to Wolfsegg long ago, I thought, but I wisely refrained, although I had often told myself that it might be beneficial not only for me but for him, for if he saw it all for himself, my accounts of Wolfsegg would gain an authenticity that they are otherwise bound to lack. I've known Gambetti for fifteen years and not once taken him to Wolfsegg, I thought. Maybe he sees it differently, I told myself. It's obviously strange to have known someone for fifteen years and been on fairly intimate terms with him without once, in all these fifteen years, Inviting him to my home. Why, I wondered, have I never, in all these fifteen years, allowed Gambetti a glimpse of the hand I was dealt at birth? Because I've always been afraid to and still am. Because I want to protect myself against his knowing about Wolfsegg and my origins—that's one reason—and because I want to protect him from such knowledge, the effect of which could be disastrous. In the fifteen years we have known each other I have been reluctant to expose Gambetti to Wolfsegg. It would have been the pleasantest thing in the world to go to Wolfsegg with Gambetti and spend my time there in his company, but I have always rejected the idea. He would of course have been prepared to go with me at any time and always expected to be invited. But he never was. A funeral is not only a sad occasion but an utterly disagreeable one, I told myself, and I certainly won't invite Gambetti to accompany me on such an occasion. I'll tell him that my parents have died, I'll say that they and my brother have been killed in a car crash, though I've no confirmation of this, but I won't say a word about his coming with me. Only two weeks earlier, before going to Wolfsegg for my sister's wedding, I had treated Gambetti to a highly intemperate description of my parents and told him that my brother was rather a bad character, and irremediably stupid. I had described Wolfsegg as a citadel of brainlessness and spoken of the dreadful prevailing climate, which dominated and ruthlessly destroyed all who were forced to live—or rather to exist—there. But I also told him about the glories of Wolfsegg—about the beauty of the fall, of the winter cold and the silence in the surrounding woods and valleys, which I loved more than anything. Nature there was ruthless, I said, but utterly clear and magnificent. Yet this clear and magnificent nature was not appreciated by those who lived in the midst of it, because they were too brainless. If my family didn't exist, but only the walls they live in, I told Gambetti, Wolfsegg would be the perfect place for me, as there's no other so congenial to my spirit. But I can't abolish my family just because I want to, I said. I can hear myself saying these words, and the terrible meaning they took on now that my parents and my brother were actually dead made me repeat them aloud as I stood at the window, looking down on the Piazza Minerva. But I can't abolish my family just because I want to. Uttering these words to Gambetti, I had felt the utmost distaste for the people they referred to. I now found myself repeating them aloud in a distinctly theatrical manner. Like an actor who has to rehearse his lines because they are to be spoken before a large audience, I momentarily took the sting out of them. They suddenly ceased to be annihilating.
Meet the Author
Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 and grew up in Salzburg and in Vienna, where he studied music. In 1957 he began a second career as a playwright, poet, and novelist. A winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany, he is one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation. His works already published in English include the novels Gargoyles, Tire Lime Works, Correction, Concrete, Woodcutters, Wittgenstein's Nephew, and The Loser, and a memoir, Gathering Evidence. A number of his plays have been produced off-Broadway and at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and at theaters in London and throughout Europe. Thomas Bernhard died in 1989.
For his translations of works by Thomas Bernhard, David McLintock was awarded an Austrian state prize in 1986, and in 1990 he won the SchlegelTieck Prize for his translation of Heinrich Boll's Women in a River Landscape. Mr. McLintock graduated from Oxford University, studied in Munster and Munich, and now lives in London.
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I read Extinction a few years ago and just bought it on B&N.com to send to a friend. Often difficult, Bernhard's fiction is powerful, intelligent, and biting. Extinction's final pages are moving in the knowledge that it's one of the author's last works, and this is how he "goes out." At this time, I'm reading only non-fction with the exception of books by this talented writer. In a world where literature as an art form seems to be ignored, one can find prose of high order here.