Instead of the book he’s meant to write, Rudolph, a Viennese musicologist, produces this dark and grotesquely funny account of small woes writ large, of profound horrors detailed and rehearsed to the point of distraction. We learn of Rudolph’s sister, whose help he invites, then reviles as malevolent meddling; his ‘really marvelous’ house, which he hates; the suspicious illness he carefully nurses; his ten-year-long attempt to write the perfect opening sentence; and, finally, his escape to the island of Majorca, which turns out to be the site of someone else’s very real horror story.
A brilliant and haunting tale of procrastination, failure, and despair, Concrete is a perfect example of why Thomas Bernhard is remembered as “one of the masters of contemporary European fiction” (George Steiner).
About the Author
Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 and grew up in Austria. He studied music at the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg. In 1957 he began a second career, as a playwright, poet, and novelist. The winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation. He published nine novels, an autobiography, one volume of poetry, four collections of short stories, and six volumes of plays. Thomas Bernhard died in Austria in 1989.
Read an Excerpt
From March to December, writes Rudolf, while I was having to take large quantities of prednisolone, a fact which I am bound to record here, against the third acute onset of my sarcoidosis, I assembled every possible book and article written by or about Mendelssohn Bartholdy and visited every possible and impossible library in order to acquaint myself thoroughly with my favourite composer and his work, preparing myself with the most passionate seriousness for the task, which I had been dreading throughout the preceding winter, of writing — such was my pretension — a major work of impeccable scholarship. It had been my intention to devote the most careful study to all these books and articles and only then, having studied them with all the thoroughness the subject deserved, to begin writing my work, which I believed would leave far behind it and far beneath it everything else, both published and unpublished, which I had previously written in the field of what is called musicology. I had been planning it for ten years and had repeatedly failed to bring it to fruition, but now I had resolved to begin writing on the twenty-seventh of January at precisely four o'clock in the morning, after the departure of my sister, who was due to leave on the twenty-sixth, and whose presence in Peiskam had for weeks put paid to any thought of my starting work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. On the evening of the twenty-sixth my sister had finally gone, with all her dreadful faults, which are the result of her unhealthy craving to dominate and her distrust of everything, but especially of me, a distrust by which she was consumed to a higher degree than anyone else, but from which she daily drew fresh vitality. I went round the house, breathing deeply, and aired it thoroughly. Finally, since tomorrow was the twenty-seventh, I set about arranging everything I needed to carry out my plan, arranging the books and articles, the papers and the piles of notes on my desk in precise accordance with those rules which I had always observed as a precondition for starting work. We must be alone and free from all human contact if we wish to embark upon an intellectual task! These preparations occupied me for more than five hours, from half past eight in the evening until half past two in the morning, and, as was only to be expected, I didn't sleep for the rest of the night, being continually tormented above all by the thought that my sister might return for some reason and frustrate my plans. In her condition she was capable of anything: the smallest incident, the slightest upset, I told myself, would be enough to make her break her journey home and return here. It would not be the first time I had seen her to the Vienna train and parted from her, as I thought, for months, only to have her back in my house two or three hours later to stay for as long as she chose. I lay awake, constantly listening for her at the door, alternating between listening for my sister at the door and thinking about my work, and especially about how to begin it, how the first sentence should run, for I still didn't know how to word the first sentence, and before I know the wording of the first sentence I can't begin any work. So all the time I was tormented by listening for my sister's return and by thinking of how I should word my first sentence on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Again and again I listened despairingly, and again and again I thought, just as despairingly, about the first sentence of my work on Mendelssohn. I spent about two hours thinking about the first sentence of my Mendelssohn study and at the same time listening for my sister's return, which would put an end to my study before it was even started. However, since I listened for her return with ever increasing intentness, reflecting that, if she did return, she would inevitably ruin my work, while at the same time thinking about the wording of my first sentence, I must finally have nodded off. When I awoke with a start it was five o'clock. I had meant to begin working at four o'clock and now it was five. I was alarmed by this negligence of mine, or rather this lack of discipline. I got up and wrapped myself in a blanket, the horse blanket I had inherited from my maternal grandfather, and tied it round me as tightly as I could with the leather belt which was also inherited from my grandfather, so tightly that I could scarcely breathe. Then I sat down at my desk. Of course it was completely dark. I made sure that I was alone in the house. I could hear nothing except my own pulse beat. I took the four prednisolone tablets, which had been prescribed by the specialist, with a glass of water and smoothed out the sheet of paper I had put in front of me. I'll calm down and begin work, I told myself. Again and again I said to myself, I'll calm down and begin work. But after I had said this about a hundred times and could no longer stop saying it I gave up. My attempt had failed. It was impossible for me to begin work in the early morning light. The dawn had completely dashed my hopes. I got up and fled from my desk. I went downstairs into the hall, believing that I should be able to calm myself there, where it was cold, for by sitting for more than one whole hour at my desk I had worked myself into a state of agitation which made me almost demented, brought on not only by mental concentration, but also, as I had feared, by the prednisolone tablets. I pressed both palms against the cold wall of the hall, a well-tried method for overcoming this kind of agitation, and I actually did calm down. I was conscious of having surrendered myself to a subject which might possibly destroy me, but all the same I had believed that I could at least make a start on my work this morning. I had deluded myself. Although she had gone, I still felt the presence of my sister in every part of the house. It would be impossible to imagine a person more hostile to anything intellectual than my sister. The very thought of her robs me of my capacity for any intellectual activity, and she has always stifled at birth any intellectual projects I have had. She's been gone a long time now, and yet she is still controlling me, I thought as I pressed my hands against the cold wall of the hall. At last I had enough strength to remove them and take a few steps. I also failed in my plan to write something on Jenufa. That was in October, not long before my sister came to stay, I told myself. And now I'm failing with Mendelssohn Bartholdy, I'm failing even when my sister is no longer here. I didn't even finish the sketch On Schönberg. She annihilated it for me: first she destroyed it, then she finally annihilated it, by coming into the room at the very moment when I thought I was going to be able to complete it. There's no defence against a person like my sister, who is at once so strong and so anti-intellectual; she comes and annihilates whatever has taken shape in one's mind as a result of exerting, indeed of over-exerting one's memory for months on end, whatever it is, even the most trifling sketch on the most trifling subject. And there's nothing so fragile as music, to which I have actually given myself up completely in recent years. At first I gave myself up to listening to music, then to studying the theory of music; first I devoted myself with the utmost intensity to the practical study of music, then to the theoretical, but my plans were all frustrated by my sister and everybody like her, whose lack of understanding dogs me day and night. She destroyed Jenufa for me, and Moses and Aaron, my essay On Rubinstein, and my article on Les Six, in fact everything I held sacred. It's terrible: no sooner am I capable of a piece of intellectual work than my sister turns up and destroys it. It's as if her sole aim in life were to destroy my intellectual work. It's as if, living in Vienna, she could sense that I am about to embark on a subject here in Peiskam; and when I do, she turns up and destroys it. People exist for the sole purpose of tracking down the intellect and annihilating it. Sensing that somebody's brain is on the point of some intellectual effort, they come along and stifle this intellectual effort at birth. And if it isn't my wretched, malignant, deceitful sister, then it's somebody else of her kind. How many essays have I begun, only to burn them because my sister has turned up, only to throw them in the stove the moment she's appeared! No one is so fond of saying, I'm not disturbing you, am I? That's rich coming from someone who's always disturbed people and always will, whose sole mission in life seems to be to disturb, to disturb anything and everything and so destroy it and finally annihilate it, constantly to annihilate what to me is the most important thing in the world — a product of the mind. Even when we were children she would try at every opportunity to disturb me, to drive me out of my mental paradise, as I called it. If I had a book in my hands she would pursue me until I put it down. If, in fury, I threw it in her face, she was triumphant. I remember it all so well: if I had my maps spread out on the floor — which is a lifelong passion of mine — she would emerge from hiding behind my back and startle me, putting her foot on the very spot where all my attention was concentrated. I can still see her foot placed suddenly and viciously wherever I had spread out my beloved countries and continents in order to fill them full with my childish imaginings. At the age of five or six I used to withdraw into the garden with a book. On one occasion, which I can remember clearly, it was a blue-bound volume of the poems of Novalis from my grandfather's library. In this book, which of course I didn't properly understand, I discovered such delights as were sufficient to fill my Sunday afternoon for hour after hour, until my sister discovered where I was and, darting out from the bushes with a yell, snatched the volume of Novalis from me. Our younger sister was entirely different, but she's been dead for thirty years, and it's senseless to compare her now with my elder sister, to compare one who was always ailing and ill and finally died with one who is always healthy and dominates all around her. Even her husband put up with her for only two and a half years, after which he fled from her stranglehold and went to South America, to Peru, never to be heard of again. She's always destroyed whatever she's touched, and all her life she's tried to destroy me. At first unconsciously, then consciously, she's set out to annihilate me. Right up to this day I've had to protect myself against my elder sister's savage desire to annihilate, and I really don't know how so far I've managed to escape her. She turns up when she feels like it, she leaves when she feels like it, and she does what she feels like doing. She married her husband, who was a real estate broker, in order to drive him to Peru and get complete control of his real estate business. She's a business woman. Even as a very small child she was that way inclined, towards the persecution of the intellect and the closely concomitant pursuit of money. That we should have had the same mother is something I've never been able to understand. She'd now been out of the house for almost twenty-four hours, yet she was still in control of me. I couldn't escape her. I tried desperately but didn't succeed. I'm horrified by the thought that to this day, when she travels by sleeper, she makes a principle of sleeping only in her own sheets. For the third time I flung open the windows and aired the whole house, until the cold air had turned it into an ice-box in which I was in danger of freezing to death. At first I'd been afraid of suffocating; now I was afraid of freezing to death. And all this because of my sister, under whose influence I've been in danger of either suffocating or freezing to death all my life. In her apartment in Vienna she actually stays in bed until half-past-ten and doesn't go for lunch at the Imperial or the Sacher until about half-past-one. There, as she dissects her boiled fillet of beef and sips her vin rose, she does business with her effete princes and with imperial highnesses of every possible and impossible kind. I'm nauseated by the kind of life she leads. On the day of her departure she didn't do a thing to tidy up her room before she left, so that the very sight of it made me feel embarrassed at the thought of what Frau Kienesberger would think, though she was not due to come till the following weekend. She's been keeping the house in order for over ten years. Everything was piled up in three great heaps, and the duvet was lying on the floor. And although I'd opened all the windows, as I've already said, my sister's smell was still in the room. In fact it permeated the house and made me feel sick. She has my younger sister on her conscience, I often think, for she too went in constant fear of her elder sister, towards the end probably in deadly fear. Parents have a child, and in doing so they bring into the world a monster that kills everything it comes into contact with, it seems to me. At one time I'd written an essay on Haydn — Michael, not Josef — when she suddenly appeared and knocked the pen out of my hand. Since I hadn't finished the essay, it was ruined. Now I've ruined your essay! she cried out ecstatically, whereupon she ran to the window and shouted out this diabolical statement several times. Now I've ruined your essay! Now I've ruined your essay! I was no match for such hideous surprise attacks. At table she destroyed every conversation as it was just beginning, merely by laughing suddenly or interjecting some impossibly stupid remark which had no bearing on the incipient conversation.