John Edgar Wideman's Bookshelf
By Thomas Bernhard
The meaning of newspaper headlines depends on a reader's previous knowledge of a continuing story. If you're not in the know, not familiar with language that has been evolving days, weeks, months, headlines are often unintelligible. In a way, the meaning of any story is a kind of weight. Sometimes the weight and authority accumulates for no good reason beyond the fact perhaps that a story is repeated. Repetition breeds familiarity. Momentum develops. Readers are engaged, driven by curiosity about what the next retelling will add. Paradoxically, this thrust forward is also propelled by memory, a longing for the story to complete itself, return to an innocence that doesn't require further examination. The Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard embodies this dynamic of weight, meaning, and memory in his narratives. His XXL-size sentences expand to paragraphs, pages, chapters. Obsessed, it seems, he repeats a word, phrase, a fixed idea, each reiteration almost indistinguishable from the last, yet always gathering force. Little by little, with supernatural patience, prodigious cunning and craft—like Joseph Heller in Catch-22—Bernhard fashions an original angle of vision that transforms our understanding. We see elephants beside us in a room where no one mentions elephants.