Walking: A Novella by Thomas Bernhard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When my daughter asked me what I would like for Christmas this past year, I gave her my annual list, including one of my favorite reads of last year, A Philosophy of Walking. Of course, she likes to extemporize, riffing off the list like a jazz-shopper (I'm the same way), so she ended up getting me Thomas Berhnhard's Walking: A Novella. I had not heard of Bernhard, nor read his work, though I feel like I should have, at some point, possibly in a German literature class I had as an undergraduate. Luckily, this was in translation, since my German is nowhere near as good as it was back in college. But, German or English, this was not at all what I expected.
That's not always a bad thing. I've had some reads that were surprisingly good, ones that I didn't expect anything from and was then stunned by their eloquence, strength of story,, or beautiful characterization. But, honestly, I really was looking for a book about walking and this was . . . not it.
I might be more forgiving if the existentialism here had not slipped into outright nihilism. As it is, though, this is a hopeless book, or a book that will make you feel hopeless. Intellectually stimulating? Mmmm, yeah - if you can get past the repetitive-fugue style. And that is, believe it or not, one of the book's strengths. Bernhard uses subtle tweaks on repeated words and phrases to poke and prod at philosophical propositions to the point of distraction. It's not like, for example, Thomas Ligotti's work, where such repetition is used in a much more restrained way to add a disconcerting element of strangeness to a work. No, this is repetition more, but not entirely, for the sake of repetition. This is pedantic repetition, the sort of rote learning that is meant to drive a concept into your head. And it does that quite well. My problem with it is, after exploring the act of thinking, questioning, walking, and sanity using these techniques, one is so spent that one is almost forced to agree with the characters that there really is no point to anything, not even this book. The work itself drives you to exhaustion (which is, believe it or not, another theme explored herein). So while I see Bernhard's philosophical sophistry (the scaffolding is intentionally left exposed) and admire it, on one hand, it will take some time to recover from the book itself, sort of like the time I broke my rib and that spot in my body was sore for years thereafter. It was cool to say that I had pneumonia that caused me to cough so hard that I broke a rib (and honestly wished I was dead for a day or two), but it still hurt for a long time. And, frankly, I don't know that this work was that cool, insightful, or novel. It's just sort of there, making one ask "what's the point"?
Which might be the point.
Take that thought and this (admittedly very long) quote and see what you think. If you're not intrigued by this segment, you're not going to be intrigued by the book. If it fascinates you, the rest of the book will fascinate you so long as you can avoid the repetition-fatigue I encountered. If it seems hopeless to you, well, it is. Note also, that this is one of the less convoluted sections of the book and is given below in exactly the way it is printed in the book. There are no paragraphs, no quotation marks, just a dizzying assault of italicized words and nested conversations within conversations like some insane literary Russian doll having a conversation between its various layers.
Oh, and by now you're asking what the book is about. Well, it's about talking. And walking. And thinking. And insanity. And suicide. You know, happy stuff.
Here, just take a taste of this:
. . . it is not possible to answer a question like the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? Because we have not asked the question Will Karrer go into Obenaus again? which could be answered simply by yes or no, in the actual case in point by answering no, and would thus cause ourselves no difficulty, but instead we are asking, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? it is automatically a question that cannot be answered, says Oehler. Apart from that, we do, however, answer this question when we call the question that we asked ourselves a so-called question and the answer that we give a so-called answer. While we are again acting within the framework of the concept of the so-called and are thus thinking, it seems to us quite possible to answer the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? But the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? can also be applied to me. I can ask, What will I miss if I do not go into Obenaus again? or you can ask yourself, What will I miss if I do not go into Obenaus again? but at the same time it is most highly probable that one of these days I will indeed go into Obenaus again and you will probably go into Obenaus again to eat or drink something, says Oehler. I can say in my opinion Karrer will not go into Obenaus again, I can even say Kerrer will probably not go into Obenaus again, I can say with certainty or definitely that Karrer will not go into Obenaus again. But I cannot ask, What will Karrer miss by the fact that he will not go into Obenaus again? because I cannot answer the question. But let's simply make the attempt to ask ourselves, What does a person who has often been to Obenaus miss if he suddenly does not go into Obenaus any more (and indeed never again)? says Oehler. Suppose such a person simply never goes among the people who are sitting there, says Oehler. When we ask it in this way, we see that we cannot answer the question because in the meantime we have expanded it by an endless number of other questions. If, nevertheless, we do ask, says Oehler, and we start with the people who are sitting in Obenaus. We first ask, What is or who is sitting in Obenaus? so that we can then ask, Whom does someone who suddenly does not go into Obenaus again (ever again) miss? Then we at once ask ourselves, With which of the people sitting in Obenaus shall I begin? and so on. Look, says Oehler, we can ask any question we like, we cannot answer the question if we really want to answer it, to this extent there is not a single question in the whole conceptual world that can be answered.
. . . *
View all my reviews