Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles

The novel that made Thomas Bernhard’s national and international reputation, Gargoyles, offers readers an unbroken montage of human misery and ugliness, both physical and spiritual. Our narrator, a young engineering student, sets out in the very early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, to accompany his father, a local doctor, on his regular visits to “a sick populace, given to violence as well as insanity.” We are in rural Austria, though the cast of characters we meet belong not to the cheery folk tradition but the sustained nightmares of the Brothers Grimm. Beyond the doctor’s visits, there is no real plot to speak of; the narrative is sustained by its catalogue of characters, each more odd or broken or grotesque than the the preceding, culminating in our meeting with Prince Saurau, a local aristocrat whose family has inhabited an Austrian castle for centuries. This last character’s consciousness dominates the last half of the book, taking us out of the standard narrative form into a stream-of-conscious rant that would become a hallmark of Bernhard’s style in later novels.

Bernhard wastes little time in inaugurating us into his novel’s bleak worldview. The son, our narrator, has recently lost his mother, to an illness that was diagnosed late but rapidly became fatal; his sister, we soon learn, has recently attempted suicide. The father’s very rationale for taking his son along with him is pessimistic: he considers it a duty to have his son “face the fact that everything is fundamentally sick and sad.” And if we, as readers, would like to protest, we find little counter-evidence in the ensuing narrative. We encounter, for example, an innkeeper whose wife has recently been murdered by a drunken miner, for no discernible reason; a crippled young man, a musical prodigy, suffering from some kind of degenerative disease that is gradually rendering him incapable of playing music; and a family who have recently inherited an exotic bird collection but are unwilling to put in the effort required to take care of them, choosing instead to kill each bird – individually, by snapping their necks – and stuffing them for posterity. These horrors are somehow amplified for us because they are reported via the intermediary of the narrator, the engineering student, who endeavours to view the world rationally:

Self-control, I said, is the satisfaction of using your brain to make the self into a mechanism that obeys your command.

Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature. But very few people ever perceive their natures. To let the feelings predominate, to do nothing against the normal gloominess of the emotions, delivers people up to despair. Where the reason is in control, I said, despair is impossible. “Whenever this state of total irrationality closes down on me, there is nothing but despair inside me.” Nowadays I only very rarely succumb to this state, I said. Life always seemed grim if you did not step outside it; the satisfaction came from enduring it rationally.

We perhaps sympathize with his attempt to view the world through this lens, but the litany of horrors paraded before us places a hard limit on how far reason and rationality can protect us from human suffering, and by the midway point of the book, when the Prince’s rambling narrative takes over, the narrator’s point of view is both literally and metaphorically cast aside.

Prince Saurau, the de facto narrator of the book’s second half, seems emblematic of post-war Europe itself. He is vain, simultaneously proud of his past and ashamed of it, and regards the castle in which he lives, and which has been in his family for generations, as both an immense burden and a source of shame. Bernhard, born in Austria in 1931 and enrolled, against his wishes, in the Hitler Youth as a child, spent his adult life holding his native country to account for its Nazi past, and we sense some of his pessimism about Europe’s future in the Prince’s statements. “We are without parents,” he tells our narrator. “We are orphans. That is our condition, and we shall not, Europe will not escape from this condition ever again.” The generation of Europeans growing up in the post-war period were, when not literal orphans, metaphorically without forebears, for what could you safely take from the past in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the continent-spanning war? The solution adopted by the Prince, to attempt to forget, was likewise the strategy of much of Europe, particularly those countries (France included) who had collaborated. “The thinking man’s task is more and more to remove images from his memory. His goal has been attained when there is no longer a single image in his brain. When the representational potentialities of his brain are exhausted.” Is willful forgetfulness a possibility, for a man or a culture? Perhaps. But Bernhard insists, through the figure of the Prince, that such a strategy is deeply disfiguring.