02 August 2013

An indication of the cause

W. G. Sebald mutes Thomas Bernhard's suicidal clamour, writes James Wood in The Guardian. Indeed, in contrast to Bernhard's, Sebald's were tempered rants, but rants no less effective for giving voice to the muted anger, desperation, and madness of exiles. In The Emigrants (trans. Michael Hulse), memory seems the only stable nationality of its eponymous characters and its narrator. The narrator particularly weaves his story in an anachronistic voice, closely identifying with his subjects who are all uprooted from their homes. Only in the compass of memory can the peripatetic narrator and his subjects seem to find their moorings. Like Dr. Henry Selwyn in the first section of The Emigrants, the narrator of the second section and his subject (his former teacher Paul Bereyter) are both physically and spiritually displaced, exiled not to some nearby place but much farther, "halfway round the world":

In December 1952 my family moved from the village of W to the small town of S, 19 kilometres away. The journey – during which I [the narrator] gazed out of the cab of Alpenvogel's wine-red furniture van at the endless lines of trees along the roadsides, thickly frosted over and appearing before us out of the lightless morning mist – seemed like a voyage halfway round the world, though it will have lasted an hour at the very most.


He was in Poland, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Russia and the Mediterranean, and doubtless saw more than any heart or eye can bear. The seasons and the years came and went. A Walloon autumn was followed by an unending white winter near Berdichev, spring in the Departement Haute-Saône, summer on the coast of Dalmatia or in Romania, and always, as Paul wrote under this photograph [a photograph of a man was included in the text], one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day, hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one's qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.

Paul Bereyter was increasingly losing his qualities because his race (a quarter Jewish or "only three quarters an Aryan") is an issue to some people around him. As he came face to face with the cruelty of these people, he preferred to live in a dream instead, a form of exile but a bearable one in any case. People like Paul Bereyter chose to forget, an act akin to dying.

Do you know, she said on one of my visits to Yverdon, the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget, is nothing more than the other side of the perfidious way in which Schöferle, who ran a coffee house in S., informed Paul's mother Thekla, who had been on stage for some time in Nuremberg, that the presence of a lady who was married to a half Jew might be embarrassing to his respectable clientele, and begged to request her, with respect of course, not to take her afternoon coffee at his house anymore.

With respect of course!!! (Sebald chose to be restrained about it. But telling the same story, Bernhard's characters would have gone on for many pages to register their outrage.)

Paul Bereyter's fallback was the memory of his childhood, although it was already darkened by history. The story of Paul's life was filtered through Lucy Landau, Paul's friend and the one who arranged for his burial after he ended his life. So we hear the story of Paul as he tells it to Mme Landau who tells it to the narrator – a familiar Bernhardian device of narrative attribution where the narrator is at one or several removes from his tale.

Paul once described that wonderful emporium to her in detail, said Mme Landau, when he was in hospital in Berne in 1975, his eyes bandaged after an operation for cataracts. He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams, things he had not thought he still had within him. In his childhood, everything in the emporium seemed far too high up for him, doubtless because he himself was small, but also because the shelves reached all the four metres up to the ceiling. The light in the emporium. coming through the small transom windonws let into the tops of the display window backboards, was dim even on the brightest of days, and it must have seemed all the murkier to him as a child, Paul had said, as he moved on his tricycle, mostly on the lowest level, through the ravines between tables, boxes and counters, amidst a variety of smells ... [emphases added]

And then Paul, through Mme Landau, went on to enumerate the various smells and the magical contents and the proprietor (Paul's father) and staff of the emporium. The inventory of memory was so precise and detailed it could bring out the murky quality of light as it struck the surface of the emporium. Common objects were recalled with "the greatest clarity". The novelist was here a kind of historian (or proprietor) of memory, the emporium being a representative image of object collection which Sebald used in other forms: like the Antwerp Nocturama and Antikos Bazar in Austerlitz.

Near the end of his life Paul, like Dr. Selwyn, is ready to come to terms with history, to make "endless notes" about it. What eats him so much, more than the systematic abuse the Jews suffered in Gunzenhausen, on Palm Sunday 1934, is the involvement of children in that notorious event.

For this reason, Mme Landau explained, Paul for a long time had only a partial grasp of what had happened in S in 1935 and 1936, and did not care to correct his patchy knowledge of the past. It was only in the last decade of his life, which he largely spent in Yverdon, that reconstructing those events became important to him, indeed vital, said Mme Landau. Although he was losing his sight, he spent many days in archives, making endless notes – on the events in Gunzenhausen, for instance, on that Palm Sunday of 1934, years before what became known as the Kristallnacht, when the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and the Jews themselves were hauled out of their hiding places in cellars and dragged through the streets. What horrified Paul was not only the coarse offences and the violence of those Palm Sunday incidents in Guzenhausenm ... but also, nearly as deeply, a newspaper article he came across, reporting with Schadenfreude that the schoolchildren of Gunzenhausen had helped themselves to a free bazaar in the town the following morning, taking several weeks' supply of hair slides, chocolate cigarettes, coloured pencils, fizz powder and many other things from the wrecked shops.

I would bet that there really exists such newspaper article. Real news items have a way of finding themselves in Sebald's prose. In The Rings of Saturn, the writer appropriated in the text an article in The Independent about the Balkan war crimes. These articles are part of the "endless notes" and documentary materials that strengthen the historical basis of the story. They are also part of the evidence that Sebald's characters collect in order to make sense of the violent era they lived in. The evidence confirms Paul's suspicion of the capacity of humans for cruelty and violence. Suicide – death, annihilation of memories, termination of possibilities – appears on the horizon as a possible response to "the logic of the whole wretched sequence of events".

He read and read – Altenberg, Trakl, Wittgenstein, Friedell, Hasenclever, Toller, Tucholsky, Klaus Mann, Ossietzky, Benjamin, Koestler and Zweig: almost all of them writers who had taken their own lives or had been close to doing so. He copied out passages into notebooks [two facing photographs of cursive writing accompany this quoted passage] which give a good idea of how much the lives of these particular authors interested him. Paul copied out hundreds of pages, mostly in Gabelsberg shorthand because otherwise he would not have been able to write fast enough, and time and again one comes across stories of suicide. It seemed to me, said Mme Landau, handing me the black oilcloth books, as if Paul had been gathering evidence, the mounting weight of which, as his investigations proceeded, finally convinced him that he belong to the exiles and not to the people of S. [emphasis added]

"Gathering evidence" is of course the title of Bernhard's five-part childhood memoirs which appeared individually in German from 1975 to 1982 and in English as a collected volume in 1985. The first volume ("An Indication of the Cause") appeared as the second part of Gathering Evidence (trans. David McLintock) and contained this epigraph:

Two thousand people every year attempt to put an end to their lives in the
province of Salzburg. A tenth of these suicide attempts are successful. This
means that in Austria, which together with Hungary and Sweden has the
highest suicide rate in the world, Salzburg holds the national record.


Obsession with suicides and the suicidals characterizes the novels of Bernhard. His treatment of the subject, however, is not deadly serious. He can be mordantly funny about it. Whereas Sebald's humor is rare and dry and his treatment of suicide quite proper, Bernhard's is poker-faced hysterical and radical. An excerpt from Gathering Evidence:

Many boys actually did commit suicide at the boarding house in the Schrannengasse, though, curiously enough, none of them did so in the shoe closet, which would have been the ideal place: they all threw themselves out of windows in the dormitory or the lavatories or hanged themselves from the showers in the washroom. They were able to summon up the necessary courage, but he never had the strength, the decisiveness, or firmness of character required for suicide. During the short time he spent there during the Nazi period—between his arrival in autumn 1943 and his departure in autumn 1944—four pupils at the boarding house actually killed themselves by jumping out of windows or hanging themselves (how many others must have done so before and since!), and many others living in the city, having set off for school, were driven by unendurable despair to deviate from their usual route and throw themselves down from one of the hills, usually the Mönchsberg, onto the asphalt of the Müllner Hauptstrasse—the suicide street, as I used to call it. I often saw shattered bodies lying in this street, the bodies of schoolchildren and others, though mainly schoolchildren, lumps of flesh wrapped in bright-coloured clothes appropriate to the time of year. Today, thirty years later, I read reports at regular intervals (though more frequently in spring and autumn) about schoolchildren and others who have committed suicide. Every year there are dozens of such reports, though the real number of suicides runs into hundreds, as I have reason to know. It is probably true that in boarding establishments, especially those with exceedingly sadistic régimes and exceedingly bad climatic conditions, like the one in Schrannengasse, the subject which preoccupies the minds of the pupils is suicide—in other words, a completely unscientific subject, not one of the mass of subjects on the syllabus but one with which they are all intensely concerned. Of course the truth is that suicide and the idea of suicide are pre-eminently scientific subjects, though this is a fact which our hypocritical society cannot comprehend. Living with one's fellow pupils has always meant living with the idea of suicide: the idea of suicide comes first, the subjects of the syllabus second. I was by no means the only pupil who was obliged to spend the greater part of his time contemplating suicide. This was forced on me on the one hand by the brutality, ruthlessness, and utter viciousness that surrounded me, on the other by the extreme sensibility and vulnerability that is inherent in all young people. The time of one's life spent in learning and study is above all a time for thinking about suicide—whoever denies this has forgotten everything. The times I walked through the city thinking only of suicide, of blotting out my existence, wondering where and how I should do it, whether alone or in compact with others! There must have been hundreds of times. But these thoughts and speculations, prompted by everything I experienced in the city, led me back time and again to the prison of the boarding house. Every boy privately harboured the thought of suicide; it was the only thought that was both enduring and potent. Some were immediately destroyed by it, others merely broken, broken for the rest of their lives. The idea of suicide and the phenomenon of suicide were continually debated, but always in silence. And again and again we had a real suicide in our midst. I will not mention their names, most of which I have forgotten anyway; but I saw all of them hanging or lying shattered on the ground, the ultimate proof of the terrible suffering they had endured. I know of a number of burials at the Communal Cemetery and Maxglan Cemetery where boys of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen, having been done to death by society, were unceremoniously dumped in the ground, not properly buried, for in this strictly Catholic city suicides were naturally not given a proper burial but simply dumped in a hole and covered with earth in utterly depressing circumstances, which shed a most revealing light on humanity. These two cemeteries are full of evidence to prove my recollections correct. I am thankful to say that these recollections are in no way distorted, but here I must confine myself to giving simply an indication of what I remember.

Despite the marked difference in their temperaments, Sebald and Bernhard both gathered evidence of personal griefs to produce layered and resonant images of horrific events. The images of peoples persecuted beyond belief, those who experienced things "more than any heart or eye can bear" – these images pile up and their cumulative value amounts to experiences fully lived and remembered. Reading the prose works of these writers is an attempt to understand the indications of their causes. Reading as a radical act of gathering evidence itself.

Winstonsdad's Thomas Bernhard Reading Week
1-7 July 2013


  1. Rise - I almost by-passed this post for a number of reasons, but am glad I returned to read it. That Bernhard passage is just stunning, suddenly opening a window onto just that phenomenon he describes - of being young and wrestling with the idea of suicide (or worse, with suicide itself). I'm looking back on high school and university years and suddenly seeing that Bernhard is absolutely right: an issue that touched everyone's lives and about which few talked about openly. And how much worse it must have been in his Austria.

  2. Glad you read through the post, Scott. The book from where the passage came from is stunning from beginning to end. One gets an idea on the origin of the writer's themes. Who else could authoritatively depict a taboo topic in such wild manner but one who had witnessed a lot of it?