Book: Thomas Bernhard, Extinction

Benhard’s last novel is a spectacular and compelling prose piece that rails against Austria, the world, and three-ring binders

-Kathryn Bromwich

Between the first and the last page of this remarkable and singular novel, newcomers to Bernhard will be surprised to find only one paragraph break, neatly dividing the book into two exact halves: one of thought and stasis, and one of, er, very little action.

Left-wing academic Franz-Josef Murau lives in a self-imposed exile in Rome, where he consorts with the local bohemian arts intelligentsia. He lives in a sumptuous Renaissance palazzo overlooking the Pantheon, and sustains himself by ostensibly teaching German literature to his eager student Gambetti, while instead inculcating him, over leisurely strolls and coffees, with a deep-seated nihilism. The book starts with Murau receiving a telegram that tells him his parents and brother have been killed in an accident back in Austria. This unleashes a cantankerous, unsentimental internal monologue that shows Murau is keen not to romanticise his parents and brother after their death. For the following hundred pages, we are treated to a diatribe describing his hatred of his entire family (dead and alive, with the exception of academic Uncle Georg), his hatred of Austria, and specifically of Austria’s Catholic National Socialist mentality, of photography, diplomas, Goethe, and three ring binders.

The monologue quickly marks Murau out as an unreliable and not entirely likeable narrator, prone to exaggeration, repetition and petty grudges. His thoughts, however, presented in Bernard’s virtuoso prose, are compelling and full of vitriolic wit. His misanthropy is matched by a love of culture, a passion which his family does not share. The author plays with the ambiguous overlap between himself and the character. Both are criticised in their home country for being a ‘Nestbeschmutzer’ (one who dirties his own nest); there are some meta bits about Murau recommending Thomas Bernhard to Gambetti, and Murau talks at length of writing a work called Extinction.

Upon hearing news of the accident, Murau has to head back to his family’s luxurious estate in the Austrian mountains, magnificently named Wolfsegg, for the funeral. The staunch, efficient work ethic of Central Europe, symbolised by Wolfsegg’s agricultural lifestyle, is constantly pitted against the chaos and vibrancy of places like Rome or Cannes. The company he keeps in Rome – including an archbishop and the finest female poet of his generation – are deified, while his two sisters, who we are repeatedly assured are no beauties, and especially his dead mother, bear the brunt of Murau’s anger.

Politically, Murau is a confused figure. With typical subtlety of feeling, he hates utterly the petit bourgeoisie and the upper classes that he belongs to, and wildly romanticises (and patronises) ‘simple people’ such as his family’s gardeners. Yet, we slowly find out that he has no compunction about receiving a substantial monthly allowance from his parents while well into his forties, in order to fund his Life of Thinking.

There is something distinctly Beckettian about the style, worldview and general ethos of Extinction. Although admittedly minimal, however, the plot provides a well-observed and very tangible setting for the multi-faceted characters. The effect is a strikingly sharp, unique exposé of the political and social contradictions inherent in 20th century European life.

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