Author(s): Thomas Bernhard
'Extinction features, without doubt, the funniest passage in the whole of literature. The dreadful becomes hilarious, joyful - and it makes one thirst for more of the similar.' - Geoff Dyer
Franz-Josef Murau is the intellectual black sheep of a powerful Austrian land-owning family. He now lives in Rome in self-imposed exile, surrounded by a coterie of artistic and intellectual friends. On returning from his sister's wedding on the family estate of Wolfsegg, having resolved never to go home again, Murau receives a telegram informing him of the death of his parents and brother in a car crash. Not only must he now go back, he must do so as the master of Wolfsegg: and he must decide its fate.
The summit of Thomas Bernhard's artistic genius - mesmerising, addictive, explosively tragicomic - Extinction is a landmark of post-war literature.
“When I take Wolfsegg and my family apart, when I dissect, annihilate and extinguish them, I am actually taking myself apart, dissecting, annihilating and extinguishing myself. I have to admit that this idea of self-dissection and self-annihilation appeals to me, I told Gambetti. I’ll spend my life dissecting and extinguishing myself, Gambetti, and if I’m not mistaken I’ll succeed in this self-dissection and self-extinction. I actually do nothing but dissect and extinguish myself.” In the first of the two relentless paragraphs that comprise this wonderfully claustrophobic novel, the narrator, Murau, has received a telegram informing him that his parents and brother have been killed in a car accident. While looking at some photographs of them at his desk in Rome, he unleashes a 150-page stream of invective directed personally at the members of his family, both dead and living. Murau is alone, but he addresses his rant to his student Gambetti in Gambetti’s absence or recounts, however accurately or inaccurately, addressing Gambetti in person at some earlier time. Gambetti, in either case, is completely passive and non-contributive, and this passivity and non-contribution acts - along with Murau’s over-identification with his ‘black sheep’ Uncle Georg, an over-identification that sometimes confuses their identities - as a catalyst for Murau’s invective, as an anchor for the over-inflation of Murau’s hatred for, and difference from, his family. Without external contributions that might mitigate Murau’s opinions, his family appear as horrendous grotesques, exaggerations that here cannot be contradicted due to absence or death. Being dead puts an end to your contributions to the ideas people have of you: stories concerning you are henceforth the domain entirely of others and soon become largely expressions of their failings, impulses and inclinations.We can have no definite idea of ourselves, though: we exist only to others, unavoidably as misrepresentations, as caricatures. Murau states that he intends to write a book, to be titled Extinction: “The sole purpose of my account will be to extinguish what it describes, to extinguish anything that Wolfsegg means to me, everything that Wolfsegg is, everything. My work will be nothing other than an act of extinction.” Murau has not been able to even begin to write this account because his hatred gets in the way of beginning, or, rather, what we soon suspect to be the inauthenticity of his hatred gets in the way of beginning. There is no loathing without self-loathing. As Murau’s invective demonstrates, there can be no statement that is not an overstatement: every statement tends towards exaggeration as soon as it is expressed or thought. By exaggeration a statement exhausts its veracity and immediately begins to incline towards its opposite, just as every impulse, as soon as it is expressed, inclines towards its opposite. Only a passive witness, a witness who does not contradict but, by witnessing, in effect affirms, Gambetti in Murau’s case, allows an otherwise unsustainable idea to be sustained. In the second half of the book, Murau returns to Wolfsegg in Austria for the funeral of his parents and brother. Until this point, Murau’s ‘character’ has been defined entirely by his exaggerated opposition to, or identification with, his ideas of others, but when he is brought into situations in which others have a contributing role, Murau’s portrayal of others and of himself in the first section is undermined at every turn. Without the ‘Gambetti’ prop, he is responded to, and, in response to these responses, he overturns many of his opinions - about his parents, his brothers, his sisters, his mother’s lover, the nauseatingly perfectly false Spadolini that Murau had hitherto admired, and about himself - and reveals his fundamental ambivalence, an ambivalence that is fundamental to all existence but which is usually, for most of us, almost entirely suppressed by praxis, by the passive anchors, the Gambettis to which we affix our desperate attempts at character. We resist - through exaggeration - indifference and self-nullification. “We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavour.” In this second part, Murau reveals his connection with Wolfsegg and his suppressed feelings of culpability in what it represents. “I had not in fact freed myself from Wolfsegg and made myself independent but maimed myself quite alarmingly.” Separation, or, rather, the illusion of separation, is only achieved by ‘art’, that is to say, by exaggeration, by the denial of ambivalence, by the denial of complicity, by suppression: a desperate negative act of self-invention. Once his hatred of his sisters, and of his parents and brothers, has been undermined by his presence and contact with others at Wolfsegg, and without a Gambetti or Georg in his mind to sustain this hatred, the underlying reason for his hatred, a fact that he has suppressed since his childhood as too uncomfortable, the fact that has made “a gaping void” of his childhood, of his whole past, the fact to which he was a passive witness, a complicit witness, namely that Wolfsegg hid and sheltered Nazi war criminals after the war (Gauleiters and members of the Blood Order, who now attend the funeral of Murau’s father) in the so-called ‘Children’s Villa’ (which “affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. All you see when you look back is this gaping void. You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood.”), can now be faced, and, on the final page of the book, at last in some way addressed. Murau also attains the necessary degree of remove to write Extinction before his own death, either from illness or, more likely, suicide. This, his last, is the only Bernhard novel I can think of in which the protagonist makes anything that resembles an effective resolution.