Thomas Bernhard is "one of the masters of contemporary European fiction" (George Steiner); "one of the century's most gifted writers" (Newsday); "a virtuoso of rancor and rage" (Bookforum). And although he is favorably compared with Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Musil, it is only in recent years that he has gained a devoted cult following in America.
A powerful, compact novella, Walking provides a perfect introduction to the absurd, dark, and uncommonly comic world of Bernhard, showing a preoccupation with themes--illness and madness, isolation, tragic friendships--that would obsess Bernhard throughout his career. Walking records the conversations of the unnamed narrator and his friend Oehler while they walk, discussing anything that comes to mind but always circling back to their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone irrevocably mad. Perhaps the most overtly philosophical work in Bernhard's highly philosophical oeuvre, Walking provides a penetrating meditation on the impossibility of truly thinking.
It is thought that makes life intolerable, suggests Bernhard in this 1971 novella that both anticipates and provides a key to reading his subsequent novels of ineluctable self-erasure (notably 1975’s Correction). Bernhard is constantly in mind of the widespread complicity of his fellow Austrians in Nazism, both a symptom and a cause of many of the societal ills he is most perplexed and disgusted by. “I ask myself, says Oehler, how can so much helplessness and so much misfortune and so much misery be possible? That nature can create so much misfortune and so much palpable horror. That nature can be so ruthless toward its most helpless and pitiable creatures. This limitless capacity for suffering, says Oehler. This limitless capricious will to procreate and then to survive misfortune.” But there is no real difference, suggests Bernhard, between objective and subjective suffering. “When we imagine ourselves to be in a state of mind, no matter what, we are in that state of mind, and thus in that state of illness which we imagine ourselves to be in.” We are unavoidably perplexed by our existence and cannot help thinking about it, but thought will not do us any good, as we are always carried towards the conclusion we strive most to avoid, drawn to it by this striving. “If we see something, we check what we see until we are forced to say that what we are looking at is horrible. If we do something, we think about what we are doing until we are forced to say that it is something nasty, something low, something outrageous.” In Bernhard’s works, thought is a kind of a chute leading towards madness and suicide, a chute down which all characters slide, faster or slower, obsessed, losing perspective. “Circumstances are everything, we are nothing.” How, then, are we to carry on existing? “There is little doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable and in not feeling that what is horrible is something horrible. Of course we have to label this art the most difficult of all. The art of existing against the facts. If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest possible time.” “The art of thinking about things consists in the art, says Oehler, of stopping thinking before the fatal moment.” In common with many of Bernhard’s novels, the unnamed narrator of Walking is effectively passive, effectively annihilated by his role of *merely* reporting what his friend Oehler tells him during their walk or walks together. Oehler’s observations chiefly concern another one-time walking companion, Karrer, who has recently gone “irrevocably mad” and been confined to the Steinhof lunatic asylum. Karrer’s madness followed the suicide of his friend, the chemist Hollensteiner, and you can feel the pull of this annihilation reaching through the layers of narration as far as the narrator himself, each character being effaced by their narration. “I am struck by how often Oehler quotes Karrer without expressly drawing attention to the fact that he is quoting Karrer. Oehler frequently makes several statements that stem from Karrer and frequently thinks a thought that Karrer thought, I think, without expressly saying, what I am now saying comes from Karrer.” The second of the three paragraphs that constitute the novella describes Karrer’s breakdown in Rustenschacher’s clothing shop, irrevocably losing perspective, ranting about what he perceives as the inferior cloth from which the trousers are sewn, repeatedly banging his walking stick upon the counter. At times the layers of narration are wonderfully deep, such as when the narrator tells us what Oehler tells the narrator that Oehler told the psychiatric doctor Scherrer about what Karrer said and did in Rustenschacher’s shop, and the novella becomes as much about the migration of narrative burden as it is about what the narrative is about. Habit, character, tendency, circumstance comprise a trap, a trap we find ourselves in when we begin to think but into which thinking can only drive us deeper. “When we walk, we walk from one helplessness to another. It is suddenly clear you can do what you like but you cannot walk away. No longer being able to alter this problem of no longer being able to walk away occupies your whole life. From then on it is all that occupies your life. You then grow more and more helpless and weaker and weaker.” All Bernhard’s subsequent novels address this problem of the obliterative nature of thought. “We may not think about why we are walking, says Oehler, for then it would soon be impossible to walk.”