The Voice Imitator
Author(s): Thomas Bernhard
The Austrian playwright, novelist, and poet Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) is acknowledged as among the major writers of our times. At once pessimistic and exhilarating, Bernhard's work depicts the corruption of the modern world, the dynamics of totalitarianism, and the interplay of reality and appearance.
In this stunning translation of The Voice Imitator, Bernhard gives us one of his most darkly comic works. A series of parable-like anecdotes—some drawn from newspaper reports, some from conversation, some from hearsay—this satire is both subtle and acerbic. What initially appear to be quaint little stories inevitably indict the sterility and callousness of modern life, not just in urban centers but everywhere. Bernhard presents an ordinary world careening into absurdity and disaster. Politicians, professionals, tourists, civil servants—the usual victims of Bernhard's inspired misanthropy—succumb one after another to madness, mishap, or suicide. The shortest piece, titled "Mail," illustrates the anonymity and alienation that have become standard in contemporary society: "For years after our mother's death, the Post Office still delivered letters that were addressed to her. The Post Office had taken no notice of her death."
In his disarming, sometimes hilarious style, Bernhard delivers a lethal punch with every anecdote. George Steiner has connected Bernhard to "the great constellation of Kafka, Musil, and Broch," and John Updike has compared him to Grass, Handke, and Weiss. The Voice Imitator reminds us that Thomas Bernhard remains the most caustic satirist of our age.
“The courtroom correspondent is the closest of all to human misery and its absurdity and can endure the experience only for a short time, and certainly not his whole life, without going crazy. The probable, the improbable, even the unbelievable, the most unbelievable are paraded before him every day in the courtroom, and, because he has to earn his bread by reporting on actual or alleged but in any case shameful crimes, he is no longer surprised by anything at all.” Bernhard’s brief spell as a crime reporter before becoming an author was the ideal preparation for the writing of these 104 one-page stories, which, in the perfect deadpan style of journalism or of jokes, record the miseries, cruelties and disasters that fester beneath the surfaces of human lives, surfaces that open from time to time to receive more hurt and then close over again until they can be contained no longer and make the news, so to speak, overwriting the lives with 'stories'. The book contains 26 murders, 18 suicides (Austria’s national pastimes, according to Bernhard, are committing suicide and resisting committing suicide (it could be said that much of Bernhard’s writing arises from a sublimation of his own inclination towards this pastime)) and six other painful deaths, but these only as the mechanisms by which the unresolved and unresolvable tragedies beneath the mundanity of lives manifest themselves and turn those lives inside out so that the tragedy is on the outside and the mundanity is revealed at the core. Accidents lead to tragedies, ill intentions lead to tragedies, good intentions also lead to tragedies. Nothing is made better or repaired or created in accidents. Although this book is structurally unlike any of his others, Bernhard’s perfect sentences, with their nested clauses-within-clauses, with their fugual repetitions, with their self-mocking pedantry, with their sudden shifts of tone as they respond to their terrain, explore in miniature the material more fully developed in his novels. Different facets of authenticity (‘authenticity’) arise from the plots and from the details, set against each other, as are the tragic and the quotidian, to comic effect. It is this ambivalence, this at-once-one-thing-and-its-opposite, this at-once-intimacy-and-distance, this at-once-sympathy-and-hatred that makes all Bernhard’s work so revelatory. Whether telling of the voice imitator incapable of imitating his own voice, ‘newspaper’ accounts of the attribution, misattribution, malattribution and nonattribution of guilt, first person plural anecdotes of persons met when travelling, second-hand reports of the statements of others, such as the dancer who cannot dance if thinking about dancing, the stories are free from narrators able to initiate either action or response. Many of the stories appear to have arisen from actual events (Bernhard was a devoted reader of newspapers in cafes), sometimes distorted or reshaped, reality both observed and denied, such as the account of the burns suffered by Bernhard’s here unnamed friend Ingeborg Bachmann, recognisable despite the ‘incorrect’ facts in the story. Part of the reason for this is the impossible relationship between reality and language, between experience and its representation, between proceedings and reportage. Each makes demands of its other but each moves too differently to conform. What is known and what is said are always in conflict in even the most seemingly straightforward account, even though their trajectories may be twinned. One story here tells of a playwright who, just like Bernhard, had great success “because he was honest enough to pretend [sic] that his comedies were always tragedies and his tragedies comedies,” because, at base, he hated the theatre altogether.
- : 9780226044026
- : University of Chicago Press
- : University of Chicago Press
- : 0.248
- : September 1998
- : 21.60 cmmm X 14.00 cmmm X 0.80 cmmm
- : books
- : Thomas Bernhard
- : Paperback
- : en
- : 833/.914
- : 114