Authors: Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 and grew up in Austria. He studied music at the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg. In 1957 he began a second career writing plays, poems, and novels. The winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation. His novels published in English include
The Loser, The Lime Works, Correction, Concrete, Woodcutters
a number of his plays have been produced off Broadway, at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and at theaters in London and throughout Europe. The five segments of his memoir were published in one volume,
, in 1985. Thomas Bernhard died in 1989.
ALSO BY THOMAS BERNHARD
The Lime Works
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, JANUARY 2008
Translation copyright © 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in German as
by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, Germany, 1963. Copyright © Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1963. This translation originally published in hardcover in the United State by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2006.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents, either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Frost / Thomas Bernhard ; translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
I. Hofmann, Michael, 1957 Aug 25. II. Title.
A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either. An internship is not just tossing limbs and parts of limbs over your shoulder into an enamel bucket. Nor does it just consist of trotting along behind the registrar and the assistant and the assistant’s assistant, a sort of tail-end Charlie. Nor can an internship be only the putting out of false information; it isn’t just saying: “The pus will dissolve in your bloodstream, and you’ll soon be restored to perfect health.” Or a hundred other such lies. Not just: “It’ll get better”—when nothing will. An internship isn’t just an academy of scissors and thread, of tying off and pulling through. An internship extends to circumstances and possibilities that have nothing to do with the flesh. My mission to observe the painter Strauch compels me to think about precisely such non-flesh-related circumstances and
issues. The exploration of something unfathomably mysterious. The making of sometimes very far-reaching discoveries. The way you might investigate a conspiracy, say. And it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, by which I don’t mean the soul—that what is non-flesh-related, without being the soul, of which I can’t say for certain whether it exists, though I must say I assume it does, that this thousand-year-old working assumption is a thousand-year-old truth—but it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, which is to say, the non-cell-based, is the thing from which everything takes its being, and not the other way round, nor yet some sort of interdependence.
I took the earliest train at four thirty. Passed through sheer rock. When I boarded the train, I was shivering. Gradually I warmed up. Further, the voices of the workers coming home off the night shift. I felt for them right away. Men and women, old and young, but all with the same voices of utter exhaustion, from their heads and their breasts and their balls down to their boot soles. The men in gray caps, the women in red headscarves. They wrapped their legs in scraps of loden cloth; that’s the only way they know of keeping the cold at bay. I knew at once that they were a group of snow-shovelers who had got on at Sulzau. It felt as warm as in a cow’s belly: the air felt as if it was being pumped from
body to body with incredible pressure from some collective muscle. Doesn’t bear thinking about! I pressed my back hard against the wall of the compartment. Because I hadn’t slept all night, I dropped off. When I woke up, I saw again the trail of blood that trickled unevenly along the wet floor of the wagon, like a stream threading its way between mountains, ending up between the window and the window frame, under the emergency brake. It originated from a crushed bird that had been cut in half by a sudden jerk of the window. Maybe days ago. Shut so hard, there wasn’t the trace of a draft. The conductor, going by in performance of his dismal duty, had taken no notice of the dead bird. But he must have seen it. I knew that. Suddenly I heard the story of a lineman who had been asphyxiated in a snowstorm, which ended: “He never cared about anything.” I don’t know if it was my exterior, or something inside me, finding some expression, the aura of my thoughts, of my task, energetically preparing itself in me—but no one sat down near me, even though over time every seat became precious.
The train wheezed through the river valley. In my thoughts, I was once briefly at home. Then I was far away again, in some city I once walked through. Then I saw specks of dust on my left sleeve, which I tried to brush off with my right arm. The workers pulled out knives, and cut bread. They choked down great thick lumps of bread, and ate pieces of meat and wurst with them. Great chunks that no one would ever eat at a table. Only on their laps. They all drank ice-cold beer, and were evidently too enfeebled to laugh at themselves, even though they felt they were worth laughing at. They were so
tired, it didn’t even occur to them to do up their flies or wipe their mouths. I thought: When they get home, they’ll fall straight into bed. And at five in the afternoon, when everyone else knocks off, they’ll start again. The train rattled and plunged down, like the river running beside it. If anything, it seemed to be getting darker.
The room is as small and uncomfortable as my intern’s room in Schwarzach. If it’s the roar of the river that’s unbearable there, here it’s the silence. At my request, the landlady took down the curtains. (It’s always like that with me: I don’t like having curtains in rooms that frighten me.) The landlady is disgusting to me. It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse. If she were dead I would, today, feel no disgust—dead bodies on the dissecting table never remind me of live bodies—but she’s alive, and living in a moldy ancient reek of inn kitchens. Apparently she likes me, though, because she lugged my suitcase upstairs, and offered to bring me breakfast in bed every morning, which is absolutely at variance with her normal practice. “The painter’s an exception,” she said. He was another long-stay guest, and long-stay guests enjoyed certain privileges. Even though, as far as innkeepers were concerned, they were “more trouble than they were worth.” How had I happened to wind up at her inn? “By chance,” I said. I wanted to recuperate quickly, and return home, where a mountain of work was waiting for me. She seemed understanding. I told her my name and showed her my passport.
• • •
So far I haven’t seen anyone but the landlady, even though I heard a lot of noise in the inn in the interval. At lunchtime, when I stayed in my room, I asked the landlady about the painter, and she said he was in the forest. “He’s almost always in the forest,” she said. He wouldn’t be back before supper. Was I acquainted with the painter? she asked. “No,” I said. Silently standing in the doorway, she seemed to pose an urgent question, as woman to man. I was startled, and—without a word, though not without an edge of nausea—refused her offer.
Weng is the most dismal place I have ever seen. Far more dismal than in the assistant doctor’s description. Doctor Strauch had spoken about it in the sort of veiled terms one might use to describe a dangerous path to a friend who has to go there. The assistant stuck to intimations. He tied me more and more tightly to the task with invisible ropes, creating an unbearable tension between him and me, while I felt the arguments he remorselessly advanced against me like nails being driven into my brain. He did at least manage not to irritate me. Confined himself rigidly to points I had to observe. I really was frightened by this landscape, in particular this one spot, which is populated by small, fully grown people whom one can certainly call cretins. No taller than five feet on average, begotten in drunkenness, they pass in and out through cracks in the walls and corridors. They seem typical of this valley.
Weng is at a considerable elevation, but still stuck at the bottom of a gorge. It’s impossible to get out up the cliff walls.
The only way out is by train. It’s so ugly that it’s characterful; far prettier landscapes have no character. Everyone there has tipsy children’s voices, scraped away to a high C, which they drill into you as you pass by. Jab into you. Jab from the shadows, I have to say, because in truth I have only seen shadows of people so far, human shadows, in poverty and in a dank tremor of frenzy. And those voices, jabbing at me out of the shadows, first of all confused me, and then drove me faster on my way. But these realizations were nonetheless sober ones; they didn’t depress me. Actually all I felt was annoyance, because it was all so incredibly inhospitable. On top of everything, I had to lug my cardboard suitcase, with its contents jumbling together. The way up to Weng from the train station, where the industrial park is and where the big power plant is being built, can only be covered on foot. Five kilometers, which can’t be shortened in any way, least of all in this season. Barking, howling dogs everywhere. I could imagine people being driven mad in the long run, if they were compelled to experience uninterruptedly the sort of thing I had to experience on the way up to Weng, and in Weng itself, if they weren’t distracted by their work or by pleasure or other appropriate activities, as for instance whores, or church, or drinking, or all three at once. What brings a man like the painter Strauch to such a place, and to such a place at such a time, that it must be like a repeated slap in the face?