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Authors: Thomas Bernhard

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BOOK: Frost: A Novel
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Eighth Day

Today I cleared the path of snow from the inn to the road. The landlady called me a “kind gentleman,” and she twice brought me large glasses of slivovitz when she saw me leaning on my shovel, resting. She said: “I would never have thought you were so strong.” I said I was used to physical work. Circumstances had repeatedly led me to perform physical work. Doing physical work, so as not to go out of my mind over my studies, that was something she could well understand. “It hasn’t snowed as much as this in years,” she said. She pointed south toward the mountains, which were obscured by clouds. She went in, and came out with a salt beef sandwich. “If you work, you’re going to need something to eat,” she said. She was pleased I was clearing away the snow, because she wouldn’t have gotten around to it. “That would be a pity,” she said. When she saw the painter coming out of the inn, she left me alone, and went in past
him. It looked as though she wanted to avoid him. She didn’t want to be standing there with him. That was how it appeared anyway.

It was unbelievable what I’d managed to do in such a short space of time, said the painter. He had been watching me from the window. “If you hadn’t volunteered,” he said, “no one else would have done it.” Unusually, he had slept that night, he said, and he stood behind me, which bothered me. “Unusually, I slept. ‘Sleeping’ with me means merely that I don’t go pacing my room all night!” From the degree of his morning pains, he could predict the pains of the evening to come, and the night. “It will be a terrible evening, and a godawful night. But it can’t go on much longer, I’m sure of that.” Decades ago, in the capital, he had “belonged to a snow-clearing troop. Three schillings eighty per hour, under a carbide lamp.” My snow-clearing reminded him of those bitter times. “The time I was more dead than alive. I was often on the brink,” he said. “But what a wonderful time that was, compared to today … at least, soon to end in my death.” I barely listened. He felt like going to the café in the afternoon. “Will you accompany me? Down to the station? There are new editions of the weekly magazines.”

Then he briefly described how he had once met himself as someone else. “Have you had an experience like that, ever?” he asked. “When I went up to myself, I naturally wanted to shake my hand, but then I suddenly pulled it back. And I knew why.” I cleared the last of the snow, and took the shovel back in the house. The painter waited outside for me. When
I came back, he said: “The young man just has to pick up a shovel to feel alive. But what does the old man do?”

Life was like a forest: you kept finding signposts and markers until, all at once, there weren’t any. And the forest is never-ending, and hunger only ends with death. And you keep walking through clearings, you can never see past those clearings. “The universe can feel oddly constricting, under certain circumstances.” But to show someone the way to where he was now, if the person didn’t happen to know it already himself, that was something he was no longer prepared to do. “I work with my own notions, elaborated by myself out of chaos.” One would have to understand what he meant by “bitterness,” by “fundamentally,” by “light” and “shade,” and “poverty
tout court.”
But who understood. And yet, one might sense what sort of areas he was in. What was causing him grief. Perhaps more than he realized. “Knowledge distracts from knowledge, you know!” People in uniform bothered him. “I hate the police, the rural constabulary, the army, even the fire brigade.” All of it gave him a sexual stimulus that he preferred not to entertain. He can’t deal with any of it, whether it’s railway employees, or actual soldiers. Officers disgust him. For their inhumanity, “which is bred into them to exacerbate it.” But they repel him as much as they attract him. “Yes, they attract me too. I’ve told you why. Problems that are stifled in the smell that makes way for the images.” Then: “In the age when I was susceptible, women tended to attract me more by their defects: older ones, ugly ones.” He had always been stirred anyway by absence, it drew him with an infantile, forbidden passion. He had never been clear about anything. “Clarity is something more than human.”
He seeks and propounds simplicity, and detests it at the same time: always wanted to break clear of it. The certainty with which he devotes himself to quiet is no less than that with which he espouses disquiet, without him being able to tell you why. He decided: and also for the obverse. And yet it’s always him as well. Perfectly circumscribed by what defines his point of view. “Is that mad?” he asks, after explaining a certain set of affairs, as if it had been a room in an infinitely large building. “Incompleteness always makes what I wanted to reach fall in on itself.” To put the ground under his feet behind him, he walked, he moved, no matter where, no matter how: “but I can’t put the ground under my feet behind me.” It was a law of nature … sleeping and thinking and all the things in between, pushed in between, extruding from between—they were all distractions from himself. And yet there was no method for distracting him from himself. “Of course it’s all sterile because it’s all been mapped and well-established; and what I say is so basic as well.” The place where you see that it’s all ridiculous keeps recurring, each time you looked out the window, or looked into yourself. Wherever. “And then one time you pull off your great coup: you end it!”

“When they present themselves, everyone I know looks the same. What’s within them looks the same too, whomever it belongs to. Everyone has the same. I find that repulsive. When I say ‘dismiss,’ a smell remains that darkens everything.” He said people were, initially reluctantly, later without any objections, bearers of various occupations, holders of opinions with varying top speeds and fuel-efficiency quotients. “A simple country girl as much as a CEO.” Of limited
feeling and mind, the individual no longer mattered. “What’s the point if the most cunning, not the wisest, get the best seats? If they take out insurance policies in the millions? Future prospects worth millions? Hearsay? Hairsplitting? Balderdash?” We were preceded by a reputation that killed us.

“Many ideas turn into lifelong disfigurements,” he said. The ideas often surprised one years later, but sooner or later they would always make the one who had had them look ridiculous. The ideas came from a place they never left. They would always remain there, in that place: it was the place of dreams. “The idea doesn’t exist that can be expunged or expunge itself. The idea is actual, and remains so.” Last night, he had been thinking about pain. “Pain doesn’t exist. A necessary illusion,” he said. Pain wasn’t pain, not in the way a cow was a cow. “The word ‘pain’ directs the attention of a feeling toward a feeling. Pain is overplus. But the illusion of it is real.” Accordingly, pain both was and was not. “But there is no pain,” he said. “Just as there is no happiness. Found an architecture on pain.” All thoughts and images were as involuntary as the concepts: chemistry, physics, geometry. “You have to understand these concepts to know something. To know everything.” Philosophy didn’t take you a single step nearer. “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.” The observations of mathematics were foundational. “Oh, yes,” he said, “in mathematics everything’s child’s play.” And just like so-called child’s play, mathematics could finish you. “If you’ve crossed the border, and you suddenly no longer get the joke, and see what the world’s about, don’t see what anything’s
about anymore. Everything’s just the imagining of pain. A dog has as much gravity as a human being, but he hasn’t lived, do you understand!” One day I would cross a threshold into an enormous park, an endless and beautiful park; in this park one ingenious invention would succeed another. Plants and music would follow in lovely mathematical alternation, delightful to the ear and answering to the utmost notions of delicacy; but this park was not there to be used, or wandered about in, because it consisted of a thousand and one small and minuscule square and rectilinear and circular islets, pieces of lawn, each of them so individual that I would be unable to leave the one on which I was standing. “In each case, there is a breadth and depth of water that prevents one from hopping from one island to another. In my imagining. On the piece of grass which one has reached, how is a mystery, on which one has woken up, and where one is compelled to stay,” one would finally perish of hunger and thirst. “One’s longing to be able to walk through the whole park is finally deadly.”

I met him behind the hay barn, huddled on a plank of wood. It was already dark, and he said he had heard me approaching from the pond. “I know your walk exactly.” People like himself, who generally kept their eyes closed—“in itself another preparation for death”—had an extraordinarily keen sense of hearing. “You were still a long way off, but I could hear you. You slowly approached my grumpiness. Did anyone ever tell you you don’t walk like a young man?” It must strike me as odd to find him here behind the hay barn. In fact, he was displaying one eccentricity after another. “True, isn’t it, everything I do is eccentric? I hunkered down here, because I could
no longer stand. I’m afraid your suggestion of the compress”—it seemed to me he said the phrase with a certain relish, and repeated it several times to himself, as if poking his head out of a foxhole—“your suggestion of the compress was a poor one. My swelling is still there. I was right, it can only be a matter of the worst case. Before long, I won’t be able to walk at all. I hope you’ve revised your opinion that there was nothing to it?” He lapsed into a long disquisition on his illness, which was spreading “in positively philosophical fashion,” between his brain and his foot. Essentially, it was an affirmation of a “holy science.”

He had walked through the larch wood and then to the pond—“there are only two walks here, the one or the other”—and had actually been meaning to go down to the station, to supply himself with newspapers and “give himself a fright. Newspapers are the only luxury I have. What human beings no longer are, what nature never was, newspapers now supply me with: a little variety, a little distraction.” In the newspapers, he found confirmation of many of his theories. Newspapers constituted, effectively, the world, all of it, the world and the cosmos, in every issue he opened. “The world isn’t the world, it’s a zero.” Every day, through the agency of the newspaper, he was compelled to open the argument with himself. “In terms of the discomfort they provide to many, with every reason and justification, the newspapers are the only comforters of mankind.” Newspapers were to him what brother and sister and father and mother had never been. “What the world never was for me. Often the newspaper was all I had, for days, weeks, months, only the newspaper, it told me that everything still existed,
everything, you know, all around me and within me, all those things I thought were gone.”

On the slope, under the big linden tree, where the humming of the telegraph wires is loudest, a few paces from the big power mast, he had been taken with a sudden nausea, and had hurriedly turned back. “It’s my foot.” He had had to drag his foot after him like a lead weight. “I had the feeling it was about to snap off.” At first he had tried to get to the inn by the shortcut, but then he had broken down, he said. With the last of his strength he had taken refuge in the hay barn, where he had hoped to be able to shelter from the wind. “Behind me I have warmth, the hay, you see!” Then, while thinking about his sister—“a very sad thought!”—he had been made aware of my approach—“that oddly crumbling sound.” “I’m happy you came along. Is it by chance, or did you happen to see me?” It was chance, I said. “As soon as I sat down, the pain in my foot eased. It moved up, to be closer to my brain.”

He’s forever complaining about the pain in his foot, “which is always at its worst when the pain in my head eases.” He had followed my advice that he should put his foot up at night, on a pillow, but “as you see, it was no use. Quite the contrary. The swelling has grown. It’s as though it was sucking up everything that’s in my body. The same sucking feeling, by the way, that I have in my brain.” He’s right, the swelling has grown. Because he’s walking the whole time. It’s maybe twice the size of what it was the last time I saw it. But no discoloration. His anklebone has completely disappeared. “The best thing you can do for your foot is not walk for a day or
two,” I said to him. “So it’s as simple as that, you think, to fight such a terrible illness?”—“I’m sure it will have gone in a few days,” I said, “disappeared.”—“Here, on my arm, you see, there are signs of swelling too,” he said. He pointed to a spot on his forearm, where there was supposed to be swelling, but I couldn’t see anything. I palped the spot, but couldn’t feel anything untoward. “Surely you can feel something’s on the way. You can’t have any feeling for illnesses.” His head was full of “indescribable conspiracies.” Pictures he sees, just as anyone does, suddenly spun round, were torn apart “in little scraps, you know. But I’m quite reconciled to the fact that everything about me is diseased. In the grip of illness. I don’t think the illness I have is infectious. As soon as I discovered it, I had the feeling it was incurable. Incurable,” he repeated, and stopped. We were walking in single file, as ever, me first, him following, first up to the village, then to the inn. “A patient recognizes an incurable illness right away. Usually he keeps his knowledge to himself. It looks quite different from anything curable.” His blood was full of so many poisons that you could “wipe out whole sections of cities with it.” These poisons kept forming little concentrations under his skin, anywhere they could find. “Hence the swelling on my foot,” he said. “Just as there are hulks of ships on the banks of great rivers, so there are poison deposits on the banks of my arteries and veins. Death can only mean the cessation of all my pains. Death means being rid of everything, and most of all, of myself.” There were no more issues to be settled between himself and his death. “The arrangement I have come to with my death is mutually advantageous.”

•   •   •

If the villagers could do what they wanted, they would spend their lives guzzling and boozing. You’d have to fear for their jaws, even now alarming quantities of food and drink dribble out of the corners of their mouths. The landlady sics them on her tripe and onions and boiled beef and steins of beer, it’s like siccing dogs on something you’re not quite sure about. She provokes. The painter is disgusted by the food and drink that the engineer and the knacker hurl themselves upon. Those who have sung, now wail. The engineer says something against the church, the knacker about an infected ox that some people in the village had chopped up and eaten. It so happened that yesterday once again he had been forced to go down the gorge and up the shady side to find a dead dog. People seemed not to be able to bury their own pets. They gave him a tip, and asked him questions. What was the origin of this or that. How did you get here or there, and what was it like. How you got out of there, they didn’t know either. “Yes, mysticism,” that’s the only thing the knacker knows to say back, “mysticism.” Or: “mystical influence,” and the now drunken engineer says: “The scholiasts!” and fiddles with a bone. The landlady can’t keep up with the orders, she struggles, kicks out at people under the table; either they don’t notice, or they misinterpret it. The ones who take a kick as a secret summons to join her in bed at such and such a time, they get it right. She’s sweating, and her chin glistens like the sausages she shoves in front of the policeman’s uniform, causing him to scoot back, and study his belly. “No, no!” says the engineer, “not the least idea!” He knew how to tackle granite, what to do with intractable people. “But I don’t use my fists!” he says, “I don’t need to do that. No, no!” And then there’s such a hubbub in the room that you can’t make out a word. The landlady’s daughters are slithering
from one man’s knee to the next. “An unpleasant odor,” says the painter, but he’s apparently still too weak to get up. “I just want to finish my drink,” he says. “It’s always the unforeseen that occurs—a party!” says the engineer. The less-well-off were jealous of the better-off, he says, and no one knows who’s in the box seat and who’s not. But in heaven there was enough space “for the last snotnose.”—“Oh, yes,” says the knacker, “there’s always room in heaven.” Sometimes he felt like a horseman trying to continue to ride without his mount, says the engineer, almost exploding with heat, “you hang in the air for a while, and you continue to make progress. But the moment you start to think you’re in midair, you go crashing to the ground, and everything’s gone to pot.” Then, when the plates have been taken out, they sing “Zu Mantua in Banden,” at a volume to shake the walls. The painter makes his way through the racket up to his room. It’s not till two in the morning that there’s any peace. Before that, there’s a lot of merriment and squalor and the great futility of everything.

BOOK: Frost: A Novel
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