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  • Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard
  • Jack Davis
Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard. By Thomas J. Cousineau. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008. 181 pages. $48.50.

This volume aims to introduce English-language readers to the novels of Thomas Bernhard. It is largely suitable for this purpose, offering an engaging account of the themes and concerns of this important writer who is still largely unknown in English-speaking countries. Its utility for scholars of Austrian and German literature is more limited for reasons I will explain below, but the book offers them several useful insights on Thomas Bernhard’s novelistic thought as well.

In his study, Cousineau devotes a chapter to each of what he terms the “major” [End Page 478] novels of Thomas Bernhard: The Lime Works [Das Kalkwerk], Correction [Korrektur], The Loser [Der Untergeher], Woodcutters [Holzfällen], Old Masters [Alte Meister], and Extinction [Auslöschung]. Conspicuously absent from this list are Bernhard’s early novels Frost and Gargoyles [Verstörung], arguably two of his best.

As Cousineau elaborates his theoretical framework, the reason for the omission of these two books becomes clear: their formal construction and character constellations do not fall in line with Bernhard’s later works, which, Cousineau argues, are characterized by two sets of triangular relationships. The first triad, within the diegesis, consists of a protagonist who attempts to model himself on a second character, and failing at this, takes out his frustration on a third character, a scapegoat. The second triad—formed by Bernhard, his literary or artistic forebears, and his readers—redeems this pattern of failure and surrogate sacrifice on a metafictional level.

Cousineau makes clear that his analysis of these triangular relations is informed by René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, which he expounds on in the epilogue to his study. The first hypothetical triangle is most useful for understanding Bernhard’s artistic project. While this theoretical construct might seem a bit too neat and tidy at first, Cousineau employs it to inform a nuanced reading of the subtle mirroring relationships, imitations, and inversions that underlie the dynamics of interaction in Bernhard’s novels, which are often strikingly similar to one another. Cousineau’s main accomplishment consists of a careful rendering of how character constellations unfold and interface with novelistic form to give each work a distinct and singular tone.

Furthermore, Cousineau offers a compelling explanation for the historical reasons behind Bernhard’s repetitive narratives of personal oppression: they are a restaging of the Nazi scapegoating of Jews. This promising intuition remains mostly undeveloped, however, except for a quite enlightening parallel reading of passages from The Loser and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The second conceptual triangle (Bernhard’s sublimation of his literary models for the enjoyment of his readers) is less persuasive. Cousineau has to hunt extremely hard for traces of Bernhard’s predecessors within the novels, and his findings are often superficial: for example, in The Lime Works, one ostensible literary model is the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which allegedly resurfaces in the novel through the protagonist Konrad’s writerly aspirations (“high-altitude flight”) and ultimate failure (killing his wife and hiding out in a manure pit). While Konrad remains imprisoned in Austria-cum-Knossos, Bernhard becomes an extra-textual Daedalus who safely escapes via the heady flight of authorial success. Cousineau bases his evidence for other literary models, from Dante and Homer to Proust, on brief allusions or possible suggestions within the novel, which he mines for their deeper structural significance. Other, perhaps more obvious literary precursors such as Kraus and Nestroy receive only a brief mention in the introduction.

Elsewhere, the search for literary antecedents is more convincing—for example, in an analysis of Woodcutter’s mise-en-scène and its relationship to plays by Ibsen and Strindberg—but this approach may lead English-language readers to believe that the most interesting aspect of Bernhard’s writing is his appropriation of other writers, and not his singular prose style. This is connected to a second weakness in the volume: Cousineau’s apparent unfamiliarity with German-language literature and scholarship. This manifests itself in fact-checking errors (e.g...


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pp. 478-480
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