In the introduction to her massive and extraordinarily detailed dissertation, Anne Thill challenges a critical consensus that, until recently, held Bernhard’s oeuvre to be essentially monolithic. She bases her attempts to sketch a complexly differentiated development in the final section of her work— “Konstanz, Kontinuität, Differenz: Entwicklungslinien im Werk Thomas Bernhards”—on another recent trend in Bernhard scholarship, a decided turn to the texts themselves. With a focus on fifteen dramatic and longer prose works—from Frost (1963) to Einfach kompliziert (1986)—Thill prepares the ground for this final section with close readings of a series of Bernhard texts in which art and artistry are thematically central. In almost uninterrupted conversation with other critical voices in this long middle section, following productive leads and rejecting or modifying others, the author pinpoints and formulates the changing sense and purpose of Bernhard’s irony and humor. Characteristic of her critical style is a conscious and constant effort to achieve the greatest precision possible in her interpretive language. Underlying this effort is an intimate familiarity with the minutiae not only of the individual literary texts but of the critical views of her fellow scholars as well.
Before launching into the main part of her dissertation—600 pages of close readings of the Bernhard texts—Thill clarifies and discusses in a short preliminary chapter the central theoretical terms that form the basis of her analyses of each of the texts, terms such as “‘Künstler- und Erzählerfiguren,’ ‘Komik und Ernst,’ Ironie und Humor’” (11–42). These terms provide guidelines for the subsections of the close readings of each individual text—but always with an eye on the developmental lines of Bernhard’s work as a whole, Thill allows her close readings to determine the relative significance of each term. A key sentence in her conclusions about Frost and its main character Strauch reads: “So fuhren einerseits alle Ansätze von Komik in Frost nicht zum Lachen und ist andererseits auf der Figurenebene jedes Gelächter, von dem die Rede ist, keine Reaktion auf Komik, sondern auf Verzweiflung, Unheimlichkeit, Entsetzlichkeit, Leiden oder Angst” (85). Taking her lead from the language of the novel itself, she characterizes his fate as stemming from “der von ihm permanent inszenierten ‘Komödientragödie’” (86).
Before scrutinizing two of Bernhard’s early works for the stage, Der Ignorant [End Page 179] und der Wahnsinnige (1972) and Die Macht der Gewohnheit (1974), Thill focuses her critical eye on Kalkwerk (1970), the novel in which the main figure, Konrad—the would-be author of a scientific work on hearing—finally takes out his artistic and intellectual frustration on his wife. After murdering her, he is found “half frozen” in a cesspool, an end that Thill labels “derbkomisch” (117). Several subsections on Kalkwerk are devoted to examinations of the novel’s comedic elements—in images, actions, and language. In the course of her commentaries, the author repeatedly points out the theatrical nature of Bernhard’s prose as well as the prose-like qualities of his dramatic works.
The author’s critical acuity and stylistic mellifluousness meet their biggest challenge in the longest, most complex—and at times perplexing—analysis of Bernhard’s novel Korrektur (1975). Representing Bernhard’s “literaturwissenschaftlich wohl anspruchsvollste Werk” (279), she sees the grounds for the challenge in the novel itself. Although this may certainly be partially the case, at least some of her own densely packed prose stems from the abundance of cited secondary sources intermingling with extensive quotations from the texts themselves. Doing justice to multiple interpretations of passages, narrative figures, situations, and points of view while steering a clear interpretive path of one’s own calls for both a greater distance from and a more discerning attitude toward the cited sources. It is particularly in this chapter, where the author’s language becomes overly exacting and her need for detail overly exhaustive, that the reader may lose the thread of the unique contribution of her close reading to a more...