- Forest Fictions:Thomas Bernhard’s Holzfällen and Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden
One hundred years after Ibsen’s Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck ), Thomas Bernhard published Holzfällen (1984; Woodcutters ), a venomous roman à clef about the Viennese artistic class. A nameless narrator eagerly pours his contempt on the middle-aged guests he observes at a dinner party after a premiere of Vildanden at Vienna’s Burgtheater. The entire narrative consists of his thoughts and reminiscences as he watches the dinner party unfold from a wing chair off to the side. Earlier that day, the same group of people attended the funeral of their friend Joana, a dreamer who has committed suicide. As the dinner party awaits the guest of honor, a respected actor who will be joining them after playing Old Ekdal in the Ibsen premiere, the narrator reflects with bitterness and contempt on the inauthentic life he witnesses. His harsh and hilarious invective streams over almost two hundred pages of unparagraphed yet rhythmically structured prose—a typical feature of Bernhard’s captivating narrative style.
Why would Vildanden be employed as an intertextual antecedent by this controversial novel? Readers of the Ibsen drama will recall its main characters and incidents: a vain photographer, Hjalmar Ekdal, lives with his wife, Gina, and 14-year-old daughter, Hedvig. Also living in the apartment is Old Ekdal, Hjalmar’s father, a former lieutenant whose illegal felling of timber with Haakon Werle in the play’s back-story led to his punishment and current degradation. When Haakon Werle’s idealist son, Gregers, returns from self-imposed exile in the [End Page 133] forest, he decides to bring the buried truth of both families to light: Hedvig is not truly Hjalmar’s daughter, but rather Haakon Werle’s. As a counterpoint to Gregers’s idealist insistence on the revelation of this buried truth, the Ekdal family friend Dr. Relling advocates a conservative fictionalism in the form of the livsløgn (life-lie). Perhaps the most famous line in the play is Relling’s advice to Gregers in the fourth act: “Tar De livsløgnen fra et gennomsnitsmenneske, så tar De lykken fra det med det samme” (Ibsen 2005, 141) [If you take away the life-lie from an average person, then you also take away their happiness]. Relling’s suggestion casts doubt on the Nordic Modern Breakthrough’s earlier equation of truth and freedom, as seen in the first four works of Ibsen’s prose play cycle (Hemmer 2003, 312). Perhaps some degree of distortion is necessary for the flourishing of et gjennomsnittsmenneske (an average person). Meanwhile, in the pseudo-forest of the Ekdal’s loft space lives an injured wild duck, a richly layered symbol with associations to many characters. In the present of Vildanden, Old Ekdal feebly relives his earlier glory as a hunter by pretending to hunt in the fake forest. Dr. Relling’s observation that there is “ikke lykkeligere skytter til i verden” (Ibsen 2005, 140) [no happier shooter in the world] than Old Ekdal comes right before his famous line about livsløgnen. The play ends with Hedvig’s suicide in the fake forest, an act spurred by Gregers’s twisted suggestion that she prove her filial love to Hjalmar by shooting the wild duck as a form of sacrifice. As recent interpretations have emphasized, the tragic outcome hinges on the young Hedvig’s misunderstanding of Gregers’s use of indirect and suggestive language (Moi 2006, 265; Hemmer 2003, 318–20).
In what sense does this strange canonical drama serve as more than just an incidental reference point for Bernhard’s highly citational novel? In Three-Part Inventions (2008), Thomas Cousineau calls Holzfällen an act of “creative emulation” with multiple connections to works by Woolf, Shakespeare, Proust, and Strindberg, in addition to Ibsen (102). There are indeed many intriguing contact points to explore in a novel rich with literal and structural references to theater (117). Bernhard’s novel adopts, amplifies, and complicates key themes and structures from Ibsen’s text, such as inauthenticity and theatricality, empty language, the “life-lie,” and the retrospective technique. My focus here will be the Holzfällen actor’s romantic...