"A hard, dark gem": Some short remarks on Thomas Bernhard’s "Frost"

I am a great admirer of Mr. Bernhard’s work, all of it. It’s almost devoid of women, yet judging from his treatment of them when they appear, this may be a good thing. His work is still amazing, possibly because of all that bile stored in his pen.

My two favorite novels of his are his first and his last one. Bernhard is a bleak writer and his last novel, called Extinction (Auslöschung) is maybe his funniest novel, his most playful, and yet ful with all his marvellous bleakness.

His first novel though is hard as a rock. You can see the humor briefly before the frost grabs it, breaks its neck and laughs bitterly. It’s very well written, incredibly so for a debut novel. As in Bernhards other work there are many repetitions, many musings upon the rotten nature of the world, yet it is his bleakest novel and that is saying a lot. There are several critics who confessed to have capitulated on their first attempt to tackle this relentless lecture in pain. The plot isn’t important, the setting is rural Austria, and the characters are a painter who went there to die and a young student who is sent there to spy on the painter and compile reports on him. The novel, which is, on top of all that, one of his longer ones with the German pb clocking in at just under 400 pages, basically consists of walks taken by the writer accompagnied by the student who strikes up a friendship with the bitter old man.

The old man lectures him on the desolate state the world is in. There’s a solution shining through (art!) but its like seeing the sun miles away while you’re standing in the rain, pummeled by a cold wind and always in danger of being hit by lightning.

Bernhard is one of the best prose stylists in the German language post 1945, and as early as Frost, he’s almost at the top of his game. Whether its the descriptions of the hideous whore that is the landlady of the inn where both protagonists are staying or of the peasants who are all sick, inside and out, and of the Frost, who dominates the landscape and eats into the hearts of the citizens of the area.

This novel reads like a development of his poetry (he started as a poet, then turned to prose and drama), sharpening it, hardening it into the dark gem that it is. Much of what is developed here returns time and again in his work, but most noticeably in what is, beyond any doubt, his masterpiece: Extinction (Auslöschung). ISBN

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