Cutting Timber

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Woodcutters
Woodcutters bernhard.JPG
Author Thomas Bernhard
Original title Holzfällen. Eine Erregung
Translator David McLintock
Country Austria
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a Borzoi Book
Publication date
1984
Published in English
1987
Pages 181 pp
ISBN 978-0-394-55152-4
Preceded by Concrete (Beton)
Followed by Wittgenstein's Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe)

Whereas many Bernhard novels conclude with a suicide, Cutting Timber, also known as Woodcutters and also in full Cutting Timber: An Irritation (and in German Holzfällen), commences with one.

Much unravels concerning this death in Woodcutters, more than one might normally expect from Thomas Bernhard; indeed we are treated to an unsightly parade of Viennese artistic types, making this a highly pleasurable addition to the misanthropic canon.

The suicide in Woodcutters is treated less as pathetic (The Loser) and less as a mandatory response to living (Old Masters) but as a more of a conventional tragedy which allows the full hypocritical reins of the characters to be let loose, the characters being largely artists, writers, musicians and theatre people.

They are without doubt, and predictably, not an auspicious collection.

Bernhard enjoys writing aged characters. The character of Reger in Alte Meister is 82 years old, and the characters of the Swiss and the Persian companion in Ja are entirely elderly and in retirement. Here in Woodcutters, Cutting Timber I prefer to call it, we meet a small crew of aesthetes and artistically minded Viennese who have come together in the 1980s, for the first time since the 1950s, which was their heyday. Oddly, the narrator of Woodcutters, Cutting Timber I prefer to call it, at one time states that he is 52, but he has also already stated that certain members of this group of Viennese aesthetes were together 35 years previously, something that seems unlikely if they were to be 17 years old; although it remains possible. What is more likely is that we have stumbled upon another item of essential Bernhard iconography — 52 is the age of the death of Glenn Gould in The Loser and the preferred date of the suicide Wertheimer in the same book, so it is possible that we have here an idée fixe, a kind of ideal age for Bernhard. It’s also stated in The Loser that life ends or indeed should end at 50, and while life certainly seems to be over for the narrator and characters in Woodcutters, Cutting Timber I prefer to call it, we are afforded the impression of somebody much older.

Woodcutters, or Cutting Timber as I prefer to call it, also presents the supreme example of the minor Bernhard obsession of people observing one another. This observation occurs commonly in Bernhard’s work, and is often reiterated with the inclusion of a specific vantage point. In Cutting Timber, or Woodcutters as some prefer to call it, this observation is explicitly discussed. As Thomas Bernhard presents it, it is a very good thing indeed to be able to watch people, generally from behind, and to do so for a long time. I’m not sure what the great advantages of this are in total, but it does point to that Bernhard motif of close examination, first of others and secondly oneself.

In considering this observation we can point to Atzbacher observing Reger for a whole hour from the rear of the Bordone room in Alte Meister, although Cutting Timber, Woodcutters as it is here published presents the most arch, supreme example of this curious trait of Bernhard’s in the form of the wing chair — the glorious and famous wing chair. In fact, as everyone who has read Cutting Timber will remember, the most part of the entire book takes place in this mighty wing chair, which is concealed in a dark anteroom near the door of a third floor Viennese apartment, and this chair is chosen by the narrator, because from it he can see and not be seen, which is his great pleasure.

Incidentally, having given my copy of Cutting Timber, published by Vintage asWoodcutters, to somebody, I had to repurchase this most recent Faber British version, which although inexpensive is in fact also quite cheap, and not an attractive printing of the book, despite its being offered with a heavily embossed cover, which is an unnecessary addition, unless it serves to draw unsuspecting book buyers into the Bernhard oeuvre, which it likely will. The book once known as Cutting Timber, as I have intimated, seems to enjoy the title Woodcutters now, doubtless thanks to the line near the closing, as uttered by the awful Burgtheater actor, and in all likelihood summing up his vanity:

<quote>The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal.</quote>

The revelation within these words, The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter, is like a talisman among this artistic set, and the narrator claims he has heard them said before, and doubtless they stand once more for Bernhard’s repeated repugnance concerning nature, the countryside, and the outdoors in general, a theme which never fails but to materialise in his work. This repugnance is here pointed with his restated repugnance for the literary set of his own city.

Although you may not expect the focal character of Woodcutters, the Burgtheatrer actor, to arrive at all after having read the first 100 pages, the Burgtheater actor does arrive, although the narrator cunningly sleeps through his entrance. The large part of the rest of the book is devoted to the demolition of Austrian and European cultural society as voiced by the Burgtheater actor, who is an easy target in some respects, as are all such venerable, verbose artists. Of course the actor is pompous, and because this is Thomas Bernhard we wouldn’t expect anything less. Of course in the process of describing his working practice, the Burgtheater actor reveals vanity, inauthenticity and ineptitude, as he presents modesty, authenticity and expertise.

In terms of enjoyment, Woodcutters is probably among the most entertaining of Bernhard’s novels, presenting as it does a wide cast of characters and a variety of situations and conversations. Compared to most of the novels, which feature at most a handful of characters and tend to reiterate their setting and themes, there is a lot of ridiculousness in Woodcutters, or Cutting Timber as I would have it named, that pretty much anyone who has been party to a conversation between pseuds will relate to. Gradually everyone reveals themselves to be awful — Jeannie Billroth, the self-proclaimed Virginia Woolf of Vienna — the hosts, the Auersbergers, particularly the male Auersberger who drinks himself daft and unconscious, and of course the narrator himself — because no Bernhard novel is complete without self-damnation of the first water.

That is always the final joke, the final pleasure, when it comes to reading Thomas Bernhard. For no matter how vile and vain the villains of any petit-bourgeoisie drama are portrayed, it is always the narrator and Bernhard himself that come off worst. At least that’s how Bernhard would have us think. Secretly he loves himself, and knows that he is great, and although he pays lip service to his own folly he soars above his contemporaries and looks upon them like a hawk, his keen eyesight incising every detail, every blemish, his wit mocking every facet of their lives. As Wikipedia clumsily puts it, "Bernhard devastates with the axe of his prose" — ah yes, hence Woodcutters, now I see.

The irritation is keenly felt, and whether the irritant (an idea suggestive of an insect, perhaps) is the actor, or the wait for the actor, or the entire scenario, it does not matter. The people here assembled are there because of a suicide, although scant attention is paid the the victim, because everyone assembled has come to pay homage to a so-called great artist. It annoyed Bernhard when people did that, even if he was the great artist in question, and yet strangely he put up with it because it was his life, and the people he includes, some of whom tried to sue the publisher, were his colleagues . . . his enemies . . . and at the same time the fodder of his own creative process.

Catgeory:Thomas Bernhard