Old Masters

Michael Hofmann writes:

The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) once said: ‘You have to understand that in my writing the musical component comes first, and the subject matter is secondary.’ It’s a strange thing for this professional controversialist and Austropathic ranter to have said – that we should attend to the form, balance and measure in his work, when everything in it would seem to lead to the giggle and gasp of hurt given or received, or the hush and squeal of scandal – but it is sound advice. Before we talk about the quality of the opinions, or the kilotonnage of the diatribes, or the relentlessness of the assault (is anything exempt?), we ought to talk about the patterns of repetition and variation in the unspooling sentences of the unparagraphed prose. If Bernhard is anything, he is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out its trapped and staggered shards of shrilly hammered phrases.

(LRB 4 November 2010)

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