The Voice Imitator

Ben Marcus reviews 'The Voice Imitator' by Thomas Bernhard.

Published December 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

If you are foolish enough to think that things will all work out in the end, or if you look for the so-called silver lining in each "cloud," believing that there's a good side to everything, etc., etc., then steer clear of Thomas Bernhard's books -- and of this review. You'll only be offended, and it's time the rest of us had our turn. Those still reading can be assured that simperingly positive attitudes, blind faith, feel-good philosophy and deluded optimism -- all of which have become like a new form of oppressive American weather -- will never show up in the brutal darkness of Bernhard's work.

And thank God for it. Best known as a novelist, Austrian Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), who spent most of his life rehearsing his eventual death from lung disease, wrote what might well be termed the literature of bitterness: a credo based on thoroughly articulated misery. This newly translated collection is no exception, although it's the first chance for readers of English to see Bernhard at work in the short story form. Small doses of astonishing cruelty might be less forbidding to those readers previously intimidated by Bernhard's ranting, single-paragraphed novels, and they present a chance for the curious to sample facets of his mad voices, his mirthful pleasure in every form of disintegration.

None of the stories here extend beyond a page, yet as the dust jacket warns, these 104 stories will amass "eighteen suicides, six painful deaths, one memory lapse, four disappearances, twenty surprises, three character attacks, five early deaths, twenty-six murders, thirteen instances of lunacy, four cover-ups and two instances of libel." A big agenda for a small book, leaving no room for the traditional bother of plot and character development, putting these pieces more in line with Kafka's parables or the sketches of Elias Canetti. And keep in mind that many of the above-named delights -- the attacks, surprises, deaths and lunacy -- will erupt in the same story, while unlisted fascinations can be seen in such stories as the 47-word "Hotel Waldhaus":

"We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them."

These are blistering anecdotes, negative distortions of news items, stories of severity that portray depths of hatred with a casual comic touch. They do not, thankfully, attempt dumb suddenness, in the style of this country's most predictable fiction writers, who fake revelation to make you think you just read a real story. At their least compelling, Bernhard's stories sound like scraps from abandoned novels, yet even his fragments, which should lead readers to his best books -- "Correction" and "Woodcutters" -- are hair-raisingly cynical screeds against the folly of living, fearlessly confronting the futility of anything so presumptuous as taking a breath. This book affirms the satisfaction, the truth, in thinking the worst.

By Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is the author of "The Age of Wire and String" (Knopf).

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