WITTGENSTEIN’S NEPHEW by Thomas Bernhard

Book Quote:

“Some Dutchman sitting by the window in a loud yellow pullover, essentially picking pellets of snot from his nose and believing himself unobserved, would at once inspire a blanket condemnation of everything pertaining to the Netherlands, which we suddenly felt we detested all our lives.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (DEC 21, 2009)

Thomas Bernhard is a wonderful wordsmith. He weaves his story in riffs like jazz motifs or the most beautiful of tapestries. In a tapestry, there may be repeat stitches but the colors and gauge change, the dynamic conspires to grow and become something else just as it is being created. Like a weaver or jazz musician, Bernhard repeats the essence of his message in many ways, giving the reader a marvelous opportunity to see into the protagonist’s mind. He is a natural story teller.

This book, originally published in 1982, is considered a novel but it is very autobiographical in nature. The novel opens up in 1967 in a Viennese hospital. It is about the author’s friendship with the nephew of the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ludwig’s nephew’s name is Paul and he is considered a madman, a “lunatic” in his day. He is also considered a great lover of opera and music, perhaps a bit of a dandy at times.

The story starts out as the author is recuperating in a hospital that has two pavilions, one for pulmonary patients and one for psychiatric patients. The author is in the pulmonary wing. He has just had a huge tumor removed from his thoracic region and is expected to die. Paul Wittgenstein is in the psychiatric unit for one of his regular stays. He suffers from an unnamed ailment but his relatives find him a burden and suspect he is harmful to others so they have him committed. The author is no friend of psychiatry. He states “Psychiatrists are the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience.”

Paul Wittgenstein was born to great wealth and prestige but used up all his money and now lives on the hand-outs of family and friends. He has a loyal wife who stands by him through thick and thin. The author is a writer who met Paul at a mutual friend’s home and they became “difficult” friends from the start. There was nothing they could not talk about, be it music, philosophy, literature, politics. Paul is an opera lover, a lover of music in general and also a lover of race car driving. He is a man of anomalies and paradoxes. In a sense, we learn much more about Paul in this book than we learn about the author. The book seems to be an homage to Paul and to a great friendship.

The author is appalled at the state of psychiatric care in Vienna. He believes that Paul is hospitalized to drain him of his life forces. Paul is given electro-convulsive therapy, medications, treatments and put in an environment designed to sap the life out of him. When he is as close to death as he can be, he is discharged until he gets sick again, usually in four or five months. The symptoms that plague Paul sound very much like manic depressive disorder – pressured speech, volatile moods, strange movements, serious depression, obvious mania, narcissism.

The story plays out in the author’s telling of multiple vignettes and thoughts about the nature of the friendship. He repeats aspects of the stories over and over in different words in order to get to the essence of what really was or what he truly believes. It is as if he is trying to reach the Platonic ideal of truth in his telling the story of his friendship with Paul. Some of the stories are tragic and others are laugh-out-loud funny. There is one vignette about the two of them driving hundreds of miles throughout Austria to find a particular newspaper. They can’t find it and determine that Austria is barbaric. It is like the country, not civilized urbanity. Both men hate the country.

The author discourses a lot about health and death. He has lived his life near death for a long time and compares death of the body to death of the spirit or mind. He resents healthy people who he feels are hypocrites and truly hate sick people.

Here are two men, both misanthropic and narcissistic, carrying on the grandest of activities together – going to literary ceremonies, award banquets, operas, sitting together at coffee houses. They ebb and flow in the friendship, always trying to stay on the other’s good side. Each is opinionated and difficult and the friendship is as different and wonderful as any I’ve read about.

Bernhard is a word weaver and he creates his book as an art form in itself. There are no paragraphs. The book slips as easily from idea to idea and story to story as an Olympic ice skater. One has to be able to relate to Bernhard’s style of writing. I certainly could. I loved the book and found myself completely entrenched in it.

Towards the end of his life, when Paul was dying, the author abandoned him. This book is his way to seek forgiveness for that, to pay homage to the great and difficult man that was his friend.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (October 13, 2009)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Thomas Bernhard

Wikipedia page on Thomas Bernhard

EXTRAS: Kirjasto onВ Thomas Bernhard
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Also consider these republished authors:

Richard Yates

Lynn Sharon Schwartz

J. G. Farrell

Sandor Marai

Bibliography (only those translated to English):

Nonfiction:

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December 21, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Austria, Classic, Facing History, Translated, Unique Narrative, World Lit

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