CONCRETE by Thomas Bernhard

Book Quote:

“No doctrine holds water any longer; everything that is said and preached is destined to become ludicrous.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (OCT 12, 2010)

I’d read wildly different reviews of a Thomas Bernhard book. One review was overwhelmingly positive while another review thought the same book (The Old Masters) pointless. After reading both reviews and salient quotes, I leaned towards the pointless reaction, but then again, the reviewers’ reactions to the same book were so different, I was curious to try a Bernhard novel. This brings me to Concrete, and after reading it, I now understand how this author could provoke such vastly different reactions from readers.

Concrete is narrated by a 45-year-old bachelor, Rudolph who lives in the town of Peiskam, Austria. When I say narrated by I mean that quite literally. Rudolph, who suffers from sarcoidosis, hopped full of prednisolone, wants to write a book about Mendelssohn Bartholdy. He’s spent years on the project and has an entire room full of notes to prove it, but Rudolph, who’s a classic procrastinator, has a litany of excuses about why his masterpiece isn’t finished. Concrete is a 156-page rant against several of Rudolph’s pet peeves: his pushy sister, charity, religion, Vienna, pet owners, so-called “simple people,” –you name it–Rudolph complains about it. And complain he does endlessly, repetitively and utterly pointlessly. Concrete is a brilliant, brilliantly funny look at the labyrinth of one man’s peevish, petty, rambling yet repetitive obsessions, and if you’ve read Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

When the novel begins, Rudolph’s successful sister has finally ended her visit at the old family home to which she has “the right to domicile.” She left urging Rudolph to visit Vienna, and Rudolph claims to be thrilled to see the back of her. The first part of the novel is a litany of complaints about his sister, and she’s portrayed as a monstrously domineering woman who is “the excuse for every failure” in Rudolph’s life:

“Although she had gone, I still felt the presence of my sister in every part of the house. It would be impossible to imagine a person more hostile to anything intellectual than my sister. The very thought of her robs me of my capacity for any intellectual activity, and she has always stifled at birth any intellectual projects I have had. She’s been gone a long time now, and yet she is still controlling me, I thought as I pressed my hands against the cold wall of the hall.”

According to Rudolph, there’s “no defence” against someone like his sister–a woman who’s so “wretched, malignant, deceitful” her husband “fled from her stranglehold and went to South America, to Peru, never to be heard of again.” Monstrous indeed, but as Rudolph shifts from one rant to another, we arrive at the conclusion that perhaps Rudolph’s relentless sister isn’t so bad after all.

Spurred on by his sister’s suggestion that he’s stagnating in Peiskam, Rudolph decides to take a long-delayed holiday and he ends up in Majorca. His fussy preparations for the trip include dragging along a suitcase of notes on Mendelssohn–along with adequate medicines for his chronic condition.

Concrete (and the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear at the end of the book) is an interior narrative rendered by an extremely unreliable, unhappy narrator. Seclusion and illness–combined with adequate funds to allow complete ostracism from the world–combine to create a situation in which Rudolph need have very little contact with humanity. His primary unsatisfying relationships are with his sister and his housekeeper, and apart from that he keeps himself company. While this is all very funny, undercurrents within the text illustrate how chronic disease erodes self-confidence while demanding a controlling relationship from its human host.

There’s the sense that we are in the same darkened room with Rudolph as he mutters one diatribe after another, curses fate, and argues himself into the position that he hasn’t published anything because to do so is “evidence of a certain defect of character.” He’s one of those people who ramble on like broken records about the same half-dozen issues. You could leave that darkened room, come back four hours later, and he wouldn’t have noticed your absence. But since Rudolph’s agonized rants are in print, we don’t have to miss a word. (Translated from German by David McLintock.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (August 10, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Thomas Bernhard

Wikipedia page on Thomas Bernhard

EXTRAS: Excerpt

Guy Savage has more to say about Concrete

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October 12, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Austria, Classic, Literary, Translated, World Lit

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