As I look back on a month which began, at least as I can best remember, in a hospital bed on the cardiac unit, it seems oddly serendipitous that my final read for August is a book that begins in the chest clinic of an Austrian hospital. I did not know much about Wittgenstein’s Nephew in advance beyond the fact that it dealt with madness, one of Bernhard’s common themes. I had ordered it, in all honesty, to reach the free shipment minimum on an Amazon order for a quality adaptor for my trip to South Africa. It’s long been on my wish list so I just tucked it in. I picked it up off the pile on my coffee table yesterday and could not put it down.
Bernhard is a favourite. I always find him, in his characteristic vitriol, to to be funny and wise. But this book is less caustic and more sentimental than I could possibly have anticipated. It is also a tribute to his real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, in truth a relative of the famous philosopher. In one singular paragraph that extends over a mere 100 pages, the narrator, one Thomas Bernhard, orchestrates a grand meditation on health and illness, sanity and madness, and the singular power of a friendship grounded in common interests and mutual intellectual respect.
As this novella opens Bernhard is recovering from surgery to remove a tumour from his thorax. While he lies in his hospital bed tormented by his roommates and ignored by the nursing staff, he comes to learn that his dear friend happens to be confined to the mental ward of the same facility, ironically in the Ludwig Pavilion. Paul, who may well have suffered from manic depression, is given to recurring bouts of madness. For Bernhard, the causes and courses of their conditions are analogous:
“Paul went mad because he suddenly pitted himself against everything and lost his balance, just as one day I too lost my balance by pitting myself against everything – the only difference being that he went mad, whereas I, for the selfsame reason, contracted lung disease. But Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine. Paul never controlled his madness, but I have always controlled mine – which possibly means that my madness is in fact much madder than Paul’s.”
A blend of fiction and memoir, fans of Bernhard’s trademark crankiness will still delight in his rants against psychiatrists, German newspapers, simple minded people, literary prizes, actors and in the end, the cruel inevitability of death. But the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s Nephew is an ode to the life sustaining value of a true friendship. Paul is remembered as “the only man I had ever been able to talk to in a way that was congenial to me, the only one with whom I could discuss and develop any topic whatever, even the most difficult.” They shared a passion for music, an inherent restlessness of spirit, and a love of philosophical discussion and debate. A most rare and precious bond.
Ultimately, especially after the death of his wife, Paul’s spirit deteriorates. He starts to die long before his final breath is drawn, and as his friend witnesses this decline he finds it increasingly difficult to be in his presence. Bernhard pulls away, a rejection driven perhaps by the fear of dying engendered by those on death’s doorstop. This slender volume is a eulogy to a man of wisdom and spirit who could not maintain his grip on a world that is perhaps more mad and unstable than he ever was.
Thanks to the fallout from the clot sitting in my lung and the cardiac arrest it triggered, I am presently experiencing a faint taste of what chronic sufferers of lung disease like Bernhard might have known; yet, like Paul, I have also been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. At one point, Bernhard talks about returning home from the hospital and the reckless urge to do more than one is physically capable of managing. This leads to a rant about how the healthy fail to understand the chronically ill. This is an unfortunately valid observation, one that is especially true when the illness is psychiatric. A year ago this spring I suffered a serious manic break after 16 years of stability and although I am still “technically” employed, no one from my former workplace is allowed to contact me. I am a leper. Admittedly I have built a new community of support since that time, but I have had many more offers for assistance after my recent health problems than I can handle. It is quite a contrast. Last year I was prone to a few rants of my own about how I suspected that my employers would have been much more sympathetic had I had a heart attack.
A month out now from an event that still haunts my thoughts and emotions, I am gaining strength each day. Sometimes I overdo things and have to rest. A high level of smoke in the air from distant forest fires kept me housebound for week causing me to feel a little edgy. But I have read a decent number of books, including a few that may be among my best of the year thanks to the Women in Translation challenge. Winding up August with this heartfelt ode to friendship is perfect, after all there a couple long distance calls to South Africa on my cell phone bill. There were a few moments in those very early days in the hospital that there was only one voice I needed to hear.
Originaly published in 1982, this translation from the German by David McLintock was first published in 1989.