Wrapping up a month of healing with Thomas Bernhard and Wittgenstein’s Nephew

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.

nephewBernhard 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.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Wrapping up a month of healing with Thomas Bernhard and Wittgenstein’s Nephew”

  1. This sounds good 🙂 I have another Bernhard ‘The Loser’ waiting to be read, but I may try this one too before too long (luckily, being able to read them in Germany, I can have my pick!).

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    1. The Loser is brilliant, it was my first. It goes haywire with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould and I thought this would be a similar riff. However, because it is a tribute to a real friend the tone is more compassionate and vulnerable. Definitely another side of a great mind. His novels are generally available in English but being able to read German you would possibly have more access to his plays, essays and poetry. I have a German friend who speaks highly of some of those works.

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  2. I’m glad to hear that you’re feeling a little stronger as each day goes by, long may it continue.

    The book does sound very good. I’ve yet to read any anything by Thomas Bernhard, but positive reviews of his work have been coming thick and fast in recent years.

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    1. Bernhard was a singular force. He is typically intense, irascible and prone to a dark humour. Thunderous at times. That’s what makes this work so surprisingly muted and heartfelt. He is worth checking out.

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  3. Bugger. There aren’t any of his books on you know where. Anyway, I’ll keep my peepers peeled, I’d really like to read this one. The quote is rather wonderful.

    As for you, young man, don’t make my damn eyes leak. Kidding, I’m very touched by what you said and you need to install the thingy I messaged you about so we can natter courtesy of WiFi rather than phone companies. I’m hugging you as tight as your heart can stand.

    Fuck those assholes who don’t contact you. Or rather, don’t.

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  4. It does seem like serendipity for you to read this at this point of your life. I’m only vaguely familiar with Bernhard but I will now be on the lookout for his works. Also, it’s good to hear that you’re getting stronger. 🙂

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  5. Wittgenstein’s Nephew was my first Bernhard. I choice it as in the long ago I studied the philosopher’s works and I knew his family history. I since then have read three others. In a way his characters remind me of an old college friend, a brilliant wealthy bitter young man who thought he knew everything. Now he is an old man raving at the corrupt world. I hope to read all his novels and I was recently given a review copy of his early poetry in translation.

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    1. My first Bernhard was Loser. I too wish to read all of his work. Lately I have been picking up some of his less widely known work. I would like to find some of his poetry myself.

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  6. After reading your latest post “Winter Solstice (again)” this morning, I realised how eventful 2015 has been for you and I went back and read quiet a few posts in your blog. These showed me two things: I already knew what a good reviewer you are from your latest posts, but the older, more personal, ones are equally well written and profoundly engaging for the reader. And at a deeper human level, I must tell you how much I admire you for taking all those steps you’ve been taking, plus, how glad I am that you’ve recovered so well and has now reached that stage in writing where you know which way to go, even if writing will never get any easier because of that.

    I’m commenting here because that is how far I got with my reading this morning. But I will go on with reading your blog, as life and time permits. My everyday life allows me only short bursts of reading in the breaks from my teaching job. Unlike you and Anthony, I can read less fiction and also prefer poetry or essays, and of course blog posts on the Internet.

    Best wishes for the upcoming years in writing!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my posts and for your kind words. I am much more sensitive about the personal posts, I end up feeling exposed. That’s why I am trying to find a way of stepping back just a bit from the raw personal. Maybe I need to have more confidence. Funny that I read and right about fiction more often than not. I do however read essay and poetry and what I write tends to fall into those genres. I really don’t believe I am a fiction writer.

      2015 was a year of challenge and I wish I could say that it was ending on a note of resolution, but I am presently preparing to write a reflective post about the serious stroke my father had a week ago. Life goes on.

      Again your comments are most appreciated.

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