Listen closely now – The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]

THIRTEEN INSTANCES OF LUNACY
TWENTY SURPRISES
FOUR DISAPPEARANCES
TWENTY-SIX MURDERS
TWO INSTANCES OF LIBEL
SIX PAINFUL DEATHS
THREE CHARACTER ATTACKS
FIVE EARLY DEATHS
ONE MEMORY LAPSE
FOUR COVER-UPS
EIGHTEEN SUICIDES

With the list above, the cover of the University of Chicago publication of The Voice Imitator offers a warning to the potential reader of the themes that feature in the 104 stories that lie ahead. For seasoned readers of Thomas Bernhard none are likely a surprise, though it is quite possible to emerge at the end thinking, “were there only 26 murders and 18 suicides?” Chances are it feels like there are more. But that’s okay. Would you really expect less?

VoiceIf the thought of encountering a volume containing 104 stories sounds intimidating, be assured that this collection spans all of 104 pages. This is Bernhard in microcosm, all of the acerbic wit and dark charm one could want from the Austrian playwright, poet and novelist distilled into brief anecdotal tales, each recounted within the space of one page.
The longest fill the page, the shortest are no more than a few lines.

Drawing on newspaper reports, rumour, and overheard conversations, Bernhard exploits this condensed form of fiction to tackle his favourite targets, including, of course, his native country. Even in a confined space, he finds room to explore the foibles of human nature and contemplate the bitter ironies of life. There is a healthy dose of death – murder, suicide, accident – some, tragic, some absurd; and no small measure of madness. Featuring a familiar retinue of philosophers and professors, craftsmen and woodcutters, musicians and artists, freaks and loners; the stars of these anecdotes and fables are driven by conviction, thwarted ambition, disillusion, and disappointment. Just like, well, the rest of us.

The least effective pieces are the very shortest. A few more lines are often in order to set the scene, to draw the drama, to pull the the punch. But even then, the emotional impact can be striking with less than half a page:

“Sitting in the early train, we happen to look out of the window just at the moment when we are passing the ravine into which our school group, with whom we had undertaken an excursion to the waterfall, had plunged fifteen years ago, and we think about how we were saved but the others were killed forever. The teacher who had been taking our group to the waterfall hanged herself immediately after a sentence of eight year’s imprisonment had been passed on her by the Salzburg Provincial Court. When the train passes the scene of the accident, we can hear our own cries intermingled with the cries of the whole group.”                        (Early Train)

The use of the first person plural in the majority of these stories lends an intimate tone. One can almost imagine the narrator as one of those inveterate storytellers who always has an entertaining morsel at hand: a family legend, a piece of wisdom, a mini tirade to share. Bernhard’s language plays on repetition, relies on qualifiers like “so-called” – one can almost see the air quotes – and, in this shortened format, he delights in throwing a punch at the end, leaving the reader with a gasp, a nod, or an ironic laugh.

Some might see this as an introduction to Bernhard for those uncomfortable diving into, say, a single-paragraph 200 page novel. But it works even better, one might argue, as a treat for those who are already acquainted with some of Bernhard’s classic works. Each little anecdotal story stands like a glimpse into the windows of Bernhard’s world… the themes, characters, and images that feature in his longer works shine, isolated for a moment, in the space of a single page or less. Contained in this way, his rhythm, his cynicism, and acerbic wit ring through. Bite-sized Bernhard to marvel at and enjoy.

glm_vThe Voice Imitator is translated by Kenneth J. Northcott. This stands as my first contribution for the German Literature Month reading challenge.

14 thoughts on “Listen closely now – The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

    • It is interesting to see what he could do with this format (and how much he can still circle in one page). But I take your point and that’s why I don’t see it as an introduction, as some readers suggest. When you do know his work it is more fun to recognize his themes peeking through.

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  1. It’s quite an achievement to be able to deliver an emotional impact in just one page. I’ve never read Bernhard and was about to ask if this might be a good place to start, but it sounds like this collection might suit readers who are already familiar with his work (to some extent at least). Which of his novels would you suggest as an introduction?

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    • I started with The Loser which is one of his single paragraph pieces but it is an intense tale about genius (and failed genius) featuring Glenn Gould. The Gargoyles is an early novel which has a more conventional (for Bernhard) first half moving into a rant by a crazy prince in the second half – a good intro. But my favourite and another good start is Wittgenstein’s Nephew which is more autobiographical and a sadder, gentler Bernhard.

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    • This one intrigued me because it is so different from what I have come to expect from Bernhard but, of course he wrote more than novels alone. I have a few shorter Bernhard works lined up for the month including a fully illustrated, coffee table sized book from Seagull that is just gorgeous called Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale. Looking forward to your thoughts on Old Masters. I haven’t read that one yet.

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