One would never accuse Thomas Bernhard of being a cheerful, optimistic writer—his fiction tends to themes of isolation, human misery and the deterioration of modern society. But that’s not to say he isn’t funny. His characters are typically wildly eccentric, usually scientists or scholars of some kind, with musical and/or philosophical inclinations. Yes, his fifth novel, originally published in 1978 and translated into English in 1991 by Ewald Osers, is a shorter work that ticks all these boxes and, for my money, is crafted with just the right balance of idiosyncratic energy and narrative tension.
Many of Bernhard’s novels and stories are presented through a secondary narrator, a friend or acquaintance who records the protagonist’s account, a style that can, at times, necessitate backtracking through a particularly serpentine sentence to determine whose words are actually being described. Yes features a direct first person narrator, a scientist living alone in a rural area in a ramshackle dwelling he retreated to many years earlier to dedicate himself to his studies on antibodies. Beyond science, his passions are the music Schumann and the philosophy of Schopenhauer, most specifically The World as Will and Idea. The story he wants to impart, one which now lies at some distance, concerns the impact that the arrival of a Swiss engineer and his long-time companion, a Persian woman, had on his life and well-being at a point when he had reached the absolute depths of depression and despair. It is naturally, a roundabout exposition, beginning with the sudden arrival of the so-called Swiss couple at the home and office of his friend the realtor Moritz upon whom he has just unloaded the full and horrible truths of his mental sickness and self-loathing. He immediately recognizes in the Persian woman a certain kinship and a release from the suffocating conditions of his own mind and the stifling community he lives in. Over the course of the novel, he seeks to learn more about this man who had purchased a most undesirable piece of land with intent to build on it, and to further his association with his life-partner:
While the Swiss was busy, in the small towns nearby, looking for door and window fittings, for bolts and grilles, screws and nails and for insulation material and marine paint for the concrete house which, as I learned from him at our first meeting, he had himself designed and which was already going up behind the cemetery, and in consequence was almost never to be found at the inn (the Swiss couple’s quarters for the duration of the construction), I myself, quite suddenly and probably at the life-saving moment snatched by the couple from my depressed state, or in truth from a by then life-threatening depression, suddenly found in the woman friend of the Swiss, who soon turned out to be a Persian born in Shiraz, an utterly regenerating person, that is an utterly regenerating walking and thinking and talking and philosophizing partner such as I had not for years and would have least expected to find in a woman.
What unfolds is a relatively straightforward, well-paced, focused and affecting novel. There is humour, carried primarily in the narrator’s self-obsessed paranoias and blunt opinions, but the classic Bernhard absurdity and circuitous storytelling is contained within a serious, sombre atmosphere which, at least for me, grants the work a mood reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s Nephew in contrast to the relentlessly cynical tone that can weigh down some of his longer more convoluted narratives if one is not quite in the mood to surrender. Of course, the unnamed narrator is, as usual, suitably misanthropic and miserable about the rural environment his lung disease has forced him to retire to, the tedious characters who dwell there, and the current state of political decay in his nation and continent. But in spite of himself, he seems remarkably cognizant of his own role in the isolated circumstances in which he is trapped and in social settings often finds himself balancing his distaste for others with an equal level of attraction, fully aware that he is likely seen no better by anyone else.
Throughout the text, the narrator eludes to his friendship with the Persian woman and their frequent walks in the larch-woods, but it is clear that, despite the momentary release they both find in the company of the other, darkness lies ahead. Then, in the final twenty pages, the narrator draws his account together with increasingly disturbing revelations building to a final sentence that he has been leading to from the very first words he committed to the page. I may have a new favourite Bernhard book and I definitely have another suggestion to offer whenever anyone asks where to start with his work.
Yes by Thomas Bernhard is translated by Ewald Osers and published by The University of Chicago Press.