‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard – A Doctor’s Rigorous Unsentimental View of His Patients and His Neighbors


‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard (1967) – 208 pages             Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston

‘Gargoyles’ is a rigorous accounting of people’s lives rather than a sentimental accounting.

Our narrator in ‘Gargoyles’ is a young man who accompanies his doctor father on his rounds. The doctor sees the sometimes ugly truth in his patients’ lives. He sees people get sick and die close up, and sometimes it’s their own fault. He sees people’s families during these rough times in their lives and sees the breaking points within the family. In his village many of the men are cruel and spend all day drinking in the bar and then come home to beat their wives and children. These men are frequently anti-Semitic. There are two doctors in his town and the only Jew in town, Bloch, has “relieved the other doctor of the lasting shame of having to treat a Jew by consulting my father”. Now Bloch is one of the very few men in town in whom the doctor can confide.

‘Gargoyles’ begins with a senseless barroom murder of one of our doctor’s patients.

All these long drinking bouts end badly,” my father said. “And in this region a high percentage of them end in a fatality. The innkeepers’ own wives are often the victims.”

This doctor is familiar with the underside of townspeople’s lives, not the false fronts people put forward but the reality. There is the daughter-in-law who has only scorn for her mother-in-law and barely speaks to her.

Her daughter-in-law had always hated her. It had started as spontaneous dislike at their first meeting and had grown ever stronger over the years. “My son doesn’t dare to love me any more because of the way his wife hates me.” And by now, Frau Ebenhöh said, she was “crushed” by the more and more revolting stories her daughter-in-law concocted about her.

Another patient is a father who is depressed about his son’s slowness in school. The doctor is even willing to confront the difficulties in his own family. The doctor’s wife died five years ago when his son was 16 and his daughter 13, and he has now noticed that his daughter has become increasingly sullen and uncommunicative.

Among cheerful people who take life easily she was wretched. Pleasant surroundings irritated her. A bright day plunged her into still deeper melancholia.”

The doctor tries to instill in his own son this rigorous sense of reality.

I found the doctor’s words to his son to be brilliant, some of the deepest and most meaningful passages in all of literature. That is the first third of the novel.

However then the doctor and his son visit another patient, the Prince Saurau of Hochgobernitz in his castle. The Prince goes into a long deranged rant which is sustained over many pages. This rant is difficult to follow perhaps because it is so deranged. The actual German name for this novel was not ‘Gargoyles’ but instead was ‘The Derangement’ which is a much more meaningful name.

Over half of this novel ‘Gargoyles’ is taken up with this insane rant by the Prince Saurau. I must say this diatribe is for the most part incoherent and nearly impossible to follow. Because of this long, long incomprehensible rant I would not recommend ‘Gargoyles’ to readers who are new to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is one of my very favorite writers, but the last one hundred pages of ‘Gargoyles’ are extremely difficult to follow. ‘Gargoyles’ is one of Bernhard’s early novels, and in my view he had not yet perfected his techniques for getting deeply inside people and society.

I can strongly recommend at least four Thomas Bernhard novels which unlike ‘Gargoyles’ are complete successes. Those novels are ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’, ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. Thomas Bernhard is one of the most original distinctive novelists of the twentieth century, and I would strongly recommend you read his works, but save ‘Gargoyles’ for later after you have developed some familiarity with his method.

In ‘Gargoyles’ Thomas Bernhard has succeeded all too well in capturing this rant of a deranged man. Most of the rant is incomprehensible to a reader, and I don’t think it is only to just this one reader.  But be sure to read one of the other Bernhard novels that I recommend above.


Grade:    B



7 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve yet to read Bernhard, but I’ll take your advice about where to start when I do. I’d not heard of this one before!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. This is actually one of my favourite Bernhards, one I often recommend as a way to ease into the rant style Bernhard. Some of his later works wear me out, to be honest!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi roughghosts,
      I thought the first 80 pages of Gargoyles were deep and excellent, but Prince Saurau’s deranged rant lost me. I suppose Bernhard’s point might have been that it’s not only the lower classes but even those in leadership positions that had severe problems. However I found little that I could follow in that rant.

      I didn’t have that problem with the rants in these later novels. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


  3. I’ve only read Concrete so far, though I have Frost on the TBR.
    I like his stuff so far:)



    • Hi Lisa,
      Thomas Bernhard was a unique original, and there are not many of those. I haven’t read ‘Frost’, his first novel. My next will probably be the short novel ‘Goethe Dies’ because I was so impressed with the short novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’.

      Liked by 1 person


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