The Art of the Angry Rant – The Fiction of Thomas Bernhard


Another in my continuing series about my favorite writers


All my life I have been a trouble-maker, I am not the sort of person who leaves others in peace.” – Thomas Bernhard

It took me awhile to fall in love with the fiction of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Early on, I read ‘The Lime Works’ and ‘Concrete’ and I couldn’t figure out what was so special about his odd work. I must go back and read those two early novels.

However, now I can strongly recommend Bernhard’s novels ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’ (one of the characters is the pianist Glenn Gould), ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novella ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. I also notice that the novella ‘Walking’ gets very strong reviews, but I haven’t read it yet.

Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 to an unwed housemaid mother, apparently the result of a rape. His father, a carpenter and petty criminal from Germany, never acknowledged him as his son.

When Thomas was eight, a social worker arranged for him to be sent to a home for “maladjusted children”. Considering that at that time all Austrian young people were required to join a branch of the Hitler Youth which Bernhard hated, who really were the maladjusted ones? In a later play, Bernhard represented Austria’s Nazi legacy as a pile of manure on the stage.

While establishing a worldwide reputation as one its finest writers, Bernhard was always a figure of controversy in his home country of Austria. One of his plays included the line “There are more Nazis in Vienna now / than in thirty-eight.” referring to Austria’s Nazi past. Austrian leaders on the right called for his expulsion from the country.

After a strong literary career in which he wrote eleven novels and more than twenty plays, Thomas Bernhard died in 1989 in an assisted suicide at the age of 58. He had been having severe problems with his lungs.

His will was controversial in not allowing publication of his works or staging of his plays within Austria’s borders.

What makes the work of Thomas Bernhard special?

One of Bernhard’s main writing techniques is the monologue or, more precisely, the rant. He gives his characters free reign to say exactly how they feel and think about things, and it is often harsh and astringent.

Recently I read Bernhard’s early work, ‘Gargoyles’ which is about a doctor who 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.

I was quite impressed with the first half of ‘Gargoyles’, but later when the doctor visits The Prince the novel turns into a long incoherent deranged rant. I downgraded the novel a bit for that reason. However later in his career Bernhard perfected this monologue or rant technique, and in such novels as ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’ and ‘The Loser’, the included rants held my interest throughout.

Sometimes these rants get so over-the-top in their anger that they become humorous. The comic element in Bernhard’s work is frequently overlooked.

Thomas Bernhard told it like it was for him and it wasn’t all peaches and cream, and what more can we expect from any writer? He is one of the great ones.




10 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve only read the one – Woodcutters – which I sort of enjoyed, but certainly appreciated. I’m not in a rush to read another, but can see his appeal.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Correction was the only TB I attempted, and gave up after about thirty pages. Just couldn’t get on with the looping, iterative style. Maybe need to try again – I’ve been ok with others who write in that non-linear way, from Borges and Gaddis to Krasznahorkai. I quite like the notion of rants…

    Liked by 1 person


  3. This post made me look up my review of Concrete, in which, I see, I liked it, and I made undertakings to read more of his work…
    That was seven years ago, back in 2013. And a quick check of the TBR shows that I have at least bought two of them, Frost and Correction, so I have no adequate excuses!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Sometimes I have the opposite problem: finding something good enough to spend my precious time on. What does one read after reading all of Tolstoy, Eliot, Joyce, Flaubert, Austen, and most of the other big names? I guess there is always Balzac who wrote fifty billion novels.



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