I have recently endeavoured to compel fellow readers to explore the works of the late Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Thomas Bernhard, whose novels I have only recently begun to explore and whose plays and poems I hope to explore imminently, yet I have been reminded over the course of this endeavour that it may prove difficult to compel fellow readers to explore the works of Thomas Bernhard due to their (in)famous prose style, distinguished by very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves while they are in fact building a seductive and compelling rhythm and tension and secretly working to reward the reader with the utmost narrative clarity and an arresting sense of voice. My endeavour has been aided by the recent reprinting of many Bernhard’s novels, such as The Loser, about suicide, genius, and Glenn Gould, and Correction, about suicide, genius, and a cone-shaped edifice, by the recently published Prose, and by the even more recently published My Prizes: An Accounting, though none of these has filled me with as much hope of compelling fellow readers to explore the works of Thomas Bernhard, despite their very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves, as The Voice Imitator (University of Chicago Press, $12 US), whose darkly comical, anecdote-like stories, about suicide, murder, accidents, governments, and generally peculiar behaviour, are so short as to never exceed a page’s length and thus diminish the potentially off-putting effect of those very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves. There is additionally something ironic about a work from Thomas Bernhard being called The Voice Imitator since I can think of few other late 20th century writers whose writerly voice has been more closely imitated or, as it were, paid homage, by writers whose work I’d already come to adore, such as W.G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, and Horacio Castellanos Moya, who have done such inspired work of imitating or, as it were, paying homage to Thomas Bernhard’s writerly voice that I will with this sentence cease my own pale imitation or, as it were, homage, to the writerly voice of Thomas Bernhard.
Bernhard’s micro-fictions are often founded in personal experiences, often shared with a small group of anonymous friends. He seems attracted to precisely those strangers who go out of their way not to attract attention—twice in The Voice Imitator a story begins when Bernhard and his companions become fascinated by a solitary figure in a tavern made conspicuous by his “taciturnity.” Just as often, Bernhard’s stories seem culled from truncated news reports or hearsay: the lavish mountainside hotel abandoned by its grieving owner and left to the elements having never once been occupied; the fortune teller murdered for failing to provide a philanderer with an accurate prophecy of his wife’s death; the postman consigned to an insane asylum who asks that he be able to continue wearing his postman’s uniform so as to not go insane; the discovery of a giant skeleton in a village always thought to be inhabited solely by very short people; the fireman who pulled away a safety blanket just as a suicidal jumper jumped because he was overtaken by “an inner compulsion.”
Bernhard seems drawn to these stories for their grave ironies and subtle insights, though so often it’s difficult to discern what’s based on fact and what is pure invention. Not that it matters. The Voice Imitator is filled with deliciously unqualified generalizations and assumptions. In ‘Genius’ Bernhard writes that in Vienna, “lack of consideration and impudence towards thinkers and artists has always been greater than anywhere else.” If Bernhard’s legendary loathing of his home country renders such a claim highly suspicious it in no way diminishes its power to evoke a singular psychological landscape. Characteristically, these stories keep circling themes of suicide and despair, but they also return again and again to tales of unlikely connections between people. With any luck, The Voice Imitator might even forge new connections between Bernhard and those readers willing to give this extraordinary author a chance.