The Prose of Thomas Bernhard: A Graphic Essay

Espen Terjesen’s beautifully drawn essay on Bernhard’s writing

 

I’m very excited to share a beautiful and concise ‘graphic essay’ on the work of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. The essay was written, drawn, and designed by Espen Terjesen, an illustrator, cartoonist, pixel artist, teacher/lecturer, and writer working in Bergen, Norway. In addition to the original essay, Terjesen has also been kind enough to provide me with an English translation.

Terjesen’s work not only presents themes from Bernhard’s writing with striking, icy accompaniments, but offers a playful approach to the traditional academic essay. By combining elements of literary criticism with the graphic novel, Terjesen’s reading of Bernhard becomes, in itself, a creative act. What we are left with is something both thought-provoking and accessible.

To see the strip in its original format, please find links to Terjesen’s essay at the bottom of this post. In its complete form, the essay includes a number of footnotes and recommended reading. You can click any of the images to enlarge them. Enjoy!

The Essay

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Page 1

Title: Refutations / The prose of Thomas Bernhard / By Espen Terjesen

 

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Panel 1: An abandoned lime works. / An intellectual. / A disabled woman. / A murder.

 

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Panel 2: A visitor tries to clear up the circumstances surrounding the murder. He collects gossip and rumours in the local tavern, Laska…

 

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Panel 3: The Lime Works (1975) is in many ways a typical Bernhard text…

 

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Panel 4: The narrator and the text’s fictitious writer, a nameless insurance salesman, meticulously repeats the reports he gets from his informants, Fro and Wieser…

 

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Panel 5: …but the information is usually second- to fifth-hand…

 

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Panel 6: The Lime Works seems to linger on in a state of probability and uncertainty. The text is abound with narrators and readers…

 

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Panel 7: …who construct and reconstruct subjective and incompatible worlds…

 

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Panel 8: Where modernist prose portrays different “psychologies”…

 

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Panel 9: …and how these face (the same) world…

 

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Page 2

Panel 1: … Bernhard’s prose seems to portray a narrative form of “the whispering game”. / …Author1 creates Text1 (and World1). Reader1 reconstructs World1 – and becomes, therefore, the creator of World2 etc.

 

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Panel 2: [figure demonstrating this process]

 

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Panel 3: The nameless, unreliable insurance salesman is the last in a long line of narrators – and our only entry into the chinese boxes that is The Lime Works… Still, he does not make any attempts in sorting or verifying the information (gossip?) he receives…

 

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Panel 4: With that, the text raises ontological questions: what is literary truth? …

 

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Panel 5: … what is the nature of fiction?; what constitutes a world? …

 

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Panel 6: … The hypothesis works as a poetic trope in the works of authors like Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and André Gide. Best known is perhaps Proust’s expansive hypotheses in In Search of Lost Time

 

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Panel 7: … Bernhard’s “answer” is contradictions and refutations … / There’s no longer any “reality” that can verify the hypotheses…

 

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Panel 8: … Reality is nothing but a composition of …

 

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Panel 9: … interpretations and fictions…

 

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Page 3

Panel 1: … Hypothetical thinking’s inherent defects, weaknesses and inaccuracies become an obsession for Roithamer – an architect based on Ludwig Wittgenstein – in Bernhard’s Correction (1975)…

 

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Panel 2: … He corrects his thoughts until there’s only one logical conclusion left…

 

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Panel 3: … to negate his own existence…

 

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Panel 4: … Is it at all possible to write truthfully? … / … The Lime Works and Correction problematize literary truth-searching in, at least, two ways: 1) by using exceedingly indirect and complicated narrative techniques – which makes first-hand information an impossibility…

 

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Panel 5: … 2) by portraying isolation, resignation and defeat – how persons positively obsessed with truth …

 

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Panel 6: … and perfection…

 

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Panel 7: … go…

 

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Panel 8: … under…

 

Espen Terjesen: About the Strip

While working at the University of Bergen, I started thinking about combining my interest in literature and drawing. It was only a few years later, though, that I sat down to draw a graphic essay on Thomas Bernhard, my favourite author. My aim was, first and foremost, to develop a visual language that would suit future essays on academic topics. This essay was, therefore, improvised on the spot. I didn’t plan or write anything in advance. I just followed my own train of thoughts while drawing. Needless to say, the result is somewhat unfocused, but I’m still happy with the overall mood and feel of the essay.

When it comes to the contents itself: To me, a lot of Thomas Bernhard Criticism seems to be founded on realistic-mimetic and psychological theories (often of a biographic-affirmative nature) and the idea that Bernhard is a modernist (along the lines of authors like Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Marcel Proust). I would argue that it makes more sense to associate Bernhard with postmodern literature and writers. Modernist literature seems, to me, at least, to raise epistemological questions (what can we know?). We are presented with different “psychologies”, and how these view and/or meet the (same) world. Postmodern literature, on the other hand, raises ontological questions (what constitutes a world?). It deals with literary truth (is it at all possible?), the nature of fiction, and how (fictional) worlds relate.

One of the most important literary tropes in Bernhard’s prose, is “refutation”. Where Proust writes extensive hypotheses, Bernhard’s prose seems to consist of nothing but refutations. This is perhaps best viewed in Bernhard’s Das Kalkwerk and Korrektur, which I discuss in the essay. The former having up to five levels of narration, muddling up the narrative. The latter describing how an architect “corrects” and adjusts his philosophy until the only logical conclusion is to negate his own soul.

Website

You can see the complete essay, along with photographs of the project’s development, on Espen Terjesen’s website.

Completed essay:

Development:

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  1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this. One thing I notice is how quiet and sombre the images feel, evoking perhaps the man but not the experience that I have of reading his work. When I think of Bernhard I think of language that is loud,highly rhythmic and musical. I tend to read him with music (generally Bach) and will often lead long passages aloud to myself to fall into the flow.

    I will definitely have a look at his website.

    • Dr Rhys Tranter

      Hi! I’m always fascinated to hear how images can be interpreted, and wonder what a ‘loud, highly rhythmic and musical’ Bernhard might *look* like.

      For me, your point brings out just how many differentiated Thomas Bernhards are out there, blending and clashing with each other. I think there is much to be said about the icy images that could accompany a novel like Correction, The Lime Works, or his debut, Frost. But what to make of a novel like Old Masters? Or the bourgeois parlour mind-games of The Woodcutters? (Funnily enough, I seem to be dividing his work here between those set in the city, and those with remote, rural backdrops…)

      I think it’s a fun game to play, and I think it would be great to see what Espen would come up with 🙂

      • My first Bernhard was The Loser, chosen simply because of the subject, Glenn Gould. As a Canadian, he is a national icon. I had not expected a single paragraph and to find my bearings I obtained a copy of Gould playing the Goldberg Variations. Great soundtrack for Bernhard. In a notably misanthropic interview with Bernhard from 1986, in answer to the question: Does breathing play a role in your texts, in the sense of breathing rhythm?
        Bernhard replied: I happen to be a musical person, and writing prose always has to do with musicality.

        I had set a personal goal to read more Bernhard and Beckett this year but got side tracked into the long and short lists for some of the major translated literature awards. Of course they are not going anywhere so I will get back to working on that goal.

        I do really enjoy the material you bring to your blog. I am many years out of university (degrees in Anthroplogy and Philosophy) and the nice thing about the internet is that it helps reduce intellectual isolation.

      • Dr Rhys Tranter

        There’s definitely a lot to be said for rhythm in Bernhard, isn’t there? Often, I think it’s what sustains the tension over those longer, unbroken passages. Love it. A big fan of The Loser (and Glenn Gould), too.

        Bernhard and Beckett are excellent writers, but there’s so much going on in the world of literary translation at the moment that I’m not going to pick favourites. I have an eye on Kraznahorkai’s work at the moment.

        Thank you for your kind comments about the blog. I try to keep it close to my personal interests, for my own enjoyment, but it’s always great to hear when someone else is getting a kick out of it, too.

        Best,
        Rhys

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