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Correction by Thomas Bernhard

Correction (original 1975; edition 1991)

by Thomas Bernhard

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473521,857 (4.24)32
Authors:Thomas Bernhard
Info:Vintage (1991), Paperback, 250 pages
Collections:Literature, Your library, Books, Have Read, Favorites
Tags:literature, german_literature, 20th_century, austrian_literature

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Correction by Thomas Bernhard (1975)



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Thomas Bernhard's novels constitute perhaps the most enigmatic prose reading experience of my life. His novels are brilliant puzzles, and a single reading will probably not vouchsafe you all of a given novel's secrets. Correction seems a prime example. Here we are again with the typical first-person Bernhard narrator, a highly unreliable, socially connected but insensitive individual, who's circular in his reasoning, repetitious in his verbal style, almost monomaniacal in his focus, and whose torrent of words cunningly excludes subjects about which we would like to know more.

At the start of Correction, Roithamer, the polymath, an Austrian-born scientist teaching at Cambridge University, has just committed suicide shortly after the completion of a massive, rural architecture project, known as the Cone, for his beloved sister. The unnamed narrator, a peer and boyhood friend of Roithamer, presents a hagiographic overview early on of the late man's work; though in fact it is remarkably devoid of specifics. This fellow was named by Roithamer as his literary executor. The book starts when he shows up at a house of a taxidermist by the name of Hoeller, another boyhood friend of Roithamer, whose new home on the Aurach gorge contains the garret in which the great man did most of his intellectual work. It was here, inspired by Hoeller's daring new house, that Roithamer devised the Cone and planned and executed its construction over six years.

It is never made clear what the narrator, who seems an eerie doppleganger of the dead Roithamer, or the deceased genius himself for that matter, are supposed to be famous for. All we know about Roithamer is that he's in the natural sciences, and that he both teaches and studies at Cambridge. Of the narrator we know even less, except that he was once upbraided by Roithamer for following his (Roithamer's) ideas with too slavish an allegiance. No one but the unnamed narrator is even allowed to speak in the novel, except Roithamer himself, and then only through the texts he's left behind. There's no dialogue per se, no real-time verbal exchanges. This is very strange, and suggests a kind of jealous guarding of the narrative by the narrator. Hoeller is not allowed to speak even when spoken to, nor his wife, nor their children, nor are recollected friends and acquaintances ever allowed to say anything. So we're left with a single ranting voice, page after page, dense pages without paragraphs. The novel is in fact a single unbroken chunk of text. (Question: Does the narrator's repetitiveness of key phrases remind any of my GR friends of a similar device used by Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans?)

Anyway, slowly, up there in Hoeller's garret, like Roithamer before him, our narrator begins to unravel. Is he, in his dopplegangerness, intentionally repeating the pattern of behavior that took Roithamer's life? Is he that much of a sycophant? Or is he being subjected to the same stresses that drove Roithamer to take his own life? Will the narrator soon take his life? The setting of Hoeller's house on the edge of the Aurach gorge, amid the rush of turbulent waters, and the craziness not only of building a house there, but of living in such a house, is a large part of the narrator's, as it was Roithamer's, fascination with the place. It's when the narrator begins to go bonkers in the garret himself that the doubleness and connection of narrator and acolyte seems to crystalize.

Moreover, Roithamer has built his Cone for his sister in the depths of the Kobernausser forest without ever talking to her about either her willingness to live in such an isolated structure, or even if she wants such a place, even as a occasional retreat. He bases his design, he tells us, on his lifelong "observation" of his sister's character. Apparently this does not include one-on-one conversation. Right after this revelation, which left this reader astonished and a little breathless, he turns right around and lambastes contemporary architects for their inability to "investigate" their clients. The suggestion is that some kind of intellectual assessment, apart from anything a client might have to say, should be the overarching design criterion; though this something is never explicitly named.

This section seems to resolve itself into a statement on the prerogatives of the artist or creator and the manner in which the artist or creator should think and process his thoughts. Roithamer's approach is idiosyncratic, to say the least. For instance, not only should his sister not be consulted about the construction of the Cone, to which, we soon learn, she is averse to living in. But Roithamer must undertake the actual construction of the Cone, not on-site where the building will rise, but from Hoeller's garret, because this is where his thoughts can most readily reach fruition. A large portion of the posthumous writings are dedicated to a rant-filled recapitulation of injustices done by his parents to Roithamer during childhood. Each offence, it seems, is remembered. Each is deplored at length. Here is someone who never got over his dysfuctional childhood. He's stuck with a chip on his shoulder. He has never undergone the growth of character necessary to put those early experiences behind him, something I believe all adults must eventually try to do. He is self-pitying. This is tragic and pathetic. 'Get over it,' one thinks. But Roithamer cannot. He was long ago arrested in his emotional development, and his inability to move on--to recognize the fundamental imperfection of daily life and yet to live it fully and purposefully anyway--kills him. Character is fate.

Highly recommended, but brace yourself for a dark, dense, sexless, misogynistic, icy-hearted read. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Supreme happiness comes only in death.

Midway through reading this book I was struck down by a most vile stomach bug, one of such relentless eviscerating power that I was disoriented to the point where I, Sean, the reader, began thinking that Thomas Bernhard, the author, was trying to purge himself of his all-consuming contempt for Austrian society (easily extrapolated to Western society as a whole), whose anti-intellectualism he so passionately abhorred, and which he so graphically represented through metaphor by Altensam, his character Roithamer's ancestral country home, and its inhabitants, particularly his mother, through me, Sean, his reader, a perhaps less-than-innocent though no more willing vessel than any other perfectly viable candidate for such purging by proxy.

At some vague point following this vicious purging I recovered, finished reading the book, and wrote the following review.

Correction is a novel that can be read on a few different levels if one learns a bit about Bernhard and his preoccupations. Some saw it as a study of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous Austrian philosopher whom Bernhard admired, and there are more than a few parallels between Roithamer and Wittgenstein to support this view. The book can also be seen, at least partially, as an attack on Austrian society and what Bernhard perceived as its anti-intellectualism, as noted above, which was a favorite target of Bernhard's throughout his literary career. On a more basic level, the book can be read as a deep meditation on madness and suicide.

Bernhard does not use paragraph breaks, and so the novel consists of two continuous blocks of text: “Hoeller's Garret” and “Sifting and Sorting.” At first glance, this can be off-putting; however, Bernhard's prose is in fact mesmerizing with its musical repetitions cut deftly with a profusion of commas (how many commas in the original German, I wonder?). With the repetition comes a gradual layering in of new information so that the reader never has time to tire of repeated phrases. It is sing-song writing, like a chant, a style and technique likely tied to Bernhard's initial grounding in musical education.

The novel opens with the arrival of Roithamer's close friend at the house of another mutual friend, Hoeller. Roithamer has recently committed suicide and, following a prolonged illness, his unnamed friend has left the hospital to put Roithamer's literary papers in order. Roithamer had been using Hoeller's attic to draw up plans for a structure, known as the Cone, that he intended to present to his sister for her to live in. The narration begins with that of the unnamed friend, but over time begins shifting to Roithamer himself, as the friend “sifts and sorts” through Roithamer's papers.

Bernhard was obsessed with greatness and the struggle of great scientists and artists in the face of adversity, namely society's apathy, stupidity, and jealousy culminating in a desire to oppress greatness in all its forms. Particularly amusing in the novel is Roithamer's frequent rants against architects and professional builders who mock him for what they see as his absurd (read: genius) plan to build a cone-shaped dwelling in the geographical center of a forest.

Always wanting the impossible and left with the possible in his minimal existence, the individual finds himself in the lowest depths of dissatisfaction. Nevertheless he always manages to create another life situation for himself, probably because he really loves life, just as it is. We always crave something other than we can have, than we have, other than what is suitable for us, and so we're unhappy. When we're happy we immediately analyze this happiness to death, […] and are right back in misery.

It's those sort of thoughts that lead to even darker ones. There is a lot of suicide talk in this book. At one point, while beating around the bush in his attempt to nudge Hoeller into relaying his account of finding Roithamer's body hanging in a clearing, the narrator talks about the prevalence of suicide in Austria:

It's a folk art of sorts, I said to Hoeller, always longing to kill oneself but being kept by one's watchful intelligence from killing oneself, so that the condition is stabilized in the form of lifelong controlled suffering, it's an art possessed only by this people and those belonging to it.

When Roithamer gets started on talking about the “ultimate existential correction” what came to mind wasf that scene in The Shining where former caretaker Grady tries persuading current caretaker Jack to “correct” his family. In this case, of course, Roithamer is talking about correcting oneself. He says, “Instead of committing suicide, people go to work.” This may have been Bernhard's mantra. He wrote prolifically and managed to avoid correcting himself, although in the end he still died prematurely.

Bernhard had a nihilistic outlook on the world, and yet, like his grandfather whom he so admired and very much patterned his life after, he knew there was beauty embedded in the ugliness if one was determined enough to go looking for it. Because of this, Correction, despite its dark tone and subject matter, is not a depressing novel. The book as a work of art is beautiful. Bernhard's writing is a masterpiece to behold. At one point, Roithamer states the following:

[P]eople always tend to waver at a certain point in their lives, and always at the particular crucial point in their lives when they must decide whether to tackle the monstrousness of their life or let themselves be destroyed by it before they have tackled it.

It seems likely that Bernhard himself reached this point. Maybe it came after his first novel Frost won a minor award and, finding himself severely short of the amount he needed to purchase a coveted farmhouse in rural upper Austria, he threatened to leave his publisher if he did not give Bernhard the remaining balance. Bernhard left the office with cash in hand and purchased the property that he would live on, tackling the monstrousness head-on, for the rest of his life.

One has to be able to get up and walk away from every social gathering that's a waste of one's time, […] to leave behind the nothing faces and the often boundlessly stupid heads, and to walk out and down into the open air and leave everything connected with this worthless society behind

Some people say Bernhard told the same story over and over. Maybe it was the story of his life and of the world as he saw it. Maybe it was the story of all the people he admired. In this book's case, it's the story of Roithamer. His words fill the last pages of the book, growing fiercer and fiercer, the prose rising to a final tremendous crescendo. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
Bernhard thrives on obsessive monologues but this one is just smothering. ( )
  mattresslessness | Feb 4, 2014 |
A troubled Austrian intellectual named Roithamer has killed himself, leaving his papers as a legacy to his lifetime friend, who also holds a position at Cambridge. The friend—never named—is the narrator of the novel. He goes to another friend’s house in an Austria forest where Roithamer had use of the garret as his apartment and study. The narrator moves into the garret where he finds Roithamer’s papers everywhere and in complete disarray.

Roithamer was the middle son of a wealthy and deeply divided family. He grew up hating his home, his country, his mother, and his two brothers. His only allies were his father and his sister. His father died years ago, leaving the family property to Roithamer, knowing that he hated it and would sell it. Roithamer does so, and decides to invest the proceeds—along with several years of his life—into a fantastic house known as the “Cone” where his sister would spend the rest of her days alone and in perfect happiness.

What this bizarre novel comes down to is the notion of correction. “We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification and we correct the result of a correction of a correction andsoforth.” Everything goes back to our childhood and the corrections we have made to that world, and the corrections to the corrections, in the hope that we “can say at last, at the end of our life, that we have lived at least for a time in our own world and not in the given world of our parents.”

Bernhard eschews paragraphs, and some sentences go on for pages. The first half of the novel is the narrator’s stream of consciousness. There are many repetitions of ideas and phrases, so it isn’t as hard to read as it sounds. In the second half, the narrator begins to read from Roithamer’s various scraps of paper. Eventually the voice is all Roithamer. It’s hard in the end to know what to think of this novel. Its ideas are quite thought-provoking, but are they worth the effort of getting to them? ( )
1 vote StevenTX | Mar 25, 2013 |
yes! ( )
  experimentalis | Jan 1, 2008 |
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Nach einer anfänglich leichten, durch Verschleppung und Verschlampung aber plötzlich zu einer schweren Lungenentzündung, die meinen ganzen Körper in Mitleidenschaft gezogen und die mich nicht weniger als drei Monate in dem bei meinem Heimatort gelegenen, auf dem Gebiete der sogenannten inneren Krankheiten berühmter Welser Spital, festgehalten hatte, war ich, nicht Ende Oktober, wie mir von den Ärtzen angeraten, sondern schon Ende Oktober, wie ich unbedingt wollte und in sogenannter Eigenverantwortung, einer Einladung des sogenannten Tierpräperators Höller im Aurachtal Folge leistend, gleich in das Aurachtal und in das Höllerhaus, ohne Umweg nach Stocket zu meinen Eltern, gleich in die sogenannte höllersche Dachkammer, um den mir nach dem Selbstmord meines Freundes Roithammer, der auch mit dem Tierpräperator Höller befreundet gewesen war, durch eine sogenannte letztwillige Verfügung zugefallenen, aus tausenden von Roithammer beschriebenen Zetteln, aber auch aus dem umfangreichen Manusskript mit dem Titel Über Altensam und alles, das mit Altensam zusammenhängt, unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Kegels, zusammengesetzten Nachlaß zu sichten, möglicherweise auch gleich zu ordnen.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 009944254X, Paperback)

Roithamer has committed suicide having been driven to madness by his own frightening powers of pure thought. We witness the gradual breakdown of a genius ceaselessly compelled to correct and refine his perceptions until the only logical conclusion of the negation of his own soul.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:30 -0400)

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