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Frost by Thomas Bernhard

Frost (1963)

by Thomas Bernhard

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This was Bernhard's first novel, following on from two collections of lyric verse and some musical collaborations with the composer Gerhard Lampersberg, and was really his breakthrough work as a prose writer, bringing him to the attention of the critics and winning him a couple of major prizes and quite a few important enemies (always a mark of success in Bernhard-land).

The narrator is a medical student, who has been given the rather unlikely assignment by his supervisor, the surgeon Strauch, of conducting an extensive undercover observation of Strauch's brother, a painter. The brother has burnt all his paintings, abandoned his life in Vienna, and gone into a Wittgenstein-like retreat in the obscure and impoverished mountain village of Weng, where he is staying in a run-down pub. The narrator tracks the painter down and soon finds himself recruited to go on long walks through the snow with him (Weng is clearly a place where it's always winter and never Christmas) and listen to his increasingly bleak and Bernhardish thoughts about his mental and physical state, the villagers, the landscape, Austria ("...the bordello of Europe..."), the arts, and death by disease, accident, murder and suicide.

It's a little bit looser and less intensively musical than mature Bernhard prose, and it uses unexpectedly conventional layout devices like paragraph breaks(!) and chapters, but you can see where it's headed. There's plenty of the usual scathing and very black humour, doctor-bashing, general misogyny, impatience with dullwittedness, and contempt for Austrian folksiness mingled with pleasure in the oddities of Austrian language. One of the main characters is the Wasenmeister, the person responsible for disposing of animal cadavers in the village (roughly equivalent to "knacker" in English). Not a word you will find in many modern dictionaries! Needless to say, he turns out to be in cahoots with the disreputable landlady of the pub.

Not a book that is likely to encourage many tourists to visit rural Austria, and probably best avoided if you are liable to depression, but otherwise well worth our time, like everything else I've read by Bernhard. And a fascinating glimpse at how he got to his mature style. ( )
  thorold | Jun 8, 2017 |
Un po' peso. Rispetto ai successivi - e tenendo comunque conto che è scritto da un 32enne austriaco, e questo gia' ne fa un capolavoro - è sperimentale, acerbo. Periodi spezzettati, aggettivi non separati da virgole, quasi vomitati in fretta, sono assai lontani dalle aeree frasi azzurre di B., scritte - come ebbe a ricordare - solo nel numero di una per ogni foglio, e ridondante della precedente. Il lento incedere di B. - che solitamente obbliga ad una svolta a 270° assai di rado, e spesso fa intravedere una Route 66 lunga per capitoli, con lievi smottamenti - qui è presente solo nell'impianto della trama. La scrittura è decisamente più nervosa, competitiva, come a volerci far capire che stiamo leggendo il libro di uno tosto. Tosto lo è; il libro è imprescindibile. La pienezza e densità dell'autore, a mio giudizio, la si apprezza solo dopo qualche anno da questo testo. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |

It feels like glacial music, the prose with its slow-creeping angularity. The onset of frost. Rhythm punctuated by cacophonous barking of the dogs and then silence—the empty aching silence of the larch wood—the dark valley, the frigidity of the rock face looming above a forest floor that never sees more than a grey shadow of sunlight.

When the days get that cold, I sit in my bed, and stare at the frost flowers on my window, that in a succession of miracles evoke landscapes from painting, from nature, from inner despair, only to crush them again, and to draw from them such truths as, to my conviction, are dispersed in their hundreds of thousands and their millions in our lives, and portray more than an intimation of a world that lies alongside our familiar world, a universe we have failed to recognize.

The painter Strauch and the young medical intern sutured to him, at first out of obligation, growing later as a virus into unavoidable necessity. The mingling of their voices, much like those of Roithamer and his unnamed friend in Bernhard's later novel Correction, the one man coming under the spell of the other man's words. The way Strauch talks, so cryptic in its allure, so alluring in its vitriol...

Strauch's language is the language of the heart muscle, a scandalous "cerebral pulse." It is rhythmic self-abasement under the "subliminal creak" of his own rafters. His notions and subterfuges, fundamentally in accord with the barking of those dogs that he drew my attention to, with which he "scattered me to the air." Can it still be described as language? Yes, it is the false bottom of language, the heaven and hell of language, the mutiny of rivers, "the steaming word-nostrils of brains that are in a state of endless and shameless despair."

Strauch's love-hate of the landscape, imbued with death, as he himself is consumed with death, his entire life seen by the intern as "a passion of suicide." His obsessions with the petty goings-on around him, the everyday life of the inn, the landlady and her philandering ways, the engineer and his hungering ego, the ubiquity of the knacker. The incessant walks—to the station, through the larch wood, into the ravine, to the church, the cemetery, the poorhouse—movement as necessity to keep from freezing, quoting his Pascal: "Our nature is motion, complete stasis is death."

We all live the lives of death masks. Everyone who is really alive has taken his off at one time or another, but as I say, people don't live, it's just, as I say, the life of death masks. […] A seeming life, no longer capable of real life. Cities that are long since dead, mountains too, long dead, livestock, poultry, even water and the creatures that used to live in the water. Reflections of our death masks. A death mask ball.

He grows irritated with his companion, the intern, who, in a rare moment of disagreement, objects to his "death mask ball" idea. "You young people don't believe," he said. "The whole world is nothing but a death-mask ball." Strauch wonders if for his entire life he had really been someone else altogether, and had thus been denied "admission to myself." Out of desperation then, he must write or tell about what preoccupies him, at all times. Death, truth, society's insipid nature, the destruction of greatness by jealousy and apathy, the complex role of the artist ("the great emetic agents of the time"), the monstrous horror of life itself. The familiar Bernhardian preoccupations are all in evidence, sprouting up in their infancy, tiny seedlings that will grow into thick gnarled vines over the next twenty fierce years of writing. Here there is less of his later repetition, and with section breaks perhaps allowing for easier digestion than the monolithic text blocks that mark his successive novels, but his prose and themes are still recognizable. The book can be read as one massive smothering metaphor for Bernhard's own feelings about his homeland. If you wanted to simplify it, that is. Strauch would likely draw your attention back to the dogs...

"Listen, the dogs! Listen to that barking." And he got up and walked out and went up to his room. When I followed him out into the entrance hall and stopped, I could hear through the half-iced-up open front door the long-drawn-out howling of dogs, and sometimes their barking. The endlessly drawn out howling, and the sound of barking biting into it. In front of me I heard the barking and howling, and behind me the laughing and vomiting and smacking of playing cards. Ahead of me the dogs, behind me the customers at the bar. I won't be able to sleep tonight. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
One of the darkest and strangest and most unforgettable books I have ever read. Kind of a Tuesdays With Morrie for dark geniuses with aspergers. ( )
  byebyelibrary | Apr 3, 2014 |
I think pretty highly of this longish gem. My review can be read in its entirety here:

http://mewlhouse.hubpages.com/hub/Frost-the-First-Novel-Wrtten-by-Thomas-Bernhar... ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
I reviewed this recently on gradpadscansion.wordpress.com . In short, I enjoyed the quality of the writing, and the translation read wonderfully, but after a while, it began reading like a Goth/Emo diary, with much to do about darkness, cold, and, um, darkness. Not a book I'd recommend.
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernhard, Thomasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Graftdijk, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hofmann, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn't just consist of thumbing close the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either.
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"Visceral, raw, singular, and distinctive, Frost is the story of a friendship between a young man at the beginning of his medical career and a painter who is entering his final days." "A writer of world stature, Thomas Bernhard combined a searing wit and an unwavering gaze into the human condition. Frost follows an unnamed young Austrian who accepts an unusual assignment. Rather than continue with his medical studies, he travels to a bleak mining town in the back of beyond, in order to clinically observe the aged painter, Strauch, who happens to be the brother of this young man's surgical mentor. The catch is this: Strauch must not know the young man's true occupation or the reason for his arrival. Posing as a promising law student with a love of Henry James, the young man befriends the mad artist and is caught up among an equally extraordinary cast of local characters, from his resentful landlady to the town's mining engineers.""This debut novel by Thomas Bernhard came out in German in 1963 and is now being published in English for the first time."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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