the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 1   --   February, 2000

Fragments Shoring Ruin:
Three Variations on a Theme




       Angry, isolated Thomas Bernhard, ambivalent expatriate, contained his ire in his discursive fictions and theatrical dramas. The first large novel, the cold, frustrating Frost, appeared in 1963, the last, its title misleadingly translated as Extinction (whereas the true Auslöschung more subtly denotes effacement, negation, a complete and final erasure) in 1986. They are dense, dark, fictions, often weighty. The dramas, less adaptable, offer a different variety of his themes. The poems remain an aside.
       Poetry came first. There were journalistic pieces, and some short, experimental fiction and theatrical pieces, but Bernhard was a poet, first. The titles are telling: In hora mortis. Ave Vergil. Implying, even forcing distance through language, demanding classical rigor. In hora mortis was published in the late 1950's. The more complex and ambitious Ave Vergil, written in 1959-60, was lost or laid aside until Bernhard allowed publication in 1981.
       Ave Vergil is a collection of poems of exile. Written in Oxford and Sicily during Bernhard's first extended stay outside the native, hated Austria he always returned to. The influences he listed in his afterword had a similar, ambivalent detachment regarding their homelands: T.S.Eliot and Jorge Guillén, the politically suspect Pound and Eluard, César Vallejo, Rafael Alberti. These were his guides, coloring his writing. Bernhard had no use for German poets. There is no taint of Rilke, Brecht, Gottfried Benn. Not even, then, of Trakl.
       The reason he gave for publishing (and not destroying) the old poems, twenty years after they were written, was that he believed they provided a better insight into his frame of mind at that period of his life than any of his other writings. It is plausible. A complete and relatively cohesive collection, the poems are more revelatory than his fiction of that time. Indeed, Bernhard's words suggest that Ave Vergil is of greater biographical than literary value. Presented as such it is an unlikely offering, a piece of a puzzle that must be awkwardly interpolated long after that period seemed to have been done with.
       To fit the pieces together the collection must properly be understood as being from 1960 and 1981, valid in both times. Freed briefly from a dank Austria still suffering from the devastation of the war, Bernhard's stay abroad in 1959 and 1960 was a release. Oxford, London, Sicily: the escape from narrow, gray, limited Austria was exhilarating. But he already realized that the release could only be a respite. Austria could not be escaped. Physically the broken land could be left behind, but he could not purge himself of Austria as metaphor. He recognized there that it was an essential aspect of his being. It is apparent in the writing of the next two decades, but only truly resurgent with the rediscovery of the lost collection. Much of Bernhard's writing is based in autobiography; by the early 1980's the focus on this was also sharper and more penetrating. The last volume of the novels about his childhood, Ein Kind, appeared in 1982, as did Beton (Cement), and the scandalous Holzfällen (Woodcutters) appeared in 1984, causing a final rift with the Austrian establishment. The massive culminating anti-autobiography, Auslöschung, appeared in 1986, the rootless themes of Ave Vergil still echoing in its pages.
       Influenced by Eliot Bernhard acknowledged his debt not only in an afterword to Ave Vergil but also in taking verses from The Waste Land for the epigraph that opens the collection:
                     I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order ?

       It was the question to ponder, then and later. Not: Do I dare ? English and American writers could turn to Prufrock, consider eating peaches, debate disturbing the universe; it meant nothing to Bernhard. Intense and personal, with little concern for the other, Bernhard's conflicts revolved entirely around setting his clearly delimited, often claustrophobic lands in order.
       Eliot's voice, though strong and distinctive, was an unlikely one for Bernhard to hearken. Focused on expression and form Bernhard found in Eliot's work a pattern for his own, regardless of how contrary the content. Some of the sentiment, too, attracted him
       Öd und leer das Meer, Eliot quotes Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (I.42). In 1959 the English (and Sicilian) shore was a deliverance from that terrible expanse. Bernhard returned to Austria (and to England, frequently): an unsettled traveler, always. And, like Eliot, he was a literary angler. The epigraph haunted him -- punctuated, in 1960, with his first efforts and, after 1981, with his final ones. Bernhard's work -- meticulous and often threatened by its very weight -- always faced the question.


       Volker Braun is difficult, precise, barely translated. He is an East German poet, as even his name seems to imply. East German, even ten years after reunification. Perhaps more than any other of the poets of the former German Democratic Republic. Others are better known, but their fame and their label is broader, different. Wolf Biermann. Sarah Kirsch. The younger generation that is almost seen as simply German.
       Braun was never a comfortable writer. He challenges. Readers, authority, his fellow poets. His poems, like his dramas, are complexly political, insisting that the reader take a stance or adopt a position. They cannot be read in any other way. His poetry is demanding and persistent. It is not necessarily popular.
       It was rarely easy for Braun to publish in the GDR, but he was tolerated, standing uneasily at a forefront of literary and political debate, with the likes of Karl Mickel and Heiner Müller. He was critical of state and regime in his writings. Forthright, but careful. Generously one might concede that he was also constructive. The titles of his works are suggestive; in the absence of adequate translations of the texts proper they will have to suffice: Provokation für mich ("Provocation for myself," one of the earliest collections, from 1965). Guevara. Die Übergangsgesellschaft ("The transitional society"). Wir sind nicht sie ("We are not them"). Es genügt nicht die einfache Wahrheit ("The simple truth does not suffice"). And: Training des aufrechten Gangs ("Training to walk upright").
       The latter was first published in 1977 in East Germany. It was published in West Germany, with minor changes, in 1979, the title of the collection simplified into the banal: Gedichte ("Poems"). Written in 1975 the collection begins with an epigraph by the bourgeois, reactionary poet, T.S.Eliot:
                     I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order ?

       The choice, at least in its attribution, was an unusual one. An act of defiance. Outright antagonism. So the critics. If so, then Braun's only thought in choosing Eliot for his epigraph was to show that this too could be done, that a literary culture (one which at that time still dismissed even Kafka) must pragmatically confront artists that are reactionary or antithetical to prevalent ideals.
       Braun is rarely circumspect. Here, for once, he was. Set apart as an epigraph, and left in the original English, Braun assured a certain remove. The debate, then, was more concerned with the author than the quoted words. Nevertheless, the meaning of the epigraph as Braun intended it was all the more direct and literal: a call to consider this specific question. Not a demand to set right, as dreary, dreamy socialist verse insisted on, but an appeal for a realistic assessment of the needs and possibilities of setting these German lands in order.
       Braun, a socialist but rarely in accord with the official party line, set out in this collection, and in his later work, to order lands. There is a marked and increasing frustration in his texts of the late 1970's and 1980's; nevertheless, he does not abandon the issue. The poems from Training des aufrechten Gangs are collected again and again, combined with later texts, augmented. A summing up of these materials -- and this is what Braun calls them: material, like building blocks -- comes in the collection Der Stoff zum Leben 1-3 (the title translating both as "The Stuff of Life" and "The Substance for Life"), first published in 1990.
       In an afterword to that last (though presumably not final) re-collection, Hans Mayer, the most important literary critic to come out of the two Germanys, reminds the reader that the literary invocation to tend one's lands goes back as far Voltaire's Candide. Braun's repeated epigraph, placed in a similar political context, is echo, admission, enlightenment.


       The epigraph is a neglected tool and reflection of literature, a clever note, a poet's preening. Willfully integrated with the text, it nevertheless stands apart, readily (and generally) misconstrued. In the case of Eliot's words, a doubly foreign preliminary to these German verses, the repeated passage loses its force as it is overlooked.
       An alternative that offers itself is denial of the epigraph. After Bernhard, after Braun, in the constant renewal of their work, it is one possibility among the many, integrating Eliot into the text itself:

                      I sit upon the arid plain
fishing, with the shore behind me.

                     Shall I, do I, dare I, others ask.
                     I have never posed or questioned.
                     I have set my lands in order.
                     I invited them to see. They came.

                     They looked and laughed and left and true,
the wind had blown the dust about
                     my lands.

                     They laughed at this: the rocks and sand,
the withered tress, the dust and ash,
                     my disarray.

                     I watched them sail upon the sea, away,
and turned to face my arid plain

                     I cast my nets across these lands,
deaf to the waves crashing on the
                     shore behind me.

                     My nets, my lands,
                     my garden, tended.

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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
© 2000 the complete review