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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


In Hora Mortis -
Under the Iron of the Moon

Thomas Bernhard

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To purchase In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon

Title: In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon
Author: Thomas Bernhard
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1958 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: German
Availability: In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon - US
In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon - UK
In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon - Canada
In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon - India
in: Gesammelte Gedichte - Deutschland
  • German titles: In hora mortis and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes
  • Translated by James Reidel
  • This is a bilingual edition which includes the original German texts

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Our Assessment:

A- : the beginnings of the distinctive voice

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 8/11/2006 Eric Ormsby

  From the Reviews:
  • "The poems are Bernhard at his bleakest and yet, they carry an unexpected shock. The poems are quiet, almost whispery in tone, displaying none of the virtuoso antics of the prose: no glittering cascades of insult, no manic swerves from tenderness to savagery. The shock comes from their unabashed religious fervor. (...) For all their austerity, these are tactile poems. (...) Mr.Reidel's translations are admirably spare. He follows Bernhard's gaunt German word by word and is attentive to every shift of syntax and mood. Sometimes this leads him into awkward turns of phrase." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Thomas Bernhard is best known as a novelist (certainly in the English-speaking world), as well as a playwright, but his first published works were poetry collections. The two presented in this bilingual edition, In hora mortis and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes, were both first published in 1958, a year after Auf der Erde und in der Hölle; a fourth (and perhaps the strongest) collection, Ave Vergil, was completed in 1960 (though only published in 1981), while translator James Reidel notes another collection "of over one hundred poems" was turned down by an Austrian publisher in 1961. Certainly, poetry marked a transition for Bernhard, as he moved from the dashed hopes of his singing-ambitions to the novelist and dramatist of later notoriety, but it was more than just a phase. While the forthcoming (fall, 2006) volume devoted to his poetry in the German standard edition of his works will weigh in at about 500 pages, here finally is at least a decent-sized chunk of it in English translation.
       Even to those familiar with Bernhard's life (as opposed to just his later works), In hora mortis likely comes as something of a shock. The title, taken from the Latin version of the 'Hail Mary', suggests religious inspiration but not how completely dominated by religion it is: the poet cries and wails and rants, and all in front of (and often to) his God. From the first line -- "Wild wächst die Blume meines Zorns" ('The flower of my anger grows wild') -- the Bernhardian raging can already be found, but it is often much more tempered and questioning; more significantly, the voice here is constantly relating to 'God' (something almost entirely absent from Bernhard's later work).
       The spectre of mortality haunts many of these verses (Bernhard had been near death not that long before), and he approaches it in occasionally surprisingly traditional form. He's aware of:

die Krankheit
meiner Lieder
dieser Verse Krankheit

(the illness
of my songs
the sickness of these verses)
       Bernhard often makes such a point of precision and certainty in later works, but here one still finds doubts of the sort expressed hardly anywhere else -- including the almost plaintive:
o mein Gott ich weiß nicht mehr
wohin mein Weg mich führt
ich weiß nicht mehr was gut und schlecht ist

(o my God I don't know anymore
where my path leads
I don't know what is good and bad)
       There are some doubts and challenges:
Wo bist Du Herr und wo
mein Glück ?

(Where are You Lord and where
is my happiness ?)
       But for the most part Bernhard's outlook is entirely religious here: "I want to pray"; "I want to praise You my God", etc. He turns there for relief and succour -- presumably still shackled by the religious environment he had been raised in (and to some extent still found himself in), and perhaps really writing out of a sense of final hours (hora mortis as the hour of death).

       Under the Iron of the Moon is a leap beyond this. This longer collection is more ambitious in style and range, and no longer as god-centred -- though several poems still resonate much like those in In hora mortis (as when he observes: "God hears me / in every corner of the world").
       But here finally one can also picture and hear the 'true' (or at least later) Bernhard:
Ich bring Verachtung in das Tal und viele sagen,
daß ich nur Tod und Traum und Eifersucht
in großen Körben trage für den Untergang.

(I bring contempt into the valley and many say
that I bear only death and dreams and jealousy
in great baskets for the end of the world.)
       And while In hora mortis succeeds as a very personal collection, its limitations are fairly obvious. On the basis of that alone it would be difficult to call Bernhard a poet; not so once Under the Iron of the Moon is also considered, where Bernhard manages and shows considerably more.
       There are some stunning lines here, too:
Der letzte Tag ist im Bierkrug
und in Verzweifelung gefangen

(The last day is trapped
in this beer glass and despair)
       (Though Bernhard, too, seems to have liked the line so much that he begins the poem with it, and then closes it by repeating it -- something he can get away with here, but which the practised poet might have avoided.)
       There's a danger in coming to these poems with the strong pre-conceptions that almost any familiarity with Bernhard likely brings with it: he was such a forceful personality, with that force so clearly on display in almost all his texts, that it is difficult to read the poetry on its own terms. These are early works, where the writer is still finding his way and his voice -- and it can be hard to ignore that loud (and so sure) voice of the later works. (A second reading is strongly recommended !)

       The Princeton University Press edition is an attractive one, and -- most importantly -- a bilingual one, which always comes as a great relief.
       Transator Reidel explains that he:
tried to provide an English rendering that corresponds line-by-line with the German text yet reads as naturally and histrionically as the original and can exist on its own.
       The approach works quite well, and what is lost -- some of the sound, especially, as in that first line, the beautiful: "Wild wächst die Blume meines Zorns" (tempered in English as: 'The flower of my anger grows wild') -- is at least not entirely hidden from the reader thanks to the facing original.
       Also noticeable is Reidel's preference for substituting different English words when the same one is used twice in the German, as in:
Über dem Feuer
züngelt ein Feuer
des Jubels

(Above the fire
lick the flames
of jubilation)
       It reduces a great line in the German to a much more pedestrian one in English. Still, most of these losses are hard to avoid, and Reidel has done well in mirroring Bernhard's poems. The histrionics come across -- and that's already an important part.
       Reidel's short Preface is also informative, providing useful context and background. However, Bernhard's poetry has received very little attention (especially in the English-speaking world), and coupled with the absence of a comprehensive English biography (as Reidel notes, Gitta Honegger's study of Thomas Bernhard is tightly focussed on the playwright) there is a desperate need for a more comprehensive treatment of this part of his writing career. As this volume shows, Bernhard's poetry is also very much worth reading.
       A long overdue and very welcome introduction to Bernhard the poet, well presented. (Now if someone would only translate Ave Vergil !)

       Note: In his Preface James Reidel refers to and quotes from complete review managing editor (and contributor to this review) M.A.Orthofer's piece, Fragments Shoring Ruin

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In Hora Mortis - Under the Iron of the Moon: Thomas Bernhard: Other books by Thomas Bernhard under review: Books about Thomas Bernhard under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry
  • German literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Bilingual editions under review

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Thomas Bernhard lived 1931 to 1989.

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© 2006-2016 the complete review

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