There have been several mini-posts on this site about Thomas Bernhard this week. One of our readers, Jonathan Callahan, pointed me toward an essay he wrote in the Collagist about Bernhard, Kafka, what he calls phrase-level and sentence-level virtuosity, reading in translation, and more. It’s an essay in the active Montaignian sense rather than the write-to-thesis sense. Probably someone here has linked to it before, but even if so, it deserves another look. Here’s an excerpt:
Maybe it’s best to begin by considering what it actually means to achieve effects on the reader at either of these levels. “Phrase-level” effects, as I conceive of them, reflect the writer’s scrupulous attention to individual words and his meticulous shaping of these words into the little phrase sculptures we tend to associate with writing that’s lauded as anything from “lyric” or “beautiful,” to “startling” or “uncanny” (or maybe in some quarters dismissed as “opaque”). There are all kinds of phrasal effects available to the rigorous writer, of course, and writers variously adept at making use of them compose a long gamut that runs from, say, the saguaro-like jut of certain singular phrasings in the stories of Denis Johnson and Amy Hempel, Gary Lutz and early Sam Lipsyte, through the quilted prose-poems of Michael Ondaatje or Anne Carson, into Don DeLillo’s uncanny, disorienting hyper-precision, the entrancing syllabic cadences and capering puns to be found in Martin Amis (by way of Nabokov) or Donald Antrim’s alliterative, consonance-rich lilt, all the way through the lingual looking-glasses conjured in the works of Donald Barthelme and Ben Marcus—but the common element is a kind of lexicalmanipulation. This is where the writer rejects the easy, familiar, or prefabricated phrase, vigorously resists the stale and timeworn, dismantles easy idiom, dispenses altogether with overused figures of speech, and not infrequently is forced to discard reams of what he ultimately deems superfluous or weak.
Here’s the rest: “Some Thoughts that Begin with Kafka and Bernhard but Wind up Straying Pretty Far Afield” at The Collagist.