In this interview at KCRW Bookworm, W.G. Sebald confessed his longtime attachment to Thomas Bernhard as an influence, mentor, and model. He also confessed to a longtime reluctance to confess his attachment to Bernhard for fear of being labeled simply a Bernhard derivative by those for whom it is convenient to attach such a label and use it to diminish the individuality of the work of a writer who simply has a less likely influence than another writer. (We rarely use “Chekhovian” or “Joycian” or “Faulknerian” as a critical diminutive, perhaps because they have influenced such a broad swath of writers that their own initial singularity has been diminished by the breadth of their influence.)
In a brief piece at Rain Taxi, Stephen Dixon writes about his frustration at comparisons to Bernhard, even while noting that in writing about Bernhard, he has “done what I’ve never done in print before, so far as I can remember, and my memory isn’t that good, and that is to plug the work of someone else and write even in the most exaggerated definition of the word an essay.”
After you read Bernhard for awhile, you notice things that remind you of him — the pages-long sentences, the way a lot of the stories are received stories told by a non-omniscient narrator — in other writers. The first time I read the “Conversations #” section in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I had read Dixon but not Bernhard, and I thought Roth might have appropriated the strategy of moving time rapidly forward through juxtaposed repetitions from Dixon, but then, after I read Bernhard, I thought about other things in American Pastoral–those long paragraphs, the way that the novel’s main movement is a received story that the narrator had got second-hand and was forced to reimagine–and thought Bernhard a more likely influence, conscious or not, knowing Roth’s longtime engagement with European fictions of moral interrogation.
None of these three writers–Roth, Dixon, or Sebald–ultimately produced books that feel, reading them, the way Bernhard feels. All three writers are less pessimistic, I think. Roth’s prose is warmer and more richly colored, and he means to entertain and bedazzle the reader in ways that Bernhard does not. Sebald seems to love life more deeply. And Dixon’s concerns are more often about the self thinking about his closest relationships, which gives his books — this is something I’ve never heard anyone say about Dixon, so maybe I’m wrong — a place among masters of the domestic such as John Updike, John Cheever, Anne Tyler, and Alice Munro.
It seems to me that every means, every style, structure, trope, tic, manner, and mode is appropriable by other writers toward new ends. Because Bernhard is a writer whose work operates so often outside the traditions that are right now ascendant influences among the competing strains of contemporary literature-making (he’s as different from Beckett or Lutz or Joyce as he is from Chekhov or Hemingway or Dickens or Faulkner), his work and his working methods seem especially ripe for fruitful reappropriation.