January 5th, 2011 / 5:06 am

Bernhard’s Shadow

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.


  1. Julianmarcel

      I don’t feel compelled to classify both Dixon and Bernhard even though Dixon has admitted his influence. Dixon has a lightness to his writing through all of those thick paragraphs and his obsession of relationships, of loss, of renewal, all become apparent through FROG, Phone Rings, Interstate, etc. Bernhard writes of death, through the short frames of The Voice Imitator, Gargoyles, to the most recent Prose, those obsessions of time within murder, the waiting, the planning, the reasons of why people can be so terrible to each other. Even the novel Woodcutters with a dinner party as the only setting brings out small senses of evil that Dixon could never hope to touch on. Bernhard leaves his emotions on his sleeve as the narrator, whereas Dixon lets his characters evolve, he nurtures them and they prove to themselves and to others throughout the work what it means to be both good and evil.

  2. stephen


      yall read the latest Zoetrope. felt excited about Ryu Murakami’s story, and the style of a string of sentences punctuated only by commas, thought immediately “i should steal that”

  3. stephen

      since taking Joyce seminar in class, i have been interested in the anxiety of influence -type thing. i can think of only two authors in the last two decades who have had that effect…

  4. stephen

      *Joyce seminar in college

  5. stephen

      yall read the new yorker with saunders’ story? was surprised to actually kind of like a contemporary nyer story. felt like saunders was showing influence or paying tribute, whether consciously or not, to dfw. he’s like the token “zany” writer for them now, right (sort of jk)?

  6. stephen

      well, i guess they probably think of the jonathans as being like “hip,” too, probably

  7. stephen

      theres that stephen o’connor cat

  8. stephen

      wish they’d stop ignoring “internet writers.” that is how they probably think of it

  9. rk

      interesting. although i first noticed bernhard for his syle, i think the “feel” of his writing, the pessimism, is probably the most important aspect. that scathing humor is the essential Bernhard and in a way fills out the shape of his novels. i wonder if this is why he is not yet a more obvious influence in american writing?

  10. Retfsfjgmmrht


  11. Retfsfjgmmrht


  12. Retfsfjgmmrht


  13. Apsiegel

      You can wring the Bernhard out of Rick Moody like a wet towel in _Demonology_ and the _Black Veil_.

  14. Apsiegel

      You can wring the Bernhard out of Rick Moody like a wet towel in _Demonology_ and the _Black Veil_.

  15. Apsiegel

      You can wring the Bernhard out of Rick Moody like a wet towel in _Demonology_ and the _Black Veil_.

  16. Neil Griffin

      Javier Marias seems to have been influenced by Bernhard as well.

  17. Jean-Luc Nancy

      I remember reading a Bernhard book a long time ago and thinking to myself that DFW completely bit Bernhard’s mode of cyclical or spiraling interior thought processes. I don’t know whether there is any truth to that, though. It may simply be that they are both squarely post-Beckettian in this regard.

      It’s very interesting to hear Sebald say this because I’ve never thought of those two as particularly similar, but thinking on it now I do perceive, while not many immediate similarities (language-centered, the ones we always look for when assessing Bernhard’s influence), perhaps some superstructural similarities: particularly the form of the novel as a wandering through consciousness, a wandering-becoming-journey through consciousness….

  18. Rtrdr


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