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Thomas Bernhard: Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works)

Even by his own fairly grim standards, this book is fairly hard going. Konrad, a man in his fifties, has gone to live in the lime works with his invalid wife, where he is working on a study on hearing. The project goes nowhere. One Christmas Eve, he shoots and kills his wife. The book is his account, told somewhat incoherently, through a third party, of the events leading up to the murder. All we learn about the events we learn from this anonymous third party who rambles on in a stream-of-consciousness outburst for more than two hundred pages. Of course, this is the point. The eponymous lime works, which have a long history but are now decaying and derelict are a symbol – of Austria, the world, whatever you want, while Konrad himself is a man who clings to this decay unable to make a change, unable, as his wife clearly would like, to leave and go back to a “normal” life, whatever that may be. Konrad may be said to represent the old, traditional but decrepit Austria while his wife (who is also, incidentally, his half-sister) is the defective but more pleasant side of human nature.

But this book is also about language. It is, of course, one of the key themes of modern literature – the failure of language to do what it is supposed to do, namely communicate. The rambling narrative leaves us confused. Is it an accurate account? We cannot tell. It is certainly not clear and nor is Konrad. Er, Konrad, tyrannisiere seine Frau mit unverständlichen Sätzen (He, Konrad, was said to tyrannize his wife with incomprehensible sentences) and Die Deprimation ist aus den Wörtern, aus nichts sonst. (Depression comes from words, not from anything else.) Language, Bernhard, clearly tell us is not only not going to help us, it is probably going to make it worse.

Publishing history

First published in German 1970 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1973 Knopf
Translated by Sophie Wilkins