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Thomas Bernhard: Verstörung (Gargoyles)

The German title means something like disturbance or derangement – a fairly apt title – while the English translation has opted for Gargoyles, which is also pretty good, for this book is about both and more. The idea of equating physical disease and decay with moral disease and decay is hardly a new one, having appeared in novels since there first were novels. It was, of course, a key theme of 19th century literature. Susan Sontag, in her interesting essays Illness As Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, makes the point very strongly and pleads with writers not to use cancer and AIDS in this way, as TB had been used before. For Bernhard, however, there is a strong link between physical and moral decay and he shows it in this book.

The narrator is a mining student who, unusually, accompanies his father, a country doctor on his rounds in rural Styria. The journey might be seen as Dante accompanying Virgil to Hell, as we get a brutal vision of physical, mental and moral decay. It starts with a woman getting killed in a brawl in a bar and gets progressively worse as we see insanity, neglect, disease, congenital idiocy and more – in short gargoyles. The doctor and, indeed, the son take this almost as matter-of-fact. The doctor briefly tells his son about the history of the patients, who include both the poor and the rich, and the reason for their strange behaviour. But everyone, patients, doctor and son, has put up a barrier, shielding himself from the outside world, so much so that some of them will not even greet the son or, in one case, even see him. It is almost as though they are ignorant of their problems or indifferent to them and want to keep them to themselves.

This would make the book interesting enough but the last half consists entirely of a monologue by the final patient, Prince Saurau, the local patriarch, who lives in a castle high on hill with his sisters and daughters (his son is studying in London). It is one of the most amazing outbursts in literature as he starts off castigating the applicants for the post of his estate manager – one of the candidates has clearly no qualifications at all for the job, even by his own admission and then carries on damning his son, the local inhabitants and various others and jumping off into all sorts of seemingly irrelevant side issues. His misanthropy is evident. If it were up to me, nobody would come up here at all, not a single person. He explains why. Listen, doctor. My whole life I have only seen invalids and lunatics.

Father-son relations are important, inevitably, given Bernhard’s own situation. The doctor and his son have an ambiguous relationship – cordial but by no means warm. However, the Prince condemns his son at every turn but he understands why the son stays away. I often think I have a duty to write to my son in London to tell him what awaits him here one day when I am dead. Coldness. Seclusion. Madness. Talking to yourself till you die. Suicide is also a key theme – the doctor’s daughter/narrator’s sister has suicidal thoughts but, again, it is the Prince who expresses the idea most forcefully. Almost all Sauraus have killed themselves. Hochgobernitz [where the castle is] ended for almost all Sauraus in suicide. This is not a fun book but it is a fascinating and grim picture of a world gone mad.

Publishing history

First published in German 1967 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1970 Knopf