Three Novellas: Amras, Playing Watten, and Walking (Hardcover)

Three Novellas: Amras, Playing Watten, and Walking (Hardcover)

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Author: Thomas Bernhard

Translators: Kenneth J. Northcott and Peter Jansen

Publisher: University of Chicago Press (2003)

Thomas Bernhard is "one of the masters of contemporary European fiction" (George Steiner); "one of the century’s most gifted writers" (New York Newsday); "a virtuoso of rancor and rage" (Bookforum). And although he is favorably compared with Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard still remains relatively unknown in America.

Uninitiated readers should consider Three Novellas a passport to the absurd, dark, and uncommonly comic world of Bernhard. Two of the three novellas here have never before been published in English, and all of them show an early preoccupation with the themes-illness and madness, isolation, tragic friendships-that would obsess Bernhard throughout his career. Amras, one of his earliest works, tells the story of two brothers, one epileptic, who have survived a family suicide pact and are now living in a ruined tower, struggling with madness, trying either to come fully back to life or finally to die. In Playing Watten, the narrator, a doctor who lost his practice due to morphine abuse, describes a visit paid him by a truck driver who wanted the doctor to return to his habit of playing a game of cards (watten) every Wednesday—a habit that the doctor had interrupted when one of the players killed himself. The last novella, Walking, records the conversations of the narrator and his friend Oehler while they walk, discussing anything that comes to mind but always circling back to their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone irrevocably mad. Perhaps the most overtly philosophical work in Bernhard’s highly philosophical oeuvre, Walkingprovides a penetrating meditation on the impossibility of truly thinking.

Three Novellas offers a superb introduction to the fiction of perhaps the greatest unsung hero of twentieth-century literature. Rarely have the words suffocating, intense, and obsessive been meant so positively.

“On picking up Three Novellas . . . the reader is instantly transported into the comic nightmare we recognize from Bernhard’s longer novels and theater: It is Bernhard’s postwar Austria, menacing, provincial, suffocating, where the beauty of the Alpine setting serves as a mask of hypocrisy concealing guilt and decay. . . . What is particularly exciting in the three short pieces included in this new collection is the chance to see a younger Bernhard working on a concise scale with motifs and methods he will expand into the longer works considered his masterpieces. At the same time, the works here give us a glimpse of roads not taken, experiments with pathos and plot that the writer let fall away as he refined his vision and technique.”

–Chicago Tribune

“‘Why do we still have to live,’ a survivor of a family suicide pact asks in the first of these novellas, all of which revolve around madness or suicide. The Austrian master Bernhard, whose thirty-year career was devoted to the proposition that to be born is a tragedy and that to live is a punishment nobody deserves to suffer, never managed to come up with a satisfactory answer. These novellas are early works, but the point of view that found devastating expression in masterpieces like Concrete and Yes is already apparent. What is extraordinary about Bernhard is that his relentless pessimism never seems open to ridicule; his world is so powerfully imagined that it can seem to surround you like little else in literature.”

–New Yorker

Amras, Playing Watten, and Walking . . . reveal that the Austrian had a penchant for morbidity and isolation from the start. . . . The books’ unselfconscious absurdities are hilarious, but their near disregard for the reader also generates a peculiar intimacy: It’s as if you’re experiencing the thoughts firsthand, getting swept up in the ruminations as they approach a fever pitch. . . . It’s fascinating to watch the author slowly cordon off a space where characters can exist entirely on their own terms, no matter how tortured they claim to be by the world around them. ”

–Village Voice