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Thomas Bernhard’s Comic Materialism

Class, Art, and «Socialism» in Post-War Austria


Russell Harrison

Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Bernhard’s work continues to fascinate, irritate, and please readers. This book analyzes Bernhard’s writings in the light of post-war Austrian history, challenging the prevailing formalist and psychological reception of his work. It does so by revealing the close connection between individual texts and contemporaneous economic and political events, such as the relationship of the 1969 story Watten. Ein Nachlass to the incipient decline of the social-partnership state, or the connection of the 1970 novel Das Kalkwerk to the shifting balance of power between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Furthermore, the book argues that much of Bernhard’s engagement in public life was an attack on the «pseudo-socialism» of the Austrian socialist party and especially of Bruno Kreisky. Bernhard’s critique is effected through what the author terms a «comic materialism» – an unrelenting focus on the material aspects of life – evident in his protagonists’ ludicrously obsessive fixation on the objects of everyday life and in his comic critique of Viennese society.


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Chapter Two - Obedience, History, Everyday Life, and the Return of Class Conf lict in Das Kalkwerk 39


Chapter Two Obedience, History, Everyday Life, and the Return of Class Conf lict in Das Kalkwerk Das Kalkwerk is a dif fcult book to interpret.1 Because of its all-but-total omission of concete historical details,2 emphasis on indirect discourse sometimes at a five-person remove3 (Long, Novels 58), allegorical tenden- cies, and striking mix of the hifalutin/intellectual with the banal/comic reproduction of life, the novel does, at first glance, pose a problem for conventional exegesis. As Bernhard Sorg notes: “Das in jeder Hinsicht kompromißlose Kalkwerk markiert einer Stand literarischen Könnens […] an dem sich andere Texte werden messen lassen müssen” (154).4 However, although Das Kalkwerk is virtually bereft of historical detail, it is very much a product of its time and of twentieth-century Austrian his- tory, ref lecting two crucial moments in that history: that of Ständestaat/ 1 And, indeed, to read. One reader found just reading it a hellish task, even “unmöglich” for some (Schmidt); another “eine Herausforderung für Rezensenten und Lesers” (Desalm); a third, “deadly”: “Als Sprachkunstwerk ist Das Kalkwerk in der Nähe des Todes angesieldelt” (Rochelt). 2 As Renate Langer notes: “Vergleicht man die Endfassung mit den erhaltenen Vorstufen, so zeigt sich, daß Bernhard manche allzu plakativen Hinweise auf außer- literarische Realitäten getilgt hat. So ist etwa über die Geschichte des Kalkwerks zu lesen: ‘Denken Sie nur an das Explosionsunglück Anfang acthunddreißig, and den Brand vierundvierzig mit ihren Dutzenden von Verletzten […]. Die zweite zeitge- schichtliche Anspielung, auf...

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