Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard is, like the much of the Austrian author’s oeuvre, a strange beast. On display are the usual hallmarks of Bernhard’s prose: a monologue simmering with rage, a mordant sense of humor, and the feeling of tottering on the edge of madness.
At first glimpse it appears forthright and pleasantly sincere, if not entirely heartwarming. Wittgenstein’s Nephew is a panegyric to Paul Wittgenstein, a man disowned by of one of Austria’s most illustrious families because of his mental illness, and the relative of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
But Wittgenstein’s Nephew could also be called a true contradiction. It’s an autobiographical work of experimental fiction. It both fits within Bernhard’s complete works, and stands out as stylistically different. It’s an elegy to a friend, and an inward meditation.
The oppositional forces at work are satisfyingly and expertly synthesized by Bernhard, who was a bit of a walking contradiction himself. One of Austria’s finest writers and certainly its most scathing cultural critic, he was known amongst his compatriots for lambasting the country’s social institutions, its best theater, and his contemporaries.
As narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard plays co-star in the novel. Although its stated purpose may be to eulogize Paul, by the end of the Vintage edition’s 100 pages, it is abundantly clear that Bernhard’s friend becomes a symbol for his own use.
“I had known him for over ten years, and in all these years he had been gravely ill, bearing the mark of death. On the Wilhelminenberg, sitting on the seat where the only words he uttered were Grotesque, grotesque, we had set a permanent seal on our friendship, as they say, without speaking a word.”
Although Thomas Bernhard the author and Thomas Bernhard the narrator (who are not quite one in the same) could be accused of arrogance and self-absorption, neither is entirely thoughtless, and the structure of Wittgenstein’s Nephew is proof enough of that. The novel develops as a double fugue, a sort of exposition-and-answer that simultaneously traces the lives of both Paul and Thomas, each mirroring the other closely. Thomas’ story gradually displaces Paul’s, although the latter never completely drops out of sight.
The ‘autobiographical novel’ begins with both Thomas and Paul in the midst of stays in a sanatorium – Thomas for a serious lung disease, and Paul for a mental breakdown.
“Paul, I am bound to say, was ultimately conditioned by madhouses, while I, it seems, have been conditioned by lung hospitals.”
The two friends also shared a love for the opera, an intellectual and melancholy disposition, and status as notorious outsiders in the Viennese community. It is no wonder then, given that their lives were so obviously similar, that Thomas spurns Paul as the latter approaches death. In poor health and old age, Paul’s aspect becomes the very image of Thomas’ own death, and Thomas cannot bear to even look at his friend, his reflection.
Wittgenstein’s Nephew belongs in the group of Bernhard’s most famous work, alongside Woodcutters, The Loser, and Correction. Although Bernhard is in his usual form, relentlessly caustic towards others and himself, Wittgenstein’s Nephew’s short length and short sentences make it the most approachable of his work. Markedly absent are the sprawling five page sentences that can leave a reader throwing Bernhard’s books against the wall. In the end it’s a good place to start before delving into his more difficult masterpieces. There are elements of Proust, Cioran and Beckett here, but reading Wittgenstein’s Nephew will confirm: there’s only one Thomas Bernhard.