Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost is a strange and difficult book, and I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it. It was a book with very little plot, which I often like, and it wasn’t much like a novel, which I also like, but this one … I wasn’t sure I enjoyed what it had to offer in place of the usual things. It was bewildering and unsettling. It’s beautiful in places, dark and despairing much of the way through, with uncomfortable truths about life that I often agreed with but didn’t much want to think about. It’s the kind of book that’s a challenge — it never lets you get comfortable or lose yourself in it.
In some moments I liked the challenge and was glad to grapple with its difficult ideas, and in other moments I just wanted the book to end. I thought about quitting with it several times, but the insights I got now and then were enough to keep me going.
The novel centers around two characters, one of whom, the narrator, is a medical student who accepts a mission to travel to the little Austrian village of Weng to observe his mentor’s brother and to report back what he sees. The mentor’s brother is a painter named Strauch, although he hasn’t actually painted anything in a long time. Instead, he spends his time taking walks in the forests surrounding the village and talking with the locals.
The two quickly become friends — friends of sorts, at least — and take many walks together; most of the time on these walks the painter talks and the narrator takes it in. The novel consists mainly of the narrator’s reports of these conversations, jumping back and forth between his own words and long stretches of quotation from the painter.
What the painter talks about is not always clear — sometimes he’s coherent and other times his long ramblings are full of quick, confusing transitions, vague quasi-philosophical musings, and rants against the people in the village and against humanity in general. I haven’t decided if it’s better or worse that the narrator frequently declares himself confused as well — it makes me realize maybe I’m not meant to understand the painter’s speeches but then I can’t help but wonder what the point of it all is.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the way the narrator becomes more and more drawn into the bizarre world of the painter. He is both attracted to and repelled by the strange man. He struggles to report back to the painter’s brother as he is supposed to do, but he loses the ability to think objectively about the painter and can barely find the words to describe his experience. He starts to lose his sense of the boundary between himself and the painter, wondering if his feelings about the situation are his own or are actually the painter’s feelings that he has internalized.
I might have hated this book, but there is some great (though gruesome) writing in it; here are the opening sentences:
A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either. An internship is not just tossing limbs and parts of limbs over your shoulder into an enamel bucket. Nor does it just consist of trotting along behind the registrar and the assistant and the assistant’s assistant, a sort of tail-end Charlie. Nor can an internship be only the putting out of false information; it isn’t just saying: “The pus will dissolve in your bloodstream and you’ll soon be restored to perfect health.” Or a hundred other such lies. Not just: “It’ll get better” — when nothing will. An internship isn’t just an academy of scissors and thread, of tying off and pulling through. An internship extends to circumstances and possibilities that have nothing to do with the flesh.
The book is fearless in the way it talks about ugliness, despair, and death; it’s bracing in the steadiness of its gaze at the dark side of human experience — or perhaps “the dark side” isn’t the right way to say it, but rather the dark truth of human experience. I suppose some might see in the book some grisly humor; it isn’t all heaviness and seriousness, although the humor is pretty dark indeed.
I may have picked the wrong Bernhard novel to read; this is his first one, and from what I understand his later novels follow similar formats (one character reporting on the thoughts of another character) but are shorter. This one could have benefited from some cutting; I would have been much happier (so to speak) reading 150 pages about existential angst and despair than I was reading 300.
I might be open to reading another Bernhard novel if anybody convinced me it would be worthwhile; I have nothing against reading dark, difficult books now and then, and it would be interesting to see what else Bernhard has done with his unusual method and style. But I think I’ll need a while to recover from this one …