Smile Politely

Loathing in Vienna: A Review of Woodcutters

There are many fifty-dollar words to be learned through reading above your intelligence level. During these times, it pays to have a dictionary close to hand. For example, meretricious means tawdrily attractive, as in, “I don’t usually go for girls carrying handcuffs, but you are especially meretricious.”

Another fifty-dollar word worth knowing is the German schadenfreude. There’s no word for it in English, but it roughly translates to a feeling of happiness when someone else suffers a misfortune. A great example of this wonderful feeling can be found near the end of Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, a bitter novel set in the Viennese cultural scene of the 1980s. Alcohol seems to be the drug of choice in this novel, but expect a powdery line of condescension and spite throughout.

Our narrator spends much of his time sitting alone in the dark anteroom of an apartment in Vienna, reminiscing about chance meetings and rethinking his decision to attend an “artistic dinner” given in honor of an abominable, unnamed Burgtheater actor. Earlier in the day, a dear friend of the assembled literati, Joana Stulz, was laid to rest after hanging herself. The party is also for her, kind of.

We never learn the name of the narrator in the novel but we might as well assume it is Bernhard. He did a botch job of concealing his identity or those of his characters, though I doubt he much cared. When Woodcutters was first published in 1984, an old friend of Bernhard’s, Gerhard Lampersberg, filed a lawsuit against him and his novel for defamation of character. After reading Bernhard’s depiction of them, it is not hard to understand why.

The hosts of the novel’s “artistic dinner,” the Lampersbergs *cough* Auersbergers, are particularly high on the list of people the narrator would like to see contract Gonorrhea and rot in Hell. According to him, the couple preys on artists in order to distract themselves from their marital discord. The narrator was himself one of the artistic-types they kept around for their own amusement during the ‘50s, perhaps earning him the privilege of sneering at his former friends. Throughout the book, the story swings back and forth from past to present, revealing in greater detail the narrator’s relationship to the Auersbergers, Joana and the other “petit-bourgeois” dinner guests.

It is well after midnight when the guest of honor finally arrives. The narrator observes the Burgtheater actor during dinner and finds the man to be a complete gargoyle. His attitude abruptly changes, however, after the meal when the actor erupts in anger at another guest, who impertinently asks the man several times, “At the end of your life, has your art brought you fulfillment?”

The actor rails at the assembled company for several minutes about their stupidity and vile rudeness, though we only get snippets of the tirade. It is easy to revel in the narrator’s triumphant schadenfreude as if it were your own:

“For years, perhaps for decades, we may have wanted to tell someone the truth to his face, the truth that he has never heard because no one has dared to tell it to him to his face, and then at last someone does it for us.”

As the night wanes to early morning, hurt feelings are soothed and everyone goes home as friends. The narrator, stunned by the evening’s events, goes so far as to wish the Auersbergers a goodnight before he leaves. Down the stairs and out the door, he kicks himself for leaving as he did, but the night has changed him somewhat and he must write about it. Thus he runs through the streets of Vienna in the blue air of dawn in search of a quiet place to rest, think and get the night down onto paper where he can better make sense of it.

What makes this book endearing is Bernhard’s caustic writing style. It drips with cynicism and disdain. If I were to write a thinly veiled memoir, I hope it would be on par with Woodcutters, even if it meant getting sued for defamation of character. Some of the narrator’s phrases become a little repetitive, but don’t let that stop you. There are ample opportunities to make use of your dictionary.

Rating: 4 of 5

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