Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

by Matt J. Popham

Concrete

Thomas Bernhard’s CONCRETE is not so much a conventional novel as an erratic, disturbing, and darkly comic rollercoaster rant. It is also one of the most authentic, insightful, and entertaining books about writing (or, more accurately, NOT writing) that I have ever read. Our protagonist and first-person narrator, Rudolf, spends the novel’s fierce and feverish 100 pages failing to start work on his study of Mendelssohn – a project ten years in the making – instead, verbally lashing out at anyone and anything he views as an obstacle to its commencement (himself, included). Not so much inert as impotent, Rudolf is riddled with illness, neuroses, and bitterness, consistent only in his inability to commit to anything, including his own thoughts and feelings. His convulsive spasms of frustration and rage carry us through his frenzied (and often hilarious) oratories, digressions, oscillations, and reversals like exploding tides, yet somehow, from this tortured tempest, the man and his tragedy are able emerge in full. A direct descendant of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Rudolf presents us with a postmodern portrait of the diseased intellect in retreat, firing erratically at various targets, while vainly seeking shelter in isolation. Whether his attacks are unwarranted or his anger misdirected is immaterial, as he is ultimately his own worst, and most inescapable enemy. If Fitzgerald was correct in his assertion that plot is character and character is plot, then Bernhard, for all his book’s seeming narrative aimlessness, has constructed one hell of a dense and powerful story. A visceral, merciless – and mercilessly funny – verbal assault, Concrete vividly documents the wounded, existential howl of a pained, and painfully recognizable, human psyche.

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