The Single Most Pristine Certainty: Fleur Jaeggy, Thomas Bernhard, and the Fact of Death

WE ARE TOLD that novels are meant to teach us something. It’s as if the objective goals in life can be projected outward in the imagination, and novels are there to help us discern our trajectory through this projection. Each character’s choice marks the carving of a particular path, by which we might judge our own. There are some out there (Malcolm Cowley, among others) who believe that even an author’s choice to use a “hard” word as opposed to an “easy” word is an inherently moral decision — one that, we can assume — impacts the reader’s engagement with the text on moral terms (whatever those might be). It is tired news now to note that even when novels are not explicitly instructional, they can still be read as guides, with subtle ethical or behavioral insinuations. One can walk away from Madame Bovary — a novel in which moral and aesthetic tropes are continuously undermined — still having “learned” something: do not — you impressionable fool! — be brainwashed by popular, romantic novels, lest you run the risk of becoming the vulnerable, reckless, impulsive, naïve eponymous Emma.

But then there are those authors for whom even the most faintly moral suggestions are so foreign that they are simply out of the realm of possibility. These novels often have a certain coolness, a swiftness, or, alternatively, they charge forth with a certain brashness, a revelry, a laissez-faire. These are the words one might use to describe Fleur Jaeggy, in the first instance, and Thomas Bernhard in the second. How do we examine the work by these authors, whose parabolic qualities so thrillingly elude us?


Imagine, if you will, a middle-aged man: he sits isolated in a German sanatorium. His neck has just been cut open, a fist-sized tumor just removed from his thorax, and his just-published book sits upon his bed — though he lacks the strength to lift it.

Next, envision an impassive young girl, gazing out the window of her boarding school classroom at the austere Swiss Bausler Institut and into the snowy hills of postwar Switzerland. She neglects her studies, and she envies the world.

Published seven years apart — and translated into English just two years apart — Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982) and Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (1989) have, on the surface, scarcely anything in common. And, for that matter, neither do the authors. Bernhard — a German-speaking Austrian born in 1931 — wrote mostly in his native tongue and was known as Austria’s enfant terrible for his foreboding gloom, caustic humor, and ferocious intellect. Jaeggy — nine years Bernhard’s junior — grew up in the remote hills of northeastern Switzerland and writes mostly in Italian (she currently lives in Milan). She is known — to the extent she is known (in the United States, at least) — for the dynamism in her melancholic prose which, void of sentimentality, is imbued with a quiet, compact passion.

Whether the authors actively influenced one another’s writing is a matter of speculation. In fact, as this same publication points out in a review of Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX:

When [Jaeggy] left Switzerland and moved to Rome, she met Thomas Bernhard. The two of them make sense together: both are experimentalists, philosophers, and obsessives. […] But even this relationship is shrouded in mystery — there’s no way of knowing how much time Jaeggy and Bernhard even spent together.

We do know, however, that Jaeggy’s husband, Robert Calasso, went on to become the editor of Adelphi Editions, whose authors included Thomas Bernhard. With this one small degree of separation it is likely that the two at least read one another’s work — and even if not, one truth is unquestionably clear: In Bernhard’s autobiographical novel (translated by David McLintock and marketed as simply a “novel” by A. A. Knopf) Wittgenstein’s Nephew and Jaeggy’s semi-autobiographical novel (translated by Tim Parks and also marketed as simply a “novel” by New Directions) Sweet Days of Discipline, a shared aesthetics of death and senility — aided by structural and thematic overlaps and inversions — make the texts not only wonderful companions, but eerily compelling in terms of their articulation of “the void.”

By void I’m referring to that festering sense of absence puzzled over by philosophers immemorial — from Plato to Nagel and beyond. The sense of emptiness that dwells dormant until, on occasion, and without warning, it grabs hold of you. Perhaps Reinhard Kuhn puts it best in The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature. In this seminal text, he describes ennui as premised upon a feeling of emptiness, which I here take to mean an awareness — conscious or not — of the void. It is an “emptiness that the soul feels when it is deprived of interest in action, life, and the world,” despite being by all appearances engaged.

One finds out in Sweet Days and Wittgenstein’s Nephew precisely what happens when this sense of emptiness is exacerbated by an individual — an unexpected friend — whose presence promises to placate, if not supersede this void. Both texts revolve around such a promising individual, and one can work to find out what criteria exists — if any — for such a person. There also exists between the texts a shared, seemingly inevitable conflict: what happens if and when this person fails in this promise, and comes — paradoxically — to embody the void itself?

For Bernhard in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, this person is Paul Wittgenstein. Paul is a wild, brilliant young man with an illustrious family: his uncle is the famed Ludwig (hence the title), and the Wittgenstein family is aristocratic besides, being “one of Austria’s three or four richest families, whose millions automatically multiplied year by year under the monarchy.” Paul’s family is useless in reining in Paul’s tempestuousness — the mad sensibility Paul inherited from his uncle, who was likewise considered by his “ashamed” family to be an ungrateful “traitor.” As Bernhard puts it: “The one represents a high point in philosophy and the history of ideas [Ludwig], the other a high point in the history of madness [Paul].” In Bernhard’s view, heredity allows the torch of genius and madness to be passed from apex to apex.

For Jaeggy’s narrator, this person — this buffer against the void — is Frédérique. Frédérique, like Paul, serves somewhat as a foil to the narrator’s own despondency. She appears at the narrator’s boarding school seemingly out of nowhere — “It happened one day at lunch,” the narrator tells us, “We had all sat down. A girl arrived, a new one.” This “new one” has a certain inscrutable quality in her face that, we are told, hints at an inherited superiority: “She had a fine, high forehead, the kind of forehead that makes thought tangible, a forehead past generations had endowed with talent, intelligence and charm. She spoke to no one. Her looks were those of an idol, disdainful. Perhaps that was why I wanted to conquer her.”

While Paul and Frédérique’s respective traits of madness and intelligence connote the past, they at the same time point forward, toward generational continuity. This has the paradoxical effect of making Paul and Frédérique seem out of time — somehow immune to its ravages. They exist for the reader as embodiments of durée, as if they’ve walked out of that Bergsonian realm where the threads of memory and age are perpetually spooling and unspooling. And perhaps it is their seeming atemporality that plays a part in their being so tiring. Because indeed, over and over again, Jaeggy and Bernhard’s objects of obsession exhaust them. Bernhard writes of conversations with Paul: we “talked for hours, to the point of exhaustion.” Bernhard was equal parts worn out and impressed by “Paul Wittgenstein’s uncompromising passion,” which contributed to a wearying relationship he found “exceedingly strenuous.” For her part, Jaeggy’s narrator confides in us about her conversations with Frédérique: “I must admit here that sometimes they sapped my energy.” Later, she says flatly, “Frédérique exhausted me.”

By exhaustion the authors mean more than the usual feeling of fatigue, the bone-buzz at the end of a long day, but a symptom of having worked in intellectual extremis. Of having been coerced — by no one other than themselves, ultimately — into relationships that left them feeling as if some wild topography had been traversed. The convictions of their friends were often so powerful as to appear as speech-acts. This is especially true in Paul’s case: his “fanatical love of opera,” for example, made him “the author of their operatic triumphs, just as he was the author of the failures at the opera house on the Ring, failures that could be utterly disastrous if he chose.” It is true in more subtle ways of Frédérique. Jaeggy’s narrator, for instance, tries to take on Frédérique’s “aesthete” handwriting, having perceived Frédérique’s writing as a type of aesthetic conviction she must also acquire.

But their exhaustion is important in another sense. By the time the narrators write their respective texts, we see how this sense of exhaustion has pervaded their way of seeing the world. This is most clear in the way the narrators capture not only their sense of fatigue, but also a sense of doomed excess, which accounts for the encompassing darkness of both narratives: we get the sense that Frédérique and Paul (with all their passion, exhausting excesses, and atemporality) cannot truly function in a world like ours, and thus their potential to redeem us is thwarted from the start.

Frédérique’s promise to redeem the void is cut off even before she is introduced. We know this after the narrator relays a crucial fact on the first page: from the outside, their boarding school emits a sense of “thwarted luxuriance […] you have the feeling that inside [the school] something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on. It’s an Arcadia of sickness. Inside, it seems, in the brightness in there, is the peace and perfection of death.” One paragraph later, Frédérique is introduced. She is dropped directly into this vortex in which one finds “the peace and perfection of death.” Even though “[e]verything about [Frédérique] was right, harmonious,” the little world in which they live (and at the end of the novel, the real world) forecloses the development and influence of this harmony.

That Frédérique can exist at all in this environment is a miracle. In fact, to demonstrate what a truly rare event it is for the narrator to articulate the downright presence of her friend, we need look no further than Tim Parks — Jaeggy’s translator — for a characterization of Jaeggy’s typical style. In writing on a passage from Sweet Days of Discipline, where the narrator describes the dearth of letters she receives, Parks explains, “Like virtually everything Jaeggy writes […] [The passage] opens with an apparently straightforward realism, but reporting — and again this is common with Jaeggy — an absence rather than an abundance, a disappointment rather than a fulfillment.” With Frédérique, though, we have promise and presence amid this absence, we have our narrator’s innocent but deep appreciation within an ambiance of disappointment. The problem is the latter undermines the former at every turn.

If Jaeggy’s insistence on madness and general tone of absence is generated by her reporting of vast disappointments (with her trademarked air of detachment), Bernhard offers us a type of stylistic inversion. His insistence on emptiness comes through in his brash use of repetition. To be sure, repetition — as critics and scholars have noted — is a stylistic strategy present throughout Bernhard’s oeuvre (perhaps most notably in Gargoyles, the book on Bernhard’s lap in that first scene). But the use of repetition in Wittgenstein’s Nephew is distinct (both from Bernhard’s other work and from other authors’ usages, namely Beckett’s, to whom Bernhard’s style is often compared). Repetition in this instance signals the inability of language to capture the nature of true, vital spirit. Indeed, in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Bernhard uses repeated phrases to help memorialize Paul — or at least to try to wield his unwieldy friend into a grammar-logic that gives structure and a certain indelibility to their relationship. An example appears early on:

I am bound to say that, like Paul, I had once more overstated and overrated my existence, that I had exploited it to excess. Like Paul, I had once more made demands on myself in excess of my resources. I had made demands on everything in excess of all resources. I had behaved toward myself and everything else with the same unnatural ruthlessness that one day destroyed Paul and will one day destroy me. For just as Paul came to grief through his unhealthy overestimation of himself and the world, I too shall sooner or later come to grief through my own unhealthy overestimation of myself and the world.

The number of individual words and phrases repeated — “excess,” “resources,” “demands,” “unhealthy,” “overestimation,” “destroy” — and the anxiety that eddies around them work to show, particularly in their accumulation, that not even they will help to remedy the void that Paul has left. Bernhard writes in this way out of defiance: his words — in being “formally” unnecessary — embody the excesses denied him by the world, and that the world ultimately denied Paul. If Jaeggy’s elegiac prose is even and detached, Bernhard’s elegy is compulsive, urgent.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, we have premature death and madness. Frédérique is — and always has been — already dead, just as Paul strikes Bernhard as one who had “long been dead.” Premature death is a leitmotif of Jaeggy’s Days of Discipline. It’s a guiding principle. Jaeggy writes of looking at a new girl (not Frédérique): “[I]t was as though I were looking at someone already dead.” She writes that schoolgirls, or all people who have spent “their best years as boarders” (I might add here that for some time Bernhard and Paul led parallel lives as boarders: Bernhard as a lung patient, Paul as a mental patient) belong to “a cult of the dead.” Frédérique — despite her promise, her harmoniousness — herself comes to embody death. After her father’s death forces Frédérique to leave the boarding school early (the narrator “learnt what terror was” upon learning of Frédérique’s departure), years pass before the narrator sees her again: “I saw Frédérique again. By chance. At night. She looked like a ghost almost.” After following Frédérique up the stairs and into her home, the narrator recalls: “She lives, I thought, as if she were in a grave,” and “speaks with the dead.” Frédérique eventually goes mad, tries to burn her house down — the house, along with “the curtains, the paintings and her mother.” When her mother dies, she leaves Frédérique “something to live on. But she had had enough of the mental home, if she went on staying there, she’d be on her way to the cemetery.”

Bernhard, in an almost identical scene to Jaeggy’s, walks “up the stairs to [Paul’s] apartment,” and suddenly “could not stand being with [Paul] any longer.” Paul was more like a specter than a man: “I kept thinking that I was no longer sitting with a living person, but sitting with one who had long been dead.” He, like Frédérique, goes “mad,” and in the “[l]ast twenty years of his life […] had to be admitted to the mental asylum Am Steinhof at least twice a year, always at short notice and always under the most terrible circumstances.

In both instances, where our narrators experienced others who brought with them the prospect of seeing the world differently, of expressing it differently, and of acting upon it differently — the difference cannot come to fruition: despite all the initial promise, there is no moment of complete deliverance from world-weariness. Those characters whose very presence hints at our own capacity to transcend the world’s parameters, they too find the world incommensurate, insufficient. Often, the void which they might have filled they only augment.

Now back to our original question: what instruction is here, if any? Jaeggy’s narrator collects the reader into her thoughts:

Perhaps now and then we see a tall marble figure stand out stark before us: it is Frédérique passing through our lives and maybe we’d like to go back, but we don’t need anything, anymore. We imagined the world. What else can we imagine now if not our own deaths?

Of course, we all know that once the arcadic — if “senile,” as Jaeggy puts it — haze of childhood wears off, death becomes the single most pristine certainty in one’s life. It is an inevitable fact. It will happen. And often our awareness of this fact, and of the world’s inherent insufficiencies, attenuates moments of even the most radical sublimity. Jaeggy and Bernhard do not suggest escaping this awareness — in fact their very aesthetics entrap us within death’s ambiance. They prepare us for it. Death is coming. We are hurtling toward it. But! As you travel there, meet people who meet some of the criteria described here. That’s to say, meet people who make you pause — who push beyond the margins of everyday displays of personality. Or, at the very, very least: read about them.


Sophie Madeline Dess is a writer and critic living in New York City. Her work can be found in the Times Literary Supplement, The Millions, and elsewhere.