Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beautiful Days




Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who, at his death in 1984, left instructions expressly prohibiting publication of his works in Austria for a full 70 years after his death, includes in his novel Correction a slightly less than flattering assessment of his homeland:

Austria, this most misunderstood country in the world, this country more problematical than any other in all world history…this state that was economically more decrepit than any other, which had nothing left, apart from its congenital imbecility, but its hypocrisy…once the center of Europe [Austria] was…no longer anything but a rummage sale of intellectual and cultural history, an unsold remainder of government merchandise…every Austrian is born to failure…his so-called homeland is actually, for him as for so many others, nothing but a horrible lifelong punishment for existing, for the blameless act of having been born in the first place…

This eviscerating passage might have served as an epigraph for the stunning short novel Schöne Tage (1974, translated into English by Anselm Hollo as Beautiful Days) by Bernhard’s Austrian contemporary Franz Innerhofer. Innerhofer may not provide quite as explicit a condemnation as Bernhard, but the picture he portrays of Austria works its way even more infectiously under the skin, a relentless catalog of recriminations that point an accusing finger at the “brutality and neglect” that mark the society Innerhofer depicts. It would be difficult to imagine a work with a more cuttingly ironic title.

Set in the economic wreckage of the years immediately following World War II in the farming country in Austria’s north, Beautiful Days, Innerhofer’s first novel and the first volume of a trilogy, begins with a curious opening line:

Torn away from the care of a childless woman, Holl suddenly found himself transplanted in an alien world.

Over the next few paragraphs, we are able to put the line in context, recognizing that Holl, Innerhofer’s vulnerable young protagonist, has in fact only recently been born (his birth coinciding approximately and symbolically with the end of World War II). Holl might as well not have come into the world, however, given what proceeds from his initial experience of being “torn away,” for the following pages depict an almost endless stream of abuses heaped upon the poor, illegitimate child. This initial separation from a “childless woman,” his caretaker for his first two years, is but the first of several wrenching dislocations. His next years are spent in wretched poverty with his mother, distinguishable from other adults chiefly by her being “the one who spanked him more often than any of the others,” and a neglectful stepfather, who has led “an unimaginably hard life from childhood on,” in Holl’s youth occupying the social status of disgraced former Nazi, “a pariah, full of inarticulate rage” (“inarticulate rage” is a recurrent phrase that characterizes the state of most of the adults in Beautiful Days). At age six Holl, essentially a welfare charge, is abruptly shunted off to live on Farm 48 in Haudorf in northern Austria with the father he’s never known, a brutish lug referred to in the novel only as “The Farmer,” and a cold stepmother, “The Wife.” Their identification by social role underscores his new guardians’ functional, passive-aggressive behavior towards Holl, whom they treat as little more than a nuisance and slave, and who seems to exist only “in terms of chores to be performed.” His new family simply replaces one set of abusive adults with another (Haudorf proves an apt name for the area in which Farm 48 is located, as the word’s root literally translates as “beaten down”). Holl is thrust into backbreaking farm work scarcely fit for an adult, let alone a mere child, and spends his long days in mud and manure, in fields and stables, valued beneath the livestock and, at home, berated and beaten into submission. The abuses Innerhofer catalogs in Beautiful Days brutalize the reader as well in both their individual occurrences and their cumulative effect, and it is only Holl’s inner resistance and instinctive sense of the injustice of it all – as well as Innerhofer’s tremendous talent as a writer - that makes the novel bearable in the least.

The starkly unsentimental, largely realist style of Beautiful Days leads the reader through Holl’s bleak daily cycle of bedwettings, physical and psychological abuse, hard labor, and unwelcoming home life, punctuated for the most part only by the oppressive heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter, by accident and death among the other workers and the livestock (calamities apathetically absorbed by the adults as though they were inevitabilities). Despite this gritty realism, Innerhofer also strings Holl’s tale onto a frame that allows his story to be seen as both particular and universal; Holl’s sufferings are not simply his own, but represent those inflicted by the failures of society as a whole. Innerhofer directs his condemnation of the treatment Holl receives not only at its immediate perpetrators but also at the institutions that allow such barbarities against children. Thus Holl’s anticipation that these institutions will intervene in some way to lessen his oppression meets with repeated disappointment. A burgeoning hope that mandatory schooling might provide an escape valve, that “homework…would liberate him from labor” (an almost certainly deliberate reformulation of the “Arbeit macht frei” of Hitler’s camps), evaporates as school quickly reveals itself as simply another piece of the machinery designed to keep children like Holl from attaining personhood, just another place where adults feel free to strike and degrade him. The church acts as an equally dehumanizing institution, designed to enforce ideology and conformity rather than provide solace or alleviate suffering. The ineffectual visits from child welfare officials, who fail to look beyond social surfaces carefully polished by adults eager to put the best face forward so as to mask the daily brutalities they inflict, reveal a welfare system abjectly derelict in its duties.

Innerhofer employs several remarkable narrative elements in Beautiful Days to enhance and deepen Holl’s riveting story. In his depiction of Holl’s earliest years, action is largely reduced to gesture, to a kind of high contrast, minimalist presentation of reality that reflects a young child’s frustrated efforts to make sense of a confounding world that values him for little more than his capacity for work and as the most handy target for the “inarticulate rage” vented by adults. Innerhofer’s stark, bleak descriptions, in his account of Holl’s early childhood, are strikingly minimalist and colorless, and his characters, in these first pages, seem almost silhouettes, as in the powerful work depicting scenes of American slavery by visual artist Kara Walker. But a brilliantly evolving narrative style develops along with Holl’s own growth in consciousness and self-awareness. The early monochromatic, silhouetted world gradually gives way to one richer in awareness and detail - albeit no less impoverished in quality of life. Holl’s sense of himself as self, as well as his initial stirrings of rebellion, long in coming, commence when the concept of suicide first occurs to him. His abrupt, stunned realization of this possibility of escaping his misery through his own agency is followed mere paragraphs later by the first instances of first-person narration to appear in the novel. A slow-motion explosion of self-awareness follows as the development of Holl’s young mind is paralleled by a perceptible increase in Innerhofer’s rendering of depth and detail as well as by periodic bursts of first person narration (that there are so pitifully few of these, however, only underscores Holl’s primary and anguishing sense of himself as an object). Despite the world’s coming into richer, more comprehensible focus, Holl’s miseries continue unabated, though the sharpening of his mind does provide him some minor triumphs in learning how to resist, neutralize, or exert some modicum of resilience over the abuses heaped upon him. However incremental, these small victories lead Holl to reject the option of suicide as it would only benefit his oppressors, who “could step over me and go on humiliating and tormenting people like me without hesitation.”

Innerhofer also employs an intensely effective kind of dialectic in the use of third person narration that juxtaposes and entwines simple, childlike sentences – “Every morning began in pain;” “It was still August;” “The train moved much too slowly;” “The train went much too fast” – with those of an omniscient narrator reporting and interpreting Holl’s life through adult retrospection. The result is a complex narrative style that allows a reader to be simultaneously inside Holl’s childhood world and outside it as a mature, almost clinical observer. An unusual tone is achieved through this variation, one that combines the straightforward simple storytelling of a children’s story or fable (one not entirely without humor) with the critical insight of a consciousness evaluating the fable as it’s being told.[1] Another notable narrative element is Innerhofer’s frequent use of italicized words and phrases. These serve to stress - like an insistent finger tapping the chest of the society Innerhofer charges with so many reprehensible failures - the fundamental aspects of Holl’s situation that could have been altered to make his life better. They’re used not so much to scold as to resolutely and with overwhelming force of conviction cast light on injustices and educate ignorance, serving as controlled, focused remonstrations without overt emotion but nonetheless brimming with indignation. At the same time, Innerhofer uses these italicized phrases to identify and dismantle the language of oppression, to take it apart at a linguistic level. For example, in Holl’s musing at the way the society characterizes suicide, one such phrase – that so and so “put an end to it” – becomes an expression Holl sees as a consensual, passive acceptance of suicide, as though it were an act completely independent of exogenous, societal influence, a failure of the individual having nothing to do with its social context.

One of Innerhofer’s great achievements in Beautiful Days is a careful balance between Holl’s particular, grim situation and its generalizability even beyond the period and its Austrian setting and institutions. The field labor in which Innerhofer’s characters are engaged might stand in for any kind of menial, coercive labor. The cruelties displayed by those around Holl could be found in other oppressive environments. And the indignation aimed at those responsible is leveled not simply at the malice of individuals, but at an entire society that expresses an almost autonomic neglect of its most sensitive and vulnerable members. The patterns of brutality and neglect so pervasive in Beautiful Days become a condemnation not only of Austria, and not only of the country’s noxiously acquiescent conformity perhaps most dramatically highlighted by its nearly unanimous support of Hitler’s Anschluss (references to historical particulars are certainly not absent in Beautiful Days, but are kept at a minimum), but of all societies that rest on their failure to rise above the most expedient social interactions and decline to treat kindness, generosity, and, especially, the care of children and cultivation of talent, as fundamental priorities. Innerhofer’s most severe criticism targets these failures across an entire society to exert agency and responsibility, to combat the accepted and the unacceptable.

There is a generous element in Innerhofer’s “lessons” (one that appears to distinguish it from Bernhard’s unmitigated wrath); it may not be forgiveness exactly, but there is at least a value placed on understanding that the cultures’ deficiencies descend from the contributions of poverty, institutional weaknesses, and a lack of education and opportunity. Part of the power of Beautiful Days derives from its acknowledgement of the psychology of brutality and neglect, its recognition of cycles of abuse and of economic and other factors contributing to the behavior of the society, at the same time refusing to allow these factors to absolve actors of their responsibility. One of the novel’s most breathtaking scenes involves the sudden appearance on Farm 48 of Helga, a no-nonsense worker who sees with piercing clarity, as does Holl, the injustices of the culture, but who unlike Holl has the fearlessness to refute them at every turn. Confronting The Wife one night, Helga smashes a bowl in an act both castigating and educating, forcing The Wife to recognize that human beings - who are not, after all, bowls to be shattered - should not be treated as though they were. Helga’s short stay at Farm 48 is the first genuine glimmer of hope in Holl’s miserable existence, the first real model for resistance that life has offered him, and a vindication of his own conviction that the behavior directed at him has been a matter of inexcusable injustice (as well as an austerely beautiful moment in the novel - Innerhofer acutely depicts the ability of children to know justice and injustice as a matter of the behavior around them while also recognizing their need for adult affirmation of these convictions). 

Beautiful Days leads the reader to a simple yet radical conclusion encapsulated in what is perhaps the most significant milestone in Holl’s personhood, his apprehension “that it could have been different, all of it.” With this brief line, this explicit rejection of the status quo, Innerhofer obliterates excuses and justifications, reorienting the wretchedly deficient adult world to a measure of morality like that asserted by Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague in Rieux’s refusal “to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” I know of nothing quite like Innerhofer’s achievement in Beautiful Days, the clear-sightedness with which, in such a short novel, he is able to illuminate so vividly the unjust waste of years of a child’s life (that the novel is apparently largely autobiographical may explain much of the visceral realism of the scenes Innerhofer describes), while at the same time delivering a blistering reproach of an entire society’s participation in that injustice. One emerges from Beautiful Days wanting nothing less than to insure the reality of that ideal set forth by John Dewey, that what the wisest and best parent wants for his or her child is what the community should want for all of its children.

In the end, the caustic irony of Innerhofer’s title may be more complex than it at first seems. An incisive sarcasm is intended, to be sure, but at the same time the title also acknowledges the beauty occasioned by Holl’s rare moments of happiness and wonder, of hope and of humanity, in the context of his otherwise crushing, mean life. And it must surely celebrate, without irony, the path to liberated selfhood that a sudden opportunity provides to Holl, one that mimics, in its autobiographical element, Innerhofer’s own escape from an inexorable and laborious childhood to pursue his becoming a writer. Perhaps, too, the title may be a poignant and pointed acknowledgment of the writer’s essentially aestheticizing role in his alchemical transformation of difficult experiences into art, and a subtle reminder that behind the fiction, there’s a real world where such unconscionable behaviors take place. It’s shattering to learn that this author who lived as well as created such a defiant and resilient young character would, in 2002, submit to suicide. After reading Innerhofer’s indelible, devastating novel, one is hard put not to think of that as Austria’s failure - and as our own as well should we not aspire to make, of all of our days and for all in the wide scope of our care, something beautiful.

I read Beautiful Days as part of German Literature Month, kindly hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and by Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and am grateful to them both for this opportunity to become familiar with Franz Innerhofer’s amazing work for the first time.



[1] Someone with a far better knowledge of Austrian literature than I might be able to determine whether this “anti-fable” is an intentional refutation of the romantic, moralizing work of Innerhofer’s Austrian predecessor, Adalbert Stifter; in both Beautiful Days and in Bernhard’s Correction one finds disparaging allusions to Stifter, something I might not have noticed had I not coincidentally read his Rock Crystal some months prior to reading Correction).

9 comments:

  1. Sorry, this always happens with those Bernhard passages, I just start laughing uncontrollably. They are just the funniest things. There's a long chunk of Old Masters where he lays into Bruckner and then Stifter - or the other way? - that just kills me.

    So my point is, I will have to come back to read the rest of your piece once I have recovered. "a horrible lifelong punishment for existing" - ah ha ha ha ha!

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  2. What a thought-provoking post. I don't even know where to start. I'm not familiar with Innerhofer but will most certainly try to read it. I'm a mazed about his and Bernhard's very negative view of the home country, amazed but then I must also admit, that Austria always struck me as problematic. Also when you look at its political landscape, quite different, and openly right wing and populist, very unlike Germany. It's also refreshing, to move away from the endless idealization that the word Vienna seems to trigger in writers and readers alike and the flood of sugary historical novels. Fin de siècle Vienna is long gone and Austria can most certainly not be recuded to its capital.
    The abuse of children does remind me of something else. I reviewed Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig's short story collection (published by Pereine) and was puzzled by the choice of title. The German title is "Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht" which means "This didn't calm the children". Instead they chose the title of one of the stories "Maybe This Time". Meike from Pereine Press commented on my review saying, they couldn't keep the title as it was an Austrian book and would be immediately associated with child abuse. And there have indeed been shocking examples of this in recent years.
    It's deplorable that Innerhofer had to end his life but some wounds never heal properly, or so it seems.
    Thanks for this in-depth review.

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  3. Tom - I've read that passage aloud to friends just for the pleasure of watching their mouths drop open. But I think I have things somewhat backwards here, in that it's entirely possible that the "horrible lifelong punishment for existing, for the blameless act of having been born in the first place" may actually be a direct allusion to "Beautiful Days," which Bernhard surely knew at the time he wrote "Correction." For all its serious subject matter, Innerhofer's novel maintains a tone similar to Bernhard's, for which there must be some German term: an unusual mixture of scathing criticism with a kind of histrionic, almost congratulatory delight in the intelligence behind its delivery. So I think I was wrong to say that it's only Holl's resilience and Innerhofer's talent that makes this novel "bearable in the least." It's far more than bearable; it's compulsively readable in part thanks to this tone that borders on something akin to the high hilarity one experiences when one might just as easily laugh as cry, combined with a striking intellectual clarity. IS there a term for this?

    Caroline - I found it impossible to read "Beautiful Days" without thinking of the highly publicized incidents of abuse in Austria of recent years. It's interesting that the publisher of the Hotschnig book elected to avoid having the title run the risk of being associated with child abuse, particularly as this is precisely one of Innerhofer's charges - that the culture abjectly fails to turn its attention to the abuse and neglect of its children and would just rather not hear about it.

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  4. Another writer to check out (sigh...).

    So, what would be the best Bernhard books for a complete newcomer?

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  5. A great review, Scott! I've been researching online and it looks like Innerhofer was largely unread in English. Wikipedia doesn't even have an English page on him. And I didn't see any reviews in Shelfari, Goodreads, and LibraryThing. He seemed to share some aspects of Bernhard's childhood in the fact that they both didn't know their father, but this book certainly showed that Innerhofer's childhood was traumatic. Bernhard was at least sheltered by his grandparents. I'm not too surprised they repudiated Stifter. Stifter's subject and style must have been too pastoral for them. In 'Rock Crystal' alone, the focus on the natural environment and the ideal childhood seemed the very antithesis of Bernhard, who must have considered it a naive 19th century lesson for protracted 20th century history. I hope to be able to read 'Correction' sometime soon. And 'Beautiful Days' if ever I find a copy.

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  6. Tony - I'm probably the last person to ask, since I've only read "Correction" so far, but for what it's worth I thought it was fantastic. And I certainly plan to read more of Bernhard's work - and Innerhofer's, should more of it turn up in translation.

    Rise - I really didn't do my due diligence in researching Innerhofer; I only know what little biographical information I gleaned from a very cursory Internet search. But now I'm quite curious about his relation to and possible influence on Bernhard. Good luck finding a copy of "Beautiful Days" - it's one of a handful of out-of-print novels I'm ready to fight for to see back in print.

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  7. I went on the German amazon page to look up his book and the trail of related books, all by Austrian authors, and all circling to some extent around child abuse - Jelinek and Anna Mitgutsch among them - was a bit shocking.
    Meike wrote they didn't want the association because Hotschnig's book isn't about child abuse. That's fair, I think.

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  8. Thank you, I shall look out for Innerhofer. And Correction might be my next Bernhard, having just finished Old Masters, a brilliant book, but his protagonist is scathing about all things Austrian.

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  9. Newcomers: Bernhard is not all one thing, but Old Masters and Woodcutters are prime sources for the kind of misanthropic joy Seraillon put tat the top of the post.

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