Home > 1980, 20th Century, Austrian Literature, Bernhard Thomas, Novella > Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – beautiful grumpy rant

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – beautiful grumpy rant

November 14, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982) French title: Béton. Translated from the German by Gilberte Lambrichs.

Challenge of the day: write something intelligible about Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. To tell a long story short, it’s a beautiful grumpy rant.

Rudolf is ageing and ill. He has sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks his lungs and prevents him from exercising. He’s now a recluse in his property, in the village of Peiskam. He doesn’t see anyone but his housekeeper Frau Kienesberger and his hated sister Elisabeth.

When the novella opens, his sister has just left Peiskam after she arrived announced and overstayed her welcome. Rudolf is relieved that she’s gone and that he’s now be able to work on his biography of Mendelsohn Bartholdy.

Rudolf is a musicologist and has been gathering material to write this for ten years. But Rudolf is unable to start writing because he wants the conditions to be perfect and perfection is not part of this world. So…

He’s angry with himself and with the world. He blames his sister’s presence that lingers in the house. He paces through the house grumbling about everything. He’s depressed and undecided. He’s restless as he goes round in circles in his house and in his head. He needs a way out.

The result is a 158 pages long verbal diarrhea. He rants about everything. His country and its useless politicians, the Austrian people, Vienna, the Catholic Church, the press and its incompetent and complacent journalists. His sister and her business sense, her friends and the Viennese high society she belongs to. Everyone is on the same boat of mediocrity and corruption.

As his flow of consciousness fills the pages, we discover that this unreliable narrator can’t help being honest with himself. He acknowledges that he abhors his country but used to love living in Vienna. He misses the city life that his health doesn’t allow him to live any longer.

He knows his sister loves him and she came because she cares for him. Her tough love is what he needed to get out of his funk and start thinking about travelling to Majorca and feel better. She came after he asked her to, not as an imposition. She knows how to steer him out his head, out of his house and towards a better place. Majorca it will be.

Concrete is a dense text with no paragraph, no chapters, no dialogue. We’re plugged to Rudolf’s thought process. It could be annoying but it’s not. It’s surprisingly easy to read. I couldn’t help liking the cantankerous old coot in the end because at some point, he dropped all pretenses and owned up to his flaws and inconsistencies.

Je me suis persuadé que je n’avais besoin de personne, je m’en persuade aujourd’hui. Je n’avais besoin de personne, donc je n’avais personne. Mais nous avons naturellement besoin de quelqu’un, sinon nous devenons inéluctablement tel que je suis devenu : pénible, insupportable, malade, impossible au sens le plus fort du terme.I persuaded myself that I didn’t need anyone and I’m still persuading myself so. I didn’t need anyone, therefore I had no one. But by nature, we all need someone, otherwise we inevitably become as I became: tiresome, insufferable, sick, impossible at the strongest meaning of it. My translation from the French.

His honesty warmed me to him. For example, he calls his housekeeper die Kienesberger, not Frau Kienesberger. He doesn’t want to need her but he does. She’s his only link to the outside world.

This brings me to the French translation. Die Kienesberger is translated as la Kienesberger even if we don’t use articles before proper nouns in French, except in Alsace-Moselle sometimes. I’ve seen in the English excerpt of the book that she has become Frau Kienesberger in the English translation.

My German is very poor but I remember enough to notice the unusual amount of Naturellement in sentences. We’d rather say évidemment, but I’ve obseved that in translations from the German, évidemment becomes naturellement, to mirror the German natürlich, I suppose. My guess is that the French translation keeps as close as possible to the German verbal flow of Rudolf’s rant.

And his rant is funny, in spite of him. He’s so unreasonable that he made me chuckle and shake my head in disbelief like you do when a child throws a tantrum.

I really recommend Concrete to other readers, you’ll become amused riders of Rudolf’s storm in a glass of water.

This is my contribution to German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy and to Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.

More Thomas Bernhard at Book Around the Corner : the play Elisabeth II. Another funny rant.

  1. November 14, 2021 at 11:58 am

    The use of the definite article in front of a name is very common in oral German and indicates familiarity but not family. It’s a little bit like people in the north of England saying ‘our Peter’ when it’s a close friend or family. In German it doesn’t necessarily convey affection, but certainly is less formal than Frau K.

    Like

    • November 14, 2021 at 12:10 pm

      It’s more affectionate than I thought. Usually, the article isn’t maintained in the French translation.

      Like

  2. November 14, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    I have a disease that prevents me exercising – laziness. At least this guy has an excuse. Otherwise he sounds too like me for comfort. Still, I’ll see if I can get a copy from the bookshop. It sounds like a book to be read rather than listened to (It was re-released in English in 2012 by Faber).

    Like

    • November 14, 2021 at 9:40 pm

      I suppose you do enough exercise with loading your truck. It beats sitting behind a desk.

      I think you’d like it, really and yes, it’s better to read it than to listen to it. One moment of distraction and you lose the thread of the rant.

      Like

  3. Tony
    November 14, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    A lovely little book, and what makes it so good is the way his arrogance and attitude become almost forgiveable as we learn more about why he’s become this way…

    Like

    • November 14, 2021 at 9:41 pm

      Exactly. Krank and cranky, that’s him!

      Rudolf and Thomas Bernhard have a lot in common, no? He died of this disease, I believe.

      Like

      • Tony
        November 15, 2021 at 2:00 pm

        I’m not sure, but there’s certainly a lot of Bernhard in many of his protagonists…

        Like

        • November 15, 2021 at 9:47 pm

          It seems so. Have you seen one of his plays?

          Like

          • Tony
            November 17, 2021 at 12:59 pm

            No, I’ve read ‘Heldenplatz’, but I’ve never seen anything.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. November 14, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    I’m not sure I’ve read this but I guess not as it just doesn’t ring a bell.
    To translate Die Kienesberger as Frau Kienrsberger is definitely wrong. I would however not say it’s affectionate. It shows rather lack of respect and, if anything, familiarity with the interlocutor.

    Like

    • November 14, 2021 at 9:43 pm

      I think you’d remember it if you had.

      Thanks for the explanation about “Die Kienersberger”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 15, 2021 at 8:17 am

        Wouldn’t it be better translated as La mère Kienersberger in French.

        Like

        • November 15, 2021 at 9:45 pm

          Maybe. I can’t say because I come from the region where we la/le before names, so the translation sounded natural to me.

          Liked by 1 person

          • November 16, 2021 at 8:03 am

            I heard the other version more but maybe from much older people.

            Like

            • November 16, 2021 at 11:16 pm

              The “la/le” version is a regionalism, that’s why.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. November 14, 2021 at 10:57 pm

    I really liked this one. It’s the best of the Bernhards I’ve read to date.

    Like

    • November 14, 2021 at 11:11 pm

      Why am I not suprised that you liked this one? 🙂 The rant is somptuous as is the slow discovery of the real man behind all the grumbling.

      Like

  6. November 15, 2021 at 12:24 am

    It would be a relief if some old coots in the real world these days had this much self-awareness and honesty…

    Like

    • November 15, 2021 at 9:48 pm

      That’s for sure. 🙂

      Like

  7. November 15, 2021 at 8:05 am

    This is the only Bernhard I’ve read so far, but I really liked it.

    Like

    • November 15, 2021 at 9:49 pm

      It’s excellent. It’s a bit challenging when you browse through the pages and don’t see any paragraphs, chapters or dialogues but it’s easy to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. November 15, 2021 at 12:09 pm

    I like the sound of this one Emma, I’ve never read Bernhard but always wanted to and this sound like a good place to start.

    Like

    • November 15, 2021 at 9:59 pm

      It’s a good place to start, I suppose. I’ve only seen his plays Elizabeth II and Histrionics (Der Theatermacher) and they were in the same vein and very good.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. November 16, 2021 at 4:49 am

    Your translated passage sounds exactly like the voice in the Bernhard novels I have read – well done!

    Like

    • November 16, 2021 at 6:57 am

      Thanks. Which ones have you read?

      Like

  10. November 16, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    This is an excellent essay; it reminds me of why I enjoyed Concrete so very much. As you say, it looks like it will be a dense, difficult text, but it was such a pleasure to read, and so damned funny despite the narrator. I have Woodcutters on the shelf, but for some reason I’m saving it, as for a special occasion. I have no idea what that occasion would be. I could be reading it right now.

    I should read Old Masters, I guess, since I’ve been to the Titian room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

    Like

    • November 16, 2021 at 11:18 pm

      Thank you and welcome to Book Around the Corner. And yes, it was funny in spite of itself.

      I’ll have to look at the Woodcutters, Tom recommends it too.

      Like

  11. November 16, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    Old Masters and Woodcutters are much like the book you describe. The latter, in French, is titled Des arbres à abattre : Une irritation, which is amusing. A great thing about Old Masters is that it takes place in the Titian room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, so you can recreate the novel, live and in person, or come up with your own rant.

    I have also read Gargoyles (Perturbation in French), but it is much earlier and quite different.

    I need to try some of Bernhard’s plays sometime. They are rare, or possibly nonexistent, in American theaters.

    Like

    • November 16, 2021 at 11:19 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll look them up.

      America is missing out on theatre, it’s such a pleasure to see plays instead of reading them. (especially rant plays like Bernhard’s)

      Like

  12. November 16, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    It’s the Tintoretto room! I always get this wrong. Every time it comes up, I get it wrong.

    Like

    • November 16, 2021 at 9:59 pm

      I remember rounding a corner to come upon “Susanna and the Elders,” a gigantic painting, and recognizing it from books. Like unexpectedly meeting a friend far from home. I had a similar experience with Titian’s “Young Man with a Glove” in the Louvre, on the wall behind the “Mona Lisa”. My wife in fact said something like, “Look: it’s your friend with the gloves!”

      Travel, so broadening.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. November 20, 2021 at 12:47 am

    Thanks for your fantastic review. I thought I had rad something by him, but apparently not, so just added it to my TBR.
    Even though the image of “verbal diarrhea” doesn’t seem too attractive, I’m curious and think I may enjoy his style!
    Au fait, dans mon petit village champenois (250 habitants dans les années 70), on utilisait LA devant un nom de famille pour parler d’une femme qu’on n’aimait pas, pour une raison ou une autre. Et j’ai souvent entendu “naturellement” dans le sens d’évidemment. En fait, c’était un mot préféré de mes vieilles tantes (village voisin, encore plus petit).

    Here is my post, a famous classic translated from the Spanish: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/11/16/book-review-the-invention-of-morel/

    Like

    • November 20, 2021 at 8:26 am

      Let me know what you think of it when you’ve read it

      L’utilisation de le/la devant un nom de famille pour montrer qu’on parle de quelqu’un qu’on n’aime pas, je connais aussi et c’est assez “France entière” et pas uniquement “Alsace-Moselle”.
      Chez moi, on utilise le/la devant un prénom, sans animosité aucune, c’est juste un régionalisme. Cela se perd maintenant, je crois, mais c’était très fréquent quand j’étais enfant et adolescente.

      Like

  1. November 14, 2021 at 6:26 pm
  2. November 15, 2021 at 11:06 am

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