Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

First published in 1967, Gargoyles (Verstörung) is Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard’s second novel.  Even in his earliest novels, he had already begun to use the metaphors of physical and mental illness to explore the decay of his homeland. Gargoyles, a dark, broken bildungsroman, was the first of Bernhard’s novels to be translated and the first to gain him national recognition. Set in the haunting fairy-tale landscape of rural Austria, the narrator is a young man home from university who follows his father, a country doctor, on his rounds through the area surrounding a remote mountain gorge. Each patient they visit suffers from a different nightmarish ailment by which the father means to expose the boy—an idealistic student of science and rationality—to the ubiquity of sickness, brutality, and death. “It would be wrong to refuse to face the fact,” his father cautions him, “that everything is fundamentally sick and sad.” This unsentimental education in Bernhardian values culminates with a visit to Hochgobernitz castle and its owner, the mad Prince Saurau.  There follows a hundred-page monologue by the prince about his own descent into madness and his fraught relationship with his own son, who is studying abroad. Bernhard shares with Kafka and Beckett the ability to extract more than utter gloom from his haunting landscape. While the external surface of life is unquestionably grim, he somehow suggests more – the mystic element in experience that calls for symbolic interpretation; the inner significance of states that are akin to surrealistic dream-worlds; man’s yearning for health, compassion, sanity.  The book is a singular, surreal study of the nature of humanity.

Published by The University of Chicago Press in 1986 and translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston.  Originally published as Verstorung in 1967.

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