Mary Beth Writes

 2/7/2024

Last week I finished reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard. (I discovered this book via Librarian of Burgos Instagram because I am her fangirl now.)

If you like to read a book that has a recognizable plot of sympathetic characters moving forward through a problem to a solution– you will likely not enjoy this novel. Heck, I’m not sure if I ‘enjoyed’ it.

Woodcutters was published in 1984. It’s the fictional musings of a bitchy writer in his 50’s, who lived in Vienna with other artists and artist-wannabes in his twenties back in the 1950’s. Towards the end of his young adult years he moved to London where he lived until recently. He’s currently visiting his old stomping grounds in Vienna. He learns a former friend has just died by suicide and he goes to her funeral. He meets others from his old circle and is invited to an artistic dinner at the home of the richest couple. The whole novel is his observations and memories as he sits in a wing chair and watches the party. After several hours the tardy guest of honor, a self-important actor, arrives at which point the party moves to the elegant dining room. The actor talks a lot about his current role in the Ibsen play The Wild Duck. (We just watched the play the other night. It is about how truth telling can destroy lives).

This novel is a ‘roman a clef’ and yeah, I had to look that up. It’s a novel based directly on the life of real humans. Author Bernhard only slightly changes the names of people he actually knew at a dinner party he actually went to. Those people brought a lawsuit against Bernhard and Austrian courts directed the book be pulled from bookstores. A few years later no one seemed to mind anymore and that’s why it exists now.

Here was a reality that definitely caught my attention. The story is about the rather paltry lives created by those artistic young adults of 1950’s Vienna. Those people would have been children in the 1940s so they lived their childhoods under WWII Nazism. This is never mentioned in the book and I suspect the omission is intentional. How coddled were their lives? Were they the children of adults who were rich and powerful enough to collaborate and get by? Can art flourish where artists don’t experience or reflect on the political reality around them? Hmmm?

Bernhard often mentions the elegant beauty of the house in which the artistic dinner happens. What happens to people who start their adult lives within families of comfort and power, who utilize art to preserve their access to comfort and power?

Guests arrive late evening and most don’t leave until near dawn the next day. The narrator is sometimes vicious in his opinions about his old comrades. After a while, we agree with him. His old fellow artists used their privilege and connections to get grants and incomes. Others became toadies of the people with money. The writer explains that he was one of those; he spent several years hanging around the couple who had inherited property, including a country estate. Finally he left to pursue his adult writing life in Britain. The ones who stayed, he says, spent more energy making their lives secure than they did making art. Many lived lies. Many became alcoholics.

PS: There are neither chapters nor paragraphs in the book. It begins as you sit down next to the bitchy guy and you stay next to him till page 181. The narrator portrays an event that was tedious. At the same time, he shows us the “cultured people” who have so much to do with what art will rise to the top in a society. If critics and sponsors define what art we get to see and experience, who are those people?

And so the novel becomes interesting.

Takeaways.

In our 20’s Len and I knew some people pursuing art and music. Nobody we knew well “made it big.” (Len once met Dennis Franz aka Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blues at a party.)

So what was that all about. Were we Harry Chapin failures?

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
And I took off to find the sky (Taxi)

It doesn’t feel that way. People who spend time and energy acquiring skills for seeing, hearing, and creating have skills for living richer lives. Some go on to play Shakespeare on stage. Some get jobs and raise families and mutter “Exit, pursued by a bear” when the grandkids leave.

Also when real tragedy and loss come around, the person has some language and images for what’s gone. The art we create and the art we visit become a channel through which grief can flow.

What would happen if we invited a dozen “failed” artists to dinner? The people who wrote poetry in college but manage the front end of a grocery store now. The graffiti artist from the old neighborhood who is a city councilman. The guy who wove caftans back then and sells insurance now. The woman who painted and painted and painted and now she runs a nursery school. The person who made gigantic paper mâché statues who teaches art to disabled vets.

Set those “failures” together at a dining table. Invite me. I’ll write the Roman a’ clef.

Lines I noted while reading:

“Finding the others distasteful I could not help but find myself distasteful.”

“They’ve always gone in for show because they lack any capacity for reality.”

When thinking about the woman who died by suicide. “Dreams and fairy stories were the real stuff of her life.”

Towards the end of the novel, the actor says of his life in the theater, “The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter – that has always been my ideal.”

 

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I have always had trouble reading meaningful novels as the symbolic and stylistic prose escapes me. I married Dian, a relatively successful artist selling her work at art fairs, and her first husband, Geroge, who was always employed as an artist; they could support themselves. One interesting thing I enjoyed about being married to Dian was that I met many people who were mediocre artists who had a trust fund or married money. By and large, they were neither interested nor insightful about their art. The parallel to my life was academics who got tenure, stopped thinking and writing, just waiting to retire, and complaining about the current unmotivated students.
Mary Beth's picture

Yeah, I've noticed also that there is a strong link between many artists and the money behind them in their families. Len said he meant to bankroll me but ... Then we both laugh. Thanks for a good perspective on all this.

Interesting. Not that I’m gonna read it but your description makes me almost want to.
Mary Beth's picture

I'm laughing.

An artist and small art gallery owner recently told me that art is inextricably linked to capitalism. I suspect most artists need to have patrons with enough money to survive. Michelangelo had rich benefactors in the Medici's and popes. Diego Rivera had the government of Mexico and wealthy for his murals in Detroit, New York, and San Francisco. Some of the top impressionists came from affluent French families that enabled them to experiment creatively and still live comfortable lives until their art found buyers. Van Gogh was fully funded for his entire creative life by his upper-middle class brother, who despited being an art dealer, couldn't find buyers for his paintings. How do you become a successful artist - creating art that the pubic wants and will pay for - to make enough money to live off your creative abilities? Failed artists? Perhaps. But at least they aspired and tried until they have to find a Plan B. I see this a thwarted, yes, but do not see this as failure.
Mary Beth's picture

When I was writing this (it took me a week and a lot of good conversations with Len) I tried to fit it into my ongoing wonder of what's going on in this universe, anyway? It seems so clear that if ANYTHING is going on besides ricocheting molecules, then the thing that the universe is about has to do with the waves and energy of love and creativity and wonder. And that's what we do when we create, whatever our art is (such as working in a church office in San Salvador during a war) that moves upwards and outwards and travels far and affects the stars that will affect us. And everything we do that limits relationships and creativity eventually becomes, a kaput path that bumps against the edge of our atmosphere and falls back down as smog. I dunno, but we have created a world that prizes money and kept it going on the backs of people who don't have enough to eat and live. Good thing this answer is four days out from my post, it's kind of goofy, though it is what I wonder.

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