The Lime Works by Thomas Bernhard
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) was one of the twentieth century’s great prose stylists.
He belongs to the trinity of novelists who died early, the other two being W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolano. All three are experiencing a popular revival coupled with attention from academic and critical circles.
To understand Bernhard’s peculiar brand of fiction one has to examine his country of origin. Austria’s intellectual and literary community minted numerous famous names in the 19th and 20th centuries. An incomplete list would include journalist-critic Karl Kraus, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, psychologist Sigmund Freud, Nobel Laureate author Elfriede Jelinek, and the demagogue Adolf Hitler. Like Kraus and Jelinek, Bernhard’s writing has black humor and a scorching criticism of the foibles and failings of Austrian culture. “Prussia: Freedom of movement, with a muzzle. Austria: Solitary confinement, with permission to scream.” He also wrote, “You have to read all writers twice. The good ones you remember, the bad ones you dismember.”
Translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins and originally published in 1970 as Das Kalkwerk, the novel centers around the murder of Mrs. Konrad by her husband. Her murder took place in the lime works, Mr. Konrad shooting his disabled wife in her wheelchair with a Mannlicher rifle. An insurance investigator attempts to find out why Mr. Konrad murdered his wife, learning more and more about his eccentricities, obsessions and experiments. The unnamed insurance investigator accumulates these facts from conversations with Wieser and Fro, owners of two properties in the town of Sicking, where the Konrads lived. The gossip and hearsay recalls William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” in which the town acts as the narrator, recounting the life of the resident elderly eccentric named Emily.
In addition to the unique perspective, the novel eventually unfolds in one long paragraph. The paragraph starts on page 11 and keeps going until the book ends on page 241. This is not your standard murder mystery or police procedural. The murder becomes a set-up for Konrad’s opinions on government functionaries, patriotism, gender relations, private property, and many other topics. During this long, labyrinthine journey, we discover Konrad had labored on experiments with sound. He had prepared to write down the findings of his experiments in a work entitled The Sense of Hearing. The work never reaches fruition. Amidst the tedious experiments, in which he uses his wife, much to her displeasure, he tries to find the optimal conditions to begin writing his book. Anyone who has had a severe case of writer’s block will cringe at Bernhard’s merciless depiction of artistic impotence. While he is trying to find the perfect conditions for writing, he gets interrupted by his wife or by visitors. It plays like a version of Fawlty Towers or The Honeymooners, two programs in which gender relations play like mortal combat. Basil just wants to relax, Ralph Kramden just wants one get-rich scheme to work, and Konrad wants to write his blasted book.
The novel’s tone reflects the mounting frustration, impotence and rage that eventually consume Konrad’s mind. He refuses to believe his decades of work have been for nothing. Reaching the point where the work will never get written down becomes the tragedy of Konrad’s life. Following the murder, he will be incarcerated in either a jail or a mental institution. He may have time or better conditions, but the harsh reality is he will never write down his work. The bleakness and hopeless situation he faces reminds us of other writers like Samuel Beckett and Ferdinand Celine. Like them, he leavens the horrific and hopeless situation of Konrad with dashes of black humor.
The Lime Works represents an early work by a renowned literary stylist. To read it is to experience a unique exploration of the human condition. Pushed on by the question, “Why did Konrad murder his wife?” Bernhard leads the reader down a labyrinthine and darkly humorous investigation of the human condition.