PEN World Voices — Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

by Bill Marx

Who would have guessed that a writer who proudly earned the reputation as the Oscar the Grouch of contemporary literature would have so many loving fans? But there were few empty seats two nights ago at New York’s Austrian Cultural Forum, which hosted a PEN panel, proudly entitled “The Art of Failure,” on the Austrian novelist, poet, playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), a man who turned his ferocious hatred of his native Austria and obsession with misery and failure into literature.

Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard

Perhaps it says something reassuring or alarming (take your pick) about American culture at the moment that Bernhard has a hardy fan base — nowadays nothing succeeds like not succeeding. His is a gleefully sardonic vision of falling short that some of the other PEN panels might have kept usefully in mind: at a number of the events I attended the talk reflected smooth self-satisfaction rather than the hard-earned sense of failure that writers feel when confronted with the intractable collision of literature and political issues.

Of course, Bernhard was anything but a failure. Though his books and plays spit venom on the xenophobic complacency of post-war Austria, his homeland showered him with rewards while his plays were produced in his country’s major theaters. He was also admired by writers and critics around the world, even those who had little patience with pessimists. Italo Calvino, for example, called Bernhard “the greatest writer in the world.”

The translations of most of his novels, from “Concrete” and “Correction” to “Old Masters,” are in print. The plays are much harder to find in translation and they have yet to find favor in American theaters — perhaps bile is easier to take on the page than on the stage. Still, the total neglect of Bernhard says much about the lack of curiosity, if not the cowardice, of our theater companies.

The panel, which included novelist Dale Peck, Bernhard scholar Fatima Naqvi, novelist and journalist Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at The New York Public Library, focused on how Bernhard turns a savage exploration of the inevitable failure to reach the ideal into compelling, even hypnotic, narratives.

Moya was particularly emotional about the voodoo spell cast by Bernhard, whom he likened to a rattle snake. He not only fell for Bernhard when he began to read him — Moya became possessed by the writer. Moya’s first novel, “Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador,” revolves around a character who thinks he is Bernhard, a fixation that turns him into a fire-breathing iconoclast who attacks the powers-that-be in San Salvador. The novel’s criticism of San Salvador was so acidic Moya was thrown out of the country when it was published.

(Moya’s recently translated novel, “Senselessness,” is coming out this month from New Directions. I heard the translator read from the book at a PEN event and it sounded like an intriguingly turbulent look at death squads in Latin America.)

“That is what I find so amazing about Bernhard,” Moya said with amazement, “that he could write what he did about Austria and nobody tried to kill him or toss him out of the country.” Other panelists admired Bernhard’s dark sense of humor – his talkative grumps know that they are impossible people, that they take genuine criticism of the perversities, violence, and ignorance of those around them to absurd extremes.

Last night’s PEN gathering of literary heavyweights Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa provided a textbook example of how success scuttles discussion. The event was billed as “The Three Musketeers Reunited,” but there were no sharp blades on display, only the wet noodles of self-regard.

The authors read well enough from their works, particularly Llosa, who nimbly batted out a selection from “The Bad Girl,” his latest novel in translation. But the conversation among the bigwigs of letters — moderated by an intrusive Leonard Lopate — quickly turned into a generous serving of safe and smug once Lopate cut off a promisingly feisty exchange about Dumas and the paradoxical power of good-bad writers.

Perhaps it is bad manners for celebrity writers to argue in front of an adoring public, but any literary discussion worth listening to will be fueled by a healthy failure to come to a consensus.

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