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Three Novellas

Translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott
With a Foreword by Brian Evenson
Thomas Bernhard is "one of the masters of contemporary European fiction" (George Steiner); "one of the century’s most gifted writers" (New York Newsday); "a virtuoso of rancor and rage" (Bookforum). And although he is favorably compared with Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard still remains relatively unknown in America.

Uninitiated readers should consider Three Novellas a passport to the absurd, dark, and uncommonly comic world of Bernhard. Two of the three novellas here have never before been published in English, and all of them show an early preoccupation with the themes-illness and madness, isolation, tragic friendships-that would obsess Bernhard throughout his career. Amras, one of his earliest works, tells the story of two brothers, one epileptic, who have survived a family suicide pact and are now living in a ruined tower, struggling with madness, trying either to come fully back to life or finally to die. In Playing Watten, the narrator, a doctor who lost his practice due to morphine abuse, describes a visit paid him by a truck driver who wanted the doctor to return to his habit of playing a game of cards (watten) every Wednesday—a habit that the doctor had interrupted when one of the players killed himself. The last novella, Walking, records the conversations of the narrator and his friend Oehler while they walk, discussing anything that comes to mind but always circling back to their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone irrevocably mad. Perhaps the most overtly philosophical work in Bernhard’s highly philosophical oeuvre, Walking provides a penetrating meditation on the impossibility of truly thinking.

Three Novellas offers a superb introduction to the fiction of perhaps the greatest unsung hero of twentieth-century literature. Rarely have the words suffocating, intense, and obsessive been meant so positively.

184 pages | 6 x 8 | © 2003



“On picking up Three Novellas . . . the reader is instantly transported into the comic nightmare we recognize from Bernhard’s longer novels and theater: It is Bernhard’s postwar Austria, menacing, provincial, suffocating, where the beauty of the Alpine setting serves as a mask of hypocrisy concealing guilt and decay. . . . What is particularly exciting in the three short pieces included in this new collection is the chance to see a younger Bernhard working on a concise scale with motifs and methods he will expand into the longer works considered his masterpieces. At the same time, the works here give us a glimpse of roads not taken, experiments with pathos and plot that the writer let fall away as he refined his vision and technique.”

Chicago Tribune

“‘Why do we still have to live,’ a survivor of a family suicide pact asks in the first of these novellas, all of which revolve around madness or suicide. The Austrian master Bernhard, whose thirty-year career was devoted to the proposition that to be born is a tragedy and that to live is a punishment nobody deserves to suffer, never managed to come up with a satisfactory answer. These novellas are early works, but the point of view that found devastating expression in masterpieces like Concrete and Yes is already apparent. What is extraordinary about Bernhard is that his relentless pessimism never seems open to ridicule; his world is so powerfully imagined that it can seem to surround you like little else in literature.”

New Yorker

Amras, Playing Watten, and Walking . . . reveal that the Austrian had a penchant for morbidity and isolation from the start. . . . The books’ unselfconscious absurdities are hilarious, but their near disregard for the reader also generates a peculiar intimacy: It’s as if you’re experiencing the thoughts firsthand, getting swept up in the ruminations as they approach a fever pitch. . . . It’s fascinating to watch the author slowly cordon off a space where characters can exist entirely on their own terms, no matter how tortured they claim to be by the world around them. ”

Village Voice

“Reading Thomas Bernhard’s Three Novellas was like revisiting my teenage obsession with gothic music and The Metamorphosis and realizing that maybe it wasn’t so corny after all. The subject matter in the three short works in this collection ranges from suicide and madness, to suicide and addiction, and back to madness (without the suicide), but does so deftly and stylishly, giving audiences unfamiliar with Bernhard’s longer works a good introduction to this challenging Austrian writer without feeling too goth. . . . Bernhard is one of a kind. More audiences should familiarize themselves with his skillful, challenging writing. . . . So dust off your Bauhaus records and throw one on the turntable, enjoying them again as the soundtrack to Bernhard’s bleak, beautiful landscape.”


“In Amras, the first of the three novellas, Bernhard has not yet found his form. But in Playing Watten and in Walking, we see burgeoning signs of one of the most distinct literary voices of the twentieth century. . . . Playing Watten and in Walking are small treasures, and in its totality, Three Novellas . . . is an important addition to Bernhardt’s translated oeuvre.”

Rain Taxi

“Bernhard’s writing is not easy, but the payoff is in witnessing a world so thoroughly mad, so exactingly dark that it is hilarious—hilarious not because Bernhard is ridiculous, or unbelievable, but because he succeeds in making his stories totally believable and life so ridiculous.”

Portland Mercury

“Embedded in Bernhard’s striking achievement as a writer lies an interesting, perhaps troubling, question. Why should such a gloomy, ill-tempered, unreasonable, and relentlessly pessimistic vision of life be so exhilarating to read? . . . Entering Bernhard’s world means suspending the tyranny of good taste, conventional wishes, and the false comforts of the consumerist lifestyle. It means entering a realm of thoughtful perversity. . . . Bernhard’s novellas also invite us to contemplate the place of beauty in the world. Like freedom and fulfillment, it is conspicuous in its absence, or seeming absence, in Bernhard’s vision of life since the end of World War II. . . . Bernhard’s prose exhilarates because we thrill to the beauty of his thorny, tough way of invoking what really matters in life. And this is not despite his fiction’s gloomy pessimism but because of it. The collision between style and content strikes sparks bright enough to illuminate a good deal.”

World and I

“For some readers, Bernhard’s reported speech technique may not overcome an inculcated preference for conventional representations of dialogue. Having characters dwell obsessively on fine points might seem nothing short of maddening, in which case reading Bernhard will be like death by pushpin. But for those who can bear the hypnotic sentences and who will engage the grim mind behind them, Three Novellas, particularly ‘Walking,’ will be refreshing, and a stimulus to thinking about other ways to conceive of fiction.”

Books in Canada

“In whatever story, the nameless narrator is always immersed in abstract thinking that becomes impossible because of imminent death or the collapse of identity under the weight of the oppressive point of view. Bernhard’s ranting allows the reader no space to breathe, building up more and more tension in both the reader and the narrator. At the same time, the prose can almost intoxicate with its musical rhythms. It is Bernhard’s sense of humor that makes these books accessible to most readers, especially the way her refuses ever to commit to any position, while firmly grounding his characters in absurdity that keeps the reader off-guard and giddy.”

Magill’s Literary Annual 2004

“A welcome addition to the translated oeuvre of one of this century’s most important and celebrated (outside the United States) writers.”

Review of Contemporary Fiction

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Brian Evenson

translated by Peter Jansen

Playing Watten
translated by Kenneth J. Northcott

translated by Kenneth J. Northcott

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