Thomas Bernhard would be consigned to anonymity were he writing in America. His work--numbering 45 works of poetry, novels, and plays--delivers biting, bitter, unflinchingly critical commentary on the sociopolitical world of post-World War II Austria. (Bernhard died in 1989. The nation's still-pervasive Nazism, proved by the election of Kurt Waldheim, was one of his pet horrors.) On the Mountain, Bernhard's last work to be prepared for publication, is actually his earliest prose piece, never before published. It was completed in 1959.
A genre unto itself, On the Mountain can be most closely compared in form and tone with the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Its form--one breathless, run-on sentence--reflects the dilemma of the speaker, a young man with a fatal lung disease, compelled to "get it all out" with his last breath. On the Mountain is a "process;" the young narrator, a court reporter, maniacally jots down his observations, encounters, characters, and ideas. In the course of these jottings, the power of language is revealed, a discovery that carries the writer along boldly, with no time for paragraphs or punctuation. His process becomes "synonymous with his breathing: it is his RESCUE ATTEMPT, trying to save his life, even if it is NONSENSE to keep struggling against the inevitable." And what, in a Bernhard narrative, offers the greatest perspective? Death. Death awareness drenches all Bernhard narratives, as it did his short life (he died at the age of 58).
Readers new to Bernhard's work will want to wade out into his dark and chilly sea carefully and might first acquaint themselves with his life and a chronological excursion through his work. Bernhard fans will want to own their own copy of On the Mountain for its unique place in the canon and (of equal importance) for Sophie Wilkins's energetically written, terrifically informative afterword that provides a context for the book's themes as well as its raison d'Ítre. We read the greats of other cultures to crack a window onto the larger world, yes, but also to have reflected back those voices, forms, and styles that remain closed to our native writers.