The Lime Works
by Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) followed a
weaving, unpredictable path toward his
eventual career as novelist and playwright,
almost as if he were trying to shake the tail
of those representatives of the state that he
so enjoyed thwarting.  An illegitimate child
who spent most of his early years with
his grandparents,
or in foster homes
and institutional set-
tings, Bernhard was
sickly, apprehensive,
perhaps even suicidal.
He apprenticed with
a grocer at age sixteen,
but pleurisy and tuber-
culosis led to a two-
year stay in a sanatorium in Grafenhof,
akin to the Berghof in Mann’s
The Magic
.  After his release, he studied
acting, and also cultivated his talent for
singing—yet his lung condition was an
impediment to a music career.   In his late
twenties, he began working as a journalist,
and eventually applied his writing skills to
books and plays.  His books reflect these
formative experience, constantly revealing

a sense of abandonment and isolation,
but fortified by tirades against society
and the state, usually in the form of
monologues by angry protagonists. And

if anyone had any doubts about his
personal attitudes toward society and
state, they need merely consult his will,
which insisted that his plays must never be
staged in Austria, where he lived virtually

all of his life, nor his novels published
there.  “Humanity,” he once explained, “has
only ever existed in stupid notions, there’s
no helping it.”
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Essay by Ted Gioia

Look to other authors to give us stream-of-
consciousness. In
The Lime Works, novelist
Thomas Bernhard instead relies on stream-of-
hearsay.  This tale of a failed  
author who murders his wife
is presented in an indirect,
digressive narrative built
solely from second- or third-
or even fourth-hand accounts.  
And the reader will ultimately
sit as judge and jury, weighing
the various testimonies on a
scale not of justice—which may
be too much to hope for in this
case—but merely coherence and
plausibility, if even these lesser
qualities can be found.   

For, at the very start, we are told that Konrad has been
apprehended after he shot his wife with two bullets in
the back of the head from a Mannlicher carbine. Or was
it two bullets in the temple, as some say?  Or a single shot,
as others contend.  Some stragglers insist that he
actually killed his wife with an axe, and only fired the
gun after she was already dead.  Perhaps only Konrad
knows for sure, if in fact he is the murderer.  

Related Article
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard  reviewed by Ted Gioia

The time of the murder, though, was definitely 3 a.m.  
Except for those that insist it took place at 4 a.m. Who
are contradicted, in turn, by those who say it happened at
5 in the morning. And the motive?   Knowledgeable folks
in the community will tell you that Konrad was simply fed
up with his wife, whose constant interruptions were
preventing him from finishing his long-planned book on
the auditory sense.   But others will say that she asked him
to shoot her, to end a life that had grown burdensome
and meaningless. Bernhard continues:

At the Inglenook they say that Konrad had been planning
the murder for a long time, while at the Stiegler they call it
a sudden, unpremeditated, so-called impulse killing, but what
if it is a case of a common, premeditated murder, an opinion
also represented at the Lanner, or as they say at The
Inglenook, the act of a madman, while at Laska’s there’s
some speculation that Konrad had no intention at all of
shooting his wife, that he had merely tried to clean the gun…

In his 1950 film Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa presented a
similar web of conflicting testimonies, in which different
witnesses offered contradictory accounts of the same
crime, their inability to agree calling into question both
specific factual details as well as larger issues of innocence
and guilt.  The phenomenon is familiar also to those
who investigate crimes for a living—and has even been
given a name: "the
Rashomon Effect."

In many ways, Bernhard’s
The Lime Works stands as a
novel-length exercise in the
Rashomon effect. Every detail
in the book is extracted from often inconsistent accounts
of the people in the community who knew the alleged
murderer and his victim. Readers can try to force these
testimonies into a single coherent plot and timeline,
reconciling contradictory elements as best they can,  
but the result is an imaginative reconstruction, where
nothing is certain or, to borrow a legal phrase, "beyond
a reasonable doubt." Between testimony and truth,
however defined, a large, unbridgeable abyss remains.  

Bernhard employs a number of unusual techniques to
contribute to the sense of insubstantiality and provisionality
that pervade the crime story presented here. The narrator
is a mysterious party, without name or known history.
On those rare moments when he lets drop a personal
detail, it usually relates to his business of selling insurance
policies—a rare touch of humor from an author usually
more at home with diatribes than comedy. Beyond this,
and an occasional indication that our narrator personally
knows some of the other characters in the book, nothing
more is disclosed.  By interposing this "black box" of
a character between the story and the reader, Bernhard
introduces an extra layer of noise.  The second-hand
testimonies have now become third-hand, the third-
hand accounts are similarly turned into fourth-hand ones,
and so on.   The novel thus collapses into a variant on
the age-old party game of Telephone—or, as it is also
known, Grapevine or Chinese Whispers—in which a
phrase is passed
sotto voce from person to person, until
the final party states the last message to the group as a
whole…invariably revealing something ridiculously
different from the initial communication.  

Still other familiar techniques of this author add to
the recondite flavor of
The Lime Works.  Bernhard
presents the entire novel in the form of a single,
unbroken paragraph.   Run-on sentences are the norm
here—at one point a single sentence stretches over
nine pages.   This simple but peculiar structural device
presents the illusion that an irresistible connectivity
holds together all the testimonies so presented.  After
all, what is a paragraph if not a group of sentences that
cohere in offering a unified statement? So a book
presented in one long paragraph is, by its very nature,
asking the reader to swallow everything whole. Yet
the frequent contradictions, backtracking, unresolved
questions, lapses in logic and other holes in the narrative
show that any holistic interpretation of this story is at
best wishful thinking or at worst a deliberate
misinterpretation of what Bernhard has put on display.
If this book had a motto, it would be the opposite of
E.M. Forster’s famous dictum “Only connect.”  In
Lime Works
, the disconnections eventually prevail.   

As the novel progresses, the murder itself becomes the
least problematic aspect of this crime story. The
aberrant psychology of Konrad, the pathology of his
marriage, the fiasco of his lifelong research and
never-finished—indeed never started—book:  each of
these presents its own contradictions and insoluble
mysteries. We can hardly understand the motives behind
a murder, if even the most quotidian elements of the
alleged perpetrator’s day-to-day life resist coherent

As you might gather from this summary account,
Bernhard's novel is often more frustrating than satisfying.  
But this, one suspects, is all part of the author’s agenda.  
Not just Bernhard's novels, but the specifics of his
biography, represent a collection of prickly, if
sometimes equivocal gestures. After all this is the
author who told an interviewer "I love Austria," and
then in his will prohibited any posthumous staging of
his plays in the country where he spent almost all of his
life, as well as prevented the release of his works by
any Austrian publisher.

Indeed, plenty of stories placate and gratify us with
accounts that fit together as perfectly as a jigsaw
puzzle. Especially in the crime story genre, which
this novel mimics in part but resists in whole, neat
solutions and tidy explanations are what readers
expect—indeed demand—as a tale wends its way toward
final resolution.
The Lime Works, instead, is that
maddening puzzle where the pieces refuse to link up—
but that too is a type of story, with its own lessons
and symbols.  In this instance, we perhaps gradually
come to realize, over the course of Bernhard’s
elliptical novel, that the unspoken assumptions behind
our stubborn insistence in forcing the isolated pieces
together may be more revealing than any picture we
hope to form.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011

Further Clues:

Jason Baskin on Thomas Bernhard

Index to interviews with Thomas Bernhard

"My Thomas Bernahard Obsession" by Jessica Ferri
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