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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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 in-
direct, 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
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

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
The 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 interpretation.

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
, 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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the

Further Clues:

Jason Baskin on Thomas Bernhard

Index to interviews with Thomas Bernhard

"My Thomas Bernahard Obsession" by Jessica Ferri
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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