Woodcutters (novel)

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Woodcutters (novel).jpg
Author Thomas Bernhard
Original title Holzfällen. Eine Erregung
Translator David McLintock
Country Austria
Language German
Genre novel, monologue
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a Borzoi Book
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 181 pp
ISBN 978-0-394-55152-4
OCLC 15629615
833/.914 19
LC Class PT2662.E7 H6513 1987
Preceded by Concrete (Beton)
Followed by Wittgenstein's Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe)

Woodcutters (German title: Holzfällen) is a novel by Thomas Bernhard, originally published in German in 1984. An English translation by Ewald Osers was published in 1985 under the title Cutting Timber: An Irritation; another English translation by David McLintock was published as Woodcutters in 1988.

Second in a trilogy[1] covering the Arts, this one relates to the theatre and created quite an uproar in Austria, where it was banned as some Viennese personalities recognised themselves in the story. Nonetheless, it still sold very well in its own country and became a bestseller abroad.

In his Western Canon of 1994, American literary critic Harold Bloom lists Woodcutters as Bernhard’s masterpiece.

Plot summary[edit]

It’s eleven thirty at night in an elegant Viennese home in the 80s. A group of people are awaiting – with some impatience and increasing appetite – the arrival of a famous dramatic actor, guest of honour, in order to start eating the sophisticated dinner, in fact the "artistic dinner", as the hosts love to state. The place is that of the Auersbergers, a married couple whom the narrator hasn’t seen for twenty years: she’s a singer, he’s a "composer in the wake of Webern", both "idiosyncratically consumed". The play just performed by the awaited actor is one of Ibsen’s: The Wild Duck at the Burgtheater.

The whole novel is an account of what the narrator sees and hears while sitting on a chair with a glass of champagne in hand and, subsequently, at the table during dinner. Bernhard devastates with the axe of his prose (just like a wood cutter) the world of pretension and intellectual inconsistency, not only related to a certain Viennese scene, but to all that surrounds us: he’s implacable, ferociously comic, inexhaustible in the variations and returns to theme.

The scene develops and the "artistic dinner" unravels in all its hypocritical farce, whilst the narrator relives the last two decades, his connections and affective ties with the various guests, his relationship with the woman (Joana) who united in friendship all of them and finally committed suicide. In closing, the novel reaches momentum through the actor’s indignant outburst against one of the guests (Billroth) who had been offensive to him and malignant to all the whole night. He then becomes sad and reflective and allows, in a maudlin and romanticized scene, that he often believes he would have been better off to have lived a rural life and to have been a woodcutter. The marvellous play on the word which allows both the romanticism of this world of the native savage, and yet refers to the super sophisticated and bitter criticism of the social cynic is a stroke of Bernhardian genius. When the elderly actor is so openly wounded by Billroth, the narrator turns from derogatory to sympathetic, and virtually shifts his view of the Burgtheater actor and even the Burgtheater into praising.


The most revealing lines of the novel are about Bernhard and are the last two sentences of the text, which tell us just what he does when his inner sensibilities so overwhelm him that he cannot stand it any longer: "And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late."

Book's Epigraph
Being unable to make people more reasonable, I preferred to be happy away from them. --Voltaire


  1. ^ First being The Loser for music, and third Old Masters for painting.