Places: Woodcutters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984 (English translation, 1987)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1980’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedAuersberger apartment

Auersberger Woodcuttersapartment. Location of the dinner party in Vienna. The narrator’s rage is directed primarily against the artistic pretensions of his hosts and their friends, which he detects in every aspect of their existence. Regardless of what they wear, what they eat, or what they say, he sees only sham and pretension in their efforts to impress their fellow guests. The narrator spends most of the evening sitting alone in an out-of-the-way corner, which gives him the opportunity to watch without being seen and also symbolizes his profound estrangement from this social gathering.

Although the narrator has something nasty to say about all who are at the dinner, he reserves his severest comments for those who represent three aspects of Viennese cultural life. His hosts are musicians; the guest of honor is an actor, and another severely denigrated guest is an author with whom the narrator once had an affair. In describing his deep dislike of these people, he does not stop with his contempt for their personalities, but goes on to justify his opinions by sketching a bleak picture of the cultural context of their individual art forms. Thus his hosts are the pathetic survivors of a moribund musical tradition, the actor is a pompous example of the theater’s irrelevance to contemporary life, and the author is an all-too-typical representative of the mutual admiration society that stifles genuine literary talent. These exercises in sociological analysis of the places where culture is created greatly enrich the novel’s already detailed portrait of Viennese social life.


*Vienna. Austria’s capital, and the center of its cultural activity. The narrator thinks about Vienna so constantly and obsessively that one is always aware of the city’s presence in the background of the novel, and many of his specific observations are closely identified with patterns of travel through Viennese streets and neighborhoods. These interior recollections of exterior environments are frequently repeated and meditated upon, so that an equivalence is set up between the places themselves and the narrator’s thoughts about them. This in turn produces a map of his mental geography that literally charts his history and concerns, and is also a fascinating example of the interaction between public place and individual psychology.


*Kilb. Small Austrian town about fifty miles west of Vienna. Many of the narrator’s remembrances are devoted to his deceased friend Joana, who has recently committed suicide in Kilb and whose funeral has been held there on the morning of the day of the dinner party. Although the hosts and other dinner guests disparage Kilb as a provincial backwater, the narrator defends it as a more authentic, and much less pretentious, place than the Vienna from which they come. His recollections of Kilb center around the local inn, where on previous visits to Joana he encountered a refreshingly relaxed and informal attitude to socializing that was the reverse of his Viennese experiences. An extended scene in which the attendees at Joana’s funeral dine at the inn, and in the process give him further evidence of their pompousness and stupidity, is marked by the narrator’s decision to leave their table and sit with some of Joana’s local friends. As at the Auersberger’s dinner party, the physical positioning of the narrator is indicative of his relationship with the supposed peers whose society he finds intolerable.

Maria Zaal

Maria Zaal. Fictional village in Austria’s Styria region. The site of the Auersbergers’ country retreat, which they have ruined by selling off small parcels of land on which cheap vacation homes have been built. For the narrator, this and their behavior at the inn at Kilb perfectly symbolize the Auersbergers’ alienation from the Austrian countryside.

BibliographyDemetz, Peter. “Thomas Bernhard: The Dark Side of Life.” In After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. This comprehensive survey of German literature since 1945 includes a chapter on the important role that Thomas Bernhard has played in defining new directions in literature.Dowden, Stephen D. Understanding Thomas Bernhard. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An excellent and complete introduction to the life and works of Thomas Bernhard. Dowden correctly places Woodcutters, along with the five-volume memoirs, in the chapter on the autobiographical works.Fetz, Gerald. “Thomas Bernhard and the ‘Modern Novel.’” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant. New York: Berg, 1987. A critical analysis of the eight major prose works published between 1963 and 1985, concentrating on the uniqueness of Bernhard’s contribution to the genre of the modern novel.Modern Austrian Literature 21, nos. 3/4 (1988). Includes sixteen articles on various aspects of Bernhard’s work. Of special interest is David Daviau’s article “The Reception of Thomas Bernhard in the United States.”Ryan, Simon. “New Directions in the Austrian Novel.” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant. New York: Berg, 1987. An excellent survey of the experimentation in language and writing that has become the hallmark of Austrian literature since the 1960’s. This article should be read in conjunction with Fetz’s study of Bernhard’s novels.
Categories: Places