Goethe Dies, translated from the German by James Reidel (Seagull; $21), is a brief and headlong collection—just four stories in 76 pages—but any reader susceptible to Thomas Bernhard’s charm will be transfixed by it in a few sentences. Bernhard, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, is one of the great stylists of the 20th century, and his writing is an irreducible essence, an ungovernable torrent of lunacy and glee, impossible to paraphrase but immediately recognizable.
In the title story, Goethe dies as advertised. Before he does, however, he conceives a desire to summon Wittgenstein to his bedside (the two men are contemporaries in this reality). But Wittgenstein dies before the meeting can be arranged—and this is essentially all that happens. The story consists of the remarks, or an elaborate description of the remarks, that Goethe’s secretary and various associates make about his desire that the meeting should take place. This is a desire they aim to gratify or frustrate, according to obscure whims of their own. The narrator, who may be present for some of this and may be a fanciful version of Bernhard himself, is painstaking in his attribution of the most irrelevant statements, which produces wonderfully tortured formulations like “Riemer underscored that Goethe allegedly said…,” or, even better, this: “the idea of inviting Wittgenstein to Weimar occurred to Goethe at the end of February, thus said Riemer presently, and not at the beginning of March, as Kräuter maintained, and it was Kräuter who learned from Eckermann that Eckermann would prevent Wittgenstein from travelling to Weimar to see Goethe at all costs.”