[This page by Katya Krylova]
Frost (1963) was Bernhard’s first published novel and his break-through publication, leading to strong critical acclaim, due both to its style and subject matter. The novel, largely written in diary form, is narrated by a medical student, who has been charged with the task of being a glorified private detective, observing his supervising surgeon’s brother, the painter Strauch, in Weng, an isolated and close-knit community located in the Pongau region of Salzburg. The narrator stays in the same inn where Strauch also lives, and he quickly wins the old man’s confidence as they undertake daily walks through the frosty Alpine landscape. In the young narrator Strauch finds a ready listener for his monologues on the local history, his own life story and accounts of his changing physical and mental states.
The anonymous medical student’s task quickly extends beyond the observation of an individual to an exploration of his environment at large, as the symptoms and pathologies manifest in Strauch show themselves to be in a causal relationship to his environment. Even in the course of the narrator’s short stay in Weng, spanning barely four weeks, a surprising number of incidents occur, including two tourists becoming trapped in the gorge, a wood-cutter being found dead under his own sleigh, a case of cattle theft and arson, as well as the discovery that the landlady of the inn cooks with dog-meat. The Second World War, meanwhile, has left an ineradicable imprint upon the region’s topography. While the valley may have been cleared of the maimed and mutilated bodies of disbanded soldiers and prisoners of war as well as tanks and shells, a walk through Weng’s Alpine landscape may still uncover skulls and skeletons covered over with just a thin layer of pine needles. As one of the pioneering works treating Austria’s post-fascist legacy, the recent war is thematised repeatedly in Frost, serving as a contemporary critique of the amnesiac attitude of post-war Austria with regard to her recent past. The progressive undermining of contemporary touristic views of the Alpine landscape, meanwhile, makes the text an anti-Heimat narrative.
Finally, the medical student is no longer able to carry on his function as observer of Strauch, as he feels himself being infected by the painter’s madness as well as by the environment of Weng. The narrator flees the village for the town where he was carrying out his hospital training. There he learns in a newspaper that Strauch has gone missing in driving snow.
Stephen Dowden, Understanding Thomas Bernhard (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), Chapter 2 on Frost and Gargoyles, pp. 11-29
Katya Krylova, ‘“Eine den Menschen zerzausende Landschaft”: Psychotopography and the Alpine Landscape in Thomas Bernhard’s Frost’, Austrian Studies 18 (2011), 74-88
Timothy B. Malchow, ‘Thomas Bernhard’s Frost and Adalbert Stifter: Literature, Legacy and National Identity in the Early Austrian Second Republic’, German Studies Review, 28:1 (2005), 65-84
J.J.Long, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and its Function (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001), Chapter 1 on Frost and Verstörung, pp. 29-74
J.J.Long, ‘Bernhard, Frost’ in Landmarks in the German Novel 2, ed. by Peter Hutchinson and Michael Minden (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 7-24