Ja; Yes

[This page by Katya Krylova]

Ja; Yes (1978)

Ja; Yes (1978) is a short story by Bernhard that focuses on a scientist (the narrator) undertaking a study of antibodies, who has retreated to an isolated house in Upper Austria in order to do so. The story begins at the point where, having isolated himself in his house for three months on end, the narrator seeks out the home of his friend Moritz, an estate agent through whom he previously purchased his house in the area, and describes his state of loneliness and despondency to him. That very afternoon a couple appear at Moritz’s home, a Swiss construction engineer, specialising in power stations, and his Persian partner who have purchased a piece of land upon which the engineer plans to construct a home for both of them. The narrator invites the engineer’s partner, who is only ever described as ‘the Persian lady’ in the text, for a walk with him in the larch wood nearby, and they proceed to meet for walks regularly, having quickly established a close friendship. The narrator is relieved to have found an intelligent conversation partner with whom he can discuss music and politics. Following their first walk he finds himself able to resume his work and able to read his beloved Schopenhauer again.

In conversations with Moritz, the narrator finds out more about the couple, and it emerges that the Swiss engineer bought the dampest, coldest and darkest plot of land in the area (which Moritz had been unable to sell for years), located behind a cemetery and a wood, largely without consulting his partner. Further, the engineer has disappeared on business leaving his partner to live in a local inn, run by a gossiping landlady. It emerges that the building on the part of the engineer is an act of revenge on his partner for having moulded his career and for effectively having sacrificed her whole life for him, a sacrifice which the engineer no longer finds palatable. Progressively, the narrator’s and the Persian lady’s walks grow rarer and rarer; the engineer’s partner concludes that the narrator is, like her, ‘a lost, ultimately destroyed human being’ and as such they are unable to help each other. Their last meeting takes place in the half-constructed home that the Persian lady has moved into, her only occupation in the disarrayed living space being to drink tea and take sleeping tablets. A little while later, the narrator learns in a newspaper report that the landlady has committed suicide, having travelled to a nearby town in order to throw herself in front of a lorry carrying cement. During his recollections of their conversations, the narrator remembers that he had once asked his friend whether she would ever commit suicide, whereby she laughed and said ‘yes’.

Bernhard’s short story is primarily concerned with the relationship between human beings and the landscape that they inhabit, questions of gender, as well as the articulation of trauma. The constellation of Eros and exoticism in the presentation of ‘the Persian lady’ in this text draws on Robert Musil’s Die Portugiesin; The Portuguese Lady and the figure of Scheherazade. The building project undertaken by a man for a woman, and the construction of a home that is uninhabitable, resulting in the woman’s death is also a motif in Bernhard’s Korrektur; Correction. A recurring motif is similarly the inhospitability of the Austrian rural environment (human and natural), that is a feature of Bernhard’s work from Frost (1963) onwards. Another central theme is the solitariness of the Bernhardian Geistesmensch or intellectual in his single-minded pursuit of his goals (in the narrator’s case, his study of antibodies), his inevitable failure in achieving them, and his ultimate dependence on another person to rescue him from his isolation.

Further Reading

J. J. Long, ‘Resisting Bernhard: Women and Violence in Das Kalkwerk, Ja and Auslöschung’, Seminar 37:1 (2001), 33-52

J. J. Long, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and its Function (Rochester: Camden House, 2001), pp. 141-48

Geoffrey Plow, ‘The Affliction of Prose: Thomas Bernhard’s Critique of Self-expression in Korrektur, Ja, and Der Stimmenimitator’, German Life and Letters 44:2 (1991), 133-42

Andrea Reiter, ‘“Die Bachmann hab’ ich sehr gern mögen, die war halt eine gescheite Frau. Eine seltsame Verbindung, nicht?”: Women in Thomas Bernhard’s Prose Writings’ in Ricarda Schmidt and Moray McGowan (eds.), From High Priests to Desecrators: Contemporary Austrian Writers (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 155-73