The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

Review by S. D. Stewart

In this short novel, a monomaniacal ‘scientist’ more or less deliberately alienates himself from society in order to focus on his work. This summary should sound familiar to regular readers of Bernhard’s fiction. In this case, the man known as Koller has lost a leg to a dog bite for which he received compensation enough to live on, thus allowing him to fully immerse himself in developing his theory of physiognomy. Central to this theory is his experience of regular dining at a low cost restaurant known as the Vienna Public Kitchen (VPK) with a group of men he refers to as ‘the cheap-eaters’, so-called for their inexpensive dining habits. As with other Bernhard novels, the ‘anti-hero’ of sorts, Koller, has an occasional companion (in this case, the narrator) who looks up to him for no clear reason. There is an element of the grotesque to their relationship, which wavers between one-sided admiration and mutual disdain, with a frequently occupied middle ground of mere tolerance from both sides. Koller does not appear to require interaction with other humans, but does in fact need their presence for his work (this is another recurrent characteristic of Bernhard’s characters, e.g., the narrator in Concrete: ‘For at present I need nothing so much as to have people around me–not that I want any dealings with them; I don’t even want to speak to them, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, but I must have them around me’.). Some of Bernhard’s favorite themes find their voice in Koller, as he rails against formal education, parents, and authority in general, as well as provincialism and anti-intellectualism (the latter being a central theme in most of Bernhard’s work). This novel bears a strong resemblance to both Yes and The Lime Works, and from a personal standpoint I’d place it between those two books, with Yes being my favorite of the three.

Note: this review is of the out-of-print Ewald Osers translation, but there is a new English translation by Douglas Robertson, who frequently (and eloquently) translates writings by and about Thomas Bernhard on his blog.

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