The respected surgeon Strauch has sent a young medical student to the small village of Weng to supervise his brother, a painter. Strauch suspects that his brother has gone mad and wants the student to find out what has happened to him. Over almost thirty days, the student gains the confidence of the painter, who is more than happy to lecture at length his views concerning the madness, corruption, decadence and stupidity of, well, everything that is not himself. Thomas Bernhard's Frost, his first novel, is a dark, demanding work that offers little comfort to a reader in search of a leisurely outing. For the others, Frost is as rewarding as it is challenging, a 342-page rant against all that has gone bad in the world since World War II.
'Do you understand? Life is the purest, clearest, darkest, most crystalline form of hopelessness...There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.' The above quote is a solid example of the hard reasoning and uncompromising bleakness of the painter Strauch's view of the world. The medical student, nameless throughout the entire piece, is young and impressionable and becomes caught up in Strauch's flowing monologues. He reads Pascal's Pensees with great regularity and learns of the flaws and foibles of the occupants of the village Weng. Over time, he sends confused letters to the painter's brother, inquiring as to the true meaning of his visit. Why is he there? What is he to discover, really? And what can he do to help the painter?
There is a strong sense that, if the medical student had never arrived, Strauch's lectures would have gone on being spoken into the air for no one at all to hear. Strauch's cry against everything is a call that does not need a listener so much as a speaker – the significance of the medical student remaining nameless should not be lost for this very reason. And yet, there are times throughout when the painter seems to see clearly, and it is then when he considers that the medical student might be a friend and not part of the relentless storm of enemies that is the world and everyone in it. Alas, though, Bernhard's vision does not allow for any return to grace. Instead, poor Strauch sinks further and further into madness, falling into the very trap his surgeon brother feared all along.
But madness is too easy a word to describe the painter's state of mind. Always negative, always cynical, always expecting the worst in everyone and presuming that nothing will ever become better, Strauch nonetheless offers a compelling critique of post-WWII Austria, the middle class, and, by association, the rest of the developed world. He is not content to have his countrymen rest on their laurels and simply accept that their lives are what they are – no, what he demands is something greater than that, an attempt to achieve something greater than one's self. He is a painter, yes, but 'artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers, and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its peripheral puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions...' - Strauch spares no one at all, not even himself.
The medical student as narrator offers a compelling angle for examining Strauch's last days. Because he is, we can presume, as confused as us about Strauch's words, we are allowed the lens of his slow understanding to help us, the reader, to a deeper consideration of the painter's thought. As the medical student learns so do we, with the painter gradually expressing himself with more difficult terms and attempting to explain complex ideas and thoughts. Strauch never offers answers but rather starting points from which to conduct your own thoughts. Yes, he holds strong opinions, but the importance lies in the debate, the butting of intellects. Strauch's ideas, while developed, allow room for further development and even rebuttal, and while it may not be possible to directly debate either the author – who died in the late 1980s – or the main character, it is certainly recommended to take on board the thoughts presented and see how they align with your own sense of justice, your concept of truth, your belief in possibility and the good.
There is relief from the relentless intellectualism in the subplots of the novel, which include a cuckolding innkeeper, a fire, the painter's brother and the unanswered letters, and so on. The medical student, too, often ventures away from the painter; when he does, the novel settles into a more prosaic and ordinary mode. These areas, however, are among the weakest, and it is certain that they could be removed entirely without hurting the main thrust of the narrative. Rather than provide a cohesive framework from which to hang the fruit of Strauch's words, instead these subplots distract, taking away from what is presented in the search for a 'story'. Frost is not a novel that requires such narrative direction.
It would be a mistake to consider Frost purely as an intellectual's rant against all that is not pure and coldly intelligent. No, Frost is both more, and less, than that. It is hard to see beyond the bleak intellectualism of Strauch's coldest views, and one almost hopes that there is, in fact, nothing beyond what is presented in Frost. They virtually require further discussion, and it is certain that the unsettling concepts presented in Frost will linger in the mind. The novel also fails in some ways, by attaching various needless subplots and dangling loose ends that only confuse and never illuminate. But the novel really exists as a platform for the painter's views, and here it succeeds. By turns bleak and bleaker, Frost is a superb novel for a reader interested in plumbing the depths of intellectual despair.