‘Scientific Purposes’ By Thomas Bernhard, translated by Kenneth J Northcott

Bernhard’s book, The Voice Imitator contains 104 very short stories, none longer than a page, most only a paragraph. I genuinely can’t remember how or when I bought this book, but it is something I regularly return to. It changed the way I thought short stories could work, and partly led the way to publishing Clare Fisher’s collection How the Light Gets In, which has a similar concentration of very short stories in it. It’s the perfect toilet book. Which I’m sure Bernhard wouldn’t mind me saying. Each story is its own little world, vignetted to the point of absurdity, and some pack whole lives in to ten sentences. ‘Scientific Purposes’ is so short there’s really no reason to write about it and in fact I think I’ve written more words in this paragraph so far than in the whole story. Thus, I will faithfully rewrite it below so you can judge its brilliance for yourself:

A hairdresser who suddenly went mad and decapitated a duke, allegedly a member of the royal family, with a razor and who is now in the lunatic asylum in Reading – formerly the famous Reading Jail – is said to have declared himself ready to make his head available for those scientific purposes which, in his opinion, would be rewarded with the Nobel Prize within at least eight or ten years.

From The Voice Imitator, UCP 1997

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