Thomas Bernhard


Sleep and death, the dusky eagles
Rustle all night round my head:
the golden effigy of man
consumed by the icy tides
of eternity. On hideous rocks
the purpling body shatters.
And the dark voice mourns
over the sea.
Sister of my wild despair,
look: a lonely skiff is sinking
under the stars,
the silent face of night.

-Georg Trakl (1887-1914)

The Lunatics............The Inmates
by Thomas Bernhard

(Die Irren. Die Häftlinge)
Privately printed in Klagenfurt, Austria, 1962. Copyright © 1991 Suhrkamp Verlag.
-translated by James Reidel

What follows is James Reidel's translation of a sixteen-page poem written early in Thomas Bernhard's career and originally published privately. Though not all of Bernhard's obsessions surface in the poem--the prose passages in particular possess the logic and the structure of thought that would characterize Bernhard's first novel Frost and the novels that followed it. For this e-chapbook, every attempt has been made to preserve the original (and sometimes eccentric) spacing, but not the pagination.

The Lunatics ................The Inmates

I must be the prisoner, unless I'm crazy, for my clothes are prison clothes, and I am wearing prison clothes, am I not?

The brain is so unfree, and the system, into which the brain is born, is so free, the system so free and my brain so unfree, that system and brain are coming to an end.

The hunchback with the water pail,
the one with her braids all wild,
the nuntails¹ white, the birds
black in the green scene,

the one with the index finger
on his bloody forehead,
the one with the yellow rope
who climbs the cherry tree,


the one in her black frock,
with the yellow pants,
the one with the girl’s face,
the one with the red rose,

the one with her hazelnut stick,
the one who is weeping,
the one bleating like a goat,
with the bowed legs,

In rags goes man, in stinking scraps of cloth.
The meat grinder wind says—I'm not dumb!
Siccing my trouser legs and the dog,
it comes inside my head and cuts me down.

I have this whore tap on my conscience,
this bundle biting into my hunched back.
These shoes, this frayed coat, are making me sick.
My soupspoon sticks through the pocket of my pants.

There in the courtyard, there stand the Pharisees,
Nothing but creature from the belt on down!
The club swingers, squealers, gunmen, spies
in the greasy boot-black of the prefecture.

The state's almighty, while you're bitter and weak.
Power and the uniform are one in the same.
You keep your mouth shut, your head in check,
you walk through the wood no one cuts for us.

What such a truncheon on the head ruins
I know already, it breaks my eardrums.
I'm outfitted by the most sub-moron
and driven mad with sweat, ransacked, and shorn.

These pants rub me raw and the backsides paint
The heads of misery on the thick wall.
Some get to drink and some have to pay.
And the thing that you are drips in your hand.

The reason of the dream fears the reason of love, the reason of power, the reason of death, for the sake of pure reason, which influences no one.

Coming from the consequences for the addiction of thinking, we arrive at the question of meaning that regresses without leaving us behind.

the one with her red hair,
with the long tongue,
the one with the turnip knife,
with the sick lungs,

the one with her white veil
in the black door,
the one with the long neck,
the one with her ear cut off,

the one with her rosary,
with apples, with pears,
the ones with yellow, white
empty faces,

the one with the fear of doctors,
the one in the cabbage leaf hat,
the one letting her blood
drip in the pool of water,

I don't stand on my own, only on floors.
Pierced by the eyes in their wood planks, I walk
into my darkness, right into these thoughts
where nothing remains but stench and stone.

Why the dick? What right does it have to me?
What did it do early this morning at three?
I am sick to my stomach. My throat is raw.
Somewhere in my skull, my dull brain's crawled.

This is the curse! This is the irony!
And you, my moon, my yellow minister,
you piss on the world, on philosophy,
My last, greatest, and most sacred mentor!

My payday's spent. So's my entire life.
You are finished! You are long past due!
I need no more buy into everything you spew
for my red brain turns only more to mush.

". . . if one is less, if eight is only more,"
that's what my head says as my ankles collapse,
"the one from the rooftop, who's made a mess
in the night," the one you still hear gasp.

My twisted mind, that tit milk of crackups!
I am one gifted fellow, officer!
Up my ass the world still has some fire
as soon as I fetch my lard bread and schnapps!

Clarity exists where the greatest helplessness pretends to be the greatest lack of clarity; in every composition, even in the composition of events inside the human (godlike) mind.

Man, who has the right to have control over himself, who can have control over everything and has the right to this as well; but no one has the right to have control over themselves.

the one who walks on
tiptoes through the garden,
the one who cuts wheat
with her stare,

the one with her hair
tied to the fence
who wants to scream,
who’s covered with scratches,

the one who comes from the chapel,
who looks from the window,
the one with the rusty sickle
who cuts off flower tops,

the one with the black stocking,
the one on the hay wagon,
the one the ones with the red skirts
beat outside the threshing floor,

You have no diamond, no spade, no leaf cards.
The jacks of bells trump your fantasias.
The morning’s red stinks like one big carcass.
Women scream through their hysterias.

In my wood shoe skates, snowblind by plaster,
pieces of skull snap orders at me
from their nightwatchman stupor . . . in the stair
the tripes of my soul make me a vegetable.

My silly crap lies waiting in the shadows.
With head burning from the cold, rod ready,
you scratch the dog on his blue balls sourly,
and it snarls, dictating its dictation to you.

Drinking killed my Easter, my Pentecost,
that turtledove madness tickles my thigh.
The long nights never cease in the least
when it comes to my diabetic insanity.

Am I just a bucket’s worth of torture?
Am I dead? Are my suicide threats lies?
My froth has spun around half the globe.
I am stretched out in my prison clothes.

My feet think and my mind wanders off.
From head to toe the world’s nothing more
than an age of depravity and rot.
And the city itself is the murderer!

There exist irritating phenomena that are a means to irritate, as, for example, the phenomena between two phenomena and the phenomena that let such irritating phenomena be perceived.

The line is broken from all lines, which proves that there exists no
line, and which also proves that one can regard everything as the line,
presupposing a character that gets too involved in what inevitably
drives it into ruin.

the one running from the kitchen
with the soup pot,
the one with the mourning veil
over her red head,

the one with the white
coat, with the blue
christening bow around the neck,
the ones who look in the apple basket,

who on green milk
drift into the evening,
who in the black woods
sink into the cold night . . .

(Schermberg 1949)

To me every star is the police.
That marching firmament, every ocean
a sea of billyclubs, uniformed shit!,
madness is the red on the flag of my prison.

As my snow-white loins are whipped,
my red head swells in the afternoon wind.
I walk flailed where I walk against it,
where I cannot find anything to eat.

In my eyes flashes the hurricane
of laws that bite, that have a sharpness.
I'm my own dog and you're the companion
I hound into the jailhouse of lewdness.

What kind of wine are you, my Master Urine?
I walk drunk through the shaven skulls
of the under-underworld, through the ruin
and out of my hunger braid him pigtails.

(Garsten 1950)

Bernhard, Obernathal 1968The Loser Reviewed

by Kevin Bazzana
Department of Music, University of California, Berkeley, USA

~Bernhard, Thomas. Der Untergeher. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch 1497. 243 pp. DM12 -- (paperback). ISBN 3-518-37997-6

~Bernhard, Thomas. The Loser. Translated by Jack Dawson. Afterword by Mark M. Anderson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. 190 pp. (hardcover). ISBN 0-394-57239-4

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's novel Der Untergeher supplied an offbeat appendix to the body of "official" Gouldiana when it appeared in 1983. Now available in an English translation, as The Loser, it should reach a much wider audience -- most notably among Gould's many admirers in the United States and his native Canada. This is good news, since the novel is fascinating both as a work of literature and as a document in Gould history.

Like all of Bernhard's novels since Frost (1963), The Loser is written in the form of a continuous first person interior monologue, unbroken by paragraph indentations and full of run-on sentences, obsessive repetitions, odd and unexplained uses of italics, and alienating leaps (without transition) from verb tense to verb tense. In short, there is a real stream-of-consciousness atmosphere, and translator Jack Dawson, to his credit, has conspicuously preserved the quirks that give Bernhard's prose its characteristic tone. Music is the subject matter of much of the book, but one senses that it informs the style too: Bernhard is sensitive to the musical effects of rhythm, repetition, and proportion in his prose. It did not surprise me to learn from Mark M. Anderson's instructive Afterword, that Bernhard had extensive formal training in music -- indeed, that he was a musician before he became a writer.

The Loser consists almost entirely of its (unnamed) narrator's recollections of and ruminations on his relationships with two pianist friends: one named Wertheimer, the other named Glenn Gould. As we learn, Wertheimer and the narrator were students in a piano class taught by Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1953. There they met a young Canadian Wunderkind who played the Goldberg Variations miraculously and who, they quickly came to realize, was a greater pianist than even their teacher -- indeed, "the most important piano virtuoso of the century," as the narrator puts it in the novel's opening sentence.

In fact, so great is the impact of Gould's genius on his two colleagues that, even as it nourishes them, it destroys them: they realize that Gould represents an artistic ideal to which they cannot hope to aspire. So the narrator eventually decides to give up the piano in favour of philosophy, and spends much of his subsequent time composing a rambling, never-completed essay entitled About Glenn Gould. Wertheimer, who had been a very promising virtuoso himself, follows suit, abandoning music and moving into the "human sciences", the meaning of which is left vague (as is the narrator's "philosophy", for that matter).

Eventually, his behavior becomes more and more erratic and self-destructive; he alienates his friends, and tyrannizes his devoted sister. It was Gould who, with his "ruthless and open, yet healthy American-Canadian manner" first called Wertheimer, to his face, "The Loser" ("Der Untergeher" -- a much more evocative word). As Wertheimer comes to see the accuracy of this epithet, he gradually loses his grip on life. Thus, the encounter with Gould affects both characters decisively for almost three decades, as they experience an endless series of personal and intellectual travails.

As the novel begins, Gould has just died at the age of 51, prompting circumstances leading to Wertheimer's suicide a year later at the same age. The plot of the novel -- its "present", so to speak -- consists of the narrator arriving at Wertheimer's lodge in the country shortly after his funeral, drawn there subconsciously by thoughts dredged up by his friend's suicide. But the bulk of the novel really takes place in the narrator's mind, as he stands at the threshold of the lodge, thinking about life, art, Wertheimer, and the decisive role Glenn Gould played in his life.

The "plot" of the novel is thus disproportionately small, and confined largely to the end, when the narrator engages with the people, places, and things around Wertheimer's lodge; the novel is really an almost continuous digression from its outward events. But Bernhard never loses sight of the plot: he constantly reminds the reader that the narrator's digressions are digressions, by interjecting brief phrases or sentences that pull the reader back to the threshold of that lodge. Often "I thought" ("dachte ich") is enough to clarify the two levels of past tense -- to make the point that the novel does not take place at the time of the events recounted, but at the time its narrator recalls them. This constant dissonance between tenses creates an air of ambiguity, uncertainty, and gives the prose a peculiar yet engaging character.

There is much more to the novel than my sketch of its main contents suggests. More than just an interesting story, The Loser, much like Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, is concerned with ideas, musical and otherwise. Wertheimer, suggests Anderson in his Afterword, "is an ironic caricature of Wittgenstein: an envious, weak artist who is destroyed by Gould's superior talent; a sadist who keeps his sister locked up in a quasi-incestuous relationship; and finally a philosophical failure who burns all his notes before committing a spiteful, embarrassing suicide." The parallels between Wertheimer and the obsessive, Faustian composer in Faustus, and between the larger ideas about life and art that both Bernhard and Mann pursue, are readily apparent.

But for Gould fans, the interest of the book lies, of course, in the character and function of that creature referred to as "Glenn Gould" but composed of equal parts real Gould and fantastical variation on that theme. Here is Gould the great virtuoso pianist, who specialized in Bach and Brahms and Schoenberg and Webern, who had negative feelings about Mozart and Beethoven and "never played Chopin," who played the Goldberg Variations at the Salzburg Festival and made more than one recording of the work, whose father's trade was in hides and furs, who fled from the "abhorred public" to live a hermit's life, who had no regard for stylish clothing, who "loved things with sharp contours, detested approximation," who "was the most ruthless person toward himself," a "fanatic about order" and the "concept of self-discipline."

So far, this is the Glenn Gould we know. But to each truth, Bernhard seems to insist stubbornly -- even perversely -- on adding an element of fantasy. Gould dies at 51, not 50, and moreover does so poetically: "Glenn had the good fortune of collapsing at his Steinway in the middle of the Goldberg Variations". His second favorite composer is Handel. He plays the Goldberg Variations at the Salzburg Festival in 1955, rather than the real-life 1959, and furthermore goes to Salzburg first in 1953, to study with Horowitz (whose playing he, in fact, hated), and on a Rockefeller scholarship, no less! In the novel, Gould's Goldberg recordings repeat exactly the interpretation of his early performances. His parents here are wealthy, "not merely well-to-do." He breaks with his family and lives in the United States (he is often referred to as "Canadian-American" or "American-Canadian" -- sometimes both in the same breath. He loves New York City and sets up a studio-home in the woods nearby -- in part hoping that the country air would appease his "sick lungs." He speaks German fluently, having learned it from his maternal grandmother. He practices constantly, rather than spending time writing: "Glenn actually left nothing behind, Glenn didn't keep any kind of written record".

And so on and on. This, needless to say, is not the Glenn Gould we know. (For that matter, the idea of Vladimir Horowitz teaching that piano class at the Mozarteum is equally fanciful, since Horowitz almost never taught, certainly would never have taught en masse, and anyway was in retirement in 1953.) But Bernhard's embellishments to the real Gould are perfectly consistent with the narrator's tone of muddled, torrential recollection. Nothing is certain in this novel; indeed, the absurdity of life seems to be one of its underlying themes.

Whatever we may think of this quasi-Gould, it is clear that the real Gould was an important figure in Bernhard's life. (This is not the only respect in which the narrator's life and character resemble the author's.) As Bernhard wrote in another work, "Those are terrible people who don't like Glenn Gould.... I will have nothing to do with such people, they are dangerous people." Bernhard admired Gould not only as an artist, but as a thinker, too, and especially as an embodiment of an ideal in terms of the artist's role in society. Throughout the novel there flows a venomous polemic against a number of targets in the musical establishment: pretentious conservatories in general, and Salzburg and Vienna (where Bernhard studied) in particular, music teachers and professors, concerts, and every sort of mainstream musical mediocrity. Salzburg, we learn, "at bottom is the sworn enemy of all art and culture, a cretinous provincial dump [ein stumpfsinniges Provinznest] with stupid people and cold walls where everything without exception is eventually made cretinous." ("Provincial hole" is a better translation, I think, but "cretinous" is splendid.)

For Bernhard, Gould obviously represented the highest realm of artistic achievement -- a realm which is no longer even quite human: "In the end people like Glenn had turned themselves into art machines [Kunstmaschine], had nothing in common with human beings anymore, only seldom reminded you of human beings."

Precisely this dooms the narrator and his friend: they simply cannot bear to play the piano after hearing Gould; "just the thought of having to walk on stage makes me ill", says Werthemier at one point. And indeed, Wertheimer commits suicide out of shame, not long after Gould's death: "Wertheimer couldn't take Glenn's death. After Glenn's death he was ashamed to still be alive, to have outlived the genius, so to speak, that fact martyred him his entire last year, as I know". This, surely, is the outer limit of Gould worship -- at least, one hopes so.

Given Bernhard's life and character, it is easy to understand his attraction to Gould. Bernhard, too, was a perennial outsider who did not fit into the establishment, who continually outraged and scandalized his peers and public even as they praised and honored him, who hated mediocrities both individual and institutional, and who had a love-hate relationship with his native Austria, which he accused of "philistinism" and "art hatred". And let us not forget, Bernhard was in an especially good position to understand Gould, being a musician himself. Born in 1931, he studied music in Salzburg as a child. In 1951, he entered the Musik-Akademie in Vienna, and from 1952 to 1956 he studied music and theatre at the Mozarteum. After he graduated in 1956 (with a thesis on Artaud and Brecht), Bernhard began a second career as a writer. His subsequent output -- plays, poetry, novels -- was enormous, and he earned many major awards as well as national and international renown. He died alone in his farmhouse near Salzburg in 1989, two days after his fifty-eighth birthday.

That Der Untergeher appeared in 1983, a year after Gould's death, suggests perhaps that Bernhard, like his characters, was prompted to reflection by that event. And as Anderson tells us, this novel followed a seven-year period in which Bernhard wrote five volumes of autobiography -- a "sustained examination of the self [that] proved crucial". Gould's death may have provoked Bernhard to explore his ideas on life and art even further.

Bernhard and Gould never met in real life, though Gould did play twice in Salzburg: on 10 August 1958 (the Bach D Minor Concerto with Mitropoulos) and 25 August 1959 (a Sweelinck-Schoenberg-Mozart-Bach recital). Given his interest in music, Bernhard may well have attended and been overwhelmed by one or both of these concerts. And it is tempting to believe so, for surely some momentous encounter introduced Bernhard to Gould's art. What else explains the passionate, even reverent attitude he displays toward Gould in this novel?

As to the tinkering with Gould's life and character, Anderson suggests that Bernhard adapted Gould's biography "to make it fit his own. Bernhard, not the Canadian virtuoso, turned 51 the year Gould died; he had the lung disease; he broke with his family and moved to an isolated house in the country". In fact, the narrator, Wertheimer, and Gould all reflect different parts of Bernhard's character. In this sense, the unending stream of first-person rumination is the perfect stylistic complement to the content of the prose, in which Bernhard seems to work through his own ideas obsessively, taking on different personae in order to engage in dialogue with himself. The Loser is really a kind of bizarre fugue on various subjects (the mission of art, the banality of Austria, the absurdity of life, etc.) -- a conversation that can ultimately be placed in the author's own very fertile mind.

But if The Loser, in the end, has little to do with the real Glenn Gould, it still has, I think, an important place in the Gould reception history. For rather than a contribution to the critical literature on Gould -- which is already plentiful -- it is a new work of art inspired by Gould. It is not alone in this regard: more than one visual artist has already paid tribute to Gould in a portrait; original compositions, and several transcriptions of the Goldberg Variations, have been inspired by and dedicated to him; and some other performers have learned from his example. But The Loser is certainly the most ambitious appropriation of Gould into a new artistic product to date. And this being so, it actually pays all the greater tribute to Gould precisely by tinkering with his biography. For if Bernhard is willing to adapt Gould as circumstances require, he must truly need him: in this novel of ideas -- of Bernhard's ideas -- Gould's presence is obviously decisive. Moreover, the tinkering tends to make Gould conform more closely to Bernhard's own life, character, and intellectual agenda; thus, to some extent, Bernhard seems to be merging himself with Gould. Clearly, Gould, as artist, thinker, and figure, impressed and influenced Bernhard deeply. In The Loser, Bernhard returns the favour by paying him the ultimate compliment: absorbing him completely. A more "accurate" or "respectful" portrayal of Glenn Gould could not do him greater honour.

Thomas Bernhard at easeREADING THOMAS BERNHARD

By Richard Burgin

The voice of the late Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) is so outrageous that, despite the dark things it says, it often makes you laugh. The only other time you may feel that way is when reading one of the great novels of Céline, but there is something very different from Céline here. There’s an acute aesthetic devotion to the operations of memory and the lost world of the past that recalls Proust. There is also a relentless investigation of wounded consciousness in isolation evoked with a musical and radical use of form and language that recalls Beckett. (Each of Bernhard’s best novels, for example, Concrete, Old Masters, and Extinction, is written as a single monstrous paragraph.) Finally, there is an objective awareness of society and a contrarian attitude towards it that brings to mind Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger, and some of the novels of Emmanuel Bove.

While Bernhard is certainly sui generis, he is also part of a tradition of inspired twentieth-century monologists that includes, among others, the aforementioned Proust, Céline, Beckett, Sartre, Camus, and Bove. Each of these writers, in turn, drew upon the example of Dostoyevsky’s dark and masterful nineteenth-century monologue Notes From Underground—perhaps the work that most influenced both Bernhard and the course of twentieth-century fiction in general. From its outset with Dostoyevsky, the extended monologue has been both intellectually and emotionally subversive and steeped in both psychological and physical illness. Notes From Underground begins with Dostoyevsky’s protagonist announcing his sickness, and Rudolf, the narrator of Bernhard’s most exemplary novel, Concrete, proclaims in his first sentence "the third acute onset of my sarcoidosis." That’s but the first of many parallels between the two novellas. Both the Underground Man and Rudolf are middle-aged men living in isolation—simultaneously sick and hypochondriacal. Moreover, Dostoyevsky and Bernhard immediately reveal that their protagonists’ monologues come from actual documents they are writing which describe their own maladies, as well as those that plague mankind in general. In today’s parlance we would probably classify them as obsessive-compulsives whose confessions are written because of their inability to act decisively on other fronts. After ten years of research and planning, the musicologist Rudolf has been unable to write the first sentence of his study on the composer Mendelsson Bartholdy. Similarly, the Underground Man is unable to enact his long-planned revenge against either the officer or his colleagues who have humiliated him. This Hamlet-like paralysis that afflicts both of them eventually has more serious consequences when the Underground Man can’t act efficaciously on behalf of Liza, the prostitute who loved him, or when Rudolf doesn’t do more to help Anna Hardtl, who eventually commits suicide. Ironically, both the Underground Man and Rudolf are first-rate psychologists and intellectuals who understand themselves as well as other people. Their tragedy is the realization that understanding only rarely leads to change. Finally, Notes From Underground and Concrete each have two-part structures. In the first part the narrators reveal and analyze their own natures as well as their corrective visions of the world. In the second, they interact with the world and the reader learns how tragically difficult it is for them to translate their thoughts into action.

Of course, there are some important differences between the two monologists. While Rudolf lives a far more physically isolated existence in the country than the city-dwelling Underground Man, he is also more dominated by his family, in particular his sister, than the Underground Man who lives with no family ties at all. On the other hand, the Underground Man is far more dominated by his sexual drive; indeed, Rudolf is one of the most sexually disinterested men in contemporary fiction. One might also say that the Underground Man (like Dostoyevsky) has more of a philosophical cast of mind and Rudolf (like Bernhard, who was a professional musician before he was a writer) is more of an aesthete. Lastly, Rudolf is far more wealthy than the Underground Man, for whom poverty is a central problem, and has options and opportunities that simply aren’t available to the latter. Still, these books have so much in common that Concrete almost seems like a twentieth-century retelling of Notes from Underground. (I don’t think it’s insignificant that Rudolf reads aloud from The Gambler while at his country home at Peiskam and makes a point of taking Dostoyevsky with him to read on his trip to Palma.)

Given Bernhard’s debt to Dostoyevsky and other twentieth-century monologists, the question is: what is unique about Bernhard’s fictive universe? As is the case with almost every other first-rate writer, there is no single insight, theme, or stylistic device that can be culled from his work and identified as the main component of his uniqueness. Rather it’s in the totality of his vision that his originality shines forth, for it is Bernhard’s personality and view of things that is truly original and that can only be felt over time as one adapts and reacts to the power of his voice. Indeed, Bernhard’s narrative voice is so strong that to some degree it overpowers and collapses the differences between the protagonists of his different novels. At times one feels that his books are being narrated by the same man or perhaps by twin brothers. Thus Bernhard’s chief "weakness" as a writer is the result of his greatest strength—the uniqueness and power of his narrative voice. No matter the novel—The Loser, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Extinction, Old Masters, or Concrete—it’s the voice of an obsessive, barely controlled hysteric saying the darkest possible things (often in a funny way) about all aspects of Austrian society, particularly in Vienna, as well as about human nature in general. Bernhard uses the single novel-length paragraph as a way of representing his obsessives’ avalanche-like onslaught of consciousness. It’s as if Bernhard is determined to give us the truest possible visual image of his protagonists’ flow of thoughts regardless of the conventions of literature (such as paragraph breaks).

At the core of his characters’ obsessive consciousnesses are the darkly comic bursts of outrage comedian Dennis Miller calls (when using a somewhat similar technique in his own monologues) "a rant." Bernhard’s narrators flit from one rant to another whether the subject be people’s excessive love for dogs, the deceit of the Catholic Church, or the horrible condition of lavatories in Vienna. Here are some lines (the rants often go on for pages) from Old Masters in which the music critic Reger rails against the all-pervasiveness of piped-in music:

    Our age has witnessed the eruption of total music, anywhere between the North Pole and the South Pole you are forced to hear music, in the city or out in the country, on the high seas or in the desert, Reger said. People have been stuffed full of music every day for so long that they have long lost all feeling for music . . . People today, because they have nothing else left, suffer from a pathological music consumption, Reger said, this music consumption will be driven forward by the industry, which controls people today, to a point where everybody is destroyed; there is a lot of talk nowadays about waste and chemicals which have destroyed everything, but music destroys a lot more than waste and chemicals do, it is music that eventually will destroy absolutely everything totally, mark my words. The first thing to be destroyed by the music industry are people’s auditory canals and next, as a logical consequence, the people themselves. . . . I can already see people totally destroyed by the music industry, Reger said, those masses of music-industry victims eventually populating the continents with their musical cadaverous stench. . . . The music industry will one day have the population on its conscience. . . . not just chemicals and waste, believe me. The music industry is the murderer of human beings, the music industry is the real mass murderer of human-ity which, if the music industry continues on its present lines, will have no hope whatever within a few decades. . . .

While Bernhard has a valid point about the ubiquity of muzak and its deleterious effects, as objective social criticism it is clearly exaggerated to a wild and ultimately comic degree. Yet while virtually all Bernhard’s rants are "exaggerated," the psychology behind them is real and convincing. By diverting their attention from a much deeper source of pain and anxiety and/or postponing decisions they are afraid to make, the rants perform an important psychological function for Bernhard’s narrators. The entire narrative motion and drama of Concrete hinges on a few of Rudolf’s monumentally postponed decisions. Should he start writing his book? How, ultimately, should he judge his sister’s impact on his life? Should he take a trip to Parma? How should he judge the way he treated Anna Hardtl? Each of these decisions pose such a threat to his fragile and overburdened psyche that except in the last instance they must first be preceded by a rage-filled rant. In the case of Anna Hardtl, with which the book ends, there is no rant but there is also no decision or resolution made before the novel closes with Rudolf "in a state of extreme anxiety." The implication is that the anxiety can only be temporarily appeased by the process of ranting and then confronting her tragedy with a genuine insight. Finally, the rants camouflage the more tender feelings of Bernhard’s protagonists, feelings which make them more vulnerable than expressing their frustration or anger. After Rudolf’s diatribe against dogs (". . . politicians, dictators—are ruled by a dog, and as a result they plunge millions of human beings into misery and ruin," etc.) he realizes that his sister does care for him, that her advice about his needing a holiday for his mental health is both wise and well-intentioned. Similarly, after Reger’s rant against muzak, he begins to describe his love and grief for his recently deceased wife.

It is Bernhard’s magical sense of timing in suddenly introducing a lyrical, yet heartbreaking passage after a monologue of rage that separates him from so many other writers and makes him finally a major artist of his century. Let me give one more example. After railing about his horrible health, Rudolf transitions to a discussion about people saving clothes and tells us that his mother’s coat hangs in a wardrobe "which is otherwise empty and which I keep firmly locked. However, never a week goes by but I open the wardrobe and smell the coat." From these two lines we learn all we need to know about his love for his mother. It is difficult to find another example in literature, or art in general, of this ability to so seamlessly and poignantly juxtapose such extremes of emotion. Céline does it a bit, Kurosawa does it brilliantly in a film like The Seven Samurai, and in music Mahler is one of the very few masters of such juxtapositions. Moreover, Bernhard, unlike the trio above, has a greater gift of concision. Concrete is 155 short pages. Old Masters, which I take to be his second greatest novel, is only slightly longer. One realizes that, like Faulkner or Nabokov, Bernhard is a verbal musician with a heart deep enough to counterbalance poignant moments of beauty and mercy with his darkest explorations of the isolated human psyche.


From One Catastrophe to the Next


(translated by Anja Zeidler)

Asta Scheib is a journalist and writer born in Bergneustadt (Germany) in 1939. Among her novels are Children of Disobedience (Kinder des Ungehorsams), On this Side of the Moon (Diesseits des Mondes), and "Fear of Fear" ("Angst vor der Angst") which was made into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1975.

© 1986 by Asta Scheib

If one tries to approach Thomas Bernhard by way of archive material, one enters a complicated situation. Instead of the one writer one had dealt with as a reader, one has a great number of different Thomas Bernhards in your luggage to Vienna: the "great stubborn loner," the "humorous tragedian," the "macabre humorist," the "suffering rebel" (Reich-Ranicki), the "state-qualified misanthrope" (Ulrich Weinzierl), the "virtuoso of desperation and mannered moroseness" (Eberhard Falcke), the "comedian infatuated with gloom" (Franz Josef Görtz) or the "misanthropic word mill" (Sigrid Löffler).

Reading the criticism of his many volumes of prose and the frequently performed plays is like the changing consumption of something sweet and sour. And then one sits in front of mirrored pillars in a hotel in Kärtner Straße and waits for the poet. Maybe he has discovered you in the mirror long before and had found you as repulsive as Cäcilia and Amalia in "Extinction." Maybe that's the reason he has left again a long time ago. But then there he is, and his open smile extinguishes all portraits one has read about. One wants to know from him: Who is Thomas Bernhard?

TB: One never knows who one is. The others tell you who you are, don't they? And as you're told so a million times if you live a long life, in the end you don't know at all who you are. Everyone says something different. You yourself also say something different each new moment.

AS: Are there people on whom you depend, who influence your life in a decisive way?

TB: One always depends on people. There is no one who doesn't depend on somebody. Someone, who is always alone with himself, will go under in no time, will be dead. I believe there are decisive people for everyone. I had had two in my life. My grandfather on my mother's side and another person, someone, whom I got acquainted to one year before my mother's death. That was a relation that lasted over thirty five years. It was the person everything concerning me related to, of whom I learnt everything. With the death of that person everything was gone. You are alone then. First you also want to die. Then you search. You had turned all people you also had in life into something less important during your life. Then you're alone. You have to cope.

When I was alone, no matter where, I always knew, this person protects me, gives me support, but also dominates. Then everything is gone. You stand there in the cemetery. The grave is covered with earth. All that meant something to you is gone. Then each day in the morning you wake up with a nightmare. It's not like you really want to live on. But you don't want to hang or shoot yourself either. You think that's not nice and unappetizing. Then you only have books. They swoop down on you with all the terrible things you can write into them. But you act your life to the outside world as if nothing had happened, because otherwise you would be devoured by the world. They are just waiting to see you show weakness. If you show weakness it will be exploited shamelessly and will be drenched in hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means pity. That's the best term for hypocrisy.

But it is, as I said, difficult; after thirty-five years together with someone else you are suddenly alone. Only people who have gone through something similar will understand that. Suddenly you are one hundred percent more distrustful then before. Behind each so-called human utterance you suspect some meanness. You become even colder than people thought you had always been before anyway. The only thing that saves you is that you cannot starve to death. Such a life surely isn't pleasant. Then there is your own frailty. A total decline. One only enters houses with a lift. One drinks a quarter of a liter at noon, and a quarter in the evening. Then you get somehow through the day. But if you drink half a liter at noon that night will be terrible. Those are the problems life shrinks to. Take pills, don't take them, when to take them, what to take them for . Each month you are driven a little nearer to craziness, because you are confused.

AS: When did you last feel happy?

TB: One feels happiness each day, you're happy to be alive and not dead already. That's a great capital.

From the person who died, I know that you love life to the very last moment. Basically, everyone loves to live. Life cannot be so terrible that you don't keep on with it after all. The motivation is curiosity. You want to know: what will come next? It is more interesting to know what will come tomorrow then what is here today. When the body is ill the brain develops astonishingly well.

I prefer to know everything. And I always try to rob people and get everything that is in them out of them. As long as you can do so without the others recognizing it. When people discover that you want to rob them they shut their doors. Like the doors are shut when someone suspect comes near. But if nothing else is possible you can also break in. Everyone has some cellar window open. That also can be quite appealing.

AS: Did you ever want to have a family?

TB: I was always happy to survive. I couldn't think of founding a family. I wasn't healthy, therefore I didn't feel like doing these things. There was nothing left for me but to flee into my mind and to start something on that basis, the body didn't have any potential. It was empty. It stayed like that through decades. Whether that is good or bad one doesn't know. It's one way to live. Life knows billions of different existences.

My mother died when she was forty-six years old. That was in 1950. A year before I had got acquainted with my life partner. First it was a friendship and a very close relationship to a person who was much older than I was. Wherever I was on earth, she was the central point from which I took everything. I always knew: this person is there for me one hundred percent if things get difficult. I only had to think of her, I didn't even have to visit her, and everything was already in order. Now too I live with that person. If I have problems I ask: what would you do? By that I'm held back from disgusting things which one might still commit at an older age, because everything is possible. She is the one keeping me from doing certain things, teaching me discipline, but also the one opening the world to me.

AS: Have you been content with your life at some moment in that life?

TB: I have never been content with my life. But I always felt a great need to be protected. I found that protection with my friend. She always got me working. She was happy when she saw that I was doing something. That was great. We traveled together. I carried her heavy bags, but I got to know a lot. As far as one is able to say so of oneself, it's always not very much, almost nothing. For me it was everything.

When I was nineteen she showed Sicily to me, the place where Pirandello lived. She wasn't eager to stuff a lot of learning into me. It just happened. We stayed in Rome, in Split -- but then the journeys more and more often changed into inner journeys. We were somewhere in the country where one lives very simply. Where at night it snowed in onto the bed. There was the tendency to simplicity. The cows lived right beside us, we ate our soup and had a lot of books with us.

AS: Have you accepted your existence as a writer?

TB: Well, one wants to get better at writing, because otherwise you become crazy. That happens when you get older. The composition should always get more concise. I always tried to do something better when going on. To take the next step depend on the one before. Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has his theme. He should move around in that theme. Then he does it well. There were many ideas. Maybe one wants to become monk, or work on the railroad, or cut wood. One wants to belong to the very simple people. That's of course a mistake, because you do not belong. If one is like I am something like that is of course impossible, one cannot be a monk or work on the railroad. I was always a loner. Despite that one strong relationship I was always alone. At the beginning of course I thought I had to go somewhere and join in the conversation.

But since almost a quarter of a century ago I haven't had contact with any other writers.

AS: One of your central themes is music. What does music mean to you?

TB: When I was young I studied music. It had pursued me since my childhood. Although I loved music it was like being hunted, chased. I only studied to be together with people of my age. And the reason was this older person. With my colleagues at the Mozarteum I played music, sang, performed. Then music was no longer possible because it wasn't possible physically. You can only make music if you are together with people all the time. As I didn't want that, that was that.

AS: Your invectives, attacks against the government, the church, are very harsh at times. Catholicism is described as "destroyer, frightener, character destroyer of a child's soul" in Extinction.Your country Austria has become to you "an unscrupulous business where all that is done is bargaining and swindling." Do you write this out of some kind of universal hatred? gitta

TB: I love Austria. I cannot deny that. The construction of government and church -- that's the terrible thing, you can only hate that. I think all countries and religions you know well are similarly disgusting. After some time you see that the constructions are all the same, dictatorship or democracy -- for the individual all is disgusting to the same degree. At least when you look close.

AS: Isn't it important to you to be accepted as a writer in your home country?

TB: The human being naturally longs for love, from the beginning. Love the world has to give. If one does not get it the others can say a hundred times that you are cold and don't see and hear that. It's very hard for you. But it's also part of life, you cannot escape from it. If you call into a forest the echo comes back. Basically one loves hatred after all.

AS: Is it correct that first of all you begin with a blank slate in your books? You seem to settle up with certain people. Do you have to pay for it?

TB: Yes. Sometimes it's almost unbearable. Yesterday a woman almost jumped at me when I was in town. She screamed: "If you go on like this you are going to end up in a slow and horrible death!" You cannot do anything against such things. Or you are sitting on a park bench and all of a sudden you are hit from behind, you give a start and hear someone shout: "Just go on like that!" One causes all that oneself. But one didn't expect it. In Ohlsdorf, my real residence, I can hardly live any more. The attacks from all sides are unbearable. But praise is equally terrible, hypocritical, untruthful, and egoistic. People get nasty when I don't open at once, they break the windows. First they knock, then they shout, then they scream, then they break the window. Then the engines of their cars roar, then they are gone. Twenty-two years ago I was so stupid and made my address known, now I can no longer live in Ohlsdorf. People are sitting on the walls there; already in the morning when I go out the door they are sitting there. They want to talk to me, they say. Or at weekends people instead of going to the zoo go out to look at a poet. And it's cheaper. They drive to Ohlsdorf and position themselves around the house. I look out like a prisoner or a lunatic. Unbearable.

Since twelve years agp I haven't given readings. I can no longer sit down and read my own stuff. I also cannot bear people applauding. Applause - actors are paid in such a way. They earn their money in such a way. I like it when the money from my publisher arrives on my account. But marching music, hosts of applauding people in the theater or in the concert -- I can't bear that. Nothing but disaster follows from applause.

AS: In Extinction you said that at the age of 40 one should be proclaimed a wise old fool [Altersnarr]. Why?

TB: That method is the only one that makes things bearable. You have asked me how I see myself. I can only say: as a fool, a jester. Then it's bearable. Only when seeing oneself as a fool, an aged fool. A young fool is not interesting. He isn't accepted as a fool anyhow.

AS: Was what you were writing earlier in you life, say 'The Breath" or 'The Cold," also a means to come to terms with your illness?

TB: My grandfather was a writer. Only after his death I really dared to write myself. When I was eighteen a commemorative tablet was unveiled in my grandfather's home town. After the ceremony everbody went to a restsurant that belonged to my aunt. I was also there and my aunt told the journalists that were present : "This is his grandson, he won't achieve anything in life. But maybe he can write." One said: "You can send him in on Monday." And I got an order to write something about a refugee camp. The next day my text was in the newspaper. Never again in my life did I experience such exaltation. A really great feeling that you write something and after one night it is printed even if abridged. But it was in the newspaper. By Thomas Bernhard. I had tasted blood. I wrote court reports for two years. They were in my head when later I wrote my own prose, that's where the origins lie.

AS: How do you feel today when critics like Reich-Ranicki or Benjamin Heinrichs write admiringly about you? Do you feel exaltation?

TB: When reading criticism I now never feel exaltation. At the beginning, yes, because you believe all these things. But experiencing the ups and downs for thirty years, then you look through the mechanisms. One sends a servant saying: "Go write a negative critique." That's how it works

AS: Are you annoyed at negative criticism?

TB: Yes. Even today I fall into every trap. I have always been fascinated by newspapers, that was starting very early. I can hardly bear a day without a newspaper. After some time you know the editors of the various newspapers. Maybe I haven't seen them, but I know about the situation at a theater, the background in an editorial office, I know publishers, their manuscript readers, their business. The intellect always comes to grief. Taste comes to grief. Poetry comes to grief. Columns of editors ride over it. They stop at nothing creative. That's also in a way fascinating. It hurts me but it no longer disturbs me in my work.

AS: In one of your speeches you once said: "We have to report about nothing but the fact that we are wretched." Do you write in order to testify to your failures?

TB: No, I do everything for myself. All people do so. Whether they are rope-dancing or baking bread or conducting a train or whether they are stunt pilots. Though stunt pilots have performances where people look up. While he flies beautifully they wait for his fall. It's the same with writers. But other then the stunt pilot, who is dead when that happens, the writer will also be dead but will always start again. There is always a new performance. The older he gets the higher he flies. Until one day you can't see him any longer and ask: "Strange, why doesn't he fall down?"

Writing delights me. That's nothing new. That's the only thing that still supports me, that will also come to an end. That's how it is. One does not live forever. But as long as I live I live writing. That's how I exist. There are months or years when I cannot write. Then it comes back. Such rhythm is both brutal and at the same time a great thing, something others don't experience.

AS: Women in your books are, apart from a few exceptions, not drawn in a very friendly way. Is that your experience?

TB: I can only say that for a quarter of a century I have dealt with women only. I can hardly bear men. I can't bear conversations with men. They drive me crazy. Men always talk about the same things. About their job and about women. You cannot expect anything from men. A lot of men in one place are terrible. I even prefer gossiping women. Relating to women had always been useful to me. I learnt everything from women -- and my grandfather. I don't believe I learnt anything from men. Men have always gotten on my nerves. Strange. After the death of my grandfather there was just nobody there any longer. I always sought protection with women, who in many things were also superior to me. Above all women let me work in peace. I was always able to work near women. I could never produce anything near men.

AS: After the death of your friend is there anybody you wouldn't want to miss?

TB: No. I mean, there are hundreds of people, I could dance at a thousand marriages, but there is nothing I would despise more. Recently I dreamt that the lost person is back. I said, all the time you weren't here was terrible. As if that time had been some interim time and the dead person would now live on. That was very intense. You can't get that back. It's no longer possible. Now I take the position of an observer of only a narrow territory from where I look at the world. That's all.

AS: Do you believe that there is an existence after death?

TB: No. Thanks God. Life is wonderful. But the best thought is that when it ends it ends forever. That's the greatest consolation to me. But I really enjoy living. It was always like that, except those times when I thought of suicide. That was when I was nineteen, at twenty-six quite strongly, again at the age of forty. But now I love life. If you see someone who has to leave, but still is in this life, then you start to understand that.

One of the most marvelous things I experienced was that you hold another one's hand in your hand, you feel the pulse, then it becomes slower and slower, then that's it. It's something enormous. Then you still hold that hand, then the nurse comes in, bringing with her the number for the corpse. The nurse wheels her out once more and says: "Come back later." Then you are immediately confronted with life again. You calmly get up and put things in order; in the meantime the nurse comes back and attaches the number to the corpse, you empty the bedside cabinet, the nurse says: " Don't forget the yogurt, you have to take it too." Outside you hear the crows -- it's like a theatrical play.

Then the bad conscience comes. A dead person leaves you with an immense guilt.

All the places I had stayed with her, places I wrote about in my books, I can no longer visit. Each of my books was created at a different place. Vienna, Brussels, somewhere in Yugoslavia, in Poland. I never had a desk in mind. When writing was going well it didn't matter where I did it. I also wrote with the greatest noise around me. I'm not disturbed by a crane or a noisy crowd or a screaming tram, or a laundry or a butcher's. I always liked to work in a country where I didn't understand the language. That was stimulating. A strangeness where you are one hundred percent at home. For me it was ideal to live together in a hotel, my friend took walks for hours and I was able to work. We often met for meals only. She was happy when she recognized that I was working. We stayed up to four or five months in a country. Those were highlights. While writing you very often have a very good feeling. If in addition to that there is someone who appreciates that and who leaves you in peace -- that's ideal. I never had a better critic. You cannot compare that to a dumb public critique that never looks deep into the text. This woman always provided a very strong positive criticism that was very useful to me. She knew me with all my weaknesses. I miss that.

I still like to be in our apartment in Vienna. I feel protected there. Maybe because we had been living there together for years. Now it's the only nest of our togetherness. The cemetery is also not very far away.

In life it's a great advantage if you have already experienced something like it. Things don't affect you as much after that. You're neither interested in failure nor success, neither the theater nor the directors, nor the editors or critics. You aren't interested in anything. The only interesting thing is that there is money on your account so that you can live. My ambitions were no longer as great as they had been earlier. After her death that ceased entirely. I'm not impressed by anything any more. One still likes some old philosophers, some aphorisms. It's almost like fleeing into music. For hours you enter into a wonderful mood. I still have plans. I once had four or five, now I have two or three. But it's not necessary. I don't need it and the world doesn't need it either. When I feel like writing I write, when I don't feel like it I don't. Whatever you write it's always a catastrophe. That's the depressing thing about the fate of a writer. One can never put on paper what one thought of or imagined. That gets lost when it is put onto paper. All you deliver is a bad, ridiculous copy of what you had imagined. Basically, one cannot communicate all that. No one ever managed to do so. It's especially hard in the German language because that language is wooden and clumsy, disgusting. A terrible language that kills everything light and wonderful. The only thing one can do is sublimate that language with a rhythm to give it musicality. When I write it's in the end never what I had thought it would be like. That's less frustrating with books because you think the reader has her own imagination. Maybe the flower will blossom after all, will unfold its leaves. In the theater only the curtain unfolds. Those are human actors who suffered for month before the first performance. Those people were meant to be the persons one had made up. But they are not. The persons in your head, that had been able to do everything, are of blood and flesh all of a sudden, water and bones. They are clumsy. In your head the play was poetic, great, but the actors are business-like translators. A translation doesn't have a lot to do with the original. So the play that is performed in a theater does not have a lot to do with what the author had created. The stage, the boards were to me boards that always destroyed everything. All is trampled down. Each time it's a catastrophe.

AS: But you continue writing. Books and plays. From one catastrophe to the next.

TB: Yes.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


A recent biography examines the life and work of Thomas Bernhard, an acclaimed Austrian writer and playwright his homeland loved to hate.

~Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian by Gitta Honegger. Yale University Press, 348 pages.

By Bill Marx (2002)

Whoever manages to write a pure comedy on his deathbed has achieved the ultimate success.

— Thomas Bernhard

Thomas Bernhard hated his country and his country hated him back. European critics however acclaimed him the heir to Samuel Beckett and August Strindberg, so he was too valuable a cultural icon to be discarded. Hungry for international prestige, Austria let Bernhard toss the acid of his satire into its face until his death at the age of 58 in 1989. Bernhard’s obsessive target was the moral decay of postwar Austria, a land of “six and a half million retards and maniacs” whom he viewed as cheerfully anti-Semitic, thoroughly philistine, and determinedly bureaucratic. One of the major writers of the last century, Bernhard turned himself into a grouch of greatness, the magus of gall.

He adroitly exploited Austria’s masochism for dramatic purposes. Bernhard’s rare public interviews were occasions for colorful excoriations and insults. Even his will sent the country reeling — it stipulates that none of his plays be staged in his homeland for the next 75 years. But Bernhard is far more than the literary equivalent of the axe-murderer sniggering at the sheepish bourgeoisie. His books tackle a crucial issue: how to depict the malignant legacy of the Holocaust without trivializing its horror.

At his best, Bernhard transforms his disdain at Austria’s hushed complicity with genocide, and the West’s ethical meltdown, into the rich and diverse art form of his 11 novels, five volumes of autobiography, and over 12 plays. His compedy is a sick, death’s head kind. His humor is a compendium of the demented and homicidal, the eccentric and inauthentic, that revels in outrage for the sake of a severe morality. Bernhard’s work suggests that epic disdain may be a more meaningful testament to the crimes of the past than well-intentioned homages to healing or the more passive hand wringing of current fave W.G. Sebald.

Bernhard’s work invites revulsion rather than love, but that doesn’t make his comedies any less compelling, once you are ready for their challenging mix of high Modernism and low farce. His books are both celebrated and dismissed for their long, jerry-rigged sentences, monomaniacal repetitions, and uber-narcissistic male characters. The savage party-pooper in “Woodcutters” mutters a non-stop harangue of hate at the other guests, artists who swapped aesthetic ideals for economic pampering in postwar Austria. The book was banned in Austria because Bernhard modeled many of its characters on his contemporaries, but it became a best seller in Germany. Plays such as “The Eve of Retirement” focus on a family of aging, incestuous Nazis chortling over their power in contemporary Austria.

Bernhard’s fury isn’t monolithic. His five volume memoirs, published in English under the collective title “Gathering Evidence,” are a masterpiece of modulated reflection on a childhood spent amid the trauma of war. (Alas, it is no longer in print.) His novel “Correction,” which features a Wittgenstein-like philosopher at its enigmatic center, spins a brilliant variation on Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus.” Bernhard’s fondness for disturbed and marginalized geniuses runs through “The Loser,” a fictional study of pianist Glenn Gould. “Old Masters” supplies moments of tenderness amid brittle reminiscences of a man for whom “there is no perfect picture, and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music.”
The inclination is to identify Bernhard with his usual protagonist - an aging egomaniac who spits out bile-filled riffs on issues such as social decay, art, health, and Austrian self-importance. In her biography (the first in English) Gitta Honegger, a professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at Arizona State University, complicates the stereotype of Bernhard by portraying him as a misanthropic monster.

There’s no doubt Bernhard loved playing the ugly troll with a chip on his hunched shoulder. Born into a low middle class family, illegitimate, and most likely homosexual, he climbed up the social ladder by pressing readers’ faces in grime they didn’t want to see. He was not a nice person: he manipulated and abused his friends (particularly women), reveled in the rewards the despised establishment gave him, and let his appetite for media controversy mar his work, particularly his plays, which were often more effective as calculated scandals than as works of art.
Yet Honegger suggests Bernhard created an ornery persona in order to fend off compromise and survive fame: his infamous reclusiveness was a form of protection. She also argues that self-hatred fueled his anger. She believes Bernhard, like the isolated figures in his plays and fiction, is “the survival artist as a virtuoso performance artist.” The writer’s inhuman persona was a game concocted to frighten the enemy, Austria. According to her, his books also dramatize the mechanics of posture, playing on the complexities of performance to diagnose and scold a culture the highest values of which had dissolved into acting out empty rituals.

Those who dismiss Bernhard as an opportunistic crank miss the point of his negative monochromatics. The rhetoric overkill is part of his vaudevillian stance. His manic monologists are infected with the very diseases they berate. Illness serves as a crucial and personal aspect of Bernhard’s critical vision. Because of a chronic lung condition, Bernhard was in and out of hospitals and sanitariums throughout his life. Unsurprisingly, his writing is infused with a sense of encroaching oblivion. Bernhard’s yakkers are demonic fools, avenging crabapples that are as much polluted products of the times as the hypocrites they condemn out of fear or a false sense of superiority. They use their tongues to ward off the grim reaper — that’s why they never shut up.

If only Honegger shared Bernhard’s sly sense of linguistic irony. Her book contains informative and insightful passages. The collection of Bernhard photographs are wonderful, including one of him holding a baby! Otherwise, the volume is too mired in academic thought to risk complexity or self-deprecating humor. Honegger’s sentences are clotted with impenetrable jargon, reductive psychoanalytic conjectures, and political correctness.

In the passage, “The tower’s interior evokes Plato’s cave in Luce Irigaray’s subversive scenario, where it is the excluded woman’s womb, the site of men’s captivity, the stage of their (symbolic) delusions and foreclosed desires,” Honegger uses feminist lingo as a club to hammer the patriarchal bully in Bernhard, into ideological submission. Bernhard, apparently, wasn’t the iconoclastic rebel he or his outraged readers thought he was. What’s ironic is that the kind of lingo Honegger uses in the above passage, was one of the things Bernhard laughed at with feverish bravado.

Honegger concludes that Bernhard, for all of his anger against society, “is as much activated by the constitutive grammar of authority as the culture he exposes and reaffirms with masochistic pleasure. Against the utopian notion of a theater that can change society Bernhard constructs a theater that brings out its reactionary resilience.” In other words, Bernhard is on the wrong side of the political divide — his moral critiques are problematic because they don’t come from the Left. It is unquestionable that Bernhard, like Swift and Celine, is part of an anti-utopian literary tradition that targets, among other things, the kind of earnest radicalism this biography champions.

Unfortunately, Bernhard fans will have to wait for a readable volume that sees him as a satirist who recognized he was part of the universal insanity. Only the beautiful and ferocious energy of his language sets him apart.

Honegger's book - click to view it on AmazonPlaying Dead

Gitta Honegger -- Thomas Bernhard: the making of an Austrian

JJ Long -- The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function

FROM: The Gaping Void

What if everything we can be depends on playing a role? Where would that leave us? Well, first of all, it would mean that the public self, the one presented to the world, is not "a mask" but the original; the thing itself. Behind the scenes, alone, we live the mystery of self-consciousness. We wonder who it is that wakes at four to soundless dark. Alone, we dream of another life; the one in the biography. Perhaps the oppressive climate of our culture - as seen in the triumphant exposés of the press and the prurience of Reality TV - is due to our frantic need to remove in others what we see as a façade in ourselves. And as art is seen as an adjunct of this removal ("expressing the inner self"), so the inevitable disappointment in its resistant playfulness leads to a shift in preference to revelatory biography and memoir. Could this be stage fright on our part?

Early on in the first English biography of the Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Thomas Bernhard, Gitta Honegger says the apparatus of the theatre is an "annoyingly overused existential paradigm", and she's right. I've only used it once and it's annoying me already. However, it is clear that her subject is the paradigm's essential figure. There seems to be no private Thomas Bernhard. As such, Honegger says he is a particularly Austrian phenomenon. The nation, she says, transplanted the baroque theatrics of the old Hapsburg Empire into its cultural life, notably the Salzburg Festival, the state run Burgtheatre, and one man: Thomas Bernhard. Each provided an arena for Austria to conjure its self image.

In Bernhard's case, it was invariably a negative image, as if Austria needed an impression of embattlement against a hostile world. For example, when Bernhard received a state prize and made critical remarks about the state in his acceptance speech, a Government minister stormed out and slammed a glass door so violently that it smashed. And just before his death in 1989, he was verbally attacked by the President (an ex-Nazi), and physically attacked on a bus by an old lady wielding an umbrella. Since his death, however, Bernhard has become a national treasure. His vitriol has been rebranded, Guy Fawkes-like, into a fireworks display. As a result, his description of Austria as a place with more Nazis in 1988 than in 1938 (the cause of the President's and the old lady's wrath) is safely consigned to history. Like the "Anschluss" and the President's SS uniform, it is part of Austria's rich cultural heritage. Perhaps this is why, in his will, Bernhard refused to allow the publication or performance of his work within the Austrian state for the duration of the copyright; he foresaw his place in the state circus. (The lawyers have since got around this.)

However, the important thing to remember is that it wasn't Bernhard who said Austria was still full of Nazis, it was a character in his play "Heldenplatz". And while everyone assumes Bernhard meant every word as his own, those words are part of a whole that, as JJ Long explains in his book, demands to be experienced not in isolation as preferred by the culture-vultures, but in real time. If this is done, irony leaks into the hyperbole and all attitudes become unstable, even irony. In effect, even after death, Bernhard still performs, refusing to become a museum piece. The man himself remains a mystery. So what, in fact, did Thomas Bernhard think? Who was he when alone, no longer dancing before the appalled Viennese bourgeoisie? These are questions for a biography.

Salut! Thomas Bernhard
But don't get your hopes up. As Honegger's subtitle indicates, there is a plea of mitigation. She says her book is a "cultural biography"; as much about Austria as about Bernhard. While this is disappointing, it is also understandable. Most correspondence is unavailable, and friends do not say anything particularly intimate. In fact, the one clear sexual revelation doesn't alter the image of a performer: Bernhard liked to masturbate in front of a mirror! We're told this on page 10, so it's all over pretty quickly. Instead of a chronological narrative, we're given themes in which Honegger makes frequent (and wearying) digressions into cultural history and their relevance to Bernhard, such as the notion of "Heimat", and the significance of the theatre in Austria.

In connection with the latter, Honegger rightly makes much of Bernhard's staging of his experience. In his compelling memoirs (written in five short volumes but collected in English as "Gathering Evidence"), Bernhard recalls events through the eyes of his younger self while he (the younger self) is also observing or reflecting. He observes his younger self observing from a vantage point separate from the "action". One observation point leads to another and then another. We might see this as a prime example of Chinese-box Postmodernism where all facts are as hollow as the next, but in Bernhard's memoir the gnawing question of origin is always there. The facts are plain: Bernhard's father abandoned his mother before Thomas was born, and died during the war years in mysterious circumstances; he either killed himself or was murdered. He never met his son. Bernhard was later punished by his bitter mother who saw her humiliation in the inherited features of her boy. No amount of virtuoso storytelling and opinionating could prevent the author from being thrown toward the bitter facts of his birth, and its consequences, much as we wonder, whilst vomiting, what we had eaten to cause it.

Bernhard's early life was also blighted by the Nazi era. He saw at first hand the terror of Allied bombing raids on Salzburg. Barely a teenager, death closed in from all sides. And after the war, when he tried to make his way in the world as a trained singer, he was struck down with tuberculosis after working in freezing conditions in a grocery store. In hospital, with his lungs full of breathtaking sputum, he was given the Last Rites. Miraculously, he survived when all around were dying. Honegger says he wrote the memoir as a record of his victory over that death and the attempts at metaphorical suffocation by his upbringing in particular, and Austrian society in general. Victory was the result of a decision to become himself, to live despite all that suffocated him, even though it was futile. I say "futile" because all that suffocated him also provided the oxygen. It is no coincidence that, despite the oppressive details, there is a sense of freedom pulsing out of the pages of "Gathering Evidence". Later, the existential energy of Bernhard's neurasthenic narrators will also emerge from this outrageous, paradoxical act of will.

Perhaps it because Bernhard provides the most useful guide to his life that Honegger does not attempt to take us through the minutiae of his daily existence. Yet while the analysis is very interesting, one longs for that minutiae. Recently, a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Bernhard revealed that his record collection consisted almost entirely of the 19th Century Romantic repertoire. One might have assumed this great Modernist would have preferred Schönberg and Webern, Bach and Haydn over Schubert and Brahms. Apparently not. (Curiously, this is similar to Beckett). I don't recall Honegger mentioning anything like this. Nor does she mention the novel Bernhard had sketched out before his death. She prefers to skim over the surface, taking what is necessary for her themed coverage. When it comes to Bernhard's sexuality, for example, there is an exhausting bout of Freudian analysis arising from his father's absence and his mother's maltreatment. It is unconvincing only because it is so persuasive. Actually the same is true of the opinions expressed by Bernhard's narrators. Perhaps Honegger is having a laugh as our brows sweat over the complexities of Oedipal anxiety? I would like to think so. In the rest of the book, Freud gets barely a mention. It is very odd.

It is also vague. We don't get a definitive answer as to whether Bernhard was hetero-, bi- or homosexual. Honegger says he "came between couples", which suggests one conclusion, but what she means is that both sexes were drawn into an ambiguous relationship with the writer. It's a living example of Bernhard's elusiveness, and proof of nothing else. Another is the one major relationship outside his family. It was with a woman 39 years older than himself. She was a widow who befriended Bernhard when he was a young writer. She provided a home and material support when he was struggling. He called her his "Lebensmench" (Lifeperson); a word he invented. Understandably, Honegger doesn't have much to give us on the details of this partnership. All windows are opaque. The same is true, more or less, for other areas of his life. Indeed, Bernhard is a phantom in his own biography.

JJ Long's book - click to view it on AmazonJJ Long takes a firmer route by concentrating on the novels. Bernhard, he says, was "a writer of considerable diversity, profoundly concerned with the problems and potential of storytelling." Originally a doctoral thesis, "The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function" uses the technical language of Narrative Theory to understand the unique qualities of Bernhard's writing. Reading it requires a high level of patience and concentration. Moreover, it leaves the lengthy quotations in German untranslated. This is regrettable as those most likely to be drawn to the book - Germanless Bernhard fans - will be hampered. Presumably the costs involved are prohibitive. Still, even monolinguists can gain a good deal from what's left. Whereas Honegger bizarrely accuses Bernhard of being a solipsist - someone for whom the world is merely a projection of their own mind - Long stresses the "narrative strategies" and "hermeneutic sequences" employed to undermine such narrow interpretations of Bernhard's monological prose.

For example, he writes that the reflective form of the great, valedictory novel "Extinction" allows "an excavation of the past even as it moves forward into the future." The novel's narrator fires at familiar targets - particularly the repression of the Nazi past - even as he himself succumbs to the same temptation to repress the facts of his own life in order to resist the impending extinction of the title. Indeed, the targets are not only familiar but familial. Long shows how most of Bernhard's novels - like his memoir - are concerned with "transgenerational transmission" (that is, inheritance). The narrator's family consists of ex-Nazi parents, both sad and monstrous people, whom he loves and hates in equal measure, as well as grotesque siblings who have not resisted the legacy of repression. As the eldest, the narrator inherits the family's country estate in darkest Austria when the parents are killed in a car crash. As he also feels that he has not got long to live, he decides he must return from his sunny life in Rome to redeem the legacy. We don't get to find out how he does this until the final page. As he goes forward to do this, he reflects on why it is required.

Yet the reason why the narrator's predicament compels our attention, and gives us pleasure, is his spirited unwillingness to complete the task. He is forever delaying the end in both the action as described (stalling outside the gates of the estate) and in the act of storytelling itself (spinning variations of anecdotes and opinions). Long says these delaying tactics are achieved through "embedded narratives" and "retarding elements". As a successful doctoral candidate, "pleasure" is not an issue for him, but for those of us who turn to Bernhard for this reason, it is interesting to note how these techniques create an experience similar to the reading of a thriller or detective novel. In those genres, pleasure comes from the growth of mystery and suspense before the inevitable denouement. "Extinction" is similar in that one reads to find out what happens next. However, the distinction is that the thriller cannot reproduce the same pleasure on re-reading. A new story is required every time. "Extinction" on the other hand positively demands to be re-read in order to enjoy that delay again and again. In fact it becomes more enjoyable as we join with the narrator repeating stories and opinions in order to delay our return to the mundane world. Unfortunately for him, the delay has more serious import for the narrator. For a time, we feel more alive even if our noses are "buried in a book". This is the great problem and potential of storytelling. Long's analysis, which is richer and more complex than I have space (or patience) to detail, manages to elucidate Bernhard's method and highlight his remarkable technical achievement. One cannot go away from this book and still believe, as so many do, that Bernhard is merely a ranting egoist. Those who already know better will perhaps understand more clearly how Bernhard maintained his high-wire act, though we would still like to know more in physical detail.

In one brief insight to his working process, Honegger quotes Bernhard as saying he wrote "with full commitment"; his entire body took part in the creative process. Perhaps this is why he preferred to call his novels "prose texts" as this suggests a script for performance. Indeed, Bernhard's many plays are not greatly different from the novels. It seems Bernhard himself felt most alive when writing, like an actor on stage even at his writing desk. Honegger observes that each work was a reassertion of that early decision to live. Appropriately, some way into "Extinction", the narrator reflects on the frustrated lives of those stuck in small-town provincial misery from which he, the narrator, had escaped. He says they fail to better themselves, to "get away from their real selves" because

"they lack the intellectual energy, because they have not discovered the intellect - the intellect around them or the intellect within them - and have therefore not taken the first step, which is the precondition for taking the second."

So, we might assume that in writing, Bernhard got away from his real self. But "full commitment" means he did it with his mortal body as well as his intellect. Despite his early escape from death, Bernhard was always seriously ill. He expected to die before reaching fifty. His half-brother, a doctor, claims to have kept him alive for an extra ten years after that. Mortality was an over-riding theme and writing was at once the escape from death's imminence AND its enactment. Barthes' "Death of the Author" was more than a concept to Bernhard. In fact, in a blessed piece of minutiae, Honegger tells us one of his favourite games was "playing dead". It's a nice idea to think of the novels as the place were Bernhard plays dead for us. Nowhere else is he more alive.


FROM: Waggish

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s—first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

Bernhard's manuscript of EXTINCTION: a page
It seems like a throwaway line, but later—much later—it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void...You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.


-Eric Ormsby (2003)

With his elongated and bulbous nose, his pockmarked cheeks and his sly ruminative glance, invariably from under half-closed lids, Thomas Bernhard seemed more a Tyrolean version of W. C. Fields than the major shit-disturber of modern German literature. I mean this quite literally: as Gitta Honegger reports in her fine new book, [1] at the 1984- Salzburg premiere of his play Theatermacher (the English translation is misleadingly named Histrionics), an actual dung-heap, fuming and malodorous, held center-stage and served as a synecdoche for Austria itself.

In the third volume of his inimitable autobiography he writes: "All my life I have been a trouble-maker, and I shall go on being the trouble-maker my relatives always said I was.... Throughout my life my very existence has always made trouble. I have always troubled and irritated people. Everything I write, everything I do, is a source of trouble and irritation. Some people leave others in peace, while others--of whom I am one--cause them trouble and irritation." The obsessive repetition of certain phrases--in this Case, "trouble and irritation"--is typical of Bernhard's style and is, of course, designed precisely to trouble and irritate. In his notorious interviews--he insisted on giving one at a bullfight in Madrid--he could sound positively deranged, a droll amalgam of Wittgenstein with the Katzen-jammer Kids, but in his prose, that maniacal hilarity was turned to cool and lethal effect. Indeed, there is something almost sculptural in the staggering dementia of his Gargantuan sentences; as Honegger notes, the opening sentence of his story "Ja" ("Yes") is 477 words long. But these sentences, while never really "high style" have a careening beauty that confounds and captivates the reader.

Bernhard is not yet respectable (as Celine, and now even Jean Genet, luxuriously swaddled in the sleek leather-bound volumes of the Pleiade series, threaten to become), and that adds a certain scandalous piquancy to his appeal. I have had the experience of surprising a sudden revulsion on the faces of German speakers when I have mentioned Bernhard's name. Beyond the irrepressible pleasures of Schadenfreude--there is always something a bit comical in the righteous indignation of others--what is it about Thomas Bernhard and his work that still elicits this queer conflicted response of fascination and disgust?

Bernhard was not simply a gadfly, a Storenfried, like Karl Kraus, but someone who unearthed, and relished unearthing, the most unsavory aspects of the national past: principally the Austrian enthusiasm for Hitler, its native son, and for the Nazis, as well as Austrian collaboration in the persecution of the Jews and other "outsiders" Even worse, in Bernhard's implacable view, the attitudes that made Nazism popular in Austria continued unabated in his native land. But the ultimate moral ugliness for Bernhard is that post-war Austria had become nothing more than a swindler's paradise, a kind of corrupt and mendacious emporium (Geschaftshaus) where the lie reigns supreme and the only values are crassly mercantile.

Perhaps it is significant that there seems to be no real equivalent in German for the English term "shit-disturber" which I used at the outset: the word doesn't figure in German because the role is not merely verboten but virtually inconceivable: to make the private public, the hidden manifest--to breach the stricture of totschweigen ("dead silence")--is shameful and unpardonable in Austrian and German culture. In her preface Honegger suggests the epithet Nestbeschmutzer, "someone who soils his own nest" and no doubt many Austrians have thought of Bernhard in this way, but the term addresses only one aspect of Bernhard's trouble-making--the embarrassment it provokes--and doesn't do justice to the mischievous accuracy of his disturbing-stick. Certainly if the home-nest stank, Bernhard drew unflinching attention to its reek, and did so with undisguised gusto, throughout his entire career. Hardly startling then that such exposure of ugly "Austrian truths" hidden beneath a blithe Alpine sheen should arouse mingled loathing and fascination.

But Bernhard the novelist is also a master of complicity. The reader is drawn, sometimes unwillingly, into his rambling, circular monologues by the kind of coldly Cartesian zaniness they exhibit; we seem to be eavesdropping on a lunatic but one whose discourse strangely involves us. Of course, there is a certain morbid satisfaction in being made a witness to his demolition of those staid yet lubricious Viennese facades, all that shrill gaiety, those cupolas of Schlagsahne, that lacy fretwork of waltzes; in reading Bernhard, it is as though we were observing a canny street-rat assaulting a Sachertorte. For the fraudulence of the light-hearted Viennese myth--indeed, the Austrian self-myth--has never been so relentlessly and savagely exploded as in Bernhard's plays, stories, and novels. Of course, Bernhard's ferocity towards his native land and his compatriots is so vehement because he is himself secretly tinged by the very vices he castigates and because, more shaming still, there is a drastic attachment, a kind of poisonous affection, in the ties that lash him to his Heimat, his home.

Bernhard is one of those singular writers who seem almost to elect their readers. I know because I found myself quite unexpectedly trader his spell some years ago. While living in Prague I formed the habit of spending the afternoons at the Goethe Institute on the right bank of the Vltava; there, in a palatial nineteenth-century building, I could browse through the entire range of German and Austrian literature and there too, one day, I came across Bernhard's last novel, aptly entitled Extinction (Auslogchung). From the first elephantine yet nimble sentences I was spellbound. Not long after I began to read Bernhard's autobiography, arguably his masterpiece, and from the first sentence I knew that I had come across a "kindred spirit."

In the third volume of the autobiography, Der Keller (The Cellar), Bernhard describes how his life changed when he decided, as a schoolboy, to go "in the opposite direction" (die entgegengesetzte Richtung) from his Gymnasium one morning. He found himself in the meanest quarter of Salzberg, the Scherzhauserfeld Project, amid drunks, the disabled, the unemployable, the outcasts of proper Austrian society--those very "lowlifes" in fact, whom the Nazis had sought to exterminate--and he promptly took a job as an apprentice in a cellar-store. This was his liberation and the beginning of his true life. As I read I felt a kinship with the adolescent Bernhard. I too had once gone in "the opposite Direction," leaving Columbia University and a full scholarship abruptly in 1960 to work in a succession of menial jobs: messenger, short-order cook, busboy, dog washer. And I too had felt liberated by my sudden immersion in what I then thought of as "the real world." I recognized the exuberance the young Bernhard felt in his new milieu, and I also understood the fascinated compassion he came to experience among his new acquaintances, a compassion that grew as he himself entered ever more into these other lives so starkly different from his own, a sympathy, it must be said, complicated by his own deepening entanglement in the workaday world of a despised slum.

In fact, it is Bernhard's hard, clear-eyed compassion which finally makes of him, in my estimation at least, a writer of lasting significance and depth. His scathing antics, the well-nigh hysterical hilarity of much of his writing, his unmitigated denunciations of the fraud and mendacity of Austrian post-war society, the magic intricacy of his prose--all these make him a writer to be reckoned with, in the long cantankerous line of Austrian cranks of genius, Karl Kraus again, or the sublimely goofy Nestroy. I cannot help wondering too (though Honegger says nothing about this) whether Bernhard was not stylistically influenced by the fantastic verbal hijinx of his compatriot, the eccentric novelist and artist Fritz von Herzmanovski-Orlando, virtually unknown outside Austria (where his works have now appeared in ten stout volumes). What Honegger terms "Bernhard-speak" that inimitable amalgam of scabrous lyricism, may have had its genesis in Herzmanovsky-Orlando's mordant wordplay (though Bernhard surely would have loathed that rumbustious scribbler's lifelong anti-Semitism). Still, verbal agility aside, it is the fellow-feeling which permeates Bernhard's work, and especially his empathy with the poor, the despised, the forgotten, the failures and misfits, that gives his writing a half-hidden tenderness made even more piercing by his fury.

Though Bernhard professed a distaste for nature and the countryside, he was also fiercely drawn to both, as his poetry attests. And the stubborn earthiness of his prose, coupled with his flair for pungent invective, may owe something to his rural origins. In an early poem, "My Great-Grandfather Was a Lard-Dealer" Bernhard revealed both his closeness to his country background and his distance from it. The poem, in my own rough-and-ready translation, reads:

Thomas' poem

My great-grandfather was a lard-dealer
and today
everyone still knows him
from Henndorf to Thalgau,
Seekirchen to Kastendoff,
and they hear his voice
and move
as one to his table
which was also the Lord's table.
In 1881, in spring,
he decided in favor of life: he planted
a vine along the wall of the house
and summoned the beggars;
Maria, his wife, she with the black ribbon,
gave him another thousand years of life.
He discovered the music of swine
and the fire of bitterness,
he spoke of wind
and of the weddings of the dead.
He wouldn't give a bacon-bit
for my bouts of despair.

The poem is at once reverent and sardonic. The great-grandfather "decided in favor of life" (entschied er sich fut das Leben), perhaps in tacit contrast to his more tormented descendant, but he was also a "lard-dealer" (Schmalzhandler): Schmalz is not only pork fat or drippings but, as every New Yorker knows, whatever is coyly mawkish, sloppily sentimental; for all his implicit insubstantiality, the great-grandson has a sharp bite. The final word of the poem, the untranslatable plural noun Verzweiflungen ("despairs"), an airy nothing of a word, is, however, set against the earthy solidity of the pig-grease his ancestor dealt in, and specifically against the unctuous thickness of the phrase kein Stuck Speck.

The great-grandfather is one of many elders in Bernhard's work, like the dogged but ultimately defeated grandfather of the autobiography who works day after day at 3 A.M.--the time rings like a refrain through Bernhard's account--at his novel The Valley of the Seven Courts "which he planned as a book of five hundred manuscript pages." Nothing could better display the close strands of affection which bound grandfather and grandson than the 1937 photograph of the two of them sitting side by side on the grass beneath a massive oak tree; the grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler (himself a local author of some renown), wears a crisp Panama hat and leans forward indulgently to listen to young Thomas who already as a six-year old has an intent and quizzical mien. (The photo is reproduced in Kurt Hoffmann's Aus Gesprachen mit Thomas Bernhard, the record of a twelve-year series of interviews concluded only by Bernhard's death in 1989.)

Fortunately, most of Bernhard's novels, and a number of his plays, are available in English from the University of Chicago Press, all in excellent translations and attractive formats (the series is continuing, with three of his novellas forthcoming this spring). [2] These, together with Honegger's new study, easily the best introduction in English, give the reader without German a marvelous entree to this strange and difficult author. Honegger knows Bernhard's entire oeuvre in impressive detail, including not only poetry, prose, and drama, but interviews, videos, and other published sources (Bernhard's correspondence and his papers are still unavailable and remain, as Honegger puts it, "under the (tight) control of a few Austrian scholars"). Austrian-born herself and a distinguished "dramaturg" (a position she held both at Yale and at the Catholic University of America), she has an especially fine feel for Bernhard's theater. She is equally astute and clear-sighted in pursuit of her exceedingly slippery subject, delighting in his contradictions but rarely blinded by them; she did have the advantage--or perhaps, for a biographer, the disadvantage--of knowing Bernhard well during the last ten years of his life. The book is as much about modern Austria as about its most famous bad boy and Honegger's valuable digressions, which she groups under the heading "Heimat" or "excursions," set Bernhard solidly in his native context. Honegger writes well and often quite wittily. Thus, in describing Bernhard's grandfather, she can speak of his "spirit of horny rebellion;" she is also good in deciphering various untranslatable Austrian locutions, for example, the term Lebensmensch--more than "companion" the compound denotes a lifelong relationship with an intimate "endowed with moral depth." Bernhard used the word to characterize Hedwig Stavianicek, "an elegant, no-nonsense woman from an old officer's family" who sheltered and protected Bernhard in her own apartment for decades, despite a thirty-year difference in their ages (Bernhard was only nineteen when he came under her wing). At the same time, Honegger is admirably discreet about her subject's private life and refrains from regaling us with any lurid discussions of his oftalleged homosexuality. In addition she has selected an array of wonderful photographs which bring Bernhard and his milieu immediately alive.

Honegger is also good on Bernhard's vexed and tangled relations with certain exemplary predecessors, such as Glenn Gould and Wittgenstein. Bernhard loved music and had been formally trained as a musician and so the links with Gould are perhaps not so unexpected (Gould figures in his 1983 novel The Loser). Nevertheless, his obsession with, and immersion in, the works of his compatriot Ludwig Wittgenstein-and indeed, the whole family Wittgenstein--are another matter altogether. In Honegger's intelligent discussion, Wittgenstein emerges as a sort of shadowy "secret sharer" to Bernhard, as though the latter's works were partly intended as an oblique exegesis on much of the philosopher's terse and labyrinthine thought. Easily the most entertaining part of Honegger's study, however, deals with Paul Wittgenstein, the dapper, enigmatic and quite outrageous grand-nephew of Ludwig (and the subject of Bernhard's memoir Wittgenstein's Nephew). In her delightful excursus, Paul with his dandified shenanigans comes to seem the very prototype of those obsessive figures who play so conspicuous a part in Bernhard's writing.

Among the seething contradictions of Bernhard's life and work, the most intriguing is perhaps the stark contrast between his public role as self-appointed castigator of Austrian turpitude and his zealously guarded private life. This exposer of others immured his own life in an almost unbreachable secrecy. While it is to Honegger's credit that she respects his privacy, her reticence docs tantalize the reader unduly at times. Laden with every honor an outraged citizenry could bestow, Bernhard yet withheld his inmost self, and did so to the last. Did he mean to spark, or to quell, curiosity? So, too, in his notorious will, he stipulated that no performance or even publication of his work was to be allowed in Austria until the copyright had expired. Predictably enough, and as this posthumous troublemaker surely knew, his will provoked what Honegger calls "a nationwide drama of legal evasions and ethical speculations that threatens never to end." Even in death, Bernhard headed resolutely in the opposite direction.

-Eric Ormsby
Foundation for Cultural Review 2003

* * *

(1) Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, by Gitta Honegger; Yale University Press, 359 pages.
(2) Three Novellas, by Thomas Bernhard; University of Chicago Press, 184 pages.

Portrait of BernhardAntiphons To A Displaced God

(November 8, 2006)

The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard took a mordant glee in outraging his countrymen. The Austrians have a name for such troublemakers. Bernhard, they said, was a Nestbeschmützer, a man who fouls his own nest. But for Bernhard, the nest had already been fouled, and long before. Picturesque Austria was a whipped-cream façade behind which lay the bodies of the murdered. The Tyrolean hat with its jaunty feather sat atop a skull. Bernhard's penchant for laying bare the nastiness tucked behind cozy vistas had, of course, a long history in Austrian letters. The incomparable Johann Nestroy, with such untranslatable farces as "Lumpazivagabundus" or the wry comedy "He Wants to Make a Joke" (which somehow ended up as "Hello, Dolly!" on Broadway), had launched the tradition in the 19th century. But Nestroy and his successors were light hearted. Bernhard was downright nasty (as well as funny). The undeniable fact that he wrote the most magnificent German prose since Kafka only salted the national wound intolerably.

In his autobiography,"Gathering Evidence," Bernhard describes how one day, out of the blue, he decided not to take his usual route to school, but to walk in the opposite direction. He ended up in a shabby quarter of Salzburg he hadn't known existed; it was a neighborhood of the downtrodden, the ostracized, and the unemployed on the dole. It opened his eyes to what lurked behind the smug façade. He promptly got a menial job in a grubby convenience store in a basement and never went back to school. Walking in the opposite direction would become a stubborn habit for the rest of his short life.

Bernhard's early verse displays this inspired truculence. Two of his collections,"In Hora Mortis" and "Under the Iron of the Moon" (Princeton University Press, 168 pages, $14.95), from the 1950s, have now been translated in their entirety by James Reidel, with the German originals on facing pages and an enthusiastic introduction. These are Bernhard's second collection, "In Hora Mortis" — taken from the final phrase of the "Hail Mary" ("Pray for us now and in the hour of our death") — and his longer third collection, "Under the Iron of the Moon." The poems are Bernhard at his bleakest and yet, they carry an unexpected shock.

The poems are quiet, almost whispery in tone, displaying none of the virtuoso antics of the prose: no glittering cascades of insult, no manic swerves from tenderness to savagery. The shock comes from their unabashed religious fervor. Though they sound like prayers "to the unknown God," they are, nevertheless, prayers, by turns meditative, anguished, and almost perversely devotional. In one he proclaims, "my God I praise You / for as long as time exists." Bernhard was often denounced as a "nihilist." He brushed the charge aside; his "negativity," he quipped, was just "fun-philosophy." In fact he was a believing Christian, if an eccentric one. According to Mr. Reidel, Bernhard considered himself "saved." He quotes Bernhard as stating, "I always believed in heaven, even as a child. The older I get, the more I believe in it, because heaven is something quite beautiful. In heaven they always wear freshly cleaned, white clothes."That last remark is a bit quirky, but for once, it seems, Bernhard wasn't being humorous.

He studied to be a musician before turning to writing and the poems draw, often quite subtly, on musical devices. Bernhard uses refrains, leitmotifs, and contrapuntal themes. His dark notes are made up of the snow, the wind, the blackbirds, ice, and frost, while his bright notes come from honey, grain, cider, and, more surprisingly, "pink ham" on a plate. These presences weave their way insistently into the verse. Death is present too:

    Death is clear in the stream and wild in the moon as clear to me as the evening star that shivers a stranger outside my door death is clear as honey in August
    For all their austerity, these are tactile poems. "I want to pray upon the hot stone," he writes in one,"and count the stars swimming in my blood."When the tone grows overly exalted, he comes back to earth with "long slivers of bacon" or the devil who fills his head "with stone and cabbage." It is as though only the homeliest objects are solid enough for his fervor. Bernhard was a city boy but, as the poems make plain, he had the earth in his bones.

Mr. Reidel's translations are admirably spare. He follows Bernhard's gaunt German word by word and is attentive to every shift of syntax and mood. Sometimes this leads him into awkward turns of phrase. One poem in the second collection begins simply, "I seemed to myself much younger," but Mr. Reidel renders this as "To me I was much younger," and it jars. In another, Bernhard writes "My despair comes at midnight/and looks at me as though I were long dead." Mr. Reidel fluffs the effect of the second line by giving it as "and I look on as though I were long dead." Despair is doing the looking, not the speaker. But such slips are rare.

These are the poems of a young man. They veer from rage to desperation to self-pity. Inevitably they echo earlier poets. Bernhard was learning his craft and he studied the masters. As Mr. Reidel notes, there are accents reminiscent not only of Hölderlin and Trakl but of such older contemporaries as Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. But an obvious influence, whom Mr. Reidel surprisingly doesn't mention, is Rilke and his early work, "The Book of Hours." Rilke addressed God in a voice of startling intimacy, calling him "You, neighbour God," and boldly asking, "What will you do, God, when I die?" Bernhard struggles for the same closeness; he can't quite achieve it and is too honest to fake it. But when he writes, "And on the mountains whitely stand the stars," the music of the verse pays Rilke the homage of imitation. And in fact, both collections strike me as Bernhard's conscious response to the earlier poet; they are antiphons to a displaced god.

Probably no one would make the claim that these are great poems. For all their acrid elegance, they are compelling because Thomas Bernhard wrote them. But they do show how deeply Bernhard, the caustic besmircher of the native nest, was rooted in the soil of his homeland. Every line suggests that his love of it was almost equal to his loathing.

Thomas Bernhard: The Portrait of the Author as an Artist of Exaggeration

by Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler

University of Vienna


I’d like to begin with a quote which has a very contemporary ring to it: “Day in , day out we have the feeling that we are governed by a hypocrisy-ridden and deceitful and mean government which - to top it all off - is just about the dumbest government one could imagine (…) and we think there is nothing we can really do about it, that all we can do is look on and see how this government gets more deceitful and more hypocrisy-ridden and meaner by the day.” Now that observation may sound very recent, but, in fact, it is from the year 1985 and spoken by a figure in Bernhard’s novel Maitres Anciens (Alte Meister). “There are more Nazis in Vienna now than there were in ’38 – “ Nor is that of recent origin. It is taken from Bernhard’s 1988 play Heldenplatz or Heroes Square.

Is it possible to simply transpose the importance of a writer such as Thomas Bernhard from one culture to another? Is it possible to even speak of “importance” when we want to see Bernhard read in another language under very differing conditions? Furthermore: Is the term “importance” in any way appropriate? At any rate, I would like to begin with an observation. In the past two decades, Thomas Bernhard has succeeded in assuming the role of a modern classic writer, and not merely in Austria or the other German-speaking countries, but far beyond these confines, albeit with varying intensity. This is particularly true for Europe, whereby the vigorous interest in the Romance countries is most striking. In Italy, Spain and France, for example, almost everything available in the original German is available there in translation. In Great Britain, on the other hand, there seems to be a degree of hesitation. Apparently this writer does not appeal as much to Anglo-Saxon common sense. But there and in the United States as well, he is, at least, an inside tip. His reception in Slavic literatures has, in recent times - especially in Russia and the former Soviet republics - been tremendous. And the fact that there is a Thomas Bernhard Society in Korea is revealing in itself. And it is nice to know and very important for us to see that there is apparently growing interest in China, too. What is evident in any case is that this fascination for Bernhard is not the result of any special advertising campaign on the part of his publisher or any personal connections. Literary criticism has responded to the author in spontaneous fashion, and this allows us to conclude that Bernhard’s oeuvre obviously has qualities which arouse interest beyond the barriers of other languages and cultures. He is thus not to be regarded as a special case, be it Austrian or German. Instead, he is an example of an author who is, even in times of widespread complaints about the weak position of literature, living proof that there is such a thing as world literature. That is a merely a sober observation, but one which can be backed up by facts. Admittedly, there are other authors who are more popular - Stefan Zweig is but one example - but the interest shown in Bernhard by people of differing origins and educational backgrounds does actually beg an explanation.


This fascination for Bernhard may well be encouraging, but at the same time it has tended to detract from the interest in his oeuvre. This has been replaced - first and foremost in Austria - by the man himself and his public appearances. Bernhard became a media star, albeit less on account of his books and more because of his carefully targeted and cleverly crafted provocative acts, with which he succeeded in upsetting the collective conscience. People talked about him, about what he said or did, but not about his literary work. Bernhard’s public presence had become a quality of the work itself and became part and parcel of it. Bernhard had left the ghetto to which literature tends to be banned in our western civilization, he had become a household word, and it seems only right to ask what factors have contributed to his becoming an important writer - important at least in terms of European culture. To come up with an answer I would suggest returning to the texts and taking a close look at them.


During his relatively short lifetime (1931-1989) Bernhard published a considerable amount. Nine major novels, five lengthy stories, four volumes of short stories, two volumes of short prose, five volumes of an autobiography, eighteen full-length works for the stage, more than a handful of short plays, three volumes of poetry, many interviews and letters to the editor. And it must be noted that his literary estate contains an almost equal amount of unpublished as it does published material. Here, in particular, from his early period (until around 1960). In other words, we’re looking at a voluminous mass of texts. Needless to say, it is not the amount of written material that is an achievement in itself, but having said that we are looking at an achievement which is - solely in terms of quantity - respectable.

Faced with the task of presenting the significance of this achievement, I must confess it is difficult in the time at my disposal, and it gets more and more difficult for me as years go by. And, I have been working on Thomas Bernhard for the good part of forty years now and the longer I do the more puzzling it all becomes to me. But allow me to mention a few points which make my fascination for this oeuvre credible. I would like to begin by bringing in a number of aesthetic criteria and then deal with the effect of the texts and, at the same time, touch on the social and political dimension which is so much a part of the texts. Finally, I would like to introduce the author in this context.


Let me start by turning to Bernhard’s works. Anyone reading the texts will gather the impression that the style of writing is homogenous, that we are dealing with an author whose language is somehow self-contained and unique and that, for that reason, the works themselves are inter-changeable, that the sentences within the individual works are inter-changeable. To put it in a nutshell: that the monotony, the perseveration, the insistence on expressions, the repetitions, and the spiralling texts create a type of current which sucks in the reader. The monotony of the texts is certainly one of the most striking characteristics, but having said that, the reader who takes a very close look will detect the fine differences. And in art as well as art critique, perception of these fine differences is what counts. In an interview, Bernhard used a fascinating image which helps us to characterize what makes this monotony so special: “When you look at a white wall you will realize that it is neither white nor bare. If you are on your own for a long time and get used to being alone and are more or less trained in loneliness, then you begin to discover more and more in places which, for normal people, are (essentially) bare. On the wall you discover cracks, fine cracks, uneven patches, vermin. There is a tremendous movement on the walls. – in actual fact the wall and the page of a book completely resemble one another.” (Bernhard 1970, 153). We have to take this image seriously: Bernhard’s texts are a white wall and we are called upon to examine his works in such a manner, like a white wall in order to detect the cracks and fissures, the “tremendous movement”. In other words, reading Bernhard means that the reader must lower his sights, as it were, for he or she won’t encounter a portrait of society as we expect from a major realistic novel. On the contrary, we are dealing with a reduced form. The variety of colours is reduced to one colour. From now on, we are dealing with a white surface. Let us try make an approach by examining something typical of Bernhard, namely the formula of negation. The effacement of the fresco and its replacement by a white wall will serve as our metaphorical point of departure.

These are processes of negation, of extinction, of correction - the latter being titles of two of his novels by the way. The point is also to obliterate the narrative elements, to destroy them. Thomas Bernhard once referred to himself as a “Geschichtenzerstצrer”, as a “destroyer of narratives”, as someone who would shoot down a narrative, a story, if it ever dared to come out from “behind a hill of prose” (Bernhard 1970, 156). Bernhard thus turns against one of our fundamental needs in life: we all want to tell stories, but now Bernhard (along with many other authors such as Rilke and Musil) is telling us that the days of story-telling are long gone. The big narrative, the coherent narrative is impossible, all that’s left over is a fragment. The same holds true for his dramatic works. Here, the dialogue, which ultimately also makes these works come to life, is systematically destroyed. To be sure, that’s a risky business. After all, dialogue and conflict are essential to drama. Bernhard, on the other hand, shifts everything to the monologue, and the art of the monologue takes on a form of its own both in his narrative prose and his dramas. One might be inclined to think this is all pretty boring, and critics have, indeed, found this monotony annoying. They spoke of the “Alpenbeckett und Menschenfeind” in an obvious reference to the title of a work by Ferdinand Raimund. However, the parallels to Beckett are only partly accurate. In any case, Bernhard has created a degree of suspense on the stage precisely because of this monotony. One figure speaks, the other remains silent and the viewer knows how important this silent figure who merely listens actually is. This silence is, in essence, criticism. Bernhard forces the actors on the stage to do the simplest of things: they iron clothes or else help someone into their clothes and all of a sudden everyday life, pantomime is present. And these silent actions themselves take on a tremendous significance in the course of the plot. I believe there are few dramatists who are capable of achieving similar effects through the art of silence.

However, the reader or the theatre-goer has the feeling he’s been short-changed: there is no nice story, there is no spectacular finale. Bernhard’s works just break off, they remain open, they open. It is common knowledge that, in art, there is nothing “round”, nothing rounded anymore, that a commitment to a fragmentary form is tantamount to a commitment to aesthetic honesty. We can’t recount the stories which Bernhard tells, every narrative defies our attempts to piece together a whole through our interpretation.

Bernhard irritates us especially because his prose cannot be measured according to the yardstick we use for realistic texts. “In my books everything is artificial”, he stressed on repeated occasion. He is entirely conscious of the fact that it is impossible to reproduce reality and that this can only result in false appearances at the best of times. The language of the absolute, the process of making things absolute is part of this. Anyone reading a text by Thomas Bernhard will be impressed by the plethora of superlatives, by the expressions of exclusiveness and totality.


It is always the same thing again and again. Always the most dreadful, always the most awful. Bernhard seals off his language and makes it immune to any and every mimetic and realistic challenge with “All- und Existenzsutze” (R. Carnap). Reference here is to what he himself described as the so-called “art of exaggeration”. Indeed, the artist must exaggerate in order to drive the truth out of the things and into language. He wants to distort in order to make things distinguishable. One sentence stands out here: “Everything is ridiculous when one thinks about death.” Bernhard made the remark in a thank-you speech he gave in 1968 after receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature and I myself consider it to be the fundamental principle of his aesthetics. It is the principle of all of Bernhard’s lines of thought. Everything we do becomes ridiculous in the face of death - something which constitutes the absolute point in human existence. The decisive thing is where you place the accent and I believe this is where we can find a useful criteria (possibly: tool) to differentiate. In Bernhard’s early works, death is a central theme and through death everything is made to appear ridiculous. In his later works, as, for example, from 1975, the element of ridiculousness comes to the forefront. We have thus touched on a further principle Bernhard uses to annoy or irritate his readers: The border between the comic and the tragic is crossed. One can repeatedly find horrible things in the midst of the ridiculous and ridiculous things in the midst of horrible things; these texts are comedy-tragedies, and the old insight, expressed especially by Schopenhauer, that the great tragedies are the great comedies is one of the principles Bernhard uses to make his reader feel vexed and emotionally involved and to entertain him at the same time. “Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy?” happens to be the title of an early narrative work, a title which, at the same time, takes on the character of a programme for Bernhard’s oeuvre. In other words: Whether something is a tragedy or a comedy is left up entirely to the reader or the theatre-goer. Reactions to Bernhard’s texts vary greatly, even from people who are, at any rate, entirely reasonable types. Some people can’t laugh, while others have to. We know, for example, that Kafka had to laugh when he was reading out loud from “The Trial”, and Kafka and Bernhard have a lot in common.


I know there are many different approaches to Bernhard’s texts, and one look at the secondary literature on Bernhard is enough to make you want to climb the wall. There is scarcely a scholarly discipline that hasn’t tried its hand at Bernhard. There are the constructivists and then the deconstructivists, followed by the Rezeptions?sthetiker all the way to the die-in-the-wool adherents of hermeneutics and ontology from the late school of Heidegger. Not to mention the discourse analysts from the school of Foucault or the Marxists or else the devout theologians or else experts on the social history of literature as well as literary psychologists from the schools of Freud and Lacan - they all have their Bernhard, each his own.

Instead of getting all bogged down in the arguments back and forth and possibly taking sides I would rather pose a question, namely how did we get to the point of this polyphony of criticism, this hermeneutic anarchy in the first place? Even if we have seen similar developments in the case of other writers such as Kafka, we may assume that the diverging reception of Bernhard’s works has something to do with the texts themselves. At the same time we may also assume that everyone has found something in the text which can be supported by arguments. What I think we ought to do is to make an attempt to search for the factor which seems to destabilize the reception of Bernhard’s texts to such a degree. It is only within a closed system that this destabilization process appears not to become operative. In that case, it is also the system which speaks and it is no longer the author Bernhard who - behind our backs because he is evil and mean - takes revenge on the system.


Nature: In order to assess the importance of nature as a theme in Bernhard’s works it would be advisable to take a brief look at the significance of the concept of nature in Austrian literature as a whole. Austria is a country which almost habitually wants to see itself defined in terms of its natural environment, of its beautiful natural environment. Nature is more or less the guarantor of the Austrian identity, and Nature ensures that the people in this natural environment are good people. And because the people in this natural environment are good so, too, is Nature good and beautiful. So it is in this rather disastrous circular argument that Nature is called upon as a confirmation of Austrian identity. And then Bernhard comes along and disrupts this circular argument with his texts and destroys this cycle of never-ending self-confirmation. In the case of Bernhard, Nature is simply no longer good, moreover it is antagonistic, it is what makes people sick. There are anti-bodies in Nature, Nature turns your neck around, oh awful Nature: “Sometimes even Nature twists your neck around, Nature reft of simplicity, one then recognizes this infinite complexity of awful nature”, is the way Bernhard puts it in the novel “Frost” (17th day). In so doing, Bernhard works in opposition to a tacit understanding which has had a lasting effect on the thinking and behaviour of mankind for centuries now: Mother Nature is a topos which has been around since the days of Antiquity, but this mother is, in the case of Bernhard, cruel and she destroys what she has brought forth. Inversely, she destroys us because we destroy her. Western literature is determined by the notion that we act and ought to act according to nature, something which is a proven stoic maxim. “Naturally” is one of Bernhard’s favourite words, however, it has a negative connotation for him, even if the author is, indeed, fascinated by the beauty of nature. “When you balance the beauty of the country against the meanness of the people then you come up with suicide,” he remarked on one occasion. It is a peculiar mathematical operation which, however, is captivating precisely on account of its irrationality. Nature is ever present in Bernhard’s works; it eats away at the lives of the people. It is a destructive and at the same time invigorating principle.


This might well be the right moment to dwell in more general terms on the relationship between Austrian writers and history. It is commonplace for people to read Austrian literature with an eye to the country’s history. But at the same time, the notion that this literature is such that it would balk at any historical change, i.e. that it is somehow anti-Hegelian or anti-dialectical has itself become a topos among critics. The father of this anti-dialectical attitude is one Adalbert Stifter, and the title of Ulrich Greiner’s book The Death of Indian Summer (Der Tod des Nachsommers), which appeared in 1979, says just about everything. In this book, the widely known thesis of Claudio Magris about the “Habsburg Myth” in Austrian Literature is perpetuated to include the time after 1945. Whatever one happens to think about these theses, they do, indeed, have something - if not everything - going for them. At any rate, we can say that in the mid-60’s the tendency for authors to write against their own positive historical images becomes more and more prevalent. In her 1985 novel entitled Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose Language you do not understand), Marianne Fritz carries out the liquidation of the Habsburg Myth in the most radical manner. She recounts the fate of a worker’s family in the year 1914 and the battle for the fortress at Przemysl. The Habsburg Monarchy appears here not as the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state, but instead as a colonial power which has robbed the peoples of their true religion and their indigenous culture. The point I’m trying to make is not to confirm whether this view is right or wrong, but instead to show how one’s own country’s history can be demystified. Not just in the sense of criticism of clich?s and conventions but as criticism of the (tacit) agreements upon which the foundations of the Monarchy rested and which, in addition to that, managed to command considerable respect.

One of the chief prosecution witnesses against this administration of our identity through history is Peter Handke. It was he who remarked that the Germans were a people who had sunk into the abyss of history. He hated all people, Handke continued, who needed history in order to define themselves. In his play “Aus der Fremde”, Ernst Jandl has his main protagonist say the following: “geschichtsha? habe sie empfangen zur nazizeit/ geschichtsverlangen kenne sie auch heute noch nicht.” (she came to hate history during the Nazi era/even today she doesn’t know the feeling of longing for history).

Bernhard, too, tends to delete concrete historical facts, and this seems to me to be one of his main narrative principles altogether: facts and dates, figures and works - they don’t become clearly defined until after the process of obliteration, deletion, or painting over. It would seem that Bernhard does with his literary texts what Arnulf Rainer, for example, does with his paintings.

In the novel Extinction, things look entirely different. Here Bernhard does make the concrete history of Austria discernible, even though he does not, of course, re-tell history as such. But - and I think that is worth noting here - this history does appear to be concentrated in a single location, and that is Wolfsegg Castle. The “castle” is a common and multivalent cipher in Austrian literature. The cipher stands for a series of constellations: ruler and dominator, territorial sovereignty, as a means of contrasting past and present. Austria prefers to present its secular past in the form of castles and fortresses. To be sure, that’s a phenomenon you’ll encounter in other parts of Europe, too. Thus, Wolfsegg Castle is just such a place where Austrian history appears to be conserved in crystalline form.

Austria is made to appear as a country of political ignoramuses, especially as a place where imagination is entirely lacking. There is a lot of talk about the “fatherland and the government, about democracy and about communism and socialism. … But the democrats don’t (seem to) know or don’t want to know what democracy really is, and the communists don’t know what communism is and the socialists don’t know what socialism is, etc.” (Politische Morgenandacht 1966, 12).

That would lead one to believe that there ought to be things such as democracy, as socialism, as communism (not to mention fatherland and government) in the true sense of the word, but that it is simply not something which can be readily understood. One notion shimmers through in Bernhard’s writings again and again. Those persons who represent a “Weltanschauung” are actually far removed from the actual utopian concept of it. The genuine socialists fail because, with their utopian ideas, they simply have to fail. And here, too, the person doing the talking does not come to our assistance and help us out with a definition of what communism and socialism could, after all, mean.


We could, in actual fact, more closely define the nature of the hyperbole in Bernhard’s writings. In any case, we are dealing here with a speaking subject which is definitely committed to this practice, a practice which, it must be said, pursues a cognitive interest. The point is that by means of exaggeration something can be made “anschaulich”, that is: vivid and graphic. And, in this system something is functioning.

Art is the “most repugnant and at the same time greatest thing around”, his protagonist Reger says in the novel Maitres Anciens, one which Bernhard calls a “comedy”. This book contains the most radical reckoning not only with Austrian art but with art in general. I think this is one of the most amusing and at the same time enigmatic texts Bernhard has written: Bernhard, as a master of switching back and forth between comedy and tragedy, tries here to accentuate the comic element, something which is overly evident in some parts of the novel Frost. The eighty-two year old music critic Reger is on a crusade, he pays a visit to Vienna’s Art History Museum every second day to search for the lethal flaw on a painting by Tintoretto called “The man with the white beard”. [gemeint ist wohl das Gemהlde “Sebastiano Venier”] His principle: one can find a lethal flaw in every work of art—and be it ever so consummate. The perfect work has to be distorted, the greatest painting has to be turned into a caricature. The text contains a fiery tirade against traditions in art, especially against Austrian artists: Stifter, we read, never wrote a proper sentence (in his life), Mahler represents rock-bottom as far as music is concerned, Mozart also composed “Unterhצschenkitsch” [knickers, panties] and Klimt was absolutely appalling. Needless to say, a lot of people viewed such remarks as out and out provocation.

Here, criticism is mobilized against art. Whereas it is ordinarily the task of sublime criticism to uncover the accomplishment of art, to show how a work of art is complete in itself and to safeguard the sanctity of an art work against rash judgement and to prove the quality or value of the work of art by becoming deeply engrossed in the circumstances surrounding its creation, with Bernhard it’s different. Criticism is now used as a means to oppose the art work: the idea is to falsify the art work and not to verify its perfect structure. And Bernhard’s protagonist Reger is convinced he can succeed in doing this with every art work. One can uncover the fatal flaw in any case. In other words it is a manifestation of art-destroying art. In European literature it is impossible to find another equally consistent and uncompromising attack on art itself. I would like to support the argument that this has an actual function and is not mere provocation by adding a few references. We have someone before us who is primarily writing against himself; he writes against art, against his own profession, something which, after all, allows him to earn a living and survive; In doing so, he more or less destroys the principles of his very own existence.

In the novel Extinction from the year 1986, the last major prose work to be published during his life time, Bernhard has found a formula for this technique: the art of exaggeration. He writes: “If we did not have our art of exaggeration (…) we would be condemned to living a terribly boring life, to an existence no longer worthy of existence itself. And I have developed my art of exaggeration to unbelievable heights. In order to make something understandable, we have to exaggerate, I had said to him, only exaggeration makes something vivid; even the danger that we might be declared to be fools doesn’t bother us as we get older.” (124) We could, in actual fact, more closely define the nature of the hyperbole in Bernhard’s writings. In any case, we are dealing here with a speaking subject which is definitely committed to this practice, a practice which, it must be said, pursues a cognitive interest. The point he’s trying to make is that by exaggerating something it can be made “anschaulich”, that is: vivid and graphic. Exaggeration means distorting something and thus through distortion something becomes distinguishable.

Of course, the broadsides which Bernhard unleashes through his literary figures against art—and not only art—are characterized by exaggeration. But it is important to realize that we’re talking about a form of art, namely the art of exaggeration. It is not merely a rhetorical manoeuvre or a complaint which he wants publicized for a variety of reasons. Bernhard assigns this art of exaggeration a special role in the Austrian culture industry. But not only in this country.


It is precisely through constant exaggeration that Bernhard pointed out just how bad reality really is. And he knew that this “bad reality” could only be exposed through the art of exaggeration. It was in the most perfect of systems—and this includes the world of great art (something which he personally valued highly)--that Bernhard looked for and subsequently discovered flaws. Every time there was a maximum consensus of opinion about a person or a thing, then Bernhard would turn against it. This especially applied to the world of politics. For example, Bernhard attacked the well-respected Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky when the latter was at the pinnacle of his career in the late 70’s. And there are examples from the world of literature, as well. Bernhard vehemently attacked Elias Canetti—whom he otherwise admired—before he received the Nobel Prize. But the same holds true for Bernhard himself: he put himself and his art at risk knowing full well that this was the only possible way to rescue himself and his art.

Art, history and nature—all these discourses overlap with one another in Bernhard’s works and it is difficult—at least it is for me—to talk about these central themes without referring to Bernhard himself. In his texts Bernhard revokes all the tacit understandings we have with regard to things like art, nature, history—and we could likely include science, as well. In her obituary of Thomas Bernhard after his death in 1989, Elfriede Jelinek remarked: “An diesem toten Giganten kommt keiner vorbei“ (ev. No one will surpass this dead giant OR No one will duplicate this dead giant). And it would appear as if almost all the writers in Austria were still spellbound by this powerful negation with which he got everyone to speak. Perhaps Bernhard’s major achievement was the fact that he got people with differing educational and ideological backgrounds to stand up and speak their piece and that no one remained indifferent to him. In his gesture of negation, everything that is negated –and that includes art, science, history, nature—seems to re-appear and take on his silhouette. No one has succeeded in practicing this “negative dialectic” (Adorno) in such a succinct fashion as Bernhard. Art can only survive if it is negated.

Bernhard at Obernathal, 1988Things Fall Apart: Globalization, Crisis of Identity and Neo-Populism in Austria

by Siegfried Mattl
University of Vienna

In October 1988, some days ahead of the premiere of Heldenplatz and without even knowing Bernhard’s play, former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Fritz Bock, in a letter to Vienna’s leading conservative newspaper, named the play “Kloakenstück” - a play for the sewer. He referred to its author as a “so-called writer” and a dilettante in the field of literature. Moreover Bock, a conservative Catholic and former Nazi prisoner, called for the cancellation of the performance at the Burgtheater, rather than for censorship as other critics did. In an act of metapolitics, he called Bernhard’s play a desecration of a national symbol and tried to force the Minister of Cultural Affairs to dismiss Klaus Peymann, Burgtheater’s most controversial director. There was not much support for Bernhard and Peymann in those weeks, and even the Social Democratic minister, though defending freedom of art and cultural expression, personally distanced herself in advance from the play.

The conceptualization of the Burgtheater as a sacred space seems significant to me. It is - or rather: in the 1980s it still was - deeply rooted in the image of high culture as the essence of the Austrian nation. There was a strong belief that a particular mode of producing and performing works of art were the main force in constructing a genuine Austrian national community. Within a framework of nation-states as the fundaments of international politics, Austria declared itself a nation of culture - implying that it did not want to be considered as a nation defined by common descent, common language, or the common political aims of its citizens. But, as we know, so much depends on the definition of culture. As Geoffrey Hartman puts it: we should not trust in culturalism which offers us a nationalistic collection of works of art.

There never was, and for good reasons never could be something like a definitive canon of Austrian culture. This holds true even though in schools, in the theatres and in the state-owned mass media, emphasis was put on a power-list of, as it were, “genuine” Austrian artists, such as Grillparzer and Mozart, whilst modernists were avoided. Step by step a nostalgic, retrospective and consumerist system of highbrow culture gained an unquestionable hegemony. The only way one could probably challenge state culture was by irony, such as bringing together in one and the same text the aura of a museum with dirty toilets - as did Bernhard in Alte Meister.

As early as 1946, the leading intellectual Friedrich Heer called Austria the idea of a particular and timeless human being, endowed with female qualities like passion, dedication and soft-heartedness, whose realm is the stage of the theatre. In using culture as dominant means of representation of the Austrian state, cultural politics impaired the critical function and self-reflective power of art. The work of art either became a narcissistic performance, or was banned to the margins.

Like Robert Schuster, I would like to read Bernhard’s persona as a mimicry of common Austrian cultural narcissism, making him - I believe - as such much more effective than critical cultural discourse could ever be. By confronting an audience of habitués with their own mode of smug cultural judgements, those speakers cannot be marginalized as “others“. By mixing excited talks on highbrow issues with topics of trivial middle-class everyday life, like a visit to Café Sluga, Bernhard’s persons behave as one’s own uncanny self.

As you probably know, Heldenplatz connotes not only a cultural scandal, but also a turning point in Austrian post-war politics and Austrian identity. One of Bernhard’s provocative sentences focused on the profound crisis aroused by the Waldheim affair. In the play, Professor Schuster calls the then Austrian President a liar, repeating the accusation at that time that former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had not told the whole truth in his wartime memoirs. There is no need to tell this story - which I assume is well known to this audience - once again. What I want to stress is that for the first time after 1945, the self-image of Austria as a nation of culture was questioned in multiple ways. Austrians were confronted with involvement in, and responsibility for, a violent, aggressive and criminal past that till then had so easily been associated with “German-ness” and thus put at a (safe) distance. Furthermore, Austrian Catholic conservatives, who could claim having opposed the “Anschluß“ in 1938 and had become the unquestioned Austrian "State Party", now displayed attitudes confirming the worst that Thomas Bernhard had to say about anti-urban Catholic elites in his novel Ausluschung. Michael Graff, a prominent lawyer and party secretary-general, together with today’s leader of the conservatives in Parliament, Andreas Khol, pointing to the World Jewish Congress, invented the phrase of “those obscure powers from the East Coast“ wishing to dominate Austrian politics. In defense of Kurt Waldheim, he proclaimed the later President and, as it turned out, SA member and information officer in the Balkans, “not guilty, unless he had killed 5 Jews with his own hands“. Even though Graff was forced to resign immediately afterwards, Austrians were subsequently split into two different and before unknown camps - one camp pushing narcissistic culture to its nationalistic extremes, and the other one being accused by the former as anti-patriots. So in 1986, for the first time in modern Austria, party loyalties within the dominant two-party system were overthrown by mere resentments.

The year 1986 marks yet another fundamental change in Austrian politics. It is the year the short-lived experiment of a Social Democratic-Liberal coalition government failed, and the reform-oriented party leadership of the Austrian Freedom Party was eliminated by a putsch on the part of its right-wing opponent Jürg Haider. The shock for the political establishment came when Freedom Party doubled its votes in the same year up to 9.7 percent, even though extremist and anti-Semite undertones had accompanied the election of Haider as party leader. Those events had forced the Social Democrats to break up the coalition government and to turn back to the Conservatives as partners. Chancellor Vranitzky, a former banker whom Franz-Josef Murau in Auslüschung harshly attacks as an uninspired technocrat in the coat of socialism, proclaimed Haider’s “Ausgrenzung”, or exclusion, because of some evidence of his alliance with ex-National Socialists inside the Freedom Party’s networks. But the Austrian consensus aimed at keeping right-wing extremists out of government, often using very sophisticated means, did not work any more. In 1989, after a spectacular electoral success in Carinthia, the national-Catholic faction of the Conservative Party there made Haider Governor of the federal state, only to turn him out again after his reference to “the proper employment policy” of the Nazi regime. In the meantime, elections at the national level in 1990 had ended with another sensational success for Haider’s Freedom Party, at the cost of Conservative Party.

I will not go on enumerating the facts, with which you are probably familiar. In order to arrive at a more structural perspective, which might offer some context for reading Thomas Bernhard, we must face the fact that the Austrian Freedom Party does no longer represent a historic Fascist group, but a particular variation of the European neo-populist movement. By neo-populism, we understand anti-liberal political movements, with quite different programs, that organize and represent changing resentments against the political establishment, whilst operating within the institutional framework of contemporary democracy. We can of course hardly talk about neo-populism without considering dramatic shifts which have taken place in the European media system and the system of cultural representation, characterized by the fall of national monopolies in the field of electronic communication and the emergence of a dominant popular culture. Regulated by the market, news and symbolic goods more than ever have to fit into codes and concepts of dramatization, confrontation, simplification and innovation. Replacing traditional ties between the rank and file and the party leadership by effective articulation shaped according to the rules of media communication, parties like the Danish Progress Party or Umberto Bossi’s Italian “Lega Nord” were able to adapt their issues to new topics circulating outside the frames of traditional party politics. The fact that organizational ties between populist leadership and the electorate are usually very weak even enables them to quickly shift to the opposite of former positions. This happened for example with the Freedom Party’s former strong support for European unification, replaced in the early 1990s by a similarly fundamental opposition to Austria’s integration into the European Union. Today, taxation, migration, conversion of the welfare state and national autonomy are the main topics of European neo-populists. Some critics argue that populist campaigns might force democracies to cure their bureaucratic deformations. But, to put it bluntly, neo-populism is not on participation, but on the power of articulation and its abuse.

All over the EU, with the only exception of Austria, an elitist compromise still excludes neo-populists from government. We may ask why Austria left that European consensus last year. I cannot go too much into history, but it should be noted that Austria never had something like a liberal democracy. Austria’s political system depended on institutionalized corporatism. Industrialists’ and trade-unions’ representatives lacking democratic legitimization were considered politically more powerful than official government. In fact, up to the 1980s, those two extra-parliamentarian powers not only decided on economic policies, technology and education, using their expertise and strong lobbies in parties and Parliament, but on top of it were in control of leading newspapers and the electronic media. The historic class compromise for which Austria stood was based on a huge sector of state-owned industries and a state-owned banking system. This represented a genuine postwar phenomenon, after Nazification and German war economy left an expanded heavy industry and financial sector without legitimate owners. In the early 1980s, one fifth of Austrian industry and the leading banks were still owned by the state, but were ill equipped for the new conditions of post-Fordistic production, technological conversion and the new role of financial capital. Trade unionists and industrial bureaucrats represented a kind of pseudo-bourgeoisie, totally devoted to economic growth and commercial activities. It was the lack of bourgeois culture, the publicly demonstrated lack of taste and aesthetic sense that forced Thomas Bernhard to call those up-climbers Auslüscher and new barbarians. But within a decade, the material fundaments of corporatist politics and culture entirely changed. Caused by severe economic problems and disastrous forward transactions, state industry had to go public starting in 1985. Downsizing of enterprises, layoffs, de-qualification and privatization point to a sharp break in industrial relations. The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, usually regarded as a common European achievement, intensified anxiety and xenophobia, as uncertainty on the new labor markets grew, and rumors spoke of some hundreds of thousands of labor migrants from all over Eastern Europe risking to invade Austria within a foreseeable future. Next came globalization and the demand for new methods in public management, especially a reduction of public debt, a stop to deficit spending and monetarization of public services. Later, in 1994, after Austria, by way of referendum, joined the European Union for good, autonomous decision-making was restricted by common neo-liberal European politics. Finally, political and military neutrality, the fundament of Austrian state identity since 1955, has been put on the agenda, as the question is being asked as to whether European integration requires Austria to join the NATO or not.

To conclude: Austrian identity today is radically questioned by social, economic, political and cultural change caused by globalization and European integration. While technical data concerning the rate of unemployment, economic growth or technological innovation point to rather successful politics of change, ideological structures reflect an image of a widespread identity crisis. The rise of a modern multiple identity is blocked by an enforced neo-folkloristic culture and proto-racist emotions. This is not simply a consequence of material threats, but indicates a structural deformation of institutions and mentalities. To mention just one example: The most widely discussed issues in public safety politics at the moment are organized crime and drug traffic. Police officers, hand in hand with politicians of the Freedom Party and the boulevard press, shaped this issue by attacking migrants, especially Black Africans, as a dominant threat, enforcing the adoption of new surveillance techniques and the lowering of human-rights standards. They even cooperated in police raids against Nigerian dealers by evidence arranged for the press in order to stimulate racist campaigns and put pressure on politicians. In his recent autobiography, the former head of the Austrian police overtly confirms - without eliciting much criticism, or facing any legal and political consequences - that he betrayed the Minister of Internal Affairs by passing material to the opposition Freedom Party and to the boulevard press. It was just, as he writes, a compensation for the minister’s lack of respect towards a high civil servant like him. Episodes like these signify the strong theatrical mind that rules politics and political speech acts, the fascination of instantaneous superficial effects and the ignoring of uncontrollable political constellations provoked thereby.

The public management of change brings us back to Heldenplatz and the continuity of cultural scandals in Austria. The reaction to events like the one I mentioned just before signifies the state of a non-modern culture, with little or no differentiation between the realms of art, politics, private life, and so on. Austrian identity and the Austrian nation were not constructed on modern principles, but on phantasmagoric anthropology. As Friedrich Heer put it emphatically in 1946: the Austrian mind is nothing but the representation of “THE” human on the stage of world history. To quote a famous Viennese law professor who as an opponent of Claus Peymann did intervene 40 years later in the debates on Heldenplatz: The problem with Heldenplatz, he wrote, is the replacement of the Austrian-type actor, and his genuine representation of eternal human qualities, by German actors, who obey fashion and abuse theatre for contemporary comments on societal problems. Maybe, by the way of negative dialectics, he thus touched exactly upon the point at which Thomas Bernhard aimed - namely the destruction of the pseudo-divine aura of the art and the state that had taken place under their common Austrification after 1945. This still remains his legacy.

Bernhard at homeNazis in the Bernhard Soup: The Political Bernhard Revisited

Dr. Jeanette R. Malkin
Theatre Studies Department
Hebrew University Jerusalem

Revisiting the political Bernhard is an easy thing to do – at least on the evidence of the two plays recently translated into Hebrew and published by Schocken (1999). Vor dem Ruhestand (Eve of Retirement) and Heldenplatz are enormously political plays not only because they deal with political subjects such as Nazis and their continuation into the present of Germany and Austria, but because both plays were an intervention into real political events occurring at the time the plays were written, and both resulted in real political consequences: Eve of Retirement in Germany; Heldenplatz in Austria.

Before I speak about this, it’s worth noting that almost none of Bernhard’s other plays are political in quite this way. None of his other plays have obvious representations of Nazis (who, eg, as in Eve of Retirement, secretly celebrate Himmler’s birthday until this very day) or representations of Jews (who, eg, still today hear the masses roaring Sieg Heil Sieg Heil at Heldenplatz). All of Bernhard’s plays excel in the grotesque, in exaggeration, in insults – especially of Austria and the Austrian people: “Austria/ Österreich/ L’Autriche/ ...a cesspool/ in the pus-filled boil of Europe,” as Bernhard put in his play Histrionics (Der Theatermacher 1984).[i] Bernhard’s career (especially in the theatre) is awash with scandals. He was a master of commotion, capable of creating a ruckus – even out of a light bulb. In 1972, for example, his play Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (The Ignoramus and the Madman) premiered at the Salzburg Festival and turned into Bernhard’s first (of many) Salzburg scandals. In order to achieve a symbolic effect, Bernhard demanded that all lights be turned off at the end of the play – exit signs included. The fire marshal refused, as did the Festival authorities. Bernhard refused to relent and the quarrel soon turned into a very dramatic public squabble. Indeed, Bernhard’s name is synonymous with belligerence, outspokenness, rancor, resentment – or rather: Nietzschean Ressentiment. Bernhard is famously unforgiving, and is the father of scandals large and small.

By speaking of The Political Bernhard through Heldenplatz we are actually viewing Bernhard retrospectively. Heldenplatz was Bernhard’s last play, the play that probably killed him (he died three months into its stage run, finally succumbing to a serious heart condition that could not withstand the scandal he himself had initiated). In fact, one of the most notorious Bernhard scandals occurred after his death, though in conjunction with the Heldenplatz uproar. As many of you probably know, Bernhard demanded in his last will and testament (written, or re-written, two days before his death!) that nothing he had ever written, neither book nor poem nor essay nor play, was to be published or performed “within the borders of the Austrian state, however that state describes itself... for all time to come”.[ii] He also forbade his own commemoration by Austria in any form whatsoever, or by any country supported by Austrian money or institutions. In Bernhard’s own words, he was thereby performing his own “posthumous literary exile” from a country with whom he had been in ideological and political conflict for most of his life. The depth of Bernhard’s anger and disgust, and the reasons that underlie it, are what give his political performances their staying power, their power to convince and move audiences, or readers, long after the political circumstances to which they responded, had passed.

The reason for Bernhard’s ideological and political conflict with (especially) Austria is historical and moral. The short explanation for his Staatsekel and Geschichtshass – his disgust with the State and his hatred of its history – can be captured through an anecdote he tells about a nail. In interview, Bernhard recalled how, as a youth in the early 1940s, he had attended the NS-Schulerheim (the National-Socialist Boarding School) in Salzburg. After 1945 the school’s name was changed to the Johanneum and – “Instead of Hitler’s picture, they hung a cross on the wall,” they hung it, he explained “exactly on the same nail.”[iii] Or, as Bernhard put it in Histrionics: “[T]hey’re socialists/ they claim/ and are only national socialists/ they’re Catholic/ they claim/ and are only national socialists” (218). Or, as Bernhard rewrote this same sentence in Heldenplatz: “In Austria you have to be either Catholic/ or a National Socialist/ nothing else is tolerated/ everything else is destroyed.” [iv]

Bernhard’s enmity towards his country was rooted in Austria’s problematic postwar situation: a country that was treated by the Allies as a “victim” nation, and that gladly accepted this assumption – going so far as to label itself “Hitler’s first victim.”[v] This self-serving historical distortion required that Austria repress its own memory of ready collaboration on all fronts of Germany’s war effort. The joyous welcome received by Hitler in March of 1938, when hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered in Vienna’s central square, Heldenplatz, to cheer Hitler’s declaration of the Anschluss – was officially forgotten and rarely referred to. Repressed history was replaced by a vacuous and sentimental self-image reflecting the “good old” prewar Austria of waltzes and bonhomie. The gap between this constructed image, and the awareness of its mendacity, produced in many writers and intellectuals (according to some observers of the scene) “a perception of the world as parody and grotesque and at the same time as suffocatingly banal and stereotypic.”[vi] In this analysis we find both the object of Bernhard’s unbending contempt, Austrian history, and the style – parody and grotesque – through which, at least in part, he portrayed that object.

The past is the stuff of which Bernhard’s characters are made. His is a theater of voice, of long, unpunctuated monologues delivered on (usually) metaphoric stages, presenting highly concentrated images of the world. His idiomatic voices might belong to that other great Austrian ventriloquist, von Horvath, except that Bernhard’s voices are derealized through the extended monologue form, the obsessive repetitions and contradictions, and the minimal narrative to which they are usually attached. His voices and minimal stage images might also remind us of Beckett. Like Beckett, Bernhard is considered to be an incurable pessimist, in despair of man and god alike. But unlike Beckett, Bernhard’s language, alternately cynical and sentimental, mirrors the idioms and inflections of a concrete national past, a past frozen as an indelible trace into the landscape, language, situations, and characters of his plays. These traces make specific and provocative what would otherwise be parabolic and abstract in Bernhard’s work. By way of comparison, we could think of Peter Handke’s Kaspar, based on the real historical figure of Kaspar Hauser. Handke’s clown-like Kaspar is a blank character formed and created by Prompters: i.e. abstract voices that teach him language, thought, and behavior simultaneously. Kaspar learns well, and finally comes to resemble his teachers fully. But when he first appears on stage, and before it is driven out of him, Kaspar carries within him a “trace” from the past: his one “original” sentence – “I want to be a person like somebody else was once”[vii] as Handke puts it. However, the historical Kaspar Hauser, when he appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, owned a somewhat more explicit sentence: “I want to be a knight like my father was before me.”[viii] Handke’s simplification and abstraction of this sentence purposely displaces the influence of the biological father, or the historical knight, onto the determinism of a discourse, a structure of language and ideas that become the mechanism for Kaspar’s reconfiguration in the form of that discourse.[ix] Kaspar finally performs the language forced upon him by the Prompters, but he is lost as an historical subject.

Bernhard’s stage characters begin, we might say, where Kaspar ends. They are already complete as “discourse” when we meet them, in no need of Prompters; but this discourse has been consciously steeped in, and reflexively evokes, the concrete remains of historical memory.

Through the overly-familiar language of his endlessly talkative characters, Bernhard portrays not individualized figures, but “mindscapes” that have all been prewritten and overwritten by a collective historical past. The image of “inscripted” minds creeps up repeatedly in Bernhard’s writings. It is most vividly captured in another Bernhard play, his 1974 The Hunting Party (Die Jagdgesellschaft), where the General says about the Writer:

You see he scribbles
all over the walls of his mind
all over
a mind covered with writing
a completely covered
and therefore completely blackened mind
scribbled on with such speed
that already one line is scribbled right over the other
like a madman [x]

Consciousness is thus imaged by Bernhard as a Derridean primacy of writing over orality; the past is imprinted as language, written and shared language, historically formed language, as text.

The text of Germany and Austria’s recent history is clearly inscribed in Eve of Retirement and Heldenplatz which, unlike most of Bernhard’s other plays, contain both language and dramatic situations that are recognizably historical. Moreover, both plays were written with a particular audience in mind, and as answers to particular political situations. Both were also directed by the far-left provocateur Claus Peymann, who had directed almost all of Bernhard’s plays. The circumstances and outrageousness of these performances turned both productions into political interventions, and very histrionic scandals.

I won’t have time to get into the full details of these rich and rather amusing political uproars, but briefly: Eve of Retirement, which premiered in Stuttgart, takes off on the infamous Filbinger affair, the public discovery at the end of the 1970s that the powerful conservative Minister-President of Baden-Wurttemberg, Hans Karl Filbinger, a potential future CDU candidate for President of West Germany, had long concealed his past as a (naval) “hanging” judge. As would Waldheim a few years later, Filbinger first protested his innocence, then contested the importance of his activities, and only finally, and under severe pressure, resigned his post.[xi] Bernhard’s play is about another judge, the soon-to-retire Judge Rudolf Höller, who had enthusiastically served under Himmler and who still secretly celebrates Himmler’s birthday every year with his two sisters. The presentation of the ritual of National Socialist worship in this play was apparently less upsetting to Bernhard’s audience then the addition of the theme of incest: there’s a long erotic scene between Holler, getting dressed in his meticulously prepared SS uniform, and his no-longer-young sister Vera. This intimate coupling of Nazism and perverted passions was found to be particularly tasteless. Never one to leave bad enough alone, Bernhard adds insult to incest by having his characters give explicit voice to the rarely (until then, in post-Nazi Germany) publicly spoken diction of mythic Jew-hating, to the entire lexicon of National Socialist demonization of the Jews.

“The Jews destroy annihilate the surface of the earth/ and some day they will have achieved its final destruction” (163) says the Judge. This is not only his personal opinion. As he tells us, or rather as he tells the audience, ninety-eight percent of all Germans “hate the Jews/ even as they claim just the opposite/ that’s the German nature... in a thousand years the Germans will hate the Jews/ in a million years” (138). These sentiments, for all their comic hyperbole, in addition to Peymann’s explicit and offensive directing, created unprecedented political recrimination. Filbinger called for Peymann’s dismissal from the Stuttgart theatre, claiming him to be a mad leftist and dangerous “supporter of terrorism”.

Bernhard, of course, would not allow an attack to go unanswered, and subsequently wrote an additional play, a short mock-Expressionist sketch titled Der deutsche Mittagstisch (The German Lunch Table: A Tragedy to be Performed by the Burgtheater when Touring Germany), which indeed premiered in Bochum in 1981. In this small play Bernhard takes politics a step further. Rather than attack a specific person or political incident, Bernhard develops the connections between the seemingly banal rituals of daily life in Germany, and the inevitable infiltration of ideology. An elder couple named Frau and Herr Bernhard try to eat a lunch of hot soup with their great- and great-great grandchildren. But alas – they keep on finding “Nazis in the soup”. (I will quote first in German then in my English translation):

    “Nazis in der Suppe... Nazisuppe auf den Tisch/ lauter Nazis statt Nudeln” complains Herr Bernhard; to which Frau Bernhard explains: “wir bekommen in ganz Deutschland/ keine Nudeln mehr/ nur noch Nazis/ ganz gleich wo wir Nudeln einkaufen/ es sind immer nur Nazis/ ganz gleich was f?r eine Nugelpackung wir aufmachen, es quellen immer nur noch/ Nazis heraus...”.

    “Nazis in the soup...Nazi soup on the table/ always Nazis instead of noodles” complains Herr Bernhard; to which Frau Bernhard explains: “in all of Germany/ there are no noodles to be had/ only Nazis/ no matter where you shop for noodles/ all you get are Nazis/ no matter what kind of noodle package you choose, out crawl nothing but Nazis...”

This dramatized verbal coin – the equivalent of finding a Nazi under every bush – is both a bit of self-irony and a further bit of offence, implying that not only Filbinger, but every part of German life is infected by its past, that nothing in Germany can be considered to be – NOT political.

Eve of Retirement generated extensive discussion; but this reaction was as nothing compared to the genuine political uproar – leading to demonstrations and attacks, involving intellectuals, journalists, politicians, and regular citizens – created nine years later, in 1988, by Heldenplatz.

1988 marked the hundredth anniversary of Vienna’s Burgtheater building, and it was within those centenary festivities that Bernhard’s play had been commissioned by Peymann – who had by now left Stuttgart and was beginning his directorship of the National Burgtheater. But: the officially titled “memorial year” of 1988 also commemorated other events. Heldenplatz premiered under tight police security on 4 November 1988, fifty years after the Anschluss, and fifty years almost to the day after Kristallnacht (9 November 1938) for which Vienna has a particularly despicable record.[xii] Peymann had been expected to commemorate a century of Austrian culture at the Burgtheater. The choice of a play centering on the Anschluss and on the memory of Austria’s destruction of its Jews, was not considered, by most, to be a fitting tribute.

Heldenplatz centers on a Jewish family in the Vienna of 1988. The main character, Professor Josef Schuster, a mathematician, who can no longer stand the anti-Semitism he still finds in Austria 50 years after the Anschluss – commits suicide by jumping out of his apartment window onto the historic Heldenplatz before the play begins. The metaphoric center of the play is his wife Hedwig. Hedwig, since their return to Vienna, suffers constant auditory seizures in which she – and finally the audience too – relives the cheering of the masses as they applaud Hitler’s triumphant 1938 speech on the square below their apartment. By the end of the play, the roaring repeating choruses of “Sieg Heil Sieg Heil” will lead to Hedwig’s final collapse: she will fall over dead into her bowl of soup. Through these extravagant and unheroic deaths, Bernhard performs the taboo evocation of Austria’s destruction of its Jews and of its willing acceptance of the Anschluss. With Heldenplatz, Bernhard created a memory-scandal within the deeply etched space of Austrian repression and denial.

As all Austrians know, Heldenplatz is a huge square positioned close to the lovely Volksgarten (the garden where scene two of Bernhard’s play takes place), and near the famous Burgtheater (where the play itself was performed). Two large museums, the National Library, and the old Kaiser palace are all situated around this central square. Literally meaning “Hero’s Square,” Heldenplatz figures in Bernhard’s play as geography, history, and fable. As many have noted, Heldenplatz embodies much of Austria’s national identity.[xiii] During Austria’s First Republic, Heldenplatz was the place for military parades. Already in 1932, the first Nazi demonstration with Goebbels and Röhm took place there. It was at Heldenplatz that the crowds gathered in 1934 to mourn the assassination of their right-wing chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. And it was there, in 1938, that cheering Austrians welcomed Hitler and the Anschluss that ended the First Republic and made Austria part of the German Reich. Bernhard didn’t need to detail all of this within the play: he could assume his audience’s knowledge. Heldenplatz was recently translated into English, but has yet to find a publisher (it has only appeared in a journal so far [xiv]). This is not surprising since, even more than most of Bernhard’s locally-inscribed plays, Heldenplatz demands an understanding of Austrian history, as well as of Viennese geography. Heldenplatz is like a Baedeker, a Blue Guide to Vienna’s sites – and their significance. Even its title (which remains untranslated in both the Hebrew and the English versions) requires at least some historical sensitivity. Obviously, the Israeli publishers had greater faith in the likelihood that their readers might recognize the historical, geographical, and political references within the play than do the Americans.

The enormous public outcry against Bernhard’s play preceded both its performance and its publication. The outcry was based on passages “leaked” to the press during rehearsals, passages attacking the Austrians, their government, their mendacity, their vulgarity, their hatefulness. [xv] The media dedicated weeks of daily coverage to the as-yet unseen and unread play. Waldheim called the play an insult to all Austrians. He was joined by ex-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, among others, in calling for the play’s removal from the National Theater. Bernhard was vilified and even attacked on the street by an angry citizen. “What writers write/ is nothing compared with the reality” – one of the characters says; “yes yes they write that everything is terrible/ that everything is ruined and depraved/ that it’s all a catastrophe/ that it’s hopeless/ but all of this/ is nothing compared with the reality” (115). Bernhard claimed that he had to keep revising and “sharpening” his text during rehearsals in order, as he put it, “not to be left behind by reality” [xvi] – that is, by the uproar raging in the press, the Parliament, and on the streets. Egon Schwarz summarized it well: “One could say that the play was already being performed in the country, while it was still in rehearsal at the Burgtheater”.[xvii] And indeed, on opening day, two groups of protesters – for and against Bernhard – chanted and marched in front of the theater; and the night before, a group of rightists dumped horse-manure on the theater steps.

The play, and the production, were far more nuanced and complex – though no less fierce – than these hysterical anticipations. Bernhard’s tactics in this uncompromising play go beyond the litany of brutal verbal attacks expected by his audience. This verbal outer layer is contained within a complex and sophisticated recreation of the geographic and historic “space” within which Austria, and the audience, were defined.

Briefly: Bernhard conflated the play’s fabula with the geography of the theatre and city where the performance was being held, and where the Anschluss had taken place. He achieved this through the spacial re-inscription of the Burgtheater (within which the audience was sitting) and the Heldenplatz (geographically so close to the actual Burgtheater) – on stage. Visual reinscription is one of Bernhard’s central, and most effective strategies for tying audience, city, and history together. For example: scene two takes place in the Volksgarten which adjoins Heldenplatz to the Burgtheater. For this scene, Peymann had his set-designer, Karl-Ernst Herrmann, build a side-wall of the Burgtheater on stage, thus reflecting the outside of the building inside of which the audience watching this play was sitting [xviii] and underlining the simultaneity of stage and world, of past and present, of Heldenplatz as diachronic and synchronic site of memory and identity.

Scene three takes place in the dining room of the Schuster apartment. Against the back wall of the stage Bernhard placed three high windows which look out onto Heldenplatz. This time, the audience can actually see the square for which the play is named. This time, the audience will also “hear” the square, “hear” Bernhard’s anger and his unforgiving memory of Austria’s past. As Mrs. Schuster begins to eat her soup in scene three, her affliction suddenly becomes a reality: the audience – together with her – hear the “slowly swelling cheers of the masses at Hitler’s arrival on Heldenplatz nineteen-thirty-eight”(159). These cheers, as though struggling to break through the barrier of collective repression, begin as barely audible background noise. Mrs. Schuster goes stiff and pale in her chair while Robert, unaware, continues to discuss Vienna: “In this most terrible of all cities,” he says, “... an unbearable stink spreads itself out/ from the Hofburg and the Ballhausplatz/ and from the Parliament/ over the entire wretched and despoiled land” – thus remapping a circle around the same Heldenplatz. “This little city is one huge pile of garbage” (164) Robert concludes, as “the shouts of the masses in Heldenplatz swell to the limits of the bearable” – and Mrs. Schuster falls face forward into her soup bowl.

The unbearable shouts of the masses welcoming Hitler fifty years ago, at a spot close enough to the theatre for those shouts to have actually been heard inside the theatre – those same shouts filled the theatre for the last long stretch of the play’s premiere. Peymann, however, did not turn the horrible noise off with the play’s end. Gitta Honegger, a Bernhard specialist who was in the audience that night, describes how the first performance ended:

    The ...four-hour long performance was followed by forty minutes of thundering applause, standing ovations, boos and whistles, with the Austrian flag and banners unfolding from the balcony both in support of and against Peymann, who bowed next to Bernhard. ...To some, the two men, their hands clasped and held up high, appeared like a triumphant pair of conquerors as the ‘Sieg Heil’ choruses on stage segued hauntingly into the warring choruses in the auditorium. [xix]

Thus, the unbearable shouts coming from stage back – from the stage’s (and history’s?) hidden recesses – merged with the cheers and boos coming from the front, from the audience that was simultaneously acclaiming and despising the performance they had just participated in. Together, these concrete gestures, and the dead Mrs. Schuster on stage, made an iconic – and ironic – statement about Austria’s willing part in Nazism, in the destruction of its Jews, and in the repression of its past.

With this: Bernhard’s theatre became a platform, and an instrument, for political intervention. Vienna was his extended stage, just as his actual theatre-stage reflected the geography of Vienna. The insistence on recognizing the past and its continuation into the present was figured in this play not through a metaphysical Beckettian fable (as Bernhard had often done in the past), but through detailed historical and local references. Through this Bernhard showed that his famous pessimism, and his unbending animosity, were less ontological than historical, less concerned with “human nature” than with the nature of the past.

* * * * * * * *


[i]. Thomas Bernhard, Histrionics, in Histrionics: Three Plays, trans. Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 218. Subsequent references are to this edition, and will appear parenthetically within the text.

[ii]. Quoted from Heinrich Wille, “Wunsch oder Bedingung? Zum Rechtsstreit ?ber Thomas Bernhards letztwillige Verf?gung,” Der Standard, 7 March 1989: 19.

[iii]. “Die Vergangenheit ist Unerforscht” (The Past is Unexamined), an interview with Viktor Suchy, 5 March 1967, reprinted in Von einer Katastrophe in die andere: 13 Gesprache mit Thomas Bernhard, ed. Sepp Dreissinger (Katsdorf: Bibliothek der Provinz, 1992), 21.

[iv]. Thomas Bernhard, Heldenplatz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988), 63. All translations from Heldenplatz are my own. Subsequent references are to the German edition, and will appear parenthetically within the text.

[v]. On Austria’s ‘Lebensluge’ (survival-lie) – that Austria was Hitler’s victim – see Richard Mitten, The Politics of Antisemitic Prejudice: The Waldheim Phenomenon in Austria (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992).

[vi]. Gabrielle Robinson, “Slaughter and Language Slaughter in the Plays of Peter Turrini,” in Theater Journal 43 (May 1991): 199.

[vii]. Peter Handke, Kaspar, in Kaspar and Other Plays, trans. Michael Roloff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 68-72 and passim.

[viii]. “Ich macht a sochener Reiter warn, wie mei Voter aner gween is.” This is how his sentence was transcribed by A. Ritter von Feuerbach in his Kaspar Hauser, Beispiel eines Verbrechens am Seelenleben des Menschen (Ansbach: J.M. Dollfuss, 1832).

[ix]. I discuss this, and Handke’s Kaspar, at some length in my book Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama: From Handke to Shepard (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Chapter 1.

[x]. Thomas Bernhard, The Hunting Party, trans. Gitta Honegger, in Performing Arts Journal 13/1 (1980): 127. Honegger discusses this section in “The Theater of Thomas Bernhard,” 12.

[xi]. For a concise description of the political background see Dowden, Understanding Thomas Bernhard, 77.

[xii]. See for example, Bruce F. Pauley, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 286-289; on “The November Pogrom”.

[xiii]. See for example, Egon Schwarz, “Heldenplatz?” German Politics & Society 21 (Fall 1990): 36.

[xiv]. Conjuctions

[xv]. Most critics suspected Peymann and Bernhard of orchestrating the scandal by leaking the passages themselves, and of purposely postponing publication of the play text until the premiere performance in order to increase tension and interest.

[xvi]. Quoted in the wide-ranging book published by Peymann and the Burgtheater, documenting the scandal, the play, and subsequent reactions, from August 1st to December 31st 1988. Heldenplatz: Eine Dokumentation (Vienna: Burgtheater, 1989), 220.

[xvii]. Egon Schwarz, "Heldenplatz?" German Politics & Society 21 (Fall 1990): 38.

[xviii]. In the text Bernhard writes that from the garden, we can see the Burgtheater “through a fog”. In production, Peymann and Bernhard placed the theatre wall right by the bench where the characters were sitting.

[xix]. Gitta Honegger, “Thomas Bernhard,” in Partisan Review 58/3 (1991): 496.

Thomas and newspaper THOMAS BERNHARD FOR LIFE (2006)

In an interview from 1986, the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard discusses the musicality of language, the eroticism of old men and the incurability of stupidity. By Werner Wögerbauer

Vienna, Cafe Bräunerhof, early on the morning of July 15, 1986. Thomas Bernhard had set a rather vague rendezvous for an interview. He was having his apartment redecorated, he said, "naturally" in white. He could not stand the presence of the workers in his home, causing him to flee to the coffeehouse in the early morning. When I arrive, he has already settled down, near the entrance, "where the air is better." He is walled in by mounds of newspapers whose pages he skims hastily, almost tearing them as he flips through. An interview? Yes, he says, he's in the mood today. But short and to the point.

Thomas Bernhard: So, I'll just keep reading the paper, you don't mind, do you?

Werner Wögerbauer: Well, no, by all means.

You'll have to ask something and then you'll get an answer.

Does the fate of your books interest you?

No, not really.

What about translations for example?

I'm hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

What happens to your books in other countries.

Doesn't interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don't. If they have awful covers then they're just annoying. And you flip through and that's it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

But when you ban future productions of your play 'Der Weltverbesserer,' (The World-Fixer) then that's something similar, you are concerned about the fate of your texts.

No, because 'Der Weltverbesserer' was written for a specific actor because I knew he was the only one who could perform it, at that time, because there was no older actor like him, so it came about quite naturally. There's no point having it performed by some asshole in Hanover, nothing would come of it. If there's going to be nothing but trouble, you shouldn't do it.

How do you explain the fact that you're taken far more seriously abroad than you are in Austria, that you are actually "read" abroad whereas in Austria you're considered primarily as someone who causes scandals?

That's because outside Austria, in the so-called Romance and Slavonic worlds, there's a greater interest in literature in general. It has an entirely different status which it lacks here. Here, literature has no value at all. Music is valued here, theatre is valued, everything else essentially has no value whatsoever. It's always been that way.

As soon as you even act friendly to someone on the street, people don't take you seriously, that's enough to make them take you for a clown. What someone like that does can't be of any value. It's like in family life. If you grow up in a family, perfectly normal, with all the usual childish fun and what have you, then for the rest of your life people tell you you're a charlatan, that it's no good, that the boy who does nothing but make jokes should complain about his grandmother's awful cooking, and that can't be any good. And that follows you to the grave. And it's the same with the state and the country as a whole. If you go about as a friendly person, you're through. People treat you like a cabaret artist and that's that. And in Austria, anything serious gets turned into cabaret, which takes the sting out of it. Any trace of earnest always ends up on the funny side – Austrians can only tolerate seriousness as a joke. In other countries, there's still a sense of seriousness. I'm serious person, too, but not all the time, that would drive anyone mad, and it would be stupid. That's the way it is.

Your characters and you yourself often say they don't care about anything, which sounds like total entropy, universal indifference of everyone towards everything.

Not at all, you want to do something good, you take pleasure in what you do, like a pianist, he has to start somewhere too, he tries three notes, then he masters twenty, and eventually he knows them all, and then he spends the rest of his life perfecting them. And that's his great pleasure, that's what he lives for. And what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly. With the whole world. With up and down, back and front, ugliness and beauty, perfectly normal. There's no need to want this. It happens of its own accord. And if you never leave the house, the process is the same.

There is nothing but striving for perfection. You want to get better and better.

There is no need to strive for anything in the world, because you get pushed towards it in any case. Striving has always been nonsense. The German word "Streber" (striver – meaning swot or brown-noser) means something awful. And striving is just as awful. The world has a pull that drags you whether you like it or not, there's no need to strive. When you strive, you become a "Streber". You know what that means. It's hard to translate into another region.

Well, I know what it is.

You know what it means, but I don't think people in France know what a "Streber" is. I don't think they have them.

But this quest for perfection does play a role in your books.

That's the attraction of any art. That's all art is, getting better and better at playing your chosen instrument. That's the pleasure of it, and no one can take that pleasure away from you or talk you out of it. If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he's sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he'll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he'll carry on playing. And with writing it's the same thing.

So it has something to do with failure then.

What has to do with failure?

The quest for perfection.

Everything fails in the end, everything ends in the graveyard. There's nothing you can do about it. Death claims them all and that's the end of it. Most people give in to death at 17 or 18. The young people of today are running into the arms of death at age 12, and they're dead at 14. Then there are solitary fighters who struggle on until 80 or 90, then they die too, but at least they had a longer life. And because life is pleasant and fun, their fun lasts longer. Those who die early have less fun, and you can feel sorry for them. Because they haven't really got to know life, because life also means a long life, with all of its awfulness.

In your view, does this awfulness include eroticism and love?

Everyone knows what eroticism is. There's no need to talk about it. Everyone has their own sense of the erotic.

Reading your books, one gets the impression that you see no hope whatsoever in this domain.

That's a stupid question because nothing can live without eroticism, not even insects, they need it too. Only if you have a totally primitive notion of the erotic, of course, that's no good, because I'm always at pains to go beyond the primitive.

Could one say that you try to go beyond it in the direction of sisterly love?

I don't try anything at all. All nonsense. I need neither a sister nor a mistress. You have all these things within yourself, and sometimes you use it if you feel like it. People always believe that if something is not mentioned directly, it's not there, but that's nonsense. An eighty-year-old man who's in bed somewhere and who hasn't had this love you're talking about for fifty years, he too has a sexual life. On the contrary, his is a much more amazing kind of sexual existence than the primitive. I prefer to see a dog doing it, where I can watch and stay strong.

What kind of intellectual aims do you...

These are all questions that can't be answered because no one asks themselves that sort of thing. People don't have aims. Young people, up to 23, they still fall for that. A person who has lived five decades has no aims, because there's no goal.

You're always presented as a kind of loner in the mountains, the man from the farm...

What can you do. You get a name, you're called "Thomas Bernhard", and it stays that way for the rest of your life. And if at some point you go for a walk in the woods, and someone takes a photo of you, then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.

...and suddenly here you are in an urban context like this Viennese coffeehouse.

Urbanity is a quality you have to possess from within. It has nothing to do with the exterior. No. Nothing but stupid notions. But humanity has only ever existed in stupid notions, there's no helping it. There's no cure for stupidity. That's a fact.

Many of your readers, including so-called highbrow critics, have repeatedly subjected your books to negative readings.

I really couldn't give a damn how people read my work...

When people ring you up and say they'd like to commit suicide with you?

People hardly ever ring up anymore, thank God.

But would you go the other way and call yourself a humorous writer?

What's all this supposed to mean? People are everything. Each individual is more or less everything. Sometimes he laughs and sometimes he doesn't. People say it's all tragic, which is stupid too, because I...

Alongside your writing, does your work also involve reflecting on writing itself, as in the case of Doderer or Thomas Mann?

No, that's not necessary. If you're a master of your trade then you have no need for reflection. When you go out onto the street, everything works for you, you don't need to do anything, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open and walk. You don't need to think anymore, not if you're independent or if you make yourself independent. If you're uptight and stupid or if you're striving for something, then nothing will ever come of it. If you live in life, then you've no need to make any special effort, it all comes to you of its own accord, and it will leave its mark on what you do. It's not something you can learn. You can learn to sing, if you have a good voice. That's the one condition. Someone who's naturally hoarse will hardly become an opera singer. It's the same everywhere. You can't play piano without a piano. Or if all you have is a violin and you want to play piano on it, that won't work either. And if you don't want to play violin, then you'll just have to play nothing at all.

But when you describe yourself as a destroyer of stories, then in a certain way that is a theoretical statement.

I said that once did I, well, people say a lot of things in fifty years of life. The amount of stupid things people say over the decades, myself included. If people were always held to the things they say. Of course, if a reporter is sitting in a restaurant somewhere and he hears you say the beef's no good, then he'll always claim you're someone who doesn't like beef, for the rest of your life. Meanwhile, maybe you ate nothing but beef from then on.

A publisher once...

What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there's no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that's harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can't find them anymore. That's the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can't find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he's muddled, either way they're gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it's either ruined or impossible to find.

Does breathing play a role in your texts, in the sense of breathing rhythm?

I happen to be a musical person, and writing prose always has to do with musicality.

Breathing like with a singer...

Well, breathing isn't easy. Some people breathe from the stomach, some from the lungs. Singers breathe only with their stomachs because otherwise they wouldn't be able to sing. You just have to transfer breathing from the stomach to the brain. It's the same process. You have many little lungs in there, probably a few million. For the time being. Until they collapse. Because bubbles burst, and lungs collapse. There are those who still have lungs at 90. And there are those who have none left by the time they're 12, who just stand around like idiots. Most people are like that, 98 percent, maybe even one percent more. Every time you speak to someone, you're talking to an idiot, but charming. And because you're not a spoilsport, you carry on talking to people, going out for meals with them, being kind and nice. And basically they're stupid, because they don't make an effort. What you don't use wastes away and dies off. Since people use just their mouths but not their brains, they get very well-developed palates and jaws, but there's nothing left in their brains. That's the way it usually is.

You started out writing poetry.

Oh please!

What does that mean to you today?

Nothing whatsoever, I don't think about it at all. You don't think back over every step you've ever taken, do you? You'd have to set billions, hundreds of billions of thoughts in motion. Like with walking and running. You can't be constantly retracing where you've been in your mind, or you'll never get anywhere interesting.

The appearance of your volume of poetry entitled "Ave Virgil" in 1981, was that also the work of the publisher? Did he "misplace" that too?

Well, I found it and I thought to myself, this is actually a good poem, from that period, and that was it. He publishes everything I give him.

We've had an excerpt translated.

It's probably quite easy to translate. It's always just three words. It probably translates well into English, English and Italian, I'm not so sure if French would work. It's from 1960. 26 years ago.

In the passage chosen by the translators, one theme is Verona.

Oh right, "Schauplätze in Verona" (Scenes in Verona) is in there too, is it? That was actually a separate poem. It came from a book called "Einladung nach Verona" (Invitation to Verona) edited by Wieland Schmied, and at the time I was a big fan of Ezra Pound, so I wrote a kind of Pound poem about Verona. And that was probably, somewhere around then, yes, it was around the same time. It must have been before 1960. Thirty years ago.

Is the love spoken of in this poem not linked with the figure of the sister, not in a biographical sense but something like in "Korrektur" (Correction)?

What am I supposed to say to that? Love always has to do with everything. And I'm not my characters. I'd have to have killed myself hundreds of times and be perversity incarnate from five in the morning until ten at night. What a person is cannot be described. You can only describe what you have in your hand.

Far be it from me to confuse you with your characters.

No, no, wonderful. Like I said, I'm in the mood. Short and to the point.

(A friend of Thomas Bernhard's enters the coffeehouse and sits down at the table next to ours. Thomas Bernhard tells her he has spent a "terrible night", but that he did manage to get a few hours sleep in spite of the decoration work going on in his flat.)

But the decorators are only there during the day.

Of course. Writers work at night. It would never occur to a craftsman to pick up the tools of his trade in the middle of the night.

(A man enters the coffeehouse and greets Thomas Bernhard. They evoke their participation in a solidarity gala organized by Viennese artists in 1964 in support of "Tschauner's Stegreiftheater". Thomas Bernhard recalls playing the part of a gendarme.)

You deliberately keep your distance from other living writers.

No, not deliberately at all. It comes naturally. Where there's no interest, there can be no inclination.

Sometimes you hurl abuse at them too, like Canetti or Handke for example.

I don't hurl abuse at anyone at all. That's nonsense. Almost all writers are opportunists. Either they affiliate themselves with the right or with the left, joining ranks here or there, and so on, and that's how they make a living. And that's unpleasant, why shouldn't that be said. One works with his illness and his death and wins prizes, and the other runs round in the name of peace and is basically a nasty stupid fellow, so what's the big deal?

From a non-Austrian perspective, this comes as a surprise – in France, you are often named in the same breath as Handke.

Well, that breath will change. A new breath with come. But habits like that last for decades. They're impossible to eradicate. If you open a newspaper today, almost all you read about is Thomas Mann. He's been dead thirty years now, and again and again, endlessly, it's unbearable. Even though he was a petty-bourgeois writer, ghastly, uninspired, who only wrote for a petty-bourgeois readership. That could only interest the petty-bourgeois, the kind of milieu he describes, it's uninspired and stupid, some fiddle-playing professor who travels somewhere, or a family in Lübeck, how lovely, but it's nothing more than someone like Wilhelm Raabe. What rubbish Thomas Mann churned out about political matters, really. He was totally uptight and a typical German petty-bourgeois. With a greedy wife.

For me, that's the typical German writer combination. Always a woman in the background, be it Mann or Zuckmayer, always making sure these characters get to sit next to the head of state, at every idiotic opening of a sculpture exhibition or a bridge. Is that where writers belong? These are the people who always make deals with the state and those in power, who end up sitting at their elbows. The typical German-language writer. If long hair is in fashion, then he has long hair, if it's short hair, then his is short too. If the left is in government, he runs to the left, if it's the right, he runs that way, always the same. They've never had any character. Only those who died young, mostly. If they died at 18 or 24, well, at that age it's not so hard to maintain some character, that only gets hard later. You get weak. Under 25, when no one needs more than an old pair of trousers, when you go barefoot and content yourself with a gulp of wine and some water, it's not so difficult to have character. But afterwards. Then they all had none. At 40 they were all absorbed into political parties, totally paralysed. The coffee they drink in the morning is paid for by the state. And the bed they sleep in, and the holidays they go on, all paid for by the state. Nothing of their own any more.

Do you believe there is anything specifically Austrian about your texts?

I don't need to believe it. I'm Austrian, so it goes without saying. Not a matter of believing.

Could a German author write the same way?

Certainly not. Thank God. The Germans are unmusical, it's something quite different. And it's noticeable. Before you even open the book you notice it, even in the title, a quite different... it has a totally different stink to it.

Your style is so distinctive that it has prompted numerous pastiches and parodies...

If they can earn money that way and pay for a summer holiday, three days at a decent inn, unfortunately they mostly only go to places with Michelin stars, where they have to pay 2,000 Schillings for a meal, I wouldn't begrudge anyone that if they enjoy themselves.

But how does something new like this come into being in the old material of language? Are there traditions that one refers to, even if that means going against them?

There are always traditions, conscious and unconscious. From reading and being alive since childhood, all that comes of its own accord. And because you're constantly throwing out what you don't like or what's bad from the beginning, you're left with what you want. Whether it's stupid or not is another question. Whether or not it's the right path, no one knows, every individual has their own path, and for that person every path is the right one. And now there are four and a half billion people, I think, and four and a half billion right paths. The misfortune of human beings is that they don't want to take the path, their own, they always want to take a different one. Striving and struggling towards something other than what they themselves are. Everyone is a great personality, whether they paint or sweep streets or write or... people always want something different. That's the misfortune of the world.

You sometimes give the impression of biting the hand that feeds, for example when you describe Heidegger as a "weak-minded pre-Alpine thinker" and...

He didn't feed me. Why should he have fed me? But he's an impossible character, he has neither rhythm nor anything else. He lived off a few writers, he cannibalised them, to the last, what would he have been without them?

I was thinking of the word "Lichtung" (clearing).

That word existed before Heidegger, 300 and 500 years before. He was nothing, a philistine, gross, nothing new. He's a perfect example of someone who unscrupulously eats all the fruit other people have jarred and who gorges himself, thank God, which makes him sick and he bursts. Gets stomach ache.

You have spoken of a love/hate relationship with Austria. What do you still love here?

Love/hate relationship, the word is self-explanatory.

It contains the element of "love".

Probably. Love/hate? One is torn both ways. That's the best impetus you can possibly have in life. If you only love, you're lost, if you only hate, you're lost too. If you like living, as I do, then you have to live in a perpetual love/hate relationship with all things. It's a kind of balancing act. Being directly at their mercy would be deadly. If you like living, you don't want to be dead. Everyone likes living, even those who kill themselves, except they no longer have the opportunity. Because they can no longer back out. (looking at the tape recorder:) It's still running anyway, the drama is running, dramma giocoso!

Political reality in Austria is so provocative in itself that there's no more scope for provocation.

It all finds it way into the work somehow. There's no real need to worry about this either. It just flows in, as the saying goes. It makes no sense, like him over there, the stupid sculptor, to run out and shout and put up a stupid horse and talk a load of nonsense, primitive stuff, that's short-term impact, until the day after tomorrow.

You mean Hrdlicka?

Yes, yes, who was just here, he comes in here five times a day, he left as I was arriving, and now he's back... each to his own. Poor fellow, shaves his head, after two years he shaves everything off, and then he lets it grow again for three years. He's poor. It makes no sense. If that becomes visible in your work, then it lasts longer. Well, I suppose it's not easy for sculptors. They have to kiss the city councillors' asses otherwise they get no commissions, he can't make things and cast them at home in his living room. That's the difficult thing. Writing is easier because you don't need anything or anyone. You can observe, and then you do what you want with the results, only a typewriter, and if times get really hard, just a pencil. Or a ballpoint, you can get one for a couple of schillings.

Among other things, your new book "Auslöschung" (Extinction) is about...

An extinction.

...the problem of the old Nazis in Austria.

There is a genuine problem here. If you were to go somewhere and sit down and listen a bit, you could get quite outraged if you wanted to. Except there's no point. It's the same everywhere. In France too. The Nazis aren't only here. There are also Nazis in England and France and Croatia and who knows where else. There are attractive and unattractive people. But the unattractive ones just happen to be in the majority.

For you, is National Socialism a historic term or a personal concept?

That's clear from history. Nazi, everyone knows what that is. Jesus, everyone knows what that is, too. Christian. Whether you say Christian or Nazi, they sound roughly the same and they're both abominable.

Critics have sometimes described you as an anti-Enlightenment writer who despises humankind.

Look at the people who write that. They're just vulgar, primitive fools with no taste, who haven't the first idea about what they describe and read. No idea what they're actually dealing with. When it gets hot, they take off their jackets, sit around sweating with their fat bellies and braces, totally vulgar, drinking bottle after bottle, fraternizing with all and sundry. They're a vile mob. Who cares what they're called. Whether it's in Germany or... well, they don't have people like that there anyway.

When critics accuse you of proto-fascist tendencies...

Fascist, I don't like that, the word, but I've been called everything. The things I've been called. Communist or fascist, anarchist, everything.

What, in your view, is a conversation?

I don't usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they're unable to satisfy. Simple people are very good to talk with. When talking is supposed to become conversation, that's when things get gruesome! That fine expression "everything under the sun." It all gets thrown in together and then one person stirs this way, the other stirs that, and an unbearable stinking turd comes out the bottom. No matter who it is. There are collected conversations, hundreds of them, books full. Entire publishing houses live off them. Like something coming out of an anus, and then it gets squashed in between book covers. This wasn't a conversation either.

Yes, of course not.

It's always: "you've been listening to a conversation" and so on, and at that moment, everyone who heard it has already forgotten it. Because it was nothing. There's the famous "Nocturnes" series. They sit there for an hour and a half, there's a philosopher and a pseudo-philosopher, or mostly both pseudo-philosophers, one wearing a polo neck sweater and the other a tie, doesn't really matter because everything is contrived and stupid, and they just talk constantly and talk and talk. If you look in the Süddeutsche Zeitung at the amount of interviews they've published over the past three decades, no one gives a damn about a single word of all these conversations and books.

It's all just for the workers at the paper factory, so they have something to do, which might make some sense. Because they have a terrible life anyway and lose all their limbs, at 50 most of them have lost a leg or five fingers. Paper machines are cruel. At least it has some meaning, the family can get something extra. I live next to two paper factories, so I know how it is. In ten years you'll see how stupid it all was. But it all helps you get ahead, gives you something to live from, and life involves doing a load of nonsense. Life consists of one long succession of nonsense, a little bit of sense, but mostly nonsense. No matter who. Be it great, supposedly great people, all the usual names, me included, Cioran, aphorists. All pathetic and leads to nothing but the end. You can sit at home, put your books on the shelf, and when you look at them, you think: "Sad". But you still keep churning it out, like you get into the habit of drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or tea. Tea is smarter, because you work less. The same applies to writing. You become addicted. Writing is a drug, too.

Has illness been a driving force behind your writing?

Yes, perhaps, possibly. Since it's been there with me throughout my life. And as you can see, some people are always critically ill but they go on living for ever. For all these people it's always been beneficial. An illness is always a form of capital. Every illness you survive is a great story, because there's no way anyone can steal your thunder with something similar. Only you shouldn't count on it, because one time it'll go wrong. Although it doesn't matter, because you're no longer around to notice. It's money in the bank.

In your latest books, the sense of menace has receded, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of quasi mathematical, geometric cheerfulness.

You get older, things change. Which is why there's no need to worry about a change of theme, because that comes naturally, with the experiences you have. A stupid writer, a stupid painter is always looking for motifs, although all he actually needs is himself, to follow his own life. He always wants to remain the same, but never to write the same. And that's the key, if there's a key at all. But if you approach it like someone selling trousers, and as something to make a living off, then that's what you'll end up doing.

You say you like talking to simple people.

It's always a pleasure.

And do you find such simple people in Vienna?

I've got simple people at home at the moment. That's most agreeable, even if they do make a mess. Their minds haven't been ruined by education.

But you have to pay them to come to your house.

I don't need to pay my simple people. I have hundreds of them where I live in the country and wherever I travel. They're not always easy to stomach either. You need both. It's important to master as much as possible. You have to be here and be there. If you only frequent one section of society it's stupid. You end up stunted. You need to take in and cast off as much as possible all the time. Most people make the mistake of remaining within a single caste and class, only mixing with butchers because they're butchers, or only with bricklayers because they're bricklayers, or with labourers because they're labourers, or counts because they're counts, or kings...

Or writers because they're writers?

Well, I'm my own, so I've no need anyway. No one can teach me or tell me anything, so I've no need to go to anyone. Because people in general are false and twisted, I go elsewhere. I don't need any writer. Sitting down with someone where there's nothing but envy and resentment from the outset, I've no interest in that, so I don't deal with writers.

Thank you...

What? Everyone lives until they die. And a great deal happens in between. But for most people it's of no interest. Mostly only for the person living it. The truth is that each person, even if he is interested in others, is interested only in himself. It's all about indirect benefits. It's the same everywhere, whatever it is, children's villages, the Sahel, hunger in Nicaragua. Mister Ortega puts on just as much of a self-serving theatre act as Mister Reagan, whichever way you look at it. People only do things they think will help them get ahead and keep going. Even if you become a nun or a monk, that's all you have in mind, you have no choice. In fact, if you want to be a monk and serve, that will make you especially ghastly and misanthropic. That's the way it is, I believe. With faith. As it were.


The interview, conducted in 1986, originally appeared in German in the Autumn 2006 issue of Kultur & Gespenster. A shorter version was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on October 22, 2006.

Werner Wögerbauer teaches in the German department at the University of Nantes in France.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

Thomas Bernhard spricht mit José Comas u. Krista Fleischmann
[José Comas & Krista Fleischmann interview Bernhard]

-Other videos with Thomas Bernhard are viewable here.

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