THOMAS BERNHARD -- 1
Schlaf und Tod, die düstern Adler
Umrauschen nachtlang dieses Haupt:
Des Menschen goldnes Bildnis
Verschlänge die eisige Woge
Der Ewigkeit. An schaurigen Riffen
Zerschellt der purpurne Leib.
Und es klagt die dunkle Stimme
Über dem Meer.
Schwester stürmischer Schwermut
Sich ein ängstlicher Kahn versinkt
Dem schweigenden Antlitz der Nacht.
-Georg Trakl (1887-1914)
CONTENTS (spread over 4pp.)
- Works [select bibliography]
- The Voice Imitator [excerpts]
- Walking [excerpt from Three Novellas]
- Essay by Thomas Cousineau
- Failing To Go Under: An Essay by S. Mitchelmore
- Review of The Voice Imitator by B. Marcus
- Bob Corbett Reviews & Comments on Bernhard's Books [includes Concrete, Wittgenstein's Nephew, Correction, Woodcutters, On The Mountain, and somecomments on Vienna Coffee Houses]
- Reconsidering Bernhard's Correction, essay by D. Sepanik
- Fear & Loathing in Vienna - Thomas Bernhard's Subjects, by R. Lieberman
- The Art of Extinction, by R. Franklin
- The Heart in Winter, a review of Frost by C. Benfey
- Frost by Thomas Bernhard, a review by M. Cisco
- Thomas Bernhard: In Memoriam, by Rudi Krausmann
- Taming Thomas Bernhard, by G. Williams
- Video of Interview [in German]
- The Lunatics/The Inmates [poems], p.2
- The Loser reviewed by K. Bazzana, p.2
- Reading Thomas Bernhard by R. Burgin, p.2
- Interview with Asta Scheib, p.2
- A Grouch Of Greatness [biography review], p.2
- Playing Dead, reviews from The Gaping Void, p.2
- Thomas Bernhard:Extinction, review by Waggish, p.2
- The Scabrous Lyricism of Thomas Bernhard by E. Ormsby, p.2
- Antiphons To A Displaced God by E. Ormsby, p.2
- Portrait Of The Author As An Artist of Exaggeration by W. Schmidt-Dengler, p.2
- Things Fall Apart by S. Mattl, p.2
- Nazis In The Bernhard Soup by J. R. Malkin, p.2
- Thomas Bernhard For Life by W. Wögerbauer, p.2
- Video of Interview [Bernhard with J. Comas et al.], p.2
- Thomas Bernhard, Scrittore austriaco di A. Gussago [in Italian], p.3
- Parliamo di Perturbamento di A. Gussago [in Italian], p.3
- La seduzione dell'immagine di M. Latini [in Italian], p.3
- Thomas Bernhard e il retroscena della scrittura di D. Sparti [in Italian], p.3
- La vera eredità di Thomas Bernhard di G. Soavi [in Italian], p.3
- I sette sospiri di Thomas Bernhard di I. Bossi Fedrigotti [in Italian], p.3
- Bernhard cerca la verità nell'inferno sottoproletario di P. Capriolo [in Italian], p.3.
- Il Fuoco dentro: Estinzione - Uno sfacelo [in Italian], p.3.
- Thomas Bernhard, il Nulla da segnalare di Luca Canali, p.3
- Traducendo Il Nipote di Wittgenstein da Logos et al., p.3
- Il Soccombente recensione di C. Bolzani, p.3
- Thomas Bernhard e Il Soccombente recensione di G. Franchi, p.3
- Thomas Bernhard e Il Perturbamento recensione di G. Franchi, p.3
- Bibliografia italiana, p.3
- Un'esistenza cattolica [estratto in italiano], p.4
- Thomas Bernhard: GELO [estratto in italiano], p.4
- L'invidia del soccombente di C. Marobin [saggio critico - estratto in italiano], p.4
- Estinzione. Uno sfacelo recensione di S. Bottaro [in italiano], p.4
- Tre poesie brevi di Thomas Bernhard, con lunghissima nota bio-bibliografica di C. Di Scalzo [in italiano], p.4
- La parola imprigionata: Pessoa, Jabès, Bernhard e la scrittura di G. Pulina [in italiano], p.4
- Influenced by Bernhard: W. G. Sebald, A Terminal Symposium from The Threepenny Review [English, with bibliography], p.4
- In The Hour Of Death a review of In Hora Mortis [English], p.4
- Admiration Journey - Visiting Bernhard's house in Upper Austria, by J. Taylor, p.4
- On Thomas Bernhard some reviews by J. M. Baskin [The Making of an Austrian, Gathering Evidence, Correction, Gargoyles], p.4
- Video di Glenn Gould che suona THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, p.4
~Understanding Thomas Bernhard by Stephen D. Dowden (1991) internal link with text reproduction
~Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary by Marjorie Perloff (1999) internal link with text reproduction [Chapter 5: "Border Games: The Wittgenstein fictions of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann"]
~The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard: The Portrayal of Existential and Social Problems in His Prose Works by Charles W. Martin (1995) external link [book excerpts]
~The Novels of Thomas Bernhard by Jonathan James Long (2001) external link [book excerpts]
~The Imperative of Narration: Beckett, Bernhard, Schopenhauer, Lacan by Catharina Wulf (1997) external link [book excerpts]
~Thomas Bernhard, il Soccombente - Analisi di un testo tra letteratura e musica di C. Daino (2001/2002) link esterno
~Le seduzioni di W. G. Sebald - di Tim Parks testo originale Adelphi (2004) link esterno
~L'ignorante e il folle Note sparse intorno a una commedia di Bernhard Teatroditalia/Elfo/Portaromana (Milano 2008) link esterno
~Looking and Looking Away - Stephen Mitchelmore on the writing of WG Sebald external link
~The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard internal link [more excerpts from the book]
~AMRAS, from Three Novellas by Thomas Bernhard - with foreword by B. Evenson [excerpts] and a review by M. Kirkpatrick
~Bernhard in the Public, essay by M. Konzett
ON THE MOUNTAIN [In Der Höhe] In alto. Tentativo di salvezza, Pazzia
Written 1959, published 1989.
Published posthumously on Bernhard's instructions, this is chronologically his first, with an afterword by the translator Sophie Wilkins. The critical importance of this work to Bernhard's development as a writer is precisely captured by Wilkin's moving afterword:” The new-fledged court reporter of On the Mountain has been writing hundreds of poems but now begins to work on his first book as it comes to him, jotting down notes, splinters of ideas, observations, encounters, characters, feelings, out of these data making a loose net in which to catch the realities of his life. In the process he discovers the power of words, infinite combinations and permutations of words such as the German language, with its many-plied nouns, is uniquely capable of. He discovers words for their own sake. He can't stop for structured paragraphs or sentences, life is literally too short (what with his lung disease being aggravated by bunglers whom he sometimes has to instruct in the procedures, any treatment could mean the end of him). His writing has become synonymous with his breathing: it is his rescue attempt, trying to save his life, even if it is nonsense to keep struggling against the inevitable, nonsense to record the nonsense of life in the face of death.”
GARGOYLES [Verstörung] Perturbamento
Translated from the German Verstörung, something like Confusion.
Gargoyles, one of his earliest novels, is a singular, surreal study of the nature of humanity. One morning a doctor and his son set out on daily rounds through the grim mountainous Austrian countryside. They observe the colorful characters they encounter -- from an innkeeper whose wife has been murdered to a crippled musical prodigy kept in a cage -- coping with physical misery, madness, and the brutality of the austere landscape. The parade of human grotesques culminates in a hundred-page monologue by an eccentric, paranoid prince, a relentlessly flowing cascade of words that is classic Bernhard.
THE LIME WORKS [Das Kalkwerk] La fornace
It is about the death by gunshot of a crippled woman. Her husband, Konrad, is under arrest. The novel tells the story of the years leading up to the death in a collage of reported statements from local people. The Lime Works is replete with allusions to the archetypal persecution narrative that is Bernhard's single, endlessly repeated story. Thus Konrad believes that anyone who devotes himself to serious intellectual labor becomes the "victim to a conspiracy that would ultimately involve the whole world and even whatever possibilities existed beyond the world" (54). Later, he will denounce "the increasingly disturbed, nervous so-called consumer society, with its chronically irritating and ultimately ruinous effect on everything in the nature of intellectual effort" (60).
CORRECTION [Korrektur] Correzione
A long, dense novel, the review of which by George Steiner in the Times Literary Supplement first brought Bernhard's name to prominence in the UK and USA. The major novels that follow The Lime Works will essentially work variations on the archetypal persecution narrative whose form Bernhard had already delineated in the story of Konrad and his wife. In Correction, for example, the lime works is transformed into Holler's garret, described by the narrator as the "thought dungeon" in which Roithamer will pursue his project of constructing the Cone, an ideal human habitation for his beloved sister, who replaces Konrad's wife. Roithamer is deeply attached to his sister; this does not, however, prevent his provoking her death, which occurs on the very day that she moves into the Cone house that he has built for her in the middle of the Kobernausser forest. Like Konrad, who forced his wife to participate in an insane experiment while preparing the book that he never writes on the sense of hearing, Roithamer has unwittingly killed his sister by forcing her to inhabit a house that was completely contrary to her own nature.
YES [Ja] Sì
On suicide: the suicide of a Persian woman is prepared for by the narrator's own preoccupation with suicide. This motif of the surrogate victim is clearly established in the novel's opening sentence, where the narrator describes himself as in the process of "dumping" his problems on his friend Moritz. Later, he will persist in making these revelations even though he recognizes that they have "wounded" Moritz. Similarly, he will underline the Persian woman's role as a surrogate victim when he refers to her as the ideal "sacrificial mechanism". While the woman has literally arrived in this comically benighted corner of upper Austria because her companion, a Swiss engineer, has chosen it as the ideal location in which to build his new house, the reader recognizes this realistic motivation as simply a pretext for arranging the sacrificial death that Bernhard intends for her. We glimpse this archetypal pattern from the very beginning of his narrative, when the narrator describes the woman as "regenerating" and perceives the arrival of the couple as signifying his "redemption". While the narrator himself has never been able to act on his own suicidal impulses, it was his insinuating words, as we learn in the novel's closing sentence, that provoked the woman's suicide. After she has committed suicide (by throwing herself in front of a cement truck), he remembers discussing the frequent suicide of young people and asking her if she would kill herself one day, to which she replies, in the novel's closing word, "Yes".
[Der Billigesser] I mangia-a-poco
A short novel, according to some not Bernhard’s best (but what do they know?). It’s the story, on the one side, of a man trying to pour into a book sixteen years of furious reflections; on the other, of four characters leading ordinary lives, solely connected by the custom of lunching together at the VPC (the Viennese Public Cuisine), punctually choosing the cheapest menu. Between comedy and tragedy, what dominates is the obsessive investigation of mania, at every level and seen as the last, desperate relic of a grandiose attempt at imposing a meaning to existence.
A substantial collection of five small books of memoirs, reissued in March 2003. Breathtaking.
[Collects Die Ursache (1975) L'origine. Un accenno, Der Keller (1976) La cantina. Una via di scampo, Der Atem (1978) Il respiro. Una decisione, Die Kälte (1981) Il freddo. Una segregazione, and Ein Kind (1982) Un bambino]
CONCRETE [Beton] Cemento
Rudolf, in Concrete, is a musicologist trying to write a monograph on the composer Mendelsson. However, he cannot get past the research stage. He blames his worldly sister: “She’s always destroyed whatever she’s touched, and all her life she’s tried to destroy me. At first unconsciously, then consciously, she’s set out to annihilate me. Right up to this day I’ve had to protect myself against my elder sister’s savage desire to annihilate, and I really don’t know how so far I’ve managed to escape her.”
WITTGENSTEIN'S NEPHEW [Wittgensteins Neffe] Il nipote di Wittgenstein
This short memoir/novel contains advice for writers who equate prizes with artistic worth: "a prize is invariably only awarded by incompetent people who want to piss on your head and who do copiously piss on your head if you accept their prize."
THE LOSER [Der Untergeher] Il soccombente
The first part of Bernhard's trilogy of the arts, about music. At a course taught by Horowitz in Salzburg, three young pianists meet. Two are brilliant, full of promise. But the third is Glenn Gould: he isn’t brilliant, he isn’t promising, he just is. A genius. This is an impressive novelised variation on the theme of grace and envy, of Mozart and Salieri, but even more on the terrible theme of “not being able to be”. The Loser enriches the repertoire of Bernhard’s characters destined for an irrevocable process of self-destruction in an original variant, especially because of a “documentary” element belonging to recent musical history. Besides the funereal obituary for a failed artist, this novel becomes also a celebratory monument to such an incomparable musician as Glenn Gould. He appears as victim of the almost inhuman need for perfection, whereas the other pianist (Wertheimer) as well as the narrator appear as the decadent exiles of a bourgeoisie destined for destruction.
CUTTING TIMBER: AN IRRITATION [Holzfällen: Eine Erregung] A colpi d'ascia. Una irritazione
Second part of that arts trilogy, about the theatre; the title has also been rendered as Woodcutters. We are in Vienna in the 80s. Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck has just been performed at the Burgtheater. An “artistic dinner” follows, at the home of the Auersbergers, a married couple whom the narrator hasn’t seen for twenty years: she’s a singer, he’s a “composer in the wake of Webern”, both “idiosyncratically consumed”. The whole novel is an account of what the narrator sees and hears while sitting on a chair with a glass of champagne in his hand and, subsequently, at the table during dinner. Bernhard devastates with the axe of his prose the world of pretentiousness and intellectual inconsistence, not only related to a certain Viennese scene, but also to all that surrounds us: he’s implacable, ferociously comic, inexhaustible in the variations and returns to theme.
OLD MASTERS: A COMEDY [Alte Meister. Komödie] Antichi maestri
The third part of the arts trilogy, about painting; it includes a famous long attack on Heidegger: "that ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus-fours." Every two days, an old gentleman sits in the Bordone Room of the Viennese Kunsthistorisches Museum and stares at a famous Tintoretto painting (Portrait of a White-Bearded Old Man Standing, ca. 1570). This gentleman has traits of a genius, in a country that doesn’t tolerate geniuses (“genius and Austria are not compatible” we read). What is he looking for? Something we could never guess and that may only be found central in a Bernhardian novel: he’s looking for blemishes in masterpieces (“The whole and the perfect we cannot stand”). This is one of Bernhard’s last novels, published in 1985, and one of the books where he went farthest, in no-man’s land between art and life, a land inhabited by awareness, by desperation, by the mourning for a lost love. Like in a testamentary confession, Bernhard writes not only about what painting is — and music, and literature, and philosophy — but also about what they cannot be, can never ever be: about the point when art fails. Hazardous themes indeed, which Bernhard treats with prodigious immediacy. Not only that: by varying on them, he also succeeds in producing with sinister yet cathartic verve, what he defines in the subtitle as — a “comedy”.
EXTINCTION [Auslöschung] Estinzione. Uno sfacelo
In this last of his novels, Bernhard used repetition to achieve a cathartic effect while delivering himself of a parthian shot at the very language without which his own literary achievements would have been inconceivable. In a remarkable passage, the narrator, an expatriate professor based in Rome, talks about the search for his childhood in an Austrian country estate, Wolfsegg: “In Rome I sometimes think of Wolfsegg and tell myself that I have only to go back there in order to rediscover my childhood. This has always proved to be a gross error, I thought. You’re going to see your parents, I have often told myself, the parents of your childhood, but all I’ve ever found is a gaping void. You can’t revisit your childhood, because it no longer exists, I told myself. 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. Not only your childhood, but the whole of your past, is a gaping void. This is why it’s best not to look back. You have to understand that you mustn’t look back, if only for reasons of self-protection, I thought. Whenever you look back into the past, you’re looking into a gaping void. Even yesterday is a gaping void, even the moment that’s just passed.”
THE VOICE IMITATOR [Der Stimmenimitator] L'imitatore di voci
Very short stories, 104 in as many pages.
Read more excerpts HERE.
"The Voice Imitator works as a mini-anthology of Bernhard's obsessions with political corruption, madness, murder, and the inability of language to capture, or relieve, the absurdity of life.…A highly artistic undertaking." —Peter Filkins, New York Times Book Review
Five stories from
The Voice Imitator
by Thomas Bernhard
Pisa and Venice
The mayors of Pisa and Venice had agreed to scandalize visitors to their cities, who had for centuries been equally charmed by Venice and Pisa, by secretly and overnight having the tower of Pisa moved to Venice and the campanile of Venice moved to Pisa and set up there. They could not, however, keep their plan a secret, and on the very night on which they were going to have the tower of Pisa moved to Venice and the campanile of Venice moved to Pisa they were committed to the lunatic asylum, the mayor of Pisa in the nature of things to the lunatic asylum in Venice and the mayor of Venice to the lunatic asylum in Pisa. The Italian authorities were able to handle the affair in complete confidentiality.
The Tables Turned
Even though I have always hated zoological gardens and actually find that my suspicions are aroused by people who visit zoological gardens, I still could not avoid going out to Schönbrunn on one occasion and, at the request of my companion, a professor of theology, standing in front of the monkeys' cage to look at the monkeys, which my companion fed with some food he had brought with him for the purpose. The professor of theology, an old friend of mine from the university, who had asked me to go to Schönbrunn with him had, as time went on, fed all the food he had brought with him to the monkeys, when suddenly the monkeys, for their part, scratched together all the food that had fallen to the ground and offered it to us through the bars. The professor of theology and I were so startled by the monkeys' sudden behavior that in a flash we turned on our heels and left Schönbrunn through the nearest exit.
We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them.
A businessman from Koblenz had made his life's dream come true by visiting the pyramids of Giza and was forced, after he had done visiting the pyramids, to describe his visit as the greatest disappointment of his life, which I understand, for I myself was in Egypt last year and was disappointed above all by the pyramids. However, whereas I very quickly overcame my disappointment, the Koblenz businessman. took vengeance for his disappointment by placing, for months on end, full-page advertisements in all the major newspapers in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, warning all future visitors to Egypt against the pyramids and especially against the pyramids of Cheops, which had disappointed him most deeply, more than all the others. The Koblenz businessman used up his resources in a very short time by these—as he called them—anti-Egypt and anti-pyramid advertisements and plunged himself into total penury. In the nature of things, his advertisements did not have the influence upon people that he had hoped for; on the contrary, the number of visitors to Egypt this year, as opposed to last year, has doubled.
An Italian who owns a villa in Riva on Lake Garda and can live very comfortably on the interest from the estate his father left him has, according to a report in La Stampa, been living for the last twelve years with a mannequin. The inhabitants of Riva report that on mild evenings they have observed the Italian, who is said to have studied art history, boarding a glass-domed deluxe boat, which is moored not far from his home, with the mannequin to take a ride on the lake. Described years ago as incestuous in a reader's letter addressed to the newspaper published in Desencano, he had applied to the appropriate civil authorities for permission to marry his mannequin but was refused. The church too had denied him the right to marry his mannequin. In winter he regularly leaves Lake Garda in mid-December and goes with his beloved, whom he met in a Paris shop-window, to Sicily, where he regularly rents a room in the famous Hotel Timeo in Taormina to escape from the cold, which, all assertions to the contrary, gets unbearable on Lake Garda every year after mid-December.
Excerpt from ==> Three Novellas
Amras, Playing Watten and Walking was published in June 2003 by the University of Chicago Press. The opening pages of Walking, originally published in 1971, are posted below:
by Thomas Bernhard
[Translated from German by Kenneth Northcott]
This is the first English translation of Thomas Bernhard's novella Gehen, originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1971. The novella is a seminal work, quintessential to the understanding of Bernhard's complete oeuvre. In it he treats, and distills, many of the themes that are central to both his dramatic and his fictional writings: the problems of identity, mortality, suicide, ethics, perception and of spiritual and personal liberty in the face of unbending authority are all explored with the full force of Bernhard's mordant wit, narrative genius and philosophical acuity. In a true Bernhardian spirit, I have tried to preserve the author's often idiosyncratic punctuation and sentence structure, particularly in the case of quotations within the text which form such an integral part of this remarkable novella.
THERE IS A CONSTANT tug-of-war going on between all the possibilities of human thought and all the possibilities of a human mind's sensitivity, and between all the possibilities of human character.
Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesdays, now I go walking--now that Karrer has gone mad--with Oehler on Monday as well. Because Karrer used to go walking with me on Monday, you go walking on Monday with me as well, now that Karrer no longer goes walking with me on Monday, says Oehler, after Karrer had gone mad and had immediately gone into Steinhof. And without hesitation I said to Oehler, good, let's go walking on Monday as well. Whereas on Wednesday we always walk in one direction (in the eastern one), on Mondays we go walking in the western direction, strikingly enough we walk far more quickly on Monday than on Wednesday, probably, I think, Oehler always walked more quickly with Karrer than he did with me, because on Wednesday he walks much more slowly and on Monday much more quickly. You see, says Oehler, it's a habit of mine to walk more quickly on Monday and more slowly on Wednesday because I always walked more quickly with Karrer (that is on Monday) than I did with you (on Wednesday). Because, after Karrer went mad, you now go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday, there is no need for me to alter my habit of going walking on Monday and on Wednesday, says Oehler, of course, because you go walking with me on Wednesday and Monday you have probably had to alter your habit and, actually, in what is probably for you an incredible fashion, says Oehler. But it is good, says Oehler, and he says it in an unmistakably didactic tone, and of the greatest importance for the organism, from time to time, and at not too great intervals, to alter a habit, and he says he is not thinking of just altering, but of a radical alteration of the habit. You are altering your habit, says Oehler, in that now you go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday and that now means walking alternately in one direction (in the Wednesday-) and in the other (in the Monday-) direction, while I am altering my habit in that up till now I always went walking with you on Wednesday and with Karrer on Monday, but now I go with you on Monday and Wednesday, and thus also on Monday, and therefore on Wednesday in one (in the eastern) direction and on Monday in the other (in the western) direction. Besides which, I doubtless, and in the nature of things, walk differently with you than I did with Karrer, says Oehler, because with Karrer it was a question of a quite different person from you and therefore with Karrer it was a question of quite different walking (and thinking), says Oehler. The fact that I--after Karrer had gone mad and had gone into Steinhof, Oehler says, finally gone into Steinhof--had saved Oehler from the horror of having to go walking on his own on Monday, these were his own words, I would not have gone walking at all on Monday, says Oehler, for there is nothing more dreadful than having to go walking on one's own on Monday and having to walk on one's own is the most dreadful thing. I simply cannot imagine, says Oehler, that you would not go walking with me on Monday. And that I should have to go walking on my own on Monday is something that I cannot imagine. Whereas Oehler habitually wears his topcoat completely buttoned up, I leave my topcoat completely open. I think the reason for this is to be found in his persistent fear of catching a chill and a cold when leaving his topcoat open, whereas my reason is the persistent fear of suffocating if my topcoat is buttoned up. Thus Oehler is constantly afraid of getting cold whereas I am constantly afraid of suffocating. Whereas Oehler has on boots that reach up above his ankles, I wear ordinary shoes, for there is nothing I hate more than boots, just as Oehler hates nothing more than regular shoes. It is ill-bred (and stupid!) always to wear regular shoes, Oehler says again and again, while I say it's senseless to walk in such heavy boots. While Oehler has a wide-brimmed black hat, I have a narrow-brimmed gray one. If you could only get used to wearing a broad-brimmed hat like the one I wear, Oehler often says, whereas I often tell Oehler, if you could get used to wearing a narrow-brimmed hat like me. A narrow-brimmed hat doesn't suit your head, only a wide-brimmed one does, Oehler says to me, whereas I tell Oehler, only a narrow-brimmed hat suits your head, but not a wide-brimmed one like the one you have on. Whereas Oehler wears mittens--always the same mittens--always, sturdy, woolen mittens that his sister knitted for him, I wear gloves, thin, though lined, pigskin gloves that my wife bought for me. One is only really warm in mittens, Oehler says over and over again, only in gloves, only in soft leather gloves like these, I say, can I move my hands as I do. Oehler wears black trousers with no cuffs, whereas I wear gray trousers with cuffs. But we never agree about our clothing and so there is no point in saying that Oehler should wear a narrow-brimmed hat, a pair of trousers with cuffs, topcoats that are not so tight as the one he has on etcetera, or that I should wear mittens, heavy boots etcetera, because we will not give up the clothing that we are wearing when we go walking and which we have been wearing for decades, no matter where we are going to, because this clothing, in the decades during which we have been wearing it, has become a fixed habit and so our fixed mode of dress. If we hear something, says Oehler, on Wednesday we check what we have heard and we check what we have heard until we have to say that what we have heard is not true, what we have heard is a lie. If we see something, we check what we see until we are forced to say that what we are looking at is horrible. Thus throughout our lives we never escape from what is horrible and what is untrue, the lie, says Oehler. If we do something, we think about what we are doing until we are forced to say that it is something nasty, something low, something outrageous, what we are doing is something terribly hopeless and that what we are doing is in the nature of things obviously false. Thus every day becomes hell for us whether we like it or not, and what we think will, if we think about it, if we have the requisite coolness of intellect and acuity of intellect, always become something nasty, something low and superfluous which will depress us in the most shattering manner for the whole of our lives. For, everything that is thought is superfluous. Nature does not need thought, says Oehler, only human pride incessantly thinks into nature its thinking. What must thoroughly depress us is the fact that through this outrageous thinking into a nature which is, in the nature of things, fully immunized against this thinking, we enter into an even greater depression than that in which we already are. In the nature of things conditions become ever more unbearable through our thinking, says Oehler. If we think that we are turning unbearable conditions into bearable ones, we have to realize quickly that we have not made (have not been able to make) unbearable circumstances bearable or even less bearable but only still more unbearable. And circumstances are the same as conditions, says Oehler, and it's the same with facts. The whole process of life is a process of deterioration in which everything--and this is the most cruel law--continually gets worse. If we look at a person, we are bound in a short space of time to say what a horrible, what an unbearable person. If we look at Nature, we are bound to say, what a horrible what an unbearable Nature. If we look at something artificial--it doesn't matter what the artificiality is--we are bound to say in a short space of time what an unbearable artificiality. If we are out walking, we even say after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable walk, just as when we are running we say what an unbearable run, just as when we are standing still, what an unbearable standing still, just as when we are thinking what an unbearable process of thinking. If we meet someone, we think within the shortest space of time, what an unbearable meeting. If we go on a journey, we say to ourselves, after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable journey, what unbearable weather, we say, says Oehler, no matter what the weather is like, if we think about any sort of weather at all. If our intellect is keen, if our thinking is the most ruthless and the most lucid, says Oehler, we are bound after the shortest space of time to say of everything that it is unbearable and horrible. There is no doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable and in not feeling that what is horrible is something horrible. Of course we have to label this art the most difficult of all. The art of existing against the facts, says Oehler, is the most difficult, the art that is the most difficult. To exist against the facts means existing against what is unbearable and horrible, says Oehler. If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest possible space of time. The fact is that our existence is an unbearable and horrible existence, if we exist with this fact, says Oehler, and not against this fact, then we shall go under in the most wretched and in the most usual manner, there should therefore be nothing more important to us than existing constantly, even if in, but also at the same time against the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence. The number of possibilities of existing in (and with) the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence, is the same as the number of existing against the unbearable and horrible existence and thus in (and with) and at the same time against the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence. It is always possible for people to exist in (and with) and, as a result, in all and against all facts, without existing against this fact and against all facts, just as it is always possible for them to exist in (and with) a fact and with all facts and against one and all facts and thus above all against the fact that existence is unbearable and horrible. It is always a question of intellectual indifference and intellectual acuity and of the ruthlessness of intellectual indifference and intellectual acuity, says Oehler. Most people, over ninety eight percent, says Oehler, possess neither indifference of intellect nor acuity of intellect and do not even have the faculty of reason. The whole of history to date proves this without a doubt. Wherever we look, neither indifference of intellect, nor acuity of intellect, says Oehler, everything is a giant, a shatteringly long history without intellectual indifference and without acuity of intellect and so without the faculty of reason. If we look at history, it is above all its total lack of the faculty of reason that depresses us, to say nothing of intellectual indifference and acuity. To that extent it is no exaggeration to say that the whole of history is a history totally without reason, which makes it a dead history. We have, it is true, says Oehler, if we look at history, if we look into history, which a person like me is from time to time brave enough to do, a tremendous Nature behind us, actually under us but in reality no history at all. History is a history-lie, is what I maintain, says Oehler. But let us return to the individual, says Oehler. To have the faculty of reason would mean nothing other than breaking off with history and first and foremost with one's own personal history. From one moment to the next simply to give up, accepting nothing more, that's what having the faculty of reason means, not accepting a person not a thing, not a system and also, in the nature of things, not accepting a thought, just simply nothing more and then to commit suicide in this really single revolutionary realization. But to think like this leads inevitably to sudden intellectual madness, says Oehler, as we know, and to what Karrer has had to pay for with sudden total madness. He, Oehler, did not believe that Karrer would ever be released from Steinhof, his madness is too fundamental for that, says Oehler. His own daily discipline had been to school himself more and more in the most exciting and in the most tremendous and most epoch-making thoughts with an ever greater determination, but only to the furthest possible point before absolute madness. If you go as far as Karrer, says Oehler, then you are suddenly decisively and absolutely mad and have, at one stroke, become useless. Go on thinking more and more and more and more with ever greater intensity and with an ever greater ruthlessness and with an ever greater fanaticism for finding out, says Oehler, but never for one moment think too far. At any moment we can think too far, says Oehler, simply go too far in our thoughts, says Oehler, and everything becomes valueless. I am now going to return again, says Oehler, to what Karrer always came back to: that there is actually no faculty of reason in this world, or rather in what we call this world, because we have always called it this world, if we analyze what the faculty of reason is, we have to say that there simply is no faculty of reason--but Karrer had already analyzed that, says Oehler--that actually, as Karrer quite rightly said and the conclusion at which he finally arrived by his continued consideration of this incredibly fascinating subject was that there is no faculty of reason, only an under-faculty of reason. The so-called human faculty of reason, says Oehler, is, as Karrer said, always a mere under-faculty of reason, even a sub-faculty of reason. For if a faculty of reason were possible, says Oehler, then history would be possible, but history is not possible, because the faculty of reason is not possible and history is not possible, because the faculty of reason is not possible and history does not arise from an under-faculty or a sub-faculty of reason, discovery of Karrer's, says Oehler. The fact of the under-faculty of reason, or of the so-called sub-faculty of reason, says Oehler, does without doubt make possible the continued existence of Nature through human beings. If I had a faculty of reason, says Oehler, if I had an unbroken faculty of reason, he says, I would long ago have committed suicide. What is to be understood from, or by, what I am saying, says Oehler, can be understood, what is not to be understood cannot be understood. Even if everything cannot be understood, everything is nevertheless unambiguous, says Oehler. What we call thinking, has in reality nothing to do with the faculty of reason, says Oehler, Karrer is right about that when he says that we have no faculty of reason because we think, for to have a faculty of reason means not to think and so to have no thoughts. What we have is nothing but a substitute for a faculty of reason. A substitute for thought makes our existence possible. All the thinking that is done is only substitute thinking, because actual thinking is not possible, because there is no such thing as actual thinking, because Nature excludes actual thinking, because it has to exclude actual thinking. You may think I'm mad, says Oehler, but actual, and that means real, thinking is completely excluded. But we call what we think is thinking, thinking, just as we call walking what we consider to be walking, just as we say we are walking when we believe that we are walking and are actually walking, says Oehler. What I've just said has absolutely nothing to do with cause and effect, says Oehler. And there's no objection to saying thinking, where it's not a question of thinking, and there's no objection to saying faculty of reason where there's no possibility of its being a question of faculty of reason and there's no objection to saying concepts where they are not at issue. It is only by calling actions and things, actions and things that are in no way actions and things, because there is no way that they can be actions and things that we get any further, it is only in this way, says Oehler that something is possible, indeed that anything is possible. Experience is a fact about which we know nothing and above all it is something which we cannot get to the root of, says Oehler. But on the other hand it is just as much a fact that we always act exactly or at least much more in concert with this fact, which is what I do (and recognize) when I say, these children, whom we see here in Klosterneuburgerstrasse, have been made because the faculty of reason was suspended, although we know that the concepts used in that statement, and as a result the words used in the statement, are completely false and thus we know that everything in the statement is false. Yet if we cling to our experience which represents a zenith and we can no longer sustain ourselves, then we no longer exist, says Oehler.
an introductory essay by
Department of English
© 2001 Thomas Cousineau and the Review of Contemporary Fiction
The essential details of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's formative years are unforgettably recorded in his autobiographical work Gathering Evidence, which is written in the same iconoclastic, relentlessly repetitive style of lyrical imprecation that he devised for his novels. There, we learn of the decisive impact of his encounter with the "terminal disease" that was his native city of Salzburg as well as his discovery, thanks to the guidance of his maternal grandfather, the writer Johannes Freumbichler, of the "alternative world" of society's outsiders into which he could hope to escape. His description of Salzburg well exemplifies Bernhard's notoriously hyperbolic prose style: "This city of my fathers is in reality a terminal disease which its inhabitants acquire through heredity or contagion. If they fail to leave at the right moment, they sooner or later either commit suicide, directly or indirectly, or perish slowly and wretchedly on this lethal soil with its archiepiscopal architecture and its mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism. Anyone who is familiar with the city knows it to be a cemetery of fantasy and desire, beautiful on the surface but horrifying underneath" (79). In Salzburg, Bernhard was to make the discovery, which resonates throughout all of his major novels, that human communities, fatally marked as they are by the twin evils of imbecility and native brutality, cannot resist persecuting the vulnerable individuals whom they find in their midst. The persecution of a crippled classmate and a laughingstock teacher, in particular, was a vividly recalled scene that will reappear with endless variations in the major novels:
The crippled schoolboy and Pittioni were for me the most important figures at the school; it was they who brought out, in the most depressing manner, all that was worst in a ruthless society, in this case a school community. Observing them, I was able to study the community's inventiveness in devising fresh cruelties with which to torment its victims. I was also able to study the helplessness of the victims in the face of each new affliction, the increasing harm they suffered, their systematic destruction and annihilation, which became more terrible with every day that passed. Every school, being a community, has its victims, and during my time at the grammar school the victims were the geography master and the architect's crippled son. (137)
As though he were intent upon a radical rewriting of Hitler's Mein Kampf, Bernhard has nothing but scorn and contempt for his Aryan compatriots, who flaunt their ineradicable barbarism throughout his work. It is always to the helpless outsiders who fall victim to persecution by the Austrian majority that Bernhard looks for inspiration and guidance. Thus, during one of his many hospitalizations for pulmonary infections, he met a Marxist socialist whose radical politics had excited the fury of the doctors and Catholic nuns who were supposed to tend to his illness:
- Here was an example of how an honest man can stick consistently and tenaciously to his ideas while leaving others with different opinions in peace and yet become an object of scorn and hatred. Such people are dealt with in such a way as to ensure their annihilation. The incredible decision to put him in the twelve-man dormitory with its stupid inmates, whose behaviour was as brutal as it was mindless, amounted to a punishment which was bound to destroy him. He was not allowed to read a book or a newspaper in peace; he never had ten minutes in which he could think without being disturbed. (327)
Bernhard challenges the communal contempt that this man has aroused, finding in him, rather, an inspiring model that will show him the way to the alternative world into which he will, throughout his own life, attempt to gain entry: "For a brief period he too had been my teacher, taking me back into a world to which my grandfather had introduced me with such passionate devotion, once more opening the door to the alternative world that is kept under, the world of the powerless and the oppressed" (328).
Bernhard pays unending tribute to his grandfather, not only in the biographical reminiscences of Gathering Evidence but also indirectly in his novels, where he reemerges in the portrayals of incorrigibly iconoclastic figures who refuse to succumb to the herd instinct that afflicts the rest of humanity. In Gathering Evidence Bernhard, generalizing from his own experience, praises all grandfathers as "our teachers, our real philosophers. They are the people who pull open the curtain that others are always closing" (10). For Bernhard, as for his grandfather, Austria was a country, whether during or after the Nazi occupation, over which "Catholicism waved its brainless sceptre" (13). He admired the unconventionality that made it unthinkable for his grandfather "to become a master butcher or a wholesale coal merchant" (19) and was grateful for the tutelage in the utterly contrarian rejection of social conventions that he offered him.
In one of the most poignant moments in Gathering Evidence Bernhard is hospitalized along with his grandfather (who would later die of an illness that his doctors had misdiagnosed). Here, in the midst of this "death factory" of a hospital, Freumbichler would visit Bernhard each afternoon, sitting at his bedside and holding his hand, thus providing a moment in which his grandson "felt supremely happy" (227). During these visits, his grandfather would give Bernhard the lessons in fighting against death that would accompany him throughout his own lifelong struggle with illness and despair.
It was also thanks to his grandfather that Bernhard made the acquaintance of Schopenhauer, whom he was to adopt as an important literary mentor. So, too, it was from his grandfather's lips that he first heard the names of several of the other greats—including Shakespeare, Hegel, and Kant — whom he will periodically invoke throughout his own work. Bernhard's characteristic fascination with greatness — his constant, almost obsessive praise for the truly sublime human achievements that expose the complete nullity of all other, merely apparent accomplishments—is yet another element of the lifesaving heritage bequeathed to him by his grandfather: "During my childhood and youth he would talk to me over and over again about the greatest artists — about Mozart and Rembrandt, Beethoven and Leonardo, Bruckner and Delacroix — constantly telling me about the great men he admired, constantly drawing my attention, even when I was a child, to everything that was great, constantly pointing out greatness and trying to explain to me what it was" (98).
Bernhard will, in his turn, emulate his grandfather by repeatedly invoking the names of the great figures whose entry into the alternative world of artistic achievement would inspire his own efforts. He pays ultimate tribute, in the concluding pages of Gathering Evidence, to Dostoyevsky's The Demons, the novel that, more than any other, showed him the way out:
- Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. (335-36)
Likewise, his grandfather's utter absorption in his labor as a literary artist will — in spite of his grandson's recognition that "he was inevitably driving his life into a human and philosophical cul-de-sac" (184) — provide a model that Bernhard would imitate throughout his life. The sight of his grandfather methodically writing thousands of pages while insisting that "Everything that one writes is nonsense" would later influence Bernhard's own determination to continue his work even in the face of its utter absurdity.
Along with crediting his grandfather with saving him from the conventional life that would have been certain death, Bernhard also remembered his beginning, under Freumbichler's patronage, the musical education, which, although later discontinued because of his poor health, would have such a significant bearing on the characteristically musical features of his prose style. His grandfather's vision of him as a great violin virtuoso — and, later, after he had begun voice lessons, as the "Salzburg Chaliapin" (198) — was eventually to be fulfilled precisely in the literary realm in which the grandfather had, as Bernhard's precursor, already distinguished himself. As Chantal Thomas has said, Bernhard was, above all, an "instrumentalist of language" (6). Appropriately, the one significant material possession that his grandfather left to Bernhard after his death was his typewriter, "bought at an auction in the Dorotheum in Vienna in the early 1920s, on which he made what he called the fair copies of all his works. I still use this typewriter, an American L. C. Smith which is probably sixty years old, for typing my own works" (257).
Bernhard's debt to his grandfather was paralleled by the help that he received from the various dispossessed elements of the Austrian population whom he describes with moving simplicity as "the other people" and with whom he came into contact "by going in the opposite direction" (145). His decision to make a complete break with conventionality, "While the learning machine in the city was once more claiming its senseless victims" (153), led Bernard to the Scherzhauserfeld Project, "Salzburg's black spot" (156), where he found work in a grocery store. Scherzhauserfeld was, above all, the place where Bernard first encountered the iconoclastic verbal art of the dispossessed that would eventually become the hallmark of his own narrative style:
- At first I could not understand the offensiveness of certain customers—which did not make them any worse or any better than the others; I just could not make it out. I missed the point of their double-edged, triple-edged, or multi-edged remarks and turns of phrase, but it took me only a few days to realize what they were talking about and why. They spoke about things that were naturally not mentioned openly by people in the city, and it soon became clear to me why this open way of talking seemed sensible and more appealing than the silent hypocrisy of others. In no time at all I naturally became familiar with the so-called indecent remarks and turns of phrase that were current in the Scherzhauserfeld Project in hundreds and thousands of variations. These people never minced their words. I very soon got used to this openness, and after a few weeks and months I was often able to outdo them all in inventiveness on this score and did not hold back. (163-64)
Bernhard's life was marked by recurrent misfortunes, including the humiliation of an illegitimate birth and a childhood spent in part with a mother who never disguised her contempt for him, the physical illnesses that brought him several times close to death, the loss of his beloved grandfather as the result of a misdiagnosed illness, and his discovery of stupidity, brutality, and mendacity as the ruling passions of his fellow Austrians. Once he had discovered in the Scherzhauserfeld Project the aggressive verbal style that would permit him to transform his suffering into art, he held onto it with a tenacity that would give to each of his major novels an unmistakable air of authenticity.
Bernhard's major work combines an unflinching recognition of the radical ugliness at the core of life with an equally determined affirmation, however implicit, of its inexhaustible beauty. This paradoxical vision too was one of the gifts that his grandfather had bequeathed to him: "I now had an opportunity to examine my grandfather's assertions. I had an obsessive desire to gather the evidence in my head, and so I began a strenuous search for the evidence, tracking it down in every direction, in every corner of the city of my youth and its surroundings. My grandfather had been right in his judgment of the world: it was indeed a cesspit, but one which engendered the most intricate and beautiful forms if one looked into it long enough, if one's eye was prepared for such strenuous and microscopic observation" (305).
Such was to be the legacy of the unusually harsh circumstances that Bernhard had to face from a vulnerable age as well as of the indomitable lyric gift, assiduously cultivated from early in his formative years by his grandfather, with which he had been blessed from birth. Bernhard's admiration for the great writers and thinkers who formed his personal pantheon, as well as his determination to emulate their accomplishments in his own work, saved him throughout his life from the equally powerful temptation of suicide. Writing itself became for him a sublimated enactment of suicide in which the manuscript that was constantly "corrected" into extinction was just as constantly resurrected in the form of a permanent literary achievement.
In a related way Bernard will associate the birth of his literary career with the death of his grandfather:
It was in Grossgmain that I first discovered reading. This was a sudden discovery which proved decisive for my subsequent life. This discovery—that literature can at any moment provide the mathematical solution to life and one's own existence provided that it is put into gear and operated as though it were mathematics, so that in time it becomes a form of higher mathematics and ultimately the supreme mathematical art, which can be called reading only when we have mastered it completely—this discovery was one which I could not have made until my grandfather had died: this idea, this insight, I owed to his death. (272)
Shortly after the death of his grandfather in 1949, Bernhard launched his own literary career with some short stories published pseudonymously in a Salzburg newspaper. His first important publication was a poem in rhymed couplets entitled "Mein Weltenstück" (A Piece of My World). This poem introduces a dichotomy, which recurs throughout Bernhard's major work, between the speaker of the poem, who celebrates in poetic song the beauty of the rustic scene that he observes from his window, and the "poor man in the cellar," who "weeps because he can no longer sing." While the pastoral lushness of the poem entirely disappears from his later work, Bernhard will re-create the contrast between the lyricism of the writer and the mere weeping of his alter ego in his major novels, which will oppose the bleak destiny of the protagonist to the implicit literary triumph of the narrator. Stimmen der Gegenwart, a Viennese literary magazine, accepted another significant early work, a short story entitled "Der Schweinehüter" (The Swineherd) in which Bernhard gave early indications of the aggressively antipastoral vision that would later characterize his recurrent portrayal of rural Austria.
Toward the end of the 1950s he wrote a group of prose pieces entitled Ereignisse (Events). The most important work of this period was On the Mountain, written in 1959, but not published until after his death in 1989. The critical importance of this work to Bernhard's development as a writer is precisely captured by Sophie Wilkin's moving afterword:
- The new-fledged court reporter of On the Mountain has been writing hundreds of poems but now begins to work on his first book as it comes to him, jotting down notes, splinters of ideas, observations, encounters, characters, feelings, out of these data making a loose net in which to catch the realities of his life. In the process he discovers the power of words, infinite combinations and permutations of words such as the German language, with its many-plied nouns, is uniquely capable of. He discovers words for their own sake. He can't stop for structured paragraphs or sentences, life is literally too short (what with his lung disease being aggravated by bunglers whom he sometimes has to instruct in the procedures, any treatment could mean the end of him). His writing has become synonymous with his breathing: it is his rescue attempt, trying to save his life, even if it is nonsense to keep struggling against the inevitable, nonsense to record the nonsense of life in the face of death. (130-31)
Curiously for a writer who would achieve literary fame primarily as a playwright and a novelist, Bernhard's first major publications were volumes of poems having a decidedly religious and mystical inspiration, beginning with Auf der Erde und in der Hölle (On Earth and in Hell) in 1957, followed the next year by In hora mortis and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes (Beneath the Iron of the Moon). In an interview with André Müller, Bernhard described his poetic beginnings as follows: "I wrote lots of poems, which I thought were better than those of Rilke, Trakl and everyone else, and so I went to see Otto Müller, in his second-floor office, rang his bell, and said to him, 'I'm so-and-so and I have some poems for you. Would you like to publish them?' He sat down, picked a few of them, and they were indeed published. That was in 1956" (qtd. in Porcell 86-87). Throughout the major phase of his career, however, Bernhard was virtually to abandon the writing of poetry for publication. Ave Virgil, a collection published in 1981, actually contained poems written twenty years earlier, and Gesammelte Gedichte, the edition of his collected poems, did not appear until 1991, two years after his death.
A major turning point in Bernhard's career occurred in the spring of 1963 with the publication of his still-untranslated first novel, Frost, which introduces a narrative situation—in which a reasonably sane narrator writes a narrative that increasingly mimics the discourse of the madman whom he has been observing—for which Bernhard was to show a decided predilection. The publication of this novel, which was greeted by reviewers as a significant literary event, led to his being awarded the Literature Prize of the Free City of Bremen. In his acceptance speech for this award, entitled "The Cold Argument with Clear Thinking," Bernhard, after proclaiming the death of the fairy tales that had sustained Europe, characterized the particular kind of difficulty posed by modern life: "Living without fairy-tales is more difficult, which is why it is difficult to live in the 20th century. Besides, we now do nothing more than exist; we don't live, no one lives any more. But it is lovely to exist in the 20th century; to move ahead; whereto? I have not, as I know, come from any fairy-tale and I will never go into a fairy-tale" (qtd. in Porcell 30). The money from this award was only a small part of the sum that Bernhard needed in order to purchase the farmhouse in upper Austria that he wanted. So he went to his publisher and requested the entire sum, threatening, otherwise, to find another publisher. A half-hour later, he left the office with the necessary sum in hand. Except for frequent trips outside of Austria, Bernhard would live on this property for the rest of his life, and houses in isolated regions of rural Austria would become a much-favored setting for his novels.
The following year saw the publication of Amras, a prose work that gathers together diary entries, a succession of unrelated episodes and aphorisms, which would be his greatest popular success in Austria and for which he received the Julius Campe Prize. Gargoyles, a second novel, appeared in 1967, as did a collection of short prose pieces entitled Prosa (Prose). The speech that he gave on the occasion of his receiving the Wildgans Prize in 1968 began with a statement that reads like a gloss on the predicament of the protagonists of his major work: "When we are searching for the truth . . . it is failure, death that we are searching for, our own failure, our own death, as far back as our thoughts or feelings go, or our imagination, or as far into the future as we were to look, it is death, the absence of repose or repose as sign of weakness, of failure" (qtd. in Porcell 334).
In the same year the awarding of the Austrian National Prize was the occasion for Bernhard's giving an acceptance speech that provoked the first of the many public controversies that were to follow both himself and his work throughout his life. In it, he declared that "The state is a structure permanently condemned to failure, the populace is a structure incessantly condemned to infamy and to spiritual weakness. Life is despair to which philosophies look for support, philosophies in which everything is, finally, pledged to insanity" (qtd. in Porcell 43-44). Bernhard's own account of this awards ceremony, which appears in Wittgenstein's Nephew, is as amusing as it is implausible: "The encomium delivered by the minister in the audience chamber of the ministry was utter nonsense, because he merely read out from a sheet of paper what had been written down for him by one of his officials charged with literary affairs. He said, for instance, that I had written a novel about the south seas, which of course I had not. And although I have been an Austrian all my life, the minister stated that I was Dutch. He also stated that I specialized in adventure novels, though this was news to me. More than once during his encomium he said that I was a foreigner, a visitor to Austria" (70).
Bernhard's third novel, The Lime Works, widely regarded as marking the beginning of his major phase as a novelist, appeared in 1970 and was awarded the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize. The speech that Bernhard gave on this occasion began with a powerful indictment of language that expresses the love-hate relationship with words that would characterize the work of his major phase:
“…the thousands and hundreds of thousands of words that we keep trotting out, recognizable by their revolting truth which is revolting falsehood, and inversely by their revolting falsehood which is revolting truth, in all languages, in all situations, the words that we don't hesitate to speak, to write and to remain silent about, that which speaks, words which are made of nothing and which are worth nothing, as we know and as we ignore, the words that we hang on to because we become crazed by impotence and are made desperate by madness, words only infect and don't know, efface and deteriorate, cause shame, falsify, cripple, darken and obscure; in one's mouth and on paper they do violence through those who do violence to them; both words and those who do them violence are shameless; the state of mind of words and of those who do them violence is impotent, happy, catastrophic.” (qtd. in Porcell 53-54)
Bernhard's parallel career as a playwright began in 1970, as did his long collaboration with the director Claus Peymann, who directed Bernhard's first full-length play, A Party for Boris, at Hamburg's Schauspielhaus. A number of prestigious Austrian theaters soon adopted this play for their own programs. Popular interest in Bernhard's theatrical work of this period was demonstrated by the fact that, in 1974, Vienna's Burgtheater performed his new play The Hunting Party, while the Salzburg Festival presented The Force of Habit. Other important productions directed by Peymann included Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (The Ignoramus and the Madman) at the Salzburg Festival in 1972, the premiere of The President at the Burgtheater, Minetti in 1976, with the actor Bernhard Minetti in the title role, and, in 1979, the premiere of Der Weltverbesserer (The Universal Reformer).
Nineteen seventy-five, an especially important year in Bernhard's evolution, saw the publication of one of his fictional masterpieces, the novel Correction, as well as An Indication of the Cause, the first volume of the autobiographical work, the writing of which would continue for another seven years and which would eventually be collected in one volume as Gathering Evidence (where it appears as the second chapter). The accelerating rhythm of Bernhard's literary production was marked in 1978 by the publication of four new works, including a play entitled Immanuel Kant, the second volume of his autobiography, and two major works of fiction, The Voice Imitator and Yes. In 1979 Erzählungen (Stories) gathered together the major short fiction that Bernhard had produced over the previous decade.
The final decade of Bernhard's prematurely concluded career began in 1980 with a novel, The Cheap-Eaters, followed in 1981 by the arrival of a new volume of his autobiography, two plays — Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (O'er All the Treetops Is Repose) and Am Ziel (The Goal Attained) — and Ave Vergil. Nineteen eighty-two saw the publication of the final volume of the autobiography and two novels, Concrete and the much-admired Wittgenstein's Nephew, whose title alludes to Diderot's Rameau's Nephew and which drew heavily on his actual friendship with Ludwig Wittgenstein's cousin Paul.
The Loser, the first novel of what was to become a trilogy dealing with artistic activity in its various forms, appeared in 1983. It concerns two would-be piano virtuosos whose dreams of glory are dashed by their meeting Glenn Gould as students in Salzburg. The second novel, The Woodcutters, presents a satirical portrait of high culture as practiced by the Viennese elite. The publication of this novel, with its ferocious and readily recognizable portraits of important figures on the Viennese cultural scene led to a suit for defamation of character by Gerhard Lampersberg, one of its leading denizens. The last novel of this trilogy, Old Masters, centers on Reger, a lovingly portrayed, aging music critic, who goes every other day to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum in order to spend uninterrupted hours contemplating Tintoretto's "White-Bearded Man."
Yet another example of Bernhard's simultaneous publication of theatrical and fictional works occurred in 1985 when, along with Old Masters, he published Histrionics, one of his best-known plays, which had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival. Again, in 1986, Bernhard published Extinction, the novel that was to be his last, while Einfach Kompliziert (Simply Complicated) had its premiere at the Schiller Theater in Berlin and Ritter, Dene, Voss was presented at the Salzburg Festival. These were, to be sure, vastly overshadowed by the 1988 production of Heldenplatz, in which Bernhard's portrayal of his fellow countrymen as a bunch of unregenerate Nazis led then-Chancellor Kurt Waldheim to condemn it as an insult to the Austrian people. Bernhard died of a heart attack on the morning of February 12, one day after the fortieth anniversary of the death of his grandfather. Shortly before his death, he had modified his will to prohibit all publications, performances, and public readings of his work in Austria. Elisabeth II, the only one of Bernhard's plays to have its premiere after his death, was produced in Berlin in November 1989 at the Schiller Theater.
Serious critical interest in Bernhard's work dates in German-speaking countries from 1970, the date of the publication of Anneliese Botond's collection of essays, Über Thomas Bernhard. Other important early studies of his work include Heinz Ludwig Arnold's Thomas Bernhard (Text und Kritik 43) and Bernard Sorg's Thomas Bernhard. Significant new work on Bernhard was regularly published during the 1980s, and, since 1990, approximately thirty books devoted exclusively to his work have appeared. In Germany and Austria, at least, Bernhard is that rarest of literary phenomena: a postmodernist writer who has attracted the highest possible critical acclaim and yet whose work is also known to the general reader. Bernhard's extraordinary gift for provocation doubtlessly played a role in establishing his fame. His reputation is not, however, by any means limited to his notorious public image, but extends to the broad range of his work as well.
In The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard, Charles Martin notes that Austrian criticism of Bernhard has tended to choose from among three related approaches to his work. Some critics, for example, have emphasized his "critique of Austrian traditions and society." Others have interpreted Bernhard's Austria "as a symbol for contemporary (Western) civilization." A third group, which Martin regards as "more productive," have interpreted Bernhard's work as involving "a rejection of the entire human condition" (7). As Martin further observes, some critics have used Adorno and the Frankfurt School to suggest the wider application of Bernhard's critique. Thus Heinrich Lindenmayer "interprets the works of Bernhard as social criticism, in that they show individuals within a society which denies them human identity" (17) and Peter Buchka, on the occasion of Bernhard's death, characterized his work "as an investigation of the decline of the West" (20).
In "Die Verklärung des heiligen Bernhard" (Bayer 241-68), Claude Porcell observes that Bernhard, whose popularity in France dates from the publication of the French translation of Wittgenstein's Nephew in 1985, has become an absolutely necessary point of reference for any cultivated French reader. He won the Prix des Médicis for foreign literature in 1989, and, during the theatrical seasons from 1988-89 and 1989-90, he was the most frequently performed foreign playwright in France. Throughout the 1980s Bernhard was likewise the subject of numerous favorable notices that recognized him as one of the most important 20h-century writers. Porcell's own publication in 1986 of Ténèbres, a collection of essays and interviews, was yet another indication of the increasing recognition that Bernhard was receiving in France. Chantal Thomas's Thomas Bernhard, which appeared in 1990, was, in turn, the first significant critical study devoted exclusively to his work. Since 1991, Gallimard has been publishing Bernhard's work in paperback editions, which is, as Porcell notes, the unmistakable sign that Bernhard has been accepted into the pantheon of literary classics.
Porcell likewise calls attention to the surprising fact that critics across the spectrum ranging from Catholics to communists recognized the positive, even radiant, vision that lay beyond the darkness of Bernhard's work. Some even compared him to the Charles Péguy of Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine. Jean-Maurice de Montrémys, writing for the Catholic newspaper La Croix, regretted that Bernhard had not received the Nobel Prize his achievement clearly merited, and Claude Prévost, writing for the communist l'Humanité called Bernhard's death a "catastrophe" for literature. Michel Cournot, writing for Le Monde at the time of Bernhard's death, called him the greatest contemporary writer and, in Le Nouvel Observateur, the only readable one.
In "Wenn die Metaphysik zur Politik wird" (Bayer 297-318), Luigi Reitani observes that serious attention to Bernhard's work began in Italy in 1974 when Isabella Berthier Verondini wrote a lengthy article on three novels (Frost, Gargoyles, and The Lime Works), which she regarded as forming a "trilogy about intellectuals" that pointed to a convergence, thanks to the critical function that Bernhard attributes to the writer, between his fiction and Marxist theory. A further sign of the precocious Italian interest in his work was the organization of a Bernhard Symposium, attended by the author himself, before any of his work had actually been translated into Italian. In 1978 Italo Calvino, praising Bernhard as the most important writer in the world, recommended his work to the publisher Einaudi, while the literary critic Luigi Golino argued that Gargoyles was one of the masterpieces of prose fiction of the century.
In 1982, the turning point for Bernhard's reception in Italy, he was awarded the Premio Prato, a symposium on his plays was held in Sesto Fiorentino, and the Italian premiere of The Force of Habit, directed by Dino Desiata, was presented by the Gruppo della Roicca theater company. The end of this same year saw the Italian translations of Yes, of the second volume of his autobiography, and of a collection of plays that included A Party for Boris, The Force of Habit, and Der Weltverbesser. The Turin newspaper La Stampa referred to Bernhard as the "literary event of the year."
Carlos Fortea observes, in "Der Beste Schriftsteller des Spanischen Realismus" (Bayer 319-37), that Bernhard first came to the attention of Spanish readers through the 1978 translation of Gargoyles, which, in spite of favorable critical response, did not enjoy popular success. The late 1980s saw the translation of his autobiography, Wittgenstein's Nephew and The Woodcutters, as well as collections of stories and of plays. Additionally, Ave Virgil appeared in a dual-language edition. The publication of the Spanish translation of Correction definitively established Bernhard's reputation and greatly accelerated the rhythm of publication of his work in Spain. Reviewing Correction for Insula, Domingo Pérez Minik declared of Bernhard that "In the field of contemporary fiction, from the Soviet Union to the United States, no other figure commands our attention more powerfully" (7).
According to Fortea, an important factor in the Spanish response to Bernhard had to do with the Catholic element of his work. Bernhard's portrayal of the oppressiveness of counterreformation Austrian Catholicism and its relation to the Nazi regime of his childhood resonated with a generation of readers who had endured the years of the Franco dictatorship as well as the dominance of a church that promoted the image of a rigid and oppressive God.
Fortea also points to two younger Spanish novelists who clearly shown signs of Bernhard's influence: Javier Garciá Sánchez, who shows stylistic affiliations with Bernhard in such novels as Ultima carta de amor de Caroline von Günderode a Bettina Brentano and Los amores secretos, and Félix de Azúa, the author of such novels as Cambio de bandera, Diario de un hombre humillado, and Historia de un idiota contada por él mismo. He concludes his overview with the observation that Bernhard's presence as a significant writer in Spain is now beyond dispute. His works continue to be published, his readership is constantly growing, and many of his readers regard him as the summit of German-language literature. However, he has not yet attracted the significant critical work that one finds elsewhere in Europe.
David McLintock, one of Bernhard's several highly gifted translators, began his Times Literary Supplement article on him with the observation that "Thomas Bernhard is a best-selling author in German-speaking countries and much esteemed in France, Spain and Italy. Yet in Great Britain and the United States he has few readers, despite the efforts of two distinguished publishing houses and six or more translators" (7). It is worth noting in this respect that, while most of Bernhard's novels have, by now, been translated, he is virtually unknown as a poet and playwright. No translation of his poetry exists, and the only translation of his theatrical work is a volume entitled Histrionics, which contains just three of his plays.
As McLintock notes, reviews of Bernhard's novels were generally favorable, "indeed enthusiastic," and the posthumously published translation of Extinction received a Critics' Choice Award in 1995 in America. In 1983, while McLintock was working on his translation of Concrete, George Steiner told him that Bernhard would never be popular in the United States or Great Britain "because the Anglo-Saxon mentality differed fundamentally from the Central European." To corroborate his opinion, he disclosed that Correction, in his view one of the great books of the century, had sold only sixty copies in the United States.
In spite of the unfortunate neglect of Bernhard's work in English-speaking countries, several critics have responded enthusiastically to his solitary greatness. For example, Benjamin Weissman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, regrets the lack of an American equivalent of Bernhard, which he attributes to differences in cultural climates: "Serious literary fiction writers here don't have the kind of impact here that they do in Europe, and if there was an American Bernhard his manuscripts would all be piled in his closet. No one would publish him. . . . In German-speaking countries almost everyone who reads is familiar with Bernhard and has a strong opinion of him." He further makes the entirely plausible claim that David McLintock's "exquisite" translation of Extinction "presents an English far richer than most English language books." Martin Seymour-Smith, reviewing The Woodcutters for the Washington Post, echoed Weissman's enthusiasm in his assessment of Bernhard as "not only Austria's most gifted living author, but Europe's" (3).
Writing for the Village Voice, in an article entitled "Saint Bernhard," Gary Indiana expressed the personal importance of Bernhard's work for him in a way that doubtlessly resonates among many of his readers: "I always read Bernhard with relief. Even though he was in Austria and not America, even though he wrote of Austria's hideousness instead of America's hideousness, even though he continually provoked and ridiculed the so-called cultural elite of Austria and not the so-called cultural elite of America, I felt grateful that someone, somewhere, could write exactly as he pleased with impunity, fearlessly, and that his reputation grew and grew as he became more and more disagreeable, more contrary, more intolerant of hypocrites and imbeciles" (19). Two literary journals, Pequod and Modern Austrian Literature, have featured Bernhard in special issues. In recent years, however, virtually no articles on his work have appeared in English-language scholarly journals. Donald G. Daviau appropriately concludes his overview of the American response to Bernhard by commenting that "a good beginning has been made over the past twenty years, but a great deal still remains to be accomplished before this ‘major author of Western literature' will actually be widely read in the United States and not just appreciated by a select audience" (262).
The most striking of Bernhard's formal innovations is his pervasive use of repetition as a hallmark narrative device, one whose operations can be observed in at least three distinct aspects of his work: first, he tells essentially the same story over and over again in each of his novels; second, every significant word or phrase in each of these novels is endlessly repeated and permutated; finally, his stories are regularly recounted by narrators who claim to be merely repeating what has already been said to them by first-hand observers.
Bernhard's "ur-story," which resurfaces in all his major fiction, is the tale of a protagonist who, experiencing himself as a target of persecutory violence, seeks to displace this violence upon a surrogate. The omnipresence of reciprocal anxiety in human relationships is compellingly expressed by Prince Saurau in Gargoyles: "In conversation . . . people constantly feel as if they are treading a tightrope and are always afraid of falling down to the low level more proper to them. I too have this fear. Therefore all conversations are conducted by people who are treading a tightrope and constantly in fear of falling to their low level, of being pushed down to the low level" (160). What the prince does not say, but Bernhard implicitly affirms everywhere in his work is that the most reliable way to avoid being "pushed down" is to push down another in one's place.
The Lime Works is replete with allusions to the archetypal persecution narrative that is Bernhard's single, endlessly repeated story. Thus Konrad believes that anyone who devotes himself to serious intellectual labor becomes the "victim to a conspiracy that would ultimately involve the whole world and even whatever possibilities existed beyond the world" (54). Later, he will denounce "the increasingly disturbed, nervous so-called consumer society, with its chronically irritating and ultimately ruinous effect on everything in the nature of intellectual effort" (60).
At first, the lime works appears to be an ideal refuge from the violence of the surrounding world. Situated in an isolated location and possessed of walls whose thickness guarantees further insulation from a world that is, by definition, hostile to Konrad's intellectual labor, it appears to be the perfect setting for Konrad to work on his monograph on the sense of hearing. We realize upon reflection, however, that the lime works is not so much a refuge from violence as it is a setting in which Konrad can displace the violent persecution to which he believes he has been subjected upon an other. His preferred surrogate is his wife, whom he first tortures by reading to her from Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "a habit of his that was guaranteed to drive a woman up a wall" (173). Ultimately, he shoots her in the head with a shotgun, leaving her body "slumped forward, with her head all ripped to pieces from the shot or shots from that carbine" (8).
The major novels that follow The Lime Works will essentially work variations on the archetypal persecution narrative whose form Bernhard had already delineated in the story of Konrad and his wife. In Correction, for example, the lime works is transformed into Holler's garret, described by the narrator as the "thought dungeon" in which Roithamer will pursue his project of constructing the ideal human habitation for his beloved sister, who replaces Konrad's wife. Roithamer is deeply attached to his sister; this does not, however, prevent his provoking her death, which occurs on the very day that she moves into the house that he has built for her. Like Konrad, who forced his wife to participate in an insane experiment while preparing the book that he never writes on the sense of hearing, Roithamer has unwittingly killed his sister by forcing her to inhabit a house that was completely contrary to her own nature. Bernhard implies that the sister has, however unwittingly on Roithamer's part, become a surrogate upon whom he has displaced his violent hatred of his mother, whom he repeatedly refers to contemptuously as "that Eferding woman," and whom he blames for all of the torments that life has visited upon him. He remembers her in his childhood, "All day long she was on her feet in her repulsive state of slovenliness" (187) and as implacably opposed to his interest in culture: "mother had never, to my personal knowledge, read a good book, she detested everything that had to do with books" (189). The mechanism whereby violence is displaced from one object to another in Bernhard's novels seems, however, to guarantee that Roithamer's hatred of his mother will not lead to an overt act of violence directed against her. Rather, it is the sister who will die in her place.
A similar pattern appears in Wittgenstein's Nephew, an autobiographical work in which Bernhard displaces his own "deterioration" upon his friend Paul Wittgenstein. Bernhard and Wittgenstein are brought together at a sanitarium by their respective illnesses—physical for the former, mental for the latter. The mirroring quality of these illnesses allows for a displacement whereby Bernhard will occupy the comparatively invulnerable position of the narrator, while Paul Wittgenstein will serve as the protagonist who will at least partially relieve the narrator of his own suffering. Bernhard had underlined this sacrificial relationship between himself and his protagonists in an interview with André Müller: "When I write about this kind of thing, about this kind of centrifugal situation that leads to suicide, I am certainly describing a state of mind that I identify with, which I probably experienced while I was writing, precisely because I did not commit suicide, because I escaped from that" (qtd. in Porcell 99).
Midway through the novel, as though preparing him for what will amount to a sacrificial death, Bernhard describes Paul in a way that uncannily resembles a self-portrait: "He was the most ruthless observer and constantly found occasion to accuse. Nothing escaped his accusing tongue. Those who came under his scrutiny survived only a very short time before being savaged; . . . he would lambaste them with the same words that I myself employ when I am roused to indignation, when I am forced to defend myself and take action against the insolence of the world in order not to be put down and annihilated by it" (60-61). This blurring of the distinction between the narrator and his protagonist sets the stage for a death that Bernhard had long contemplated but that Paul will actually enact. Bernhard will reveal that "For years I had taken refuge in a terrible suicidal brooding" (79) and that "Every morning on waking I was inevitably caught up in this mechanism of suicidal brooding" (80). Yet, fortunately as it were, Paul "suffered from the same disease" (88), and it is he, rather than Bernhard, who will acquire "the odor of wretchedness and death" (93). Bernhard will shun him during this terminal period "because I was afraid of a direct confrontation with death" (98), while acknowledging the underlying relationship between Paul's death and his own survival: "It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible" (99). In the novel's concluding sentence Bernhard will suggest that the friend whose life was so intimately connected with his own has now been definitively expelled: "He lies, as they say, in the Central Cemetery in Vienna. To this day I have not visited his grave" (100).
The sacrificial connection that Bernhard suggests between Paul Wittgenstein's death and his own continued life reappears in the novel Yes, in which the suicide of the Persian woman is prepared for by the narrator's own preoccupation with suicide. This motif of the surrogate victim is clearly established in the novel's opening sentence, where the narrator describes himself as in the process of "dumping" his problems on his friend Moritz. Later, he will persist in making these revelations even though he recognizes that they have "wounded" Moritz (30). Similarly, he will underline the Persian woman's role as a surrogate victim when he refers to her as the ideal "sacrificial mechanism" (116).
While the woman has literally arrived in this comically benighted corner of upper Austria because her companion, a Swiss engineer, has chosen it as the ideal location in which to build his new house, the reader recognizes this realistic motivation as simply a pretext for arranging the sacrificial death that Bernhard intends for her. We glimpse this archetypal pattern from the very beginning of his narrative, when the narrator describes the woman as "regenerating" and perceives the arrival of the couple as signifying his "redemption" (15). While the narrator himself has never been able to act on his own suicidal impulses, it was his insinuating words, as we learn in the novel's closing sentence, that provoked the woman's suicide. After she has committed suicide (by throwing herself in front of a cement truck), he remembers discussing the frequent suicide of young people and asking her if she would kill herself one day, to which she replies, in the novel's closing word, "Yes" (135).
This sacrificial mechanism, whereby the protagonist plays the role of surrogate victim for the narrator, seems to achieve its most complete expression in The Loser, a novel throughout which we recognize the degree to which Wertheimer's suicide has, in effect, spared the narrator's own life. As in Wittgenstein's Nephew, Bernhard establishes affinities between narrator and protagonist that make one virtually a carbon copy of the other. Both the narrator and Wertheimer are aspirants to glory as piano virtuosos, both go to Salzburg to study with Horowitz, and both find their dreams of glory precipitously ended by their encounter with Glenn Gould. However, Wertheimer, like Paul Wittgenstein, will be the only one to suffer the terminal consequences of the emotional wound by which they are both equally afflicted.
The narrator's explicit account of Wertheimer's decline and eventual suicide is implicitly the story of how he himself — to recall the phrase that Bernhard used in Wittgenstein's Nephew — avoided "direct confrontation with death." Like Bernhard, who shuns Paul Wittgenstein during the terminal period of his madness, the narrator of The Loser fails to respond to the signs of Wertheimer's mental disintegration because this would interrupt work on his manuscript, "About Glenn Gould." As the novel's scapegoat, Wertheimer's destiny is to be progressively more crippled by his impossible desire to be Glenn Gould. His living this futile passion to its most despairing extreme thus liberates the narrator from a passion that he clearly shares with him. Thanks to Wertheimer's being mortally wounded by his encounter with Gould, the narrator escapes, not only intact, but regenerated.
The verbal repetitions that are the hallmark of Bernhard's prose style are — like the sacrificial mechanism that he continually stages in his novels — motivated by the desire to escape from the "terminal disease" that is humanity's common affliction. Unlike the sacrificial mechanism, however, Bernhard's verbal repetitions create a catharsis which — like the musical effects that they have now transposed to prose fiction—does not depend for its success on the persecution of a surrogate victim.
In Gargoyles, the earliest of his novels to have been translated into English, the syntactical repetitions that give to his novels their unmistakably Bernhardian texture is exemplified by the monologue that he creates for Prince Saurau. Until this point, the narrative has been recounted in a relatively conventional way by a young boy who is following his father, a doctor, as he makes his medical rounds. When, however, they enter the prince's castle, the prince himself will launch into a narrative that announces Bernhard's own radical departures from traditional narration. The "repetition compulsion" that generates his narrative leads, for example, to the following account of a man who has sought employment in his castle:
- "What I said and what he said, everything I did and everything I thought and what he did, pretended to do, what I pretended to do and what he thought, it was all this stereotype, this stereotyped idea of the inadequacy, poverty, frailty, inferiority, deathly weariness of human existence, and I instantly had the impression that a sick man had entered my house, that I was dealing with a sick man, with someone in need of help. Whatever I said was spoken to a sick man, Doctor, and what I heard, Doctor, came from the lips of a sick man, from an extremely submissive, morbid brain which is filled with the most fantastic but embarrassingly derailed notions that in themselves reveal him for what he is. . . . The man had no idea of what he wanted, and I made him aware of this in the most forceful way; I said that what he was doing was morbid, that his whole life was a morbid life, his existence a morbid existence, and consequently everything he was doing was irrational, if not utterly senseless." (83)
Here, as everywhere else in his subsequent oeuvre, Bernhard uses verbal repetition to create a literary work whose fundamental inspiration is not narrative, but musical. We can imagine, in this respect, the interest with which Bernhard must have contemplated the tribute paid to music by his beloved Schopenhauer: "It stands alone, detached from all the other arts. In it we do not recognize the imitation or reproduction of any Idea of the creatures in the world. Yet it is such a great and glorious art, its effect on man's inmost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and so deeply understood by him in his inmost consciousness as a perfectly universal language whose clarity surpasses even that of the perceptible world itself" (162-63).
Schopenhauer's assertion that "music is entirely independent also of the phenomenal world, ignores it altogether, could to a certain extent exist if there were no world at all" (164) would have appealed powerfully to a writer as desperately in search of an "alternative world" as was Bernhard. Likewise, his insistence on the superiority of music, which, unlike those other arts that speak only of "shadows," speaks of the true "essence" of the world, surely must have confirmed Bernhard's own disdain for the traditional devices of conventional narrative — including plot, setting, characterization, etc. — that seemed inevitably to condemn it to contamination by the phenomenal world.
Schopenhauer himself believed that a language of mere words could never reach the depth and universality achieved by the language of music, which, in his view, betrayed its destiny by consorting too closely with words: "Thus if music tries to attach itself too closely to the words, and tries to mold itself to episode and instance, it is striving to speak a language that is not its own" (169). Bernhard, however, by transgressing all the narrative conventions (in particular, the injunction against needless repetition) that traditionally prevent fiction from attaining the perfection of music, will, in effect, disprove his master's strictures against merely verbal language. He will create a hybrid, musical and narrative composition, that, with its pervasive reliance on theme and variation as its structuring principle, will bring to its readers precisely the emotional gratification that his protagonists had vainly striven to achieve through a violent catharsis. Bernhard's major fiction will incorporate both the restless search for gratification and its recurrent achievement that Schopenhauer had attributed to the interplay of melody and the keynote in a musical composition: "the nature of melody is a constant digression and deviation from the key-note in a thousand ways . . . yet there always follows a return at last to the key-note. In all these excursions melody expresses the many different forms of the will's striving, but always its gratification, too, by finally returning to a harmonious interval and still more, to the key-note" (167).
The fundamental desire aroused by Bernhard's narrative melodies is the longing for a total, cathartic expulsion of psychic tension. In The Lime Works Konrad had spoken of his wish, while writing, to turn "his head over, suddenly, from one moment to the next, ruthlessly flipping it over to drop everything inside his head onto the paper, all in one motion" (241). Failing in this endeavor, he spilled his wife's brains instead and then sought refuge in a manure pit. Bernhard, however, achieves the goal that eluded Konrad by inventing a highly rhythmic, ritualized prose that produces a literary form of exorcism. His relentless repetitions descend into the core of humanity's "terminal illness," which it then cathartically expels. Reger, the hero of Old Masters, is himself an especially accomplished practitioner of Bernhard's verbal art, as evidenced by his rhythmical ranting against Martin Heidegger:
- Heidegger is a good example of how nothing is left of a fashion in philosophy which at one time had gripped the whole of Germany, nothing left but a number of ridiculous photographs and a number of even more ridiculous writings. Heidegger was a philosophical market crier who only brought stolen goods to the market, everything of Heidegger's is second-hand, he was and is the prototype of the re-thinker, who lacked everything, but truly everything, for independent thinking. Heidegger's method consisted in the most unscrupulous turning of other people's great ideas into small ideas of his own, that is a fact. Heidegger has so reduced everything great that it has become German-compatible, you understand: German-compatible, Reger said. Heidegger is the petit bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who has placed on German philosophy his kitschy night-cap, that kitschy black night-cap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else. (43)
Or consider his dismissive account of a papal audience:
- You go to an audience of the Pope, he said, and you take the Pope and the audience seriously, moreover for the rest of your life; ridiculous, the history of the papacy is full of nothing but caricatures, he said. Of course, Saint Peter's is great, he said, but it is still ridiculous. Just step into Saint Peter's and free yourself completely of those hundreds and thousands and millions of Catholic lies about history, you do not have to wait long before the whole of Saint Peter's seems ridiculous to you. Go to a private audience and wait for the Pope, even before he arrives he will seem ridiculous to you, and of course he is ridiculous when he enters in his kitschy white pure silk robes. (58)
In Extinction, the last of his novels, Bernhard used repetition to achieve a similarly cathartic effect while delivering himself of a parthian shot at the very language without which his own literary achievements would have been inconceivable:
- German is essentially an ugly language, which not only grinds all thought into the ground, as I've already said, but actually falsifies everything with its ponderousness. It's quite incapable of expressing a simple truth as such. By its very nature it falsifies everything. It's a crude language, devoid of musicality, and if it weren't my mother tongue I wouldn't speak it, I told Gambetti. How precisely French expresses everything! And even Russian, even English, to say nothing of Italian and Spanish, which are so easy on the ear, while German, in spite of being my mother tongue, always sounds alien and ghastly! To a musical and mathematical person like you or me, Gambetti, the German language is excruciating. It grates on us whenever we hear it, it's never beautiful, only awkward and lumpy, even when used as a vehicle of high art. The German language is completely antimusical, I told Gambetti, thoroughly common and vulgar, and that's why our literature seems common and vulgar. German writers have always had only the most primitive instrument to play on, I told Gambetti, and this has made everything a hundred times harder for them. (119)
The potentially awkward and infelicitous repetitions that Bernhard turns to aesthetic purposes in these passages are also apparent in his continual recourse to reported speech, which requires that the secondary narrator repeat the words of the witnesses upon whom he depends for his account of events. The narrator of The Lime Works exemplifies this device when he acknowledges the various local inhabitants who have contributed to his knowledge of events leading up to and following Konrad's murder of his wife. Throughout the novel, we understand that the account that we are now hearing in his voice has its origins in voices for which he has, as it were, become a transmitter.
Bernhard underlines this imitative quality of the narrative voice in ever more explicit ways in his subsequent novels. Thus the narrator of Correction will base his narrative on the fragmentary notes Roithamer had been writing before his death. Throughout the second half of his narrative, he will frequently punctuate his text with interpolations in the form of clarifications such as "Roithamer wrote" or "so Roithamer." In this way he will constantly call attention to the fact that the narrative voice, which we would otherwise instinctively attribute to him, is in fact Roithamer's. Likewise, in Old Masters we think that we are listening to the inimitable voice of Reger, whose formidable denunciations are still ringing in our ears long after we have completed our reading. In fact, however, as Bernhard will periodically remind us, we have actually been listening from beginning to end to a "recording" of this magisterial voice which has passed, first, through a manuscript left by Atzbacher and, second, through the "performance" of this manuscript staged for us by the unnamed narrator.
Bernhard's most memorable representation of a speaker whose presumably personal voice actually echoes the voices of others occurs in the collection The Voice Imitator, where in the title story a professional impersonator regales audiences with his uncanny ability to mimic perfectly the manner of speaking of various well-known personalities. When, however, he is asked to imitate his own voice, he is forced to admit that this he cannot do. Like the protagonist of this particular vignette, the narrator of the collection itself will "perform" for his readers by quoting from the words of the anonymous witnesses to and newspaper reports about the "human interest" stories that he recounts.
Bernhard's use of reported speech—which allows his narrators to speak to us only on condition that they repeat the words of others—serves as a creative response to the potentially destructive anxieties provoked by the discovery of one's own "belatedness." Each of Bernhard's novels foregrounds the fear of losing one's own distinctive personality through contact with an other, more dominant personality. The narrator of The Woodcutters, for example, alludes repeatedly to his belief that, in allowing his personality to be molded by the upper-class Viennese, by whom he has, as it were, been adopted, he has (like the voice imitator, in this respect) lost contact with his authentic self. He complains that his whole life has been "simulated" (60) and regrets the life that he has inevitably spent as a "society ape" (87) and as a "Salzburg fool" (89).
The narrator is not, however, alone, since in this novel the destiny of every character is to relinquish personal authenticity in order to play a role whose fulfillment requires his self-alienation. He recognizes, for example, that his hosts, the Auersbergers, are themselves "apes" and that Jeannie Billroth—"the Viennese Virginia Woolf"—possesses a reputation that both elevates her through association with an acknowledged genius and consigns her achievements to a merely derivative status. Jeannie's self-alienating refashioning of herself in the image of Virginia Woolf is itself the pattern for a series of self-betrayals whereby authors trade their authenticity for literary success:
- While Jeannie always had her Virginia Woolf madness and hence suffered from a kind of Viennese Virginia Woolf disease, Schreker always had the Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein madness and suffered from the Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein disease. At the beginning of the sixties both of them quite suddenly turned their literary madnesses and their literary diseases, which in the fifties had no doubt been quite genuine madnesses and quite genuine diseases, into a pose, a purpose-built literary pose, a multipurpose literary pose, in order to make themselves attractive to openhanded politicians, thus unscrupulously killing off whatever literature they had inside them for the sake of a venal existence as recipients of state patronage. (144-45)
The fear that our actions are not our own, that they are, rather, the by-products of the influence exerted upon us by others, is memorably expressed in The Loser by Wertheimer, the eponymous protagonist who complains to the narrator, "we don't exist, we get existed" (47). Wertheimer himself exhibits to a grotesque degree the incapacity for autonomous thought and action to which Bernhard's characters and, by inference, all human beings are prone. As the narrator explains: "Wertheimer wasn't capable of seeing himself as a unique and autonomous being, as people can and must if they don't want to despair; no matter what kind of person, one is always a unique and autonomous being, I say to myself over and over, and am rescued. . . . Wertheimer didn't have that possibility, and so he always only wanted to be Glenn Gould or, yes, Gustav Mahler or Mozart and comrades, I thought" (93). The narrator diagnoses Wertheimer as an "unrelieved emulator" who cannot resist trying to be like anyone whom he regards as his superior. Thus Wertheimer "tried to make his mark as Schopenhauer II, so to speak, or Kant II, Novalis II, filling in this embarrassing pseudophilosophy with Brahms and Handel, with Chopin and Rachmaninoff" (108). His profoundly ironic destiny is thus to become "the loser," which had been Glenn Gould's nickname for him.
This story of an aspirant to distinction destroyed by the encounter with his rival has as its counterpart, however, the contrasting story of the creative encounter between a master and a disciple who is inspired to produce his own unique creative achievements. By "quoting" his own precursors throughout his novels, Bernhard is free, in turn, to be Schopenhauer, Montaigne, Pascal, or any of his other models, without for a moment risking the potentially suicidal agony that led to Wertheimer's demise or ever suspecting that he is himself merely a derivative epigone. Bernhard's constant tributes to his precursors draw attention to the highly original way in which he has created a "disguised repetition" of the characteristic features of their work. Thus Schopenhauer, Montaigne, and Pascal, as well as Bach and Wittgenstein, return in Bernhard's own oeuvre not only as piously recited names but in the uncanny form of the novelistic creations to which they have contributed. Bernhard, in effect, resurrects them within a realm of cultural activity—narrative fiction—to which their own achievements would never in themselves have permitted their entry.
Bernhard had memorably expressed the potentially destructive effect of the encounter between the admired master and his disciple when he described his problematic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein: "The question is whether I can write even for a moment about Wittgenstein without destroying either him (Wittgenstein) or myself (Bernhard). . . . Wittgenstein is a summons to which I cannot respond. . . . Thus, I do not write about Wittgenstein not because I cannot, but rather because I cannot respond to him" (qtd. in Gargani 8). In The Loser Bernhard represents in the person of Wertheimer the fate of the disciple who never escapes from the impasse into which the master has led him. At the same time, he implies, through the creative activity of the narrator, the possibility of encountering the master without sacrificing one's own originality.
Wertheimer is led to an act of self-destruction by his tragic inability to want to be anyone other than Glenn Gould. His maniacal belief that Gould's performance of the Goldberg Variations is the unattainable model that he must struggle against all hope to emulate in his own performance of this work condemns him to utter despair. The self-contempt to which he is driven by his obsession leads him, just prior to his suicide, to purchase "a completely worthless, a horribly untuned grand piano . . . A completely worthless instrument, a horribly untuned instrument" (170) on which he will perform a grotesquely self-deprecating version of the music whose performance by Glenn Gould had catastrophically ended his own aspirations to greatness.
The narrator, however, will transform his encounter with Glenn Gould into the creative occasion of the novel that he is about to write: "By writing about the one (Glenn Gould), I will order my thoughts about the other (Wertheimer), I thought, by listening again and again to the Goldberg Variations (and the Art of the Fugue) of the one (Glenn), in order to write about them" (157). Like Wertheimer, who prepared for his death by listening to the Goldberg Variations, the narrator will conclude his story about Wertheimer by listening to a recording of this piece: "If I had any interest in the matter, Franz said to me, he would describe to me the days and weeks that then took place in Traich. I asked Franz to leave me alone in Wertheimer's room for a while and put on Glenn's Goldberg Variations, which I had seen lying on Wertheimer's record player, which was still open" (170). Rather than competing with Gould on the pianist's own terms, the narrator repeats his accomplishment in the form of a literary work that, with its theme and variation structure, parallels the recording to which he has been listening.
By alluding to the Goldberg Variations in the novel's concluding sentence, Bernhard acknowledges the source of his novel, not so much in the various details of Wertheimer's life at Traich with which Franz would have provided him, as in the musical achievement that he will now emulate. The narrator's survival of his encounter with Glenn Gould parallels Gould's own success in encountering Bach without succumbing to anxieties about his own belatedness. The fact that Gould achieved immortality as a performer of the work of one of the greatest musical composers ever to have lived prefigures Bernhard's own literary appropriation of Bach, not only in The Loser but throughout his entire fictional oeuvre.
As Heinz Kuehn has observed, the key to understanding Bernhard's greatness rests with our recognizing the profoundly original, literary way in which he has appropriated his philosophic models. Kuehn rightly argues that "One cannot take Bernhard literally" and that reading him as though he were a philosopher "would mean to misread him" (550). He credits Bernhard with bringing to the pessimistic vision that he inherits from his precursors a radically original narrative language:
- It is a prose that mercilessly hammers away at the reader's nerves with endless repetition and elaboration of a few basic themes, but it also forces him or her to look, if you will, "heavenward," to let himself be moved by those passages in which Bernhard's love of nature, of simple people, of children and animals, of a good marriage and family life, of compassion for the suffering and downtrodden breaks through and redeems the bleakness, the doom and gloom that pervade his stories. Reinforcing and at times contradicting, not to say negating, the ambiguity in his creed of nihilism is his delight in playing with and inventing words—an inventiveness all but lost even in the best of English translations—and his obvious joy in writing. (551)
Bernhard's mantric prose does, indeed, perform for his readers the redemptive work that Kuehn attributes to it. As importantly, it allowed Bernhard himself to affirm his own utter originality while, at the same time, absorbing the myriad influences of his predecessors. His creative repetitions of their work—which transcend the double-bind of emulation and autonomy that had led his protagonists to self-destruction—have produced one of the profoundest as well as one of the most affirmative literary achievements of this recently completed millennium.
Bayer, Wolfram. Kontinent Bernhard. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1995.
Bernhard, Thomas. Concrete. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Knopf, 1970; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
———. Correction. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. New York: Knopf, 1979; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
———. Extinction. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Knopf, 1995; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
———. Gargoyles. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
———. Gathering Evidence. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Vintage Books, 1993; New York: Random House, 1997.
———. Gesammelte Gedichte. Ed. Volker Bohn. Memmingen: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991.
———. The Lime Works. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
———. The Loser. Trans. Jack Dawson. New York: Knopf, 1991; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
———. Old Masters. Trans. Ewald Osers. London: Quartet Books: 1989; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
———. The Voice Imitator. Trans. Kenneth J. Northcroft. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
———. Wittgenstein’s Nephew. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Knopf, 1988; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
———. Woodcutters. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Knopf, 1987; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
———. Yes. Trans. Ewald Osers and Thomas Osers. London: Quartet Books, 1991; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Daviau, Donald G. "The Reception of Thomas Bernhard in the United States." Modern Austrian Literature 21 (1988): 243-76.
Gargani, Aldo. La frase infinita di Thomas Bernhard. Bari: Editori Laterza, 1990.
Indiana, Gary. "Saint Bernhard: Preface to a Multi-Volume Suicide Note." Village Voice Literary Supplement 5 March 1996: 19.
Kuehn, Heinz. "On Reading Thomas Bernhard." Sewanee Review 105 (1997): 541-53.
McLintock, David. "The Voice of the Salzburg Fool." Times Literary Supplement 6 September 1996: 7-8.
Martin, Charles. The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard: The Portrayal of Existential and Social Problems in His Prose Works. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
Pérez Minik, Domingo. "Corrección, de Thomas Bernhard." Insula 446 (1984): 7-8.
Porcell, Claude. Ténèbres: Textes, discours, entretien. Paris: Maurice Nadeau, 1986.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. London: Everyman, 1995.
Smith, Martin Seymour. "A Modern Austrian Master and His Vision of Despair." Rev. of Woodcutters, by Thomas Bernhard. Washington Post Book World 17 April 1988: 3.
Thomas, Chantal. Thomas Bernhard. Paris: Seuil, 1990.
Weissman, Benjamin. "The Mind in Overdrive." Rev. of Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard. Los Angeles Times Book Review 8 October 1995: 3.
Wilkins, Sophie. Afterword. On the Mountain. By Thomas Bernhard. Trans. Russell Stockman. London: Quartet Books, 1993. 119-43.
Thomas Bernhard: Failing To Go Under: An essay on the 10th anniverary of his death
Stephen Mitchelmore reflects on Thomas Bernhard’s work on the tenth anniversary of the writer’s death
‘Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur.’ (Borges)
Like Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, the novelist, playwright and poet, died young. At this end of the century, 58 is young. He had been tubercular since his teens, so it was no great surprise. Indeed, we are to be grateful for his tendency to illness. It was TB, he tells us in his remarkable autobiography, that took him to writing. In a sanatorium - lungs drowning in sputum, aged 19 and expected to die - he began to write. He believed it might have cured him too. I remember seeing an obituary following his death on 12th February 1989. At that time I had not read any of his works. Just another novelist I assumed, and did not read the obituary. In the summer of the following year I found a copy of the novel Concrete in the magnificent Quartet Encounters imprint. I shall always associate that book with a park in an otherwise squalid English city. It is a short enough to be read in one place. And I have read it in many more places since. Certainly it has death written through it, but it cures too, almost. The rest of this will try to explain why.
Like Kafka’s, Bernhard’s writing is easily caricatured. This is one of the main problems in the reception of the best literature in this country. I have seen an advert for Czech beer labelling Kafka 'the monarch of mirthlessness', which told me that the copywriter knows nothing of Kafka, and probably not of beer also. Anyone who has read his work can testify there is something oddly funny about it; A Country Doctor will have you in stitches. Yet Kafka remains a byword for depressive reading. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, however, called him ‘a man of joy’. The thing is, you have to be patient; he’s not Bill Bryson. Though Bernhard has written comedically, notably in the helpfully sub-titled Old Masters: a comedy, he too is presented as one of those miserable Germans who can’t accept that life is actually wonderful. This is so wrong: he was Austrian.
Generally, we British assume you have be one thing or the other. You’re either funny and disposable or serious and difficult. I guess it’s partly to do with the satanic rule of marketing strategies protecting niche identity and such like, but certainly the culture cannot accept the way literature acts in us, rather than just upon us. We assume it to be a pleasant distraction against a pre-defined reality.
In a way, this is inevitable. What goes on in our heads daily, hourly, minutely, gets into writing only through distancing. Writing something down provides a displacement from the anxiety, the boredom or the confusion of the moment. We want our minds like the thing written down. It is easy to have this done for you. Responding to a growing appetite for distraction, shorthand journalistic cliché has infested our inner lives. Generally, it means we are unable to have respect for uniqueness of experience because it is summed up, packaged, placed in a captionable context. Soon this context demands total obedience; nothing else is relevant.
The private self is subsumed, and we assume we have to give unquestioning respect to the two-dimensional conceits of ‘ambitious’ fiction covering the ground of journalists and historians (Don Delillo and Tom Wolfe being the current examples). The alternative, where it is assumed the self gets full exposure without the interference of common language, tends to mean the stream-of-consciousness mode of writing. Take Harold Brodkey’s long-delayed, much-hyped novel The Runaway Soul; an 800 page Bildungsroman made up of dribbling ‘poetic’ language, supposedly reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and Proust’s great work of intellect and intimacy. Being neither, it still came to the fore because it was the opposite of the other kind of Great American Novel. It suited the demand that you’re one thing or the other: inner or outer. Yet the technique of simulating intimacy reeked of that alone: technique. Luckily, this novel has now been sidelined as an embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Realism, whether in historical sweep or intimate acquaintance with an individual, prefers that such excessive literary adventures are limited to unserious postmodernists. No one should claim they challenge its intimacy with life. Raymond Carver exemplifies its naive arrogance in his essay on writing fiction, collected in Fires. One of his maxims, he announced, was ‘No tricks’. He had this printed on a piece of cardboard stuck above his writing desk. Yet Carver’s highly-influential ‘dirty realism’ is one big trick. This is elided by calling it a ‘craft’, but craftsmanship is also trickery institutionalised. His innocence of this is typical of working-class sentimentality. Perhaps he never completed a novel because such trickery revealed itself over greater length.
His friend Richard Ford seems almost to be satirising Carver’s self-abnegatory posing in his touchingly-overlong novel Independence Day; a terribly funny recital of how failure infects and becomes the wellspring of writing. Anyway, having a note above one’s writing desk reminding oneself of what to do is enough to indicate a need to efface the workings of the imagination. This despite Carver’s fiction being renowned for its imaginative empathy. Rudolf, the narrator in Bernhard’s Concrete sees through the motives for appreciation of Carver’s work:
‘People are always talking about it being their duty to find their way to their fellow men - to their neighbour, as they are forever saying with all the baseness of false sentiment - when in fact it is purely and simply a question of finding their way to themselves.’
Carver’s achievement was special, but flawed. It is a literary equivalent of the self replicating its DNA with serial partners; never mind the consequences. When Larkin mordantly quipped ‘Don’t have any kids yourself’, it was as much to do with poems as with children.
The problem is, what goes on in our heads is also literature, in the sense that consciousness is already distance. Any privileging of inside or outside means a fundamental distortion. It means there is no simple access through writing to what we want to write about. When know-nothings like the BBC’s arts guru Mark Lawson complains of writers writing about writers, he misses this fundamental issue. The so-called self-reflexive novel is more likely to get closer to the truth than those effacing the conceit. This is why dominant forms of fiction, and the journalistic definition of literature’s relation to the world, needs to be set aside in favour of a mediation between the world and the writer; an infinite mediation. Like Bernhard’s.
Ironically (as journalists are so keen to say in order to assert their distant control) Bernhard began his career as a journalist. After giving up his music studies because of illness, he wrote short, precise summaries of pending court cases for a local Socialist newspaper. He developed a talent, and an offshoot can be seen in the extremely odd book The Voice Imitator: 104 stories in 104 pages. The musical background continued in his early preference for poetry, but this soon merged with the prose to produce novels. The mixing of opposites might be seen as peculiar to Bernhard’s biographical details: harsh reality with musical polyphony. There are other details about his childhood even before the illness that are just to depressing to repeat. For these, see his autobiography collected as Gathering Evidence.
Harsh reality with polyphony appear in abundance in the 1970 novel The Lime Works. It is about the death by gunshot of a crippled woman. Her husband, Konrad, is under arrest. The novel tells the story of the years leading up to the death in a collage of reported statements from local people. This is how it begins:
- “… when Konrad bought the lime works, about five and a half years ago, the first thing he moved in was a piano he set up in his room on the first floor, according to the gossip at the Laska tavern, not because of any artistic leanings, says Wieser, the manager of the Mussner estate, but for relaxation, to ease the nervous strain caused by decades of unremitting brain work, says Fro, the man in charge of the Trattner estate, agreeing that Konrad’s piano playing had nothing to do with art, which Konrad hates, but was just improvisation, as Wieser says, for an hour first thing early in the morning and another late at night, every day, spent at the keyboard, with the metronome ticking away, the window open …” (trans. Sophie Wilkins)
It goes on like this for 241 pages. You see how multiple perspectives are given, without any privileging of any one in particular. The manic behaviour of Konrad, as reported, is equalled by the persistence of the investigation. As it details Konrad’s perceived descent into madness and murder, it threatens the same for the investigator. Thus the distant narration is implicated in what it perceives. Objectivity, of course, is never immune. It can never reach its object directly. This is made clearer in Bernhard’s later novels because they tend to play with very few voices. Yet despite being powerfully subjective, they transcend mere egotism transferred to the page (go to the Realists for that). Realism’s need for the suspension of disbelief is not an issue here: we are swept along by the narcotic prose. Yet we are also displaced by what it tells us or what it doesn’t tell us. Escapism isn’t possible in the usual sense. It means there is always an uneasy edge to the pleasure of reading.
Bernhard’s definitive character is a Thinker overwhelmed by something infringing on his intellectual project; usually imminent death. There are scientists in Yes and The Cheap-Eaters, philosophers in Correction and The Loser. Rudolf, in Concrete, is a musicologist trying to write a monograph on the composer Mendelsson. However, he cannot get past the research stage. He blames his worldly sister: “She’s always destroyed whatever she’s touched, and all her life she’s tried to destroy me. At first unconsciously, then consciously, she’s set out to annihilate me. Right up to this day I’ve had to protect myself against my elder sister’s savage desire to annihilate, and I really don’t know how so far I’ve managed to escape her.” (trans. David McLintock)
Rudolf’s monomania emerges in the very design of text we are reading: Bernhard’s famous book-length paragraphs. There are no natural spaces to stop and reflect. Again, this just begs the question about what is being avoided, left out, denied. The repetition of ‘annihilate’ in this fairly typical passage shows how Bernhard’s language is literary, yet not to show how sensitive the writer is, but to bring forth the way experience is bound to literature, and vice versa. After all, the only access literature has to annihilation is the word itself, and perhaps is all we have also. In his last novel Extinction, this is made wonderfully clear in a favourite passage of mine, where the narrator, an ex-patriot professor based in Rome, talks about the search for his childhood in an Austrian country estate, Wolfsegg:
- “In Rome I sometimes think of Wolfsegg and tell myself that I have only to go back there in order to rediscover my childhood. This has always proved to be a gross error, I thought. You’re going to see your parents, I have often told myself, the parents of your childhood, but all I’ve ever found is a gaping void. You can’t revisit your childhood, because it no longer exists, I told myself. 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. Not only your childhood, but the whole of your past, is a gaping void. This is why it’s best not to look back. You have to understand that you mustn’t look back, if only for reasons of self-protection, I thought. Whenever you look back into the past, you’re looking into a gaping void. Even yesterday is a gaping void, even the moment that’s just passed.” (trans. David McLintock)
What Creative Writing manual would pass this excessive, uncompromising, monological prose? And there are another 334 and a half pages like this! One may ask what’s in it for the reader - I mean, you’re not going to learn anything about the world by reading this, are you? Well, you might learn how much you need to fill your own gaping void by reading. Yet for all the impression of suffocation this gives, there is a clear musical rhythm to the prose. It does intoxicate; a popular form of escape, yes, but not abused by Bernhard. His form of prose weakens the need to choose between utilitarian language or lyric indulgence. Bernhard said that his prose rhythm owed a lot to music. Indeed, he uses the life of a musician for the overall theme of one of his best novels Der Untergeher. (Literally this translates as ‘The Undergoer’, but this is ridiculous and has been translated as The Loser. Unfortunately this loses the allusion to Nietzsche - “Have you suffered for knowledge’s sake?” - that is, gone under).
The book reads like a prose version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And Bernhard uses the real figure of Bach’s greatest interpreter Glenn Gould - ‘the most important piano virtuoso of the century’ - and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (although neither is by any means identical to the real person) to illuminate the life of the writer; the Bernhardian kind of writer. In the story, the Canadian Gould is a friend of Wertheimer, the Wittgenstein figure, and the unnamed narrator. The latter two, we are told, were themselves exceptional pianists but after hearing Gould’s unearthly genius at work, they give up hope. They could never attain his ‘inhuman state’. In response, Wertheimer auctioned off his piano, took up the ‘human sciences’ and then gave up entirely. He committed suicide, leaving philosophical notes rather than a complete work. Gould is also dead, but naturally; of a lung disease (in reality, he died of a stroke) .
This leaves the narrator alone. He tries to write a monograph About Glenn Gould but instead writes what we’re reading. It is pointed out in the Afterword to the English edition that the three main characters can be summarised as a triple-separation of Bernhard himself: he is at once Gould the virtuoso artiste, Wertheimer the suicide, a self-styled failure gone under; and the unnamed narrator. In real life, Bernhard was a virtuoso, of course, and perhaps also a suicide. The last state, being unnamed is therefore appropriate. His living self mediates between the extremes of Gould and Wertheimer - inhumanity and death - both perhaps preferable. The unnamed one is unable to go under in art or suicide, forced to remain, like everyone else, in the usual human situation. Unless, that is, you count his default project, The Loser, as a virtuoso work of art - which I do. In which case, the unnamed one goes on, elsewhere, not in this book, unto death.
But perhaps not quite alone. Before death, Bernhard achieved full expression because he wrote out of failure to go under. He understood the dangers of art for humanity, and showed respect for the limits of the imagination. Ironically (again), in accepting the limits, he transcended them: partly through the invention of a literary conceit, partly out of lyrical power, partly out of biographical necessity. Such a form of transcendence is why fiction can be more than just information or distraction. It can be where the true self emerges; one’s self with others. Saul Bellow, the American novelist, who shares Bernhard’s waterfall eloquence and complexity, has spoken of the experience of getting it right, and with Bernhardian relish:
- “[transcendence is] just a handle. It’s not the real thing. The real thing is an unquenchable need that never stops gnawing at you. And … you feel that you’re being transcendent in that lousy sense when you are fully expressive. That’s when it happens to you. Then you’re satisfied that you’ve done the right thing. Otherwise no. Otherwise you fall back on explanations and definitions and boring discourse. You might as well be a social scientist and write that sort of stuff.”
the voice imitator
BY THOMAS BERNHARD
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS -- 115 PAGES
REVIEW BY BEN MARCUS
If you are foolish enough to think that things will all work out in the end, or if you look for the so-called silver lining in each "cloud," believing that there's a good side to everything, etc., etc., then steer clear of Thomas Bernhard's books -- and of this review. You'll only be offended, and it's time the rest of us had our turn. Those still reading can be assured that simperingly positive attitudes, blind faith, feel-good philosophy and deluded optimism -- all of which have become like a new form of oppressive American weather -- will never show up in the brutal darkness of Bernhard's work.
And thank God for it. Best known as a novelist, Austrian Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), who spent most of his life rehearsing his eventual death from lung disease, wrote what might well be termed the literature of bitterness: a credo based on thoroughly articulated misery. This newly translated collection is no exception, although it's the first chance for readers of English to see Bernhard at work in the short story form. Small doses of astonishing cruelty might be less forbidding to those readers previously intimidated by Bernhard's ranting, single-paragraphed novels, and they present a chance for the curious to sample facets of his mad voices, his mirthful pleasure in every form of disintegration.
None of the stories here extend beyond a page, yet as the dust jacket warns, these 104 stories will amass "eighteen suicides, six painful deaths, one memory lapse, four disappearances, twenty surprises, three character attacks, five early deaths, twenty-six murders, thirteen instances of lunacy, four cover-ups and two instances of libel." A big agenda for a small book, leaving no room for the traditional bother of plot and character development, putting these pieces more in line with Kafka's parables or the sketches of Elias Canetti. And keep in mind that many of the above-named delights -- the attacks, surprises, deaths and lunacy -- will erupt in the same story, while unlisted fascinations can be seen in such stories as the 47-word "Hotel Waldhaus":
"We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them."
These are blistering anecdotes, negative distortions of news items, stories of severity that portray depths of hatred with a casual comic touch. They do not, thankfully, attempt dumb suddenness, in the style of this country's most predictable fiction writers, who fake revelation to make you think you just read a real story. At their least compelling, Bernhard's stories sound like scraps from abandoned novels, yet even his fragments, which should lead readers to his best books -- "Correction" and "Woodcutters" -- are hair-raisingly cynical screeds against the folly of living, fearlessly confronting the futility of anything so presumptuous as taking a breath. This book affirms the satisfaction, the truth, in thinking the worst.
(summary bibliography of English translations)
• Gargoyles, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970.
• "The Joiner" (a story), translated by David Horrocks, in Parallel Text: German Short Stories 2, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1976.
• Correction, translated by Sophie Wilkins, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979.
• Gathering Evidence, translated by David McLintock, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1985.
• Wittgenstein’s Nephew, translated by Ewald Osers, Quartet Books Ltd., London, 1986.
• The Lime Works, translated by Sophie Wilkins, University of Chicago Press, 1986.
• Cutting Timber, translated by Ewald Osers, Quartet Books Ltd, London, 1988.
• Woodcutters, translated by David McLintock, University of Chicago Press, 1989. (another translation of the above book)
• Concrete, translated by Trans. David McLintock, Quartet Books Ltd, London, 1989.
• Old Masters, translated by Ewald Osers, Quartet Books Ltd, London, 1989.
• The Cheap-Eaters, translated by Ewald Osers, Quartet Books Ltd., London, 1990.
• The Loser, translated by Jack Dawson, Quartet Books Ltd., London, 1992.
• Yes, translated by Ewald Osers, Quartet Books Ltd., London, 1992.
• On the Mountain, translated by Russell Stockman, Quartet Books Ltd, London, 1993.
• Extinction, translated by David McLintock, Quartet Books Ltd., London, 1995.
• The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth Northcott, University of Chicago Press, 1997.
• Three Novellas: Amras, Playing Watten, Walking, translated by Peter Janse, Kenneth Northcott, and Brian Evenson, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
INTERVIEW WITH BERNHARD (in German)