Ritter, Dene, Voss
When Thomas Bernhard died, in 1989, he left a will forbidding any publication or performance of his work in his native Austria. The will, like so many of Bernhard’s writings before it, provoked a huge controversy among his countrymen, confirming the novelist and playwright as a brilliant stage manager of his own legend. No deathbed reconciliation could have ensured the Austrians’ attention as lastingly as this parting slap, which made immortal the feud that he had always carried on with his country.
The episode of Bernhard’s will offered one last reprise of his career’s major theme, which is the paradoxical fate of the satirist, the provocateur, and the nihilist in the modern world. From Leopardi to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Beckett—and Bernhard arguably belongs in this tradition—it is precisely the writers who condemn the world most violently whom the world likes to honor most. Yet the very closeness of the embrace in which they are enveloped serves, as in a boxing match, to make further blows impossible. Almost inevitably, their furious challenge is turned into just another literary trope.
Just so, the more ferociously Bernhard blasphemed against Austria, the more he became the one indispensable Austrian writer. By the end of his life, Bernhard’s plays, conceived as frontal attacks on the Austrian theater establishment and playgoing public, were being staged at Vienna’s storied Burgtheater. He was like a rich man who tries to throw his fortune away, only to find all his waste transformed into windfalls. And so, inevitably, the suspicion intrudes that he was really just another canny investor of his fame all along. As Gitta Honegger points out in her biographical study Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, by now “Austria has officially reclaimed its nasty problem child as a national treasure alongside that other ungrateful son of Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”1
For this reason, My Prizes, a newly translated book that Bernhard wrote in 1980, is more significant than its slender size and premise might suggest. The volume is made up of short memoirs, each devoted to a different literary prize Bernhard received; and almost all of them culminate in some extravagant act of sabotage or self-sabotage. Take, for example, the occasion in 1971 when Bernhard was given the Grillparzer Prize, one of Austria’s most prestigious literary awards, whose previous recipients included Gerhart Hauptmann, Franz Werfel, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was the hundredth anniversary of the death of the Austrian playwright and poet Franz Grillparzer, and as Bernhard wrote in his description of the occasion in Wittgenstein’s Nephew:
To be singled out for the award…on the hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death seemed to me a signal distinction. I’m now being honored by the Austrians, I thought, by my fellow countrymen, who up to now have done nothing but kick me…. That the Austrians, having previously scorned or ignored me, should…
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