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The Comedian Of Horror

Histrionics: Three Plays

by Thomas Bernhard. (A Party for Boris; Ritter, Dene, Voss; Histrionics), translated by Peter Jansen, by Kenneth Northcutt
University of Chicago Press, 282 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The President and Eve of Retirement

by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Gitta Honegger
Performing Arts Journal Publications, 215 pp., $16.95

The Lime Works

by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Sophie Wilkins
University of Chicago Press, 241 pp., $10.95 (paper)


by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Richard Winston, by Clara Winston
University of Chicago Press, 208 pp., $9.95 (paper)


by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Sophie Wilkins
University of Chicago Press, 271 pp., $10.95 (paper)


by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McLintock
University of Chicago Press, 156 pp., $10.95 (paper)


by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McClintock
University of Chicago Press, 181 pp., $10.95 (paper)


After the ructious reception of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) at the Vienna Burg-theater in November 1988, just three months before the author’s death, President Kurt Waldheim denounced the play, in which he is called a liar, as a “crude insult to the Austrian people.” It tells the story of a Jewish professor who left Austria in 1938 when the Nazis annexed it, returned fifty years later, and, finding the attitude toward Jews unchanged, committed suicide. In the play, the professor’s brother characterizes Austria as “a nation of six and a half million idiots living in a country that is rotting away,…run by the political parties in an unholy alliance with the Catholic Church.” The statement expresses one of Bernhard’s major themes.

Following Bernhard’s instructions, his death of a heart attack, at home in the town of Gmunden two days after his fifty-eighth birthday, was not announced until after he had been buried. The obituary in the London Times said that he is “thought by many of his compatriots to be one of the greatest writers of the century,” while acknowledging that in his native land detractors are equally numerous. One can understand from the available translations why his novels and plays have aroused such strong reactions, for even though Bernhard is a stylist foremost, and much of his power lies in his use of German, his work has crossed language barriers with some success. 1

Less than half of Bernhard’s work has been crossed into English2 : the autobiography, seven of his twenty or so plays, and, of sixteen books of fiction, only six, not including the first and paradigmatic Frost, the last and longest, Auslöschung (Extinction), and Der Untergeher, the so-called “Glenn Gould novel” (inspired by “unser freund, the greatest pianist of the century”). Since none of the poetry (collected in Auf der Erde und in der Hölle), short stories, cabaret sketches, film scripts, or criticism (his 1957 school paper on Artaud and Brecht) has appeared in translation, readers with no German will not be able fully to grasp Bernhard’s diversity. Still, enough of his work is now in English to enable them to appreciate that he is a writer of great originality and fascination.

Perhaps Bernhard’s autobiography, Gathering Evidence, published originally in five separate volumes between 1975 and 1982, should be read after the novels, the artistic transmutations before their source—although, as Bernhard told a Le Monde interviewer, Evidence is “not as it really was—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.” Indeed, he sometimes refers to himself in the book in the third person to distinguish “how I felt at the time and the way I think now.” In this account of his first nineteen years the author inevitably looms like a doppelgänger next to his characters. “I continually trick up myself, for I incessantly describe myself,” he says in Evidence: “I do not write my own acts, but myself and my essence.” For the moment, however, and until the dissertations begin to appear, he may best be introduced by some of the events of his early life as he himself presents them.

Bernhard was born February 10, 1931, in a convent in Holland, where his unwed mother had fled from an Austrian village when her pregnancy could no longer be concealed. After the accouchement, she found work as a domestic and placed the illegitimate infant in a nursery of sorts on a trawler in Rotterdam harbor. (Bernhard conflates this experience with that of the title character in his 1975 play The President: “Put in a hammock / on a fishing boat / with foster parents / in Rotterdam / His mother subjected him / to abject poverty / but only those people / who come up from the gutter / make it way up to the top.”) Thomas’s father, a farmer trained as a carpenter, married in Germany and was never heard from again; a photograph of him given to Bernhard decades later by his paternal grandfather was “so like me that I had a fright.” Whatever the connection between the unknown parent and Bernhard’s play Der Zimmerer (The Carpenter), in which experiments with the psyche (i.e., psychoanalysis) of the mentally unstable title character are shown destroying his identity, perhaps the real carpenter, like the fictional one, was a sociopath and a victim of lack of education.

After a year, no longer able to provide support, Thomas’s mother admitted his existence to her parents and moved with the child to the family home in Vienna. Her father, Johannes Freumbichler, an eccentric writer of independent, nihilist views, would become the central figure in Bernhard’s life: “The only person I really loved…Everything I know I owe to this man…who himself was taught by Montaigne, just as I in turn was taught by him.” Bernhard’s first published piece, “Before the Grave of the Poet,” written at age nineteen, commemorates the first anniversary of Freumbichler’s death.

Freumbichler taught the boy to believe in his own superior intelligence. At an early age, “through being constantly close to my grandfather,” Thomas also became aware of “the monstrous effort involved in literary endeavor,” and at the same time paradoxically aware—to use the words of Reger, a composite of Bernhard and his grandfather in one of his last novels, Old Masters—that “ultimately everything one writes turns out to be nonsense.”

The first part of Gathering Evidence, a record of mental and physical suffering, endurance, and will, begins with Bernhard’s earliest recollections and ends in his thirteenth year as he is about to enter a Salzburg boarding school. The child yearned to be near his mother, especially while she was reading (“leaning on my mother’s shoulder, happy just to hear her breathing”), to receive some sign of affection from her, instead of which she relentlessly punished him—and, as the intelligent and sensitive child understood, his father in him. Like many emotionally disturbed children, he was a chronic bed-wetter, which his mother cruelly and stupidly sought to cure by disgracing him, displaying his soiled sheets so that the neighbors could see them. Eventually he was sent to a home in Germany for, as he later learned, “maladjusted children.”

Bernhard later took his revenge on motherhood in a portrait of the domineering mother in his last novel, Auslöschung, as well as in the “Wittgenstein novel,” Correction, with its portrait of the “unbearable Eferding woman,” a butcher’s daughter with “the vulgarity of all her gender,” who repeats to her son the curses that Bernhard’s mother shouted at him: “You’re all I needed!” Significantly, the woman from Eferding is Bernhard’s only major female character, and arguably the only major character who is not in any particular a description of himself.

Without presuming to diagnose the misogyny that pervades his work, we can safely say that the origins must lie partly in his mother’s rejection, her open hatred, of him as a child. As Sven Birkerts notes, in Bernhard’s world “compulsive males are pitted against small-minded, intractable women,” while “everything in the female psyche exists for the sole purpose of affronting the man.”3 Bernhard rarely praises a woman and, when he does, as with Hoeller’s wife in Correction, the sentiment is quaint: “Never a loud word, never the first to speak, everything in and about her was oriented toward taking care of things around her.” But then, Bernhard also praised the late Ingeborg Bachmann (like him, a fervent admirer of the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein), probably the only contemporary Austrian writer whose international stature is within measuring distance of his own, with the crude comment, “an intelligent woman, a rare combination.”4

Grandfather Freumbichler, whose precept it was that women are Liliths who intrude into and bring about the decline of the patriarchal society, may also have encouraged Bernhard’s misogyny. Certainly the old man failed to conceal his “asperity” toward his wife and his daughter, Bernhard’s mother. In Bernhard’s world, virtually devoid of sexuality of any kind, the incestuous form of marriage—Isis and Osiris, or, in German mythology, Siegmund and Sieglinde (“the concept of genius applies more [to Wagner] than [to] anyone else”)—is the only acceptable kind. Even so, in Wittgenstein’s Nephew he attributes his own “survival” to an unnamed woman who has shared his life for more than thirty years, and who is thirty years his senior.

In the autumn of 1943 Thomas entered the Salzburg National Socialist Home For Boys where he remained for a year. Freumbichler had taught him that teachers are “idiots,” and warned him that “the community always seeks out the weakest member and exposes him to its pitiless laughter,” wisdom that undoubtedly helped Thomas to endure the brutality of the school, where he was taunted for not having respected parents and for living in a poor lodging. Freumbichler’s reflection that “Man’s most precious possession [is] his freedom to take leave of the world by suicide” may also have been helpful at the school. During Thomas’s incarceration there, four fellow pupils committed suicide by jumping out of windows or hanging themselves (“In the last six months in my dormitory alone three students have killed themselves,” the schoolboy narrator says in Gargoyles), and still others, who lived at home in the city, threw themselves over a cliff. Thomas, too, tried to hang himself in the closet to which he was confined for violin practice—his violin lessons were, he says, his only refuge—but he concluded that he did not wish to die because he was “too full of curiosity.” When later in life an interviewer asked Bernhard whether he wrote about suicide to keep from hanging himself, he replied, “Could be, yes, sure.”5

Many of Bernhard’s sympathetic characters resort to taking their own lives, among them Joana in Woodcutters, who has already hanged herself before the novel begins, and from whose death the story takes off; the brother/sister lovers in On the Timber Line; the general in The Hunting Party (1974); Roithamer, the writer-architect who is the central character, based on Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Correction; and, in Der Untergeher, both Wertheimer (the “Untergeher“—the “loser”—“Glenn Gould’s” nickname for him) and “Gould,” whose death is explained as a result of pushing himself to the limit in the pursuit of artistic perfection. Indeed, Gould, with his obsessions and eccentricities, his reclusiveness and musical perfectionism, is Bernhard’s prototypical hero.

The account in Gathering Evidence of Salzburg during the last months of the war should be read in conjunction with those by Primo Levi of a still more horrifying experience in an even more infamous part of Nazi Europe. As an adolescent Bernhard witnessed air raids in which cellars were turned into graves reeking of burnt flesh; he was threatened with asphyxiation in mountain-cave bomb shelters; and he saw scattered dead bodies and parts of bodies, as well as rows of corpses covered with sheets and stripped of shoes. People lived “simply for the next distribution of rations, intent only upon surviving and not caring how.”

  1. 1

    Albeit with losses, such as the mockery of German compound nouns (“Kaffeehausaufsuchkrankheit“).

  2. 2

    Far more of it has been published in Italian, Spanish, and French.

  3. 3

    The New Republic, August 13 and 20, 1984.

  4. 4

    Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard (Vienna: Löcher Verlag, 1988). Bernhard, however, is outdone by Cyril Connolly on Mary McCarthy: “That rare thing, an intelligent woman writer who has not played down her masculine mind.”

  5. 5

    Der Spiegel, June 23, 1980. Quoted in Denis Calandra, The New German Dramatists (Grove Press, 1983).

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