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The Genius of Bad News

Frost

by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95

1.

The many novels and plays of Thomas Bernhard, at his death in 1989 Austria’s most prominent and controversial writer, achieve their full impact and are properly understood only within the context of the author’s native culture and language. Such is the persuasive argument of Gitta Honegger’s biography, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian. But where does this assessment leave those of us whose grasp of Austrian history is shaky, those who are unable to tackle the original German? Is our sense of his importance to us the fruit of a misunderstanding?

To warn us of her unorthodox, largely nonchronological approach, Honegger opens with a typically provocative remark from Bernhard himself:

I hate books and articles that begin with a date of birth. Altogether, I hate books and articles that adopt a biographical and chronological approach; that strikes me as the most tasteless and at the same time the most unintellectual procedure.

Explaining that her work is as much a cultural history of postwar Austria as a biography of Bernhard, Honegger goes on: “The process of his self-invention reveals more about him and the world he lived in…than a chronological account of his life and work could do.”

Such an attitude is no doubt in line with Bernhard’s own tendency to introduce us in medias res to a mind in turmoil where events past and present, real or apocryphal, flash by in rapid succession without apparent order or hierarchy, where the voice speaking is so much aware of its own performance as to raise doubts about its candor. Yet notoriously every story does have its chronology and every life, between cradle and grave, its trajectory. To understand the significance of any “self- invention” one must have a grip on the inescapable facts on which the self feeds and from which invention diverges. The same is true of a nation. How are we to understand modern Austria’s mendaciously sanitized image of itself without an account of its Nazi past?

To be “tastelessly” chronological, then, perhaps the first thing we need to know about Bernhard is that his last name was an accident that would estrange the author from his family rather than unite him to it. In 1903, while still married to one Karl Bernhard, Thomas’s grandmother, Anna, ran off with the struggling writer Johannes Freumbichler, by whom she was pregnant, giving birth to a daughter, Herta, who, despite her natural father, was registered Herta Bernhard. In 1931, while working as a maid in Holland, Herta gave birth to an illegitimate child, Thomas. The father ran off, denied paternity, and committed suicide before the law could catch up with him. In 1936 Herta married and became Frau Fabjan, bearing her husband first a son in 1938, then a daughter in 1940. Thomas was now the only member of the family with the name Bernhard. His stepfather refused to adopt the boy and allow him to become a Fabjan. In The Lime Works, written in 1970, we hear of the central character Konrad that

he suffered because his sister and his brother Francis were only one year apart in age…while he, years older than they…was separated from them by the difference in age between them and him, a separateness that hurt him to the roots of his being…the misfortune of being six years older than his sister, seven years older than his brother Francis…led to his life of chronic isolation…. All during his childhood he worried about losing touch with his siblings and his family in general, because of their continuing instinctive rejection of him.

Autobiographical or not, the passage is typical of Bernhard’s tendency to spin out possible and invariably unhappy accounts of his own early life. Shifted back and forth between his grandparents’ family and his mother’s, between Austria and Bavaria, Thomas had every chance to feel rejected and displaced. One piece of information we find only in the (extremely useful) chronology at the back of Honegger’s book is that in 1941, soon after the birth of his half-sister and completion of the Fabjan family nucleus, Thomas was sent away to an institution for “difficult children” in Thuringia. Later there would be a Catholic home for boys in Salzburg (during the Allied bombing).

In the autobiographical works he wrote in his forties, Bernhard makes it clear that the center of the family, and the key emotional attachment for himself, was his grandfather. Dreamer, anarchist, and bisexual, Johannes Freumbichler spent his whole life seeking and failing to become a great writer. Unable or unwilling to hold down a job, moving frequently in search of a situation congenial to his writing, he depended economically on the sacrificial efforts of his wife and daughter. From his grandfather, Bernhard learned about the nobility of artistic endeavor, but also about the coercive and destructive nature of the artist’s powerful influence on those around him.

Years later, when the charismatic Thomas began to exercise the powers of seduction that would overcome the rejection of his family, or gain him a surrogate family, or earn him an honored place in the larger family of Austrian society, he must have been aware that he was imitating his grandfather, who had also sought to impress and dominate others by insisting on his artistic ambitions. And he would also have realized that Freumbichler himself was locked into a destructive relationship with past Austrian culture and romantic notions of greatness, a relationship that both won him a devoted family and devastated its members. Such awareness never prevented Bernhard from exercising his charisma and seeking devotion and greatness; nor, however, would he forget to expose the dark side of the artist’s ambitions. Almost all his writings offer us a monomaniac, achievement-obsessed central character. Whether he is an epitome of intellectual perfection, as with the Wittgenstein figure in Correction, or a paralyzed failure, as with Konrad in The Lime Works, he is always a catastrophe for those around him, and ultimately for himself.

Seeking redemption through art, grandfather Freumbichler wanted the same for those around him. The family was living in Salzburg now. Daughter Herta was to become a ballerina. Thomas, having abandoned school at sixteen to work as an apprentice in a grocery store, took private singing lessons. But hardly had he begun to dream of being an opera singer than he ran into the other experience that would prove decisively formative. In 1949, aged eighteen, he was hospitalized for pleurisy and then discovered to have tuberculosis. There followed a series of hospitalizations that lasted some two years and saw the young man at death’s door for long periods. During this time both his grandfather and his mother died. In the autobiographical memoir Breath: A Decision,1 Bernhard describes his spell on the death ward thus:

All the patients were on drips of some sort, and from a distance the tubes looked like strings. I had the constant impression that the patients lying in their beds were marionettes on strings…in most cases these strings…were their only remaining link with life.

Typical of Bernhard is the combination of feeling altogether abandoned to one’s self, yet at the same time altogether dependent on the community, the institution, which remains, despite, or because of, the life-giving drips, extremely sinister. It is not merely a question here of suffering the irritating presence of others, but rather of one’s being determined from outside. One is a marionette. Some years hence the lonely boy would be writing for the theater, pulling all the strings himself.

After a period of deep depression following his mother’s death, Bernhard at last “entertained the supreme ambition to return to full health.” He began to break the hospital’s rules to visit a nearby village each evening and ultimately left the hospital without an official discharge. Crucially, though this is not mentioned in his autobiography, the step was only possible with support from outside. On his evening excursions he had met Hede Stavianicek. Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother, and perhaps lover. She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society. It was with her support that in January 1951, frail, acne-scarred, and determined, a nineteen-year-old Bernhard plunged into the fray of Austrian society.

And it is at this point of the story that Honegger’s approach comes into its own. How would Bernhard’s powerful private experience mesh with the very particular and ambiguous situation in Salzburg and Vienna, where the atrocious events of the war, and above all of Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust, had been removed from public debate with obscene haste? After his own near-death experiences as well as the actual deaths of the most important members of his family, Bernhard was looking for a new home, a new identity in the sophisticated world of Frau Stavianicek. After the disgraceful years of Nazism, the Austrian middle classes were casting about for an improbable respectability. Bernhard studied them. When was it that he realized that the best way into a certain kind of society might be as a thorn in its flesh?

From 1951 to 1955 the young man worked as a cultural journalist and court reporter for a Salzburg newspaper, taking in a wide range of modern theater and collecting endless accounts of troubled lives. He published some poems and short stories, one under the pseudonym Thomas Fabjan, a name that had always been denied him. Then in 1955 came the first piece of writing to bear his distinctive voice: a vitriolic attack on the Salzburg Landestheater. It was scathing, over the top, almost hysterical. It won him his first libel case. But oddly it didn’t exclude him from the society he attacked, as his grandfather, working quietly away on his novels, had always been excluded. Rather, the papers began to talk about him. There would always be in Bernhard’s work a journalistic element of fierce polemic directed at influential figures in the public eye. A society wrestling with guilt cannot easily dismiss its accusers, indeed, a certain virtue may accrue to giving them space.

Speaking of the moment he left the hospital, Bernhard remarked: “I was no longer capable of starting work with a firm…. I was appalled and horrified by the thought of working, of being employed by someone, just to be able to survive.” Throughout Bernhard’s fiction, the minor and sometimes even the major characters are identified only by their occupation: the miller, the woodcutter, the miner, the stone worker, the doctor. It is a token of the fact that they are marionettes, that society is a chorus of complicit roles orchestrated by tradition and necessity. “I never wanted an occupation,” Bernhard wrote, “but to become myself.”

  1. 1

    Bernhard wrote five brief autobiographical works covering different periods of his life. These are collected in one book for the English-language edition, Gathering Evidence, translated by David McLintock (Knopf, 1985).

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