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The Genius of Bad News

So it was unlikely that he would remain a salaried journalist for long. From 1955 to 1957, supported by Hede Stavianicek, he studied acting and directing at Salzburg’s Mozarteum. Trying different parts, he found he was most successful at playing the cantankerous old man. He began to mingle with the Viennese avant-garde. Good at forming intimacies that never quite became stable relationships, he started to spend his summers in the bohemian community of Tonhof, the summer mountain residence of the rich musicians Gerhard Lampersberg and his wife, Maja. Both Lampersbergs fell in love with him. They weren’t alone. Bernhard flirted, left and right, with men and women, put on his first three plays in the Tonhof barn, then escaped to Frau Stavianicek when things got tense. By now he was calling her “Auntie,” as ill-defined a relationship as ever one could wish. It is intriguing that his ferocious attack on the Lampersbergs many years later in the novel Woodcutters accused them above all of cozy complicity with the establishment they pretended to oppose. Cited, as so often, for libel, Bernhard gave aggressive interviews in which he claimed that all the bohemian community was state-subsidized, whereas he alone had always been independent. “Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidized, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage….”

Honegger is no doubt right to suggest that the hyperbole and hypocrisy of Bernhard’s position—for he had received many awards and was generously patronized—was an indication of his anxiety about his own inevitable involvement in Austrian culture. “The past of the Habsburg Empire is what forms us,” he said in another interview around the same time. “In my case it is perhaps more visible than in others. It manifests itself in a kind of love-hate for Austria that’s the key to everything I write.”

By now an uneasy pattern of behavior was all too evident: insecure, Bernhard craved intimacy and recognition. Yet his real ambition was for total independence, which, alas, he feared was impossible. He became a master of the on-off friendship, the unconsummated love affair. He would make friends with a married couple, insinuate himself into their family, monopolize the wife, then withdraw. The casualty list of those confused by his behavior grew rapidly. But at least he wouldn’t make the mistake of marrying and destroying his wife and children. The genetic buck would stop with Thomas. This became an obsession frequently present in his novels. The only way to stop the interminably mendacious back and forth of human relationships was to stop procreating for good.

After his break with the Tonhof community, he traveled widely, but as soon as he had a financial success with his first major play, he bought a farmhouse and began to reinvent himself as an Austrian country gentleman. Then he thought he really ought to sell it and distance himself again. Then he decided to keep it after all. Remorselessly castigating the establishment, he eagerly sought the company of the aristocracy. A picture of the emperor Franz Joseph was hung upon the living room wall.


Still, there is nothing like the permanent dilemma for creating exciting art. Honegger is excellent at showing how Bernhard’s personal contradictions connected with the peculiarly Austrian genre of the Heimatroman and the very special role of the theater in a suffocatingly tight-knit Austrian society. With the nation reduced, after the First World War, to a fragment of its imperial, Austro-Hungarian glory, there had been a deliberate attempt to build up a national identity around narrative depictions of vigorous and morally commendable Austrian peasant life—the so-called Heimatroman. During the Nazi period, such literature had taken on a decidedly blood-and-soil flavor which afterward was repackaged, in many cases by the same writers, as a sanitized and optimistic nativism, all too appealing to the Green Party and the tourist industry.

Johannes Freumbichler had enjoyed his only success, in 1937, with an unorthodox Heimatroman, Philomena Ellenhub, a book that ran against conventional Catholic morality by offering a sympathetic account of the vicissitudes of an independent, unmarried mother. His grandson went much further. Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, (1963, now published in English translation for the first time), presents a ferociously dystopian view of rural life. The narrator, a young medical student, has been instructed by a senior doctor to go to a remote mountain village to observe the doctor’s brother, a painter, who has secluded himself in the place for many years in a state of near insanity. “He lives, as they say, in his head. But he’s terminally confused. Haunted by vice, shame, awe, reproach …—my brother is a walker, a man in fear. And a misanthrope.”

The student records the painter’s ravings, which combine a deep inner anguish with a loathing for the shameless sensuality of the landlady of the inn where he and the student are staying and for the violent drunken men who revolve around her and her two daughters:

The primitive is everywhere…. Sex is what does for them all. Sex, the disease that kills by its nature …they live for sex, like most people, like all people…. All of them live a sex life, and not a life.

As the book progresses we begin to fear for the sanity of the medical student as he is both seduced and overwhelmed by the intensity and negativity of the painter’s vision. In particular, he loses all confidence in the profession he has chosen: “Helper of mankind, I thought. Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms. I can’t imagine myself ever helping anyone…. I don’t understand anything.”

Amras (1967), Bernhard’s second long work of prose, actually manages to step up the intensity, reconstructing the history of a family induced to attempt collective suicide by the rapacious ugliness of the rural society all around them. Again the despair of the intellectual narrator feeds misanthropically on the utter spiritual emptiness of ordinary provincial life, but in such an exaggerated fashion that the reader is uncertain how to respond.2

Gargoyles (1967), the third and the most accomplished of Bernhard’s subversions of the Heimatroman, once again picks up the theme of medical science’s inadequacy when confronted with extremes of intellectual despair on the one hand and blind appetite on the other. In this case the narrator, a young engineering student, accompanies his doctor father on a round of visits to sick patients in the dark woods and deep gorges of the southeastern Austrian province of Styria.

The morning begins with a failed attempt to save an innkeeper’s wife, victim of a drunken assault, and proceeds from catastrophe to catastrophe as it penetrates an ever-gloomier countryside. The doctor’s denunciation of a dull and brutal provincial society could not be more radical:

Crimes in the city are nothing in comparison with crimes in the country. The innkeeper, he added, is your typical violent man, your born delinquent. Everything in him and about him is violent and criminal. At every moment and in every situation he is the merest cattle trader, it’s his job and he never transcends it. “And if he is now weeping and desperate,” my father said “he’s weeping because he’s lost a valuable beast. For an innkeeper his wife is never anything more than a valuable beast.”

Soon enough the doctor doing the denouncing is himself implicated in the general failure. His cures are inadequate. He is unable to communicate with his son. He seems resigned to the idea that his daughter will eventually commit suicide. We discover that his wife too suffered from depression and neurosis, which may have caused her illness and early death. The doctor, the intellectual, seems unable to improve the world.

Indeed, where there is intelligent life in Gargoyles it tends to isolate itself. Bloch, the doctor’s only friend, is a successful real estate agent, who keeps his intense intellectual life entirely separate from his commercial activities. More extreme, an (unnamed) writer/ industrialist lives in complete segregation in a destructive, incestuous relationship with his sister. But the doctor’s final visit is reserved for the most brilliant and isolated character of them all: Prince Sarau, hereditary landowner of vast areas of gloomy forest, lives in the Gothic castle of Hochgobernitz perched high above the doomed landscape we have crossed. A dying monomaniac who at once fears and fantasizes the extinction of his family, the prince launches into a hundred-page monologue which entirely shifts the equilibrium of the book—and marks a turning point in Bernhard’s career—as the doctor, son, and reader are spellbound by the obsessive and self-destructive power of the prince’s delivery:

Once we become aware of the complex of problems relating to our existence, we think we are philosophical. We are constantly contaminated by whatever we touch; therefore we are always contaminated by everything. Our life, which is not nature, is one great contamination…. Of course everyone is constantly protecting himself by saying: I don’t belong there! And he has every right to do so. I too am continually saying that I don’t belong there, don’t belong anywhere. But all together we are really accidental. We tire quickly whenever we don’t tell lies. The foundations are in the earth, we feel, but we do not add the thought: in the lower strata, and we are afraid. Are we always asking too much of others?” the prince asked. “No,” he answered himself, “I think not. I confront a person and I think: What are you thinking? Can I, I ask myself, go along with you inside your brain for a little? The answer is: No! We cannot go along with someone inside the brain. We force ourselves not to perceive our own abyss. But all our lives we are looking (without perceiving) down into our physical as well as psychic chasm. Our illnesses systematically destroy our lives, just as an increasingly defective orthography destroys itself.”

As ever in Bernhard, the more isolated a character is, the more chaotic the mind, and the more the world dissolves into a stream of words that might be either revelatory or meaningless.

In his next novel, The Lime Works, published in 1970, the characters who would normally be expected to appear in a Heimatroman are reduced to the few local people—the former works manager, a public safety inspector, the two managers of nearby estates—who give accounts of the life and words of the main character, Konrad, who, disgusted with the world and society, has withdrawn with his crippled wife to the silence and segregation of the abandoned lime works where he hopes to write the definitive account of the faculty of hearing and, by implication, of the nature of communication.

Konrad’s humiliation is total. Not only, in his perfectionism, is he unable to write so much as a word of his book, not only does he find isolation as detrimental as company, but when at the end he murders his wife and hides from the police in the cesspit, he becomes just another statistic in the country’s long list of brutal domestic crimes. The ultimate defeat is that any valuable ideas he had are now passed on and modified in the minds of the sort of people whom he despised and who, more conventional and more cautious than he, happily consume, along with the reader, his fascinating story. Inescapably, he is part of the local mental ecology. He was never isolated from them at all. With wonderful irony, the various accounts of his downfall are gathered together by an insurance agent struggling to sell life insurance policies in the local village inns. Konrad will serve as a cautionary tale.

Writing with immense power and the blackest of wit, Bernhard thus denies writing any power to alter the society it remorselessly criticizes. On the contrary, the artist is implicated in the general freak show. “The imagination is an expression of disorder,” says the painter in Frost, “it has to be.” Given that the Western world of today still likes to imagine creative authorship as a pleasantly exotic branch of progressive liberal politics, such a vision is hardly the passport to wider popularity. Indeed Bernhard has never achieved that. There remains, however, particularly for those of us who come to him through his novels rather than his plays—and that means most of his admirers outside the German-speaking world—the mystery of his success on the Austrian and German stage, which was, after all, the source of his income. Herself trained in the theater, Honegger is at her best here, and at her most confident in declaring Bernhard only partially comprehensible if read apart from his national setting.


Like so many of his characters, Bernhard loved to be alone, segregating himself behind the tall hedges surrounding his farmhouse, rapidly becoming part of local folklore, a misanthrope whose imagined malignant powers could be used to threaten a naughty village child. But he also loved, from time to time, to be the center of attention. And since the theater has always had a central position in Austrian society, and in particular the Burgtheater, and the Salzburg Festival, what better places for Bernhard to show himself?

Borrowing from Beckett, Strindberg, and others of his immediate predecessors, Bernhard’s plays distinguish themselves for the virulence of their monologues attacking the middle-class establishment. But who was in the audiences at the Salzburg Festival and the Burgtheater if not the middle-class establishment? In the play Am Ziel (which might be translated “Arrived”) the nameless lead character, who is simply designated the Writer, remarks of his successful play:

I can’t understand
why they applauded
we are talking about a play
that exposes every one of them
and in the meanest way
admittedly with humor
but nasty humor
if not with malice
true malice
And all of a sudden they applaud

The staging of a Bernhard play thus demonstrates two apparently contradictory truths: the power of the artist to get people to accept anything at all; and simultaneously the impotence of the artist to change anything. The same people come back, once again applaud savage criticism of themselves, but never change (“the Burgtheater,” he wrote, “could become a national mental institution for those who have proved themselves incurable”).

Honegger’s description of how Bernhard used his casting to reinforce this idea of a situation of embattled stasis is fascinating. An actor with a Nazi past would be cast in the role of a Nazi or, even better, in the role of a Jew whose rhetoric and neurosis is indistinguishable from a Nazi’s. An actress from one play would be given a role that in some way was a comment on her previous one. Elements in each play might refer back to controversies created by earlier plays. In short, the collective memory of the local audience was essential. They were constantly reminded that all was as it always had been.

In this regard a productive misunderstanding between Bernhard and the man who directed most of his plays galvanized the author’s theater career from beginning to end. The enfant terrible Claus Peymann came from the extreme left of the German political spectrum, openly sympathized with the terrorist Red Army Faction, and insisted that the theater was “a place of opposition—in certain times to the point of subversion.” When Bernhard wrote the play Eve of Retirement, which features an aging ex–SS officer, now a respectable judge, who puts on his old uniform and always, we are told, sleeps with his devoted sister once a year to celebrate Himmler’s birthday, while his younger and crippled socialist sister is dressed up as a concentration camp victim, Peymann no doubt saw this as grist for his political mill. Convinced of the positive value of shocking the audience, he did everything to create an atmosphere of scandal around Bernhard’s work.

This suited Bernhard, for whom scandal was the only way he could enjoy himself in public, since it combined intense attention with at least the appearance of acting independently. Politically, however, the playwright was far more complex than his faithful director. Of Eve of Retirement Honegger astutely remarks: “The outrage…was not the suggestion that the majority of Germans are incurable Nazis but the implication that fascism is just another symptom of an innate obsessiveness that also drives scholars, scientists, and artists.”

What is it then that we are applauding when we praise a writer who would have included each and every one of us in his indictments? The excellent Honegger with her sometimes belabored academic prose and her research grant, as she acknowledges, from the Austrian Ministry of Culture and Education would not have been exempt. Nor the writer of this review, with his flagrantly biographical approach. In Gargoyles, the narrator’s father speaks of a painting that is at once absolutely ugly and at the same time absolutely beautiful. Then he explains: “It’s beautiful because it’s true.” The picture, we are told, shows two naked men standing back to back, but with their heads rotated, so that they are also face to face. It is a grotesque contradiction of isolation and intimacy.

As we read, in Bernhard’s coercively rhythmic prose, of the dangers of being possessed by the rhythms of another’s mind, as we put down one novel whose monomaniac narrator dreamed of being the last of his dynasty only to pick up another and find ourselves confronted with the man’s spiritual successor, as we smile over those interminable superlatives that suggest that even the supreme effort will not be enough, as we embark on huge sentences, never-ending paragraphs, that remind us that experience is seamless and that if we want to say one thing we must be prepared to say everything, which is of course impossible, in short, as we read and reread Thomas Bernhard, we have the intense impression of being able to savor, briefly held together in the decidedly artificial space of these performances, a true picture of the contradictions that drive our lives. The world described is ugly, the reflections leave no space for optimism, but the mechanism invented for delivering the bad news is never less than exhilarating.

Writing more often than not about writer’s block, Bernhard became remarkably prolific, producing seventeen full-length plays, a dozen novels, and five works of autobiography. Insisting that all was parody and quotation, he created one of the most distinctive voices of the twentieth century. Awareness, in the last decade of his life, that he was terminally ill with lung and heart disease seemed only to accelerate his output. Denying the possibility of perfection, lamenting the false promise of genius, his own work got better and better. His last novels—Concrete, The Loser, Woodcutters, Extinction, Old Masters—are his finest. Shorn of the immediately scandalous material of the plays and the extravagantly Gothic tone of the earlier fiction, these books are wonderfully focused on the central paradox of Bernhard’s writing, that the very act of expression runs contrary to his obsessive drive toward a superior isolation. The antithetical energies unleashed in these books lay down a pulse in the reader’s mind, and their prose is as near to unforgettable as any prose I know.

In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. Always discreet, never sharing the limelight, she had been his lifelong companion, his Lebensmensch, as he put it. Bernhard was there at the end to care for her. “Suddenly I gave my tears free reign,” says the author’s stand-in in Old Masters, the novel he wrote immediately afterward. “I wept and wept and wept and wept.” It is perhaps the only moment of cathartic release in all Bernhard’s work. Five years later, having always declared that we are no better than marionettes, Bernhard nevertheless made the gesture of severing the fatal strings himself, taking a lethal overdose shortly before an inevitable death. And in a last mad bid for independence from his native country, his will, revised two days before his death, prohibited all publications or productions of his work in Austria until the end of his copyright.

Bernhard must have known that this stipulation would not long be respected, that he would inevitably and rapidly be appropriated into the Austrian canon. But with Bernhard it was always the yearning for independence, the gesture of opposition, that served to confirm the deeper complicity between the artist and the world he works in. As the East German playwright Heiner Müller commented of the controversy surrounding Bernhard’s plays: “He writes as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria…. The disturbance can be articulated that loudly and clearly because it doesn’t disturb.” And the reason it didn’t disturb is that Bernhard always presents his criticisms in such a way that the critic, the author, Bernhard himself, seems just as unbalanced and guilty as the world he deplores. Nor does any alternative form of behavior appear to be imaginable. Indeed, it was in his staging of the modern liberal’s interminably lost battle with his origins and milieu, which is to say with the human condition, that Bernhard becomes so powerful a voice even outside the world he was fatally attached to.

  1. 2

    The University of Chicago Press published in 2003 Three Novellas, a collection of three short works of Bernhard’s written between 1964 and 1971, including Amras.

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