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The Darkest Comedian

Prose

by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers
Seagull, 180 pp., $17.00

Ritter, Dene, Voss

by Thomas Bernhard, a production by One Little Goat Theater Company, directed by Adam Seelig
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York City, September 23–October 10, 2010
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Johann Barth/Sepp Dreissinger
Thomas Bernhard, Cafe Bazar, Salzburg, 1963

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 be giving me their highest award struck me as a kind of overdue compensation.

Yet when he arrived at the Grillparzer Prize ceremony, he went literally unrecognized: “I walked up and down the entrance hall of the Academy several times with my aunt, but nobody took even the slightest notice of us.” So Bernhard and the woman he calls his aunt—actually his life partner, Hedwig Stavianicek, who was thirty-seven years his senior—decided to simply seat themselves in the middle of the auditorium. Eventually, after much commotion on the dais, someone recognized him in “the tenth or eleventh row,” and a functionary came to tell him to move up to the first row.

But Bernard was not so easily placated: “Naturally I will only go into the first row if President Hunger has requested me personally to do so, it goes without saying only if President Hunger is inviting me personally to do so.” At last, the president of the Academy inched down the crowded row to make a personal plea. When he finally received the award, Bernhard was chagrined to learn that it had no money attached. To add insult to injury, the award certificate was “of a tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison.”

That sentence, with its self-canceling hyperbole—Bernhard says the certificate is beyond comparison, even while comparing it to other certificates—poses in miniature the question raised by My Prizes, and indeed by Bernhard’s work as a whole. Are we supposed to laugh at Bernhard’s histrionics, his exaggerations, his choleric attitudinizing? Or is all this meant quite sincerely, as Bernhard’s appropriate reaction to a country, and a universe, he finds abysmal and absurd? Did Bernhard act unreasonably in refusing to make himself known at the Grillparzer Prize ceremony, or does the blame lie with the Austrian cultural establishment, as he suggests: “I’m not going to go and meet them, I thought, just as (in the deepest sense of the word) they didn’t meet me”?

Reading My Prizes, the suspicion grows that Bernhard must have been secretly thrilled when he went ungreeted at the ceremony. It spared him the necessity of contriving to be rebuffed, as he famously did at the Austrian State Prize ceremony in 1967. This is the subject of the best piece in the book, thanks to the comic slow burn of Bernhard’s resentment at being awarded only the “small” prize—given for a single book, usually to young writers—rather than the “large” prize, given for a writer’s whole body of work. “What possibly had really been dreamed up by idiots as an honor, to me, the more I thought about it, was a despicable act,” he fumes, “a beheading would be putting it too strongly but even today I feel the best description of it is a despicable act.” Actually, he’s no more enthusiastic about the large prize: “When people asked me who had already won this so-called Big State Prize” (one of Bernhard’s favorite techniques is to add a skeptical “so-called” to perfectly ordinary words),

I always said, All Assholes…what’s more they’re Catholic and National Socialist assholes plus the occasional Jew for window dressing…. It’s a collection of the biggest washouts and bastards.

Financial need compelled him to accept the prize, Bernhard says, but he took his revenge when he gave his acceptance speech. “I hadn’t got to the end of my text before the audience became restive,” he writes with mock naiveté, “I had no idea why, for my text was being spoken quietly by me and the theme was a philosophical one, profound even, I felt, and I had uttered the word State several times.” Since My Prizes includes the text of the speech as an appendix, we’re able to see just how Bernhard referred to the Austrian state: as

a perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need. The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness, life a state of hopelessness in every philosophy and which will end in universal madness.

Surely he would have been disappointed if the minister of culture had failed to respond as he did—that is, by storming out of the auditorium while cursing Bernhard. To be misunderstood and alienated—a solitary, unappeasable, possibly mad genius—was the essence of Bernhard’s self-conception, as it is the essence of every major character in his fiction. Roithamer, the mad scientist of Correction, who spends his family’s fortune to build an uninhabitable building he calls the Cone, is “reprimanded on all sides for having had such an idea at all in a time opposed to such ideas, a time predisposed against such ideas and their realization.”

The mad prince in Gargoyles, who immures himself in his ancestral estate, thinks the same way:

The prince said he was forever compelled to make a stupid society realize it was stupid, and that he was always doing everything in his power to prove to this stupid society how stupid it was. But sometimes this stupid society would say that he was stupid.

Konrad, in The Lime Works, has “eleven or twelve previous convictions for so-called libel in this country,” because “strictly speaking, you might say that everything he could say about this weird country…could be considered a so-called libel.”

Certainly, everything Bernhard had to say about Austria strove to be actionable. In Concrete, to take just one example, it is

a country whose absolute futility utterly depresses me every single day, whose imbecilities daily threaten to stifle me, and whose idiocies will sooner or later be the end of me, even without my illnesses…. Whose indifference to the intellect has long since ceased to cause the likes of me to despair, but if I am to be truthful only to vomit.

The Austrian countryside, in Bernhard, is like the South in Deliverance—an ignorant, violent backwater plagued by disease, suicide, and sexual abuse. The unspeakable Joseph Fritzl case, in 2008—in which an Austrian man was found to have imprisoned his daughter in his basement for twenty-four years, forcing her to bear seven of his children—must have struck any reader of Bernhard as horribly familiar: incest and imprisonment figure in many of his novels.

About the capital he can be kinder, but only occasionally. In Prose, a collection of seven stories published in 1967 and now translated into English for the first time, Bernhard describes Vienna as

the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe. Vienna is such an old and lifeless city, is such a cemetery, left alone and abandoned by all of Europe and all of the world…what a vast cemetery of crumbling and premodern curiosities!

Prose does not add much to our sense of Bernhard’s achievement, except by confirming that the novel, not the short story, was his ideal genre. Writing stories, Bernhard had a weakness for dramatic, last-minute revelations, to make the trap of the narrative spring shut.

In “Two Tutors,” for instance, we learn on the last page that the narrator, who has been describing his pathological insomnia, was fired from his last job as a tutor after he shot something from his bedroom window in the middle of the night. He says it was an animal, but his somber, evasive musings—“I heard my name called. A good shot. Naturally, I instantly handed in my resignation”—leave the reader wondering if it wasn’t actually a pupil he killed. What seems uncharacteristic about this is not the grotesquerie or the violence—both of which are Bernhard’s stock-in-trade—but the attempt to create a Poe-like dread. In his novels, by contrast, the madness and guilt of his narrators are not sprung on the reader at the end: they are front-and-center from the beginning, and so lose any glamour. (We learn that Konrad has killed his wife on the second page of The Lime Works.)

The abuse of Vienna, however, shows that as early as Prose, Bernhard already cherished his contempt for Austrian culture. He can never forget that Vienna, once the capital of a vast multinational empire, is now a stage set of vanished grandeur, the swollen head on the shrunken body of the Austrian Republic. The contrast between the city’s pretensions and its reality is a standing offense to Bernhard: “In Vienna today art is nothing but a sickening farce, music a worn-out barrel organ, and literature a nightmare.”

  1. 1

    Yale University Press, 2001, p. xi; reviewed in these pages by Tim Parks, January 11, 2007. 

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