Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard; drawing by David Levine


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.”

Freumbichler had instilled in his grandson the resolve not to let himself “be impressed by either variety of idiocy, the Catholic or the Nazi,” both of them “infectious diseases of the mind.” Bernhard describes how, with the American Occupation, the National Socialist Home became the Catholic Johanneum, with the differences that Hitler’s portrait was replaced by “a large cross” (convincing the boy “that our relations with Jesus Christ were in reality no different from those we had had with Adolf Hitler six months or a year earlier”), the Nazi salute at breakfast by saying grace, and the Nazi director by a no less sinister priest (whose thinly disguised portrait in Evidence led to a libel suit).

In the next stage of his autobiography, Bernhard, now a school dropout, finds a job as a grocer’s apprentice in the basement of “a low-cost, soul-destroying housing project,” where he nevertheless finds being “usefully employed, working for human beings among human beings,” preferable to school. He even allows that his “boyish charm,…friendly manner and quick wit”—possibly the most upbeat remark ever to escape him—may have been responsible for his success in his new life. But in fairness, this consummate misanthrope’s chronicle of work in the cellar is uncomplaining, and his gruelingly vivid depictions of the destitute customers, half-witted and half-drunk, are almost compassionate. This must be said because Bernhard is no egalitarian, and his fiction is as contemptuous of “the people” as it is of the middle classes and the nouveaux riches.

In the cellar he soon begins to develop a philosophy. “In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie,” he announces, having seen in his own experience how truth degenerates into half-truth and truism. Thinking of music as a possible career, he takes lessons in music theory and singing. “I was…crazy about [music] and intent upon making it the supreme justification for my existence, my only true passion, the essence of my life.” When in Old Masters, Reger, the elderly music critic for the London Times, avows that “music is still alive within me and it is as alive in me as on the day I was born…. [I am] saved anew by music every morning, from all the atrocities and hideousnesses,…to be made once more into a thinking and feeling individual by music,…” the voice is Bernhard’s.

Throughout Bernhard’s work one is constantly struck by the veneration for Schopenhauer, an admiration owing in part, no doubt, to their shared anti-Christian skepticism, as well as, perhaps, to Schopenhauer’s clear “English” style (formed during his term at Wimbledon School,6 which must have reminded Bernhard of his own boarding school). But the veneration must have been reinforced by Schopenhauer’s pre-occupation with music, his separation of music from the phenomenal world, his perception that music, representing “the inner essence of the world,” directly expresses itself in “the universal imageless language of the heart.”7 For the solipsist Bernhard—“there is nothing outside of heads”—words can only emphasize the isolation of the individual, the barrier between verbal language and the world. Music alone communicates.

In his novels and plays, Bernhard attempts to make writing come as close to music as is possible with words, by means of such formal techniques as variations, both of phrase and in the imitation of theme-and-variations structures in narrative. (His plays Der Weltverbesserer and Der Schein Traugt are said to incorporate principles of sonata form, but this would be true of any literature employing exposition, development, recapitulation.) The repetition of words and phrases in beguiling rhythms is a characteristic of Bernhard’s style. The anaphora, “We need someone for our work, we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one,” might have come from Gertrude Stein (with whose work he was familiar). In any case, music and talk about music and musicians figure importantly in most of his novels and plays. The interjection of a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the play Eve of Retirement (1979) animadverts on Beethoven, in the sense that the Nazi characters see themselves as ennobled and uplifted by the genius of their fellow German. But composers and even a few performing musicians—Klemperer, Glenn Gould—are seen as heroic figures.

In the final chapters of Evidence, Bernhard tells how he contracted severe pleurisy, a result of ignoring a chill while unloading potatoes in the cellar, and how, after undergoing a thoracic puncture, he was sent to a hospital “death ward.” Here the doctors “know practically nothing and can achieve practically nothing,” the patients give the doctors the slip by dying ahead of schedule, and the often unpunctual chaplain administers extreme unction to the already dead. Here, too, some wet washing falls only an inch or two from Bernhard’s face where it would have smothered him. He attributes his recovery to his ability to imagine “whole movements [of] Mozart and Schubert”:

This imagined music which I listened to in my corner bed became one of the most important elements, if not the most important, in my progress towards recovery. Everything within me had been almost deadened, but now I had the joy of discovering that it was not completely dead, that it could be brought back to life and developed.

From the death ward Bernhard was transferred by ambulance to a tuberculosis sanitarium—“one realm of despair to another”—to cure a disease he did not have but was infected with there. His repellent picture of the consumptives toting their mucus bottles and fever charts about with them is relieved by mordant moments—the disappointment of the doctors, for one, when at first he fails to test positive for TB.

It was there that he realized the importance of literature in his life. Dostoyevsky’s The Demons “told me that I was on the right [path], the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great….” The incipient writer begins to see that his genius lies in his “capacity for intense observation”; and he has also learned that “Durch den Tod wird das Leben verstärkt” (“Life is intensified by means of death”).

Wittgenstein’s Nephew, written in the same year (1982) as the first, but last composed, chapter of Evidence, is a further installment of autobiography, but the period recalled is later.8 In 1967 Bernhard and his friend Paul Wittgenstein were confined to adjoining wings in a Vienna hospital. The author was then thirty-six and recovering from surgery for pulmonary sarcoidosis. Paul Wittgenstein, aged sixty, was a mental patient who had undergone electroconvulsive therapy. “Paul the madman was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig, while Ludwig the philosopher was just as mad as his nephew Paul,” Bernhard predicates, completing the equation with the remark that, unlike Ludwig, Paul did not “publish his brain” but “put his brain into practice.” Besides their illness, the bonds in this spiritual friendship were their shared love of music (Paul would “lecture on Stravinsky or Die Frau ohne Schatten in the middle of the street”), shared neuroses—compulsive counting (Roithamer, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s model in Correction, counts his steps as he paces up and down), the need to travel “simply in order to get away from one place and go to another,” and mutual rage against Austria. This last is expressed throughout Bernhard’s work, but with especially vehement vituperation in Correction as “a permanent condition of perversity and prostitution in the form of a state,…a rummage sale of intellectual and cultural history…with nothing left, apart from its congenital imbecility, but its hypocrisy.”

The bonds were reinforced when Paul Wittgenstein accompanied Bernhard to the ceremony at which he received the Grillparzer Prize for Literature, an occasion which Bernhard presents only as an indignity to himself, though he describes it as high comedy:

Just before the ceremony, in great haste and with the greatest reluctance, I had jotted down a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty. After I had delivered my speech, which lasted altogether no more than three minutes, the minister, who had understood nothing of what I had said, indignantly jumped up from his seat and shook his fist in my face…. For a moment complete silence reigned, as they say. And then the strangest thing happened: the whole assembly, whom I can describe only as an opportunistic rabble, rushed after the minister…. They were the best known, most celebrated, and most respected names in Austrian letters. They all raced out of the audience chamber and down the stairs after the minister, leaving me standing there with my companion. Like a leper. None of them stayed behind with us; they all rushed out, past the buffet which had been prepared for them, and followed the minister down the stairs—all except Paul. He was the only one who stayed with me and my companion, horrified, yet at the same time amused, by the incident.

The title Wittgenstein’s Nephew is an obvious allusion to Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, since Paul Wittgenstein was Ludwig’s second cousin, not his nephew, though Paul, like the composer’s nephew, was mad. Like Diderot, Bernhard plays with the thin line between madness and reason, and both writers “send up” the philosophes’ notion that, as Goya famously illustrated, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.9


Bernhard has been promoted as another Kafka (in their shared sense of entrapment), a new Musil, a recorder à la Robbe-Grillet, a Beckettian. Yet some of Bernhard’s catalogs of lesser calamities are closer to Woody Allen farce than to any of these. Martin Esslin has drawn the similarities and parallels between Bernhard and Beckett10—in, for instance, the frequent use of long monologue, and of pairs of interdependent characters (the “deadly togetherness” of Konrad and his half-sister/wife in Bernhard’s The Lime Works), and concluded that they are the result of “affinities” rather than a direct Beckett influence.11

In most ways, it seems to me, Bernhard and Beckett are opposite sides of the same coin. Bernhard’s work, unlike Beckett’s, is transparently autobiographical, and his narrators and characters are very evident extensions of himself. In contrast to Beckett’s settings in limbo, Bernhard’s place names are real and on the (Austrian) map, though also, of course, imagined and unreal. Moreover, Bernhard levels the borders between art and life, mixing historical people—Glenn Gould, Paul Wittgenstein—with fictional ones. Whereas Beckett remained personally detached from the world, Bernhard became a public figure, appearing on television, noisily resigning from the West German Society of Poets when the ex-Nazi ex-President of West Germany was made an honorary member, libeling prominent political figures, attacking the Austrian “blend of National Socialism and Catholicism” as well as each separately. Reger (in Old Masters) invites the reader to “step into Saint Peter’s and free yourself completely of those hundreds, thousands and millions of Catholic lies about history,” while Bernhard in his own name continually execrates his native country—occasionally neglecting to hide the love-hate aspect of the relationship, as when he told a BBC interviewer that in Austria,

Everyone behaves as though they were sick or mad…. I too am sick and mad. The Germans have too little sense of humor to be really mad…they are too pessimistic…. The Austrians are not too pessimistic so that they can be sick and mad. For that there has to be a certain greatness.

Nevertheless, Bernhard’s will states,

I explicitly stress that I want nothing to do with the Austrian state and I reject not only every intervention, but also every attempt by this Austrian state to associate itself with my person and my work for all time.

The will also forbids the performance of any of his plays in Austria for their full copyright term of seventy years. By a contract signed before Bernhard’s death, the Burgtheater has continued to stage the five plays already in its repertory, among them Heldenplatz (the title is the name of the square where Hitler was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of Austrians in 1938), one of the theater’s greatest successes, seen by 85,000 people, despite, or because of, the efforts of the Waldheim government to ban it and of skinheads to blockade the theater by dumping a heap of manure in front of the Ringstrasse entrance. But Bernhard’s own post-humous ban is otherwise in force, according to his half brother and sole executor, who has testified that the writer repeatedly made his intentions clear to him and to friends.

The theater pieces, at least those at present available in English versions, are much less substantial than the prose fictions. Simply to follow, let alone evaluate, Bernhard’s stagecraft, from the scatty directions in the texts (cf. Beckett), to say nothing of the verbal art of the plays—the disjunctions, the freeverse stress, the use of enjambment (in the absence of punctuation)—is next to impossible. The earlier ones are absurdist, in the tradition of Ubu Roi, The Bald Soprano, and other classics of the genre. “Absurdity [lächerlich] is the only way forward,” Bernhard asserted, though to judge by the critical reviews he published in Salzburg newspapers during the 1950s, the contemporary theater that he first admired was the naturalistic (Death of a Salesman).

In his first widely performed play, A Party For Boris (1968), a rich lady who has lost her legs (and her husband) in an accident and does not wish to be surrounded by perambulating people, has established a home for legless cripples, thereby becoming “the good woman,” though her philanthropy is exposed as ultimately selfish and cruel. She gives a party for Boris, her new (legless) husband, during which fifteen wheelchairs career about the stage—or sixteen, since the woman has had her female companion strapped into one as well. The jokes are that the legless people—these are walk-on parts, so to speak—complain about the beds being too short, and that the woman’s presents for Boris are long underwear and a pair of boots. Since most of the better lines are spoken by the woman (“people have no ideas / because they have no time for ideas and they have no time / because they have no ideas”), and since Boris, the other star-actor part, utters only twenty-six words—otherwise merely nodding, laughing, beating a drum, and, unnoticed, dying—the reader can only surmise that the success of the play in performance depends on stage business, sight gags, and other means not evident in the text.

Four of the other so-far translated plays, The President, The Hunting Party,12 Force of Habit (1974)13 , and Histrionics (1984), also belong to the absurdist or cruauté category. An attempt to assassinate the president of an unnamed country during his visit to the Unknown Soldier’s Memorial misfires when he raises his cane to point to a bluejay, and the casualties, instead, are a colonel and the president’s wife’s beloved dog, who dies of a heart attack. Thereafter when “the death” is referred to, she thinks of the dog rather than the colonel. In The Hunting Party, a parody of The Cherry Orchard, the dialogue is largely confined to a writer—Bernhard himself (“Each of us carries a terminal disease / Daily we awake to our terminal disease”)—and the wife of a general crippled at Stalingrad who shoots himself as his beloved forest is cut down. The general is aware that his life is being turned into a play by the writer, and the audience recognizes this play as the one it is seeing.

The dramatis personae of Force of Habit and Histrionics are the members of, respectively, a family circus and a family theater. In the former, a musical ringmaster, a clown, a bareback rider, a lion tamer, and a juggler have been rehearsing Schubert’s Trout Quintet for twenty-two years in the unrealizable hope of achieving a perfect performance. “We do not want life / but it must be lived / We hate The Trout / but it must be played,” the juggler says, without elaborating. In Histrionics, the action consists of a rehearsal of a play, Wheel of History, an insane historical diatribe (“Nero Metternich Hitler / historic constellation / Churchill the link”), written by Bruscon, a bullying megalomaniac and misogynist (“Women have no concept of art”; “the female sex /…they always prevent us / from blossoming”). Suffice it to say that here the familiar Bernhard attitudes—“If we think clearly / we’re bound to do away with ourselves”—sound jejune.

Eve of Retirement reveals the continuing obsession with Nazism in the German psyche. The action takes place on Heinrich Himmler’s birthday, annually observed by Rudolph, a former deputy commandant of a concentration camp and now a retiring West German chief justice (a “decent law-abiding citizen” who should be protected from “dredging up the past”), and by Vera, his like-minded sister and lover (the incestuous relationship began during his ten years in hiding in their cellar after the war). On this “most important day of the year” they have in the past forced Clara, their paraplegic sister, who opposes their unrepentant National Socialist mentality, to wear the striped jacket of a camp inmate and have her head shaved. Rudolph enters, saying that some Jewish boys have attacked him, and not coincidentally (“There is a connection / between today’s date / and the way those youngsters came at me”). He and Vera exchange clichés: “Poverty is caused / by the poor themselves”; “The Germans hate the Jews… / that’s the German nature”; Americanization and democratization have “destroyed German culture.”

Rudolph dresses up in his SS uniform, and he and Vera turn the pages of a family album in which photos of themselves as children have been placed side by side with pictures of piled-up corpses and other Nazi atrocities. At the end of the play, Rudolph threatens to shoot Clara but collapses from a heart attack, and Vera, trying to remove his uniform, telephones their (Jewish) doctor.

Vera is something slightly more than a two-dimensional cutout, a woman who at least seems to have doubts about her past life and the moral rectitude of Germany. But Bernhard only hints at this, probably for the reason that to have explored her inner life any further would have been to exceed the boundaries of black melodrama. She has the play’s only telling line: “None of us can get away,” and Rudolph its only comic one: In the war “the Poles were ruthless / always in ambush.”

If Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984) seems the most substantial of the dramas so far translated, one reason may be the skill with which Bernhard exploits his fascination with Ludwig Wittgenstein. The dominant personality traits of many of Bernhard’s central characters are modeled on those of Wittgenstein, including their love of music (Wittgenstein to Bertrand Russell, 1912: “Mozart and Beethoven…are the actual sons of God”); the inclination to suicide (three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers were suicides); the reclusiveness; the constant revising of, or inability to complete, writings; and misanthropy, with special odium for Austrians (although to take as a typical remark, that to Russell, 1921: “While human beings are not worth much anywhere, the people at Trattenbach are much less good for anything than [people] anywhere else,” which Russell challenged as illogical, seems a mild reproach compared to Bernhard at his most venomous).

As the play opens, two sisters of Voss (Wittgenstein, referred to by them as “Ludwig”) are preparing to transfer him from a mental institution (“the whole time he said / Well-Tempered Clavier / while I was signing the release”) to the Vienna home of their childhood. The sisters are jealous of each other, and, in imagination at least, incestuously involved with their “anti-Kant,” as they refer to their brother (misleadingly, since Wittgenstein seems to have known Kant’s philosophy only as filtered through Schopenhauer, whose notion of the transcendental ego comes from Kant).

“It’s always the same with him / difficulties of interpretation,” Dene, the more solicitous sibling, says of her brother. (She may have been suggested by Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, famous from her portrait by Klimt.) Voss is vulnerable, subject to phobias and unorthodox behavior including long periods of isolation and silence. He fears, and has a borderline struggle with, insanity, and his relations with his sisters are sexually infantile (“He insisted that I stay in the bathroom / until he was completely naked”). Voss believes that he can “overcome everything / just by thinking / not by being thoughtful / by thinking.” (“To think,” the Wittgenstein alter ego says in Correction, “is to regain and recover everything previously thought.”) Voss’s thoughts—“what is philosophy if not mathematics / mathematics on the brink”; “self-realization / what a disgusting word… / you are after all realized—and you are yourself”—would be readily accepted as genuine Wittgenstein obiter dicta if attributed to him by one of his students. But the resemblances between Bernhard’s style and that of the man who diverted Western philosophy away from epistemology and toward the study of meaning are even more striking the other way around, Wittgenstein sounding like Bernhard. The statement that philosophy should “set limits to what cannot be thought by working outwards through what can be thought” might have come from Correction as well as from the Tractatus.


Bernhard’s novels consist for the most part of monologues, some of them first-person narratives, some transmitted by a narrator directly from a speaker (or from his writings), and some from third parties. The central characters are solitary, paranoid (according to Roithamer in Correction, “Experience teaches you to keep your distance…because people only come close and close in on you to disturb and destroy you”), mentally unbalanced scientists and obsessive/compulsive artists engaged in hopeless pursuits, caught in their own lucubrations, unable to finish or even to start their books, or endlessly revising them. This condition is more than symbolic; it is the main subject matter on which the plots turn. In a 1971 interview, Bernhard remarked, referring to E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, “Something finished, something beautiful is becoming more and more suspicious.”

For years, Rudolph in Concrete—like Cher and Sting, most of Bernhard’s characters have only one name—has gathered material for a study of Mendelssohn but without being able to formulate the first sentence (though he at least promises himself to begin “if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow then the day after, and so on”). After two decades of preparation, Konrad, in The Lime Works, cannot bring himself to write even a single line of his book. The industrialist in Gargoyles revises his philosophical treatise every day. The narrator in Untergeher constantly destroys and rewrites his manuscript, “About Glenn Gould,” until “nothing remained except the title The Loser.” Roithamer has “totally corrected [his manuscript] into the exact opposite of what he had started out to say,” but he vows to “correct the corrections and correct again the resulting corrections” with the eventual intention of correcting it “out of existence”; the narrator cites numerous passages in Roithamer’s manuscript that were “first underlined, then crossed out, then stetted.” Death, of course, is the ultimate, existential correction.

Since the viewpoint does not change from book to book, and the central characters all resemble one another, at least in their neuroses, and since all the narrators speak with the same tone of voice, so too the novels sometimes appear to belong to a series, or to make up one long unified work. Paul Wittgenstein and Joana, the suicide in Woodcutters, for example, are referred to in the later book Concrete, and an article by Adelbert Stifter about “the local limestone” is mentioned in Correction, which followed The Lime Works. Situations and relationships are also held over from book to book. In The Lime Works, Konrad, watching from a window, is mysteriously struck by the sight of Hoeller chopping wood, and in Correction, the narrator, also watching from a window, is similarly fixated by the sight of a taxidermist, coincidentally named Hoeller, stuffing a bird. Both watchers are disturbed by an awareness that the men they are watching are reciprocally watching them a similitude suggesting the recall of scenes from opera to opera in The Ring.

Like his later novels, Bernhard’s earliest, Frost (1963)—his Magic Mountain, despite his declared abomination of Thomas Mann (“truly stupid…a petty bourgeois writing strictly for the petty bourgeoisie”)—portrays post-1945 Austria as physically, spiritually, and mentally ill. A young medical student reminiscent of Hans Castorp is sent from Vienna to examine Strauch, an ailing painter (product of a loveless childhood, it goes almost without saying) self-exiled in a remote mountain village. The one-sided discussions between them—the isolated and paranoid Strauch is the first of Bernhard’s monologuists, the student, the first of his mediators, taking down the painter’s talk and avoiding direct speech—range from the medical to the philosophical, the sociological and the political. Strauch vents his considerable spleen on the responsibility of women in the decay of culture, on the useless and parasitic role of the Church, and on the wretchedness of the human condition; in the end, he disappears in a snowstorm. Eventually a great frost will destroy the world, Strauch has maintained, at which time “the stars will shine like nails with which the heavens have been shut close,” an image worthy of Wozzeck. The relentless negativism of the novel, and the gore, which in later books Bernhard turned into comic romps, can seem gratuitous, but the book establishes the author’s thematic obsessions and typical characters. It comes nowhere near Mann’s Mountain.

Gargoyles, published four years later, is also set in a landscape both naturally and humanly malignant—homicidal, mentally unbalanced, incestuous, sick, cruel, avaricious, and stupid. In this nightmarish Bildungsroman, a doctor takes his teen-age son, the book’s narrator, with him on his rounds through a remote mountain gorge. The first of his deranged patients is so hermetic that he has had all of the birds and animals in the surrounding forest shot to protect his privacy and that of his half-sister/ lover. The last patient, Prince Saurau, the doomster resident-owner of a mountaintop castle, gives an account of his insane father’s suicide. Saurau senior, shortly before shooting himself, ate some pages from The World as Will and Idea (shades of the Aristotelian repast of Eco’s Jorge of Burgos), explaining in a suicide note that “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me.” Afterward, the prince describes how

“The women…carried the body into the bathroom to wash it. Under the direction of the district doctor they tried to hold the shattered skull together with clothes-pins. They stuffed the bullet hole with cotton dipped in wax. Meanwhile a few workmen were clearing out the pavilion, so that we could lay Father out in there. Because of the play that had been given there a few weeks before…the pavilion was still full of dozens of sets, props, costumes, and chairs.” He had been surprised at the speed with which the workmen transformed the pavilion into a mortuary hall, the prince commented. As the women carried the body across the yard to the pavilion, they let it drop, so the son had carried his dead father into the pavilion all alone. They merely wrapped him in sheets and covered him with sheets. For several hours blood had continued to flow from his head, and from his mouth and ears, which necessitated frequent changing of the sheets.

In context, the description is so extreme and the delivery so flat as to become richly comic.

The Lime Works (1973) is a superior book, unified in structure—the episodic scheme of Gargoyles is replaced by a single, closely focused story—more deeply thought and felt, and with far greater penetration into the mind of its main character. It is narrated by an unnamed life-insurance salesman, one of many ironies. Konrad and his half-sister/wife, who has been “crippled by decades of taking the wrong medications,” live next to an abandoned lime works. The story opens on Christmas Eve, but the action is over before the curtain rises. He has just blown her head off with the carbine with which he had taught her to shoot at intruders: “Konrad felt that his decision and his ruthless determination had been the correct decision and the correct ruthlessness.” Konrad, with a history of shooting at passers-by, has been imprisoned some fifteen times for aggravated assault. The uxoricide and its aftermath, more titillating than horripilating, are variously described in differently informed rumors: “Konrad is supposed to have said”; “Konrad thought, says Wieser.” But since the outcome is known at the beginning, the discrepancies have little significance in the Rashomon sense, showing instead that nobody gets anything right. It is the closest the novel comes to a “message.”

Lime Works is Bernhard’s most relentlessly lugubrious creation. Konrad—who, according to the magistrate, “had Schridde’s hair syndrome, a symptom of stomach cancer”—dragged the corpse back to the room, “blood pouring from it harder all the time”; it took him “over an hour to get the heavy, lifeless woman’s body that kept slipping down on him back into that [wheel]chair.” (The several bottles of Schnapps that Konrad gives to the police who come to arrest him are consumed “in the patrol wagon, though to gain the necessary time they chose a detour of about sixty or seventy miles.”)

Konrad has been conducting Urbantschitsch Method experiments on his wife for his projected book, The Sense of Hearing, a work not yet begun because of the threat of interruptions. These daily sessions, which lasted “only a brief three or four hours, or a longer six or seven hours,” began “in the early twilight before dawn” with, in one instance, Konrad reciting

a series of sentences with the short i sound, such as “In the Inn district it is still dim,” a hundred times slowly, then a hundred times rapidly and finally about two hundred times as fast as possible…. When he was done he demanded an immediate description of the effect his spoken sentences had on her ear and her brain.

Afterward, he would play Mozart’s Haffner Symphony for her, “always the same record year after year,” and force-feed books to her, reciting incomprehensible passages from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, or reading aloud Kropotkin’s autobiography, which she deeply hated.

In the latter part of the book we get a glimpse of the other side of this “marital hell.” Konrad’s wife sends him to the cellar every five minutes for a glass of cider, instead of allowing him to bring up a large jug of it. But her sadism is no match for his, nor, it must be said, since she is this mad intellectual jailbird’s prisoner, is it quite believable. Yet the novel has a sustained intensity of tone and suspense—we are continually led to expect some imminent but never forthcoming revelation about the origins of the couple’s symbiosis of hate—and the sheer awfulness of both scene and story provides some wild comedy. Best of all are Konrad’s observations about writing:

the intervals in which he thought it would be possible for him to write the book were growing shorter, while the intervals in which the book seemed to be a lost cause were growing longer.

The writings of Roithamer (Wittgenstein), in Correction (1975), are different in that they contain prescriptions for positive resolves:

We enter a world which precedes us but is not prepared for us…if we survive…we must take care to turn this world…a given world but not made for us or ready for us…we must turn it into a world to suit our own ideas…so that we can say we were living in our own world, not in some previous world.

Roithamer has actually achieved his goal of building a conic14 house for his beloved sister (“the highest expression of this love he had envisioned and undertaken and accomplished and completed the building of the Cone”):

By studying…my sister and trying to think…my sister through…in accordance with [her] character…everything about her, corresponding to her eyes and ears, her hearing, feeling, intelligence, alertness, attention I enabled myself to build the Cone…as if I had lived, existed, all along, all those years of development, which were nothing else than my development in the direction of the Cone…the giving embodiment to an idea.

“The idea,” Roithamer writes in another of his meditations, “was to make my sister perfectly happy by means of a construction perfectly adapted to her person….” This three-level construction, “an edifice of stone and brick, glass and iron,” is partitioned into seventeen rooms, nine of them, including the meditation chamber, “the true center of the Cone,” without windows.15

At the novel’s opening, Roithamer, distraught over his sister’s death, has hanged himself. The narrator, a friend since early schooldays, has gone to the house of Hoeller, another mutual boyhood friend, to sort out Roithamer’s legacy there in the garret in which Roithamer had written those “thousands of slips and a bulky manuscript, ‘About Altensam’ ” (“Ancient Seed”), a chronicle about the family estate, bequeathed to Roithamer by his father in order to destroy him (“parents seen as the first destroyers of their children…leaving [Altensam] to the son who hated it”).

The literary-executor narrator’s admiration for Roithamer’s intellect and integrity is mixed with feelings of envy (“I had never been a match for Roithamer’s ideas”) and fear (“I fully expected to be annihilated or at least destroyed by his writings”). Gradually, imperceptibly, the narrator, seen from the first as Roithamer’s double, merges with him into a single voice. The narrator is quick to see that “perfecting and presenting the Cone to [Roithamer’s] sister must result in her death” (“A person like Roithamer’s sister cannot endure so climactic a condition,” the narrator says, and she duly succumbs to a mortal disease), and, in consequence, Roithamer’s. The structure is completed; thus the Cone has eventually destroyed them both, partly for the reason that “young men…tend to push an idea…so far until they have made it a reality…they themselves have been killed by this idea-turned-reality…everyone has an idea that kills him in the end”—and partly, because the sister understands that the Cone is an expression of incestuous desire.

Roithamer, like Ludwig Wittgenstein,16 has taught at Cambridge, followed austere personal habits, experienced an unhappy and rebellious childhood, and spent years as an architect (Wittgenstein actually built a house in Vienna, now the Bulgarian Embassy, for his sister). The book is not a roman à clef, however, but an attempt to enter a powerful mind at its highest pitch of concentration. Bernhard once explained to a critic,

The question is not “How do I write about Wittgenstein?” but rather: “Is it possible for me to be Wittgenstein for just one moment without destroying either him (W) or me (B)?”17

The impossibility of crossing the barrier between self and other is one of Bernhard’s obsessions. The narrator who resuscitates the dead Roithamer through the study of his writings does so at the cost of his own subjectivity: he becomes Roithamer’s double.

Correction is Bernhard’s most profound book, but its repetitive misogyny seriously undermines its power: “The female sex is incapable of going beyond the first impulse in the direction of the life of the mind,” is a characteristic Roithamer remark, and it is said of Roithamer’s nephew’s suicide that “six months after they noticed he was gone, his young wife hadn’t missed him until then.”

In Concrete (1982), Rudolph, like his author, is constantly anticipating death and forever fulminating against such unchallengeable enemies as “human imbecility.” Rudolph suffers from alternating nothing-and-everything patterns of thinking, and a large part of the novel simply traces his vacillations concerning a possible trip to Majorca, where he has spent winters in the past. The unfavorable consequences in both eventualities, to go or not to go, are weighed back and forth and over and over, until at last he packs his bags, then decides not to go, then changes his mind when he imagines his housekeeper returning and finding him “unpacking my bags two days after I’ve gone away for three or four months.”

Finally in Majorca—“[I have] the knack of taking myself by surprise”—he remembers that during his last visit a young woman told him that her husband had just died in a fall, probably a suicide, from the balcony of their hotel room, and that she intended to return to Munich to settle his estate. Now, going to the cemetery on an impulse to look for the husband’s grave, Rudolph learns that she committed suicide instead and is buried with him. Whether the title refers to the tomb or to the actuality of the tragedy—as opposed to Rudolph’s many abstract imagined ones—the discovery is not an edifying one for him. It does not become a real event but merely another of his paranoid nightmares. Partly for that reason the Majorcan episode seems tacked on, and the book lacks the sense of passionate argument of Correction and the tension of The Lime Works.

Woodcutters18 (1984) is Bernhard’s most nearly traditional novel, the only one populated by ordinary, normal people, instead of fanatics and cranks, and in an urban social milieu, instead of an isolated mountain landscape. Much of it is a comedy of manners that Bernhard might have turned into a play. The text is the interior monologue of its grouchy narrator—who, again like Bernhard himself, has lung trouble, has attended the Mozarteum, and is devoted to Wittgenstein. On the same day that a girlfriend, Joana, hangs herself, the narrator encounters his and her former friends, the Auersbergers, a failed composer (“Webern’s successor,”19 whom “I am bound to describe as the almost noteless composer”) and his rich, socially ambitious wife. “Not having the presence of mind to refuse,” he accepts the Auersbergers’ invitation to a late dinner party after the premiere of a new production at the Burgtheater (“the world’s first theatrical whorehouse”) of The Wild Duck (in which a young girl commits suicide for similar reasons: Ibsen’s neurotic women—Hedda, Nora, Mrs. Solness—could be ancestors of Bernhard’s). Waiting in a wing chair in the Auersberger house for the guest of honor, the actor playing Ekdal, the narrator soliloquizes about Joana and Jeannie, another guest, a would-be writer whom he detests (a “derivative literary virgin” who has “progressed” from “her Virginia Woolf fixation to her Virginia Woolf posture”). The locution, “I thought, sitting in the wing chair,” reiterated some two hundred times, both hypnotizes and brings the reader back to the immediate scene while reminding him or her that nothing is actually being said aloud.

With the arrival of the actor (“the archetypal mindless ham”) the scene shifts to the dining room table and his vain talk. When Jeannie begins to needle him (her “malice had been lying in wait all evening”), the narrator begins to find him sympathetic. In the end, Herr Auersberger—who thinks that “The human race should be abolished,” and that “We should all kill one another”—has drunk himself into a “thoroughly infantile condition.” The narrator then makes up with Frau Auersberger, then despises himself for this “base and contemptible mendacity.” As Bernhard intends, the repetition, the hyperbole, the irascible wit, get “on our nerves,” to borrow his phrase describing the effect of the real-life actor he most admired, but he also achieves a penetrating portrait of Viennese bourgeois society: philistine, social-climbing, and pretentious.

In Old Masters, Bernhard’s next-to-last and most enjoyable novel, subtitled “a comedy,” Reger, an eighty-two-year-old musicologist, has been visiting Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum for thirty-six years, three times weekly on alternate days, to contemplate Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. When the story begins, Reger has invited Atzbacher, his young friend and the book’s narrator, to meet him there on a successive day, an interruption of the routine that constitutes the suspenseless and inconsequential “plot.” Irrsigler, a museum guard, parrots Reger’s observations (“ninety-nine percent of humanity has no interest whatever in art, as Irrsigler says, quoting Reger word for word”), and provides Bernhard with the means for three-way word-games: as Atzbacher says, “I reflected, while regarding Reger who was in turn regarding Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man and who, for his part, was being regarded by Irrsigler.”

Irrsigler is a purely comic figure: he had wanted to be a policeman “in order to solve his clothing problem,” but the museum attendant’s uniform serves the same purpose and bespeaks a more exalted cultural level. His uncle’s family used to come to the museum “once in every few years, on free-admission Saturdays or Sundays.” Reger also has his comic side. He hates his parents, who “never forgave me for having made me,” and his wife for having died “with all that enormous knowledge which I conveyed to her, that she should have taken that enormous knowledge into death with her [is] an enormity far worse than the fact that she is dead.” But most of the book is filled with Reger’s revilings of such Austrian institutions as Adelbert Stifter’s prose “packed with distorted metaphors,” Vienna’s lavatories, and the contents of the museum: the Habsburgs “had an ear for music, certainly, but no understanding of art.” Even Beethoven is not immune: The Tempest Sonata is “ridiculously serious,” so “doom-laden” as to qualify as “kitsch”; in Beethoven “everything is really marching…and the marching-tune dullwittedness [is manifest] even in his chamber music.”

The best of the book’s several set pieces is aimed at Martin Heidegger:20

That ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus-fours…sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who…ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has herself shorn from their own Heidegger sheep…. [H]e was a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow…which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades lets its smart little cowpats drop on it…. True, the Heidegger cow has become thinner but the Heidegger cow is still being milked. Heidegger…in front of that lie of a log cabin…the philosophical philistine with his crocheted black Black Forest cap on his head, under which, when all is said and done, nothing but German feeble-mindedness is warmed up over and over again…. His nothing is without reason is the most ludicrous thing ever. [In] a series of photographs Heidegger is just climbing out of bed, or Heidegger is climbing into bed, or Heidegger is sleeping, or waking up, putting on his underpants, pulling on his socks,…stepping out of his log cabin and looking toward the horizon, whittling away at his stick, putting on his cap, taking off his cap, holding his cap in his hands,…cutting a slice of bread (baked by himself), opening a book (written by himself), closing a book (written by himself)….

The new Europe, which has already rendered obsolete our literature of current history and politics, “secret” intelligence and the romance of espionage, will have little effect on Bernhard’s work, both because he writes only about unchanged Austria and because his main theme, that injustice prevails everywhere, is unlikely to be disproved by events. Bernhard, the essentially comic writer for whom Death is always just offstage, is already defined by, protected by, his period.

Fifteen months after Bernhard’s death, his hold on Viennese theatergoers was so great that in May 1990 numerous busloads of them rode eighty miles, hin und zurück, to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to see his 1987 play, Elizabeth II, in a production by the Schiller Theater of West Berlin. Bernhard’s wishes had been carried out, his will upheld. One imagines his pleasure in the spectacle of Burgtheater patrons being bused beyond the border to see his play, which depicts a luncheon for the British queen on her official visit to Vienna, and which features the contumacious comments of one Herr Herrenstein, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, on the Burgtheater, the Vienna State Opera, the polluted air of the country as well as of the city, and on the ex- and not-so-ex-Nazis surrounding him.

By way of an envoi, may we predict of Thomas Bernhard, as one of Ludwig’s sisters does of him, that

one day they’ll be working on him
at all the universities
in America

This Issue

September 27, 1990