The Genius of Bad News

Frost

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

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…


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