<head> <title>Thomas Bernhard</title>


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Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989)

 

Novelist, dramatist, and poet, whose merciless analysis of the mentality of his fellow countrymen earned him the reputation of the enfant terrible of Austrian literature. Central themes in Bernhard's work are death, suffering, and the hopelessness of the world in which we live.

"Art altogether is nothing but a survival skill, we should never lose sight of this fact, it is, time and again, just an attempt–an attempt that seems touching even to our intellect–to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible by resorting to lies and falsehoods, to hypocrisy and self-deception, Roger said." (from Old Masters, 1985)

Nicolaas Thomas Bernhard was born in Heerlen, near Maastrich, Holland, the illegitimate son of Austrian parents. His father, Alois Zuckerstätter, who came from Henndorf, Austria, was a carpenter. He never wanted to take care of his son and refused to acknowledge his paternity. Alois committed suicide in 1940 in Berlin, but Bernhard himself has claimed that he died in 1943. Bernhard's mother, Herta Bernhard, was the daughter of the author Johannes Freumbichler. Herta married Emil Fabjan in 1936 and next year Bernhard joined them in Trausntein. Herta died of cancer of the uterus in 1950.

His earliest childhood Bernhard spent in the care of his maternal grandparents in Vienna and Seekirchen (Wallersee). His grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, who devoted himself entirely to his writing, provided for Bernhard the model for his eccentrics in his books. He died in 1949; the year was a turning point in Bernhard's life.

In 1941 Bernhard was sent to an institution for diffucult children. After returning in 1942 to Traunstein he continued his school there. In 1943 he was confirned in a Catholic church.

In 1947 Bernhard dropped out of the Johanneum Gymnasium in Salzburg, and apprenticed himself to a grocer. In the dank cellar shop Bernhard contracted a serious lung ailment. At one point he was so ill that he was given last rites in the death ward of the local hospital. Bernhard spent two years in convalescence. At the tuberculosis sanatorium Gratenhof he began to write, first as a reaction to his surroundings, but then he came to the conclusion that he existed only through his writing. "I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason." (Wittgenstein's Nephew, 1982) His first published piece was 'At the Grave of a Poet'. After recovery, he studied music and theatre arts at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg. Bernhard received his diploma in directing in 1957. As a student he was not the star of his class. On stage he frequently forgot his lines.

While still studying, Bernhard began to work as a courtroom reporter for the Socialist Demokratisches Volksblatt; he got the job through family connections, but when his employers forced him to join the socialist party, he left the paper. Bernhard also contributed to the newspaper Die Furche. In the mid-1950s, Bernhard published short prose pieces and continued with three volumes of poetry in 1957-58. These works went almost unnoticed. After leaving the Mozarteum, he made acquaintance with the composer Gerhard Lampersberg and his wife Maja and wrote an unsuccessful libretto for Lambersberg's opera. His first play was performed in Tonhof, meeting place of the literary avant-garde of the day. Bernhard lived there between 1957 and 1960. His friendship with the Lambersbergs ended in bitter acrimony. Bernhard's prose work Holzfällen: Eine Erregung (1984) re-opened the wounds and the Lampersbergs sued him for defamation.

Frost (1963), Bernhard's first novel, was a long monologue of a medical student, who observes the fate of a doomed, misanthrophic painter. "Everything here is barbaric kitsch. Yes, the state itself is feebleminded and its people are pathetic," he says. The work was highly prised by Carl Zuckmayer and became an immediate sensation. In the mid-1960s, after nomadic years, Bernhard bought a fortress-like farmhouse in Obernathal, a small village in Upper Austria, his sanctuary for the following decades. He spent also much time in the fashionable cafés of Vienna, but in Old Masters (1985) Bernhard did not hide his hatred of the Viennese: "Everything suggest that they are a lot dirtier inside than out."

Subtitled "A Comedy," this darkly comical work was Bernhard's final novel. Reger, a recently widowed music critic, meets his friend Atzbacher in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches museum. Reger expresses his disgust over Western art, music, philosophy, and literature in a long monologue: Bruckner is a miserable composer, Heidegger is a small philosophical rear-rank man, who turned philosophy into kitsch, "Shakespeare crumbles totally if we concern ourselves with him and study him for any length," Stifter bores everybody to death, everything in Beethoven is more or less laughable. Moreover, Viennese restaurants are the dirtiest in Europe. All old masters are failures, Reger thinks, but rather than committing suicide after the death of his wife, it has been their imperfectness that has helped him to overcome his despair and face up to life. At the end of the novel he reveals the reason why he has summoned Atzbacher to the museum: he has two tickets to a performance of Kleist comedy Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug) at the National Theater, the Burghtheater. They both go to see the play. The novel closes with the line: "Die Vorstellung war entsetzlich." (The performance was terrific.)

Bernhard received several literary awards, including Österreichische Staatspreis für Literatur (1967), the Anton-Wildgans-Preis der Österreichischen Indistrie (1967), the Georg-Büchner-Preis (1970), the Franz-Theodor-Csokor-Preis (1972). "I always was a free person, I receive no stipend and I write my books in a completely natural way, according to my lifestyle, which is guaranteed different from all those people's," Bernhard said in an interview, ignoring the fact that his publisher had helped him to buy his farm and stood by him through the many lawsuits initiated against him. Almost all of Bernhard's complete works were published by Suhrkamp Verlag. Nevertheless, Bernhard was not faithful to Suhrkamp but gave the fourth part of his autobiography to the Austrian publisher Residenz. Siegfried Unseld, the head of  Suhrkamp, tolerated Bernhard's quirks, until the author gave yet another manuscript to Residenz in 1988. 

Bernhard never married. His Lebensmensch, companion for life, was Hedwig Stavianicek, "Auntie", the widow of a high-ranking Viennese ministry official. She was more than thirty-seven years his senior. "Without her, I would not be alive at all," Bernhard once confessed, "or at any rate I would certainly not the person I am today, so mad and so unhappy, yet at the same time happy." Bernhard regularly stayed in Stavianicek's apartment in Vienna. His female friends also included Ingrid Bülau, a pianist whom he had met at the Mozarteum. The relationship lasted over thirty years. Stavianicek died in 1984.

Thomas Bernhard died on February 12, 1989. His half brother, Dr. Peter Fabjan, was with him all the time during the day of his death. Bernhard's will caused much controversy—as a final act of opposition, Bernhard banned all further publications of his books and prohibited the performances of his plays in Austria.

Bernhard's novels are populated with physically and mentally defective characters, stupid peasants, isolated artists, criminals, hypocrites and philistines. Disillusioned cold perspective, shaped by his childhood experiences and harsh years during WWII, marks his attitude toward the whole society, his disdain of the masses, for their taste and general brutality. In the novel Ja (1978, Yes) the protagonist says yes to suicide. Though his social reflections, he was not a social critic—Bernard simply hated the world and its occupants. His characters are portrayed with bleak humor, the achitect of Correction (modelled on Wittgenstein), the writer of Concrete (1982), and the misanthropic loner in Extinction (1986).

In his home county Bernhard was labelled as the "Nestbeschmutzer" (someone who fouls his own nest). He once called his native land "a common hell in which the intellect is incessantly defamed and art and science are destroyed." Although Bernhard insisted on nonideology and subjectivism, at the same time he did not hesitate to attack the Nazi past of his country and other sore spots. In his last play, Heldenplatz (1988) Bernhard tore apart the national myths around Hitler's annexation of Austria. The play created outrage before it even opened at Vienna's Burgtheater. Kurt Waldheim, whose presidency was surrounded by controversy due to his alleged Nazi activities during WW II, declared that the play was a crude insult to the Austrian people. After the opening night, protected by 200 policemen, most reviewers agreed that it was not Bernhard's best play.

Bernhard's style avoids all comprimisess, his sentences are serpentive and complex; the flow of the text sometimes approachers the formal structutes of music. Referring to Bernhard's book-lenght monologues Elfriede Jelinek called him "a poet of speaking" rather than writing. "German words hang like lead weights on the German language... and constantly drag the mind down to a level that can only be harmful to it," says Franz-Josef Murau, the narrator of Extinction (1986). As in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground the narrator, Rudolf, is a hermit and a hypocondriac. Rudolf's monologue reveals his psychosis, and his hatred of the Austrian society. Wittgenstein's Nephew (1983), Bernhard's quasi memoir about Paul Wittgenstein, the grandnephew of the famous philosopher, consist of one long paragraph. With Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died in 1951, Bernhard shared similar lifelong obsession with the relationship between language and inner experience.

Bernhard's plays show the influence of the theatre of the absurd, especially Ionesco and Beckett. The German director Claus Peymann staged the premiere performances of most of his pieces. From the 1970s he started to gain fame as one of the most successful modern playwrights with such works as A Party for Boris (1969), a grotesque drama written for leggless cripples in wheelchairs, The Ignoramus and the Madman (1972), The Hunting Party (1974), The Power of Habit (1974), set in a circus, The President (1975), about power and corruption, and Minetti (1976), written for the German actor Bernhard Minetti. In 1975 Bernhard started from Die Ursache his autobiographical series, which contined in Der Keller (1976), Der Atem. Eine Entscheidung (1978), Die Kälte (1981), Ein Kind (1982)—together translated as Gathering Evidence. "What I am describing here is the truth and yet it is not the truth, because it cannot the truth," Bernhard wrote in Der Keller. "In all our reading we have never read a sentence of truth, no matter how many books we have read about actual events." The works covered the first nineteen years of his life, exceptionally ending in his early childhood. Bernhard parallelled breathing to writing in Der Atem, they are the one and same.

For further reading: Über Thomas Bernhard, ed. by A. Botond (1970); Thomas Bernhard by H. Gamper (1977); Thomas Bernhard by S. Sorg (1977); Thomas Bernhard by M. Mixner (1979); Kritik einer literarschen Form by H. Höller (1979); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 1, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1983); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Understanding Thomas Bernhard by Stephen D. Dowden (1991); Thomas Bernhard and His Grandfather Johannes Freumbichler: "Our Grandfathers Are Our Teachers" by Caroline Markolin, Petra Hartweg (1993); Der Übertreibungskünstler: Studien zu Thomas Bernhard by Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler (1997); Encyclopedia of The Novel, volume 1, ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Das Theater Thomas Bernhards by Dirk Jurgens (1999); The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek by Matthias Konzett (2000); Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian by Gitta Honegger (2001); The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and Its Function by J.J. Long (2001); A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard, ed. by Matthias Konzett (2002)

Selected works:

  • Die heiligen drei Könige von St. Vitus, 1955
  • Der Schweinehüter, 1956
  • Auf der Erde und in der Hülle, 1957
  • In hora mortis, 1958
    - In hora mortis; Under the Iron of the Moon: Poems (translated by James Reidel, 2006)
  • Unter dem Eisen des Mondes, 1958 (libretto)
    - In hora mortis; Under the Iron of the Moon: Poems (translated by James Reidel, 2006)
  • Die Rosen der Einöde, 1959 (drama)
  • Köpfe: Kammeroper, 1960 (libretto, music by Gerhard Lampersberg)
  • Die Irren. Die Häftlinge, 1962
    - The Lunatics. The Inmates (translated by James Reidel)
  • Frost, 1963
    - Frost (translated by Michael Hofmann, 2006)
  • Amras, 1964
  • Vertsörung, 1967
    - Gargoyles (translated by Richand and Clara Winston, 1970)
  • Prosa, 1967
    - Prose (translated by Martin Chalmers, 2010)
  • Der Kartenspieler, 1967 (libretto)
  • Ungenach, 1968
  • Watten: Ein Nachlass, 1969
  • An der Baumgrenze, 1969
  • Ereignisse, 1969
  • Der Berg, 1970 (drama)
  • Ein Fest für Boris, 1970 (drama)
    - A Party for Boris (in Histrionics: Three Plays, translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott, 1990)
  • Das Kalkwerk, 1970
    - The Lime Works (translated by Sophie Wilkins, 1973)
  • Gehen, 1971
  • Midland in Stilfs, 1971
  • Der Italianer, 1971 (screenplay)
  • Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige, 1972 (drama)
    - [The Ignoramus and the Madman]
  • Die Jagdgesellschaft, 197 4 (drama)
    - The Hunting Party (translated by Gitta Honegger)
  • Die Macht der Gewohnheit, 1974 (drama)
    - The Force of Habit (translated by Neville and Stephen Plaice, 1976)
  • Der Kulterer, 1974 (drama)
  • Die Salzburger Stücke, 1975
  • Korrektur, 1975
    - Correction (translated by Sophie Wilkins, 1979)
  • Der Präsident, 1975 (drama)
    - The President (translated by Gitta Honegger, 1982)
  • Die Ursache, 1975
  • Der Keller, 1976
  • Die Berühmten, 1976 (drama)
    - [The Famous Ones]
  • Minetti: ein Portrait des Künstlers als alter Mann, 1976 (drama)
    - Minetti (translated by Andri Haller)
  • Der Wetterfleck, 1976
  • Der Stimmenimitator, 1978
    - The Voice Imitator (translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, 1997)
  • Der Atem. Eine Entscheidung, 1978
  • Immanuel Kant, 1978 (drama)
    - Immanuel Kant (translated by Andri Haller)
  • Ja, 1978
    - Yes (translated by Ewald Osers, 1992)
  • Vor dem Ruhestand, 1979 (drama)
    - Eve of Retirement (translated by Gitta Honegger, 1982):
  • Der Weltverbesserer, 1979 (drama)
    - The Utopian (translated by Andri Haller)
  • Die Erzählungen, 1979
  • Der Billigesser, 1980
    - The Cheap-Eaters (translated by Ewald Osers, 1990)
  • Die Kälte, 1981
  • Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, 1981
    - Over All the Mountain Tops (translated by Michael Mitchell, 2004)
  • Am Ziel, 1981 (drama)
    - Destination (translated by Jan-Willem van den Bosch, 2001
  • Ave Vergil, 1981
  • Ein Kind, 1982
  • Beton, 1982
    - Concrete (translated by David McLintock, 1984)
    - Betoni (suom. Olli Sarrivaara, 2008)
  • Wittgensteins Neffe, 1982
    - Wittgenstein's Nephew (translated by David McLintock, 1989)
  • Die Stücke, 1969-1981, 1983 (drama)
  • Der Untergeher, 1983
    - The Loser (translated by Jack Dawson, 2006)
    - Haaskio (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2009)
  • Der Schein trügt, 1983 (drama)
    - Appearances Are Deceiving (tr. 1983)
  • Der Theatermacher, 1984 (drama)
    - Histrionics (in Histrionics: Three Plays, translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott, 1990) / The Showman (translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott, 1993)
  • Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984
    - Woodcutters (translated by David McLintock, 1987); Cutting Timber (translated by Ewald Osers, 1993)
    - Hakkuu: muuan mielenkuohu (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2007)
  • Alte Meister: Komödie, 1985
    - Old Masters (translated by Ewald Osers, 1989)
    - Vanhat mestarit. Komedia (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2013)
  • Ritter, Dene, Voss, 1986 (drama)
    - Ritter, Dene, Voss (in Histrionics: Three Plays, translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott, 1990)
  • Einfach Kompliziert, 1986 (drama)
  • Auslöschung: Ein Zerfall, 1986
    - Extinction (translated by David McLintock, 1995)
  • Elisabeth II, 1987 (drama)
    - Elizabeth II (tr. 1992)
  • Der deutsche Mittagstisch, 1988 (drama)
  • Stücke, 1988 (4 vols.)
  • Heldenplatz, 1988 (drama)
    - Heldenplatz (translated by Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney, 2010)
  • In der Höhe: Rettungsversuch, Unsinn, 1989
    - On the Mountain: Rescue Attempt, Nonsense (translated by Russell Stockman, 1991)
  • Claus Peymann kauft sich eine Hose und geht mit mir essen, 1990 (drama)
  • Gesammelte Gedichte 1-4, 1991
  • Der Briefwechsel von Thomas Bernhard, Siegfried Unseld, 2009 (edited by Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber and Julia Ketterer)
  • Meine Preise, 2009
    - My Prizes: My Prizes (translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 2010)

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