Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian
Yale University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Vintage Books (out of print)
University of Chicago Press, $16 (paper)
University of Chicago Press, $15 (paper)
“The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet.”
In his final will and testament, Thomas Bernhard—Austria’s most infamous novelist and playwright of the past half-century, and the most outspoken critic the state has endured since Karl Kraus—performed an unlikely post-mortem disappearing act. With characteristic bravado, he banned any further production and publication of his works within his home country for the duration of their copyright. In the grand Austrian tradition of Mozart, Mahler, and Freud, Bernhard was reviled at home during his lifetime (even as he gained fame abroad), only to be hailed as a national treasure after his death. In his will, he renounced this corrupt inheritance, unsettling Austria’s hypocritical tradition of posthumous idolization.
Bernhard’s publication ban on his own works was not only a snub to the state he loved to antagonize but, because it included many unpublished notes and letters, also served to further obscure the private life of an artist who had always maintained an illusive presence.1 It may be natural for readers to let a writer recede into his own fictional rhetoric, conflating character and author. The rumors that Bernhard lived in a country house painted black from floor to ceiling were no doubt inspired by the eccentric architect Roithamer, the fictional protagonist of Correction, who constructs a house in the shape of a perfect cone.
But Bernhard is a special case. He devised both a distinctive narrative strategy and an artistic identity through an elaborate game of shifting self-representations. In his fictional work Bernhard not only used but flaunted autobiographical details and motifs (his family’s neglect, the general ineptitude and hypocrisy of Austrian society, his own unsupported talents, his chronic illness), while in his five-volume memoir (published together in English asGathering Evidence), he exaggerated, misreported, or simply made up the story of his life, recording it “not as it really was…but as I see it today.” “[E]xistence,” the narrator of Correction claims, is “a bottomless falsification and misrepresentation of our true nature.”
This counterpoint of fact and fiction in Bernhard’s own biography yields a paradox immediately recognizable to anyone who has encountered his fictional characters: the proliferation of biographical details creates a fog in which the narrator’s true identity dissolves. The entire narrative of Bernhard’s most characteristic novels (Concrete, Correction, The Loser) are extended, monological rants in which the speaker, through disclosures about past traumas and derisive descriptions of Austrian society (focused, usually, on friends and loved ones), only obliquely approaches the actual source of his suffering. Take Rudolph, the procrastinating writer/narrator of Concrete, whose obsessive complaints—mainly concerning what he imagines to be his sister’s deliberate attempts to foil his work—become creative substitutes for his unfinished masterpiece.
Likewise, the unreliability of Bernhard’s narrators is more than a momentary affliction—it’s a chronic illness. His speakers display their fallibility openly, switching their fiercely held opinions mid-thought, maintaining contradictory positions with undiminished fervor, and approaching friends and colleagues with equal parts jealousy and disgust. Error, deception, and above all failure—of familial bonds, of physical health, of social progress, of personal and artistic ambition—define these speakers as much as they shaped the writer himself. Embedded in Bernhard’s fractured narratives is the failure of the institutions and structures that are supposed to bind us together—inheritance, family, science, language, culture; we are left with only the speaker’s single, despairing voice. Recognizing these failures—a central accomplishment of modernism—was not enough for Bernhard: he sought to exploit our “chronic condition” of “uncertainty” in order to transcend both his own tragic upbringing and the pervasive sickness of post-war Austrian society.
Like Nietzsche, who wrote that truth is but “a mobile army of metaphors,” Bernhard believed that language offered an opportunity artistic freedom, for those gifted enough to utilize it. The act of writing provided him with just this moment of indeterminacy—of liberation and disappearance. “My work,” declares the narrator of Bernhard’s final novel, “will be nothing other than an act of extinction.”
Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian by Gitta Honegger is the first biography of Bernhard to appear in English. Although Honegger offers little in the way of new or previously unavailable material (due in large part to restrictions in his will) she does provide a much needed synthesis of available information on the author, including efficient analyses of his major novels and plays, as well as several untranslated speeches and early works. Encumbered with the task of differentiating fact from fiction in the muddled narrative of Bernhard’s childhood, Honegger, a dramatist, professor of literature, and former translator of Bernhard, knows the elusiveness of her subject. Her biography is concerned less with the verifiable facts of the author’s life than with the way he manipulated and exploited biographical fact for artistic effect—specifically his attempt to connect his own traumatic childhood to the greater historical trauma of his country. The result is a biography written wholly in the spirit of its subject. Honegger’s account of Bernhard’s formative years reads like the narrative of his fourth novel The Lime Works, in which the story of Konrad’s murder of his wife is a collage of known facts, familiar anecdotes, and the protagonist’s own dubious version of events.
The product of two generations of illegitimate liaisons, Thomas Bernhard was born in Holland in 1931 to the young Herta Bernhard, who had fled her hometown to hide the shame of her pregnancy, the result of an isolated erotic encounter, or perhaps, it has been speculated, a date rape. The young Bernhard spent much of his childhood in and out of foster homes and state houses for “illegitimate children,” including one in a trawler off Rotterdam harbor. His father, a carpenter, fled to Germany where he may have killed himself. Bernhard’s mother considered, and finally rejected, the idea of giving her son up for adoption and instead brought him to Vienna to be raised by her parents while she remained in Holland to work. Her own father, Johannes Freumbichler, an anarchist intellectual and struggling novelist who had conducted an affair with Bernhard’s married grandmother, became the boy’s surrogate father. Freumbichler was the only beloved figure of Bernhard’s childhood and introduced him to the host of great German and Austrian writers and philosophers—including Schopenhauer, who would be one of the writer’s most powerful influences. Most importantly, though, Freumbichler—who would later die in a hospital bed down the hall from his grandson, who was recovering from a lung infection—inspired Bernhard’s recurring image of the artist: politically radical, obsessively single-minded, and, above all, a failure.
By the time Bernhard was five, his mother remarried and gave birth to a son and daughter. Her husband served as Thomas’s “guardian” but never adopted the boy. Ostracized by his mother, rejected by both his biological father and stepfather, Bernhard was an anxious, sickly, suicidal boy; his mother tried to cure his chronic bedwetting through the unfortunate method of displaying his stained sheets to their neighbors.
Bernhard showed intelligence, but remained a failure at school. At sixteen, he dropped out and took a job as a grocer. Earning his own money and taking private singing lessons, Bernhard flourished, until he was hospitalized for pleurisy and then tuberculosis, the disease that would plague him the rest of his life. Recovering in the sanitarium at Grafenhof, he met Hedwig Stavianicek, an older, sophisticated, aristocratic woman who would become his “Lebensmensch” (“life-person”). Stavianicek encouraged the young man to write—she would help support his career the rest of her life—and the following year, Bernhard published his first piece, “At the Grave of a Poet,” a tribute to his grandfather. Later that same year, his mother died. Truly alone, his last blood-tie severed, Bernhard was free to reconstruct his identity solely through his art, in his words, “exploiting the whole world by transforming it into poetry.”
With a liberty afforded by his tangled upbringing, Bernhard spent his career exploring and rewriting his past (“finding evidence about my existence”) in an effort to construct an identity sui generis.Focused on the formative years he spent in Grafenhof sanitarium,Gathering Evidence stages Bernhard’s artistic awakening against a backdrop of respirators and dying old men (a perfect analogy for Austria itself). The title of this memoir’s third volume, “Breath: A Decision,” underscores the vital connection between art and life: writing becomes his only weapon in a struggle between the mind and the body, health and illness. As an imaginative act, writing is in conflict with the real world, the inescapable fact of which remains death. For Bernhard, who began to write poems in a hospital bed with his grandfather (“the only person I really loved”) dying down the hall, the first aesthetic lesson was clear: writing is no more and no less than a doomed act of survival.
Abandoned by a father he never knew and neglected by his mother, the failings of Bernhard’s family structure proved only a more immediate (hence surmountable) manifestation of a larger national and cultural failure. As his memoir demonstrates (written while ailing under the care of his once-estranged step-brother), Bernhard ultimately came to terms, however tenuous, with his family; as evidenced by his will, he never made peace with his homeland.
Anyone who knew the symptoms as well as Bernhard did could see signs of Austria’s illness everywhere. Like Robert Musil before him, Bernhard wrote in the wake of the dramatic collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy through insanity, incest, and suicide (all potent Bernhardian motifs). In an interview, Bernhard recognizes the shadow of the Hapsburgs over his art: “The past of the Hapsburg Empire is what forms us. 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.” Born early enough to be aware of Nazi rule, but too young to actively participate in Austria’s fascist politics, Bernhard wrote out of the guilt, denial, and devastation that pervaded Austria at the end of the Second World War.
Looming over Bernhard’s formative years was the decaying state of Austria itself—a country deeply divided, willfully blind to the past, and hindered by an imperious but stagnant cultural heritage. Above all through his dramatic work, Bernhard was one of the first artists of his generation to expose the hypocritical persistence of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Austrian society, nagging at Austrians’ continuing failure to come to terms with their past. As Honegger points out, Austria made no attempt to welcome or even recognize the return of writers exiled during the war, such as Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti. And of course, there is the 1986 election to president of ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim and the ascendancy of right-wing populist Jörg Haider, whose Nazi sentiments eventually won him a seat on the coalition government. Austrians have repeatedly surprised the world with their stubborn oblivion.
As a native Austrian, Honegger has fully assimilated the cultural consciousness of a country where brutality and civility, violence and art, are intertwined. She successfully frames our understanding of Bernhard within the political and cultural climate of post-World-War-II Austria—an environment about which many Americans, complacent in post-Cold-War stability, are distressingly ignorant. Only recently—through the popular recognition of writers like W. G. Sebald and artists like Gerhard Richter (both of whom owe much to Bernhard’s bleak, melancholic vision)—have we begun to appreciate the continuing attempts of Central European artists and writers to come to terms with the devastation of the Second World War.
Now, more than ten years after his death—and thirty years since his work was first translated into English (to early acclaim by critics like George Steiner and Sven Birkerts)—multiple generations of writers, disaffected perhaps with the detached formality of much post-war American writing, return to Bernhard’s prose. Always technically exacting, Bernhard’s style remains driven by a dominant emotional force, a sadness, that other writers of similar intellectual caliber either cannot or will not sustain. The passion Bernhard elicits from other writers, coupled with his lack of commercial popularity in America, recalls John Ashbery’s description of Elizabeth Bishop as “a writer’s writer’s writer.” Fittingly, for an author whose prevailing metaphor is illness, Bernhard’s language is infectious, overpowering, and for those reasons utterly enjoyable. Whereas Dickens’ genius is most visible, as Martin Amis has said, in the inventiveness of his names, Bernhard’s voice—splenetic, bitterly humorous, harshly critical, excessively opinionated—speaks most clearly through insults: an artist is described as a “megalomaniac cliché-monger”; teachers are “art destroyers, all of them, art liquidators, cultural assassins, murderers of students”; a friend is simply “the loser”—an epithet that drives the man to suicide.
A consummate performer, through the written word as well as the spoken, Bernhard is often compared to Samuel Beckett: both share an effusive, breathless prose style, a mastery of the monologue form, an obsession with illness and an unremittingly pessimistic sensibility. Markedly unlike Beckett, however, Bernhard never directed his vitriol upwards at an absent or negligent god-figure; there were simply too many people right down here that warranted his scorn, from government officials to his own family members.2Constantly demonstrating the subtle interchange between love and hate, Bernhard’s wrath, like that of his narrators, was typically directed at the most proximate targets: his sister, mother, fellow artists, close friends, and homeland. While all of these figures played pivotal roles in Bernhard’s life, the last proved to have the most enduring influence on him and his work.
Fittingly, then, the focus of Honegger’s portrait is a detailed illumination of the mutually antagonistic relationship between Bernhard and Austria. She places Bernhard’s own self-consciousness about his country’s (and his own family’s) past within the fascinating history of the larger Austrian “Herkunftscomplex” (“origin-complex”), repeatedly illustrating the ways in which the author embodied the very Austrian traditionalism that he criticized, cultivating sophisticated acquaintances, inhabiting a country house, and traveling around Europe at the expense of a wealthy friend. Honegger’s insights, while significant, are at times awkwardly rendered. Seemingly uncomfortable in the role of social critic, Honegger has occasional difficulty bringing out the essence of an anecdote, a weakness that results in a submersion of her primary argument in needless digressions. A detailed portrait of the director Claus Peymann, Bernhard’s longtime collaborator, for instance, appears particularly unnecessary, given the fact that she barely mentions Beckett, Musil, and Karl Kraus (probably Bernhard’s closest literary forebear).
Honegger is most convincing, however, in her analysis of the centrality of the theater to Bernhard’s fictional work and his self-definition as an artist. The grand theatrics of the operatic tradition are hardwired into the brain of every Austrian, and she remains attentive to the way Bernhard incorporated dramatic techniques—the use of the monologue, of rhetorical conflict, of an evocative setting—into his novels and his public image. Bernhard was able to transform himself from Salzburg’s illegitimate son into an inheritor of Austria’s grand cultural tradition, as Honegger shows, through an aggressive form of self-reproduction that brought his art to life.
Apparently, Bernhard worked as hard to manipulate the drama surrounding his productions as carefully as the show itself. Though his work espoused no specific political ideology—which led to criticism from the both right and the left—his plays often incorporated contemporary political divisions into the act. Days before the opening of his final play Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), scheduled to premiere on the anniversary of the Burgtheater’s founding—which coincided with the anniversary of Hitler’s annexation of Austria—enraged citizens dumped a load of manure at the front of the Burgtheater in protest. (One newspaper headline read: “Austria Curses, Bernhard Rehearses.”) The author himself, whose play stages the return of a Jewish professor with his family to Vienna after the war only to find that “there are more Nazis in Vienna today than in 1938,” could not have illustrated the point more effectively.
Honegger identifies the hospital in Gathering Evidence—along with the haunting descriptions of bombed-out Salzburg—as Bernhard’s most apt metaphor for the Austrian condition. Its doctors “know practically nothing and can achieve practically nothing” and its patients hang onto life by a string:
All the patients were on drips of some sort, and from the distance the tubes looked like strings….It was perfectly natural for me to think of them as marionettes and not as human beings—to think that sooner or later everyone must become a marionette, to be thrown on the rubbish heap and buried or burnt, no matter where they had once performed, no matter when or for how long, in this marionette theater we call the world.
This mordant re-imagination of the hospital (as country) as stage-set can be seen as a brilliant device for coping with a savage reality by transforming it into art. For Bernhard, the freedom born of his family’s neglect—which he interpreted as a nation’s dismissal—became more than a personal, psychological trauma: it was an artistic necessity. Utilizing the power of autobiography for something more than therapeutic confession, Bernhard managed to connect his personal suffering to the sickness of an entire society.
Even in his earliest novels, he had already begun to use the metaphors of physical and mental illness to explore the decay of his homeland. Gargoyles, a dark, broken bildungsroman, was the first of Bernhard’s novels to be translated and the first to gain him national recognition. Set in the haunting fairy-tale landscape of rural Austria, the narrator is a young man home from university who follows his father, a country doctor, on his rounds through the area surrounding a remote mountain gorge. Each patient they visit suffers from a different nightmarish ailment by which the father means to expose the boy—an idealistic student of science and rationality—to the ubiquity of sickness, brutality, and death. “It would be wrong to refuse to face the fact,” his father cautions him, “that everything is fundamentally sick and sad.” This unsentimental education in Bernhardian values culminates with a visit to Hochgobernitz castle and its owner, the mad Prince Saurau—the Hapsburg stand-in who steals the show with a hundred-page monologue about his own descent into madness and his fraught relationship with his own son, who is studying abroad. “I often think that it is my duty to write to my son in London and tell him what is awaiting him here in Hochgobernitz some day, when I am dead: cold. Isolation. Madness. Deadly monologuing.” Saurau’s chilling (and bitingly self-reflexive) list is the corrupt inheritance that awaits the sons of Austria’s grand monarchial tradition.
In Correction, rightly characterized by Honegger as the apex of Bernhard’s early career (and the novel that gained him international praise), Bernhard continues to dramatize the problems of inheritance. The novel begins, as most of Bernhard’s novels do, with a corpse. In building his beloved sister a perfectly conical house, the central character Roithamer (modeled on Ludwig Wittgenstein) unwittingly drives her to suicide—and subsequently kills himself. The narrator, a childhood friend and admirer of Roithamer, has been put in charge of cataloguing his posthumous papers. In the second half of the book, we read over his shoulder as he organizes Roithamer’s long tract on his hometown entitled “Altensam, and everything connected to it,”—which becomes, ironically, a record of his struggle for survival against his origin and inheritance, his “sudden awakening against Altensam and everything connected with Altensam.”
In contrast to Gargoyles, Correction is focused less on portraying the malignancy of Austrian society than on enacting the struggle of a unique individual against that society. This shift required a stylistic transformation—one which would afford the both writer and speaker (who spends much of the novel locked in the small bedroom of his dead friend) the space to breathe. As Prince Saurau remarks in Gargoyles, “The feeling that permits a person to elude death for a longer or shorter period—we have it often—has for me become crudely stapled together with long sentences, comprehensible or incomprehensible ones.”
Having dispensed with the simple, episodic structure of Gargoyles,Bernhard chose to stage the central conflict of Correctioncompletely in Roithamer’s own mind: “Society doesn’t think,” Roithamer writes, “because it hates thinking, which is alien to its nature, more than anything.” This emphasis on abstraction and the movements of consciousness over more traditional representational and narrative language coincided with a technical innovation that would establish Bernhard’s patented prose style: long, winding sentences that circle back on (and correct) themselves. This style, as Honegger points out, could not have developed without the author’s confident use of dramatic techniques in his prose. In a 1975 letter, Bernhard wrote:
As a former and lifelong so-called acting student, I have always been interested only in writing for actors against the audience, as I always did everything against the audience, against my readers or my spectators, in order to save myself, to discipline myself to the utmost, highest degree of my capacities.
As Bernhard learned from Brecht (on whom he wrote an early critical piece), conflict—between actors and audience—is the essence of drama. And Bernhard’s disposal of narrative inCorrection almost completely shifts the burden of embodying this conflict onto his prose style. Juxtaposing multiple layers of reference and multiple, contradictory perspectives (Roithamer’s and the narrator’s), Bernhard achieves a state of stylistic dissonance within each sentence: “Peace is not life, Roithamer wrote, perfect peace is death, as Pascal said, wrote Roithamer.”
This formal enactment of conflict and irresolution is the most characteristic feature of Bernhard’s prose. Moreover, Bernhard’s style embodies the life—the possibility of life—that his work offers the individual: “when we think, we know nothing, everything is open, nothing, so Roithamer.” Ultimately, we are doomed to lose the struggle; but to deny the timeless, redemptive quality of art—as Bernhard, the unrelenting critic of religion, surely would—is not to renounce its efficacy and usefulness. By creating a space in which individual thought converges with the physical world, art does help us live:
We enter a world which precedes us but is not made for us, and we have to cope with this world…but if we survive…we must take care to turn this world, which was a given world but not made for us or ready for us, a world which is all set in any case, because it was made by our predecessors, to attack us and ruin us and finally destroy us, nothing else, we must turn it into a world to suit our own ideas, acting first behind the scenes, inconspicuously, but then with all our might and quite openly, so that we can say after a while that we’re living in our own world, not in some previous world, one that is always bound to be of no concern to us and intent upon ruining and destroying us.
Near the end of her biography, Honegger notes that since his death Bernhard has become a boon to Austria’s tourist industry: small country towns now display rooms the mysterious author slept in, and employees tell anecdotes about serving him breakfast or shining his shoes. Like the rumors that circulated during Bernhard’s lifetime, these are failed attempts to approach the inner life of an artist who sought to continually reveal our inability to know one another, whatever public facts we may have at our disposal. More than anything else, this continual reproduction of Bernhard memorabilia, like Bernhard’s own reproduction of himself throughout his lifetime, will only continue to cloud our vision of a writer who managed to pour his life out on the page, and at the same time, continually disappear.
1 Recently, several new books have appeared in Austria that include a good deal of Bernhard’s private material: his drafts, notes for poems, letters, fragments of unpublished works, even a daily diary kept by one of his close friends. For a review of these books, see Leo Lensing, “Unfavourite Son,” Times Literary Supplement, 5 October 2001.
2 The relationship between the Bernhard’s work and Beckett’s—particularly whether their similarities constitute an actual influence or mere affinities—has been discussed by a number of critics. Robert Craft aptly described the writers as two sides of the same coin. See “The Comedian of Horror,” New York Review of Books, 27 September 1990.