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The scabrous lyricism of Thomas Bernhard
by Eric Ormsby
A review of Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian by Gitta Honegger
A review of Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, by Gitta Honegger.
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With his elongated and bulbous nose, his pockmarked cheeks and his sly ruminative glance, invariably from under half-closed lids, Thomas Bernhard seemed more a Tyrolean version of W. C. Fields than the major shit-disturber of modern German literature. I mean this quite literally: as Gitta Honegger reports in her fine new book, at the 1984 Salzburg premiere of his play Theatermacher (the English translation is misleadingly named Histrionics), an actual dung-heap, fuming and malodorous, held center-stage and served as a synecdoche for Austria itself.
In the third volume of his inimitable autobiography he writes: “All my life I have been a trouble-maker, and I shall go on being the trouble-maker my relatives always said I was… . Throughout my life my very existence has always made trouble. I have always troubled and irritated people. Everything I write, everything I do, is a source of trouble and irritation. Some people leave others in peace, while others—of whom I am one—cause them trouble and irritation.” The obsessive repetition of certain phrases —in this case, “trouble and irritation”—is typical of Bernhard’s style and is, of course, designed precisely to trouble and irritate. In his notorious interviews—he insisted on giving one at a bullfight in Madrid—he could sound positively deranged, a droll amalgam of Wittgenstein with the Katzenjammer Kids, but in his prose, that maniacal hilarity was turned to cool and lethal effect. Indeed, there is something almost sculptural in the staggering dementia of his Gargantuan sentences; as Honegger notes, the opening sentence of his story “Ja” (“Yes”) is 477 words long. But these sentences, while never really “high style,” have a careening beauty that confounds and captivates the reader.
Bernhard is not yet respectable (as Céline, and now even Jean Genet, luxuriously swaddled in the sleek leather-bound volumes of the Pléiade series, threaten to become), and that adds a certain scandalous piquancy to his appeal. I have had the experience of surprising a sudden revulsion on the faces of German speakers when I have mentioned Bernhard’s name. Beyond the irrepressible pleasures of Schadenfreude—there is always something a bit comical in the righteous indignation of others—what is it about Thomas Bernhard and his work that still elicits this queer conflicted response of fascination and disgust?
Bernhard was not simply a gadfly, a Störenfried, like Karl Kraus, but someone who unearthed, and relished unearthing, the most unsavory aspects of the national past: principally the Austrian enthusiasm for Hitler, its native son, and for the Nazis, as well as Austrian collaboration in the persecution of the Jews and other “outsiders.” Even worse, in Bernhard’s implacable view, the attitudes that made Nazism popular in Austria continued unabated in his native land. But the ultimate moral ugliness for Bernhard is that post-war Austria had become nothing more than a swindler’s paradise, a kind of corrupt and mendacious emporium (Geschäftshaus) where the lie reigns supreme and the only values are crassly mercantile.
Perhaps it is significant that there seems to be no real equivalent in German for the English term “shit-disturber,” which I used at the outset: the word doesn’t figure in German because the role is not merely verboten but virtually inconceivable: to make the private public, the hidden manifest—to breach the stricture of totschweigen (“dead silence”)—is shameful and unpardonable in Austrian and German culture. In her preface Honegger suggests the epithet Nestbeschmutzer, “someone who soils his own nest,” and no doubt many Austrians have thought of Bernhard in this way, but the term addresses only one aspect of Bernhard’s trouble-making—the embarrassment it provokes—and doesn’t do justice to the mischievous accuracy of his disturbing-stick. Certainly if the home-nest stank, Bernhard drew unflinching attention to its reek, and did so with undisguised gusto, throughout his entire career. Hardly startling then that such exposure of ugly “Austrian truths” hidden beneath a blithe Alpine sheen should arouse mingled loathing and fascination.
But Bernhard the novelist is also a master of complicity. The reader is drawn, sometimes unwillingly, into his rambling, circular monologues by the kind of coldly Cartesian zaniness they exhibit; we seem to be eavesdropping on a lunatic but one whose discourse strangely involves us. Of course, there is a certain morbid satisfaction in being made a witness to his demolition of those staid yet lubricious Viennese facades, all that shrill gaiety, those cupolas of Schlagsahne, that lacy fretwork of waltzes; in reading Bernhard, it is as though we were observing a canny street-rat assaulting a Sachertorte. For the fraudulence of the light-hearted Viennese myth—indeed, the Austrian self-myth—has never been so relentlessly and savagely exploded as in Bernhard’s plays, stories, and novels. Of course, Bernhard’s ferocity towards his native land and his compatriots is so vehement because he is himself secretly tinged by the very vices he castigates and because, more shaming still, there is a drastic attachment, a kind of poisonous affection, in the ties that lash him to his Heimat, his home.
Bernhard is one of those singular writers who seem almost to elect their readers. I know because I found myself quite unexpectedly under his spell some years ago. While living in Prague I formed the habit of spending the afternoons at the Goethe Institute on the right bank of the Vltava; there, in a palatial nineteenth-century building, I could browse through the entire range of German and Austrian literature and there too, one day, I came across Bernhard’s last novel, aptly entitled Extinction (Auslöschung). From the first elephantine yet nimble sentences I was spellbound. Not long after I began to read Bernhard’s autobiography, arguably his masterpiece, and from the first sentence I knew that I had come across a “kindred spirit.”
In the third volume of the autobiography, Der Keller (The Cellar), Bernhard describes how his life changed when he decided, as a schoolboy, to go “in the opposite direction” (die entgegengesetzte Richtung) from his Gymnasium one morning. He found himself in the meanest quarter of Salzberg, the Scherzhauserfeld Project, amid drunks, the disabled, the unemployable, the outcasts of proper Austrian society—those very “lowlifes,” in fact, whom the Nazis had sought to exterminate—and he promptly took a job as an apprentice in a cellar-store. This was his liberation and the beginning of his true life. As I read I felt a kinship with the adolescent Bernhard. I too had once gone in “the opposite direction,” leaving Columbia University and a full scholarship abruptly in 1960 to work in a succession of menial jobs: messenger, short-order cook, busboy, dog washer. And I too had felt liberated by my sudden immersion in what I then thought of as “the real world.” I recognized the exuberance the young Bernhard felt in his new milieu, and I also understood the fascinated compassion he came to experience among his new acquaintances, a compassion that grew as he himself entered ever more into these other lives so starkly different from his own, a sympathy, it must be said, complicated by his own deepening entanglement in the workaday world of a despised slum.
In fact, it is Bernhard’s hard, clear-eyed compassion which finally makes of him, in my estimation at least, a writer of lasting significance and depth. His scathing antics, the well-nigh hysterical hilarity of much of his writing, his unmitigated denunciations of the fraud and mendacity of Austrian post-war society, the magic intricacy of his prose—all these make him a writer to be reckoned with, in the long cantankerous line of Austrian cranks of genius, Karl Kraus again, or the sublimely goofy Nestroy. I cannot help wondering too (though Honegger says nothing about this) whether Bernhard was not stylistically influenced by the fantastic verbal hijinx of his compatriot, the eccentric novelist and artist Fritz von Herzmanovski- Orlando, virtually unknown outside Austria (where his works have now appeared in ten stout volumes). What Honegger terms “Bernhard-speak,” that inimitable amalgam of scabrous lyricism, may have had its genesis in Herzmanovsky-Orlando’s mordant wordplay (though Bernhard surely would have loathed that rumbustious scribbler’s life-long anti-Semitism). Still, verbal agility aside, it is the fellow-feeling which permeates Bernhard’s work, and especially his empathy with the poor, the despised, the forgotten, the failures and misfits, that gives his writing a half-hidden tenderness made even more piercing by his fury.
Though Bernhard professed a distaste for nature and the countryside, he was also fiercely drawn to both, as his poetry attests. And the stubborn earthiness of his prose, coupled with his flair for pungent invective, may owe something to his rural origins. In an early poem, “My Great-Grandfather Was a Lard-Dealer,” Bernhard revealed both his closeness to his country background and his distance from it. The poem, in my own rough-and-ready translation, reads:
The poem is at once reverent and sardonic. The great-grandfather “decided in favor of life” (entschied er sich für das Leben), perhaps in tacit contrast to his more tormented descendant, but he was also a “lard-dealer” (Schmalzhändler): Schmalz is not only pork fat or drippings but, as every New Yorker knows, whatever is coyly mawkish, sloppily sentimental; for all his implicit insubstantiality, the great-grandson has a sharp bite. The final word of the poem, the untranslatable plural noun Verzweiflungen (“despairs”), an airy nothing of a word, is, however, set against the earthy solidity of the pig-grease his ancestor dealt in, and specifically against the unctuous thickness of the phrase kein Stück Speck.
The great-grandfather is one of many elders in Bernhard’s work, like the dogged but ultimately defeated grandfather of the autobiography who works day after day at 3 A.M.—the time rings like a refrain through Bernhard’s account—at his novel The Valley of the Seven Courts “which he planned as a book of five hundred manuscript pages.” Nothing could better display the close strands of affection which bound grandfather and grandson than the 1937 photograph of the two of them sitting side by side on the grass beneath a massive oak tree; the grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler (himself a local author of some renown), wears a crisp Panama hat and leans forward indulgently to listen to young Thomas who already as a six-year old has an intent and quizzical mien. (The photo is reproduced in Kurt Hoffmann’s Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard, the record of a twelve-year series of interviews concluded only by Bernhard’s death in 1989.)
Fortunately, most of Bernhard’s novels, and a number of his plays, are available in English from the University of Chicago Press, all in excellent translations and attractive formats (the series is continuing, with three of his novellas forthcoming this spring). These, together with Honegger’s new study, easily the best introduction in English, give the reader without German a marvelous entrée to this strange and difficult author. Honegger knows Bernhard’s entire oeuvre in impressive detail, including not only poetry, prose, and drama, but interviews, videos, and other published sources (Bernhard’s correspondence and his papers are still unavailable and remain, as Honegger puts it, “under the (tight) control of a few Austrian scholars”). Austrian-born herself and a distinguished “dramaturg” (a position she held both at Yale and at the Catholic University of America), she has an especially fine feel for Bernhard’s theater. She is equally astute and clear-sighted in pursuit of her exceedingly slippery subject, delighting in his contradictions but rarely blinded by them; she did have the advantage— or perhaps, for a biographer, the disadvantage—of knowing Bernhard well during the last ten years of his life. The book is as much about modern Austria as about its most famous bad boy and Honegger’s valuable digressions, which she groups under the heading “Heimat” or “excursions,” set Bernhard solidly in his native context. Honegger writes well and often quite wittily. Thus, in describing Bernhard’s grandfather, she can speak of his “spirit of horny rebellion;” she is also good in deciphering various untranslatable Austrian locutions, for example, the term Lebensmensch—more than “companion,” the compound denotes a lifelong relationship with an intimate “endowed with moral depth.” Bernhard used the word to characterize Hedwig Stavianicek, “an elegant, no-nonsense woman from an old officer’s family,” who sheltered and protected Bernhard in her own apartment for decades, despite a thirty-year difference in their ages (Bernhard was only nineteen when he came under her wing). At the same time, Honegger is admirably discreet about her subject’s private life and refrains from regaling us with any lurid discussions of his oft-alleged homosexuality. In addition she has selected an array of wonderful photographs which bring Bernhard and his milieu immediately alive.
Honegger is also good on Bernhard’s vexed and tangled relations with certain exemplary predecessors, such as Glenn Gould and Wittgenstein. Bernhard loved music and had been formally trained as a musician and so the links with Gould are perhaps not so unexpected (Gould figures in his 1983 novel The Loser). Nevertheless, his obsession with, and immersion in, the works of his compatriot Ludwig Wittgenstein—and indeed, the whole family Wittgenstein—are another matter altogether. In Honegger’s intelligent discussion, Wittgenstein emerges as a sort of shadowy “secret sharer” to Bernhard, as though the latter’s works were partly intended as an oblique exegesis on much of the philosopher’s terse and labyrinthine thought. Easily the most entertaining part of Honegger’s study, however, deals with Paul Wittgenstein, the dapper, enigmatic and quite outrageous grand-nephew of Ludwig (and the subject of Bernhard’s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew). In her delightful excursus, Paul with his dandified shenanigans comes to seem the very prototype of those obsessive figures who play so conspicuous a part in Bernhard’s writing.
Among the seething contradictions of Bernhard’s life and work, the most intriguing is perhaps the stark contrast between his public role as self-appointed castigator of Austrian turpitude and his zealously guarded private life. This exposer of others immured his own life in an almost unbreachable secrecy. While it is to Honegger’s credit that she respects his privacy, her reticence does tantalize the reader unduly at times. Laden with every honor an outraged citizenry could bestow, Bernhard yet withheld his inmost self, and did so to the last. Did he mean to spark, or to quell, curiosity? So, too, in his notorious will, he stipulated that no performance or even publication of his work was to be allowed in Austria until the copyright had expired. Predictably enough, and as this posthumous troublemaker surely knew, his will provoked what Honegger calls “a nationwide drama of legal evasions and ethical speculations that threatens never to end.” Even in death, Bernhard headed resolutely in the opposite direction.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 February 2003, on page 64
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