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,[1] 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,...