Thomas Bernhard: Everybody’s Favorite Austrian Misanthrope

I have replaced the screen saver on my work computer with a picture of Thomas Bernhard. He will watch my desk while I am gone. He stares, remorseless, with a hint of humor and contempt, directly at me in my ergonomic chair. How long will I be able to withstand the penetrating gaze of Bernhard? Actually, I am leaving the library for a few weeks to teach at Washington University’s Summer Writing Institute, so this picture of Bernhard will be waiting, like a coiled spring inside my computer, should one of my colleagues log onto my computer by mistake, and it will be that colleague, rather than I, who will have to face the amused, slightly contemptuous, so-called steely gaze of Bernhard.

Fun Facts about Bernhard:

— He suffered from incurable tuberculosis from a young age and spent long periods of his life in santoriums and rehabilitation centers.

— He once commented, “Everything is laughable, when one thinks of death,” after receiving a minor Austrian state literature prize in 1968.

— While best known for his novels, also a playwright. Cf. his play Eve of Retirement, in which a former Nazi officer dresses up in his S.S. regalia and forces his sisters to join him in a pageant celebrating Himmler’s birthday, which was performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1980s when I was a child (man, I would love to know how that play went over!)

—  Referred to Austria as “a brutal and stupid nation … a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe.” His will stipulated that his works could not be published in Austria after his death.

Common Features of Bernhard Novel:

1. Obsessive, ranting narrator who hates Austria and suffers from lung disease.

2.  Meditations on failure.

3.  Narrator is often consumed by an endless and futile project (i.e. dissertation on Mendelssohn, labyrinthine soundscape for experimental music, architecturally strange compound built for sister in the woods)

4.  Repetitive musical style, the same phrases used again and again, often with the modifier “so-called” (Bernhard’s style is very skeptical toward language itself)

5.  Actually quite funny if your sense of humor tends toward the dark and dyspeptic.

Notable Works:

Novels: Gargoyles (1967), The Lime Works (1970), Correction (1975), The Loser (1983)

Memoirs: Gathering Evidence (1985), My Prizes (2010) all published by Knopf/Random House

A brief excerpt from Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Old Masters: A Comedy:

The perfect not only threatens us ceaselessly with our ruin, it also ruins everything that is hanging on these walls under the label masterpiece. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one of the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further. In every one of these paintings, these so-called masterpieces, I have found and uncovered a massive mistake, the failure of its creator. For over thirty years this, as you might think, infamous calculation has come out right. Not one of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter by whom, is in fact whole or perfect. That reassures me. It makes me basically happy. Only when, time and again, we have discovered that there is no such thing as the whole or the perfect are we able to live on. We cannot endure the whole or the perfect. We have to travel to Rome to discover that Saint Peter’s is a tasteless concoction, that Bernini’s altar is an architectural nonsense. We have to see the Pope face to face and personally discover that all in all he is just as helpless and grotesque a person as anyone else in order to bear it. We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. And we have to deal in the same way with the so-called great philosophers, even if they are our favorite spiritual artists, he said. After all, we do not love Pascal because he is so perfect but because he is fundamentally so helpless, just as we love Montaigne for his helplessness in lifelong searching and failing to find, and Voltaire for his helplessness. We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.

Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy

Translated by Ewald Osers

via A Piece of Monologue (Modern & Contemporary Art & Expression)

Brief Excerpt from Bernhard Interview:

Q: A publisher once…

A: What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there’s no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that’s harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can’t find them anymore. That’s the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can’t find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he’s muddled, either way they’re gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it’s either ruined or impossible to find.

Full interview here.

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