Thomas Bernhard and his Prizes
an essay review by
Gabriel Josipovici

originally published in a slightly different version
in New Statesman

My Prizes: An Accounting
by Thomas Bernhard
translated from the German
by Carol Brown Janeway
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Thomas Bernhard, Austria's greatest post-war writer, was born in Holland in 1931, the illegitimate son of a housemaid, and died in his home in Upper Austria in 1989. Because he works always at the borders of fiction and reality it is important to know something of his life. His childhood was spent mainly with his maternal grandparents near Salzburg -- his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, was a minor Austrian writer and, claimed Bernhard, one of the two key figures in his life. The other, whom he sometimes referred to as his Lebensmensch or life-companion and sometimes as his aunt, was a woman 37 years his senior, the widow of a civil servant, whom he met in a TB sanatorium in 1950. Bernhard had always had a weak chest and the deprivations of the war years, exacerbated by the lugging of sacks of potatoes from the cellar up to the grocery store where he had been apprenticed after leaving school (movingly described in his memoir of those years, The Cellar), led to his being hospitalized in 1948. His ‘aunt' helped him escape what he felt was certain death in the sanatorium, after which he briefly trained as a singer (his lungs made it impossible for him to continue), then took a job as a crime reporter, before turning to writing full time.

Bernhard wrote many of his books on extended holidays in Spain, Italy or Yugoslavia with his ‘aunt', but she did more than provide him, in the early years, with the time and space to write. In a late interview, shortly after her death, he said:

When I was alone, no matter where, I always knew this person was protecting me, giving me support…With the death of this person everything was gone. You are alone then. First you also want to die. Then you search. You had turned all the people you also had in life into something less important during your life. Then you're alone. You have to cope.

The following year he himself was dead. In his relatively short life he had produced a dozen novels, stories ranging from five lines to 50 pages, numerous plays, a remarkable autobiography in five parts, plus essays and poems. Immediately recognised as a remarkable writer, he went on to win nearly every available literary prize while being excoriated in the press for subverting Austrian values and taken to court by individuals who felt personally traduced. He responded in his lifetime by playing up to the stereotype even as he subverted it, and, after his death, by banning the performance of his plays anywhere in Austria.

At his death the whole of Europe apart from Britain (which, by contrast, took his more melancholy and humourless disciple, W.G. Sebald, to its heart), was united in its recognition of him as one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century. The Nobel Prize committee, in awarding the 2005 prize to Elfriede Jelinek, hinted at their error in not awarding it to him in his lifetime when it asserted that the prize had really been given to the whole Austrian tradition of satire and subversion that went from Nestroy to Jelinek herself.

But that is to put Bernhard in the wrong category. Jelinek, like her master Adorno, is a fierce and intelligent polemicist, but the one object to escape her attention is herself and her values. Bernhard, on the other hand, is much more unsettling because it is impossible to tell where he stands.

Take a famous passage from Old Masters, a hilarious late work recently reissued in this country.

In fact, Stifter always makes me think of Heidegger, of that ridiculous petit-bourgeois national socialist in golfing trousers. If Stifter has totally kitschified…high literature…, Heidegger, the philosopher of the Black Forest, has disastrously kitschified philosophy. Heidegger and Stifter have each for himself, in his manner, disastrously kitschified philosophy and literature… I see him always sitting on the bench in front of his house in the Black Forest, next to his wife, who, in her perverse enthusiasm for knitting, knits for him without pause stockings made of wool, shorn by herself from the backs of their very own heidegerrian sheep. Heidegger, I cannot see him otherwise than sitting on the bench in front of his Black Forest house, next to his wife who, all her life, has totally dominated him and knitted for him all his stockings and his nightcaps, and who has cooked his bread and woven his sheets and even made his sandals…

This is a powerful onslaught on Heidegger and his cult of place, but it is above all a bravura comic riff on the theme of Heidegger and the Black Forest, more Rabelais than Swift, more New York cabbie than Voltairian assassin. And of course it is not even Bernhard who is saying this but his character Reger, as reported by the narrator of Old Masters. Do we side with Reger against Heidegger? Do we laugh at Reger for his rant, and at the narrator for reporting this without comment? Do we simply sit back and enjoy the comic rhetoric? Or can we do all these things at once?

A good place to explore these questions is the little volume entitled Meine Preise, which has just been published in English. Probably completed in 1980, it languished first on Bernhard's desk and then, inexplicably, in the offices of his publisher, Suhrkamp, until 2009. It is an account, prize by prize, of the background and circumstances of reception of nine literary prizes Bernhard was awarded up to 1980, followed by some of the speeches he delivered on those occasions.

The first prize he deals with, for example, is the Grillparzer prize, awarded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences for one of his plays in 1971. Bernhard, as he tells it, has agreed to meet his aunt at a café in the centre of Vienna, so that they can proceed to the ceremony together. Arriving early, he drops into a well-known outfitters and buys himself an expensive suit, shirt and tie, which he keeps on, asking the shop to wrap up the old jeans and pullover which had been his uniform for decades. He then meets his aunt and they make their way to the prize-giving venue. People are streaming in, but no-one pays them any attention. Finally, tired of waiting for someone to come and welcome them, they make their way into the hall, which is already almost full. Bernhard spots a couple of empty seats in the middle of the tenth row, and they climb over those already seated to reach them. Now the auditorium is practically full, but something is amiss. In the front row the Secretary and the President are deep in conversation, anxiously scanning the auditorium as they do so. Suddenly the Secretary spots Bernhard and hurries down the hall towards him. Stepping in turn over the seated spectators he confronts Bernhard: What are you doing here? he says. Don't you know two places have been reserved for you in the front row? But Bernhard has decided to be difficult. No, he says, I won't come till the President himself asks me in person. Stepping once more over the spectators of row ten the Secretary returns to his place and once more confers with the President, who is now seen coming down to row ten in person. This time Bernhard and his aunt get up, climb over the seated spectators, and reach their allotted places in the front row. The ceremony gets under way. Speech follows speech, first in praise of Grillparzer, then of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Minister is asleep by now, and snoring, ‘that discreet ministerial snore known the world over.' Finally the President takes the podium and reads out a few words in praise of Bernhard, attributing to him a number of works he has never written, then hands him a certificate ‘of a tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison.' Bernhard mutters a few words of thanks, and, after the obligatory piece of music (no Austrian prize, it seems, can be awarded without the aid of Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert), the event comes to an end. Everyone stands and in the front row they talk urgently among themselves, once again ignoring Bernhard and his aunt. This is their chance to sneak away and rejoin the friends who have come to lend their support for a festive lunch in a nearby restaurant. During the course of the lunch, though, Bernhard begins to feel that his suit, far from being the perfect fit he had originally thought, is in fact too tight. Leaving his aunt and his friends, he returns to the shop where he had bought it and insists on changing it for one of a larger size. How amusing, he thinks, as he rejoins his aunt and friends, that no-one at Sir Anthony's, the outfitter's pretentious English name, is aware of the fact that the suit once again hanging up there for sale has already had a starring role in the reception of the 1971 Grillparzer Prize.

Did it really happen like this? Who knows? And, even if we did, would it make any difference? This is a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a twist in the tail, which tells us something about the pompousness and philistinism of official Austrian culture, but which is also to be savoured as we savour René Clair's filmic masterpiece, Entr'acte, or the films of Buster Keaton, as inspired surrealist buffoonery, totally dependent for its effect (which is why it was necessary to recount it in detail) on timing and a dead-pan mode of narration.

Bernhard's is a darker vision than Clair's, though. His prize speech on being awarded the Bremen Prize begins by alluding to the famous folk-tale about the musicians of Bremen, but only so as to point out that ‘fairy tales are over, the fairy tales about cities and states and all the scientific fairy tales, and all the philosophical ones…Europe, the most beautiful, is dead; this is the truth and the reality. Reality, like truth, is no fairy tale and truth has never been a fairy tale.' How to live and how to make art in a world without fairy tales, without, that is, the animating myths that have kept us going for so long, that is the question. It is not one his audience wants to hear. At the award of another prize the Minister in question gets up in the middle of his speech (much too abstract and philosophical, Bernhard is thinking to himself as he reads it), approaches him as if to wring his neck, then contents himself with rushing out, banging the door of the hall behind him.

Yet the more officialdom dislikes what he has to say, the more he will go on saying it, for saying it is his way of telling tales in a world from which tales have disappeared. The late interview from which I have already quoted is quite clear on this score:

Whatever you write it's always a catastrophe. That's the depressing thing about the fate of a writer… All you deliver is a bad, ridiculous copy of what you had imagined… It's especially hard in the German language, because that language is wooden, clumsy, disgusting. A terrible language that kills anything light and wonderful. The only thing one can do is sublimate that language with a rhythm and give it musicality.

Thank goodness for Thomas Bernhard, the most truthful, the funniest, and the most musical of writers since Marcel Proust.

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