Thomas Bernhard, the Alienator

For the sympathetic Anglophone charged with reviewing newly translated texts by the Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard, the task is a paradoxically onerous one. Put aside the near certainty that Bernhard would have disparaged anything you might say about his work — not just disparaged it, but attacked it with an acid-tongued rant that eviscerated your words, your intellect and your pathetic petit-bourgeois existence. You still have to deal with the almost overwhelming ambition, common to Bernhard fans, to correct his woeful stature in the English-speaking world, as well as the equally oppressive realization that opportunities for doing so are fast running out.

The 21 years since Bernhard died after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis have witnessed a slow but steady trickle of translations, including Old Masters, The Loser and Extinction, which, with Woodcutters, form a loose tetralogy (or, in the formulation of the Bernhard scholar Gitta Honegger, a classical trilogy to which Old Masters is appended as satyr play). These four books, along with “Concrete,” “Yes,” “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” and the five-volume memoir “Gathering Evidence” — oh, and the plays, the plays! — together constitute what some people, this writer included, regard as the most significant literary achievement since World War II. Despite this, Bernhard’s international reputation has never solidified in the manner of a W. G. Sebald, Christa Wolf or Peter Handke, let alone the three most recent German-language writers to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller — all of whom, one wants to say with a dash of Bernhardian bile, are vastly inferior talents when compared with the master.
All the more urgent, then, for one of those reputation-making panegyrics akin to that with which D. H. Lawrence resuscitated Herman Melville. But how to write it, when most of what’s left of Bernhard’s oeuvre would appear to be ephemera and juvenilia? Certainly it’s doubtful the two works on offer here, “My Prizes,” a slight if biting “accounting” of Bernhard’s literary awards, and “Prose,” a collection of short stories from 1967, will garner many converts. “My Prizes” (with the exception of a dozen or so pages to which I’ll return later) is essentially for the fans; the moral outrage it musters against the idea of state-sanctioned art is tepid compared with similar diatribes in the novels. And “Prose,” though published when the author was in his mid-30s, feels amateurish, perhaps because Bernhard came relatively late to literature, after a recurrence of his lung disease ended his dream of performing onstage. Like the early novels “Frost,” “Gargoyles” and “The Lime Works,” “Prose” (translated by Martin Chalmers) is most interesting, at least in hindsight, as a marker of the evolution of Bernhard’s style and sensibility. In “The Carpenter,” we encounter the line “The fault lies with the state,” which would practically become Bernhard’s mantra; in “The Cap,” there is the equally familiar narrator who feels “always close to going completely mad, but not completely mad” (which, curiously, is translated “crazy ‘but yet not completely crazy’ ” in the jacket copy). But both these and the five other pieces in “Prose” seem more like efforts at resistance to traditional narrative forms than fully realized stories.
In “My Prizes” (translated by Carol Brown Janeway), there are more consistent, and consistently Bernhardian, ­moments:
“Like me, they were all longing for death and they all, as I have already said, got their wish, . . . among them the former policeman Immervoll who was in the room next to mine and who, for as long as he was in a state to do so, came to my room every single day to play pontoon with me, he won and I lost, for weeks he won and I lost until he died and I didn’t. Both of us passionate pontoon players, we played pontoon together to kill time until it wasn’t time that was killed, it was he.”
There is George Saiko, whose “incessant articulation of his theories” about the novel “was already giving me a headache,” and Herr Piffl-Percevic (?!), the Austrian minister of art, culture and education, who “understood absolutely nothing about art and culture,” and probably nothing about education either, though it “may be” that he knew something about “calves and cows and . . . pigs,” but above all there is Bernhard himself, who says, perhaps a little too predictably, “It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all.” In almost every instance he promptly wastes his winnings — on one occasion he buys a car, on another a house — as if profligacy were the only acceptable way to dispose of such tainted funds:
“If, I thought, I want new storm windows to replace the old ones on my house which are almost totally rotted, I have to accept the prize, and so I had decided to take the Wildgans Prize and take myself off to the Löwenhöle Salon on the Schwarz­enbergplatz. I mostly thought that one should take money when it’s offered and no one should waste time fussing around over the how and the where, all these reflections are nothing but total hypocrisy and so I ordered the storm windows from my local carpenter. . . . No sensible person says no to 25,000 schillings out of a clear-blue sky, whoever offers money has money and it should be taken from him, I thought. And the Industrial Association should be ashamed of funding a prize for literature with a mere 25,000 schilling award, when they could fund it with five million schillings right there without even noticing it.”
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