from Thomas Bernhard’s Frost (Knopf, 2006)

“The landlady is disgusting to me. It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse. If she were dead I would, today, feel no disgust—dead bodies on the dissecting table never remind me of live bodies—but she’s alive, and living in a moldy ancient reek of inn kitchens.”

First published in German in 1963, and translated a few years ago by the fine poet Michael Hofmann, Frost may be the bleakest of all of Bernhard’s works, which is of course really saying something.

The unnamed narrator, a young medical student, is assigned by his boss to observe the boss’ brother, the eccentric painter Strauch. The painter abandoned Vienna for the dismal alpine village of Weng, with its “climate that engenders embolisms” and depraved local populace. The narrator’s first order of business is to take a room at the local inn, where the foul landlady trades sex for dog meat (her husband is away, imprisoned for killing a guest).

Strauch, it turns out, no longer paints, preferring to read Pascal, which perhaps accounts for his talent at producing gnomic and often depressing utterances, such as “People always say: the mountain reaches up into heaven. They never say: the mountain reaches down into hell.”

Not surprisingly, the narrator quickly becomes unhinged . . .

First Day

A medical internship consists of more than spectating at complicated bowel operations, cutting open stomach linings, bracketing off lungs, and sawing off feet; and it doesn’t just consist of thumbing closed the eyes of the dead, and hauling babies out into the world either. An internship is not just tossing limbs and parts of limbs over your shoulder into an enamel bucket. Nor does it just consist of trotting along behind the registrar and the assistant and the assistant’s assistant, a sort of tail-end Charlie. Nor can an internship be only the putting out of false information; it isn’t just saying: “The pus will dissolve in your bloodstream, and you’ll soon be restored to perfect health.” Or a hundred other such lies. Not just: “It’ll get better”—when nothing will. An internship isn’t just an academy of scissors and thread, of tying off and pulling through. An internship extends to circumstances and possibilities that have nothing to do with the flesh. My mission to observe the painter Strauch compels me to think about precisely such non-flesh-related circumstances and issues. The exploration of something unfathomably mysterious. The making of sometimes very far-reaching discoveries. The way you might investigate a conspiracy, say. And it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, by which I don’t mean the soul—that what is non-flesh-related, without being the soul, of which I can’t say for certain whether it exists, though I must say I assume it does, that this thousand-year-old working assumption is a thousand-year-old truth—but it is perfectly possible that the non-flesh-related, which is to say, the non-cell-based, is the thing from which everything takes its being, and not the other way round, nor yet some sort of interdependence. Continue reading

“instead of facing life’s realities, we bury ourselves in mysticism and sex”

the great gary indiana on the saintly thomas bernhard

“an honesty practically unheard of in contemporary writing, since contemporary writing avoids all necessary cruelty and specializes in gratuitous cruelty, especially where this topic of one’s family is concerned . . . “

Saint Bernhard

by Gary Indiana

I looked forward to Thomas Bernhard‘s final novel with morbid anticipation. It arrives six years after his death, for which it seemed every book was an elaborate, nattering, malcontented, euphoric, excoriating rehearsal, a last gasp of disgust at the modern world, Austria, National Socialism, the Catholic Church, received ideas, capitalism, socialism, the middle class, the upper class, the proletariat, nature, urbanism, pastoralism, philistinism, artists, and first and foremost himself. Along with Witold Gombrowicz, after whom he named the mad Prince’s gardener in Gargoyles, Bernhard had been my decisive aesthetic and mental influence among 20th-century writers. He revealed the shrunken, petty, deformed condition of human beings as the modern world transformed them into things.

I always read this Bernhard with relief. Even though he was in Austria and not America, even though he wrote of Austria’s hideousness instead of America’s hideousness, even though he continually provoked and ridiculed the so-called cultural elite of Austria and not the so-called cultural elite of America, I felt grateful that someone, somewhere, could write exactly as he pleased with impunity, fearlessly, and that his reputation grew and grew as he became more and more disagreeable, more contrary, more intolerant of hypocrites and imbeciles. That his hatred of the state and the Catholic Church remained unassuaged, no matter how many prizes and awards were thrown at him. “No money and being pissed on,” he wrote about receiving the Grillparzer Prize, “that was intolerable “I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms,” he wrote in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, “for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him.”

I wondered, months before Extinction arrived, if it would still be possible to write something interesting about this Bernhard, whom some believed to be the greatest writer in the world, and whom others believed to be an obscure and irritating misanthrope, having made two previous attempts, once in Details, of all ridiculous places, and once in The Village Voice, because whenever I attempted to write something about Bernhard I found myself in the predicament of Rudolf, the narrator of Concrete, whose attempts to begin an essay on Mendelssohn Bartholdy have been thwarted and crushed for 20 years, by the importunate visits of his sister, for example, and then by his sudden loneliness when his sister returns to Vienna after visiting him in the country, or by his longing for the city while he’s in the country, then his conviction, in the city, that he can only write in the country. “I believed fervently,” Rudolf writes, “that I needed my sister in order to be able to start my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. And then, when she was there, I knew that I didn’t need her, that I could start work only if she wasn’t there. But now she’s gone and I’m really unable to start. At first it was because she was there, and now it’s because she isn’t. On the one hand we overrate other people, on the other we underrate them; and we constantly overrate and underrate ourselves; when we ought to overrate ourselves we underrate ourselves, and in the same way we underrate ourselves when we ought to overrate ourselves.”

Rudolf ends by saying very little about Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Concrete, though perhaps he says more than he really needs to, just as Reger, in Old Masters, says very little about Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man, the painting he’s studied every other day for 20 years in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, just as Konrad, in The Lime Works, never gets around to writing his all-important treatise on the sense of hearing, despite endless acoustical experiments on his wife, whom he finally kills with a Mannlicher carbine she kept behind her old-fashioned invalid chair in the desolation of the lime works. “Only two years ago,” Konrad says, “I was still of the opinion that the lime works would be good for my work, but now I no longer think so, now I can see that the lime works robbed me of my last chance to get my book actually written. I mean that sometimes I think, he is supposed to have told Wieser, that the lime works is precisely why I can’t write it all down, and then at other times I think that I still have a chance to get my book written down precisely because I am living at the lime works.”

Whenever a new Bernhard book appeared, I remembered that the first Bernhard novel to fall into my hands was the English edition of Concrete, for which I traded the English edition of Gombrowicz’s Operetta, a book that has vanished. I now have the French edition of Operetta, but whenever I am in England I ransack Foyle’s and all the other bookshops looking for that English version, with no luck, and of course I also recall that the person with whom I traded Operetta for Concrete is a woman I no longer talk to. A new Bernhard novel invariably reminds me of this failed relationship, so similar to Bernhard’s relationship to the so-called poet Jeannie Billroth in Woodcutters: “To think that I once loved this woman Jeannie Billroth, whom I have hated for the last twenty years, and who, also, hates me. People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives.”

As these Bernhard novels appeared one by one, I also remembered my long visits to Alter Pfarrhof, winter and summer, only a few miles across the German border from the village where Bernhard lived, not far from Wels, and Attnang-Puchheim, and the other Bavarian towns “where Catholicism waves its brainless sceptre,” as Bernhard’s grandfather put it. At that time I had many friends in Germany, and now all but a handful have committed suicide.

These suicide deaths are never far from my thoughts, especially when the books Bernhard was writing during those very years when my friends were killing themselves appear. Wittgenstein’s Nephew, for example, and The Loser, books that describe the impossibility of life, that describe the cost of living, the mental and physical toll of a few decades of disappointment, disappointment with oneself and one’s failures first of all, accompanied by the horror that is other people, the true extent of which is the only enduring surprise life has to offer, as Bernhard demonstrates, for the truth is that we always seek some acceptable level of endurable horror only to find that each time we accommodate ourselves to what we believe to be the worst that can happen this level of horror reveals itself a temporary reprieve from an even greater horror, and so on, right up to the ultimate horror of death, which supposedly releases us but is actually the biggest horror of all. We think we can dilute the horror of life by pursuing some activity, by writing books or composing music, yet everything conspires to make this activity impossible, everything stops us in our tracks, until even our wish to continue becomes an absurdity. I have always thought that Faulkner‘s Nobel lecture, with its godawful valediction that man will not only endure but prevail, is actually a sinister wish, a bit of cant unworthy of Faulkner. “I had jotted down a few sentences,” Bernhard writes of accepting the State Prize for Literature, “amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty.”

 

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“You used to be in love with these ridiculous, low, vicious people”

thomas bernhard on love & hate 


You used to be in love with these ridiculous people, I told myself as I sat in the wing chair, head in heels in love with these ridiculous, low, vicious people, who suddenly saw you again after twenty years, in the Graben of all places, and on the very day Joana killed herself. They came up and spoke to you and invited you to attend their artistic dinner party with the famous Burgtheater actor in the Gentzgasse. What ridiculous, vicious people they are! I thought sitting in the wing chair. And suddenly it struck me what a low ridiculous character I myself was, having accepted their invitation and nonchalantly taken my place in their wing chair as though nothing had happened – stretching out and crossing my legs and finishing off what must by now have been my third or fourth glass of champagne . . .

 
. . .
To think that I once loved this woman
Jeannie Billroth, whom I have hated for the last twenty years, and who, also, hates me. People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives.


Thomas Bernhard, Woodcutters (1984)

 

thomas bernhard on literary scholarship

Bookseller Photo 

Character Assassination

 

Two philosophers, about whom more has been written than they themselves have published, who met again — after not seeing one another for decades — in, of all places, Goethe’s house in Weimar, to which they had gone, in the nature of things, separately and from opposite directions — something that, since it was winter and consequently very cold, had presented the greatest difficulties to both of them — simple for the purpose of getting to know Goethe’s habits better, assured each other, at this unexpected and for both of them painful meeting, of their mutual respect and admiration and at the same time told each other that, once back home, they would immerse themselves in each other’s writings with the intensity appropriate to, and worthy of, those writings. When, however, one of them said he would give an account of his meeting in the Goethe House in the newspaper that was, in his opinion, the best and would do so, in the nature ofthings, in the form of a philosophical essay, the other immediately resisted the idea and characterized his colleague’s intention as character assassination.

 

—from Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, University of Chicago Press, 1997
 

more from handke’s memoir of his mother


Shortly before I was born, my mother married a German army sergeant, who had been COURTING her for some time and didn’t mind her having a child by someone else. "It’s this one or none!" he had decided the first time he laid eyes on her, and bet his buddies that he would get her or, conversely, that she would take him. She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father); for the first time in her life she let herself be intimidated and laughed rather less. Besides, it impressed her that someone should have taken a shine to her.

"Anyway, I figured he’d be killed in the war," she told me. "But then all of a sudden I started worrying about him."

In any case, she was now entitled to a family allotment. With the child she went to Berlin to stay with her husband’s parents. They tolerated her. When the first bombs fell, she went back home—the old story. She began to laugh again, sometimes so loudly that everyone cringed.

She forgot her husband, squeezed her child so hard that it cried, and kept to herself in this house where, after the death of her brothers, those who remained looked uncomprehendingly through one another. Was there, then, nothing more? Had that been all? Masses for the dead, childhood diseases, drawn curtains, corre­spondence with old acquaintances of carefree days, making herself useful in the kitchen and in the fields, running out now and then to move the child into the shade; then, even here in the country, air-raid sirens, the population scrambling into the cave shelters, the first bomb crater, later used for children’s games and as a garbage dump.

The days were haunted, and once again the outside world, which years of daily contact had wrested from the nightmares of childhood and made familiar, became an impalpable ghost.

My mother looked on in wide-eyed astonishment. Fear didn’t get the better of her; but sometimes, infected by the general fright, she would burst into a sudden laugh, partly because she was ashamed that her body had suddenly made itself so churlishly independent. In her childhood and even more so in her young girlhood, "Aren’t you ashamed?" or "You ought to be ashamed!" had rung in her ears like a litany. In this rural, Catholic environ­ment, any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence: disapproving looks, until shame, at first acted out in fun, became real and frightened away the most elementary feelings. Even in joy, a "woman’s blush," because joy was something to be ashamed of; in sadness, she turned red rather than pale and instead of bursting into tears broke out in sweat.

In the city my mother had thought she had found a way of life that more or less suited her, that at least made her feel good. Now she came to realize that by excluding every other alternative, other people’s way of life had set itself up as the one and only hope of salvation. When, in speaking of herself, she went beyond a state­ment of fact, she was silenced by a glance.

A bit of gaiety, a dance step while working, the humming of a song hit, were foolishness, and soon she herself thought so, because no one reacted and she was left alone with her gaiety. In part, the others lived their own lives as an example; they ate so little as an example, were silent in each other’s presence as an example, and went to confession only to remind the stay-at-homes of their sins. And so she was starved. Her little attempts to explain herself were futile mutterings. She felt free—but there was nothing she could do about it. The others, to be sure, were children; but it was oppressive to be looked at so reproachfully, especially by children.

When the war was over, my mother remembered her husband and, though no one had asked for her, went to Berlin. Her husband, who had also forgotten that he had once courted her on a bet, was living with a girl friend in Berlin; after all, there had been a war on.

But she had her child with her, and without enthusiasm they both took the path of duty.

They lived in a sublet room in Berlin-Pankow. The husband worked as a streetcar motorman and drank, worked as a streetcar conductor and drank, worked as a baker and drank. Taking with her her second child, who had been born in the meantime, his wife went to see his employer and begged him to give her husband one more chance, the old story.

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything.

They went out a good deal, an attractive couple. When he was drunk, he got FRESH and she had to be SEVERE with him. Then he would beat her because she had nothing to say to him, when it was he who brought home the bacon.

Without his knowledge, she gave herself an abortion with a knitting needle.

For a time he lived with his parents; then they sent him back to her. Childhood memories: the fresh bread that he sometimes brought home; the black, fatty loaves of pumpernickel around which the dismal room blossomed into life; my mother’s words of praise.

In general, these memories are inhabited more by things than by people: a dancing top in a deserted street amid ruins, oat flakes in a sugar spoon, gray mucus in a tin spittoon with a Russian trademark; of people, only separated parts: hair, cheeks, knotted scars on fingers; from her childhood days my mother had a swollen scar on her index finger; I held on to it when I walked beside her.

 

* * *

 

And so she was nothing and never would be anything; it was so obvious that there was no need of a forecast. She already said "in my day," though she was not yet thirty. Until then, she hadn’t resigned herself, but now life became so hard that for the first time she had to listen to reason. She listened to reason, but understood nothing.

She had already begun to work something out and even, as far as possible, to live accordingly. She said to herself: "Be sensible"—the reason reflex—and "All right, I’ll behave."

And so she budgeted herself and also learned to budget people and objects, though on that score there was little to be learned: the people in her life—her husband, whom she couldn’t talk to, and her children, whom she couldn’t yet talk to—hardly counted, and objects were available only in minimal quantities. Consequently, she became petty and niggardly: Sunday shoes were not to be worn on weekdays, street clothes were to be hung up as soon as you got home, her shopping bag wasn’t a toy, the warm bread was for the next day. (Later on, my confirmation watch was locked up right after my confirmation.)

Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy. She hid her touchiness behind an anxious, exaggerated dignity, but at the slightest provo­cation a defenseless, panic-stricken look shone through. She was easily humiliated.

Like her father, she thought the time had come to deny herself everything, but then with a shamefaced laugh she would ask the children to let her lick their candy.

The neighbors liked her and admired her for her Austrian sociability and gaiety; they thought her FRANK and SIMPLE, not coquettish and affected like city people; there was no fault to be found with her.

She also got on well with the Russians, because she could make herself understood in Slovenian. With them she talked and talked, saying everything she was able to say in the words common to both languages; that unburdened her.

But she never had any desire for an affair. Her heart had grown heavy too soon: the shame that had always been preached at her and finally become a part of her. An affair, to her mind, could only mean someone "wanting something" of her, and that put her off; she, after all, didn’t want anything of anybody. The men she later liked to be with were GENTLEMEN: their company gave her a pleasant feeling that took the place of affection. As long as there was someone to talk with, she felt relaxed and almost happy. She let no one come too close; she could have been approached only with the delicacy which in former days had enabled her to feel that she belonged to herself—but that was long ago; she remembered it only in her dreams.

She became sexless; everything went into the trivia of daily life.

She wasn’t lonely; at most, she sensed that she was only a half. But there was no one to supply the other half. "We rounded each other out so well," she said, thinking back on her days with the savings-bank clerk; that was her ideal of eternal love.

 

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the opening of peter handke’s memoir of his mother

A SORROW BEYOND DREAMS    A LIFE STORY

 PETER HANDKE 

 

Random House sez, and I see no reason to differ with them: Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human anymore.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams her son sits down to record what he knows, or thinks he knows, about his mother’s life and death before, in his words, “the dull speechlessness—the extreme speechlessness” of grief takes hold forever. And yet the experience of speechlessness, as it marks both suffering and love, lies at the heart of Handke’s brief but unforgettable elegy. This austere, scrupulous, and deeply moving book is one of the finest achievements of a great contemporary writer. 

 

 

 He not busy being born is busy dying.  

BOB DYLAN

 

Dusk was falling quickly. It was just after 7 p.m., and the month was October. 

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH, A Dog’s Ransom  

 

My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide. Yes, get to work: for,, intensely as I sometimes feel the need to write about my mother, this need is so vague that if I didn’t work at it I would, in my present state of mind, just sit at my typewriter pounding out the same letters over and over again. This sort of kinetic therapy alone would do me no good: it would only make me passive and apathetic. I might just as well take a trip—if I were traveling, my mindless dozing and lounging around wouldn’t get on my nerves so much. 

During the last few weeks I have been more irritable than usual; disorder, cold, and silence drive me to distraction; I can’t see a bread crumb or a bit of fluff on the floor without bending down to pick it up. Thinking about this suicide, I become so insensible that I am sometimes startled to find that an object I have been holding hasn’t fallen out of my hand. Yet I long for such moments, because they shake me out of my apathy and clear my head. My sense of horror makes me feel better: at last my boredom is gone; an unresisting body, no more exhausting distances, a painless passage of time. 

The worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathizer short, because I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. If anyone talks to me about it, the boredom comes back, and everything is unreal again. Nevertheless, for no reason at all, I sometimes tell people about my mother’s suicide, but if they dare to mention it I am furious. What I really want them to do is change the subject and tease me about something. 

In his latest movie someone asks JamesBond whether his enemy, whom he has just thrown over a stair rail, is dead. His answer—”Let’s hope so!”—made me laugh with relief. Jokes about dying and being dead don’t bother me at all; on the contrary, they make me feel good. 

Actually, my moments of horror are brief, and what I feel is not so much horror as unreality; seconds later, the world closes in again, and if someone is with me I try to be especially attentive, as though I had just been rude. 

Now that I’ve begun to write, these states seem to have dwin­dled and passed, probably because I try to describe them as accurately as possible. In describing them, I begin to remember them as belonging to a concluded period of my life, and the effort of remembering and formulating keeps me so busy that the short daydreams of the last few weeks have stopped. I look back on them as intermittent “states”: suddenly my day-to-day world—which, after all, consists only of images repeated ad nauseam over a period of years and decades since they were new—fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.

That is over now; I no longer fall into these states. When I write, I necessarily write about the past, about something which, at least while I am writing, is behind me. As usual when engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine. I am writing the story of my mother, first of all because I think I know more about her and how she came to her death than any outside investigator who might, with the help of a religious, psychologi­cal, or sociological guide to the interpretation of dreams, arrive at a facile explanation of this interesting case of suicide; but second in my own interest, because having something to do brings me back to life; and lastly because, like an outside investigator, though in a different way, I would like to represent this VOLUNTARY DEATH as an exemplary case.

Of course, all these justifications are arbitrary and could just as well be replaced by others that would be equally arbitrary. In any case, I experienced moments of extreme speechlessness and needed to formulate them—the motive that has led men to write from time immemorial.

In my mother’s pocketbook, when I arrived for the funeral, I found a post-office receipt for a registered letter bearing the num­ber 432. On Friday afternoon, before going home and taking the sleeping pills, she had mailed a registered letter containing a copy of her will to my address in Frankfurt. (But why also SPECIAL DELIVERY?) On Monday I went to the same post office to tele­phone. That was two and a half days after her death. On the desk in front of the post-office clerk, I saw the yellow roll of registration stickers; nine more registered letters had been mailed over the weekend; the next number was 442, and this image was so similar to the number I had in my head that at first glance I became confused and thought for a moment nothing had happened. The desire to tell someone about it cheered me up. It was such a bright day; the snow; we were eating soup with liver dumplings; “it began with …”; if I started like this, it would all seem to be made up, I would not be extorting personal sympathy from my listener or reader, I would merely be telling him a rather fantastic story.

 

* * *

 

Well then, it began with my mother being born more than fifty years ago in the same village where she died. At that time all the land that was good for anything in the region belonged either to the church or to noble landowners; part of it was leased to the population, which consisted mostly of artisans and small peasants. The general indigence was such that few peasants owned their land. For practical purposes, the conditions were the same as before 1848; serfdom had been abolished in a merely formal sense. My grandfather—he is still living, aged eighty-six—was a carpenter; in addition, he and his wife worked a few acres of rented farm and pasture land. He was of Slovenian descent and illegitimate. Most of the children born to small peasants in those days were illegiti­mate, because, years after attaining sexual maturity, few small peasants were in possession of living quarters or the means to support a household. His mother was the daughter of a rather well-to-do peasant, who, however, never regarded his hired man, my grandfather’s father, as anything more than the “baby-maker.” Nevertheless, my grandfather’s mother inherited money enough to buy a small farm.

And so it came about that my grandfather was the first of his line—generations of hired men with blanks in their baptismal certificates, who had been born and who died in other people’s houses and left little or no inheritance because their one and only possession, their Sunday suit, hadbeen lowered into the grave with them—to grow up in surroundings where he could really feel at home and who was not merely tolerated in return for his daily toil.

Recently the financial section of one of our newspapers carried an apologia for the economic principles of the Western world. Property, it said, was MATERIALIZED FREEDOM. This may in his time have been true of my grandfather, the first in a long line of peasants fettered by poverty to own anything at all, let alone a house and a piece of land. The consciousness of owning something had so liberating an effect that after generations of will-lessness a will could now make its appearance: the will to become still freer. And that meant only one thing—justifiably so for my grandfather in his situation—to enlarge his property, for the farm he started out with was so small that nearly all his labors went into holding on to it. The ambitious smallholder’s only hope lay in saving.

So my grandfather saved, until the inflation of the twenties ate up all his savings. Then he began to save again, not only by setting aside unneeded money but also and above all by compress­ing his own needs and demanding the same frugality of his children as well; his wife, being a woman, had never so much as dreamed that any other way of life was possible.

He continued to save toward the day when his children would need SETTLEMENTS for marriage or to set themselves up in a trade. The idea that any of his savings might be spent before then on their EDUCATION couldn’t possibly have entered his head, espe­cially where his daughters were concerned. And even in his sons the centuries-old dread of becoming a homeless pauper was so deeply ingrained that one of them, who more by accident than by design had obtained a scholarship to the Gymnasium, found those unfamiliar surroundings unbearable after only a few days. He walked the thirty miles from the provincial capital at night, arriving home on a Saturday, which was housecleaning day; with­out a word he started sweeping the yard: the noise he made with his broom in the early dawn told the whole story. He became a proficient and contented carpenter.

He and his older brother were killed early in the Second World War. In the meantime, my grandfather had gone on saving and once again lost his savings in the Depression of the thirties. His saving meant that he neither drank nor smoked, and played cards only on Sunday; but even the money he won in his Sunday card games—and he played so carefully that he almost always won—went into savings; at the most, he would slip his children a bit of small change. After the war, he started saving again; today he receives a government pension and is still at it.

The surviving son, a master carpenter with twenty workers in his employ, has no need to save. He invests, which means that he can drink and gamble; in fact, it’s expected of him. Unlike his father, who all his life has been speechless and in every way self-denying, he has at least developed speech of a kind, though he uses it only in the town council, where he represents a small and obscure political party with visions of a grandiose future rooted in a grandiose past.

For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need to worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of the young men; a girl’s future was a joke.

No possibilities, it was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, brief bewilderment, then the alien, resigned look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the kitchen work, from the start not listened to, and in turn listening less and less, inner monologues, trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep, cancer of the womb, and finally, with death, destiny fulfilled. The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman’s life: Tired/Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead.

My mother was the next to last of five children. She was a good pupil; her teachers gave her the best possible marks and especially praised her neat handwriting. And then her school years were over. Learning had been a mere child’s game; once your compulsory education was completed and you began to grow up, there was no need of it. After that a girl stayed home, getting used to the staying at home that would be her future.

No fears, except for an animal fear in the dark and in storms; no changes, except for the change between heat and cold, wet and dry, comfort and discomfort.

The passage of time was marked by church festivals, slaps in the face for secret visits to the dance hall, fits of envy directed against her brothers, and the pleasure of singing in the choir. Everything else that happened in the world was a mystery; no newspapers were read except the Sunday bulletin of the diocese, and then only the serial.

Sundays: boiled beef with horseradish sauce, the card game, the women humbly sitting there, a family photograph showing the first radio.

My mother was high-spirited; in the photographs she propped her hands on her hips or put her arm over her younger brother’s shoulder. She was always laughing andseemed incapable of doing anything else.

Rain—sun; outside—inside: feminine feelings were very much dependent on the weather, because “outside” was seldom allowed to mean anything but the yard and “inside” was invariably the house, without a room of one’s own.

The climate in that region is extremely variable: cold winters and sultry summers, but at sunset or even in the shade of a tree you shivered. Rain and more rain; from early September on, whole days of damp fog outside the tiny windows (they are hardly any larger today); drops of water on the clotheslines; toads jumping across your path in the dark; gnats, bugs, and moths even in the daytime; worms and wood lice under every log in the woodshed. You couldn’t help becoming dependent on those things; there was nothing else. Seldom: desireless and somehow happy; usually: desireless and a little unhappy.

No possibility of comparison with a different way of life: richer? less hemmed in?

It began with my mother suddenly wanting something. She wanted to learn, because in learning her lessons as a child she had felt something of herself. Just as when we say, “I feel like myself.” For the first time, a desire, and she didn’t keep it to herself; she spoke of it time and time again, and in the end it became an obsession with her. My mother told me she had “begged” my grandfather to let her learn something. But it was out of the question, disposed of with a wave of the hand, unthinkable.

Still, our people had a traditional respect for accomplished facts: a pregnancy, a war, the state, ritual, and death. When at the age of fifteen or sixteen my mother ran away from home to learn cooking at some Hôtel du Lac, my grandfather let her have her own way, because she was already gone; and besides, there wasn’t much to be learned about cooking.

No other course was open to her; scullery maid, chambermaid, assistant cook, head cook. “People will always eat.” In the photo­graphs, a flushed face, glowing cheeks, arm in arm with bashful, serious-looking girl friends; she was the life of the party; self­assured gaiety (“Nothing can happen to me”); exuberant, sociable, nothing to hide.

City life: short skirts (“knee huggers”), high-heeled shoes, per­manent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of ADMIRERS, kept at a DISTANCE! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (“They weren’t my type”). Work, pleasure; heavyhearted, light­hearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio. The homesickness of those who can’t afford anything; back at the Hôtel du Lac (“I’m doing the bookkeeping now”); glowing references (“Fräulein has shown aptitude and willingness to learn. So conscientious, frank, and cheerful that we find it hard … She is leaving our establishment of her own free will”). Boat rides, all-night dances, never tired.

On April 10, 1938, the Yes to Germany! “The Führer arrived at 4:15 p.m., after a triumphal passage through the streets of Klagenfurt to the strains of the Badenweiler March. The rejoicing of the masses seemed to know no bounds. The thousands of swastika flags in the spas and summer resorts were reflected in the already ice-free waters of the Wörthersee. The airplanes of the old Reich and our native planes vied with one another in the clouds overhead.”

The newspapers advertised plebiscite badges and silk or paper flags. After football games the teams marched off with a regulation SiegHeil!” The letter A was replaced by the letter D on the bumpers of motor vehicles. On the radio: 6:15, call to arms; 6:35, motto of the day; 6:40, gymnastics; 8—12 p.m., Radio KOnigsberg: Richard Wagner concert followed by entertainment and dance music.

“How to mark your ballot on April 10: make a bold cross in the larger circle under the word YES.”

Thieves just out of jail were locked up again when they claimed that the objects found in their possession had been bought in department stores that MEANWHILE HAD GONE OUT OF EXISTENCE because they had belonged to Jews.

Demonstrations, torchlight parades, mass meetings. Buildings decorated with the new national emblem SALUTED; forests and mountain peaks DECKED THEMSELVES OUT; the historic events were represented to the rural population as a drama of nature.

“We were kind of excited,” my mother told me. For the first time, people did things together. Even the daily grind took on a festive mood, “until late into the night.” For once, everything that was strange and incomprehensible in the world took on meaning and became part of a larger context; even disagreeable, mechanical work was festive and meaningful. Your automatic movements took on an athletic quality, because you saw innumerable others making the same movements. A new life, in which you felt protected, yet free.

The rhythm became an existential ritual. “Public need before private greed, the community comes first.” You were at home wherever you went; no more homesickness. Addresses on the back of photographs; you bought your first date book (or was it a present?)—all at once you had so many friends and there was so much going on that it became possible to FORGET something. She had always wanted to be proud of something, and now, because what she was doing was somehow important, she actually was proud, not of anything in particular, but in general—a state of mind, a newly attained awareness of being alive—and she was determined never to give up that vague pride.

She still had no interest in politics: what was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics—a mas­querade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair. “Politics” was something colorless and abstract, not a carnival, not a dance, not a band in local costume, in short, nothing VISIBLE. Pomp and ceremony on all sides. And what was “politics”? A meaningless word, because, from your schoolbooks on, everything connected with politics had been dished out in catchwords unrelated to any tangible reality and even such images as were used were devoid of human content: oppression as chains or boot heel, freedom as mountaintop, the economic system as a reassuringly smoking fac­tory chimney or as a pipe enjoyed after the day’s work, the social system as a descending ladder: “Emperor-King-Nobleman-Burgher­-Peasant-Weaver/Carpenter-Beggar-Gravedigger”; a game, in­cidentally, that could be played properly only in the prolific families of peasants, carpenters, and weavers.

 

* * *

 

That period helped my mother to come out of her shell and become independent. She acquired a presence and lost her last fear of human contact: her hat awry, because a young fellow was pressing his head against hers, while she merely laughed into the camera with an expression of self-satisfaction. (The fiction that photographs can “tell us” anything—but isn’t all formulation, even of things that have really happened, more or less a fiction? Less, if we content ourselves with a mere record of events; more, if we try to formulate in depth? And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulations than with recorded facts. Does this explain the need for poetry? “Breathless on the river­bank” is one of ThomasBernhard‘s formulations.)

 

* * *

 

The war—victory communiqués introduced by portentous music, pouring from the “people’s radio sets,” which gleamed mysteri­ously in dimly lit “holy corners”—further enhanced people’s sense of self, because it “increased the uncertainty of all circumstances” (Clausewitz)and made the day-to-day happenings that had for­merly been taken for granted seem excitingly fortuitous. For my mother the war was not a childhood nightmare that would color her whole emotional development as it did mine; more than anything else, it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders. A new feeling for distances, for how things had been BACK IN PEACETIME, and most of all for other individuals, who up until then had been confined to the shadowy roles of casual friends, dance partners, and fellow workers. And also for the first time, a family feeling: “Dear Brother … I am looking at the map to see where you might be now … Your sister …”

And in the same light of her first love: a German party member, in civilian life a savings-bank clerk, now an army paymaster, which gave him a rather special standing. She was soon in a family way. He was married, and she loved him dearly; anything he said was all right with her. She introduced him to her parents, went hiking with him, kept him company in his soldier’s loneliness.

“He was so attentive to me, and I wasn’t afraid of him the way I had been with other men.”

He did the deciding and she trailed along. Once he gave her a present—perfume. He also lent her a radio for her room and later took it away again. “At that time” he still read books, and together they read one entitled By the Fireside. On the way down from a mountain pasture on one of their hikes, they had started to run. My mother broke wind and my father reproved her; a little later he too let a fart escape him and followed it with a slight cough, hem-hem. In telling me of this incident years later, she bent double and giggled maliciously, though at the same time her conscience troubled her because she was belittling her only love. She herself thought it comical that she had once loved someone, especially a man like him. He was smaller than she, many years older, and almost bald; she walked beside him in low-heeled shoes, always at pains to adapt her step to his, her hand repeatedly slipping off his inhospitable arm; an ill-matched, ludicrous couple. And yet, twenty years later, she still longed to feel for someone what she had then felt for that savings-bank wraith. But there never was ANOTHER: everything in her life had conspired to inculcate a kind of love that remains fixated on a particular irreplaceable object.

It was after graduating from the Gymnasium that I first saw my father: on his way to the rendezvous, he chanced to come toward me in the street; he was wearing sandals, a piece of paper was folded over his sunburned nose, and he was leading a collie on a leash. Then, in a small café in her home village, he met his former love; my mother was excited, my father embarrassed; standing by the jukebox at the other end of the café, I picked out ElvisPresley‘s “Devil in Disguise.” My mother’s husband had got wind of all this, but he had merely sent his youngest son to the café as an indication that he was in the know. After buying himself an ice-cream cone, the child stood next to his mother and the stranger, asking her from time to time, always in the same words, if she was going home soon. My father put sunglasses over his regular glasses, said something now and then to the dog, and finally announced that he “might as well” pay up. “No, no, it’s on me,” he said, when my mother also took her purse out of her handbag. On the trip we took together, the two of us wrote her a postcard. In every hotel we went to, he let it be known that I was his son, for fear we’d be taken for homosexuals (Article 175). Life had disappointed him, he had become more and more lonely. “Now that I know people, I’ve come to appreciate animals,” he said, not quite in earnest of course.

 

mourning thomas bernard the austrian way: “commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead…”

"Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not perform anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think. There is enough to think about. ”

Stock Photo  

 

Marlene Streeruwitz

"Perverted Attitudes of Mourning in the Wake of Thomas Bernhard’s Death”

 

. . . und jetzt auch schon in der Gewohnheit, selbst das Fürchterliche als

eine leicht zu verarbeitende Alltäglichkeit hinter mich zu bringen, ein

Meister, hatte ich alle Voraussetzungen, über das, was ich immer ein-

dringlicher zu beobachten hatte, nachzudenken und mir sozusagen als

willkommene Anschauung viele dazu geeignete Anschauungen oder

Vorkommnisse zu einem lehrreichen Studiengegenstand zu machen.

Thomas Bernhard, Der Atem, 1978

 

 

Object of Study: Number One

 

A MUSIC TEACHER AT A VENNESE HIGH SCHOOL says, he knew him,

the master, very well indeed, and met him, Thomas Bernhard, fre-

quently. In the café Bräunerhof. And took pictures, pictures that he,

the master, liked very much, just as much as the poet had always en-

joyed meeting him. And now he, the music teacher, was going to put

together a book of these pictures. A book about the master, about

Thomas Bernhard. And he, the music teacher, was going to become

famous with this book. World-famous. Of course.

 

The work of mourning is a difficult, existential process and painful.

It is a laborious undertaking, until all the internalized particles of the

object of mourning have been surgically removed, and it becomes all

too necessary to construe strategies for avoiding pain so as not to col-

lapse completely under the weight of a loss.

 

On the other hand, one can always infer from the manner that char-

acterizes the work of mourning of the bereft, whether the mourned

person was loved and respected. Or whether the person doing the

mourning is more at stake in all the laments, whatever they may be. In

the case of Thomas Bernhard we are the ones left behind, and for the

Austrian an additional sense accrues to belong to those people that

were cut out of Bernhard’s will. Relatives who are not to receive any-

thing, and are not worthy of a share.

 

 

Objects of Study of a Mixed Nature

 

People, whom one may have seen portrayed in one or the other plays

by Bernhard, have masses celebrated in his memory. Masses for Tho-

mas Bernhard with young nuns of the Carmelite order reading early

poems and psalms of the poet. Hopefully this helps those who attend

the mass.

 

It may also calm those who talk now about Thomas Bernhard as if

one had always been on close friendly terms, with all its shoulder-on-

shoulder implications and all its syndromes of hugging, the verandas in

the Salzkammergut and the hunting lodges with the many antlers on

the wall. But one was not on intimate terms. One always heard: “Tho-

mas, do you want some more noodle soup?” This retroactive intimacy

with its informal mode of address may help.

 

As an observer one is somewhat amazed to note how mourning op-

erates in the reverse order, how the mourned object is internalized

rather than expelled. In all honesty, one has to admit that the thought

What would he have said about it?” originates in a similar strategy of

avoiding pain as the lighthearted conversations of the salon. The sen-

tences that begin with “Thomas would have . . .,” “Here Thomas

would . . .,” “Bernhard did not . . . .”

 

Exegesis, substitute of God through citation, incantation of the per-

son for the duration of a citation, recalling the cited person back

among the living. Here lies the basic problem of all exegesis. In most

cases, we are dealing with reported statements, and for the most part

the personal opinion of the person reporting is clothed in a Thomas-

Bernhard-costume.

 

Commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead belong to

the inventory of unchanging anthropological models. The dead person

is conjured up in mass or over coffee and cake or over pork roast and

beer. Everyone has to do so according to ability and belief. The salons

in the Salzkammergut where Thomas Bernhard led serious conversa-

tions about the advantages of hand-tailored shoes serve just as well as

the site of the Bräunerhof where Thomas Bernhard had a Kleinen

Braunen and read the Neue Zürcher. And perhaps the remark “Thomas

Bernhard sat here” is well intentioned. However. The old heads of state

also sit in the salons grinning while shrugging their shoulders. After all,

they have survived. But even the triumph of the living over the dead is

rather normal in its cruelty.

 

 

The Pedagogical in All This

 

What turns this process of coping with loss into an object of study as

given in the initial citation is the common urge to make mourning

public.

 

The music teacher wants to become famous. World-famous. One

works on remembrances. Letters are written to the dead person. In in-

timate terms, of course, and the publication can no longer be held

back. Karl Hennetmair takes up two pages of the Zeit magazine. Aus-

trian broadcasting anchors and directors of the Burgtheater document

their proximity to Bernhard on pictures in which one appears together

and preferably at the Heldenplatz. Former lovers appear in rumors.

Widows have not yet been spotted.

 

If one were to place these pictures in a silver frame on the grand pi-

ano, for eternal memory, that would be a loving gesture. In the public,

these pictures turn easily into a cornering, a wanting-to-be-in-the-

picture of the bystanders. An index of one’s friendship with him. Per-

haps one should also look at this with regard to the technique of the

work of mourning. But media are never that friendly.

 

What, for example, caused Mr. Schödel (Die Zeit Nr. 32, 1989),

following immediately the advice of the photographer Rittenberg

Look at Hennetmair,” when he, as he reports, was found by him in

Switzerland, to allow Hennetmair’s rather private work of commemo-

ration turn into a public matter? Was it a question of demonstrating in

exemplary fashion how one is to cope when one’s former idol dies not

reconciled and in irreconcilable fashion and the conflict is prolonged

into eternity.

 

The falling out between Bernhard and Hennetmair stems from a se-

vere breach of trust. The publication of a description about a non-

functioning TV-set from 1972 can be seen as an act of remorse and an

attempt to be excused by handing it over to the public. Also the remark

of Schödel “Yes. I was a guest at the Weltverbesserer” can be interpreted

as severe breach of trust, yet an understandable case of the biographical

method and again as Schödel’s work of mourning. This has nothing to

do with Thomas Bernhard. Rather with yellow journalism. Even sensi-

tive and cautious sentences won’t help here. And towards the end of

the article in Die Zeit, one is drawn logically to the core of all discus-

sions about Bernhard, the author’s final will.

 

Here too, as in the quasi-citations à la “Thomas certainly would not

have . . .” the last breach of trust that can still be committed against

someone is prepared. Namely, not to respect his final decrees.

 

One refers to the brother. He announces a guided tour through

Bernhard’s estate. In doing so, one receives no longer an image of peo-

ple suffering in their state of mourning. A landscape in the hills of

Ohlsdorf emerges where journalists wander about and are served stories

and fragments of memories. Female adepts of the master, whose love

letters could not be considered during his lifetime, bathe in a post-

mortal intimate “you.” The man who helps out in the villa displays the

blue leather jacket that the master purchased in Sicily and immediately

gave away. The neighbor, from whom the master gladly accepted X-

mas cookies, now offers them. For sale, naturally. We all have to make a

living. And the famous publisher will one day place the manuscript of

the TV-set criticisms into our hand in a deluxe facsimile edition.

Ohlsdorf elevated to a site of pilgrimage. Nearby Mariazell for selected

groups. Preferably from a sentimental-melodramatic spectrum. The de-

scendants of idealistic chains of weeping.

 

Presently, we’re still searching among pieces of memory. Perhaps

somebody still owns a note where the master kept score of a game of

blackjack or jotted down scribbles and malicious caricatures of the play-

ers. As is known, one can possess the remembered person by means of

memorabilia — and not always in a non-malicious fashion. One should

bear in mind that relics, which is what we’re dealing with here, that

relics are remains and originate from either corpses or instruments of

torture.

 

In this pressing into the public, we may be dealing with the attempt

to externalize the mourned object. By means of this externalization, the

object can be transferred onto a larger and more remote context. The

mourning person surrenders and gets rid of the surrendered. Under the

pretext to make it available to everybody, yes having to do so, the sin-

gle person becomes free. Perhaps also free from feelings of guilt that

play a considerable role in the work of mourning. That this method

may involve a form of surrender which may neither look delicate nor

sensitive and may have nothing to do with the mourned person, par-

ticularly not his work, doesn’t really do much damage to our somewhat

dried-up yet still rather lavish baroque culture of mourning. We love

our dead and celebrate them.

 

We do not yet know the full scope of the planned surrender. “Only

selected groups,” says the brother. Everything else will be revealed at

upcoming book fairs. One works on the super-memorial, that much we

hear from Frankfurt.

 

In the Austrian TV talk show “Club 2,” we already had a chance to

listen to the benignly smiling notary, holding forth with examples of

the most incredible changes in wills witnessed in his professional career.

And that only a few really mean what is actually stated. And that the

true evil is that people die. And no longer have a chance to change the

will. In their fashion. How they would have wanted it originally. The

testators. But then nothing can be done about it anymore. And that

taught him not to take wills seriously anymore. And above all. Intel-

lectual property.

 

Nobody shall be embarrassed when the first play will be performed

again in Austria. Redirecting arguments via a liberal discussion round-

table à la “Club 2.”

 

One could have withdrawn after the first disclosure of the will into a

corner and reflected about what had happened that made such decrees

necessary and that were above all not changed anymore. Everybody

would have had a reason to reflect about what it was, here in this Aus-

trian world, which always required a superlative of atrocities. And peo-

ple elsewhere and in the Federal Republic of Germany could have

examined Austria, the poet and the will as a case study in what a climate

of intellectual narrowness does to a person. Others too know how to

repress, something we do so elegantly here. That can be done any-

where. By accident we were given a few centuries to master this art and

are nowadays powerless enough to possess nothing but this art. The re-

sult: extreme cruelty, unbelievable inconsiderateness and deepest mis-

ery, in Frankfurt as well as Timbuktu. An opportunity for reflection is

certainly given.

 

Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce

the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not per-

form anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think.

There is enough to think about.

 

Translated by Matthias Konzett

 

Notes

 

1Marlene Streeruwitz, “In der Gewohnheit das Fürchterliche,” Und. Sonst.

Noch. Aber. Texte. 1989–1996 (Vienna: edition Selene, 1999), 7–13.


from Matthias Konzett (editor), A Cmpanion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (2002)