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

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



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-



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



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



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




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)


bernhard on the art of the aphorism

I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting.”

—from Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, p. 64

“we have turned our existence into an entertainment mechanism… an artificial natural catastrophe”

"Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?) hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art out of their misery.”


Thomas Bernhard

An Introduction

By Gitta Honegger


The most unbelievable deeds reported here

took place in real life.

The most incredible conversations recorded here

were spoken word for word.


These contents are the contents of the years

preserved only in bloody dreams




The above quote is from the prologue of one of the major German language

theatre events of the seventies: Hans Hollmann’s stage version of Karl

Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, orignially performed in Basel and re-

staged this summer in Vienna, Kraus’s native city. The original work,

published in 1926, is one of the most monumental, prophetic and influential

pieces of Austrian literature, a two-volume drama, never intended for production,

dealing with events—chiefly of ordinary people and their peculiar mentality—which

led to World War I and prepared the way for Hitler and World War II.


Austria’s famous tourist image as the land of operetta, kitsch, schmaltz

and schlag becomes for those living in it, and whether intentionally or not,

living in it at least occasionally, a double-edged legacy, as infuriating and

confusing as it is inescapable and, at times, deadly. Operetta heroes and

heroines or characters fashioning themselves after those models, acting

out the tragedies of mankind, not necessarily on the highest political level,

but in their personal lives, haunt the plays of Schnitzler; they provide the

deceptively sweet facade for Odon von Horvath’s devastating humor. And if

today, after two world wars, the collapse of the Empire together with its

aristocracy and high style, and the most unspeakable atrocities committed

by operetta beaus and beauties, this mentality still persists, it seems a

macabre reconstruction of old prop-and-costume pieces from the stock

room of history, which in the case of Austria has always been a very

theatrical and a very pompous one.


This is Thomas Bernhard’s Austria. It helps understand his peculiar brand

of theatricality, intentionally frozen, mechanical, a "reconstructed" one.

Freely borrowing from other sources, his dramaturgy is deeply rooted in a

tradition which has been drained of its original life and serves now only as a

crutch, an artificial device, ultimately as "entertainment" in the sense of

diversion from the overpowering obsession with decay and death. Yet

therein lies also the paradox—another much loved, much hated trademark

of the Austrian mentality, of Austrian art: this obsession with death is in

itself the greatest diversion, the great duality of Baroque art, so perfected in

the architecture of Salzburg, where Bernhard spent much of his youth dur-

ing World War II.


Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif

throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a

sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what

is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?)

hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art

out of their misery.


I don’t go to the theatre

on principle

it is somethingquite disgusting

the theatre

wheneverI am in the theatre

I am constantlyreminded

how disgusting it is

even though I can’t explainit to myself

what makes it so disgusting

but it is disgusting

But maybeyou deal so muchwith theatre

because you are so disgusted with it.


says the General in The Hunting Party to the Writer,who turns everything he

sees into what he calls a "comedy," although the General does not agree

with this definition.


Theatre, on the other hand, is the ultimate artifice (and it always must em-

phasize its artificiality) people develop, next to other constructs, such as

science and philosophy, as a bulwark against nature, which to Bernhard is

always a brutal, decaying, dark and deadly one.


Most of Bernhard’s central characters are obsessed with such a construct.

In The Force of Habit the circus director Caribaldi forces his troupe to prac-

tice Schubert’s "Trout Quintet" for twenty-two years, even though they

never manage to get through the whole piece; in Minetti, the actor Minetti

practices passages from King Lear every day for thirty years in front of the

mirror in his sister’s attic in Dinkelsbuehl; in Immanuel Kant it is philosophy

(with the ultimate irony that this namesake of the philosopher is a contem-

porary invention, just as Minetti’s namesake, the famous German actor

Bernhard Minetti, who created many characters of Bernhard’s plays and

who also played this Minetti, is a dramatic invention, whose story has

nothing to do with the "real" Minetti’s biography). What keeps the title

character in The Utopian (Der Weltverbesserer) famous and alive is his

study dealing with the improvement of the world, which will be accom-

plished by its total destruction; the Judge, a former camp commander in

Bernhard’s latest play Eve of Retirement insists on celebrating Himmler’s

birthday year after year, for which occasion he dresses up in full SS uniform

and forces his paraplegic sister to shave her head and wear the uniform of a

camp inmate. The General in The Hunting Party is working on some uniden-

tified study, his life work. In The Fool and the Madman (Der Ignorant und der

Wahnsinnige), the doctor (and madman of the title) keeps talking about his

love of dissecting corpses while waiting in the dressing room of the famous

opera singer who is just performing the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute.

If in her case music is the last (and very Austrian) vestige for a once

possibly meaningful existence, it is in grotesque contrast to her pathetic

stock character and the play ends in (literal) darkness and chaos.


In these plays science, philosophy, art are presented as crutches to keep

the mind alive, if only on the brink of madness in the face of an unrelenting-

ly crippling, decaying nature. His first play, A Party for Boris (Ein Fest fur

Boris), deals with actual cripples. The Kind Lady, who has lost both legs

and her husband in a car accident and presently lives with Boris, also

without legs, prepares a birthday party for him and 12 other legless cripples

from the asylum next door. Between the preparations and the actual party,

a macabre dance of death, accompanied by Boris beating the drum until he

collapses dead amidst the laughter of the guests and the Kind Lady, there

is a scene of the Kind Lady returning from a costume ball where she forced

her servant to appear as a legless cripple.


The Writer of The Hunting Party says:


All the time we talk about somethingunreal

so that we can bear it


because we have turned our existence

into an entertainment mechanism

nothing but a shoddy entertainment mechanism


into an artificial natural catastrophe.


Human nature, as it presents itself, is always a theatrical one, leading back

to the tacky operetta heroes. The cast list of The Hunting Party reads like

the Dramatis Personae from an operetta: The General, the General’s Wife,

the Prince, the Princess, 3 Ministers and a servant. In The President the title

character takes a bath after barely escaping an assassin, who might have

been his son suspected of being a terrorist, while his wife is preoccupied

with the death of her dog, who suffered a heart attack during the assassina-

tion attempt. Later, the President busies himself with a mediocre young ac-

tress in Portugal, not too much concerned with the political situation, and

his wife apparently amuses herself with a butcher and a chaplain to satisfy

her physical and spiritual needs.


And, of course, the Kind Lady in her wheelchair, playing her power games in

the guise of kindness with her servant and the cripples, is easily associated

with Beckett. However, this seems less an imitation than a conscious and

legitimate quote (just as the connection between The Cherry Orchard and

the forest in The Hunting Party) in the context of Bernhard’s use of pre-

existing theatrical images and themes to construct a world which is

theatrical inasmuch as it employs all available devices, "ready-mades," to

animate the process that diverts from lifelessness, the source of disfigura-

tion and madness.


Bernhard’s plays are not dramatic, cannot be dramatic in the conventional

sense of conflict, be it psychological, political or moral. Where there is no

choice, there is no conflict. Death is a matter of choice only insofar as it can

be staged. Thus suicide becomes a profoundly theatrical event, a self-

directed performance, ridiculous in its mometary, stagey pathos, tragic in its

ultimate inevitability. But even the character who perceives this duality, the

Writerof The Hunting Party, apparently one of the more distant observers in

Bernhard’s work, is a pathetically indulgent (typically Austrian) "Raunzer,"a

cry-baby, in love with his misery, and a laughable figure in the end.


Most of Bernhard’s plays feature one or more characters who are either

obsessive speakers or those who listen. This emphasizes the performance

quality, not just as a theatrical device, but as an existential necessity. His

characters cling to their speeches for dear life, they unravel sentence after

sentence like Ariadne’s twine to lead them out of the maze of their brain, the

source too of their understanding of the world as a dying one. But the only

way not to die is to pursue their thoughts. These are not necessarily new,

startling ones; at times they are banal, sometimes profound, often repeated,

circling around the same themes, carefully constructed in seemingly endless

rhythmical patterns. In his plays Bernhard does not use any punctuation.

There may be a very simple reason for this: As soon as there is a period, there

would be an actual end to the sentence, a full stop, both for the speech and

the speaker, who would die and, in many cases, does.


Bernhard creates a free verse form out of the rhythms inherent in the intricate

syntax of the German language, its baroque complexity also a relic, now re-

constructed, of the old, official, upper-class language of the monarchy. It is

also broken down into its components, which form the rhythmical basis, a

music-like notation system, again, a most accomplished artifice destroying

the natural flow of speech without ever being able to deny its profound

connection to and understanding of it-ultimately transcending the limitations,

the limit of nature through art. Bernhardis, above all, a master of language.

What may seem indulgent at first sight (especially to the Anglo-Saxon,

American sensibility) is deeply connected to his characters’ existential ex-



"Endless speaking" says Michel Foucault "or, for that matter, speaking in

order not to die, is an activity probably as ancient as the word itself. For the

time of the narration, the death-bringing phenomena remain necessarily

suspended, speech, as we know, has the power to stop arrows mid-air."


Thomas Bernhard was born on February 10, 1931, in Holland. His father was

an Austrian farmer, his mother the daughter of the Austrian writer Johannes

Freumbichler,who was a great influence in his life. He spent much of his

chlildhood in Salzburg, where he studied music and acting. Until 1955 he

worked as a journalist. His first collections of poems and short stories were

published toward the end ofthe fifties. His first great breakthrough came

with his first novel Frost in 1963. He received numerous literary awards. Since

1965 Bernhard has lived on a farm in Upper Austria.


Novels and short stories:


Frost, 1963

Der Italiener, 1963

Amras, 1964

Verstorung (Gargoyles, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1967

Prosa, 1967

Ungenach, 1968

Watten, 1969

Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1970

Midlandin Stilfs (A collection of stories), 1971

Gehen, 1971

Der Kulterer, 1974

Die Korrektur , (Correction, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1975

Die Ursache (The Cause), Der Keller (The Cellar), Der Atem (Breath), 1975

Der Stimmenimitator, 1978

Die Billigesser, 1980


Plays: (Dates of publication)


Ein Fest fur Boris (A Party for Boris), 1968

Der Ignorantund der Wahnsinnige (The Fool and the Madman),1972

Die Jagdgesellschaft (The Hunting Party),1974

Die Macht der Gewohnheit (Force of Habit),1974

Der Prasident (The President), 1975

Minetti, 1976

Immanuel Kant, 1978

Der Weltverbesserer (The Utopian),1978

Vordem Ruhestand (Eve of Retirement),1979


Gitta Honegger is a director and translator who has translated five plays of

Thomas Bernhard.

“in every soup you find a nazi”: thomas bernhard’s “the german lunch table”

"The German Lunch Table"

("Der deutsche Mittagstisch")


A Tragedy

to be performed

by the Vienna State Theatre

when Touring Germany


Thomas Bernhard


Translated by Gitta Honegger





Herr and Frau Bernhard, their daughters, their sons, their grandsons and granddaughters, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters, and their closest relatives—ninety-eight people around a small, not quite round, lunch table. Natural oak.




You must take your time



Take the time



To eat

Think of your mother and of her mother and of the mother of your mother’s mother


(Everyone, except Herr and Frau Bernhard, looking at each other.)




The revolution will destroy all of you, then you won’t be getting soup like this anymore




And no more potatoes



Not one potato in all of Germany.




Because cancer-care has eaten up everything





And those AWACS



(To everyone.)

Don’t you ever say out loud what we just said



Isn’t this delicious soup


(Everyone nods.)



(Not great-great grandson!)

Our new President is a Nazi



(Not great-grandson!)

And our last President was a Nazi too



The Germans are all Nazis



Stop talking about politics

Eat your soup




(Jumps up.)


I had enough now

In every soup you find a Nazi


(Hits with both hands the bottom of his still full soup plate.)


Nazi soup

Nazi Soup

Nazi Soup


(Frau Bernhard has jumped up, screams and points her index finger at Herr Bernhard’s pants.)




There you see

He’s wearing Nazi pants

Nazi pants that’s what he’s wearing






The Nazi pants

The German Nazi-father-pants


(Frau Bernhard sinks back into her chair and covers her face with both hands.)




How ashamed I am

Good God

Oh God help me how ashamed I am

Like President Scheel like Scheel like Scheel





And like President Carstens

And like Carstens



Do we have to go through this



It’s always the same as soon as we sit down at our table around the oak someone finds a Nazi in his soup

Instead of our good old noodle-soup we’re getting Nazi soup every day now

Only Nazis and no noodles



Listen to me dearest husband

You can’t get noodles anymore anywhere in Germany only Nazis

No matter where we buy our noodles it’s Nazis we get

No matter what package we open it’s always Nazis spilling out and when we cook the stuff it’s always boiling over

It’s not my fault


(Everyone throws down their spoons.)



Why don’t you leave mother alone



(Her face buried in her German mother’s apron, meekly.)

After all all of you were spoon-fed on National Socialism.


(They all throw themselves on Frau Bernhard and strangle her. The oldest great-grandson screams into the silence:)






Translation copyright 1981 by Gitta Honegger.


thomas bernhard on dogs, loneliness & schopenhauer

“I won’t tolerate this dog comedy, which we can see enacted every day if we only open our eyes and haven’t become blinded to it by daily familiarity. In this comedy a dog comes on the stage and makes life a misery for some human being, exploiting him and, in the course of several acts, or just one or two, driving out of him all his harmless humanity.”


Cover Image

At the sight of the corner where we used to keep a dog when we were children, I couldn’t help thinking, If only I kept a dog at least! But since I grew up I’ve always hated dogs. And who would look after the dog, and what should it look like, what kind of dog should it be? I’d have to get somebody in to look after the dog, and I can’t put up with anybody in the house. I can’t put up either with dog or another person. I’d have had somebody in the house long ago if I could have stood it, but I can’t stand anybody, and naturally I can’t stand a dog. I haven’t gone to the dogs, I told myself, and I won’t. I shall die like a dog, but I won’t go to the dogs. The dog used to sit in this corner just next to the door leading into the yard. We’d loved the dog, but now I’d be bound to hate such an animal, always lying in wait. The fact of the matter is that I love being alone. I’m not lonely and I don’t suffer from loneliness. I’m happy when I’m alone. I know how fortunate I am to be alone when I observe other people who aren’t alone like me and can’t afford to be, who spend all their lives wishing they were but can’t be. People keep a dog and are ruled by this dog, and even Schopenhauer was ruled in the end not by his head, but by his dog. This fact is more depressing than any other. Fundamentally it was not Schopenhauer’s head that determined his thought, but Schopenhauer’s dog. It was not the head that hated Schopenhauer’s world, but Schopenhauer’s dog. I don’t have to be demented to assert that Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders and not a head. People love animals because they are incapable even of loving themselves. Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. They give the dog pride of place in their hypocrisy, which in the end becomes a public menace. They would rather save their dog from the guillotine than Voltaire. The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul. I don’t belong to the masses, I’ve been against the masses all my life, and I’m not in favour of dogs. What we call our love of animals has already wrought such havoc that if we were to think really hard about it we should be positively frightened to death. It isn’t as absurd as it may at first appear when I say that the world owes its most terrible wars to its ruler’s love of animals. It’s all documented, and one ought to be clear about it for once. These people—politicians, dictators—are ruled by a dog, and as a result they plunge millions of human beings into misery and ruin. They love a dog and foment a world war in which, because of this one dog, millions of people are killed. Just consider for a moment what the world would be like if this so-called love of animals were at least reduced by a few paltry per cent in favour of love of humanity—which of course is also only a phrase. There can be no question of whether or not I should keep a dog. I am mentally opposed to keeping a dog, which I know would have to be given more care and attention than any human being, more than I demand for myself. But humanity sees nothing wrong in the fact that all over the world dogs get more care and attention than human beings, that in fact it gives more care and attention to all these billions of dogs than it gives to itself. I take leave to describe such a world as perverse, grossly inhumane and totally mad. If I’m here, the dog’s here, if I’m there the dog’s there too. If the dog has to go out, I have to go out too, and so on. I won’t tolerate this dog comedy, which we can see enacted every day if we only open our eyes and haven’t become blinded to it by daily familiarity. In this comedy a dog comes on the stage and makes life a misery for some human being, exploiting him and, in the course of several acts, or just one or two, driving out of him all his harmless humanity. It is said that the tallest, most expensive and most precious tombstone ever set up in the history of the world is one to the memory of a dog. No, not in America, as one inevitably assumes, but in London. Once we get it clear, this fact is enough to show how dog-like humanity really is. In this world the real question to ask about a person has long been, not how humane he is, but how dog-like, yet up to now, instead of asking how dog-like a person is—which is what they really ought to ask out of respect for the truth—people have always asked how humane he is. And that I find disgusting. There is no question of my keeping a dog. If you kept a dog at least! my sister said just before she left. It wasn’t the first time. She’s been saying it for years just to enrage me. A dog at least! I don’t need one of course—I have my lovers, she said. At one time—just to assert herself, I think—she gave up having lovers and got herself a dog. It was so small that—at least in my imagination at least—it could have crawled underneath her high-heeled shoes. It was the grotesqueness of it that appealed to her; she had a little velvet waistcoat with a gold hem made for this creature, which didn’t even deserve to be called a dog. People stared at it in amazement at the Sacher, and this she found so distasteful that she gave the animal to her housekeeper, who naturally passed it on to somebody else.

—from Thomas Bernhard, Concrete (1984) pp 52-4

thomas bernhard’s book-long elegy for paul wittgenstein

excerpts from Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Cover Image

on bernhard’s illness, doctors and hospitals

In 1967, one of the indefatigable nursing sisters in the Hermann Pavilion on the Baumgartnerhöhe placed on my bed a copy of my newly published Gargoyles, which I had written a year earlier at 60 rue de la Croix in Brussels, but I had not the strength to pick it up, having just come round from a general anesthesia lasting several hours, during which the doctors had cut open my neck and removed a fist-sized tumor from my thorax. As I recall, it was at the time of the Six-Day War, and after undergoing a strenuous course of cortisone treatment, I developed a moonlike face, just as the doctors had intended. (1)



Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlantanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to emply the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science. (8)

The Ludwig Pavilion was now Paul’s residence. And I suddenly hesitated, wondering whether it was really wise to establish a link between the Ludwig Pavilion and the Hermann Pavilion, whether it might not do both of us more harm than good. For who knows, I thought, what state he’s really in? Perhaps he’s in a state that can only be harmful to me, in which case I’d better not visit him for the time being. I won’t establish a link between the Hermann Pavilion and the LudwigPavilion. And if I did make an appearance in the Ludwig Pavilion, I thought, especially a surprise appearance, it might have a devastating effect on my friend too. I was suddenly scared of seeing him, and I thought of letting our friend Irina decide whether or not it was advisable to make contact between the Hermann Pavilion and the Ludwig Pavilion. (31)


the healthy and the sick

The healthy never had the patience with the sick, nor, of course the sick ever had the patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten.


When a sick person, having ceded the place that he once occupied by right, suddenly demands its restitution, the healthy regard this as an act of monstrous presumption. A sick person who returns home always feels like an intruder in an area where he no longer has any business to be. It is a well-known pattern the world over: a sick person goes away, and once he is gone the healthy move in and take over the place he formerly occupied, yet instead of dying, as he was meant to do, he suddenly returns, wishing to resume and repossess his former place. The healthy are incensed, since the reappearance of this person whom they had already written off forces them back into their previous confines, and this is the last thing they want. The sick person needs the most superhuman strength if he is to resume and repossess his former place. (48-9)

paul wittgenstein joins bernhard on a road trip (for a newspaper)

On one occasion I had to have a copy of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung because I wanted to read an article about Mozart’s Zaïde that was due to appear in it. believing that o could obtain a copy in Salzburg, I drove the fifty miles to this so-called world-famous festival city, with Paul and a woman friend of ours, in her car.  But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had in Salzburg. Then I had the idea of getting a copy in Bad Reichenhall, and so we drive to this world-famous spa. But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either, and so we drove back to Nathal, somewhat disappointed. Just outside Nathal, Paul suddenly proposed that we drive to Bad Hall, another world-famous spa, where we would be sure to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and so be able to read the article on Zaïde. So we actually drove the fifty miles from Nathal to Bad Hall. But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either. Since it was just a stone’s throw, a mere twelve miles, from Bad Hall to Steyr, we drove to Steyr, but the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either. We then tried our luck in Wels, but the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had in Wels either. In all, we had driven two hundred and twenty miles just to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and all to no avail. As may be imagined, we were completely exhausted, and so we went to a restaurant in Wels to relax and have something to eat, as the hunt for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung having brought us to the limit of our physical endurance. It occurs to me now, as I recall this episode, that Paul and I were very much alike. Had we not been totally exhausted, we would certainly have driven on to Linz and Passsau, perhaps even to Regensburg and Munich, and in the end we would have thought nothing of simply driving to Zürich to buy the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for in Zürich, I fancy, we would have been certain to get a copy. Since we failed to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that day, because it is not taken in any of the places we visited, even during the summer months, I can only describe these places as miserable shitpots, which thoroughly deserve this description, if not an even shittier one. I also realized at the time that no one with intellectual pretensions could possibly exist in a place where the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is unobtainable. To think that I can get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung all the year round in Spain and Portugal and Morocco, even in the smallest town boasting only one drafty hotel—but not in this country! And the fact that we could not get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in all these

presumably important towns, not even in Salzburg, all our rage blistered against this backward, narrow-minded, hick, and simultaneously repulsively megalomaniacal country. We should live only where we could get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, I said, and Paul agreed absolutely. But then in Austria there’s only really just Vienna, he said, since in all the other towns where it would seem one would get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung one as a matter of fact cannot get it at all. At least not every day and just when one would want it, when one absolutely needs it. It occurs to me that even now I haven’t gotten to the article on Zaïde yet. I’ve long since forgotten the article and I’ve naturally also survived without this article. But at the time I had thought I had to have it. And Paul supported me in this absolute demand, and, what’s more, he as a matter of fact led me through half of Austria for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. (53-55)


paul wittgenstein’s caustic criticism

He was the most ruthless observer and constantly found occasion to accuse. Nothing escaped his accusing tongue. Those who came under his scrutiny survived only a very short time before being savaged; . . . he would lambaste them with the same words that I myself employ when I am roused to indignation, when I am forced to defend myself and take action against the insolence of the world in order not to be put down and annihilated by it. (60-61)



literary awards

If one disregards the money that goes with them, there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies. I had already discovered this in Germany. They do nothing to enhance one’s standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies; this was my sole motive for visiting various ancient city halls and tasteless assembly rooms—until the age of forty. I submitted to the indignity of these award ceremonies—until the age of forty. I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it. Only in extremities, when one’s life and existence are threatened—and only until the age of forty—is one justified in receiving any prize of distinction, with or without an accompanying sum of money. When I received my prizes I did not have the excuse that I was suffering extreme hardship or that my life and existence were threatened; hence by receiving them I made myself not only low and contemptible but positively vile, in the truest sense of the word. (66-67)



The encomium delivered by the minister in the audience chamber of the ministry was utter nonsense, because he merely read out from a sheet of paper what had been written down for him by one of his officials charged with literary affairs. He said, for instance, that I had written a novel about the south seas, which of course I had not. And although I have been an Austrian all my life, the minister stated that I was Dutch. He also stated that I specialized in adventure novels, though this was news to me. More than once during his encomium he said that I was a foreigner, a visitor to Austria. (70)



Accepting a prize is in itself an act of perversity, my friend Paul told me at the time, but accepting a state prize is the greatest. (72-3)



Just before the ceremony, in great haste and with the greatest reluctance, I had jotted down a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man is a wretched creature and death a certainty. After I had delivered my speech, which lasted altogether no more than three minutes, the minister, who had understood nothing of what I had said, indignantly jumped up from his seat and shook his fist in my face. Snorting with rage, he called me a cur in front of the whole assembly and then left the chamber, slamming the glass door behind him with such force that it shattered into a thousand fragments. (73)



the city versus the country

As Paul once put it, people who leave the city for the country and want to keep up their intellectual standards have to be equipped with tremendous potential, with incredible mental resources, yet sooner or later even they are prone to stagnation and atrophy, and by the time they become aware of this process itis usually too late, and they inevitably come to a miserable end without being able to help themselves. Hence, throughout the years of my friendship with Paul I accustomed myself to the lifesaving rhythm of constantly switching between the city and the country, a rhythm that I intend to maintain for the rest of my life—going to Vienna at least every other week, and at least every other week to the country. For in the country the mind is drained just as fast as it is recharged in Vienna—faster, in fact, since the country always treats the mind more cruelly than the city ever can. The country robs a thinking person of everything and gives him virtually nothing, whereas the city is perpetually giving. One has simply to see this, and of course feel it, but very few either see it or feel it, with the result that most people are sentimentally drawn to the country, where in no time they are inevitably sucked dry, deflated, and destroyed. The mind cannot develop in the country; it can develop only in the city, yet today everyone flees from the city to the country because people are basically too indolent to use their minds, on which the city makes the greatest demands, and so they choose to perish surrounded by nature, admiring it without knowing it, instead of seizing upon all the benefits the city has to offer, which have increased and multiplied quite miraculously over the years, and never more so than in recent years. I know how deadly the country is, and whenever possible I feel from it to some big city—no matter what it is called or how ugly it is—which always does me a hundred times more good than the country. (76-7)


on suicide

For years I had taken refuge in a terrible suicidal brooding, which deadened my mind and made everything unendurable, above all myself—brooding on the utter futility all around me, into which I had been plunged by my general weakness, but above all my weakness of character. For a long time I could not imagine being able to go on living, or even existing. I was no longer capable of seizing upon any purpose in life that would have given me control over myself. Every morning on waking I was inevitably caught up in this mechanism of suicidal brooding, and I remained in its grip throughout the day. (79-80)


on viennese coffehouses

Sitting on the park bench, I recalled that at the Sacher he always preferred to sit in the right-hand lounge, because he found the chairs there more comfortable but above all because he judged the paintings on the walls to be better executed, while I naturally preferred to sit in the left-hand lounge, because of the foreign newspapers, especially the English and French newspapers, that were always available there and because of the more wholesome air. When we went to the Sacher, therefore, we would sit sometimes in the right-hand and sometimes in the left-hand lounge. When I was in Vienna (and in those years I spent most of my time in Vienna) the Sacher was our favorite resort, since it was ideally suited to our speculations; it therefore went without saying that we would meet there or, if for some reason the Sacher was out of the question, at the Ambassador. I have known the Sacher for nearly thirty years, since the time when I used to sit there nearly every day with friends belonging to the circle of the brilliant composer Lampersberg, who was also as mad as he was brilliant. At this time, around 1957, I had just completed my studies, and it wasthe most difficult period of my life. These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house—not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims. At the Sacher I could get all the newspapers, which I have always had to have since the age of twenty-two or twenty-three, and could spend hours study them in one of the comfortable corners of the left-hand lounge without being disturbed. I can still see myself sitting there for whole mornings, scanning the pages of Le Monde or The Times and never having my enjoyment interrupted for a moment; as far as I recall I was never disturbed at the Sacher. At the literary coffeehouse I could never have devoted myself to the newspapers for a whole morning without interruption; before so much as half an hour had passed I would have been disturbed by some writer making his entrance, accompanied by his retinue. I always found such company distasteful because it deflected me from my real intentions, rudely impeding what I considered essential and never facilitating it, as I would have wished. The literary coffeehouses have a foul atmosphere, irritating to the nerves and deadening to the mind. I have never learned anything new there but only been annoyed and irritated and pointlessly depressed. At the Sacher I was never irritate or depressed, or even annoyed, and very often I was actually able to work—in my own fashion, of course, not in the fashion of those who work in the literary coffeehouses. At the Bräuenerhof, above which my friend had lived for years before we met, I am still put off by the foul aim and the poor lighting, which is kept down to a minimum—doubtless from perverse considerations of economy—and in which I have never been able to read a single line without effort. I also disliked the seating, which is inevitably damaging to the spinal column, however briefly one sits there—to say nothing of the pungent smell that emanates from the kitchen and very soon get into one’s clothes. Yet at the same time the Bräunerhof has great merits, though these do not suffice for my peculiar purposes. These consist of the extreme attentiveness of the waiters and the unfailing courtesy of the proprietor, which is neither exaggerated nor perfunctory. But at the Bräunerhof a dreadful twilight reigns all day long—a boon to young couples or old invalids but not to someone like myself, who wishes to concentrate on studying books and newspapers. I attach the utmost importance to reading books and newspapers every morning, and in the course of my intellectual life I have specialized in reading English and French newspapers, having found the German press unbearable every since I first began to read. What is the Frankfurter Allegemeine, for instance, compared with The Times, I have often asked myself, what is the Süddeutsche Zeitung beside Le Monde? The answer is that the Germans are just not English and certainly not French. From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets—to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper? At the Bräunerhof one’s thoughts are immediately stifled by cigarette smoke and kitchen fumes, and by the twaddle that is talked by the semi-educated and the demisemi-educated of Vienna as they let off their social steam at midday. At the Bräunerhof people talk either too loudly or too softly for my liking, and the service is either too slow or too fast. The Bräunerhof is inimical to all my daily requirements, yet thisis precisely what makes it the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse—like the Café Hawelka, completely downmarket. I have always detested the typical Viennese coffeehouse, famous the world over, because I find everything about it inimical to me. Yet for many years it was at the Bräunerhof that I felt at home, despite the fact that, like the Hawelka, it was always totally inimical to me, just as I felt at home at the Café Museum and at the various other establishments I frequented during my years in Vienna. I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse, but I go on visiting them. I have visited them everyday, for although I have always hated them—and because I have always hated them—I have always suffered for the Viennese coffeehouse disease. I have suffered more from this disease than from any other. I frankly have to admit that I still suffer from this disease, which has proved the most intractable of all. The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind. I find myself insupportable, and even more insupportable is a whole horde of writers and brooders like myself. I avoid literature whenever possible, because whenever possible I avoid myself, and so when I am in Vienna I have to forbid myself to visit the coffeehouses, or at least I have to be careful not to visit a so-called literary coffeehouse under any circumstances whatever. However, suffering as I do from the coffeehouse disease, I feel an unremitting compulsion to visit some literary coffeehouse or other, even thought everything within me rebels against the idea. The truth is that the more deeply I detest the literary coffeehouse of Vienna, the most strongly I feel compelled to frequent them. Who knows how my life would have developed if I had not met Paul Wittgenstein at the height of the crisis that, but for him, would probably have pitched me headlong into the literary world, the most repellent of all worlds, the world of Viennese writers and their intellectual morass, for at the height of this crisis the obvious course would have been to take the easy way out, to make myself cheap and compliant, to surrender and throw in my lot with the literary fraternity. Paul preserved me from this, since he had always detested the literary coffeehouses. It was thus not without reason, but more or less to save myself, that from one day to the next I stopped frequenting the so-called literary coffeehouses and started going to the Sacher with him—no longer to the Hawelka but to the Ambassador, etc., until eventually the moment came when I could once more permit myself to go to the literary coffeehouse, when they no longer had such a deadly effect on me. For the truth is that the literary coffeehouses do have a deadly effect on a writer. (82-87)

on travelling and (not) feeling at home

Yet it is equally true that I am still more at home in my Viennese coffeehouses that I am in my own house at Nathal. I am more at home in Vienna generally than I am in Upper Austria, which I prescribed for myself as a survival therapy sixteen years ago, though I have never been able to regard it as my home. This is no doubt because right from the beginning I isolated myself far too much in Nathal and not only did nothing to counter this isolation but actually promoted it, consciously or unconsciously, to the point of utter despair. After all, I have always been a townsman, a city dweller, and the fact that I spent my earliest childhood in Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest seaport, has always had an importanceinfluence on my life; it is therefore not without reason that once I am in Vienna, I find that I can breathe freely again. On the other hand, after a few days in Vienna I have to flee to Nathal to avoid suffocating in the loathsome Viennese air. Hence, in recent years I have made a habit of switching between Vienna and Nathal at least every other week. Every other week I flee from Nathal to Vienna and then from Vienna to Nathal, with the result that I have become a restless character who is driven back and forth between Vienna and Nathal in order to survive, whose very existence depends on this strictly imposed rhythm—coming to Nathal to recover from Vienna, and going to Vienna to recuperate from Nathal. (87)



I did the same—naturally on a more modest scale, though no less obsessively—switching between Nathal and Vienna, between Venice and Vienna, even between Rome and Vienna. I am the happiest traveler—when I am on the move, moving on or moving off—but the unhappiest arriver. Clearly this is a morbid condition. (89)



bernhard’s the hunting party and viennese theatre

During the journey I recalled his behavior at the first performance of my play The Hunting Party, an unprecedented flop for which the Burgtheater provided all the requisite conditions. The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it. (93-4)



Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed, decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all the decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded—on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public— though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world.



paul wittgenstein’s death
I had possibly never had a better friend than the one who was compelled to lie in bed, probably in a pitiful condition, in the apartment above me, and whom I no longer visited because I was afraid of a direct confrontation with death. (98)



I had met Paul, as I know see, precisely at that time when he was obviously beginning to die, and I had traced his dying over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul’s dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth. It seems to me that I was basically nothing but the twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend’s dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival. It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible. (99).



He lies, as they say, in the Central Cemetery in Vienna. To this day I have not visited his grave. (100).



—from Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1989)