It soon becomes clear to the reader of Gathering Evidence that for Bernhard writing is a therapeutic act, an attempt to liberate himself from his own personal hell of conflicts and recurring nightmares. Like Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, he proudly proclaims: “I study myself more than anything else. That is my metaphysics and my physics. I am myself the king of the matter I treat, and I am accountable to no one.” Focusing entirely on the investigation of self, Bernhard summarily dismisses any thought of the writer’s responsibility toward society or mankind as a whole. Many readers may be surprised by Bernhard’s nearly total disregard of the important political and historical events of his youth. His memory is centered on events which touched him directly, such as death and destruction in Allied air raids or the fact that he, the poor student and ridiculed son of the wife of a lowly barber, received the highest honors as a sprinter in his pre-Hitler Youth sports group. This small success in sports provided him with a momentary relief from the endless pressures of being the underdog in search of a way out.
By claiming for himself the right to treat matters as he wishes without being accountable to anyone, Bernhard is able to present the realities of his existence not as others may have perceived them but distorted into nightmarish apparitions. For example, Bernhard vividly describes the horror of suffocating in Salzburg’s makeshift air-raid shelters, indicating that thousands of bodies were thrown out and carted away within a period of only a few months. No doubt such deaths did occur, but the numbers cited by the author are a figment of the imaginative visions of a deeply scarred and suffering mind.
Considering the possibility that Bernhard describes himself in his autobiography as having been on the analyst’s couch, where he tried to recall every potentially traumatic experience of his early life, the sequence of events, as originally presented by the author, is significant. As often happens in psychoanalysis, the initial gathering of evidence, beginning with his teenage years in Salzburg, did not yield the desired results. It was based on the questionable premise that Salzburg—a city with an unusually high suicide rate—which had been home to his family for generations, was the cause of all of his troubles. When that premise proved inconclusive, Bernhard was forced to deepen his probe, leading him further back into his early childhood and the origins of his difficult love-hate relationship with his mother and nearly every person close to him. As he states in the account of his teenage years, “I have had three experiences: that of my grandfather;...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)
The autobiography of an important author may be as much an exercise in form and style as a work of fiction. In other words, two kinds of autobiographical accounts exist. One is told for its content: a series of major and minor events, often presented with a moral or informative intent. The other kind is told in accordance with the artistic aims of the author. Form and style take on importance in this kind of carefully constructed record. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1814; Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, 1908) belongs to the latter category, as does Gathering Evidence. Bernhard’s autobiographical writings have been said to be reminiscent of those of Maxim Gorky or Thomas Wolfe because of his “massive stubborn attempts to give a true account of his early years, without sparing himself or his readers.”
As a writer, Bernhard cannot easily be classified. His statement that everything he writes and does is a source of trouble and that he wishes it to be so, could be read as a commitment to social activism, placing him among the socially committed West German and Austrian writers of the post-World War II period. Yet in looking at all of Gathering Evidence and some of Bernhard’s other works, one finds little to substantiate such a view. In the political arena the author, if of interest at all, is considered conservative rather than left wing. According to Bernhard, wanting to irritate is an aesthetic concept, free of any commitment to movements and causes. His only commitment is to himself and to his struggle with the elusive ability to find and express the truth about himself. His search for the appropriate linguistic medium to convey this truth places Bernhard in a group of Austrian writers, among them Peter Handke, with a strong interest in the theories of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.