Thomas Bernhard Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Thomas Bernhard’s characteristic ambivalence and individual stance in regard to reality often make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in his various writings. The author’s autobiographical works contain some reliable factual information but it is often obscured behind poetic description, as several major critics, such as Benno von Wiese and Herbert Gamper, have illustrated. The following biographical sketch can be gleaned from the primary and secondary sources available.

Bernhard was born illegitimately on February 10, 1931, to the daughter of a minor writer, Johannes Freumbichler, and the carpenter son of a farmer from the Austrian town of Henndorf. Bernhard never knew his father. His birthplace was actually a monastery near Maastricht, a refuge for young unwed mothers in the Netherlands. During his first year, Bernhard was cared for by a woman on a fishing vessel in Rotterdam while his mother worked to support herself. Bernhard’s next years were spent with his maternal grandparents in Vienna and Seekirchen am Wallersee (near Henndorf). Repeatedly criticized and often rejected by a neurotic mother, Bernhard trusted only his eccentric grandfather, who could be described as an antibourgeois grumbler with an anarchistic bent. Already attending school at the age of four and a half, Bernhard was admonished by his grandfather neither to take school too seriously nor to trust his teachers blindly. This maternal grandfather, a friend of the renowned dramatist Carl Zuckmayer and an acquaintance of the provocativeÖdön von Horváth, wanted his...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Thomas Bernhard Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thomas Bernhard was born in Heerlen (near Maastricht) in the Netherlands on February 10, 1931, of Austrian parents. His ancestors were Austrian peasants, innkeepers, and butchers in Salzburg and Upper Austria, but he spent his earliest childhood years living with his grandparents in Vienna. He later moved with them to Traunstein, in Bavaria, and in 1943 he was sent to a boarding school in Salzburg. There he experienced not only humiliations at the hands of his teachers and fellow pupils but also the air raids and bombings of the city along with the chaotic end of World War II. In 1947—soon after his family had moved to Salzburg—Bernhard left the school to take up an apprenticeship in a grocer’s shop in the worst part of Salzburg. This act signified not only a decision to abandon his formal education but also a rejection of the conventional career and existence that he felt were being imposed on him from outside. His early and chosen path was thus away from the normative to the periphery of society, a descent into an abyss that reflected his own inner state. In 1948, a serious illness brought Bernhard close to death, and he had to spend a good deal of time in a tuberculosis sanatorium; it was there that he began to write.

In 1949, Bernhard suffered a serious emotional blow—the death of his grandfather, the Austrian writer Johannes Freumbichler, a man who had a profound influence on Bernhard’s intellectual development. It was Freumbichler who became the model on which Bernhard patterned the maleprotagonists of many of his works. In 1950, Bernhard was keenly affected by the death of his mother, to whom he was very close. In the years from 1952 to 1957, Bernhard studied the plastic arts, music, and drama at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and from 1953 to 1955, he was also a legal correspondent for the Socialist newspaper Demokratisches Volksblatt. He traveled to Yugoslavia and Sicily before his first volume of poetry appeared in 1957, and in the same year, he completed his music studies. In 1960 and 1961, he was in London, working both as a legal correspondent and as a librarian. In 1962 and 1963, Bernhard lived in Poland, and in the latter year, his first major prose work, Frost, appeared. After 1965, Bernhard lived as an independent writer on a farm in Ohlsdorf, near Gmunden, Upper Austria. He died there of a heart attack on February 12, 1989; he was fifty-eight years old.

Thomas Bernhard Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Thomas Bernhard’s reputation rests primarily on his fiction and his memoirs. His first novel, Frost (1963), won critical acclaim, and his subsequent novels, novellas, and stories have brought him most of the significant literary prizes awarded in the German-speaking world. Among Bernhard’s novels are Verstörung (1967; Gargoyles, 1970; literally translated, “derangement”); Das Kalkwerk (1970; The Lime Works, 1973); and Korrektur (1975; Correction, 1979). Bernhard’s memoirs, regarded by many critics as semifictional, present autobiographical material in the monomaniacal voice of his fictional narrators. This ongoing sequence includes Die Ursache: Eine Andeutung (1975; the cause), Der Keller: Eine Entziehung (1976; the cellar), Der Atem: Eine Entscheidung (1978; the breath), Die Kalte: Eine Isolation (1981; the cold), Ein Kind (1982; a child), and Wittgenstein’s Neffe: Eine Freundschaft (1982; Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship, 1986).

The premiere of Bernhard’s first play, Ein Fest für Boris (1970), created a small sensation, and since then more than ten of his plays have been produced, some of them at the Salzburg Festival; among them are Die Macht der Gewohnheit (1974; The Force of Habit, 1976) and Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh: Ein deutscher Dichterag um 1980 (1981).


Critic George Steiner has described Thomas Bernhard as “the most original, concentrated novelist writing in German.” The locution “writing in German” is significant, for Bernhard’s achievements must be seen in the context of the Austrian literary tradition. Bernhard occupies a special position in contemporary Austrian literature. Unlike most Austrian writers of recent fame, he does not belong to a group, such as the Wiener Gruppe or the group at the Forum Stadtpark in Graz, nor can he be identified with any of the prevailing literary factions. Yet if Bernhard is a nonconformist—in his personal life as well as in his writing—he is nevertheless a typical Austrian author, rooted in the Austrian literary tradition, despite the fact that he rejects “Austria” as a political and ethnic abstraction and even blames her for much of his existential anguish. This distinctively Austrian tradition is characterized by several features, the foremost of which is a morbid preoccupation with death, and in particular with suicide.

Another facet of this tradition can be traced to the Baroque period and manifests itself as an inclination to give form preference over substance—to value the way something is expressed more highly than what is said. Other Baroque contributions to the Austrian tradition clearly visible in Bernhard’s work are the memento mori theme and the typically Austrian response to this reminder of the imminence of death, the carpe diem motif. Yet another Baroque ingredient is the recurring metaphor of the theatrum mundi—the notion that the world is a stage upon which all humans must perform their roles. It is no accident that Bernhard has increasingly devoted himself to the theater in the 1970’s and 1980’s and that critics have noted in his works affinities with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Franz Kafka.

Austrian literature has a long tradition of complaining about the conservative artistic attitudes of the Austrians and about the narrowness of the country’s intellectual life. This complaint, which is surely not exclusively Austrian, appears in the works and in the private utterances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Grillparzer, Sigmund Freud, and Arthur Schnitzler, to name only a few, and a frighteningly large number of Austrian artists and intellectuals were driven to suicide or into exile by this feeling of rejection and claustrophobia. Bernhard expresses this notion with obsessive force in many of his works. He did not grant interviews and lived in virtual isolation on a farm in a secluded valley, rejecting most involvement in the social life of the Austrian literary scene.

Finally, Bernhard is firmly entrenched in an Austrian tradition of language skepticism associated with Hofmannsthal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Theodore Mauthner. Bernhard’s entire oeuvre is informed by a profound distrust of language as an efficacious artistic or communicative tool. The influence of Wittgenstein, most explicit in the novel Correction, in which one of the characters is modeled after him, and in the memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew, is of particular significance in Bernhard’s development. Bernhard treats Wittgenstein with a mixture of reverence and savage irony, and the philosopher’s ideas are implicit in all Bernhard’s works. One of the key phrases in Gargoyles is an implicit response to the famous aphorism which concludes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922); Bernhard writes: “The words we use really do not exist any longer. . . . But it is also no longer possible to be completely silent.” Bernhard shares this belief with many contemporary Austrian writers, including Peter Handke.

While Bernhard’s verse is not his most significant contribution to Austrian literature—four slim volumes containing some 150 poems are an insufficient basis for such a claim—it did provide Bernhard with an early testing ground for his literary talent. Critics so far have not paid much attention to Bernhard, the poet, although this neglect is not justified. At their worst, the poems are a youthful testimony to early poetic influences and to eclectic readings in nineteenth century European philosophy. At their best, they are lyrical precursors of Bernhard’s fiction, foreshadowing the linguistic experiments of his early prose and introducing the themes of his mature work, such as death, the desertion of God, impotence in the face of suffering, the world as prison and insane asylum, rural decay, urban decadence, and the impossibility of communication. Bernhard’s poetry is sure to be given increased critical attention.


Biographical data, particularly of Thomas Bernhard’s early life, must be considered with some caution, as many of these “facts” have been excerpted from the author’s autobiographical writings and from a letter to the editor of an anthology, published in 1954—a letter which Bernhard had not intended to make public.

Bernhard was born on February 10, 1931, the illegitimate son of an Austrian carpenter. Bernhard’s mother was the daughter of an eccentric Austrian writer, Johannes Freumbichler. In the strictly Catholic, rural Austrian environment, an illegitimate birth would have created quite a stir, and so Bernhard was born in a convent near Maastrich, Netherlands, where his mother had to remain in service to defray the cost of the birth of her son. Much of Bernhard’s childhood was spent with his maternal grandparents near Salzburg. He formed a strong attachment to his grandfather, who became the dominating personal and intellectual influence of his early life, as described in Bernhard’s memoir, Ein Kind. In Freumbichler’s house, the young Bernhard met Ödön von Horvath and Carl Zuckmayer; Zuckmayer later wrote encouraging and thoughtful reviews of the young man’s first volumes of poetry. Bernhard’s grandfather, who had received the highest Austrian literary award, mainly for his novel Philomena Ellenhub (1937), was an avid reader of the German writers and philosophers of the later nineteenth century and was particularly fond of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Bernhard claimed to have read Arthur Schopenhauer in Freumbichler’s study and to have discovered then for the first time “the impossibility of saying the truth and the inability of transcending human existence.”

In 1938, Bernhard’s family—his mother was then married to a man who was not Bernhard’s father—moved to Traunstein, Bavaria, where the boy had his first music lessons. Music has played an important part in Bernhard’s life; much of his literary vocabulary is taken from musical terminology, and he speaks in terms of the theory of musical composition when he discusses the structure of some of his works. In 1943, the boy was sent to a Nazi-sympathizing boarding school in Salzburg. After the war, the school was taken over by the Roman Catholic Church, but Bernhard claims not to have noticed any difference. In his memoir Die Ursache, he deals extensively with this depressing period in his life.

In 1946, Bernhard’s family was forced to leave Germany and moved to Salzburg. Soon after that, Bernhard quit school and apprenticed himself to a grocery merchant. His relationship with his stepfather deteriorated, and finally the working conditions in the wet storage cellar of his employer (described in his memoir Der Keller) caused Bernhard to contract first pleurisy and then a severe lung disease. The next four years, a hellish period described in the memoirs Der Atem and Die Kalte, were spent being shuttled between hospitals and sanatoriums; in 1949, Bernhard’s grandfather was taken to the same hospital where the young man himself lay in a bathroom in the section for the terminally ill. During the following year, both Bernhard’s grandfather and his mother died, and he also learned that his natural father had died in 1943 in the turmoil of the war. It was at this time, while confined to the bed of a hospital for pulmonary diseases, that Bernhard began to write. He is convinced that this activity prevented him...

(The entire section is 3960 words.)

Thomas Bernhard Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thomas Bernhard (BEHRN-hahrt) was born Nicolaas Thomas Bernhard, the illegitimate son of Hertha Bernhard and Alois Zuckerstätter. When he was young, his father walked out on him and his mother. Bernhard never forgave his father for this desertion, nor could he forgive his mother for constantly blaming him for her misfortunes. Hertha Bernhard had to move from one menial job to another, even after she remarried in 1936. The only stability in the young boy’s life was provided by his maternal grandfather, a writer, who took over his early education by taking him on long walks and holding forth on his own favorite writers and philosophers, among them Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, which surely contributed to...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Thomas Bernhard Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thomas Bernhard is one of the most original postmodernist writers in the German language. His novels, written in the form of long monologues, portray disaffected and alienated intellectuals trying to come to terms with their increasing isolation in anti-intellectual, materialistic societies. While their harangues appear to be mostly directed against their social, political, and cultural environments, they frequently reveal their disappointment and frustration about their inability to achieve unrealistically high goals and the failure to find a common ground with their surroundings.

Bernhard, himself an iconoclastic loner, appeared to project much of himself into his narrator-protagonists, but it is also clear that he...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Thomas Bernhard Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thomas Bernhard (BEHRN-hahrt) was undoubtedly one of the most prominent Austrian writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. He was born out of wedlock in the Netherlands in 1931. His mother was the daughter of the Austrian writer Johannes Freumbichler, and his father was an Austrian peasant. He spent his first years with his grandparents in Bavaria and then attended a private school in Salzburg, Austria, in 1942. Bernhard was alienated from his abusive mother but felt a close attachment to his grandfather. He eventually contracted a severe lung ailment and spent several years in a sanatorium. Bernhard had begun studying music as a child and continued this first love in 1952 after his recovery. He completed his studies in...

(The entire section is 873 words.)