Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
Thomas Bernhard is best known as Austria’s most prolific contemporary playwright. His plays have been neither an unqualified popular success nor a critical one, but they have appeared regularly onstage and on television in Austria. His reputation as a novelist of considerable power and originality has been firmly established. His peculiar narrative voice, his individualistic manner of manipulating the German language, is a literary device which was developed to reflect an analytic, unemotional, joyless, and often bitter perception of life. His autobiographical writings are similar in both form and content to his novels, which contain autobiographical material as well. The English translation of the five autobiographical works collected in Gathering Evidence, while eminently readable, does not fully reflect the author’s syntactically complex style, which is marked by seemingly endless periods and a predilection for indirect speech.
Bernhard’s autobiography was originally written and published in five separate volumes over a period of seven years. The first four books deal with his life between age thirteen and age nineteen. The last is a record of his childhood, beginning at age eight with flashbacks to the time of his birth. In the English translation, however, the account of the author’s life up to age nineteen is presented in chronological order in one volume. The original volume titles appear, somewhat elaborated, as major chapter headings, and the title for the whole work, Gathering Evidence, is taken from the text itself, where Bernhard explains at one point that he has never ceased to gather evidence and that his whole life has been geared to finding out about his origin and his existence.
Bernhard was born in Heerlen in the Netherlands in 1931. Unmarried, his mother had moved from Austria to the Netherlands to conceal her pregnancy from her family. Forced to work as a waitress for her livelihood, she had to place her newborn son with a woman who took barely adequate care of him. When Thomas was about one year old, his mother acknowledged his existence, returned to Austria, and lived first with her parents and later with her husband, who was not Bernhard’s father but who had himself appointed his guardian. The couple eventually had two more children. From the time he first arrived at his grandparents’ house in Vienna, Thomas found the one and only stable element in his life—the unwavering love and support of his eccentric grandfather, Johann Freumbichler, a minor Austrian novelist who was a well-educated man with broad interests.
In the years immediately preceding World War II, the family left Vienna for a village near Salzburg, then moved to the small city of Traunstein on the German side of the border between the two countries which were soon to be united in the so-called Anschluss, when the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938. Thomas attended primary school in Traunstein, where he came to see himself as a “troublemaker,” the label his mother had bestowed on him. In order to be enrolled in a secondary school, the academically unsuccessful teenager was sent to Salzburg and a boardinghouse for out-of-town students which was run first by a militant Nazi and later by the Catholic clergy.
In Salzburg, Bernhard experienced the horrors of air-raid shelters, wartime destruction, and the famine of the postwar period. His family returned to Salzburg in 1946, opting for Austrian rather than German citizenship. Frustrated with his studies and his family’s continuing economic struggle and disillusioned with what he perceived to be his grandfather’s pretentiousness, Bernhard quit school in 1947 and began a three-year apprenticeship as a grocer. After a while, his infatuation with the idea of serving the underprivileged gave way to a newly discovered enthusiasm for music.
This brief period of a relatively happy existence did not last long. In 1949, when his grandfather was suddenly stricken with a fatal illness and taken to the hospital, Bernhard also fell ill; he had to spend three horrifying years in hospitals and convalescent homes run by the welfare agencies in Austria. During this time, his mother died of cancer; she was buried by her family without Thomas’ knowledge. Gathering Evidence ends with the author’s continuing experience with disease and decay and his sense of total abandonment.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2183
Although Thomas Bernhard’s reputation as a major writer has become increasingly well established in the United States, the thematic and stylistic difficulties of his prose are still not likely to gain for him a wide readership. This translation of his five autobiographical sketches, which were published separately in German between 1975 and 1982, should make his novels and plays more accessible by providing a personal and historical context for the persistent Bernhardian themes of suffering, disease, death, despair, isolation, and suicide. Bernhard’s recollections of the first nineteen years of his life are by no means an unrelentingly grim account of childhood suffering. Rather, he tells his story with remarkable detachment, even humor, most notably in A Child, the last of the five autobiographical books to appear in German (following chronology, it is placed first in the translation). The fascination which emanates from these works stems from the enormous contrasts and paradoxes of Bernhard’s record of his life. It is the story of a continual overcoming of pain, of the struggle to transform suffering into meaningful endeavor and, eventually, into literature. Written in a gripping style and with considerable polemic energy, Gathering Evidence is a work of piercing honesty and integrity.
Each of the five books begins by focusing on a decisive moment in Bernhard’s life. This initial focus, already suggested by the title of the books (A Child, An Indication of the Cause, The Cellar: An Escape, Breath: A Decision, In the Cold—David McLintock, it should be noted, takes some liberty in translating the titles as well as the body of the text), is then varied at length. A Child opens with the story of an illicit bike ride from Traunstein in Upper Bavaria, where the young Bernhard lived with his mother and guardian, to his Aunt Fanny’s house, twenty-two miles east in Salzburg. He was eight years old at the time, it was his first time on a bicycle, which belonged to his guardian, and he never made it to Salzburg, ending up in a ditch instead. Nevertheless, it was the occasion of a major discovery, the elation brought about by the freedom of movement on wheels and the stretching of the limits of his previously confined existence. He felt a oneness with his dearly beloved grandfather, who would surely approve of such a daring, ambitious, and unheard-of undertaking. At the same time, however, the trip was in total disobedience to and rebellion against his mother, for whom he was an unwanted and intractable son. His return home was divided between feelings of “sublime pride” at his breaking away and dread of the “supreme penalty” that awaited him at home. After leaning the ruined bike against the wall of his mother’s house, he immediately headed for his grandfather’s house several miles away. As he climbed the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, he left behind the revolting petty bourgeois world of the flatlands and his own sense of worthlessness, feeling instead that he had become “a real person,” someone who followed his own laws rather than the senseless and arbitrary laws of his parents, teachers, and institutions.
This love of anarchy Bernhard had learned from his grandfather, a restless and energetic man who had found little success as a writer and lived off his adoring wife and daughter. The tensions of Bernhard’s upbringing resulted largely from the clash between his mother’s desire for normalcy and middle-class security and his grandfather’s penchant for conflict, “anything unusual and extraordinary, anything contradictory or revolutionary.” His grandfather was “his great enlightener,” his one true teacher, friend, adviser, and confidant. Bernhard’s relationship with his mother, on the other hand, remained problematic for years, because he reminded her constantly of his father, the lover who abandoned her before Bernhard’s secret, illegitimate birth in Holland in 1931. His mother returned to Vienna in 1932 and married Bernhard’s stepfather in 1934, after which Bernhard moved with his grandparents to a town north of Salzburg, then to Traunstein in 1938. An outsider from his birth, Bernhard had the additional stigma of being an Austrian in a strongly Nazified Bavaria. He did poorly in school, detested the Nazi youth organization into which he was forced, and distinguished himself only in running.
At his grandfather’s insistence, Bernhard was sent to a boarding school in Salzburg in 1943. It is significant that the first volume of Bernhard’s autobiography to appear (An Indication of the Cause) describes his experiences under the blindly authoritarian rule, first of the school’s National Socialist, then of its Catholic administration, in a city that he came to hate under the worst conditions of the war. While “the Cause” of the title is ambiguous, Bernhard makes it clear in his vituperative attacks that he associates it with Salzburg and all that the city came to represent for him: “renowned the world over for beauty and edification, as well as for the celebration of what is known as Great Art at its annual festival,” Salzburg “is in truth nothing but a chill museum of death, open to every kind of disease and depravity.” Scene of the remaining four books, the city provides a uniformly bleak backdrop to Bernhard’s narrative theater of human suffering. Salzburg, as the book’s epigraph relates, holds the Austrian record for suicide, which, according to Bernhard, is the most fitting response to the city’s deadly charms, yet a response for which he was too much of a coward. At the end of the war, the city traded one mindless ideology for another, just as smoothly as the sadistic Nazi school warden Grünkranz was replaced by an equally malicious young prefect, Nazi songs by hymns, and Adolf Hitler’s picture by a cross. The death and destruction of the Allied bombing raids in autumn 1944, the terror and hopelessness of the air-raid shelters in tunnels burrowed into the city’s hills, the stench of decomposition were all forgotten as quickly as the rubble was cleared and the city’s architectural and cultural treasures rebuilt. The school itself remained for Bernhard an educational ruin and prison, “an institution for the destruction of the mind.”
One morning at age fifteen Bernhard headed for the labor office instead of the classroom, and after protracted searching through the job file he found a position as an apprentice in the basement grocery store of Karl Podlaha in the Scherzhauserfeld Project, a notoriously poor district on the outskirts of Salzburg. The Cellar is the story of the two happy and productive years there among “the other people,” Salzburg’s victims and outcasts. Only his grandfather had understanding for the rash step of “going in the opposite direction,” of rebelling against normality in order to search for a more authentic existence. Bernhard got along extremely well with Podlaha, a Viennese bachelor, who, like Bernhard, was an outsider seeking refuge in the slums as well as a musician at heart (after a disastrous start on the violin in the boarding school, Bernhard began during these years to take singing lessons and to dream of an operatic career). Bernhard delighted in his work, for not only was he free of the deadening institutional constraints, but also for the first time in his life he felt useful—Podlaha gave him an eminently practical education in dealing with people, in contrast to the philosophical and solitary teachings of his grandfather. Despite an impossible situation at home (he was living with his parents, siblings, and grandparents, all of whom had in the meantime moved into his aunt and uncle’s three-room Salzburg apartment), Bernhard’s work and musical studies combined to produce near euphoria.
This happy state of affairs was not to last long. In the fall of 1948, perhaps not coincidentally right after his grandfather was admitted to the hospital for possible minor surgery, a simple influenza deteriorated into a life-threatening case of pleurisy. When Bernhard was admitted to the same hospital, he was placed in what he calls the death ward. Breath and In the Cold follow the course of his illness over the next two years. Both books take as their point of departure two further turning points in Bernhard’s narrative—namely, those moments when he decided to fight the death sentence imposed upon him by the disease and his inhumane and incompetent doctors. In Breath, this conscious decision not to stop breathing and “to live, to live my life, the way I chose and for as long as I chose” came in the washroom where terminal patients were moved just before their anticipated death. Back in the death ward that evening, Bernhard recognized his grandfather. It was the first of many visits over the next few months. In February, right before Bernhard’s eighteenth birthday, the grandfather stopped coming. Twelve days later, Bernhard read in the newspaper of his grandfather’s death, caused by a misdiagnosis of his illness by the hospital’s chief physician. The shock of the death was accompanied by a sense of liberation from his grandfather’s intellectual domination; for the first time in his life, Bernhard was completely on his own. Following years of estrangement, he became reconciled with his mother, and his recovery proceeded rapidly enough for him to be transferred to a convalescent hospital on the German border, where he began to read seriously for the first time in his life.
These positive developments, though, were again offset by catastrophe. Bernhard’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the convalescent hospital turned out to be a tuberculosis sanatorium; inevitably Bernhard contracted the disease and after a brief visit home was sent to another institutional prison, the Grafenhof sanatorium south of Salzburg. In the Cold opens with his initial acquiescence to the fatal hopelessness of his lung infection and to the cruel authority of the Nazi chief physician and his assistants. It was not long, however, before rebellion set in with the insight that he alone, and not the doctors or the disease, was responsible for his life and recovery. Isolating himself from the despair of his fellow patients, he observed the brutal workings of the sanatorium with new clarity and objectivity. He struck up a friendship with an ambitious young conductor, whose passion for music, optimism, and “absolute affirmation of existence” were exemplary. He began to write, “gathering evidence” about his past and his family on numerous small slips of paper. After nine months in Grafenhof, Bernhard was released and returned to Salzburg. Botched routine pneumothorax therapy sent him back to the hospital and eventually again to Grafenhof. Even more recalcitrant on his second visit, Bernhard surreptitiously undertook trips to the nearby village, where he began singing lessons with a woman organist. Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Demons confirmed for him that he was on the right path, “the one that led out.” Released again, Bernhard fell ill once more in Salzburg. This time, however, he refused to return to the detested sanatorium.
Gathering Evidence breaks off with this final refusal. At one point Bernhard admits that his autobiographical writings offer only “a collection of fragments which may readily be put together to form a whole, if the reader chooses to do so.” Yet the five books resist integration, for their structure is dialectical, contrastive, and contradictory rather than linear and chronological. To borrow the quotation from Michel de Montaigne that stands as epigraph for The Cellar, Bernhard’s writing can be said to be “an irregular, uncertain motion, perpetual, patternless and without aim.” Indeed, Montaigne’s moral skepticism and rigorous self-analysis are writ large across these pages, as Bernhard readily admits (Bernhard’s admiration for the French philosopher, like so much else in his intellectual makeup, was owing to his grandfather). With such programmatic statements as “Truth is always wrong,. . every error is pure truth” and “Language can only falsify and distort whatever is authentic,” Bernhard keeps open his search for authenticity and truth in the writing out of his recollections, a process that knows no beginning or end. The powerful desire for movement of thought and expression, which engenders the poses of ironist, anarchist, troublemaker, clown, and gadfly, lends these works their formal energy, a kinesis underscored by the percussive rhythm of Bernhard’s complex, hypotactic sentences (which McLintock unfortunately fails to capture in his rather homogenized translation), his preference for hyperbole and extreme formulations, the hypnotic effect of the repetitions, the economy of the methodic, contrapuntal composition. Vitality resides within the images of movement and change—the bicycle ride, the walks with the grandfather, running, breathing, “going in the opposite direction,” the forbidden sled rides from Grafenhof down into the Schwarzach Valley, death within the image of stasis and enclosure—the institutions, the air-raid tunnels, the endless lying in bed. Bernhard’s conclusion that “absurdity is the only way forward” might be the most fitting epigraph for this memoir, for absurdity best describes Bernhard’s tragicomic vision of the world as “pure farce.” Yet Bernhard is not Albert Camus or Samuel Beckett, and these sketches, like Montaigne’s Essais, ultimately function to provoke, instruct, and enlighten.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57
Abish, Walter. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (February 16, 1986), p. 12.
Demetz, Peter. “Thomas Bernhard: The Dark Side of Life,” in After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland, 1986.
Elstun, E.N. Review in Choice. XXIII (May, 1986), p. 1396.
Gamper, Herbert. Thomas Bernhard, 1977.
Rettig, Ulrike S. Review in Library Journal. CXI (January, 1986), p. 78.