Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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Gathering Evidence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.