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...