Thomas Bernhard

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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 grandson to become an artist. In Ein Kind (1982; A Child, 1985), Bernhard recounts the dominant force exerted on him by his grandfather during his formative years amid these early experiences of death, rejection, and psychological strain.

In 1938, Bernhard moved with his mother and stepfather to Traunstein in Upper Bavaria, where he received his first music instruction. In 1943, he went to Salzburg to study at a boarding school that remained under Nazi control until the end of 1944. Bernhard’s first major autobiographical work, Die Ursache: Eine Andentung (1975; An Indication of the Cause, 1985), deals directly with these experiences. In 1946, after the war, Bernhard’s family was expelled with other Austrians living in German territory. Rejected by his stepfather and his stepfather’s children, Bernhard began a commercial apprenticeship rather than attend the gymnasium. The physical demands of this labor led to pleurisy and serious lung ailments, which resulted in long hospital stays between 1948 and 1951. In 1949, Bernhard’s grandfather died in the same hospital in which Bernhard himself was convalescing. Bernhard’s mother died the following year. (His natural father had been killed in battle in 1943.) The trauma of these repeated encounters with death is described in Der Keller: Eine Entziehung (1976; The Cellar: An Escape, 1985) and Der Atem: Eine Entscheidune (1978; Breath, 1985), which, along with Bernhard’s other autobiographical works, An Indication of the Cause, Die Kälte: Eine Isolation (1981; In the Cold, 1985), and A Child, appear together in English translation as Gathering Evidence (1985). Bernhard contends that his obsessive preoccupation with permanence and stability resulted from his having been denied them so decisively and consistently in his youth.

With numerous experiences of death, sickness, and rejection indelibly imprinted in his consciousness, Bernhard began to write; he published his first prose in 1950 in the Salzburger Volksblatt . He subsequently studied music, directing, and acting in Vienna and Salzburg. In dire physical need while in Vienna, Bernhard performed menial tasks, including the care of “an ugly, seventy-year-old deranged woman from Währing,” in exchange for which he received his meals. During this period, he also served as a court...

(This entire section contains 641 words.)

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reporter for theDemokratisches Volksblatt. After completing his studies and leaving the Akademie Mozarteum in 1957, Bernhard began his career as a writer in earnest. Thereafter, Bernhard lived primarily in Vienna and Klagenfurt but traveled extensively to Yugoslavia, Italy, Poland, and England, among other places. After 1965, he resided on a farm he purchased near Gmunden in Upper Austria.


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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.