Thomas Bernhard 1931–
Austrian novelist, dramatist, poet, autobiographer, and journalist.
Although not yet well known in the United States, Bernhard is renowned in Europe as a major author of fiction and drama. The most distinctive characteristic of his fiction is his relentlessly pessimistic view of the human condition; death, sickness, and madness are his obsessive concerns. Bernhard's dense and compulsively repetitive prose is dominated by monologues. Punctuation is minimal and few paragraph indentations interrupt the flow of the text. "It is a single stream of language," wrote George Steiner, who called Bernhard "the most original, concentrated novelist writing in German." Other critics view Bernhard's work with reservations, finding it strange and baffling but nevertheless effective in depicting the fragmentation of modern existence.
Bernhard's novels, called "black idylls" by one critic, share several characteristics: the settings are rural, decaying Austria stripped of all pastoral elements, the protagonists are hopelessly isolated aristocratic men, and the narratives focus without pathos on their self-imposed destruction. Frost (1963), Bernhard's first novel, concerns a reclusive old man whose psychological disintegration is recorded daily by a young medical student. In Verstörung (1967; Gargoyles) a son accompanies his father, a country doctor, on his rounds and is shocked by the depravity and hopelessness of the situations they confront. The major portion of the novel portrays a failing prince living in the remains of a castle. This novel has been interpreted as an allegory of Austria's decline. Das Kalkwerk (1970; The Lime Works) won the Georg Büchner prize and relates the story of a flawed genius who isolates himself from all but his crippled wife, whom he eventually murders. In Korrektur (1975; Correction) an aristocrat inherits a fortune but commits suicide. The hopelessness within Bernhard's fiction is relentless.
Bernhard's plays are equally depressing in their emphasis on death. Martin Esslin, commenting on the lack of conventional plot in Bernhard's drama, described it as "a theatre of images, static situations that are merely gradually elaborated and intensified." One of his better-known plays, Ein fest für Boris (1970), depicts a frenetic birthday party attended by grotesque cripples who fail to notice that the guest of honor, also a cripple, dies during the party.
Bernhard's several volumes of autobiography provide a connection between his life and his fiction. His illegitimate birth led to a disastrous relationship with his mother and he was raised by his grandfather, after whom many of his eccentric protagonists are modeled. His repressive schooling was interrupted by a serious lung ailment from which he nearly died. This probably accounts for his obsession with disease and dying. Upon recovering, Bernhard studied music and theater; some critics have noted techniques of musical composition in his prose. Although not directly addressed in his work, the cataclysmic events of the Second World War era overshadowed Bernhard's youth and probably contributed to his bleak world view. Despite his expressed disdain for Austria, Bernhard continues to live there.
(See also CLC, Vol. 3 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)