Thomas Bernhard Bernhard, Thomas (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Robert Maurer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Bernhard is evidently a writer who prefers great risks, like a swimmer who chooses to enter the water with a quadruple flip from the highest board rather than feet first from poolside. His performance may not be flawless. It isn't in Gargoyles,… [his first work] to appear in English. Nevertheless, his daring is remarkable, and the chances he takes pay off: for him, two literary prizes in his native Austria during 1968; for the reader, interest, suggestiveness, depth, and the realization that here is a novelist with uncommon talents of the sort possessed by Kafka, Musil, and Beckett, with whose visions of isolation and despair he has been associated by German critics.

Early one morning a doctor sets out on his daily rounds with his son. Even before their journey begins through a forbidding mountainous countryside, the father has visited a dying schoolmaster and a child who has fallen into a tub full of boiling water. "Everyone I have to visit and touch and treat proves to be sick and sad," the doctor warns the boy. (p. 34)

The doctor's forewarning should not be lost on Bernhard's readers, for the succession of grotesque portraits that follow seems almost to have been inspired by one of Kafka's aphorisms: "What is laid upon us is to accomplish the negative; the positive is already given."… [The last patient they visit is] Prince Saurau, whose "deadly monologue" consumes more than half the novel and...

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D. A. Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few present day novelists writing in German make such compulsive reading as Thomas Bernhard…. Few evoke such powerful and haunting images of people and the landscape they live in, and in a language which is individual, direct and new without any attempt to be clever or to hide an insufficiency of content behind a smart playing about with words.

Thomas Bernhard writes of a predominantly rural Austria evidently still suffering from the traumatic experience of two world wars, of its reduction from a multinational empire imbued with fine traditions to a small, almost isolated, inward-looking state festering in the mountains and forests of Central Europe. No direct mention is made of the catastrophes, but they are implicit in the introspective sickness of many of his characters. The introspection exists too in his language which so often turns violently in on itself like a whirlpool. Few writers have managed to convey obsessive violence so directly. (p. 343)

Bernhard's Austria of the 1960s is a land which has withdrawn in on itself; it is a prison, mental home or hospital of hopeless cases. Austria is in the final state of decay and the people of that country are the victims of that decay. In his speech in 1968 before the Austrian Kultusminister he speaks of 'das Dämonische in uns' as being 'ein immerwährender vaterländischer Kerker, in dem die Elemente der Dummheit und der Rücksichtslosigkeit zur tagtäglichen Notdurft geworden sind'. He adds: 'Wir bevölkern ein Trauma, wir fürchten uns, wir haben ein Recht, uns zu fürchten, wir sehen schon, wenn auch undeutlich im Hintergrund: die Riesen der Angst (…) wir sind auch nichts und verdienen nichts als das Chaos'. Even abroad, whether in London or so far away as New York, says the Prince von Saurau in Verstörung, the sickness of their homeland still haunts them. The inevitable consequences are disease, insanity and death…. Frost is set … [in a] cold dark landscape: forests descending into a gorge, isolated from the outer world, claustrophobic, a place where one is alone with one's own fantasies and obsessions. Austria becomes as it were a microcosm of the decay and disintegration of Europe as a whole, lost in the rain and cold…. In Das Kalkwerk, also set in isolation, the cold and 'Finsternis' are still as strongly present. The disintegration of Austria is brought home in the recurrent theme of the breaking up or falling apart of houses and estates handed down by families through the generations. These estates in their peculiar isolation at times exert a seductive and destructive influence on their owners, as Hochgobernitz in Verstörung or Ungenach in the short story of the same name. It is hard, sometimes impossible to escape from them, just as it is impossible for most of Bernhard's characters who go abroad to escape from Austria, to stay away. They will come back expecting to fulfil their life's ambitions there, but find instead destruction…. In Austria the lower classes tend to be mentally deficient, criminal or physically ill while the higher echelons become insane. (pp. 344-45)

In contrast Bernhard often writes of the English-speaking world as a sort of refuge from the dangers of his own country: one of the half-brothers in Ungenach appears to find safety from his past in the USA…. (p. 345)

The Englishman in Midland in Stilfs, on a visit to this lonely Austrian village, remains untouched by the morbidity of the life there, where the half-wit Roth blows up chickens with a bicycle pump until they burst. The visit of the Englishman Midland makes them happy; he is described as an 'Enthusiast'; he is 'ausgestattet mit den Kennzeichen einer Welt, die wir seit vielen Jahren nicht einmal mehr vom Hörensagen kennen'. Bernhard treats Midland with a gentleness, warmth and light humour unapparent in his attitude to other characters.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki in his essay on Verstörung, 'Konfesionen eines Besessenen' (Literatur der kleinen Schritte, Munich 1967) attacks Bernhard's aggressive attitude to his fatherland as extraordinarily one-sided and finds that it goes beyond bounds to become monotonous, especially when accompanied by such general aggression in other directions. His later novel Das Kalkwerk, however, shows a considerable toning down of this aggression and thereby gains in verisimilitude…. Urs Jenny in a short article 'Österreichische Agonie' (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7-8 Dec. 1968) rightly points out how Bernhard reflects the disintegration of the country in the disintegration of families: parents commit suicide and a son dies of epilepsy (Amras), or father and son after him slowly become insane in the confines of their inheritance (Verstörung).

But the parallel exists for Bernhard in the workings of nature itself: nature is obviously and fundamentally a destructive and self-destructive force whose end is death, total annihilation, 'Finsternis'.

His characters feel with more than one sense the dark forces: what they hear and smell haunts them. Strauch, the degenerating sometime painter in Frost, continually hears the barking of dogs, which without reason attack human beings in the streets and yards, while the rivers 'atmen den Geruch der Verwesung ihres ganzen Flußlaufes auf'…. For Saurau the identification between the decaying world outside him and that within is almost complete, a process, 'in dem alles vernichtet wird, um dann endgültig zu sein'. Later he remarks, 'dieser Vorgang ist immer ein von innen ausgehender, sich nach außen vollziehender'. A mind which sees the process going in this direction is introverted to the point of dangerous imbalance.

Because the 'normal' state of nature is 'Finsternis' and 'Chaos', it is natural that man too should move towards that state. Natural too therefore that disease, madness and crime are end-products of nature whereas health, sanity and temperate living are unnatural. People are violent, objects of fear rather than of love. Many of his main characters suffer therefore from paranoia. Sometimes this violence is expressed by insane laughter: one thinks of Höller and his nephew in Das Kalkwerk who disturb Konrad by their 'unheimliches Gelächter', or of the father in Amras who laughs as he poisons himself. There is a suppressed violence in this laughter, a laughter which often presages an act of violence or is suspected by those who hear it as portending such an act.

Jens Tismar ('Thomas Bernhards Erzählerfiguren', in Über Thomas Bernhard Edition Suhrkamp Nr. 401) points out that, because Bernhard's characters live in a relationship to nature rather than to a consumer society, they are thus the first to be struck by violence, which has its origin in nature. Those who live closest to nature are least protected against it. Man is stripped of the sophistication a city civilization allows him and is at the mercy of the power that ultimately governs him. The state is the first attempt of man to mitigate the destructive forces of nature, but soon the state becomes party to this decay and destruction.

It is common in Bernhard's prose work to encounter men engaged in study of some sort which will reach fruition through being written down, through a personal act of creation; an attempt, one would think, to assert oneself against the inevitable destruction of the personality. This attempt, particularly convincing and moving in the case of Konrad in Das Kalkwerk, is usually a failure, and it is not so much a case of artistic creation as the desire of an ordinary man to lend some point to his existence—a desire which is not fulfilled because of the conditions in which men live and because of the almost universal inability in the ordinary man to preserve 'Furchtlosigkeit vor Realisierung, vor Verwirklichung'…. Men usually fail and nature takes its course.

Bernhard's minor characters are generally the rural proletariat: Fleischhauer, Furhmänner, Holzhauer, Wasenmeister or Forst- and Gutsverwaler. These characters are so often described in a way which suggests they are capable of acts of violence and are manifestations of the violent natural world in which they live and work. Even their names, at times, have a ring of violence: Höller, Zehetmayer, Henzig, Krainer. One is often reminded of Samuel Beckett (and in other facets of Bernhard's writing too) whose choice of names is as peculiar. His women characters contribute to the feeling of inevitable decay and destruction: the step-mother in Ungenach, the Wirtin in Frost and most of all Konrad's wife in Das Kalkwerk, whose persecution of her husband is partly responsible for his downfall.

Bernhard is a writer with obsessions, and nowhere are these obsessions more obvious than in the style itself. Words are repeated over and over again, and acquire thereby a certain violence as well as conveying the effect of reported gossip. Words such as 'total', 'verheerend', 'lächerlich', 'tatsächlich', 'tagtäglich', 'nurmehr' and the constant driving of the language into the superlative give a relentlessness to his narration. (pp. 345-48)

These obsessions are one of the main contributions to the violence and directness of his language,...

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J. W. Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When [Thomas Bernhard] was awarded the Austrian State Prize he accepted with the words 'Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death'. The Minister of Education stormed out of the hall …' Can't say I blame him. On that showing Herr Bernhard is a silly show-off; on the showing of The Force of Habit [Die Macht der Gewohnheit] he is a plodding and derivative writer with no light to throw on the old ideas he nurses—I was going to say at such length, but in fact, though it seemed much longer, the piece lasted barely two hours, an expensive ordeal for the audience as well as for the company. It would seem that Bernhard intended to write a play about the eroding power of dedication and about the stifling...

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Betty Falkenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a way and to a degree unequalled by any of his contemporaries, Handke, Kroetz, the entire Graz or "Viennese Group" (Artmann, Beyer, Achleitner) together, the work of Thomas Bernhard is unsettling. Long excluded from their ranks (Bernhard, a native Austrian, was denied publication in the "organs" of both groups), he still remains, despite the belated recognition of his genius, the loner he always was.

Long before literary critics began speculating about the influence of Wittgenstein on Handke's ambivalence towards language, Bernhard had incorporated the Wittgenstein skepsis into his prose. "Words," says the protagonist of his novel, Limeworks, "are made to degrade thought, yes, he would even...

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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernhard, an Austrian like Handke, is nearly 50 years old and for some time has been recognized in the German-speaking world as an extraordinary, if hard to classify, new fictional voice. Three of his novels have been published in the United States (several of his plays are in the process of being translated) and they have been almost totally ignored. The newest of his novels to be published here, his most important work up to the time of its appearance in Germany (1974), came out months ago with not even a mention in The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books and, with the exception of an admiring and intelligent piece by Betty Falkenburg [see excerpt above] in the current...

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Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the German-speaking world, and in the whole of continental Europe, Thomas Bernhard … is generally accepted as one of the leading literary figures of his time, the author of a remarkable series of short stories, seven major novels and ten successful plays, yet in the English-speaking sphere, he is still practically unknown. One of his plays. Die Macht der Gewohnheit (The Force of Habit), has been translated, was briefly performed at the National Theatre in London in 1976, and proved a resounding failure. But apart from that, his name has hardly been mentioned.

And, admittedly, Bernhard is a strange and bewildering writer. His deep pessimism, the blackness of his humour, his predilection...

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Francis Michael Sharp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The historical past forms a particularly important backdrop for the first volume of Bernhard's autobiographical works, Die Ursache (The Cause; 1975). It spans the years from 1943 to 1946, which the adolescent Bernhard spent in his native Salzburg as a boarding-school student. The analytic intent of the author is to lay bare the origins of what has been called his catastrophic world view, his bitterness toward Austria and Salzburg, his anger at institutionalized education and religion, his uncompromising hopelessness and misanthropy. He is particularly incensed by the memories of the hypocrisy of this period, during which he witnessed the effortless transition from the fascist administration of his school to an...

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Stella P. Rosenfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Die Kälte is the fourth volume of what promises to be a lengthy series of autobiographical reminiscences. As in its predecessor, Der Atem (1978 …), here too the author treats only a brief period of his life and offers a detailed chronicle of his illness….

Die Kälte is as much a metaphor for the hopelessness of human existence, for life as a sickness unto death, as it is a personal account of suffering. It abounds with recognizable truths and powerful descriptions and impresses the reader with its complete honesty. Yet the awkward, long-winded, monotonous style and the lack of compassion for the very human condition that seems to be at its core make Die Kälte a...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An Austrian who detests Austria and Austrians, a human being who confronts humanity with the greatest mistrust, a writer who puts his faith in writing even while his every sentence attests to his doubt of its efficacy, a man for whom life is at best grotesque and the grave is the goal cannot help attracting the brighter children of a century that flirts with torment and skirts doom. Such a writer is Thomas Bernhard, the 53-year-old poet, playwright, novelist and storyteller, whose following among literati, intellectuals and cultural fellow travelers grows steadily while the rest of the world blithely ignores him.

Three of his novels—"Gargoyles" (whose German title, "Verstörung," a word coined by...

(The entire section is 736 words.)