Thomas Bernhard Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite an early interest in the drama revealed in an essay on Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, which he wrote while a student at the Musik Akademie in Vienna, and his experimentation with one-act plays before 1960, Thomas Bernhard achieved initial literary recognition for his poetry and prose. Only since the publication and premiere of A Party for Boris in 1970 did Bernhard occupy an important niche in contemporary German drama. His emergence as a playwright did not signify a radical digression from earlier philosophical or thematic concerns; in his plays, as well as in his later prose, Bernhard continued to pursue his obsession with life’s theatricality and absurdity.

In addition to contributions of poems to anthologies and journals, Bernhard published four volumes of poetry. After the completion of the libretto Die Rosen der Einöde (1959; the roses of the desert), he embarked on a career as a writer of both long and short fiction. His Wittgensteins Neffe: Eine Freundschaft (1983; Wittgenstein’s Nephew, 1986), a violent memoir consisting of one unrelenting paragraph that covers 164 pages, attests his continuing preoccupation with Ludwig Wittgenstein, given fullest expression in the novel Korrectur (1975; Correction, 1979) but apparent throughout Bernhard’s uvre. In addition, Bernhard published various autobiographical works as well as programmatic essays and speeches.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A highly controversial figure throughout his career because of his virulent attacks on society and his nihilistic and self-destructive tendencies, Thomas Bernhard emerged as one of Austria’s most widely discussed modern authors. As a highly prolific writer, whose true artistic intent and radical aggressiveness vis-à-vis his audience, his homeland, and society at large remain veiled in contradiction, Bernhard elicited diverse critical reaction. Though controversial, Bernhard was recognized as a major exponent of modern German drama, yet he was justifiably acclaimed more widely for his innovative prose. The landscapes Bernhard portrayed in his prose often draw on his familiar Austria and its cities (Salzburg, Vienna). In its radical treatment of his homeland and its tradition, Bernhard’s work evokes an equally strident criticism of the human condition because even the identifiable, localized settings he presents are merely paradigms of a deadly, antagonistic universe. Though the settings for his plays are not typically Austrian, they parallel metaphorically those of his prose.

Bernhard’s plays have been performed in leading German and Austrian theaters, including Vienna’s conservative Burgtheater, and at the Salzburg Festival. Most of them have also been broadcast on German, Austrian, and Swiss television. He received prestigious literary awards, including the Bremer Literaturpreis (1965), the Österreichischer Staatspreis für Literatur (1967), the Wildgans-Preis (1968), the Büchner-Preis (1970), the Grillparzer-Preis (1971), and the Franz-Theodor-Csokor-Preis (1972).

A contributor to the three major literary genres, Bernhard was frequently mentioned in connection with other acknowledged masters of modern literature ( Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Georg Trakl, Paul Éluard, Artaud, Brecht, Samuel Beckett) and with contemporary literary trends ( Theater of the Absurd, Theater of Cruelty, nouveau roman). Despite his affinity with and indebtedness to these authors and trends, Bernhard’s works remained distinctly his own creation; his plays, in particular, defy easy categorization.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thomas Bernhard (BEHRN-hahrt) published at a prolific pace after the appearance of his first book, a volume of poems, in 1957. In addition to his novels, he wrote several volumes of poetry as well as many dramatic works of varying style and popularity, and he was widely acknowledged as one of the leading contemporary playwrights in German. Perhaps Bernhard’s most important work, equal in power to his fiction, is his five-volume autobiographical sequence, which covers his life from his earliest years to the age of nineteen: Die Ursache: Eine Andeutung (1975; An Indication of the Cause, 1985), Der Keller: Eine Entziehung (1976; The Cellar: An Escape, 1985), Der Atem: Eine Entscheidung (1978; Breath: A Decision, 1985), Die Kälte: Eine Isolation (1981; In the Cold, 1985), and Ein Kind (1982; A Child, 1985); the last volume is chronologically the first. Bernhard made programmatic statements only reluctantly, sometimes in terse and often provocative newspaper and radio interviews; the most important formulations in this regard are his acceptance speeches for several prestigious literary awards.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the mid-1960’s, critics and the German-speaking public began to take a serious interest in Thomas Bernhard, recognizing in his work an original voice and an extraordinary, if uncompromisingly bleak, vision. This critical fascination with Bernhard has, in the main, withstood the test of time, but the interest and reactions the author evokes are negative as often as they are positive. George Steiner, for example, has called Bernhard “the most original, concentrated novelist writing in German,” linking him with “the great constellation of [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal, [Franz] Kafka, [Robert] Musil,” yet Steiner has also said that Bernhard’s later works betray a lack of new insight, that originality gave way to formulaic themes and clichés.

It can be said that Bernhard always appealed to a rather limited audience. His work presents the same kind of resistance to facile understanding as that of Samuel Beckett; his literary practice is not straightforward or discursive; his somewhat stock themes are by no means uplifting. Thus, while his readership has never been large, particularly in the English-speaking world (where many novels and plays have been translated but have been almost uniformly ignored by critics and readers alike), he received virtually every significant Austrian and German literary award, including the Georg Büchner Prize, considered the pinnacle of literary recognition in Germany.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Almost all of Thomas Bernhard’s protagonists are afflicted by one disease or another. Is this merely a reflection of Bernhard’s own lifelong bouts with illness, or does disease function as a metaphor in his novels?

Most of Bernhard’s novels are one-paragraph interior monologues by often eccentric characters. How reliable are these narrators? Can we take everything they say as fact?

Bernhard has been called a “misogynist,” or a hater of women. Is there evidence for that in his novels? Is there another possible explanation for the absence of female narrators in his novels?

Most Americans associate Austria with images from the Hollywood film The Sound of Music (1965). Contrast and compare these images to Bernhard’s portrait of Austria.

In his novels, Bernhard frequently presents famous artists and thinkers, among them Glenn Gould and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but he falsifies easily verifiable biographical facts about them. Assuming that this is intentional, what might be his purpose?

Some critics have discovered signs of comedy in Bernhard’s novels. Can you find incidents or passages that would support this claim?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Barthofer, Alfred. “The Plays of Thomas Bernhard: A Report.” Modern Austrian Literature 11, no. 1 (1978). Analyzes the general themes and approaches of Bernhard’s works.

Bernhard, Thomas. “Meet the Author.” Harper’s Magazine 315, no. 1997 (August, 2007): 18-20. Interview with Bernhard in which he comments on the purpose of art, expresses his disgust for literary critics, and maintains that he is not interested in his own fate or in the fate of his books.

Cousineau, Thomas. Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2008. This book makes an excellent argument for the importance of Bernhard as a major twentieth century writer. Cousineau offers readers help in understanding Bernhard’s prose style by devoting a chapter to each of his six novels and examining their plot and characterization.

Dierick, A. P. “Thomas Bernhard’s Austria: Neurosis, Symbol, or Expedient?” Modern Austrian Literature 12, no. 1 (1979). Explores the relationship of Bernhard’s plays to the sociopolitical climate of Austria.

Dowden, Stephen D., and James N. Hardin, eds. Understanding Thomas Bernhard. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Collection of essays explores the themes and approaches of Bernhard’s...

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