Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian (Rita Honegger)
… an Austrian writer, and anyway the name didn’t matter, the person didn’t matter, no writer’s person or biography ever mattered, his work was everything, the writer himself was nothing, despite the despicable vulgarity of all those who insisted upon confusing the writer’s person with his work. The general public had been corrupted by certain historical and literary processes of the first half of the nineteenth century into daring, with the shameless impertinence characteristic of them, to confuse the written work with the writer’s personal concerns, using the writer’s person to effect a viscous crippling of the writer’s work, always shuttling back and forth between the writer’s private person and his product, and so forth, all of which lead to a monstrous distortion of the entire culture, bringing into being a culture which was a monstrosity, and so forth…
- Thomas Bernhard, The Lime Works
In 1989, Thomas Bernhard succumbed to the lung disease that had been plaguing him for almost all of his life, having scored a double “triumph” of sorts; his play Heldenplatz, had made him the most reviled (and most adored) literary figure in Austria, and his final will and testament had forbidden the publication and production of any of his published or unpublished works in Austria “however it defines itself” until the estate’s copywrite expires and the work enters into public domain. And this fits in with the image that even the most attentive reader might have cobbled together: the austere, solitary misanthropic author living in his farmhouse in Upper Austria preparing invective in his sparsely furnished rooms (all of which are painted black) with big bars on the window etc., occasionally to be found restlessly reading newspapers in Viennese café’s while diffidently giving interviews with more than a concealed level of hostility.
It’s a pretty picture taken from central casting. Sontag: “He (for the type is male of course) is a Jew or like a Jew; polycultural, restless, misogynistic; a collector; dedicated to self-transcendence, despising the instincts; weighed down by books and buoyed up by the euphoria of knowledge. His real task is to not to exercise his talent for explanation but, by being witness to the age, to set the largest, most edifying standards of despair.” Sontag groups Bernhard with Elias Cannetti and Walter Benjamin in this group, and certainly this He is one of the more enduring, not to say, compelling stock characters in European continental literature. The figure is European without a doubt, and the pathology is strictly that of central Europe, where the dead hand of even the most recent tradition hangs heavy. (It is apparently impossible to throw a brick in Prague without hitting some kitschy Kafka landmark.) Impossible to know what this He would make of New Europe’s MacDonalds, ID cards and Euros; the middle class do not exist for Him. All attention is focused on the (remains of the) past.
Rita Honegger’s book has two main purposes: to pour some cold water on the Bernhard myth sketched above (with some rather interesting results) and to situate Bernhard as not an anti-Austria figure, but as the most Austrian of them all, Austria “and all that comes with it.” The two purposes operate in tandem; Bernhard took some undeniable pleasure in presenting himself, of allowing himself to be presented, as the Scourge of Austria, dragging its skeletons from the closet – be they Nazism or a more generalized impulse towards brutality and depravity. Honnegger’s aim is to show that this is true, but up to a point. Yes, Berhard was absolutely a Nestbeschmutzer, but his attacks presupposed the permamnce, or at least the symbolic efficacy, of Austria-Europe’s past – Aristocracy, Church, Kultur.
Certainly Bernhard’s novels (I am not as familiar with his plays) are filled with black sheep deliberately (either through obsessive concentration on some intagible, impossible goal or with malice aforethought, usually both) ruining their illustrious heritage. And yet, Honnegger shows this heritage was not Bernhard’s by birth. Born out of wedlock (possibly the result of a date rape) and not exactly embraced lovingly by his eventual step-father, he found himself in the “oppressive” peasant atmosphere that informs his earlier novels such as Frost and Gargoyles. In these novels, the wonders of the Alpine forests are overshadowed by universal sickness and debility, madmen in locked attics and women dying painfully giving birth to damaged children, families committing joint suicide to avoid insanity.
All of this seems to change overnight – that is to say, the time when young Thomas moves to Salzburg to train as a singer while working as a court reporter (which always comes to mind whenever I read The Voice Imitator) is glossed over fairly quickly. Honegger does contextualize Bernhard’s participation in the Bohemian avant-garde scene, including, tantalizingly, the Vienna Gruppe scene, but, as frequently happens in biographies, the context sometimes overtakes the subject. The transformation of Bernhard the hick from the sticks to Thomas Bernhard the author and theater-maker is passed over rather quickly, but also constitutes one of the great surprises of the biography.
Honegger’s book is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which has certain advantages, but one main disadvantage – it is hard to get a sense of the sequence of events. How, for example, was the publication of Woodcutters affected by and affected other events (e.g. Bernhard’s homosexual affairs, one of the BIG surprises that is almost entirely glossed over here, or the public reception of Heldenplatz at the Burgtheater.)* So rather mysteriously, we move from the unwanted child in very grim post-War circumstances (it is to Honegger’s credit that she doesn’t let Bernhard’s, shall we say, expressionistic versions of his childhood override the facts and details she pieced together through hard biographical slog – interviews, archival research etc.) before little Thomas gets out of Salzburg and heads to the big smoke/Vienna to seek fame and fortune as an actor at the Mozarteum. Again, a familiar narrative, a familiar set of characters:
His public image in those years, somewhat mythologized by himself as well as by former friends and colleagues, alternated between the raw peasant misfit who preferred driving a beer truck through the rough streets of Vienna to socializing with the city aesthetes, on the one hand, and the impeccably dressed, painfully shy poet, inhibited precisely by his outsider status and his lack of urban finesse, on the other.
How do you do this? (Underemployed aesthetes want to know!) Well, find a wealthy patron, of course! While in the Grafenhof tuberculosis sanatorium (described in Wittgenstein’s Nephew and Gathering Evidence) Thomas, who, it must be admitted, was a rather alarmingly attractive young man in a Germanic James Dean sort of way, meets the wealthy and 30 years older Hedwig Stavianicek. Honegger notes that the details of the relationship are difficult to determine due to Berhnard’s reticence on the one hand (although he does refer to her as his Liebensmensch, which is ambiguous enough) and some rather smutty gossip from the coffee-house chattering classes on the other (the campy overtones of Liebensmench and “Auntie”, the quasi-incestuous mother-son overtones). Buried in Honegger’s (vital) contextualizations and cultural histories is a clear picture of the relationship between Bernhard and Stavianicek, so essential to Berhanrd that he would describe her as “the woman who shares my life and to whom I have owed not just a great deal, but, frankly, more or less everything, since the moment when she first appeared at my side…. Without her, I would not be alive at all, or at any rate I would certainly not be the person I am today, so mad and so unhappy and yet at the same time happy.” This is strong praise indeed; unlike just about every other one of Bernhard’s friendships, there was to be no sudden rupture, definitive break or oscillation between affection and venomous derision.** In this biography, Bernhard overwhelms; as with his novels, women remain shadowy figures silently waiting in the periphery.
The dirt and grime of Bernhard’s life (no more or less dirty or grimy than yours or mine) are deemphasized so that Honegger can put forward her main thesis: Bernhard as echt Austrian, insofar as Austria in general and Vienna in particular are entirely constituted in performances whose veracity is subordinated to the degree to which they are convincing or even just plain novel. The care with which Honegger extricates the kaleidescope of performances of performances or performances (“the actor in the actor in the actor”) is impressive, although it does tend somewhat to blot out any other perspective. We could, for example, have stood for further exploration of the manner in which the works and legend of Wittgenstein gained the cultural prominence that they did among such people as Bachman, Bernhard and Handke. (We also could have learned more about the enmity between the last two, which is one of the funnier aspects of the book, for those who love literary gossip as I do.) Honegger more or less stops at noting the ways in which Ludwig and Paul Wittegenstein provided Bernhard with a useful repertory of masks (in Concrete and Correction in particular, which compare very favourably indeed to Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found It believe you me). This is true as far as it goes, but surely there’s a bit more to it than that? In effect, there is something slightly monomaniacal about Honegger's determination to bend the life to the idea; in a way, she becomes a Bernhard character herself, as does everyone who spends too long in the vicinity of the man and/or his works. And it is precisely this danger that makes Bernhard’s work so endlessly compelling – the radioactivity of consciousness tuned to a feverish pitch that is so relentless in its destruction that no amount of pose-assumption or critical distance is even possible.
* Is it a sign of a successful biography to have to include a basic timeline which I needed to consult frequently while writing this piece in order to piece together what happened when? Its a shame that all of our lives aren't organized thematically; it would save a lot of the "what the hell am I doing with my life" moments that darken certain evenings.
** The publication of Woodcutters launched a libel suit from Gerhard Lampersberg, wealthy patron of the arts (and particularly young artistic men of pleasant mien, including Bernhard). While all of this took place before Thomas Bernhard became Thomas Bernhard, one wonders what on Earth they expected? Honegger suggests that for the Viennese, it was all very well when Bernhard was laying into someone else, but when the corrosive gaze turned your way, well, that was a different pile of schnitzle.