Until Your Eyes and Ears Fail You
I can go for weeks without writing anything at all. Months. Years. Then all of a sudden something’s there again. Then I look into my drawer, into my little treasure chest. I really don’t do anything else; I open up a little safe, and once again there’s a manuscript inside. Somehow something coalesces once again. As long as people are just merrily scampering all over the place, they’re not even interesting to write about. Why should you write? Because there’s something not right about the people you write about. It makes absolutely no difference whether you believe you’re writing something about them that’s authentically true or if you think it’s completely erroneous. It’s just your view of them when you’re in the mood you’re in when you’re writing. This view might be completely different a half an hour later. Then on top of that someone else, a reader, will come along later and see it completely differently in his own right. So what sorts of people are these, these characters who scamper all over the place? They really have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. That’s why all of them always feel falsified. Thomas Mann and other such people have of course always written about people who still exist. These people have always complained because they’ve had nothing in common with the characters in the books. They write about people who are still alive, and I write about these encounters which are thirty years old or even older, which don’t impinge on me at all anymore. It’s the same as if I were stumbling across some random rock. Or a calf in a stable. That really doesn’t impinge on me either. Of course I don’t know what the truth is either; I myself really don’t know it at all. Above all it’s a thing that is; the way it is and the way you describe it are of course two different things. Even if you feel the urge or the mania to write a hundred percent truth now, you won’t succeed, because to do that you’d have to be able to slap reality down on to paper, which is impossible. But the moment you set to work with your stylistic resources and language, it’s something different and in any case a falsification, but at the same time perhaps an approximation. Probably the will to truth is the only thing you can put to use, probably, but the truth…A description is anything but the actual fact, so it’s of no use at all, no matter what turn you give to it. Or even with facts it goes awry. If I say, “Three people met their deaths,” it’s different, as if death itself could be published, but that’s impossible. And after reading a newspaper article, every reader has seen and assimilated a different truth. For any given thing there are as many truths as there are people who have experienced it. Assuming that they even desire the truth. But truth is drivel in any case. I obviously see myself differently than you see me, and you see yourself differently than I see you, and everything keeps crisscrossing, so even while something’s still happening it’s already been displaced, displaced, and it’s something quite different. Every time somebody writes something, it’s a new truth.
One fine day I sit down and write a prose text, and next I write something different. You catch the scent of something, and then you simply get in the mood for it, and then you’re stuck being in the mood for it. I certainly never have any kind of overall scheme, like Heimito von Doderer. He made proper drafts of his books; he designed his books like an architect, at a draftsman’s table and using multiple colors: the positive chapters he designated the green ones and the negative ones—when they still hardly had anything in them—the red ones. He called one of his books The Diamonds. But I never managed to find a single diamond in it.
You want to produce something good; you take pleasure in what you produce, like a pianist. He starts playing; at first he just practices playing three notes, then he can play twenty, and then eventually he can play all of them, and he keeps perfecting this as long as he lives. And what other people do with notes I do with words. To a turn. Nothing else really interests me at all. That’s the alluring thing about every kind of art. Art is really only ever about playing better and better on the instrument that you’ve chosen. That’s the fun of it, and you won’t let anybody take it away from you or talk you out of it, and when somebody is a world-class piano player, you can clear the entire room in which he’s sitting at his piano, you can fill it with dust and bombard him with bucketfuls of water, and he’s still just going to keep sitting there and playing. And if the house collapses over him, he’ll keep playing, and it’s the same way with writing.
I’m basically a musical person. And the act of writing prose is always bound up with musicality. One person breathes through his belly—singers of course breathe exclusively through their bellies, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sing—another person has got to, you know, transfer his respiration up to his brain. It’s the same process. Of course you’ve got lots of lungs inside you, probably a couple of million of them. Even now. Until they collapse. Because blisters pop, and the air sacs are blisters, so they collapse. When you step out into the street, all that stuff goes to work for you. You don’t need to do anything whatsoever; you don’t need to do anything but open your eyes, open your ears, and walk. You don’t need to do any more reflecting. Then when you get back home, all that stuff will find its way into whatever you write—provided that you make yourself autonomous or are autonomous to begin with. If you’re tensed up and stupid or try to strive for something, nothing will ever come of it. If you’re living in life, you don’t need to add anything to it; all that stuff comes into it on its own, and it will precipitate into whatever you do. You can’t learn this. You can learn to sing if you have a voice. That’s a basic prerequisite, right? A person who is congenitally hoarse and is stuck for life with his hoarseness can hardly become an opera singer. That’s just a universal given. Without a piano you can’t play the piano. Or if you only have a violin and try to play the piano with it, that obviously won’t work either. And if you don’t switch to trying to play the violin, you’ll just end up playing nothing at all. Everybody must assimilate and reject as much of everything as possible. Most people make the mistake of sticking with one caste and class, and they fraternize exclusively with butchers, because they’re butchers, or exclusively with bricklayers because they’re bricklayers, or day laborers because they’re day laborers, or counts because they’re counts…I’m my own man, so I don’t need anybody else. Because nobody can teach me anything or say anything to me, I don’t need to go see anybody. Because human beings are intrinsically hypocritical and eccentric, I don’t need a writer.
And I have no idea how anybody becomes what he is. You can’t get away with asking an athlete how he manages to jump six meters eighty centimeters; if you do, he won’t be able to jump afterwards. Nobody knows how he jumps, how he manages to pull that off. Franz Klammer suddenly started thinking about how he took off, and now he can’t do it anymore. You can’t get away with asking a dancer how he dances; you can’t get away with yelling at a sleepwalker. It’s the same thing. I think it’s like Claudel, who went into the cathedral in Rotterdam and was standing in front of a pillar, and suddenly he described how the pillar sprouted wings and then Jesus rose up before him. So in my opinion it’s really cheesy and it’s really stupid. But it impresses people. When a stone pillar sprouts wings, it’s somehow not only plausible but actually completely clear. And then, after walking into the cathedral in leather shoes, he walked out of it in silk shoes. That was also his birth as a great poet: Paul Claudel. You don’t need to strive for anything in the world, because something will, you know, bump into you. A striver is truly an atrocious thing. The world has an undertow, of course. It carries you along with it; you don’t need to strive. If you strive, you become a total striver, a brownnoser.
Whenever you’re writing you need something around that enables you to write. Whether it’s solitude, a tree or a dung-heap or a human being, anything you’re fixated on. In the final analysis it’s almost always on yourself. Everything else is hokum. Of course a dog also seeks out a tree or the wall of a house when he pisses. When you write it’s like when you pass water. You seek out some such thing, and most of the time you piss on yourself, because that’s the thing that’s nearest to hand.
I've never given any thought to form; that has always emerged on its own, from the way I am and write. Of course one has mentors and narratives. But I think that before Frost at bottom there had never really been anything in that vein. It was the first time anybody had written in that vein. Literature after the war had of course been oriented towards all the famous literature that had come out of America and England and France. Back then, apart from Nazi poets, quote-unquote “Nazi poets,” everybody, even the most well-known writers, wrote nothing but novels that were set in Oklahoma or in New York. Nobody had yet hit upon the idea of describing where they lived and where they’d grown up and things they actually knew something about. The main character in the novels of those days was always somebody called Joe or Miss Temple or Plempl or Plampl, and because of that the literature that was written in the first fifteen years after the war ended up being a complete pile of shit. Because it was worthless, because it stuck to being nothing but a blind, cheap, apish imitation of the Americans. After the Americans became famous and were published in huge print runs, the writers over here believed that they should write like them so that they could drive around in a Cadillac. But they just sullied our literature and never got to own a Cadillac either. So it was completely pointless.
I did some stuff along those lines, but not with Joe and Miss Temple; instead I exploited certain local phenomena and genres that I had read about, along with some things from the French surrealists. I was enthusiastic about Julien Gracq and such people, who were famous back then; of course nobody knows anything about them anymore today because they’ve completely vanished. After that I didn’t write anything at all for years and I thought to myself that I should forget all that stuff and throw it away and that it was basically nothing. Either it works out and you sit down at your desk and write the way you just are and what you know and what you can. Once I started doing it that way it was authentic. And the poems were basically nothing as well, because they were ultimately just a spastic attempt at thrusting myself into the limelight. The stuff that came out of this attempt just wasn’t poetry, and so you end up disconnecting yourself from everything you’ve learned from reading. You’ve simply got to allow yourself to vanish through a kind of trap door, but of course not everybody has the strength to do that, because it means keeping quiet for years at a stretch. For five years I wrote practically nothing, because I’d realized this is bollocks, it’s nothing. In a word: even though I had previously been convinced it was the most exalted and greatest thing ever, suddenly a light came on, and I told myself this is utter rubbish. So all told a hundred poems, and at bottom it’s nothing.
I really was quite anxious after the first book. Well, in any case, you get that every now and then, this feeling; it keeps coming back periodically. It’s nothing new. Then you tell yourself there’s absolutely no reason for it, but then it keeps coming back. What else would I do? I’ve basically got nothing else. It’s basically been constantly shrinking for decades. Because you’ve really got nothing but that and you just keep stirring the porridge…Most of the time there are way too many insights and ideas. Then you’re powerless. Most of the time, of course, you can only start to write again when you’re totally spent. Of course I’d always really like to be writing ten books at once. But I can’t. Of course you can’t have ten themes and then—you’re on the verge of killing yourself. Until another one occurs to you. But it’s always the same process. Of course in the final analysis it’s always interesting. Of course you can get ideas anytime. Of course they come to you spontaneously. Whether they’re potent or not. Because the inside has always got to be covered by the outside, and above all, you’re obviously always standing there naked, and you’re constantly trying to put your clothes on with everything you write. But it never works out; the more you try to get dressed and put your clothes on and keep warm and wrap yourself up, the more naked you’re left standing. But on the other hand it’s also a thrill to expose yourself and just run naked down the street. Because after all, what else are you doing when you have your books published?
I’m not thinking, in fact my mind’s a complete blank, when I write; I’m not reminiscing about any books, not even about any that I’ve read; there’s really nothing there at all. I really don’t devote any energy at all to literature. I read all that stuff fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago; I don’t remember a thing about Stifter’s works. Of course everything you write has ramifications. You can ask me about my own stuff; there are lots of sentences I remember verbatim; well, at any rate, I can remember that I wrote them; I remember that quite clearly. But most of them…I don’t even remember the basic gist of my books at all anymore, because I’m not in the slightest bit interested in them anymore. And so, sure, I have a rough idea, but I don’t often know for sure; is it in The Lime Works or in Gargoyles where the woman is paralyzed? So it’s like that. I just really don’t get attached to the stuff. Because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to write anything new. I of course want to leave myself free of entanglements. All that stuff gets thrown overboard, like ballast from a balloon. You cast away bags of sand, which are your books, and then you can climb higher. And so with every book you throw out on to the ground you really should climb higher. It’s quite a lovely image! But when you’re throwing the bags away off the left side and think you’re climbing higher, you crash into a rocky reef on the other side and it tears the whole thing to pieces. Or you have a wife, who when your back is turned cuts the rope as you’re soaring blissfully into the sky.
A stupid writer, a stupid painter, is always looking for subjects; to find those all he needs to do is live his life. He tries to stay the same forever, but he also tries never to write the same thing twice. And that is really what it all comes down to, if it comes down to anything at all. But if from the beginning you travel around with your writing like a trouser-salesman and also live off of it, you just end up doing something along those lines. A typical writer, a typical German writer, thinks like that. He even says all that as well. He says that he lives like that and writes, and so on. I’ve never felt like a writer in that sense; I have in fact always wanted just to write, but it was only later on that by chance that turned into being a writer. That’s by no means terribly essential, because other people make you into one from the outset. There’s no writer’s academy later on…a place where you would get a little piece of paper where it’d be stated that effective today Mr. Soandso is a licensed writer. Just like a pianist or an actor; they can carry all that home on their license. When I’m writing, I write everywhere, it makes absolutely no difference where. I can write at a tavern, I can write in a block of flats, I can write in Paris in the middle of traffic, it makes absolutely no difference. If I’ve gotten that far, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The question is only ever whether I’ve gotten that far. I actually can’t get started in a place that’s peaceful and where nothing is going on, because I can’t get into the groove. To begin with I need stimuli and some kind of chaotic incident or something like that. Chaos is a great pacifier. For me anyway. And in the newspaper everything is obviously chaotic. But it’s very taxing, because you’ve got to rework all that. To begin with you’ve got translate it into something imaginary. In today’s newspaper it says that a boy was walking his dog—have you read it?—on a leash. Then he tried to climb some hill somewhere; unfortunately the leash got pulled over his head, the dog probably ran three paces ahead, and the boy was strangled. Right, so you imagine something afterwards. But when you describe something, it’s rubbish, because of course it’s nothing special. You’ve got to rework it or come up with something to add to it. The strangled boy in relation to Troilus and Cressida; that might have worked.
The main thing is for it to sound good. That pulls the reader along from the very beginning, the way a dog pulls along a lead. It’s of course always important to pull it all together, to compress it, to be able to throw it away. And being able to separate yourself, radically, from your own stuff, so that you can see that this needs to be thrown out. The more you cut out the better it actually gets. If I now write, for example, something about somebody who goes on a sea voyage because it’s his life’s goal, and something doesn’t fit into the overall project…so it has to be the sea, but then the sea often gives you a block that lasts for months, and on top of that it would be so simple to rework it. A completely logical thing to do, which you haven’t thought of doing, because perhaps you haven’t wanted to do it until now. And then it works out, the project does. You think. And then an actor comes along, or whatever, and we do that, and then yet again it becomes something completely different.
Of course after every project I fall to pieces. After the last play, because it was just such a project, I lay in bed for three weeks in a kind of boardinghouse and I was completely knackered. But of course it’ll come to a natural end, so you don’t need to be worried at all. I already think my stuff has been written in a way that’s never going to become dated. At one point the themes are ahead of their time and at another point they’re behind the times, you know that of course. For decades people don’t read any Hamsun at all, and then he makes a comeback. That happens with everybody. But it’s certainly, without a doubt, deliberately being written in such a way that people will still be able to read it even in a hundred years. Because the style is such that it basically can’t become dated. You learn that from your personal experience: that for a while you devour caviar and probably that comes to an end after three weeks, a sudden end, and then you eat blood sausage. For years. But of course caviar always makes a comeback, even if for just a short time.
But somehow, somewhere, the adventure comes to a close. Now you look for subterfuges and write, say, plays or, say, construct a prose work that bores people, because they say: “I think that’s way too silly, a three-page sentence.” And that’s actually the appeal of the thing, that it makes people go, “Ugh!” And you also find it appealing that you’ve done something that people reject and that gets their hackles up.
Perhaps it’s comparable to a child giving his grandmother a fright every morning and also getting his jollies from it. Perhaps it’s a substitute for that, because of course that’s not possible anymore. When I was a child, there was a curtain, in front of a little broom cupboard, and I would stand inside it with my hand raised, and when my grandmother had just walked past I would let my hand fall out. She was scared to death, every time! But this wasn’t every day. Once I got the feeling that “Now she’s forgotten the whole thing; now I can do it again,” it always worked. And now I can’t do that anymore, because there’s no grandmother here anymore, but I still do things exactly like that. Or say somebody says, “Come pay us a visit; read something to us,” and I say no. Then I have the time of my life. To be sure, I also think to myself, “Good Lord, you’re stupid; you’ve lost the money, the lot,” but perhaps then the fun is even greater.
Basically that’s the way it is, and so such things happen. Otherwise of course everything would be horrible. If I humored everyone all the time, it would obviously be terrible. And so you have to construct something for yourself on your own; obviously nothing is coming in from outside. There’s no war, and there’s nothing else; we’re not living in some border zone, where something is going on. And those stories about nukes are all tedious, because they end in nothing. And so you should wander off somewhere, with a satchel. You’ve got to construct Afghanistan and things like that, substitutes for them, yourself…when you get antagonistic the way I do, something interesting comes into being. Somehow after doing that you’re surrounded by elements of tension again.
Of course an illness is always a great blessing as well. Every illness that you’ve beaten makes for a terrific story, because nobody can tip anything remotely like it into your cup. But you can’t count on it, because at some point things are going to take a nasty turn. That doesn’t make any difference anyway, though, because of course by then you won’t be around anymore, and you won’t be able to notice it.
Of course it wasn’t all that long ago that they still spelt literature with two tees… litteratus!
My life is of course altogether clear-cut; I do my work; everything that impedes this work falls by the wayside, and whatever facilitates this work I am in favor of. It’s just that simple, now and forever.
I haven’t been fated to do anything impossible; what I intend to write hasn’t been decided by fate. I don’t feel the least bit ashamed or anything like that; obviously I can’t feel that way anymore. If you stop working, you’ve got to go outside and set fire to something or other. At first you do this as if you’re walking in your sleep, and afterwards you yourself wonder how it ended up going the way it did.
But I’d still like to do or see something different; I don’t mean something new, because of course there’s hardly anything new left; but of course it’s a pleasure to look at everything everywhere, until your eyes and ears fail you. Maybe you don’t want to keep living through all these periods that you keep living through and want to kill yourself; probably everybody’s felt that way, of course…but in spite of all the hardships, probably everything is actually getting more and more interesting and also more beautiful.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 20-41.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson