Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Translation of the First Letter in the Correspondence between Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld

Letter No. 1

Obkirchergasse 3
October 22, 1961

Dear Dr. Unseld,

A few days ago I sent your firm a prose manuscript. [1] I wished by means of this manuscript to establish a relationship with Suhrkamp.  I own several books published by your firm, and they are among the best that have appeared in modern times.  This is another thing that has prompted me to turn my back on certain other relationships that I have already secured. [2] Perhaps a conversation with you could be arranged.  At the end of November I shall be passing through Frankfurt.  Although I do not know you personally, I do know a handful of people you know.  But I am venturing to go this alone. [3]

Yours very respectfully,
Thomas Bernhard

Editors' notes:

[1] On September 17, 1961, writing from the same Vienna address, the residence of Hedwig Stavianicek, Bernhard sent to Suhrkamp a manuscript together with a letter reading as follows: “Dear sirs, I am being so bold as to send you my manuscript ‘The Forest in the Street’ and to request that if possible you arrive at a decision about it by the end of November.  I further request that you briefly acknowledge your receipt of the manuscript. […] P.S. You are the first publisher to whom I am sending this MS.”  The manuscript in question is a revision of the novel Schwarzach St. Veit, which was extensively reworked over the course of 1961, and which Bernhard began writing in 1957.  It has never been published.  In January 1989, a month before his death, a section of the work, entitled In der Höhe.  Rettungsversuch.  Unsinn [On High.  A Rescue Attempt.  An Absurdity] appeared under the imprint of the Salzburg publisher Residenz (see. Letter No. 522; for the typescript and publication history see Bernhard, Werke 11, pp. 336-346).

[2] Between 1957 and 1959 four books by Thomas Bernhard were published: three volumes of poetry, Auf der Erde und in der Hölle [On Earth and in Hell] (1957), In hora mortis (1958), and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes [Under the Iron of the Moon] (the first two by Otto Müller in Salzburg, the third by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Cologne), and die rosen der einöde, fünf sätze für ballett, stimmen und orchester [the roses of the wasteland, five pieces for dancers, singers, and orchestra] by Samuel Fischer in Frankfurt am Main. (die rosen der einöde was reprinted in Bernhard, Werke 15, pp. 7-52.)  Bernhard’s hopes for further publication through Fischer were conclusively dashed in May 1961, when the firm’s then director, Rudolf Hirsch, mailed him back all the manuscripts he had submitted to it.

[3] The letter bears a note in Siegfried Unseld’s handwriting: “Give MS to Mr. Michel.”  On January 24, 1962, Karl Markus Michel wrote to Bernhard at the address he had provided: “[…] unfortunately we cannot […] quite warm to your novel […].  The subject matter, as embodied in the characters, setting, and plot, is rather feeble to begin with, and it subsequently becomes so bogged down in atmospherics, pontifications, and other impedimenta that a palpable gulf between its matter-of-fact foundation and its ambitious literary superstructure arises.  […]  Widely varying stylistic possibilities are tried out in the absence of any deep necessity or indeed even superficial motivation for such experimentation, and the novel as a whole consequently acquires a highly diffuse character.”

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Thomas Bernhard.  Siegfried Unseld.  Der Briefwechsel, Herausgegeben von Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber und Julia Ketterer.  [Thomas Bernhard.  Siegfried Unseld.  The Correspondence, edited by ….] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2011), pp. 9-10.