Sunday, July 03, 2011

A Translation of "Holzfällen / Wien 1984" (Thomas Bernhard Interviewed by Krista Fleischmann)

The occasion of this interview was the publication of the book Woodcutters, not its confiscation. On August 28, 1984, under authority of a court order, all publicly available copies of this book were confiscated by the police. The order ensued from a civil lawsuit initiated by the composer Gerhard Lampersberg, who believed that he had been depicted in the book.  On the day of the interview, Bernhard was of the opinion that no judge in Austria would dare let a book be confiscated.  But he did inform me that proceedings  of some sort were afoot against him.  All along the way to the Hotel Sacher, where this interview took place, Bernhard kept stopping and refusing to move.  He was, he said, in terrible shape, and had hardly slept a wink or inhaled a breath of air the night before.  And as a postscript, he added, “You’re going to have your work cut out for you today with me!”

FLEISCHMANN: The blurb of your latest book mentions “its first-person narrator, in whom the combination of fiction and autobiographical fact is more pronounced than ever before.”  What is the relationship there?  What is real?  What is invented?

BERNHARD: Well, everything is invented, and everything is also real.  That’s the nature of the mixture.  And the person who perceives himself as real will find himself in it, and he will also perceive even what’s invented as real.

FLEISCHMANN: The novel deals with the culture industry of our time; writers of both sexes figure in it.  Are these merely fictional characters, or are they people you have encountered in real life?

BERNHARD: Quite obviously these are people whom I’ve known very well, whom I actually still know very well; to this extent none of them is fictional.

FLEISCHMANN: Is this piece of prose also a piece of account-settling with your own past?

BERNHARD: A piece of my life; indeed, a decisive piece.  At some point you want to—what’s the word?—capture decisive segments, with your pen, that’s really what it is.  That’s how it’s produced.  The fifties.  Now we’re in the eighties, thirty years later, so you can pull all your old friends into [this space] between the covers of a book, and you hold them captive [there], take a picture of them; you deliver it up, the publisher publishes it, and there it is.

FLEISCHMANN:  And what happens now if these friends recognize themselves in this book?

BERNHARD: Well, of course they can’t help recognizing themselves, even though all their names have been changed.  The uninitiated reader won’t know who has been targeted; the target will know with a hundred-percent certainty who it is when he feels himself being hit.            

FLEISCHMANN: In this book you write that Austrian intellectual life has gone to wrack and ruin.  Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of genius, its newspapers are the worst in the world, the Burgtheater is abominable, its administration is even more abominable.  Are these turns of phrase you employ for the sake of, as it were, honing your artistic technique, or [are they] your actual opinion[s]?

BERNHARD: All these opinions arise spontaneously, and so they certainly don’t have anything to do with any sort of artistic technique that can ever be discovered

FLEISCHMANN: But isn’t that a rather presumptuous attitude on your part?

BERNHARD: I don’t think so; I think the attitude I have taken is an entirely natural one.  If you live here and walk around our cities, if you’re acquainted with the people here, you’re just bound to produce the kind of stuff that’s in that book.

FLEISCHMANN: So is this book just an assault on Austria and its cultural history?

BERNHARD: No, no, no.  The book is just a collection of notes with which I’m trying to capture what happened back then and the way things are now.  I’m not assaulting anybody at all.  If anybody feels he has been hit by it, that’s his problem, of course, or the problem of an entire country or culture, or, for all I know, any and every cabinet minister or group of powerful people or private citizens that have been discomfited by it.

FLEISCHMANN: And why do you assault people?      

BERNHARD: My whole point is that I don’t assault; that I just write.  After all, this isn’t an assault; it’s a written book, not an assaulting book.  I write with a typewriter, not with a gun.

FLEISCHMANN: Yes, but you certainly do fire away with it.

BERNHARD: That’s a problem only for the people who happen to read it, and who happen to perceive every word, words in general, as bullets.

FLEISCHMANN: But some of these readers will be, for instance, writers who are literary celebrities from the fifties.

BERNHARD: Whether they are celebrities or not is debatable; there are, I believe, 40,000 writers in Austria; I very much doubt (laughs) that we have 40,000 celebrities.

FLEISCHMANN: Are you denigrating art and literary history as a matter of principle, or simply because you have extremely high expectations of art?

BERNHARD: Well, I’m not denigrating anything; it obviously denigrates itself as it pursues its inevitable course, which, whether we’re talking about culture or politics, always runs downhill; it’s like a pebble or a snowball, the snowball of stupidity.  No matter how small it is when it starts out up there, it arrives down here giant-sized and destroys the entire city of Vienna.  Perhaps it’s bigger than Vienna.

FLEISCHMANN: In this book you don’t pull your punches for anybody or anything.

BERNHARD: That’s just bound to happen as a matter of course, maybe as a byproduct of the verbal explosion.

FLEISCHMANN: And your own attitude?

BERNHARD: That’s also in there, isn’t it[?]  Of course I can’t delineate it for you now.  It’s the attitude of the writer as he’s writing, when he makes a snowball, which is quite tiny, and then he throws it.  Naturally he knows where he’s thrown it, and that it is bound to get bigger.

FLEISCHMANN: Well, then, surely it’s a bit presumptuous of you to say that the snowball is so tiny [in the first place].

BERNHARD: Anybody who writes basically can’t help being presumptuous, because if he isn’t, he can’t produce anything.  An ass-kisser, or a person who lets other people tell him what to think, is simply incapable of writing anything but a pathetic excuse for a book.

FLEISCHMANN: To what extent are these characters, or figures, described in this book individuals whom you encountered in the past, and to what extent are they examples of people in certain situations, or people with a certain mentality?

BERNHARD: They are classic examples of a classic situation in Austria, [the situation] of people who write, make music, dance, produce culture. 

FLEISCHMANN:  Woodcutters—the book is subtitled “An Excitation.”

BERNHARD: Yes, because the style of the book is somewhat excited; its very subject, musically speaking, can’t be written about in a peaceful key, and has to be written about in an excited key.  You can’t write about this stuff in complete calm, as you do in conventional prose; instead, you sit down and straightway you’re excited by the very idea itself, and when you actually start writing, you’re still excited by the style.  The book is written in an excited style.

FLEISCHMANN:  And would you say the excitement increases the closer one gets to the conclusion? 

BERNHARD: An excitation is something that keeps increasing until the very end.  And so the book naturally ends in a state of total excitation by the city of Vienna, in embraces and annihilation all at one go, in a hug-like chokehold on Vienna, and [in my saying] Vienna, you are the best and at the same time the most horrible of all cities, as I daresay anybody else would about his home town.

FLEISCHMANN: So [the excitation emerges] out of [these] antitheses?

BERNHARD: Well, yes; those are the basis of a person’s existence; and of course a book exists only as a consequence of antitheses.  If a book, even a book that’s not an excitation, is one-sided, then it’s simply worthless.

FLEISCHMAN: Was it the period you [were writing] about that excited you so much?  Or was it something else that got you so riled up?

BERNHARD: [It was] my memory [of it].  Thirty years after the fact it’s certainly not the period [itself] that excites you, but the memory [of it], which you make present to yourself, and then you notice that it’s all basically [composed of a bunch of] more or less open wounds; you squirt a bit of poison into them, and the whole thing catches fire, and then an excited style materializes.  And then, you know, certain people cross your path and when you see them, they, you know, drive you crazy, and then you introduce them into just this genre of book, namely an excitation.

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.

BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.  Now for you, Miss Fleischmann  (laughs), being in bed  is of course only a way of passing the time when you’re excited—right?—and being in a book is every bit as much a pastime.  Writing a book is after all a kind of sexual act, but one that happens at a more leisurely pace than the literal act, which one engaged in when one was younger; it is, to be sure, much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with somebody.

FLEISCHMANN: Do you regard writing as a substitute for sexual fulfillment?

BERNHARD: “Sexual fulfillment” is just a catch-phrase, like, for example, “self-development.”  It’s unadulterated bullshit.  But of course I’ve already said what writing is.  I’d just be repeating myself if I said any more about it.

FLEISCHMANN: In this book Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of spirit; what does Vienna mean in your opinion?

BERNHARD: Well, as I’ve stated in the book, Vienna is essentially an art-mill, or the biggest art-mill in the world, into which everybody leaps of their own free will, and the current miller is the chancellor, who is in charge there, the cabinet ministers are the miller’s helpers, and all the singers, actors, stage-directors, fling themselves into the mill, and down below the flour comes out.  But this process can only be kept going for so long before the flour for some reason comes out all moldy and smelly.

FLEISCHMANN: And why do you think that it’s specifically in Vienna that artists are so [thoroughly] destroyed?

BERNHARD: Well, because here in Vienna is where the most spiteful people in the world are to be found; on the other hand you have this mill, the greatest [possible source of] amusement.  Is it not after all amusing to watch people, geniuses and people of good character, flinging themselves into it up at the top, and coming out all deformed down below?  Don’t you find it amusing?

FLEISCHMANN: When you write about people, do you often find yourself wondering whether you’re actually hurting these people as a consequence of writing about them?

BERNHARD: As a consequence of writing about people I portray them without—I have no intention of hurting anybody; who, after all, really wants to hurt anybody?  You know, you describe the way things were, you put your memories down on paper; and if anybody happens to be hurt as a result, that’s none of my business.  For me it’s a literary procedure, a so-called artistic procedure.

FLEISCHMANN: But are you trying by means of this artistic procedure…

BERNHARD: I have no intention of hurting anybody; if somebody happens to feel hurt, I can’t do anything about that; it’s just like with psychosomatic illnesses.  If somebody imagines he has cancer and lives with this imaginary disease for thirty years, there’s nothing I can do to stop him.

FLEISCHMANN: But are you not also more or less concerned to give a complete picture of things?

BERNHARD: Why, of course I am.  That is the duty of a writer, as you know.

FLEISCHMANN: And in so doing don’t you ever think that somebody else might be hit, or, as it were, mortally wounded [by it]?

BERNHARD: Of course, because I take a worse hit from it than anybody else does.  That’s why I get upset when these pipsqueaks say they feel wounded by it.  Besides, I don’t know anything about that.  I wasn’t present when these people read the book.  Even though I’m an inquisitive fellow and would have been glad to be there when they were reading it.  That could be the subject of a kind of monograph, one could write a book about some reader who reads my book, and about the way it makes him behave.  But I can’t be everywhere where these people are sitting around and possibly reading this book.

FLEISCHMANN: Do you actually find these people interesting?

BERNHARD: Not really.  I’m hardly even aware of them anymore.  Thirty years ago for me they were people with whom I’d been in contact.  Now I never see them at all.  But I can still picture them to myself as readers.

FLEISCHMANN: Do you have many mental pictures of your readers?

BERNHARD: I picture them all, but if you have eyes you don’t really need to picture things to yourself much, because you see everything, right?, you can pretty well do without the gift of picturing things to yourself.  Everything is plain to see; you don’t need to picture anything.  It all meets you halfway on the street.  (laughs)

FLEISCHMANN: In this new book of yours you once again as it were deliver a verdict of guilty on the Burgtheater.  Once again in your opinion the Burgtheater is one of the worst…

BERNARD: I am certainly no jury, and I’m certainly no judge either, and so I can’t declare anybody guilty.  Nor is there any such thing as a Judgment Day.  The Burgtheater will outlast everything; it is a colossus.  Once again, in this case a division of the art-mill, the, you know, theater division of the Viennese art-mill, will pulverize everything.  The good people are either struck down, or they kill themselves, they shoot themselves, hang themselves, or they are killed, shot, exiled, hanged, right[?]  Even the suicide doesn’t tie the noose he hangs himself with; rather, the director [of the play] ties the noose for the actor he wants to get rid of, or can’t put up with any longer, or what have you.  Or the cabinet minister ties the noose for the general manager of the Burgtheater, because he wants to have nothing more to do with him.

FLEISCHMANN: Isn’t this outlook of yours quite far-fetched?

BERNHARD: This institute for annihilation is the most near-fetched thing I know of.  What’s far-fetched about it?  We’re sitting smack-dab in the heart of the mill at this very moment, so in what sense can it possibly be far-fetched?  Just consider your own situation, why don’t you?  You’re sitting here smack-dab in the heart of the mill; you entered it of your own free will; nobody’s twisting your arm.

FLEISCHMANN: And what about you?

BERNHARD: I’m also sitting in it, in a subdivision of it, but I always manage to leap out again before I’m crushed.

FLEISCHMANN: So then in your view you have a right to get out, whereas other people have no such right.

BERNHARD: In my view everybody has the right to do everything.  Everybody can do whatever he wants; I have no wish to stop anybody from doing so; nobody lets himself be stopped, likewise nobody is capable of stopping anybody else.  Everybody can say, write, do, whatever he wants; it’s a completely free world.

FLEISCHMANN: Are you conscious of your books’ becoming more radical in style?  Is this intentional?

BERNHARD: That is a natural consequence of sticking with something for a long time; it naturally becomes more robust and it ought to keep getting better, and as far as writing prose goes, you start to get better at the age of 40, and if you survive to 70 you’re probably even better at that age than you were at 40.  Right now I’m still only 52, so if I live another eighteen years, if you survive to 70, you can’t help being even better.

FLEISCHMANN: Does getting better also mean getting more malicious?    

BERNHARD: Everybody keeps getting more malicious, of course.  Children are malicious, the most malicious people of all.  They say an old person reverts to being a child, and thus he reclaims the maliciousness of his childhood, and adds to it the maliciousness of old age, which to be sure is mankind’s most charming quality.  Old people minus their maliciousness are insufferable, just like children without their maliciousness.  A well-behaved child deserves to have its neck wrung, just like a well-behaved old person.  In point of fact, the most beloved human quality in the world is maliciousness, but only, of course, when it affects other people; nobody can deny that.

FLEISCHMANN: And what about you personally?  Are you yourself already affected by this maliciousness of old age?

BERNHARD: I am slowly aging into maliciousness.  That is also one of the charms of my books: the fact that they keep getting more malicious.  Hopefully I can survive through a few more phases [of life].  There are even more important phases that are worth describing, and that I intend to describe.

FLEISCHMANN: For example?

BERNHARD: Because I’m inquisitive and malicious and a trapper at bottom, I can only try to become as old as possible and as malicious as possible, for the sake of writing as well as possible.  But that presents no especial difficulties, because when you’ve been working away at something for 30 years, you’ll keep getting better all the sooner.  It’s like in the case of a piano-player—not of violinists, because their arms get weaker—but to be sure a writer’s brain for the most part doesn’t weaken.

FLEISCHMANN: You said you were a trapper; who is it that you want to trap?

BERNHARD: Well, [it’s] like [with] children.  Children want to trap everybody, right?  To the extent that I feel the same way, I have remained a child; and so you set traps, and stupid people stumble into them and it sets off a terrible hue and cry [if you will/if you want it to].  Or do you know people (laughs) who don’t enjoy perpetrating this kind of prank if they can get away with it?

FLEISCHMANN: But isn’t this all at the slight expense of other people?

BERNHARD: It’s always at the expense of other people. You yourself are living at the expense of other people, just like me, and everything that you do, you do at the expense of somebody else, whether it’s malicious in intent or otherwise.

FLEISCHMANN: But doesn’t this give you a guilty conscience?

BERNHARD: Anybody who says otherwise [than what I’ve just said] is a hypocrite and a liar, and nobody need ever harbor a guilty conscience anywhere on this earth, which is so abysmally abominable that the [very notion of] a guilty conscience is pure nonsense.

FLEISCHMANN: But that’s a ridiculously sweeping judgment.

BERNHARD: Anybody who says he has a guilty conscience is nothing but a hypocrite.  In any case, all judgments are sweeping, if you will; if you utter a sentence, you’re making a sweeping judgment; all judgments are sweeping; do you really think you can say anything without picking up a broom?

FLEISCHMANN: But you don’t see the world as being entirely abominable.

BERNHARD: Of course not, because it isn’t entirely abominable.  Children are also beautiful; childhood is the essence of beauty, but also full of maliciousness; that’s the counterpoise [to its beauty].  I’m truly happy to be alive; I can hardly think of a person who enjoys life more than I do, or who’s fuller of maliciousness, of the desire to trap others, of abominableness; who every single day rejoices in the fact that he’s still alive, and desires nothing more of the day to come than to coexist with it and to live while it lasts.  But if people ignore that and hide under the cloak of hypocrisy and abominableness, that’s their business.

FLEISCHMANN: And what about you?  Are you not also wearing the cloak of hypocrisy and abominableness?

BERNHARD: Everybody needs a cloak to avoid freezing to death in the winter, and the world is a kind of winter.

FLEISCHMANN: Isn’t there a real danger, as you annihilate everything in your books, that people will stop taking you seriously?

BERNHARD: Well, obviously there’s no such danger, because nobody on this earth is actually capable of annihilating everything, nor is there anybody who actually wants to annihilate everything, because if he did he’d have to annihilate himself, but inevitably if you describe anything there’s a great deal of annihilation in the description.  But the idea of annihilating everything is nonsense; I’ve never done that.  I’m constantly running into people who are great and also into people who are something other than great.  And as everybody knows from his own experience, there are just as many abominable people as there are great people.  All right, then: so say there are only a few great people, still there are plenty of sufferable people; that still leaves the 80 percent of them that are insufferable.  And insofar as a writer is required to be a describer of authentic states of affairs, he has to write, you know, what he sees.

FLEISCHMANN: But you find much [of what you see] loathsome and disgusting.

BERNHARD: Just as you yourself must find practically everything loathsome and disgusting when you get up in the morning.  Nevertheless, you get dressed, you go on the air, you do your job, and that’s that.  And I do the same, and, you know, that’s what I describe.  And every milkmaid will tell you, if she’s honest, that her boss is abominable, that the roads are insufferable, that the weather is abominable, that she wants more money than she has, that nothing bothers her, [will Sie], and yet it does bother her that the clothes she has on aren’t pretty enough; moreover, if her hair is disheveled, she’ll wish it were neatly done; if it’s neatly done, maybe she’ll wish it were disheveled.  It’s more loathsome than anything else.  I’m interested in writing, in seeing that it gets done, that it doesn’t go to waste, and that I get paid.  Period.  I am totally indifferent to what people subsequently read into it, or don’t read into it.

FLEISCHMANN: Does making money play a big part [in it]?

BERNHARD: A big part.  What’s more, I was trained as a businessman.  I’d have to be insane to—everybody enjoys [making money].  Or do you enjoy not having money, and giving it away as soon as you have it?

FLEISCHMANN: Once again your latest play is going to premiere in Bochum and not at the Burgtheater.  [Might] this [not] change when Claus Peymann becomes the general manager of the Burgtheater[?]  They say the two of you are more or less a duo.

BERNHARD: In Vienna they say we’re a duo, yes.  Well, in the first place he’s not coming here until two years from now; who knows what things will be like in two years.  There are so many dead people who are still on the payroll that it’s pretty much pointless to think about it.  In two years the mill will have crushed so many people into flour that there’s no telling what it’ll all come to.  The Burgtheater is a wonderful theater from an architectural point of view, but everything surrounding it is horrible.  So, you know, Peymann will come to Vienna, and then we’ll see what he does.  He is one crazy fellow, so why shouldn’t he manage to do something?  [Let him come here] at just the right age, with the best ideas, in perfect health, and with a brain in his head, and then we’ll see what happens.  If he’s left alone, but of course he’ll make sure he’s left alone; he’s strong enough to see to that.  How any of this will affect me I haven’t a clue.  Naturally I’m always writing plays, and he has so far produced every one of them; the rest of that lot I have no use for.  See, I’m always reading that Bernhard is never performed.  Right, because I don’t allow my plays to be performed; and people think it’s because the general managers of the theaters don’t want to produce them.  Just today I read yet again, “Bernhard is unfashionable; nobody puts on his plays.”  “Right, because I always say no,” but the newspapers are completely unaware of that.

FLEISCHMANN: Time and again you have written roles for [specific] actors.

BERNHARD: Well, I write only for actors; I’ve never written for the public, and that’s exactly what gets actors interested in the plays.  The public have never taken any interest in my plays, but actors [have].  And then the actors become interested in me, and when they subsequently turn to the audience, the audience embraces the plays.  But I believe I am the only author who has pretty much never paid any heed to the audience and has written only for actors and solely for specific actors.  And for the most part only for one theater, so that it’s only there that my plays are produced.  On the few occasions when I’ve caved in and let it be “in Düsseldorf” or “in Cologne,” it’s been a catastrophe, and I’m not going to do that again, there’s simply no need for it.  I want to see one good performance and that’s that.

FLEISCHMANN: Can you imagine yourself writing for the Burgtheater’s repertory company someday?

BERNHARD: Of course I have absolutely no idea who is going to be in the Burgtheater’s repertory company in two years; there’s absolutely no stability there.  In the meantime some of the actors you see there now will have killed themselves, and who knows which of them those will be.  Up on the roof there, they’re always flying the black flag, so you really can’t make any plans involving that house.  So you can’t help wondering, as you’re making your plans and mulling over names, well, who are they going to be flying the black flag for then[?]  It’s pointless.

FLEISCHMANN:  You don’t make any plans?

BERNHARD: For the most part I don’t.  My plans come into existence spontaneously.  The world makes your plans for you.

FLEISCHMANN: In this new book, Woodcutters, you write that you admire the acting of Käthe Gold and Paula Wesely.  Have you often thought, “I’d like to write a play starring Käthe Gold or Paula Wesely?”

BERNHARD: Sure I have, but they have always been at the Burgtheater, and I’ve never written for the Burgthetheater; that’s always been out of the question.  And quite apart from that, you see, I have absolutely no idea whether they would be willing to appear in anything written by me.  I mean, just imagine the scenario: I write a play, and then [Miss/Mrs.] Wesely says, “For heaven’s sake, [it’s by] the Abominable Bernhard.”  To be sure, I admire her, but of course I have no idea whether she likes and fancies me.  And it’s the same with [Miss/Mrs.] Gold.  Those two are the only authentic actresses, the only ones who have been first-rate all their lives, right on through to the present.  And these magnificent flowers manage to keep their bloom even amid the wasteland and desert that is the Burgtheater.  The Burgtheater after all is a kind of [Sahara], where everything is parched, desiccated, kaput; and then, ambling around this lifeless desert, you get this pair of perpetually youthful women.

FLEISCHMANN: Why is the Burgtheater like a desert?

BERNHARD: You’ll have to ask the Burgtheater that question.  I don’t know why the Gobi desert is a desert either.

FLEISCHMANN: OK, but you have actually analyzed this subject and thought about it a fair number of times.  You certainly have your own thoughts about…

BERNHARD: You go there, you drive there, you book a kind of safari to the Burgtheater and you go there and there are no animals there; nothing’s growing; nothing’s growling or buzzing; [there are] no poisonous snakes; nothing at all; [it’s] completely empty.  Then you come back out and say, “Well, then, if it’s nothing but a desert, then I really don’t need to go there.”  It’s lifeless and empty.  Only every so often you hear [some old jackals howling], but none of these jackals comes on stage anymore.

FLEISCHMANN: What’s the reason for this?  You have formed some thoughts on this as well; you have been familiar with the business of the theater for years.

BERNHARD: When I see something in a finished state, I have no need to form any further thoughts on it.  The people who would be obligated to form thoughts on it are the ones who have actually lived in that desert and managed to survive there for a relatively long time.  I certainly have no thoughts to form, I refuse to form them.  I attend the performance of a play as a visitor, and when I see a desert instead of actors, I have no need to do thinking about it; I am simply a bewildered observer of wasteland and emptiness.

FLEISCHMANN: And what about the Salzburg Festival?  Next year they’re producing one of your plays!

BERNHARD: Yes, if it’s actually produced; of course it’s impossible to know if it will be produced.  And of course a year is quite a long time.  Well anyway, Salzburg is just as much of a desert.  Of course there are several deserts in the world; so, you know, there’s one in Vienna, and Salzburg, too, will soon be a perennial desert.  It’s been a savannah for decades now, and pretty soon it’s probably going to decline precipitously from savannah to desert.

FLEISCHMANN: In what respect?

BERNHARD: Rivers, to be sure, also decline precipitously, and ponds as well.

FLEISCHMANN: Why, in your opinion, is the Salzburg Festival about to decline precipitously?

BERNHARD: Because it’s thoroughly contaminated with toxic chemicals, toxically theatrical chemicals.           

FLEISHMANN: Was it any less contaminated in the old days?

BERNHARD: I don’t know whether it was less contaminated in the old days, but it certainly was more interesting and livelier.  There was still something natural about it, and today that’s all gone.

FLEISCHMANN: Do you actually take an interest in what is being staged at the Burgtheater and at the Salzburg Festival?  Do you have any sort of stake in that?

BERNHARD: I know what’s being performed there and who’s performing there, but of course I never go there.  And if I know who’s performing there, I have a rough idea of what’s coming out of it.  Of course I no longer have any need to travel there; of course I haven’t been there in decades.

FLEISCHMANN: You were trained as an actor.  Has this had any influence on the way you write?

BERNHARD: Probably.  Everything you learn has a huge influence on everything you do.  Of course I was also trained as a businessman; that’s also always played an important role.  I was also trained as a gardener and as a truck-driver, and in both cases I also learned a lot about human beings.  So you come the proverbial full circle and subsequently write a few relatively decent books.  I’m basically not a writer and have never thought of myself as one.

FLEISCHMANN: But rather as…?

BERNHARD: I have always been a real human being at bottom.  The sort of literary writing that [writers] envisage, compose, or whatever, has precious little to do with reality and is actually totally worthless.  You can plainly see that when you open any of their books.  They consist almost completely of worthless rubbish written by people who are sitting in some government-subsidized apartment, collecting a pension, and there their little domestic problems arise, and then they have filing-cabinets, and then they you know make their books, they sew them together like seamstresses.

FLEISCHMANN: How do you make your books?

BERNHARD: I have always been a free man; I have no pension and I write my books in a completely natural manner, in accordance with the way I live, which is guaranteed to be different from that of all these people.  Only a person who is actually independent can actually write well.  If you’re dependent on anybody or anything whatsoever, people will smell it in every sentence.  Your dependency will hobble every sentence you write.  And so there are whole sentences that are hobbled, whole pages that are hobbled, whole books that are hobbled, because people are simple dependents: [dependents on] a wife, a family, three children, ex-spouses, a government, a company, an insurance policy, the boss.  No matter what they write, it always reeks of dependency, and for that reason it’s [always] lousy, hobbled, hamstrung.

FLEISCHMANN: But of course many writers are living below the poverty level; shouldn’t you at least cut them a bit of…?

BERNHARD: […]That’s their own damn fault; I tell you I have always shifted for myself; I’ve never received a subsidy; nobody has ever gone out of their way on my account, from the beginning to the present.  I am against all subsidies, against all pensions, and artists should never receive a penny for free from anybody.  That would be the ideal scenario; then maybe something worthwhile would be produced.  All the doors that artists are trying to pass through should be shut and bolted.  Instead of being given even the smallest handout, they should be kicked out on to the street.  That is never going to happen [here], and that’s why our art is lousy and our literature is lousy.  [These artists] only have to worm their way into any old nook or cranny of some newspaper or governmental department; they start out as geniuses and wind up in Room 463 with its shelf-fuls of paperwork, because they’re cosseted from cradle to grave.  Well, it goes without saying that you can’t write a decent book once you’re in a place like that.

FLEISCHMANN: In other words, there should essentially be no support?

BERNHARD: None whatsoever, as far as the arts go!  The arts must support themselves.  Not even great institutions ought to be subsidized.  They ought to operate at the behest of a commercial principle: “Devour or starve.”  The reason our cultural life is so kaput is that it’s all being propped up.  Such a huge garbage dump can hardly be produced by anybody who’s not being supported from behind by a subsidy, and thereby ruined.

FLEISCHMANN: What about the official state theaters, the Burgtheater for example?

BERNHARD: At bottom they should all be simply gotten rid of.  What we need is a commercial theater scene, then we’ll get, you know, small, self-supporting opera productions, and things will get back to being natural.  You can sum the rule up in one sentence: If it’s subsidized or government-funded, get rid of it.  I would never give a young artist ten schillings, or even one schilling.  He’s got to get out there on his own, and either he will make it or he won’t.  That’s what I did, after all.  But Austria is a subsidizing state, and so of course everything is subsidized, every moron is glutted and bandaged with subsidies, and has his eyes and ears stuffed with government money, so that people cease to see, cease to hear, and finally cease to exist.

FLEISCHMANN: Isn’t it exactly the same in other countries?

BERNHARD: I don’t think so.  Here it’s immeasurably excessive.  And if it exists in other countries, then it’s only a tiny fraction of what it is here.  A writer who can depend only upon himself for support, who has to work, is also a writer who will actually accomplish something.  But if he knows in advance, “Well, I really don’t have to do anything, because my pension from the Ministry, or some other kind of allowance, is already on its way,” then the whole situation is simply hopeless.  Then they all just sit there at their spinning-wheels and wait for their allocation from the ministry, and weave.
FLEISCHMANN: But a large portion of the expenditures [on the arts] are basically expenses on personnel.  It would at present be a great hardship if people in that sector were, for example, fired.

BERNHARD: Well, some people will have to be fired; some people will also have to come [back] to life; the stages of our major theaters are frequented by actual corpses, there are literally thousands of people [there] who at bottom are chickenfeed and who are simply tolerated.  The theaters must support themselves, [especially] the state theaters.  The very word [“state theater”] is nonsensical.  A theater belongs in a specific building, whose rent and everything else has to be collected on the spot.  As it happens, I’ve got one of those buzzwords [for it]—all buzzwords are, of course, abominable—but, anyway, the word in question, “downsizing,” would in this case actually be appropriate.  Every single one of them deserves to be downsized, right down to the point where they’re invisible.  And if the actors put on good theater, then people will go into the theaters, and then they will manage to support themselves.

FLEISCHMANN: And what if one of these theaters then says, “Thomas Bernhard is demanding too high a percentage of the takings; we’ve got to cut his share back”?

BERNHARD: I am a businessman and I’ll demand, you know, what my product is worth.  It’s like my great-grandfather used to say: “I’m selling butter for this price; if you don’t want my butter and think it’s too expensive, then get the hell out of here.”  And because I hardly ever allow my plays to be performed and even then just once, I’m a relatively low-cost investment.  But for that one time I intend to get as much as I think I deserve for the time I’ve spent working on the play.  I’ve never made a fuss as a matter of principle or been a chiseller over what’s due to me [“as an artist”], because that’s all official [claptrap], and I’ve always detested the herd instinct, even [when it comes to getting paid].  Anybody who produces something has a sense of what it’s worth, and you can have it for that price, which I intend to have.  If the price isn’t right, too bad!  That’s the best system there is.  It’s the only one I’ve ever known.  


Source: Thomas Bernhard--Eine Begegnung.  Gespräche mit Krista Fleischmann (Vienna: Edition S, 1991).

Translation unauthorized but ©2011 by Douglas Robertson


Lars Iyer said...

Astounding interview. Thanks for the translation! Are there many more untranslated Bernhard interviews of this quality?

Anonymous said...

Entire books of them, although the exchanges with Fleischmann are particularly entertaining. What you'll want to do is convince somebody to purchase rights to "Eine Begegnung - Gespräche mit Krista Fleischmann" (Suhrkamp) and to co-release that with a subtitled version of the televised interviews themselves (the dvd of which is titled "Monologe auf Mallorca & Die Ursache bin ich selbst - Die großen Interviews mit Thomas Bernhard").