Sunday, December 01, 2013

A Translation of "Aus Schlagobers entsteht nichts" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Rudolf Bayr on September 12, 1975)

“Nothing’s Ever Born from Whipped Cream” [1]

RUDOLF BAYR: Mr. Bernhard, let’s begin at the actual beginning: The title of the book is The Cause. [2] The cause of what?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The cause of my present feelings for and against Salzburg, my home town, the cause of my present soft spots or bones to pick for or with this town that I of course travel to from time to time, a couple of times a year.

RUDOLF BAYR: In your subtitle you say A Hint.  What is it a hint at?  In what respect is it a hint?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s a hint because it’s only a small, I’d almost say a modest excerpt from this life.  It can only be hinted at within [such a limited] space.  But I’m not the kind of person who writes a big volume of memoirs or tells anything like a long story.  It can only be a brief excerpt.  And then again this excerpt is also a quite specific hint, [it’s] very subjective, very much limited to the facts, experiences, feelings, emotions of this young man who I was back then.  The period of time covered is between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, the period between a year before the end of the war and a year after the end of the war, a very decisive period for me, I, I believe the decisive period, during my youth.  Childhood was sealed off; my youth begins with this book.  

RUDOLF BAYR: But a lot of people could suppose that it was a hint at something very trivial, something very incidental.  And yet the fact is that when you read the book the hint in certain passages really stops being a hint and turns out to be a series of highly precise formulations, highly precise expressions touching on a [specific] theme, on this attitude.  It also strikes me as significant that in this book you have, [or rather] he, meaning the narrator, has recorded what he felt at the time and not the way he thinks [about things] now.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve got to correct [you] there: it’s [a record of] what he felt at the time and the way he thinks [about things] now, pretty much at the outset.  A young man has nothing but feelings, and thinking begins relatively late, I believe before thirty a person doesn’t do much thinking.  So this young man from back then felt and didn’t think much; he can only absorb [things]; later on, from thirty onwards, he can assimilate them.  My task was to set down what I had experienced, felt, sensed, seen back then, as it occurred to me while I was writing, not [to set down] what I had thought, because the thoughts of a young man aren’t really thoughts.

RUDOLF BAYR: What then precisely does this distinction between present thoughts and past feelings refer to?  You reproduce your impressions from back then and reflect them.  What then is the[ir] connection to [your present mode of] thinking, to your present attitude to the city?

THOMAS BERNHARD: As I was writing I had exactly the same feelings I had had back then again, and that was the decisive thing for me.  And so I didn’t write what I’m thinking today, but rather how I felt back then, even though nowadays I think as I felt back then.  Because otherwise people would of course have said back then he used to think to this way; now he thinks completely differently.  That’s not true.  It’s just that my feelings are now actually bolstered by my way of thinking.  That’s all it is.

RUDOLF BAYR: Mr. Bernhard, speaking now less on your own account than generally regarding the thoughts that could arise or that may even yet arise in the minds of readers…

THOMAS BERNHARD: Hopefully some sort of thought will arise!  Most of the time no thoughts arise.

RUDOLF BAYR: I believe you have already made sure of that and that the book makes sure that these thoughts [will] arise.  When you write in it of hints and I have just said that there are precise sentences in it—

THOMAS BERNHARD: For me a hint is naturally something that hasn’t quite run its course.  It’s a way of touching on something, but you don’t have to slap it in the face; you can hint at it.  There is still [plenty of] sentiment in the book, because [the reader] wouldn’t accept or stomach or in any way partake of [it if it came] in one concentrated dose.  I still think this book is actually pretty restrained.

RUDOLF BAYR: For long stretches it is quite restrained.  But there are some isolated declarative sentences in which I find it hard to see any restraint, and especially when these hints crop up in present-tense declarative sentences, such that it becomes difficult for one to decide for oneself whether the presentness is that of someone feeling a certain way in his own time or of a judgment that’s being made now.  Do you know what I’m thinking of?  For example, right [at the beginning], in the introduction!

THOMAS BERNHARD: My aspiration—an academic expression, hence [a] truly lame [one]—was to establish a connection between my feelings from the old days and my present-day thoughts—and thereby [establish] a certain [degree of] objectivity; of course it’s only ever possible to establish a certain degree [of it].

RUDOLF BAYR: But when one reads, for example, [in] the first sentence, on the very first page, about the topic of suicide in connection with the city of Salzburg, that thinking about suicide, a disposition to suicide, is [uniquely] characteristic of Salzburg[—]

THOMAS BERNHARD: [It’s] certainly not [uniquely] characteristic of Salzburg and its inhabitants, because all young people have suicidal thoughts, whether they’re in Wuppertal or in Salzburg, in Paris, in London, or anywhere[—]in Irkutsk, but here on account of the combination of fine art or architecture and a  miserable climate everybody is predestined at least to [walk] around with suicidal thoughts [in their heads].  And as my epigraph at the beginning [of the book] states, Salzburg does indeed pretty much have the highest suicide rate—in the world!

RUDOLF BAYR: Of course the book was already finished when you [quoted] that—

THOMAS BERNHARD: The [quote] was already finished, but I was still writing when I so miraculously happened to come directly across it.

RUDOLF BAYR: The newspaper cutting from May 6, 1975 reads: “Two thousand people every year attempt to put an end to their lives in the province of Salzburg.  A tenth of those suicide attempts are successful.  This means that in Austria, which together with Hungary and Sweden has the highest suicide rate in the world, Salzburg holds the national record.” [1] Do you think, Mr. Bernhard, that thanks to this simple cutting—I retract the word “simple” because the cutting deals with a [very] disturbing and real [phenomenon]—[that thanks to] this cutting, your introductory chapter or your introductory sentences [are] almost in danger of being overtaken by reality?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That epigraph is the cornerstone of my book.  It was presented to me while I was writing.  I couldn’t ask for anything more; because in its absence people would be saying it’s all a bunch of hot air, he’s making it all up, which isn’t true.  [They’d be saying] bells ring there; everybody’s happy there; it’s wonderful, there’s nothing but banquets, music.  [That epigraph] says it all.  It’s the best thing that could have happened to me.  I wouldn’t exactly say I was pleased to see it.  But it’s always very nice when someone hands you a second cornerstone that reaffirms something you’ve already established as a fact.

RUDOLF BAYR: A small interpolation, if you’ll allow me: the lyric poet Georg Trakl has of course an intimate relationship with sorrow, decay, rapacity, putrefaction, abortion, etc.—

THOMAS BERNHARD: I believe—excuse me for interrupting you—that all creative people in this town have undoubtedly always had that.  It was indeed already the case with Salzburg’s famous quasi-grandchild, Mozart.  He actually had a much worse case of it than Trakl, but he managed to conceal it with his art or in his music.  For him Salzburg was a pitch-black mystery.  What was more, he detested Salzburg, and at the same time he loved it, and that of course was the origin of everything he managed to produce.  It’s exactly the same in the case of Trakl.  A city that’s only ever seen the way the common people see it or the world sees it, as just some coquettish girl dancing [at a ball], as a European city—a person can’t be creative here, it just can’t happen.  It happens only on this foundation.  And yet you’ve got to admit that this is ideal.  If somebody in this town gives you a kick [in the backside], then maybe you’ll produce a good symphony, write a symphony, or if they knock you on the head, a good book—maybe, under certain circumstances.  Otherwise [you wo]n’t.  Nothing’s ever born from whipped cream.

RUDOLF BAYR: Do you think of the kick [in the backside] as an unalterable prerequisite?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I believe that everybody needs to receive some sort of kick [in the backsisde], and obviously [it’s got to be] a decisive kick, at some point in his life.  Or a slap in the face that knocks you clear on out of the house and across the street.  Otherwise nothing happens.  It’s necessary, I’m quite convinced of that.

RUDOLF BAYR: I’m going to mention Trakl just once again.  Trakl coined an epithet for Salzburg that was subsequently affixed to it by the tourist industry more or less like a nickname, namely “The Beauteous City.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, you see, here everything is co-opted: whether it’s Trakl’s “Beauteous City” or the Mozartkugel, it’s all co-opted.  But it only works with the dead, not with the living, who aren’t yet amenable to being co-opted.  A living [Salzburger], the moment he starts to be stylized as a Mozartkugel, or in my case when people start saying he’s one of us now—at that moment, he’s got to slam the door shut and disappear, because otherwise he’s really just a Mozartkugel [and] not at all a Bernhard or anything comparable.  At that moment, he’s got to leave, and [be] glad [that he’s leaving]. 

RUDOLF BAYR: Mr. Bernhard, can you in any way imagine yourself having any kind of affiliation with it?

THOMAS BERNHARD: An affiliation with what?

RUDOLF BAYR: With the reality of Salzburg.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Obviously everybody has an affiliation with reality, no matter how hideous or beautiful [that reality] now is.  It’s obviously something you can’t avoid.

RUDOLF BAYR: But then there are of course some pretty vehement attacks directed against Salzburg, and also especially against the citizens of Salzburg

THOMAS BERNHARD: Here I would once again say: Mozart and Trakl naturally loved this town like no other.  Because any place a person is at home in, knows intimately, he will love as a matter of course.  At the same time he also loathes it, like the famous plague that nobody knows.  And it’s the same way with me.  And if a person happens to know a town or any other kind of thing really well, and to be bound to it by the strongest ties of kinship—then, because this is just the way it is, that person has a right to criticize it.   I’m not going to let any old so-and-so tell me what Salzburg is all about.  But I have a duty to say it [myself].

RUDOLF BAYR: I was only trying to ask—and this is why I cited Trakl—whether any part of Thomas Bernhard wants to be—I don’t want to say “connected” with Salzburg; you know why I don’t want to say that.  But whether Bernhard is at all keen on having any kind of contact with Salzburg.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Everything about me has something to do with Salzburg.  But naturally there can only ever be a love-hate [relationship between us]—because I’m a living human being; anything else is simply impossible.  [Unless] I allow myself to be co-opted and join in the dance there and surrender myself completely, build Salzburg up out of papier mâché and icing, and surrender myself.  I’m not about to do that.  That simply isn’t possible either[--]not even in my wildest imaginings.

RUDOLF BAYR: Certainly not; [you]’d probably thank us even less for the icing and the papier mâché.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Thanks are of course empty blather, as everybody knows.

RUDOLF BAYR: Well, sure, but there can be situations in which they…

THOMAS BERNHARD: When something knocks you over and somebody helps you back up, you have a right to thank them.  But I can’t think of a single reason why I should thank anybody in this town.  Nobody here has ever helped me up at all, although I’ve certainly been knocked down a number of times.  I can’t remember it ever happening.

RUDOLF BAYR: When you say that you were knocked down a number of times, you’re surely referring to the contents of this book, in other words to the years that are described in this book.

THOMAS BERNHARD: [To those years] especially, because we are of course talking about this book, about this excerpt.  And this is the story of a young man who was really only ever trampled upon, be it by the city, its inhabitants, his relatives, by whoever.  But of course I don’t mean to say that I was the only one in this condition and situation.  No: of course basically the same thing happens to all young men who grow up in similar cities of this size and in this constellation.  But actually nobody ever talks about it, either because people don’t want to, have other things to do or don’t know how to or aren’t in the mood for it.  I suddenly found myself not only in the mood but also duty-bound to sit down and write about this thing that nobody talks about.  And in any case the only thing that keeps me moving is of course saying what nobody says or writing what nobody writes.  What everybody writes, [namely,] that the city is beauteous, everybody of course already knows.  But behind the beauty is something quite different, and it was my task to explain that, and also, I have to say, my pleasure to write it, and it was a great pleasure from start to finish to write this book about myself.  Of course it was simply something that had to get done.  Besides of course in the case of my things or books—there are now 17 or 20 of them; of course I do nothing other than write—they sit in limbo.  In 20 years I haven’t dropped a single biographical hint, said so much as a peep about myself.  Then I read these impossible things—about who so-and-so is here or what such-and-such was there.  They’re all wrong.  Now one has simply got to provide some sort of small pointer, fix a reference point, a biographical [point], [a point] on which one so to speak [and] as the people say, hangs one’s entire body of work.  That, I believe, is what I have managed to do in this little book—for my own benefit above all.   And anybody who is observant [will] also see this; [it won’t be] just me.

RUDOLF BAYR: All the same, I’m looking for something that will do Salzburg some good.

THOMAS BERNHARD: The whole thing will do Salzburg good!  They are of course a positive godsend for Salzburg, these abominations!  Because who after all wants to live in a meringue citadel?

RUDOLF BAYR: I’ll fall back on [certain] incidental remarks you have just now made in the course of your replies, specifically this one: there is no need to talk about the [city’s] beauty, because it’s obvious.

THOMAS BERNHARD: [And that remark] of course also [implies]: the city is a work of art; nature is a miracle.  But there must always be people who say “but.”  The [world is full of] people who decree what everything is.  But it’s still a “but”-less everything.  The truth is basically only ever the truth when somebody appends a “but” to it and finishes the sentence.

RUDOLF BAYR: So then we’re allowed to reserve a place in our minds for the beautiful?

THOMAS BERNHARD: We have to, because otherwise we’d be being non-objective.  But a beauty without the “but” is an unadulterated absurdity, a falsification.

RUDOLF BAYR: In other words, it’s basically kitsch.

THOMAS BERNHARD: The city without the “but” or without this book is nothing but a kitschy city full of kitschy people, full of superficial abominations.

RUDOLF BAYR: Mr. Bernhard, there’s a particular passage in the book in which you talk about a certain conspicuously white patch on a wall at the Johanneum, where you were a boarding student, [a patch] where a crucifix now hangs.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, before the end of the war a portrait of Hitler hung there, and afterwards, when I came back, there was a crucifix there.  But they probably [hadn’t wanted] to spend any money on [re]-painting [the wall].  At the time there were perhaps more important things to do than to transform Hitler into Christ—which nevertheless was done in the city very expeditiously, immediately after the war.  Now it’s raising objections once again, I’d say.  It is of course a very adaptable town.  It assimilates straight-away.  The churches, the cathedral, keep standing because they’re made out of stone.  But if Mr. Meier shows up tomorrow, then everyone will come running and shouting “Meier!”  It could happen tomorrow; I’m convinced of that.

RUDOLF BAYR: Of course the Church is founded on rock. 

THOMAS BERNHARD: On rock—in the German Rome.  This is of course a splendid epithet, because it contains everything: Rome, the Church, German, Nazi—the lot.  A miraculous mélange.

RUDOLF BAYR: But don’t you think that’s a little too trenchant?  When in particular I read the part of your book that deals with the transformation or switchover from National-Socialist to Catholic dominance—it makes it look as though Salzburg [has] only ever had two factions, [that are alternately in power] depending on the historical period:  a National-Socialist faction [and] a Catholic faction.

THOMAS BERNHARD: For me it really does have two factions.  But the Catholic faction is a half-millennium old or even older: of course National Socialism isn’t as old as that.  And ever since it appeared on the scene, this duality in the city has, I would say, served as a veritable anchor for every single person who walks its pavements.  You have only to talk with people, at their places of work or wherever.  When a Catholic is in the pulpit you hear a veritable Nazi speaking; and when you hear a Nazi he’s standing on the veritable foundation of Catholicism.  That’s the way this town is; there’s no way to banish it.  And nobody ever will manage to banish it. 

RUDOLF BAYR: Do you think that this behavior that you’re always describing as National-Socialist—

THOMAS BERNHARD: I wouldn’t say “always.”  It’s “always and yet again,” because [the behavior] is [always] back yet again in full vigor!

RUDOLF BAYR: Didn’t this way of behaving and this norm of behavior already exist long before the concept of “national-socialism” was devised?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The pressure to be more German was of course always very strong.

RUDOLF BAYR: And pressure to be more German is certainly not specifically National-Socialist!

THOMAS BERNHARD: But there are always incendiary elements or certain song lyrics that [invariably] get everybody marching.  I could imagine that if something like that found favor again, everybody in the city would again immediately come running [to it].  I really do believe that.  [And] not only do I believe it, I know it; it’s probably going to happen all over again someday.

RUDOLF BAYR: Is it [something] you’re afraid of?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m not afraid of it; [if I were] I’d have to be worried all the time.  But it really is going to happen.  It’ll take shape again, in the palaces; they are of course very conducive to that, all those archiepiscopal palaces, and from there of course it’ll take off.

RUDOLF BAYR: Thank God this scene is—

THOMAS BERNHARD: “Thank God!” is very apt!

RUDOLF BAYR: --A fantasy and not reality; thank God for that.  Speaking of scenes: How are things with the scene at the Salzburg Festival and Thomas Bernhard?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The Festivals are history as far as I’m concerned.  I used to try to try to make Mr. Kaut happy[—Mr. Kaut] who’s apostrophized as a paternal friend in the newspapers, [and] with whom I always [enjoyed] a very solid mutual understanding—to write play[s] for him.  And I even [succeeded in] doing so.  But that’s not possible anymore.  He no longer stands behind me, which you’ve got to do a hundred percent or not at all.  You can’t ask for something, commission it from someone who sits for a whole year writing the thing, [and] then somebody from some newspaper comes along and says, “Oh no, not Bernhard again!” and [you] hear it five or six times.  And I’m sorry to say our paternal friend caved in and suddenly became all phonily aloof.  The title The Celebrities—he thought it up, oh sure, these are the celebrities, who turn up every year in Salzburg, Karajan or whoever they’re all supposed to be; of course everybody will know who they all are.  Then he got cold feet.  I told him what it was about.  He acted as though he had never known.  I told him I’m writing this play; it’s about such and such and the characters are so and so.  And he said, “Marvelous; we’ll do this one the way we’ve always done them.”  Then he suddenly said he wanted to see the play—for the first time, because in Salzburg nobody has ever seen so much as a word by me in advance, before it was public; the first glimpse of the play has always coincided with the first rehearsal.  And naturally you can’t do things that way twice and then the third time say, “But now we want to see it.”  And when they say that, that now they want to see it, and I can’t manage to convince them that you can’t [start] doing that the third time, then I’m off.  And off is where I am now, off and vanished for good—from here.

RUDOLF BAYR: And yet—maybe it’s stupid [of me] to ask this—is it [really] so uncommon to—
THOMAS BERNHARD: I know what you’re about to say.  People have said it’s only fair and proper for somebody who’s putting on something to see beforehand what it’s shaping up to be.  That’s normal.  In my case, though, it’s anything but normal.  And why?  My first play, A Party for Boris, was written for the Salzburg Festival; [it was] a sort of anti-Everyman, [with] a table [surrounded] by people, a [dinner-]party, but [with] cripples, [as you’d expect from] me.  I submitted this play to Kaut, who’d asked me [to write] it, five or six years ago.  Kaut gave it back to me and said, “This isn’t a play; it isn’t anything [of any kind].”  Two years
later—meanwhile A Party for Boris has become a famous play; it’s been performed in England, in France, everywhere—a loyal assistant of the Salzburg Festival chases me in the street and says the Festival would consider itself fortunate if I wrote a play for them.  He chases me through half the city, and I say, well all right, the play is called The Ignoramus and the Madman.  And so it was.  And there were no further discussions until the beginning of rehearsals: nobody saw anything, the rehearsals began, the play was performed; everybody knows how that went.  Two years later came The Force of Habit.  The very same routine—they didn’t see it, not a word [of it].  A year later: Mr. Kaut, inspired with cold feet by the newspapers, suddenly wants to see the text.  I say, “The routine has got to be the same as before; it’s got to be a hundred-percent discussion-free.”  I can see he’s giving in, beginning to totter.  And that’s when I take off.  End of story.  A completely simple routine.

RUDOLF BAYR: Granted, the routine is very simple, and it’s also very regrettable. 
Whence [the following] question: is [4] there at least a faint possibility that [next] summer Thomas Bernhard [will]—

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I absolutely will not.  The force of habit is certainly not going [to prevail].  I have come to realize [that] three times is an absurdity.  Two times was marvelous.  You should write your own plays.  I could even imagine Mr. Kaut himself writing a play, getting it performed, with Häusserman producing it with famous actors; it’ll have to be called The Celebrities.  You’d [enjoy] a colossal success.  That’s what I wish on you—like [a case of] the plague!

RUDOLF BAYR: But this is just another episode of Thomas Bernhard the Clown.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am a clown.  Unfortunately that can’t be helped; every other [kind of person] is so tragic. 



 [1] Editors’ note: First broadcast on (ORF [the Austrian state broadcasting service]) on 12 September 1975.
First published in Thomas Bernhard und Salzburg, edited by Manfred Mittermayer and Sabine Veits-Falk, Salzburg, 2001, pp. 245-251.

[2] The book is Die Ursache: Ein Andeutung, the first volume of Bernhard’s memoirs; and it appears under the title “An Indication of the Cause” in Gathering Evidence, David McLintock’s translation of the complete memoirs.  The word that I translate throughout here as “hint,” Andeutung, may also be rendered as “indication.”  

[3] I quote McLintock’s translation of the epigraph.
[4] From this “is” onwards, video footage of the interview is viewable at


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).

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