Monday, February 10, 2014

A Translation of a Letter about Der Stimmenimitator from Thomas Bernhard to Annelore Lucan-Stood

Thomas Bernhard [1]


Most honored Ms. Annelore Lucan-Stood,

In one of the hundred-and-four free associations and thought-inventions of my book The Voice Imitator, I have erected what I believe to be a long-enduring albeit merely literary monument to your father the state prosecutor Dr. Zamponi, whom I highly esteemed during my stint as a crime reporter at the Salzburg Regional Court in the fifties, and whom I have continued to hold in very high regard to this day.  As I was writing my book I recalled your father’s extraordinary qualities as a jurist, and thus originated the prose piece entitled “Example.”

Yesterday, having just returned from a rather lengthy trip abroad, I read in the newspaper that on account of this prose piece, which, as must be said, is not devoid of philosophy, you had lodged at the Salzburg Regional Court a complaint against the vilification of your esteemed father and hence against an instance of libel.  I can divine neither your intellectual nor your emotional grounds for regarding me as a libeler, and in all courtesy and also naturally with the greatest respect I should like to invite you to reread closely and attentively study the prose piece entitled “Example,” in which it is stated quite clearly and verbatim that your esteemed father had been “for many years the preeminent figure of the Salzburg Regional Court,” which is high, if hardly excessive, praise indeed.  I cannot imagine that having done as I ask you will continue to see “Example” as anything but what it is—a philosophical fiction in the form of an homage to your esteemed father.  Given that even today I retain a very strong appreciation of your father’s remarkable qualities, I believe that “Example,” being a parable in which his name is mentioned with the highest degree of respect, would certainly have given him at least a modicum of joy.

If it is your wish to have the name of your esteemed father expunged from “Example” and hence from the book entitled The Voice Imitator and replaced by some other name, I obviously shall grant you your wish at the earliest opportunity and replace “Zamponi” with “Ferrari” or “Machiavelli,” although I would regret doing so.

The Voice Imitator is about to be translated for the great publishing firms of Gallimard in Paris and Knopf in America, [2] the most prestigious publishers in their respective countries, and also into six or seven other languages.  You see what a powerful effect a book from Ohlsdorf in Upper Austria can have.

I assume your view of “Example” is a case of misinterpretation.

Yours very faithfully,
Thomas Bernhard

[1] Editors’ note: First published in Oberösterreichische Nachtrichten, Linz, January 22, 1979.  The editors of the newspaper furnished the letter with a lead: “In an open letter Thomas Bernhard comments on a lawsuit threatened against him by the daughter of Reinulf Zamponi, the deceased president of the Regional Court of Appeal.  (See also our ‘Have the Honor.’)”

In the column “Have the Honor,” which appeared on the same day, Reinhold Tauber wrote under the headline “Example—for Whom?,” “To the best of my knowledge nobody who has hitherto tackled the book [Der Stimmenimitator] has interpreted its narratives as chronicles of actual events, as reports on real people.  Should the case actually come to trial, the presiding judge will be forced to normalize, [will be] obliged to tailor a [strait]jacket within whose confines the artist will [retain] freedom of movement.  Hardly a pleasant task.”  The Oberösterreichische Nachtrichten appended the text of “Example” to [Tauber’s] commentary.

Der Stimmenimitator [The Voice Imitator], a collection of short prose pieces that its author claimed to have written in five days, was delivered to the bookstores on September 21, 1978.  The [relevant] passage from “Example” in the first edition reads, “The Regional Court of Appeal judge Zamponi, for many years the preeminent figure of the Salzburg Regional Court […] had […] after pronouncing the sentence stood up again and said that he was about to set an example.  After this unusual announcement he reached with lightning speed under his gown and into his coat pocket and pulled out an unlocked pistol and to the horror of all those present in the courtroom shot himself in the left temple.  He died instantly” (Thomas Bernhard, Werke, Vol. 14, edited by Hans Höller, Martin Huber, and Manfred Mittermeyer; Frankfurt am Main, 2003, p. 248).

In his story Bernhard had made use of the name of Reinulf Zamponi, who had recently been president of the senate in Linz and had died there in 1977.  On January 20, 1979, under the headline “Private Lawsuit against Author Bernhard.  Plaintiff Daughter of the RCA President Zamponi” the Salzburger Nachtrichten reported, “The writer Thomas Bernhard, having been sued by the city pastor of Salzburg, Franz Wesenauer, over an incriminating passage in [his] book The Cause, must now look forward to a libel suit initiated by the daughter of Dr. Reinulf Zamponi, the former president of the Regional Court of Appeal, who died two years ago.”  The complaint was withdrawn when Bernhard rechristened the judge “Ferrari,” as he had offered to do in the letter.  [One wonders what proportion of extant copies of Der Stimmenimitator and its translations incorporate the rechristening.  In my local public library’s copy of the original, evidently from the first printing, the judge remains Zamponi, but in Kenneth J. Northcott’s English translation he is Ferrari, and the preceding editors’ note implies that he has been Zamponi in every printing of the original since at least 2003. (DR)]

[2] In the event, the first English translation of Der Stimmenimitator was published not by Knopf but by the University of Chicago Press, in 1997.    

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 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). 


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the wonderful translations. Do you happen to know where Bernhard claimed to have written The Voice Imitator in five days?

Thomas McGonigle said...

JUST DISCOVERED THIS BLOG it is now one of the essential places in the digital universe

Douglas Robertson said...

1. Thank you very much for your commendation, Mr. McGonigle.

2. You are very welcome, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. I am afraid I do not know where Bernhard made that claim. Like you, I learned of it from the editors' note.

Douglas Robertson said...

In belated answer to Anonymous's question: Bernhard claimed to have written The Voice Imitator in five days in a conversation with his publisher, Siegfried Unseld: "Conversation about The Voice Imitator: 'In his view this book is a slight work. After all, he says, he wrote it in five days, which I find almost incredible'" (from Unseld's 1978 travel journal, as quoted in Note 2 to Letter No. 369 of Bernhard and Unseld's correspondence).