Monday, April 14, 2014

A Translation of Two Letters from Thomas Bernhard to Gerhard Ruiss


Dear Mr. Ruiss, [1]

My existence as a writer in Austria, which is my native country, was from the very outset attended by malicious calumny and disregard, and the periods of virulent calumny have always been followed by periods of total disregard, and because I know my fellow-countrymen [very well, I know] that none of this will change in the future; the calumny will become even more egregious, the disregard even more total; I have never experienced any other sort of situation for more than three decades now, which is how long I have been writing and publishing.  When my [novel] Frost appeared, Mr Hartl, who is still writing today with the same brain [he had back then], wrote that I was a nullity, and poked fun at Frost, and to every one of my books that has appeared since Frost the Austrian newspapers have at best offered more of the same treatment.  And when my [play] The Hunting Party was performed at the Burgtheater, a delegation of writers headed up by the president of the Art Senate, Mr. Henz, remonstrated with our minister of art and culture to the effect that the Burgtheater should be staging Mr. Henz’s works instead of mine; if the story weren’t true, nobody would be allowed to circulate it even as a joke.  When, at the age of forty [2], in other words an age when one should on no account allow oneself such things, I received the so-called Small State Prize for Literature, the then minister for art and culture, Mr. Piffl-Perčivič, followed up a couple of sentences that I had uttered and [whose wording] is well-known by calling me a “dog” under his breath [3] and exiting the auditorium; this after referring to me in his “speech” as a Dutchman and the author of a novel about the South Seas.  The minister had lunged at me with his hand held high, [and] had exited the auditorium—not, I must mention, without slamming the door [behind him].  He was [immediately] followed by the [crowd of] more than a hundred sinecure-holders that had previously swelled the hall.  On this occasion Mr. Henz had brandished his fists at me and apostrophized me as a “swine.”  The Wildgans Prize, which I had in the meantime been “awarded,” had been mailed to me in a shoddy cardboard tube, because somebody had canceled the “award ceremony” after the minister had declined to be present at that assembly of the industrialists’ association (“I can’t go out of my way to meet the likes of Mr. Bernhard!”).  The Academy of Sciences managed to “award” me the Grillparzer Prize only after a long false start because not one of the people who wished to confer upon me this distinction knew me from Adam, and I had to be picked out of the tenth row of the audience before [I could receive it].

I could rattle off to you an endless catalogue of additional snubbings; I myself [would] derive absolutely no pleasure from doing so.  It is an endless chain of completely deliberate misrepresentations of the facts, completely deliberate degradations of my person.  I should write a book composed entirely of facts, a book that demonstrates how people deal with somebody like me who does nothing but write; how they basically use every possible means in an attempt to silence him.  If I had had to depend on this Austrian society of ours [for my livelihood], I would, to put it bluntly, have long since starved to death.  In Austria I would not have earned a tenth as much as my “charwoman.” [4] But thanks to a tough natural constitution I have from an early age been both attuned and immune to the loutishness of my fellow-countrymen, who value nothing so little as literature and those who have devoted themselves to literature.  I have resigned myself to the total mindlessness of this society and will never again nurture the slightest grudge [against it]; never again will I permit myself this indulgence, because it is my wish to proceed with my work and not allow myself to become enfeebled by the overwhelming demographic might of the intellectual torpor that reigns supreme here.

A [comprehensive] list of snubbings would be so long that it would expend far too great a share of my stock of paper.  And my typewriter is churning out the familiar names of so many people who have behaved loutishly and vilely and mendaciously and in every other way but collegially, that I myself cannot help recoiling in horror from such machination.  But nonetheless: so long as people who call themselves president of the Art Senate of this country lay into their colleagues with their fists and do not blush from giving the minister with the relevant portfolio to understand that the work of his colleagues ought not to be performed, nothing will change on this playhouse stage [that is] my native land.  And I naturally have no desire to tread the boards of this stage on which every person who clings to truth is made into a laughingstock.

I live here in Austria because I have no choice but to do so, because I am bound to its landscape.  But for my work’s sake I refuse to have anything to do with my enemies.  And my enemies are ubiquitous.

Nearly twenty years ago the Wiener Montag called me a bedbug; in 1967 the minister for art and culture, Mr. Piffl-Perčivič, called me a dog and Mr. Henz, the president of the Art Senate, called me a swine, and not too long ago the Oberösterreichischen Nachtrichten called me “a piece of riffraff who deserves to be shoved across the border.”

I can scarcely imagine that at your congress you will hear anything from a bedbug or from a dog or from a swine, let alone from a piece of riffraff.  Not even you can expect that!

I would like to extend my very best wishes to your congress; and above all the wish that it will not be attended exclusively by such unregenerate bedbugs and swine and dogs—let alone such pieces of riffraff—as myself.

Thomas Bernhard



Dear Mr. Ruiss, [5]

I have absolutely nothing to hide, and you can do whatever you like with my detailed letter from December.

Nevertheless, I [cannot help] asking myself what business writers have being in a country like ours, in which nothing is valued so little as literary authorship, to say nothing of thinking and serious writing, and in which for a lethally long time our reigning government has been composed exclusively of morons, banausic [buffoons], and brutal bosses.  Do you really think there can be any point in wheeling and dealing with such bloated political bruisers and sitting down at the table with these people who have nothing in their heads but [thoughts of] the brutal [exercise of] power?  To wheel and deal with feeble-mindedness and banausic [buffoonery] is ridiculous and an a priori pointless endeavor, and to protest against the primitive thugs that such politicians inevitably are is every bit as ridiculous and pointless.

You simply cannot converse about artistic sensitivity with such people, all of whom without exception have the mental compass of a small-town high-street shop manager.

I believe that at your congress you are really just casting your pearls—which writers, unlike politicians, invariably wear like a noose around their necks—before swine.

Here in Austria a couple of power-hungry and megalomaniacal old men stonewall everybody they come into contact with, and it is astonishing how long young people in particular have been putting up with this in this noisome administrative sinkhole.  [It’s] as if there were no younger generation!

I repeat: to sit down at the table with brutality [personified] and with political hammer-throwers is dangerous.

You can do whatever you like with these lines as well.

Thomas Bernhard


[1] Editors’ note: First published in Catalogue of Problems.  Conditions of Literary Production in Austria.  Working Paper for the First Austrian Congress of Writers: March 6-8, 1981 in Vienna, edited by Gerhard Ruiss and Johannes A. Vyoral.  Vienna 1981, p. 245 f.

[2] This is at odds with the chronology of My Prizes, in which Bernhard reports that he was awarded the Small State Prize “in 1967”—in other words, at the age of thirty-five or thirty-six.

[3] If the minister uttered the word “under his breath” (still vor sich hin), how did Bernhard overhear it at all, let alone identify it?  (In My Prizes there is no mention of the “dog”-calling, although Piffl-Perčivič is said to have “hurled some incomprehensible curse word” at Bernhard.)

[4] =Bedienerin, an Austrianism.  Given that the letter’s addressee was a fellow-Austrian, the inverted commas are slightly mystifying.  Perhaps Bernhard thought Bedienerin sounded a bit old-fashioned, as indeed “charwoman” does in English.

[5] Editors’ note: First published in Solidarity among Authors.  First Austrian Congress of Writers: March 6-8 in Vienna.  Resolutions (=Circular No. 5), edited by Heinz Lunzer, Alfred Pfoser, and Gerhard Renner.  Vienna, 1981, p. 46.

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). 

1 comment:

pom3granade said...

„Wie ein Hund!” sagte er, es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben.