Monday, April 21, 2014

A Translation of Two Texts on Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky by Thomas Bernhard

The Pensioned Salon Socialist [1]

The petit-bourgeois fellow sitting on a folding chair in his hand-knitted petit-bourgeois [sweater-]vest, and twiddling his toes within donning distance of his wear-mellowed therapeutic slippers (wooden ones!) in the late afternoon, has lately been more often eliciting the sympathy rather than provoking the cold-blooded contempt of the [disinterested] observer, despite the fact that he, the person depicted in this book,* is named Bruno Kreisky.  Millions of such petits-bourgeois move us to sympathize with them in the twilight hour, when we are well-disposed to such sympathizing, and we do not begrudge any of them their sunset against the backdrop of their own home, no matter which cash-source is funding it; they [will] savor their expiring destiny in Austria or in Mallorca; most often with their SPOUSE by their side; we see her squinting against the sun and in the most literal sense lugging to the grave that socialist government-spoiled paunch of hers.

Mr. Kreisky, to whom this book is dedicated on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, is already portrayed in its pages as a pensioner, despite the fact that, as everybody knows, he is MOST CURIOUSLY and QUITE APPALLINGLY still in office.  Despite his incumbency, in these pictures he unfailingly makes quite a sympathy-eliciting impression as a pampered pensioner, although one would find oneself overcome by an access of the aforementioned cold-blooded contempt if one were not well-disposed to this sort of thing.  As seen in this book, Mr. Kreisky is just one of those millions of Austrian pensioners, but annoyingly [enough], he is the only one of them who also [happens] still to be the chancellor of the republic.

This book shows Kreisky “On the Terrace of his House,” “Out Taking a Walk,” “At the Seaside,” “With His Wife,” “In His Cactus Garden,” etc., etc., etc. as though it were documenting the latter days of a typical pensioner or even [a typical] annuitant, and when it shows [him] in the now-celebrated [snapshot] “At the Belvedere Palace,” the observer thinks of him even here merely as some average Joe of a ploddingly loyal civil servant being commended at the end of his career by the invisible hand of the State.

As seen in this book, Kreisky the pensioner has the same passions and cravings as his millions of frustrated colleagues who don’t live in the Armbrustergasse and who are never seen doing the duties, so to speak, of the master of the house at the Ballhautzplatz, even if he has kept these hankerings [well] hidden under his pinstripe business suit.  Whether he likes it or not, the living-room cactus, the top-of-the-line garden gnome, the hankering for chartered flights, are pitilessly etched into his very countenance.  Here is something else the book reveals about him: from time to time he mumbles something about Musil and Hundertwasser, and everybody present gapes with admiration.  He’s forever dropping the names of great artists and thinkers, but he’s only ever shaking the hands of minor artists and minor thinkers.

At no point in the book does the gentleman say anything significant or even in any way noteworthy, even though we recall that his mouth used to brim over with countless amusing witticisms; in actual fact Kreisky has never written a single so-called significant statement, even if he is often quoted—especially in other countries, which are always well-disposed to the sturdy pleasantries of Austrians—on account of his cabaret-ish sentence-scapes.  One has only to think of the numerous carnival medals the Germans have awarded him.  In all seriousness: he has yet to bequeath to us a single book of serious interest; nor has this statesmanlike attitudinizing of his yielded anything of substance.

When he fancied he was philosophizing, he was only ever engaging in the incompetent wicker-weaving of the sedulous schoolboy.  Perhaps he realizes this, and it probably nettles him—in pretty much all of these photographs he gives the impression that something is nettling him; in the majority of them positively everything is nettling him, and nothing could be more characteristic of an authentic Austrian pensioner’s last days than that.

Most likely I am not the ideal reviewer of this curious book, which by all rights should be sold only in the shops of the most select vendors of devotional aids.

The half-silk socialist, the pink avuncular patron of appeasement and globetrotting psychic reader of palms from Tehran to New York, from Palma to Unterkleinwerzdorf, is for once—and this is both the most terrifying and the most irritating thing—depicted here as he actually is, left to his own resources, and the question “What AM I?,” which is posed on each and every one of these factory-fresh pages, receives on each and every one of these pages the selfsame horrifying answer: “The picayune workaday political piffle-knackered chancellor of Austria!”

As seen in this book, Bruno Kreisky, the Sun King, is really just a Sunlamp King, and as very recent history has taught us, when the sun has by and large ceased to shine, its work will be taken over by a sunlamp—and hence in this case by a Sunlamp King with the looks of a pensioner.

But this book is also flamboyantly, incessantly self-contradictory, because with every word and every image it surprisingly conjures up, as if from some Alpine magician’s box of tricks, the petit-bourgeois that Kreisky is but on no account wishes to be, and likewise with every word and every image it spirits away into this Alpine box of tricks the statesman that Kreisky wishes to be and is not and absolutely cannot be.  It really is just that wretchedly written and wretchedly photographed and fantastically authentic!

It’s just too bad, as I said earlier, that this man conjured out of a magician’s box of tricks [happens] to be the chancellor of our republic.

In vain one peruses this book from cover to cover in search of a mind of any stature; one discovers in it not even the mind of a proper full-sized demon, but merely that of a pathetic little hobgoblin.

On the other hand, everything in this book is true; it is entirely cut from the cloth our chancellor is made of.  From the heights of megalomania it descends to the dales of platitudinousness and thence, by a completely logical progression, to the depths of household spiritual kitsch.  Nothing is omitted, nothing [at any rate] that stirs his petit-bourgeois heart and has essentially kept it beating his entire life.

We are the witnesses of a world pervaded by mawkishness and phoniness, a world whose hub is our birthday boy.

It is not only the gait of the prose style of this totally provincial pompous yes man-ized book that is stubbornly stiff, but that of the chancellor as well.  And when he’s not strutting stiffly, he’s straddling or stretching his head into infinity as he ambles along.  Next he comes across once again as a man fatigued and jaded by the travails of the world’s cursus, as all the great movers and shakers of history simply must do—and the next minute he is once again as affable as the attendant of a merry-go-round.

The book does have one genuine highlight: it shows Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister and foreign minister, [sitting] in a railway passenger car at Schwechat Airport.  On page 24, Macmillan the giant (one of the greatest publishers and intellects in England!) overwhelms Kreisky the pygmy.  Mercilessly.

Kreisky the pensioner with the heart of a chancellor versus Kreisky the chancellor with the heart of a pensioner. An authentically Austrian embarrassment of catastrophic proportions, an embarrassment that we’re stuck with.

He is by no means a GREAT Jew; he is, as we know full well, by no means a GOOD Jew.  He is (and long has been) simply a lousy Chancellor of our Republic.

We are basically dealing here with a tax-strained, anciently ridicule-ridden, old socialist satrap retching on a diet of his own moronic mumblings; a toothless and formerly rubicund robber baron who decades ago was already washed white to the point of unrecognizability; a figure who deserves, be it ever so gingerly then nevertheless without any scrupulous regard for his pseudo-sacrifices, to be wiped off his throne.

They say that death can’t make an idiot into a genius, and a seventieth birthday can’t make a bit player into a statesman.  And such transformations are obviously also completely beyond the power of this ridiculous book, which nevertheless, albeit inadvertently, attests to two overwhelmingly devastating facts: first, that by now Kreisky has become nothing but an annuity-fed petit-bourgeois conformist; and second, that the young opportunistic Austrian authors of our time are largely feeble-minded and lacking in character.

We ought not to mistake this episode (this Kreiskyan episode) for an [historical] epoch.

*Gerhard Roth and Peter Turrini: Bruno Kreisky.  Photographs by Konrad R. Müller.  Nikolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin, 1981, 120 pp., 398 schillings.


A Letter from Thomas Bernhard to the Editors of profil [2]

Some time ago, the membership of the Socialist Party of Austria, who know me by name, were sent unsolicited copies of a book that I had reviewed, Bruno Kreisky (Berlin: Nikolaisch, 1981); these copies were unsolicited, but accompanied by a certificate of death by assassination.  Whether or not the recipients of the book will ever actually buy it is not at issue; it is, however, certain that all these recipients were subjected to a party-wide leafleting campaign of no mean ambitiousness.  Although I do not wish to believe in it, I can well imagine the sort of honorable arrangement the United Church of Austrian Socialism is making or has already made with the publishing firm that has brought out the book entitled Bruno Kreisky in honor of its eponym’s seventieth birthday, when I picture to myself the hundred thousand members of the Austrian Socialist Party, every single one of whom has conceivably received an unsolicited (but death certificate-accompanied) copy of this stupid concoction and had it served up to him at dinnertime.

In any case, at current prices this penny dreadful of a graphic novel retails at 400 schillings.  It is only natural that I should be interested in learning what Mr. Kreisky himself—the chancellor of the Republic of Austria, the man celebrated in this book and hence its hero, whose photographic image has, it seems, been very much foisted with main force upon the Socialist households of every single one of our regions—has to say about this recent exercise in tastelessness, which is tantamount to a criminal assault of unprecedented proportions.

Thomas Bernhard,

[1] Editors' note: First published in profil, Vienna, January 26, 1981.
Above the title the editors remarked, “Thomas Bernhard, who will soon turn fifty, reflects on Bruno Kreisky, who has just turned seventy, via Roth and Turrini’s book in honor of the chancellor’s birthday.”

Bernhard’s review was followed by this postscript: “It is an inflexible policy of profil to publish any ‘guest commentary,’ we have commissioned even if the opinion expressed therein is at odds with that of the editors.  Such is the case in this contribution by Thomas Bernhard.  H.V. [=Velmut Voska]”

The “guest commentary” elicited a number of letters to the editor, which profil printed in the following two weeks.  The weekly newspaper itself reported that “Austria” was “in Uproar” (profil, February 16, 1981).  Wolf in der Maur, at that time the director of ORF 1, publicly considered canceling the broadcast of Krista Fleischmann’s cinematic portrait of Bernhard (Monologues at Mallorca), which was set to air in commemoration of Bernhard’s fiftieth birthday.

[2] Editors' noteFirst published in profil, Vienna, March 23, 1981.
This letter to the editor was introduced by the following note: “In profil 4/81 Thomas Bernhard wrote about Turrini and Roth’s book about Bruno Kreisky.  His critique of the book turned into a critique of the chancellor and released a torrent of letters from profil readers.


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), pp. 204-208 and 212.

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