Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Translation of Thomas Bernhard's Correspondence with His Publisher, Siegfried Unseld. Part VI: 1968.

Letter No. 42

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
February 19, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

The Austrian State Prize was an occasion of great joy for all of us here!  Hopefully it will spur you on to further and fresh achievement.

with warm regards,
[Siegfried Unseld]


Letter No. 43


Dear Dr. Unseld,

I hereby expressly request that you make public--i.e., publish, through the agency of your press bureau--the following facts that are quite characteristic of my country, whenever you see fit to do so:

On the 4th of this month, at midday, the awarding of the State Prize took place at the Ministry for either Education or Culture.  As an individual writer, I received several reminders that I was expected to deliver a so-called thank-you speech, which I eventually composed and also delivered.  (The speech is enclosed.)  No sooner had I finished this speech and returned to my place in the audience, than I heard behind me an elderly man shouting “What overweening impertinence!” whereupon, just like on a sinking luxury liner on the Hamburg America Line, the musicians on hand for the occasion struck up their obligatory dreary strains.  Immediately after the final cadence had been played, the Minister leapt to his feet and formed his fist into a ball (literally) and rushed up to me and screamed, “We didn’t invite you!” and “We remain proud Austrians notwithstanding!”--this after having described me in his “encomium” as “a Dutchman living in Austria, hence a foreigner” and otherwise spoken nothing but inane rubbish --then rushed through the exit door and slammed it shut, thereby causing the windows of the Ministry’s auditorium, in which the ceremony was taking place, to rattle.  The master of the house received resounding applause.  Nobody had understood a thing I said.  A memorable, farcical scene.  Oh well.  (A rough description from a newspaper is enclosed.)  The colossal silver-key buffet remained deserted; three headwaiters in tails were left with no work to do; there were exclamations of “Dutschke!” and “Hundertwasser!,” and I stood there, flabbergasted, in a corner of the auditorium, and asked myself what I was to do next.  This gaggle of provincial notables was behaving exactly as I had--admittedly indirectly, from a philosophical perspective--described it as behaving: laughably, chaotically.  The virtually untouched buffet, along with all other suchlike leftovers, migrated to the district poorhouse or the Lainz nursing home.1

The publisher of the Forum, the best journal of cultural and political affairs that we have, requested a copy of the speech and is going to print it with comments in its May issue as the inaugural item in a series of articles and essays entitled Fifty Years of the Austrian Republic.2  It will then be seen on what basis a minister for culture, the culture that he does not possess and whose right to administer he has forfeited etc., etc…

During the evening of the same day I received a telephone call from the ministry warning me not to publish my speech no matter what I did.  Even in dictatorships I have not found myself in such delicate situations.

But now I turn to the matter that I would like you to publicize through your bureau with unconditional immediacy; this is something that must be publicized, and, publicized, to be sure, if you please, in a conspicuous setting:

Yesterday morning I received a registered express letter from the “Austrian Industrialists’ Association,” who in camera, at the behest of a jury, had promised me the “Anton Wildgans Prize of Austrian Industry” way back in December, and had, moreover issued me a payment of 20,000 schillings even before Christmas; and now this letter reads: “Dear Mr. Bernhard, we are very sorry that we have been obliged to cancel the award ceremony for the Anton Wildgans Prize that was to have taken place on March 21.  We have already sent word of this cancellation to the Minister of Education, our president and board of directors, and our invited guests.

In the next few days we shall permit ourselves to remit to you the 10,000-schilling outstanding balance of the honorarium associated with the prize and to send you the certificate.  Yours very respectfully, the Austrian Industrialists’ Association.”

So: no ceremony, no banquet!  Basta!  Now they are all hush-hush about a prize that they made such a noisy fuss about earlier.  

I speak with impeccable grammatical correctness, calmly, and while elegantly and unobtrusively attired, and without imparting the faintest tremor to the tranquil tenor of my philosophical meditation, on a subject that I have been expressly requested, nay, sworn to talk about, whereupon a scandal ensues...whereupon the Industrialists’ Association cancels the ceremony that they had determined to hold for me, because a certain cabinet minister happens to be an idiot, and on account of a text that all those people misunderstood and have not seen since, and that not a single person, not a single brain, apart from me, you, and Mr. Kruntorad from the Forum, is familiar with...grotesque!  grotesque! (You know where that comes from.)3

I am now expressly requesting that you publicize these events in a conspicuous setting (because here everything is hopeless).  I shall now deliver the “thank-you speech”--a speech that the Industrialists’ Association commissioned from me weeks ago and that I squandered 14 days on--at the University of Saarbrücken, to which I was invited even earlier;4 the speech once again treats of philosophical matters, which I cannot talk about here, as we have seen.  Grotesque.

Laughable, but true, i.e., lamentable.

On the 20th I have a reading to give at the Vienna PEN club, who have not invited me to any of their meetings until now; the next day I shall be heading straight for Yugoslavia and taking Ungenach there with me, because the sea will certainly do it good.  From there I shall send Ungenach to Frankfurt; and then, if I come to Frankfurt--I shall possibly be at the TH in Darmstadt on 4.26--I can directly hear your thoughts on it.  I am naturally thrilled at the prospect of a conversation with my publisher.

By the end of the year the novel should be far enough along for publication in the fall of ’69.

I am an absolutely happy individual, a man who is by nature taciturn yet determined; irritations last only a few hours apiece; after one of them I walk around outside, I read a well-turned sentence, I look at a painting of some German or other-European martyr qua philosopher, and I am once again in my element.

In two hours I am leaving for Vienna, and I shall be reachable there by telephone until the 21st.  Please also send me the name and address of my Yugoslavian translator so that I can keep him informed and thank him.  My address through about April 28 is: Hotel Beograd, LOVRAN, Yugoslavia.

I am now beginning to get serious; I hope I can count on at least another ten years; I am hot on the trail of a new vein of efficiency.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

P.S. My novel deserves, I think, to be well prepared for.

[Enclosure 1 and Enclosure 2]

  1. On March 4, 1968, the Austrian State Prize for Literature (which included an award of 25,000 Austrian schillings or approximately 3,500 deutschmarks) was presented to Bernhard by Theodor Piffl-Perčević, the Minister of Education.  Bernhard was one of six people to receive State Prizes on that day; the others were the sculptors Josef Pillhofer and Alfred Hrdlicka [about whom Bernhard holds forth disparagingly if sympathetically in his 1986 interview with Werner Wörgerbauer (DR)], the medallist [i.e., maker (not winner) of medals (DR)] Elfriede Rohr, and the composers Gerhard Wimberger and Josef Doppelbauer.  In Meine Preise (pp. 66-85) Bernhard again recorded his impressions of the sequence of events at the award ceremony.

  1. Under the headline “Stalking the Truth and Death.  Two Speeches,” the Neue Forum (May 1968, pp. 347-349) printed the speech that Bernhard had written for his receipt of the Anton Wildgans Prize for Austrian Industry--and that was never delivered owing to the cancellation of the award ceremony--along with the speech for the State Prize ceremony.  The two speeches are prefaced by the following editorial note: “Society honors its artists with prizes and distinctions; are these artists therefore duty-bound to honor the society in which they live?  One can thank the awarders of distinctions (and the attendant monetary sums) with well-turned words, or one can, in being duty-bound to one’s own (prize-crowned) works and prize-crowning society, give thanks by saying what one believes to be true.  When a writer of Thomas Bernhard’s stature utters words of despair to his fatherland, this is—in the fiftieth year of the Austrian republic—an occasion for scruples.  Let these scruples find their way to our editorial offices; we shall be happy to publish them, pro or contra, as a symposium on this jubilee year.”  The first speech begins with this sentence: “If we are stalking the truth without knowing what this truth is, this truth that has nothing in common with reality but the truth, it is failure, it is death, that we are stalking…” And a later passage in it reads: “[...]but I could, as you must [surely] imagine, speak here about the State, about federations of States, the decline of States, about the impossibility of the State, and I know that you are glad that I am not speaking about that, you have been afraid all the while that I might utter something that you were afraid of and you are basically glad that here I am really not speaking about anything.”  In the speech for the State Prize one reads: “We are Austrians, we are apathetic; we are life as the vulgar lack of interest in life, in the process of nature we are megalo-mania as the future” (Bernhard, Meine Preise, pp. 121f.).   
  1. “Grotesque” is a stylistically significant word in Verstörung.

  1. On April 24, 2968, at the University of Saarbrücken and at the invitation of Saarland Radio and the university’s students, Bernhard read a text entitled “Nature, Anarchy” (a later version of “A Young Writer”) as well as the two novellas “Two Tutors” and “Is It a Comedy?  Is It a Tragedy?” from Prose.

  1. On April 2, 1968, Anneliese Botond sent Bernhard the address of Borivoj Grujic.  Mraz, the Serbo-Croatian translation of Frost, was published by the Belgrade-based firm of Prosveta.

  1. Enclosure 1 is the original typescript of the acceptance speech for the State Prize.  Enclosure 2 is missing; presumably it was Hans Rochelt’s article on the award ceremony,  Zerstörte Idyll [“An Idyll Destroyed”], which appeared in the Oberösterreichischen Nachrichten of March 5.

Letter No. 44
[Address: (Vienna)]

Frankfurt am Main
March 18, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

Last weekend Ms. Botond telephoned me and told me all about the scandal in Vienna.  You of course know that my whole heart goes out to you, and I had no trouble imagining your situation.  Other authors have had to endure this kind of thing: Frisch when he criticized Switzerland; Enzensberger when he received a prize in Nüremburg and in the encomium announced that he intended to place the prize money at the disposal of those people who had been denied their rights by the judicial system of the Federal Republic.1

Now, today, I have received your letter and the text of the speech.  I would like to be quite frank with you about this.  You of course expect no mere tactical reply from me; rather, you quite justifiably wish to hear me say that I will support you in this difficult situation.  And so I will, and gladly, but I shall do so, my dear Mr. Bernhard, in a different way than you expect.  I would like in other words to argue that we should instead initially take absolutely no notice of this affair.  If you can still do so, you really are best advised to forestall the publication of the speech in the Weltwoche.2  We who know you naturally do not find this speech scandalous, but all the people who do not know you, who have not read your books, are bound--and again quite justifiably--to take umbrage at it; and I shall even be so bold as to say, my dear Bernhard, that from your biased and besmitten perspective you are in no position to assess the effect of your own words.  In this speech you have not merely offered criticism; rather, you have indiscriminately declared an entire country to be bereft of intelligence and a future.  As I said, other authors have done this before.  Max Frisch once gave a lecture about Switzerland called “Land without a Future,” but, my dear Bernhard, that talk was firmly sited within the ambit of criticism and of the possibility of change.  In your speech everything looks definitive and permanent, and your fellow-countrymen both within and outside your audience are bound to bristle at sentences like “We also are nothing and we deserve nothing but chaos.”3  And you, my dear Mr. Bernhard, must learn to accept and to put up with this reaction. This is difficult, and I can see how touchily you are reacting on your end.  If the people don’t want to fete you, don’t let it faze you; it’s a thing of no importance.  And in a way you have got to sympathize with these people.  What, after all, are they supposed to do?  You have not merely provoked them; they feel as though you have represented them as a nullity.  From where then are you getting the idea that they still owe you a fete?  I wouldn’t dream of asking for one.  I can envisage only one possible reaction, and that is to accept what has happened.  The moral high ground of your speech is entirely on your side, and I am standing steadfastly beside you.  But you mustn’t fail to realize that with your speech you have hurt the feelings of certain other people.  As I said, what you said is nothing new, nothing shocking, to us connoisseurs and friends of Thomas Bernhard.  But the circle of people who know and appreciate you is small.  In my view what has just happened to you is the latest in a series of representative events, and it reaffirms something previous experience has taught me: that the purpose of a writer is not to deliver speeches and trot out theses, but rather to say what he wishes to say in the context of a specific work.  In such a setting, what he says is not isolated, but rather situated in the overall context of a single consciousness and body of thought, and it provokes internal rather than external reactions.

So: be strong, withdraw back into yourself, write your book.  Everything else is unimportant.4

Yours sincerely,
Siegfried Unseld

  1. Hans Magnus Enzensberger was awarded the Nüremberg Prize for Literature on March 16, 1967.  He entitled his acceptance speech A Speech on Heizer Hieronymus.  While reminiscing about his Nüremberg childhood Enzensberger asked of this Hieronymus, “Was he really called Hieronymus; was this his Christian- or surname?  Why did he disappear?  When?  Was it in 1935?  1937?  Was he taken away?  What is the meaning of the word ‘cell,’ which somebody let slip when Heizer’s residence stood vacant.  [...]  And Mr. Hannover the lawyer from Bremen writes to me, ‘Every year in the Federal Republic at least ten thousand investigations of political criminals of conscience are launched.’  From this I conclude that Heizer Hieronymus has not vanished without a trace.  He is back again, in other cellars, under other names [...] with the money associated with this prize, Post Office Giro Account No. 1312 has been opened.  [...] It will support people who have been brought to trial for their political views, as well as the next of kin of the condemned.”  This speech touched off discussion of the “Enzensberger Case” in the Bundestag on April 13; that same month Günther Nollau, vice president of the West German intelligence agency, inveighed against Enzensberger in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.  (Speeches and debates are documented in Enzsenberger’s Staatsgefährdende Umtriebe [State-Threatening Activities]).   
  1. An article in the March 22 1968 Weltwoche entitled “The Gratitude and Ingratitude of Thomas Bernhard.  A Tragedy about an Austrian Speech” consists of the text of Bernhard’s speech and an account of the award ceremony that tallies with the one in Bernhard’s letter to Unseld.

  1. The penultimate sentence of the speech for the State Prize reads in full: “We need be ashamed of nothing, but we also are nothing and deserve nothing but chaos” (Thomas Bernhard, Meine Preise, p. 122).

  1. The March 21, 1968 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung contains an article by Karl Heinz Bohrer under the headline “The Poet’s Curse.”  It includes the full text of Bernhard’s speech, and such sentences in it as “The prize-winner was addressed as ‘Dutschke’ and ‘Hundertwasser.” indicate that its author was privy to Bernhard’s letter to Unseld.  In conclusion, Bohrer writes: “To what extent, one must ask, is a poet to be accorded the liberties of a court jester? [...] In this unusual case the reaction was all the more bemusing in that Bernhard did not deliver any kind of proper political speech, but rather foisted his existential manifesto, his Austrian lugubriousness, his dealings with death, upon an audience who were visibly looking forward to a buffet meal.”
Letter No. 45

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
July 9, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

I hear we are once again having difficulties with each other about the honorarium.  What could possibly be the reason?  Am I wrong in thinking we have already worked out a not-ungenerous solution to these problems?

I am enclosing a copy of the May 8/November 22, 1967 contract in which we settled on the terms of the publication of Prose in edition suhrkamp.  This document strikes me as a model that we would do well to copy in the contract for the new book, Ungenach.

I had rather hoped you would be applying this honorarium to the paying off of your loan.  But if you are now in urgent need of this sum, I am prepared to remit to you half of the DM 2,000 now, upon the settling of the contract, and the other half when the book appears.  I very much hope that you will not take it amiss when I tell you that larger honoraria are not possible under the auspices of edition suhrkamp.1

You are aware, I trust, that the prospective publication date of the book is September 1968?

with warm regards
[Siegfried Unseld]     

  1. Günther Busch, in his capacity as the editor in charge of edition suhrkamp, communicated to Unseld Thomas Bernhard’s wish for a DM 3,000 honorarium.  On July 11, 1968 Anneliese Botond wrote to Bernhard, “How can we account for this letter?  If only I had known.  I am certain that U[nseld] had already approved the 3,000--I learned this from Busch, who told me that he had told it to you.  And now he is pulling back, insulting you, compromising me.  There is no need for me to tell you what you have to do, and the match can really only end with you as the winner [...] A curt rumble of Ohlsdorfian thunder in answer to the lightning from the skies of Frankfurt is very much in order.”    

Letter No. 46


Dear Dr. Unseld,

I am very sorry that I didn’t get to see you in Frankfurt; but getting to spend some time with your wife was a real pleasure.  Please tell her this.

As far as the honorarium for the book goes, we both proceeded by literal and generous leaps and bounds at the start of all this, and I rather thought that in virtue of having fought a running battle with my novel Verstörung for three straight years I had already effectively paid off a goodly portion of my loan.  That notion that such an eminent and expert publisher as yourself has not managed to sell more than eighteen hundred copies is so absurd that nobody would believe me if I told them as much, because just by ambling around the country with my rucksack, I could certainly sell more copies on my own in four weeks.  Neither my disappointment nor my incomprehension knows any bounds if you have come to feel that this book about which the best of all possible critics have all in all kicked up the best of all possible fusses, etc...I shall leave off haranguing, but I will say this: that I really did blow a great window of opportunity, or at least three years of work.

All of that, apart from the unbelievably beautiful published appearance of the book, which has been superbly printed, is etc.  Has it not occurred to you that the firm may be ever so slightly responsible for what has happened to Verstörung?  I don’t know.  You really ought to  pay off the loan yourself.

Now, you likewise must of course have realized that I must have something to live on.  The loan dates from four years ago; now what kind of fool could have lived on that amount of money for four years?  Granted, then, that I need to have something to live on; if I don’t have anything, I must, just like everybody else, start working.  I have nothing against working; to the contrary, I have for [the] longest time much preferred chopping down trees and things of that sort to writing, but if I do that then I can’t even dream of getting any further along in the novel I’m writing and so forth.  Don’t you realize every living human being has got a belly?  He’s got to fill it; it’s just that simple.

As far as Ungenach goes, I would prefer to tell the following story once again, although I am no storyteller:

Ungenach, a story (by Thomas Bernhard)
“Once upon a time there was an author who wrote Amras and received a whopping 3,000 marks because his Amras was appearing in the edition suhrkamp series.  Two years later, the same author wrote a volume of novellas entitled--infelicitously so, according to his publisher--Prose, and received for this book a lump sum of only 2,000.  Then he wrote--because of course he is always writing, because he simply writes etc.--a book entitled Ungenach and demanded (as a shoemaker would do for a finished pair of shoes) the same payment he had demanded for Amras: again, DM 3,000; and that or those 3,000 were promised to him by his publisher, as was quite fitting and proper; and now, believe it or not, this same author has received from his publisher (let him be whatever he likes now!)  a contract (and a dunning-letter!) for only 2,000, a contract in which even those 2,000 are tendered as if in some kind of utterly extraordinary act of largesse…” (Fragment and End of the Story).

I could be furious at this point, but I am not, because the natural environs of my lovely house are so very lovely because they are so very raunchy.  I could even be something else entirely, but I am not any such thing.  And yet I do say to myself that this man’s publisher (hence the author’s publisher), having by this point been guilty of criminal negligence, really should at minimum do something now, four years after his first great outpouring of largesse, to preserve this aura of largesse.  That would be lovely.  At the moment I have no faith in the largesse of the publisher.

But why engage in all this ranting?  It is quite clear that I might as well make my living in a conventional fashion; at least I shall be free of the millions of revolting cramps that seem to be indissociable from writing in my case.

Your letter (of July 9) is disquieting.

I don’t know what you have in mind.  Even if you insist on having the loan repaid immediately and try to sandbag me with it, you won’t succeed in killing me; I shall scare up the money somehow, and you will receive it.

But that would be a truly insane and lamentable solution, I think.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

P.S. And what do you take me for anyway--some sort of two-bit hack?

P.P.S. At the moment I couldn’t care less how you behave towards me; I find the whole thing too ridiculous by half.

P.P.P.S. And if you’re even thinking of touching any of the various literary prize moneys, I must remind you yet again that my hospital stay put me--and only me--out of pocket to the tune of 60,000 schillings.

P.P.P.P.S. I have no desire for any sentimentality.

Letter No. 47

Frankfurt am Main
July 15, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

In your letter of July 11, you ask me what I take you for.  Well, the sincere and honest answer to that question is: a writer of the first rank, a writer who has executed several important works and who I am certain will write works of even greater significance.  And I also take you for a kind person whose heart, I know, is in the right place even when he puts himself in the wrong.

And you really are in the wrong here, my dear Mr. Bernhard.  The firm cannot be held responsible for the success or failure of Verstörung--not in any way or to the slightest degree.  And even if we had published a thousand advertisements and you had traveled around peddling the book yourself, an overwhelming swelling of interest is not possible, and it is not possible on account of the structure of your texts--i.e., the stylistic qualities as well as the contents of your works.  Moreover, I must remind you of our discussion of the title.  Of course, to the bitter end I balked at accepting Verstörung as a title.  You were and continued to be intractable.  Nobody here at the firm argued in favor of that title.  It was as clear as day to us that a book with such a title would be rejected first by the book retailers, who would exclude it from their inventory, and subsequently by people shopping for books to give as presents (who account for 90% of all purchasers of books).  Such people don’t want to have anything to do with a book with a title like Verstörung.  We all knew this, but Thomas Bernhard spurned his publisher’s arguments; he knew better, and now we are reaping the consequences.  In so saying I do not wish to be taken to imply that we would have obtained an essentially different payoff with a more “positive” title, but merely that the entire affair would have had a very different look to it.

And here is another thing.  You know that Beckett is ranked Number 1 out of all the authors at Suhrkamp Publications and that we work really hard on his behalf.  Allow me if you will to share with you Beckett’s sales figures:

Molloy (published in 1954) 2,554 copies sold
Malone (published in 1958) 1,632   “
The Unnamable (publ. 1959) 1,467
How It Is (published in 1961) 873     
Dramatic Poems
1 + 2 (publ. 1963 + 1964) 1,366 + 1,176 copies sold

Our electronic sales statistics record an average of 10 copies sold per month.  That is, to put it bluntly, a witheringly puny payoff.  But we have very little power to change it, although we are constantly attempting to do so.  Not once has Beckett complained about these sales figures; to the contrary, he is aware of how much work we are doing and is grateful for it.  And to be sure we also know a little bit about the fortunes of earlier modern authors.  Consider a case that legitimately bears comparison with your own, that of Kafka.  He never sold more than 300 copies of a first book within the first year after its initial publication.

We must have patience, my dear Mr. Bernhard.  There is no way around it.  You must have faith in the two firms that are issuing your books.  And at both firms you have people who are working really hard on your behalf.  And first and foremost among them I would very much include myself.  During my last conversation with you I got the very strong impression that you had an accurate view of the situation.  But no sooner had you left my office than your insecurities started stirring again.  I know that this is what happened, and I am not complaining about it, but I do believe that you are engaging in this dunning and complaining as a means of enabling yourself to write more books, and only that can change your situation.  By no means have your books been failures for us so far.  To be sure, the sales figures aren’t very good, but you have by now made quite an illustrious name for yourself as an author; the reviews class you among the first rank of prose writers; the public has acknowledged the merit of your work by awarding you prizes.  What we now need is an important new book conceived on a grand scale.  Then we shall achieve the success that you justly claim as your due.  We must abide by reality.  I have told you what the sales figures for your books in edition suhrkamp are.  You cannot expect a publishing firm to behave unrealistically, and I have proved to you that we have been quite generous to you.  You yourself told me less than a year ago that you had a large enough income to live on and that you wished to apply all additional income you received from Insel or Suhrkamp Publications towards paying off the loan.  Obviously this is the only way in which the balance of the loan can be reduced unless it is offset by the revenue we are expecting from future books.  As I said, we must have patience.

with warm regards,
Siegfried Unseld


Letter No. 48


Dear Dr. Unseld,

Your letter of the 15th is full of truth, but it contains one error and is otherwise imbued with a kind of agronomic slyness that I am quite familiar with and that I cannot cease to marvel at.

The error is to be found in the place where you accuse me of “dunning and complaining in order to enable [myself] to write more books.”  I think you will hardly find another author on the firm’s roster or on the roster of either of your firms who writes to you no more than once or at the very most twice a year, and this with the utmost concision (my last letter excepted!), and so what leads you to conclude that I am constantly dunning and complaining?

This may have struck you as true when you were drafting your letter, but as you can see it is not.

Everything you write is quite clear and there is no need for me to go into any of it.  Indeed, complete transparency of understanding now prevails on both sides.

When I said to you once that I wished to have all my honoraria (the word does have some verbal connection to honor) applied to the repayment of my loan, I was naturally referring--and I even said as much--to my “major” books, meaning of course the ones that bid fair to bring in the most revenue, even should the world start spinning in the opposite direction; but naturally I am also trying to pick up some cash by means of “lesser” publications; this is something you must be aware of, and indeed be sympathetic to.  And among these lesser publications are included whatever I happen to publish under the auspices of the edition, my favorite flock of books next to the Bibliothek.  And the validity of this notion of mine is apparent from the fact that in 1965 you gracefully remitted to me a pre-stipulated royalty of DM 3,000; I have the receipt here; there were 3,000 (three thousand!!!) of them, and they were remitted to me in December of ’65.  A felicitous constellation.

Should, I now ask myself, what was fair in 1965 no longer be fair in 1968?  Am I now, when, as you know, everything is more expensive than it was back then, supposed to receive less money for a work of superior quality to my previous ones (for I have indeed improved, as you yourself imply in your letter)?  That would be an insupportable absurdity.

Because, after all, as you write, one must abide by reality.  I abide by reality as a single eminently tangible lump.

And so I am asking you to remit to me within the next week the three thousand for Ungenach, which is worth more money than Amras (for this is after all nothing but a business letter!), at the address from which I am writing.  The whole entire amount, with no taxes taken out, because I am now obliged to pay my taxes in Vienna.  If you are unwilling or unable to accept my proposal, I am likewise unwilling, i.e., unable to allow Ungenach to be issued in the edition series, because whether Ungenach is published or not can have no effect on what you yourself, in your letter, term my “illustrious name.”

I say this because at no point in your letter of the 15th do you address the pressing question of what is to be done about Ungenach.

I should like to remind you that you yourself accepted Ungenach at a price of 3,000, as I know for a fact.  So fetch forth that sum at once.  I find this all terribly embarrassing, etc.  Otherwise I am working well and still never letting anything put me off from my work.

The concept of patience is one of those with which I am most intimately familiar.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

Letter No. 49

Frankfurt am Main
July 24, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

I can only imagine what future adepts of the history of literature and publishing will say about our correspondence.  Suaviter in re, fortiter in modo.
The gist of my letter was centered entirely on a single issue: your having asserted that Insel Publications was “responsible” for the book’s poor sales.  Not only authors, but also publishers, have feelings and allergies, and mine tend to flare up at this specific issue.  Whence my focus on this matter, as well as my not mentioning the problem of the honorarium for Ungenach.

It is not true that I had offered you DM 3,000 for the inclusion of Ungenach in edition suhrkamp.  That is simply incorrect; you cannot substantiate what you have written.  When this problem was brought to my attention, I consulted the statistics.  I have already given you an idea of how the two books (Amras and Prose) have been selling in the “es.”  In precise terms: by the end April 4,816 copies of Amras had been sold; so by now roughly 5,000 will have been (5,000 x DM .20 per copy = DM 1,000).  By the end of April we had sold 4,996 copies of Prose, by now roughly 5,200 copies (5,200 X DM .20 per copy = 1,040).  It is with reference to these factual figures that I must calibrate the offered honorarium.  How am I supposed to decide whether one text is better than another?  Perhaps by weighing Wittgenstein against Waldmann, Brecht against Hacks, Beckett against Christian Grote.  That obviously does not work; whence the uniform honorarium.

But we must now make a decision.  You have the galley proofs of Ungenach.  Its publication has already been announced, and it is due to appear in September.  As I am fond of the text and have a high regard for its author and I would prefer to see our differences of opinion wrangled over in the filing cabinets of the firm rather than in public, I shall yield to your elegantly formulated coercion: you will receive DM 3,000 for Ungenach
  1. immediately upon signing the enclosed contract:
  2. provided that you sign the enclosed proposal of exemption from the deduction of taxes, I can forward you the entire amount; in the event that you do not, I shall be forced--in accordance with the laws of our country, which I cannot violate--to deduct 25% in tax.  As far as I can see, you may sign this proposal without further ado and so furnish all the documentary evidence that is required.
I hope that this question will then have been clarified for you.  In the future we shall work out such agreements before we typeset the manuscript; then we shall no longer get ourselves into such situations.

I also wanted to share a piece of very good news with you.  We intend to put out Verstörung in the BS, and specifically in the next installment of its schedule, i.e., at some point between May and October of 1969.  I know that in doing this I am fulfilling a desire of yours, and I am pleased that you will consequently be appearing in the BS.
If you are content with such an arrangement, Insel Publications will issue Suhrkamp Publications a license for the publication in the BS, and specifically for a duration of five years.  The retail price comes to DM 6.80, the honorarium for all authors to 7.5%, i.e., DM 0.51 per copy.

In accordance with our conditions, this honorarium will be divided 50/50 between Insel Publications and you.  The advance payment is DM 1,500.  Your share of the licensing fee will be applied to the amortization of your loan.  The necessary accounting adjustments will be made after the sale.

“If you are unwilling or unable to accept my proposal, I am likewise unwilling, i.e., unable to allow” Verstörung to be issued in the BS.

Please pardon my employment of your phraseology.

In your latest letter you make no further mention of the problem of the loan.  Shouldn’t we settle it now?  I would like to submit to you a proposal regarding this; in all frankness I cannot forbear bidding you to beware of my “agronomic slyness” (which you marvel at and I for my part pour scorn on, but perhaps it comes to the same thing): I would propose that we treat half the original balance, in other words DM 20,000, as options fees for future books.  This balance would therefore be non-refundable and need not be cleared by means of payments.  For the second half, in other words the remaining DM 20,000, you will give us a document of assurance authorizing Insel Publications to take over that portion of the mortgage on your house.  Let me remind you that this was your own proposal; you even wanted the entire balance to be treated as mortgage debt.  As the repayments or the honoraria that we shall apply to the loan-balance accumulate, the balances of the loan and the mortgage-portion will correspondingly diminish.  

“Nicely put,” replied Candide, “but now we must cultivate our garden.”

Siegfried Unseld

Letter No. 50


Dear Dr. Unseld,

The galley proofs for Ungenach are now on their way back to Frankfurt, and so, in the envelope containing this letter, is the contract for the book.  I am now in Ohlsdorf and my tax office is in Vienna, and so I cannot return to you the “proposal” with my signature; as you are not allowed to break the laws of your country, please immediately remit 75% of the 3,000 to me at Ohlsdorf;  I have a plumber, a roofer, and a cement- delivery man to pay; but keep the remaining 25% in reserve for me, as when I am next in Vienna, I shall head immediately for the tax office etc.1  On the whole I am quite pleased with the book.2

That Verstörung will be coming out in the Bibliothek is also a good piece of news; hence “I am willing and able” vis-à-vis Verstörung. Naturally.

At the moment I cannot make head or tail of the paragraph about the loan, probably because I am so heavily preoccupied with my work on the “novel.”  But on the whole everything looks reasonable.

On 9.24 I shall be in Darmstadt for a reading, and before or after that I shall be in Frankfurt; probably you will be in Frankfurt too and there will be an opportunity to have a brief conversation about everything.

Nonono, I am quite happy; I am making good time in my journey and am a friend of Candide.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

  1. The margin of this paragraph bears the following handwritten remark by a third party: “not[ed by] Accounting.”

  1. On the same day Bernhard wrote to Günther Busch: “Your revisions are sound; I have made a couple of additional ones, along with two or three trifling  ‘retrogressive’ changes.  I am very much looking forward to the published book, and please send it to me as soon as it is finished.  I have a special request to make with regard to the biographical sketch, which has always made me sick to my stomach.  I would like the sketch to consist of nothing but the following: ‘Thomas Bernhard, born on February 10, 1931 in Heerlen, Holland, lives in Ohlsdorf, Upper Austria.’  full stop, done.  Nothing about an independent author (in the sketch in Prose, I’m called an “author”) etc.; all that stuff is revolting and uninteresting.”         

Letter No. 51

[Address: (Ohlsdorf)]

Frankfurt am Main
July 29, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

I thank you for your letter of July 27, and I am pleased that even if we are not in perfect agreement, we have at least ironed out our disagreements somewhat.

I would really like to clarify further the whole business about the loan.  Did I really express myself so murkily?  The amount of the loan comes to DM 40,000.  We are splitting it between
  1. DM 20,000.  You will sign over part of your mortgage as security for this sum.  You will be legally obliged to pay it off, either via accumulated honoraria or some other source;
  2. DM 20,000. This sum is to be paid off with advances on your future books.  If we extrapolate from a figure of DM 3,000, the upshot would be our applying the advances of at least your next six books to this balance.  Practically speaking it would mean that you would no longer be obliged to make any payments towards the amortization of this DM 20,000 but that each of your future books would be encumbered with a fixed advance of DM 3,000.

This year’s book fair will take place between the 19th and 24th of September.  We therefore can certainly see each other before the 24th, albeit only briefly, and I am bound to be in a book fair-distracted condition throughout the meeting.  After the 24th I am planning to go out of town for four or five days of vacation.  

with friendly regards and best wishes for your work,
Siegfried Unseld       

Letter No. 52

[Address: (Ohlsdorf): circular letter to authors; Suhrkamp Publications stationery]

Frankfurt am Main
August 24, 1968

Dear Friends,

Günter Grass, Max Frisch, and Peter Bischel have (in the presence of Pavel Kohout) written the enclosed appeal.  They request your signature.  We wish to reach a large circle with this appeal.  Accordingly, upon the publication of the appeal we plan to extend the request for signature to the general public.

Please give your consent to signature by telephone or telegram no later than Monday morning.
Telephone: Frankfurt 0611 / 72 08 81 through 83
Telegram: Suhrkamppublications Frankfurtmain

Publication is to follow on Tuesday, when we shall also announce the address to which the additional signatures are to be sent.

With friendly regards,
Dr. Siegfried Unseld  

  1. The enclosure mentioned in the letter has not survived in Thomas Bernhard’s case; Uwe Johnson held on to his copy.  It is the text of an appeal in protest of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops of the Warsaw Pact (minus Romania) on August 20, 1968.  (The appeal appears on pp. 515ff. of Uwe Johnson-Siegfried Unseld. Der Briefwechsel.)  The text was published with the signatures of 35 authors in the August 30, 1968 number of Die Zeit.  Bernhard’s name appears alongside those of, inter alia, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Frisch, Uwe Johnson, Günter Grass, and Siegfried Unseld.

Letter No. 53

[Address: (Ohlsdorf)]

Frankfurt am Main
September 3, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

Ungenach has been issued.  I am very happy about this.  We printed a run of 7,000 copies; the retail price is DM 3, and your honorarium is DM .20 per copy.  The guarantee honorarium for 15,000 copies, DM 3,000, you have already received.1

Twenty complimentary copies are available to you on demand.  I am sending you one copy in advance.

with friendly regards,
Siegfried Unseld  

  1. Ungenach was delivered to the bookstores on August 29, 1968 as Volume 279 of edition suhrkamp.  With the publication of Ungenach, Bernhard became a Suhrkamp Publications author.  Accordingly from this date onwards Unseld’s letters to him were surmounted by the letterhead of Suhrkamp Publications.  Exceptions to this policy will be noted.  

Letter No. 54

[Address: (Ohlsdorf)]

Frankfurt am Main
October 21, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

I feel that it is my duty to apprise you of certain conversations that have taken place here at the firm.  Please accordingly excuse my ambushing you with these sheets.

with friendly regards,
Siegfried Unseld


  1. The letter contains eight enclosures of several pages each: letters, newspaper cuttings, and memoranda--all numbered by a third party--about the “readers’ revolt” at Suhrkamp and Insel Publications.  The revolt took place in the context of the at times-violent clashes that erupted during the Frankfurt Book Fair (September 19-24), clashes between the extra-parliamentary opposition (especially the Socialist German Students’ Association [SDS]) and the fair’s management (who called the police to their aid).  Unseld assumed the role of mediator between the two fronts (which also formed within the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association).  On September 27, nine readers of Suhrkamp and Insel Publications (Annaliese Botond among them) wrote a letter to Unseld in which they criticized his behavior during the book fair on the grounds that it had gone against the grain of the principles championed in the books published by the two firms.  In response to this behavior they proposed a constitution for the editorial offices (Enclosure 1).  This constitution, conceived as a trial version of a “constitution for the democratic government of both firms in their entirety,” stipulated that the publication schedule was to be determined by majority vote (Unseld was to get one vote; only in cases of a tie would a single vote have determinative force), and was adopted (Enclosure 2).  On the afternoon of October 14, Unseld held a meeting to which he had invited authors, readers, and other staff.  The outcome of this meeting were an aide-mémoire (Enclosure 6) and a news release (Enclosure 4), both written from the point of view of the readers.  The two documents were published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of October 16 (Enclosure 5).  Unseld disputed the accuracy of the documents’ representation of the October 14 meeting in a memorandum on the subject of the aide-mémoire (Enclosure 7).  Finally, Unseld offered to help the readers Walter Boelich, Günther Busch, and Karl Markus Michel to establish a new publishing firm of their own.  The three of them rejected this offer.  Enclosure 3 has not survived: to judge by a similar letter to Uwe Johnson it was probably an article by Jürgen Serke entitled “The World’s Greatest Book Market Saved at the Last Minute.” The texts of the complete group of enclosures were printed in pp. 1137-1148 of Uwe Johnson-Siegfried Unseld. Der Briefwechsel.  The envelope of the letter mailed to Bernhard also contained a copy of an October 21, 1968 letter to Enrst Bloch in which Unseld expressed his attitude to the readers’ revolt. (This letter was printed in pp. 171-178 of “Ich bitte ein Wort…” [“May I have a word with you…”].  Der Briefwechsel Wolfgang Koeppen-Siegfried Unseld.)  At the end of 1968 the readers Walter Boehlich, Klaus Reichert, Peter Urban, and Urs Widmer quit the firm.   Karlheinz Braun founded the Verlag den Autoren [Authors’ Publishing Firm] in 1969; at the end of 1970 Anneliese Botond left the firm.

Letter No. 55


Dear Siegfried Unseld, Doctor and Publisher,

I cannot come to St. Anton and hence also cannot come to your holiday domicile, because my novel is engrossing me completely, engrossing the whole of my attention.

As I hear absolutely nothing from the firm and couldn’t care less about not hearing from it, I haven’t the faintest idea of what sorts of ghosts--literary, political, etc.--it is preoccupying itself with at the moment; and yet on their account I have received today from the revenue office a request for payment of upwards of 57,000 Austrian schillings by January 15, 1969.  This event has quite literally shaken me, because I am in rare form indeed right now, am I not?, but I have no desire to go to prison, as I am so productively preoccupied in my own private jail cell already.  And I also have no desire to show my head outside my house-and-farm.  And so I ask you: what is to be done???

The reasons for my being obliged to pay such a sum are well past sorting out by any means.

But I am also no longer interested in accepting an advance for a new work--i.e., my Poems.

My proposal is this, and “in view of” the fact that I am an industrious individual, I think that both you and I will find it acceptable: that every nine months--i.e., three-quarters of a year--I shall produce for you a work in printable form--in other words, attend to its proofreading, etcetera--for a “salary” of DM 1,000 a month, to be paid in advance.

I can’t think of any other way of extricating myself from the muck I am now immersed in.

I am awaiting your honest reply in this matter; without it I shall be genuinely ill at ease.

But right now I cannot afford to be ill at ease, because I have to finish my work, to finish the novel in March or April, and the novellas in June, July (in accordance with my agreement with Mr. Busch) etc.

I have definitively and pointedly turned down a proposal for a film adaptation of Verstörung, along with a heap of money, even though a screenplay has already been written, cameramen already hired, locations already secured, etc., because I cannot help feeling that to film an adaptation of this book, which in its definitive form exists exclusively on paper, would be an exercise in nonsensicality.   

Hence I am asking  you to uphold my reputation rather for good than for bad behavior.

I would like Mr. Braun to tell me what is going on with my play; the printed books should have been ready well over a month ago; I have heard nothing; I have seen nothing.  

I know that “literary composition” is also an exercise in nonsensicality, but it is and remains my favorite exercise in nonsensicality.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

Letter No. 56

Frankfurt am Main
December 19, 1968

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

You have written me the most dexterous and refined letter ever sent to me by any author.  My compliments.

I have spoken with a specialist in Austrian tax liability.  There is certainly no danger of your ending up in debtors’ prison if you fail to pay the requested amount.  I would strongly advise your hiring a tax accountant immediately.  Have you not had one until now?  A tax accountant will explain to the Austrian authorities that at the moment you are in no position to pay the entire sum but that you are willing to pay it in principle, meaning that you will remit a portion of it to them by a certain date, and the rest in quarterly installments.  A good tax accountant will see all that through.  I shall be happy to remit to you a sum of DM 2,000 by January 15 so that you can make this first payment, and I shall deduct this sum from your future royalties for A Party for Boris.  I think the play has a good chance of being a success, not only at the Burgtheater but also elsewhere, and we will champion it energetically.

Proofreading is of course a job in itself.  The readers would presumably not look with a kind eye upon such competition.

Aren’t you overrating the cinematic profession a bit?  I can easily imagine a film adaptation of Verstörung that wouldn’t do the slightest harm to the book.

By the way, the drama division received the four-part copies two days ago, and they have certainly already forwarded them to you.  At all events, I have received a copy, and as of this writing I consider A Party for Boris a great play that you have brought off quite successfully.

with warm regards,
Siegfried Unseld


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Thomas Bernhard.  Siegfried Unseld.  Der Briefwechsel, Herausgegeben von Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber und Julia Ketterer.  [Thomas Bernhard.  Siegfried Unseld.  The Correspondence, edited by ….] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2011), pp. 65-94. 

Apart from interpolations postfixed by the translator's initials (DR), the notes are in substance entirely the work of the editors, but the translator has not scrupled to bring them into line with what he believes to be mainstream editorial practice in the Anglosphere, most signally by moving all instances of the historical present into the simple past.