Monday, June 29, 2015

A Translation of "Midland in Stilfs," a 1971 Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

Midland at Stilfs

Outsiders, people not in on the secret of our upbringing, are inclined to regard our demeanor, when the Englishman is here, as an insane demeanor; they, we ourselves, are inclined to regard our atmosphere at Stilfs as an artificial, insufferable atmosphere.  Even though we exist in perpetual fear of our friend suddenly seek using out—for the entire year from one moment to the next we dread that happening at Stilfs—we are thinking at the same time the whole time: if only our friend were really suddenly to turn up, wouldn’t that be something!, for nothing is more frightening, for none of us more menacing at this time of year, especially towards the end of winter, than to be here at Stilfs, in the hills, or rather, in the mountains, which reign supreme as manifestations of absolute nature, over long, indeed the longest stretches of time, to be here alone, dependent entirely on ourselves, without a single interloper, a single foreigner.  We dread, indeed we loathe visitors, and at the same time, with all the despair of those who are cut off from it, we cling to the outside world.  Our destiny’s name is Stilfs, everlasting solitude.  In truth we can count on our own fingers the people who seek us out every now and then in the capacity of so-called desired persons, but we are afraid of being sought out even by these so-called desired persons, because we are afraid of everybody who could conceivably seek us out; we have developed a colossal fear of being sought out by some other human being even though there is nothing we await with more desperate eagerness than some other human being’s—and we often think: it doesn’t matter what sort of human being, let him be an inhuman being for all we care—seeking us out and interrupting our montane martyrdom, our lifelong exercitation, our solitudinous inferno.  We have made the best of existing on our own, and yet we are always thinking somebody could come to Stilfs, and we don’t know, when somebody does seek us out, if it is senseless or detrimental, or detrimental and senseless, that this person is seeking us out; we ask ourselves whether it is necessary for this person to come up here to Stilfs; whether it is not an ignoble violation of our code of solitude or our salvation.  In point of fact, we think of most of the people who make it up here, the few who still dare to trust themselves around us at all—experiences and rumors of course make it difficult for them to screw up the necessary resolve, render them incapable of seeking out Stilfs—as vermin.  Once such a person is gone again, we meditate all day long on the degree of destruction he has induced in us.  At such a time we say nothing and attempt by means of our silence and redoubled and retripled manual labor in the stables and on the barn floors and in the woods first to tolerate and then to palliate and nullify the paralysis that this visitor has induced in us.  When we are suddenly assaulted in the shortest time and with the utmost force by one of these surprise visitors, when we intensify our attention to our domestic chores, work one another to exhaustion in our manual-laborial exaggeration, we become conscious in the most horrifying manner of what a colossal punishment Stilfs is.  The truth is this: the thing which we wish to escape from, but which is imprisoning us with ever-greater ruthlessness, has grown into an insuperable permanent condition, Stilfs, which we of course love out of habit, but also for rational reasons abhor with the utmost profundity, indeed loathe with a downright humiliating obsessiveness; this, thing, Stilfs, is what is sought out by these people whom we have known from our earliest, early, and later childhood and post-childhood, from the most various sites of holidaying and studying, who seek Stilfs out for the most various purposes, for recreational or defamational or demolitional purposes.  These people, to a man and a woman, are unrelated to us; our relatives no longer come here.  And in the future they won’t either, and even if they do it will be only against their wills for the purpose of dying or securing a legacy.  The people who seek us out are not related to us, and we query ourselves for points of contact.  All these people are nothing but nosiness personified, and the majority of them talk loudly and misuse everything, and yet, we think, it’s nice for a change to have different turns of speech from our own, different thoughts than our own, at Stilfs; then we think, nonetheless this person has let us down, now we are traitors to ourselves, for days, for weeks, we think why didn’t we throw this person over the wall within the very first hour etc.  To us the visitors who come up here signify a waste of time and hence disaster.  There are, however, some of them, the fewest of the few, the rarest of the rare, who make us happy.  The Englishman is such a visitor.  But even he, when he is here, talks about what Stilfs is, says that we do not know what it is, that we do not own up to what it is, that we loathe Stilfs, that we incessantly defame Stilfs in the most criminally egregious fashion, etc.; he cannot comprehend, and why should he?, that for us Stilfs is satiety, apathy, despair.  Repose and the possibility of concentration, he says; these are words that we have heard time and again, that are familiar to all of us, who know that Stilfs is the opposite of them.  What is more all these people commit the felony of garrulity, of telling us incessantly, at every opportunity, what Stilfs really is, what we don’t realize that it is, these people who live year-round on moronically trustful terms with the entire world and satisfy all their needs in the big cities.  As some imbecile of a layman flush with all the brazenness of the present age and with unbridled arrogance tries to explain to a craftsman his own craft: thus do our visitors try to explain Stilfs to us.  Everything that comes out of their constantly open mouths says that they know what we do not know.  They are incessantly replying to questions regarding Stilfs that in their opinion we have incessantly posed in exactly complementary phrasing, even though we have never posed a single question regarding Stilfs to our visitors.  Because we know all about Stilfs.  Our visitors’ opinions regarding Stilfs are of no interest to us, because we have been acquainted with it for centuries.  But even the Englishman, who all told has spent no more than fourteen days and nights at Stilfs, tries to explain Stilfs to us.  The Englishman says that as he walked away from the grave of his sister, who exactly fifteen years ago today plunged headfirst from the high wall into the Alz to her death, he became conscious that we, and he means not only Franz and me but also Olga and Roth, all of us, exist in the most ideal locale.  He says that he cannot imagine a more ideal locale for us.  Indeed, he suspected us of deliberately keeping silent about the fact that here at Stilfs we were developing in ideal conditions; probably, he openly conjectured, we had jointly or separately accomplished scientific work that, in being commensurate with our clear heads, was of enormous value.  He was joking, of course; he said “epochal intellectual produce,” but he meant what he said, in all seriousness.  He says that he feels when he is here at Stilfs, when he is walking across the courtyard, when he is inhaling and taking into consideration everything subsumed under the concept of Stilfs, he perceives the colossal dimensions of the material that we, Franz and I, have already processed under the auspices of a science that has long since ceased to be alienating, a science that even in reality we have not given a thought to in a very long time.  He supposes that we had completed a book-length work of natural history but that for reasons he cannot fathom we declined to publish it.  We were entrenching ourselves behind our shyness of the world in the most senseless fashion.  He said that what was no longer possible outside Stilfs for him or any other person was possible here.  He said he had proofs of our development, that everything about us was proof that we were as advanced as we only allowed ourselves to dream of being.  He said that in our midst at Stilfs he felt like a laggard.  That everything he had ever done was still snarled at the rudimentary stage.  That all attempts on his part to cope on his own with the primordial rubbish in his brain had as it were foundered on the shoals of external nature.  That all his life the megalomania of an environment of confirmed ruthlessness had been a lethal disaster for him.  In the big cities merely in order to avoid being suffocated by their feeblemindedness he had been compelled to expend, squander, all his energies on social life, without, however, managing to live at all as a consequence.  (“The masses have been worn and torn away completely!”)  We, though, were saved, he said, saved at Stilfs; we had recognized Stilfs for what it was, we had pounced on it, the most precious of all possessions.  He said the future was already present to us, a future free of obstructions.  Franz, he said, was going his way, and I was going mine.   At Stilfs, he said, everything concerning us was clear to him, hyperclear.  And how untrue everything he says is; the opposite of what he says is the reality.  Minor difficulties, he says, lest we should be frightened to death by him in our good fortune, and he paints on the wall a list of Stilfsian virtues for us, nothing but a succession of gruesome blemishes and a couple of ludicrous ones, but the minor difficulties and blemishes that he enumerates to us—thoughtlessly, we feel—are in reality the greatest ones imaginable, and Stilfs is, as I said, not any sort of ideal thing, but rather lethal to us.  Our existence is a lethal existence.  Stilfs is the end of life.  But if I say what Stilfs is, I will be taken for a madman.  For the same reason Franz also refrains from saying what Stilfs is.  And Olga is not asked and Franz is incapable of answering.  Naturally we are all insane.  But if a person is incessantly asserting something that is not only completely untrue and omits no opportunity of adducing this assertion, if indeed at bottom and in reality he exists only in virtue of this assertion, in every case only any longer in virtue of this assertion, then one’s nerves are tested to their very limits.  Stilfs!  I of course, as I know, just like Franz, at the moment at which I, like Franz, was sentenced in the coarsest and therefore most inexcusable fashion to Stilfs and to the Stilfsian penal system in force, regarded even my most elementary thoughts from the point of view of insanity and relinquished them.  To be sure I, like Franz, still believed down in Basel, in Zurich, and in Vienna, that at Stilfs, which I more than any other person always regarded as an embodiment of stillness and meditation, whereas in reality it has never been anything but a high-elevation hotbed of invariably extraordinary dim- and dull-wittedness, a center of cultural dull-wittedness, that at Stilfs it would be possible to think what I could not think in Basel, in Zurich, in Vienna, and finally in that thoroughly intellectually malnourished town of Innsbruck, that what was impossible for me (and Franz) in all those university towns would be possible, namely to develop in a manner commensurate with my utterly auspicious intellectual talents, and Franz also believed that he could be saved from academic inconsequentiality down below by diving headlong into this Stilfs that was waiting for us up here, that frightfulness would be turned into fruitfulness, imprecision into precision, unclarity into clarity on this estate sited on the lofty, trust-inspiring mountain, that mental oppression would be turned into mental elation, etc., but I was mistaken, and Franz also was mistaken: at Stilfs nothing has issued from us but the pitifulness of two utter washouts.  Down below we thought of amelioration.  Up above radical deterioration had made its entrance.  At night I often wake up and say to myself: at Stilfs you have annihilated yourself!, or: at Stilfs they have annihilated you!  Stilfs is nothing but masonry, rock, the breath of balderdash.  Stilfs is nothing.  And the people come up here and tell us what Stilfs is.  They come up here with their perverse intellectual short-circuit, like the Englishman, the son of wealthy parents, who is now, as I observe him through my window, pacing up and down the courtyard.  I see him; he does not see me.  “To apply the lever, to change the world, at Stilfs!”—that is what I hear him saying.  He arrives inside and goes to his room and takes a bath and talks about the ideas that he has (and that we do not have) and about how he believes everything is going to be actualized through the realization of these ideas.  He uses German as skillfully as English, uses both of them so well that one would think he had always spoken both of them.  French words are stationarily present, subordinated to a rhythmic principle, in his German-English sentences.  He does not expect anybody to interrupt him.  He revels in his own art of formulation.  He imparts a steady, unvarying intonation to his voice, as though he were occasionally adding and withholding emphasis at unexpected places out of principle.  One immediately thinks, this is a man who is inured to the most exacting demands.  From Franz comes metaphysics.  It would appear, he says, that by now Stilfs has turned into an entirely political mind.  Civilization, he says, is interfused with illness.  He says that science does not yet know how to describe the illness.  But that the illness is a terminal one.  The highest velocities in his head.  About writers he speaks with intellectual coldness.  About philosophers with contempt.  He says that he detests science as well as the Church.  That nowadays the common people are also nothing but bellyaching dullwittedness.  That creation is destruction.  The manic fanatic talks of clearing the old furniture out of all the nation-states.  Thus speaks the man who a couple of hours ago said that everything was obnoxious in the extreme.  What an incredible fascination this man exerts on me, I think, this man who is endowed with all the hallmarks of a world that for years we have known only by hearsay, a world about which we, to be honest, no longer have the faintest notion, a world to which, indeed, we would not venture to return if we were suddenly granted the possibility of returning to it, to the world, which has already become completely incomprehensible to us and from out of which Midland with his own peculiar art of surprising has surfaced all of a sudden, as if upon the outer shell of an adamantine mass of infinity, at Stilfs, in which there is no longer an out there or a down there for us; I observe him as in a rapid series of gestures he—what a young, good looking physique, I think—sketches a geometrical figure on the floor of the courtyard, which has been dyed a cold, artificial green hue by the morning sun, as he, a Briton to the core, whose father twenty-five years ago studied with my father at the University of London, which was then still struggling with their insignificance; I observe how the Briton, apparently ever-mindful of the effortlessness with which he is capable of endowing the mastery of his own body with ever-more-refined elegance, bridges the interval of time in which he is at Stilfs, the handful of hours before he sets off again.  It is, I think as I observe him, his habit to affix the thoughts that preoccupy him to his brain by means of prearranged and too-loudly-uttered words pertaining to these thoughts, a habit by means of which a precise distribution of all the thoughts in his brain is to be attained.  Although throughout the evening he spoke on the most various topics, rhapsodized about a heap of news from England and elsewhere in Europe, I noticed that there was but a single thing that interested him: how it would be possible for him to misrepresent everything that his brain had appropriated in the course of nearly three decades, and had accumulated in the same period in the most decisive fashion, as a product of his own entirely unique self; for years he had been thinking nothing but of ratifying that colossal arsenal of ideas, which he had acquired from nature and which was already brimming over, by means of a work in black and white, a work that would also be derived from the external world and hence from the world outside his own mind.  It is not without significance that he, probably without being aware of this circumstance himself, often utters the word actualization, and nearly everything he says has to do with the concept of realization.  Then he leaves, this man who once a year visits the grave of his sister.  He himself says that he feels nothing at his sister’s grave, that her face is no longer conceivable for him, that after so long a time he pretty much can no longer picture his sister at all; that when he stands next to her grave, he feels nothing but the embarrassment that every grave-visitor feels, that self-loathing, self-contempt wells up within him on these occasions.  That the cult of the dead is unappetizing in the extreme, more repulsive than any other cult.  But he says that it has probably been a very long time since his dead sister, who has long since ceased to be present to him in any sense, has been the reason he comes to Stilfs every year; this dead woman with whom he did not enjoy a particularly close relationship even during her lifetime.  He says that it is not his sister, but rather Stilfs, whereas until now it has not been Stilfs but rather his dead sister.  That his sister, “that nullity under the stone slab of that grave” (Midland), seemed a complete stranger to him during her lifetime; that he never loved her, let alone had any attachment to her; suddenly once she was dead, after the accident—and even in connection with that he no longer recalls the death itself but only the circumstances that led up to it, the mountain ledge, the roar of the Alz—suddenly after her death, he had been harrowed by guilt.  He said that all the while his sister had been living beside him, as he put it, he had paid her no mind whatsoever.  That she had been a person quite devoid of substance for him, that she had always seemed to him an individual of absolutely no concern to him.  That by now even this guilt had turned into a habit.  That it was not his sister that kept him coming to Stilfs; it was Stilfs.  That it was us.  That he came to Stilfs.  That he was delighted.  Midland, I think, who is always close enough to being in a good mood to get back into it every time; unlike us, who no longer ever allow ourselves to be in a good mood, let alone to enjoy what he calls the lust for life.  I have often seen the Englishman laugh and when he laughs he is not at Stilfs but in England or some place even farther away from Stilfs, and I see him in my mind’s eye, as I often do in moments of deep despair; I see him laughing.  He says his father was “a facetious person,” his mother “a wicked falsification of the miracle of nature.”  The art of surprising.  Not a trace of fatigue, even though he had just traveled from Nepal in the course of a single day; he was full of impressions of his journey, impressions with which he—a person who is incapable of retaining whatever is dammed up within him for more than an instant under any circumstances—bombarded us immediately and ever more pedantically until five in the morning.  He often derives the most unalloyed enjoyment from something that we can never even bring ourselves to find bearable anymore.  He reads books, newspapers, the oldest as well as the newest among them, with the greatest attentiveness, which is why he has such interesting things to talk about.  He never tires of studying the incessantly changing world, and as he studies it, he criticizes it, multiplies it, divides it.  He is an elucidator of general as well as particular intellectual insanity; he lines up one experience after the other, and in the end in every case he sees nothing but lies, deceit, abysmality, infamy.  His mistrustfulness is superlatively dexterous.  He says he would not be an Englishman, a Midland, if everything did not have two sides for him, two sides of which one never knows which is the greater, the grosser, the baser, in its vileness.  The Europeans, he says, are deeply mired in their own complexes, and they will never manage to extricate themselves from these complexes; their histories are now definitively concluded.  Revolution in Europe, he says, is mere horseplay; it is only indurating and obsfuscating something that for centuries has been nothing but pure agony.  But today, he says, not only Europe is at its end, at the end that “we are privileged to be living through”; the world itself is at its end.  And yet at the same time, he said, this was opening up enormous possibilities, an extremity of concentration on outer space, on the immensities of the universe.  Unlike the others, the Englishman is not forever coarsening his utterances; in point of fact in his total, transparent fearsomeness he amplifies and illuminates everything he talks about; unlike other people, he is not forever hemming in his talk; he makes each of his topics into an infinitely expansive topic; whereas other people’s topics are forever dwindling, in most conversations, as we know, the topic shrinks down to a puny scrap of subject-matter, and very quickly to nothing.  To and fro, to the well and back, the Englishman paces and waits for Franz or me to tell him that breakfast is ready, that he can come in.  In observing him I get the impression that he is well-rested, even though we did not retire to our rooms until six in the morning; after that, I think—and the thread of light under his door proved it—he stayed up another hour reading a book.  I reflect that after only two, three hours many young people can be completely well-rested, can have gathered enough energy to normalize their minds and bodies, whereas we, Franz and I, although not Olga—and Roth also needs plenty of sleep—have to sleep six to seven hours, which means that we go to bed relatively early; that we have to run the farm, as we always have done, not to mention the correspondence relating to the farm, that we have to converse with all sorts of doctors regarding Olga, with the district and regional law courts regarding Roth.  Originally, two hundred years ago, this farm was meant to be staffed by two or three-dozen servants and laborers, but we run it, in its original form, on our own.  And we run it with greater intensity than our predecessors, even though it is less profitable; indeed, every day it becomes clearer and clearer to us that agriculture, especially at such an altitude, is a completely pointless enterprise.  Running a farm like this is suicidal.  For decades, and this is the truth, we have been overworked completely pointlessly; that is the really horrible thing.  But there is nothing left for us to do but work ourselves to death here.  What is more, we are aware that the whole thing is ridiculous.  At the end of each day, we are exhausted, and we have always been, as long as we have been at Stilfs, exhausted; at Stilfs we have only ever existed in a single state of exhaustion.  Our natural state is this state of exhaustion.  Against our wills we exist in the extremity of exertion, which induces fatal exhaustion.  The moment we were sentenced to imprisonment at Stilfs—sentenced by the dread powers that be, our parents—we thought, if we are going to have to spend the rest of our lives here at Stilfs, as we are already too weak to think of escaping, we might as well not let Stilfs fall into ruin.  And so Stilfs is impeccably intact; its farming infrastructure is intact, but its residential buildings are not intact.  In point of fact, the degree of neglect in the residential buildings is extreme, unimaginable.  Whereas the farming infrastructure is now in better shape than it ever has been—because we have long since concentrated on nothing but the farm; the farm is the only reason we are still here; we have long since totally surrendered ourselves, by which I mean totally surrendered ourselves for the sake of the farm—the residential buildings are more dilapidated than any other such buildings I have ever seen.  Everything about them makes a demoralizing impression, an extremely demoralizing impression; the floors and ceilings are sagging; specifically they look as though they are sagging under the weight of the mice that are proliferating beneath and above them with incomparable ferocity; the walls and the furniture are the very picture of neglect, and their interiors are permeated by a foul stench that seeps into the surrounding air, such that their vermin, teeming in the billions, now reign unchallenged in every nook and cranny of them; everything is dank and musty and you feel as though you are bound to suffocate.  As for the furnishings, those potentially highly valuable remnants of our ancestors’ idyllic flight into the realm of taste: they are entirely beyond our expertise.  Every object in every room has been abandoned to the ravages of time for literally decades.  For example: the upholstery of the wing-chairs in our drawing room is now completely in tatters.  In the cabinets and chests of drawers there are heaps of sawdust.  Over the years the paintings on our walls have fallen down of their own accord, and by now for the most part we don’t even bother picking them up.  After every tremor that erupts from the earth—and the earth trembles several times a year at Stilfs—the devastation gets a little worse.  We no longer lay a finger on anything.  We never pick anything up; we climb over it.  It must be told that all our rooms are cluttered to the bursting point with baroque and Josephine artifacts—there are tabernacle chests and secretary desks all over the place; I shudder to think of our mother’s mania for the Empire—with tables and chairs, etc., etc., along with heaps of the kitschy bric-a-brac of childhood.  In the briefest of instants, I think to myself, everything here at Stilfs has been smashed to pieces, has been rendered irreparable for all time.  If we really wanted to conserve, to safeguard, this thing that has kept us from breathing for decades and in the midst of which all of us have always believed ourselves destined to suffocate, this thing that is nevertheless basically the most valuable thing at Stilfs, namely its interior furnishings, its arty-crafty trinkets, the majority of which are three hundred, four hundred years old and hail from every corner of the globe, these hundreds of heirlooms made of the costliest noble woods, not a few of which heirlooms were conceived and constructed specifically for Stilfs over several years by craftsmen who must be regarded as artists; if we really wanted, I say, to conserve, to safeguard all this stuff in the midst of which we little by little grew up possessed by an initially hazy and then ultra-suddenly pellucid and hyper-elementary hopelessness, two-dozen people would have to be employed round the clock on this work alone, quite apart from the fact that the outbuildings like the huntsmen’s house, the conservatories, etc., are also here, that they too are literally falling into decay day by day with even greater finesse, and will continue to do so until they have fallen into decay in their entirety; money would not be allowed to play any role whatsoever in this, even though it of course plays the most important imaginable role in everything, and we ourselves would be required to bring to bear expertise on this thing that over time has been ruined by time, even though in reality we have not the merest scintilla of such expertise.  Everywhere one is reminded by all these art-objects on the floors and on the walls of the fact that Olga, who loved all these things, has been confined to her invalid’s chair for ten years and is effectively no longer present here at all.  Olga reproaches Franz and me for our brutish and dimwitted disposition to these art-objects.  In point of fact, all our lives we have found these furnishings of ours oppressive and have loathed them.  If everything is an anachronism nowadays, as the Englishman said yesterday, what a mighty anachronism must Stilfs be!  It would be logical, it would be self-consistent, Franz said yesterday evening, for us to skedaddle at a second’s notice, for us to kill ourselves without hesitation, because, as Franz said, the sole possible logical act still left to us was to kill ourselves; it made no difference how we did it, the quicker the better, but we are too weak to do it, we talk about it, and quite often we talk for hours, days, weeks on end about it; to be sure we think, to be sure we know how senseless it is for us to keep living, for us to keep existing, but we fail to kill ourselves; we fail to follow the examples of those who have already killed themselves; and quite a number of people our age have, for quite ridiculous reasons, as we know, already killed themselves, for reasons that seem incredibly ridiculous when compared with our reasons; we fail to kill ourselves and each day we fight another running battle with every possible manifestation of pointlessness, we waste the day on pointless handicraft and on dissecting our memories, we plague ourselves and feed ourselves and terrify ourselves and do nothing else and that is precisely the most senseless thing in the entire world, the fact that we plague and feed and terrify ourselves, that is the most repellent thing of all, but we fail to kill ourselves, we make suicidal thoughts our only thoughts, but we fail to commit suicide.  We had already had our supper when the Englishman, who is now standing in the courtyard, suddenly, without knocking—the doors and gates had not yet been locked and bolted—turned up in the drawing room.  Franz and I had just had a talk about Roth, who over supper had once again threatened to burn Stilfs to the ground.  We had drawn the lad’s attention to the fact that he—and here we pointed at him—could be locked up merely on the basis of this threat, locked up for years, we said, and we added that it was up to him to decide whether he preferred to be locked up in the asylum or in the penitentiary; whereupon he calmed down and promised not to burn Stilfs to the ground.  We are quite fond of the lad and need him; we provide him with meals just as we provide ourselves with them, and at bottom he is better off at Stilfs than anywhere else, as nowhere else can keep a madman, especially a madman as burly as him, so well fed with such a minimum of fuss.  If he were not at Stilfs, he would have long since been left to the company of convicts and lunatics.  This place is the most important thing that he knows, and as long as he doesn’t burn Stilfs to the ground and stops stabbing the cows with the kitchen knife and stops inflating the chickens with the bicycle pump until they explode, the fact that he is insane will make no difference to us.  We are well aware that Roth is a problem, but we ourselves are a problem for ourselves and our problem is a bigger one.  We have conferred about the fact that it is getting ever more difficult to curb Roth’s excesses, that we cannot allow ourselves to forbid him his visits to the guesthouse--in the summer he swims in the Alz in his shirt and trousers and walks soaking wet all the way to the inn--to the contrary, he must be allowed to go into the valley and through the Alz and into the inn whenever he likes, because however late at night he comes back, be it at three a.m. or even later, he is always completely pacified by then.  If we did not have Roth, utter chaos would reign at Stilfs and Olga would have nobody to look after her, for as it happens we, Franz and I, cannot be bothered to look after our sister; we forget about her most of the time, but Roth does her many kindnesses that surpass the minimum necessary duties.  He is a hard worker who, when he is instructed resourcefully and with good humor, performs to our satisfaction the toughest jobs, the most arduous jobs, the most thankless and unthinkable jobs.  Because we work just as hard as Roth does and do not spare ourselves the most oppressive tasks, he has no dodges at his disposal.  He respects us.  His parents died young; his father hanged himself; two years ago his only brother bet ten schillings that he could swim across the Mur when it was in flood, and because he actually dived into the Mur—the Roths are Styrians—he drowned; ever since then Roth has complained about no longer having anybody in the place he comes from.  His best and only friend threw himself in front of a train in March.  The Englishman lingeringly perused the obituary and the accompanying picture of the unfortunate man.  Doomed to suicide, Roth’s friend, an inmate at an asylum, had been released from the institution every weekend so that he could visit his parents; the last time instead of returning to the asylum he went to the railway embankment.  The Englishman said that Roth’s friend had pitched himself in front of the train on no other date than March 11, his birthday.  Roth inherited the unfortunate man’s clothes, among which was a pair of lederhosen whose legs go all the way down to his ankles.  Now the only clothes Roth ever wears are those of his dead friend; immediately upon the arrival of the Englishman, Roth had donned the suicide’s Sunday best and gone down from Stilfs to the inn via the Alz.  He had already taken his leave and the Englishman had given him a tip, a pound note, as he always does during his visits.  He has always given Roth a pound note; by then Roth had already rushed out to the stables and killed the three chickens that we are going to eat today; on Saturdays he kills the chickens that we eat on Sunday; he swings them round above his head with his outstretched arms and decapitates them.  Already clad in his Sunday outfit, every single garment of it, he directed the Englishman’s gaze to a point just below the drawing room door and said that the chicken was perfectly normal but for the fact that it was missing its head; he picked up this remark from Franz, who used to make this remark all the time, until he suddenly got sick of it, at which point Roth adopted it.  Thoughts of previous visits by the Englishman—who now gives me the impression that he doesn’t know whether he is supposed to wait for us or come in of his own initiative; he is waiting for the invitation to come in for breakfast; nobody is calling him, Franz is not calling him; I am not calling him—thoughts of his previous visits obtrude upon my mind as I stand at the window and observe him; it is possible, I think, that down in the valley, at the inn, people are waiting for him and he wants to leave; it may also be the case that down on the bank of the Alz he left a young woman, a girlfriend, to spend the night on her own at the house of one of those impoverished people with rooms to let, for here at Stilfs he only ever shows up on his own, and never with others; it would not be the first time people had stopped off at the guesthouse down below—two years ago a group of Swedish archaeologists, north Germans, Italians (he is friends with so many people from all sorts of countries) were waiting for him—while he was up here at Stilfs.  On no account, he once confessed to me, would he ever come up to Stilfs with another person.  I reflect that Franz, too, is standing at his window and observing him, that Olga is observing him from up in the first floor, that Roth is probably also observing him from a window in the stables.  Whenever the Englishman is here, he infects us with his restlessness.  We owe him stimulation, so much food for thought, so much news.  But he has no sense of our paltriness and pitifulness.  To the contrary.  All his previous visits have given us much to think about, months of mental nutriment.  In point of fact he always comes at just the right moment.  What could we possibly know of events down below, when we are absolutely isolated up here.  In reality it has been more than a year since Franz and I last went down to the Alz.  Roth alone still maintains personal contact with the world.  But he always comes up from the inn full of the same trashy rumors.  It is Roth who takes the milk to the Alz.  Roth carries the provisions that we need, matches, sugar, spices.  It is Roth who reads the newspaper down in the valley.  We ourselves have not read a single newspaper in years, because one day in the blink of an eye, after decades of being smitten with newspaper-reading, we came to abhor the reading of newspapers, and ceased to permit ourselves to read them.  We strictly forbade him to bring any newspapers up here to us.  But when the Englishman brings us newspapers, we pounce on them as though dying of hunger for newspaper-reading.  We don’t listen to the radio.  We enjoy listening to music, but we are never in our sister’s company; at most we see her once a day, when we say Good morning or Good night.  If only the Englishman knew how far we have already estranged ourselves from everything.  But it would really be pointless to tell him the truth, in other words to tell him the truth in order to convince him of it.  For what purpose would it serve to swear to him that our existence is no longer anything but a bestial existence.  It has been years since the colossal library--in which three enormous bequests of books have been consolidated, one from the brother of one of our great-grandfathers, the doctor in Padua, one from the brother of our maternal grandfather, the judge in Augsburg, and one from our uncle, our mother’s brother, who owned some mills in Schärding—it has been years since this colossal library was last entered by any of us.  If only the Englishman knew how much we loathe the very act of reading.  When he is here, we mimic his interest in written matter; when he is gone, we have not the slightest interest in it.  If only he knew that we have locked up the library and thrown its key into the Alz!  If only he knew that!  If only he knew that we have a made a virtue of the necessity that Stilfs is to us, that the moment we realized that Stilfs marked the end of our development, we did everything in our power to accelerate this end.  We do not kill ourselves, but we accelerate our natural end, which is most certainly not a natural end.  At Stilfs, I think, the Englishman is surrounded by cluelessness.  But Franz is right when he says we cannot take the Englishman into our confidence, for the moment we do that we will destroy the thing in him that we find so immeasurably valuable; perhaps we will even destroy Midland himself and the consequences of that would be the very dreadful ones we dread.  If the Englishman stopped coming to Stilfs, we would await his arrival in vain.  We make him privy to everything except the truth, but in this case nothing is more exigent than the lie.  We cannot get away with making his Stilfs turn into its antithesis, into our Stilfs, in his eyes.  Franz often warns me against saying too much, for nobody is more strongly tempted to say everything about Stilfs all at once than I am, because the Englishman is the person to whom I am most strongly inclined to say everything about Stilfs; the Englishman is the person, the first person, to whom I would divulge what I cannot get away with divulging to him, the truth, but Franz more than any of the rest of us suddenly and unwarily says or does not say what one can or cannot get away with saying to Midland.  To the extent that we do not tell the truth about our situation, and fail to vouchsafe anybody, even the Englishman, a glimpse into our lives, we are concealing a secret, a secret of which the Englishman is incessantly speaking, a secret that is actually directly opposed to what he supposes it to be.  The proof of this will come and can only come from our deaths, when it will be seen that we never existed independently of disorder, of an unimaginable chaos.  To call everything into question, he said yesterday.  Everything is nonsense.  There he goes, I think and I think how crazy this man is, this man with whom Franz and I have nothing in common but our age and otherwise nothing but diametrically opposed qualities, this donor of unease, this caller into question.  He may indeed even think, if he thinks, as I do, that everything that we, Franz and I, and he himself as well, along with everyone else in existence, are made of—namely, the past—is dead.  And yet at bottom it is this thought alone—namely that everything that is, meaning everything that has been, is dead, that even the present, because it is, is by its very nature dead—that preoccupies all of us, all human beings, exclusively, whatever they do and wish to be and in the midst of that which they term life, being, existence, progress, advancement and divestment, because they are incapable of calling it anything else.  Scarcely any other human being is more of a stranger to us and scarcely any other is nearer or dearer to us than him.  Because he thinks in and speaks several languages and has these languages at his command as a highly musical and mathematical art, he is superior to us.  Thanks to us, he believes that if he had been confined to a single locale and a single field of knowledge, he would have long since managed to erect a rational edifice of colossal dimensions.  But confinement to a single field of knowledge, specialization, is not possible for him, probably because it is anathema to him.  He is a person who has to be constantly correlating everything with everything and incessantly judging everything in terms of everything.  Therein lies the root of his inability to develop any of the thousands of ideas that are constantly and quite naturally merging into one another in his brain, that brain trained to pursue the universal.  There he goes, I think, he who speaks of the ancient as well as the modern human and social sciences as if they were a compost heap in which evil causes engender even more pernicious effects.  There he goes, he in whose eyes the axis of the universe is not straight.  How often this man has injured me, and how often must I have injured him, I think.  For ruthlessness, the unabashed thinking-ahead-butt, has often been the only means by which either of us can get away from the other.  Intellectual intimacies, said the Englishman tonight, obtained between people like us.  By which he meant, of course, that unnatural ones obtained between him and me, and the most natural ones possible obtained between him and Franz.  He explained himself; we understood.  He said that Franz’s way of thinking, his views, were diametrically opposed to his own way of thinking and views, but in a completely natural way; and that my way of thinking and views were just as precisely diametrically opposed to his way of thinking and views, but in an unnatural way.  That every word that we, Franz and I, said when we were together with Midland confirmed that we had different fathers.  That our contrasting kinship through our mother was decisive.  That it had been our lot at some time, at some place, to suffer the catastrophe, the circumstances, that were the worst circumstances of all, to have been born into this world.  That he uninterruptedly sensed in our demeanor how reluctantly we resided in the truth.  That it was this misfortune that had to be bridged if one approached us, spoke with us, before reaching us.  To be sure, he said, nobody had yet dared either physically or mentally to approach us in an attitude utterly devoid of suspicion.  And this suspicion, which had always been a quite specific kind of suspicion, had strengthened over the years; this suspicion, he said, would someday become impossibly aggravated in the briefest amount of time, would even make it impossible to make any sort of contact with us.  In a state of absolute contactlessness, but possibly the most ideal of states, in an ideal condition reproducible by ourselves alone, we would someday, he said, be able to actualize our goal completely unmolested.  It would be wrong to describe yesterday evening’s chat, which in reality was a farrago of thousands of precipitate thoughts, as a conversation.  Yesterday evening we saw quite clearly that what we think is vaguely similar to what he thinks, which was precisely what we found so refreshing.  But whereas last night it became quite clear that the Englishman still has a future, it also became clear to us, Franz and me, that we no longer have a future.  If only one of us still had the strength to descend from Stilfs just once, to turn his back on Stilfs, to surrender ourselves to the mercy of the world below, I think, to leave Stilfs behind for good, even at the cost of incurring the accusation of having thereby committed a crime against our sister Olga, who is utterly dependent on us, of having annihilated her!  What is impossible for me and too late for me ought still to be possible for Franz and not too late for him, but everything is too late for both of us.  The moment when what is no longer possible, escaping from Stilfs, was still possible, now lies so far back in time for us that it cannot even be specified anymore.  Of course, like the Englishman, we once believed that Stilfs was our salvation, that its conditions were the ideal conditions for us, and when we saw and understood that Stilfs was not our salvation, that its conditions were not and never could be the ideal conditions for us, that to the contrary, it spelled our annihilation, we began hoping that Olga, who by then was already completely incapacitated, would die.  But she has not died; who knows when she will die.  And now that all three of us are weakness incarnate, there would no longer even be any point in abandoning her.  It is all a question of time and this question no longer terrifies us, because we know we have reached the end and that life no longer has any point for us.


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 111-132.  Originally published in Midland in Stilfs (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971).

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Translation of "Konfessionen eines Besessenen," a Review of Thomas Bernhard's Verstörung by Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Confessions of an Obsessive

Whatever story Thomas Bernhard happens to be telling, it is always the case history of an illness.  He is one of those writers whose persistent and obdurate attention is principally devoted to those who are imperiled or already lost, to people who are being sucked by the undertow towards the abyss.  His tableaux are populated by psychopaths and neurotics, criminals and madmen, murderers, suicides, and the dying.  The personnel of this epic are gloomy and menacing; the world delineated here is uncanny and depressing.

But unequivocal though Bernhard’s predilection for the macabre and the suffocating is, the motives by which he is actuated are apparently legitimate.  He is fascinated by the darkest regions of our existence precisely because it is there—and only there—that he hopes to find the answer to the most decisive questions.  Certainly, he wallows in morbidity and also frequently in repulsiveness, but the pathology is plainly intended to render the human condition visible and the abnormality to point up the dubiousness of the things we are accustomed to regard as normal.

So Bernhard shines his flashlight into the suburbs of existence in order to determine its focal points, in order to grope his way towards them or at least furnish a hint as to their location.  He knows that in literature it is often the eccentric detour that leads to the center.  In other words: he puts extremity on display not despite but because of its exemplary significance.

Moreover, his prose works evince a striking authenticity that we cannot help missing in many of our younger writers and that is unattainable by mere craftsmanship.  Bernhard is a storyteller who has no need to go looking for his subjects.  We are dealing here rather with a subject that has found someone to tell a story about it.  His works are diaries of a man bereaved, confessions of an obsessive—which, however, is by no means to say that they contain anything in the way of autobiographical elements.  
At the same time each of these prose texts owes its persuasiveness to its description of background detail, which enfolds the text’s characters and objects just as comprehensively as the localities and landscapes implicated in its storyline.  Whether he wants to be one or not, Bernhard is an Austrian national bard, one who is admittedly impelled to write not so much by love or introspective musings over life in the Tyrol or the Styrian valleys as by rage and disgust, if not outright loathing.  Bernhard’s aggressive relationship with his native environment is the sole and blatantly visible incubator of the extraordinary one-sidedness that determines his subject-matter and perspective as well as his choice of motifs and characters, of colors and tones, of literary devices.  But in literature as a rule one-sidedness is ascribable to one of two things: it can be rooted in a laudable impetus or it may have its origin in a kind of narrow-mindedness.  I believe that both ascriptions hold true for Thomas Bernhard: his one-sidedness strikes one as audacious one moment and simplistic the next.  It facilitates the severity and the idiosyncrasy of this epic, but unfortunately also sets narrow limits to it and often occasions monotony.  Thus, the very thing that makes his prose so valuable threatens to vitiate it at the same time.  His new book, the novel, Verstörung [Gargoyles], evinces this with almost appalling clarity.

The first-person narrator, a student who has come home for a brief stay, is taken along by his father, a country doctor in Styria, on a daylong series of house calls, because, he says, the young man “must become acquainted with human beings.”  His notes on the individual patients and the people connected with them, on their histories and destinies, fill the first part of the book.  Bernhard inaugurates the round-dance with a dying innkeeper’s wife who has been mortally wounded by a dipsomaniac for no conceivable reason; this episode is followed by portraits of various invalids who are almost all afflicted with horrifying physical or mental infirmities and are for the most part slowly wasting away; at the end we are presented with a depiction of an insane cripple which hardly scrimps with the unsettling details. 

This is all recounted in an impassive style that deftly and coherently employs indirect discourse, a style from which Bernhard manages to wrest a considerable amount of power: for from this pointedly referential, often depositionally formal mode of writing it is easy to gather that although the young commentator would like to contemplate the sufferers dispassionately, for all his cool objectivity he feels touched by their misfortune.  Many passages are signalized by a peculiarity that is a hallmark of good prose: in them distance and proximity are discernable at one and the same time.

So Bernhard’s epic art stands the test once again in several of the juxtaposed miniatures of the first part of the book, but only in those in which he contents himself with the depiction of the sensuously perceptible world and also places his trust in sober, reportorial observation.  When he tries to seek out the mental causes of the crimes and illnesses he describes, he comes up with motives that seem superficial and formulaic and make it evident that while psychology is undoubtedly his passion it is not necessarily his forte. 

When on the other hand he lets the facts and concrete situations speak for themselves, the characters and moods are immediately present, and local color and a sense of setting emerge almost spontaneously.  It then becomes apparent that he is capable of transforming inconspicuous details and trivial objects into discrete but telling indicators of a situation, and in particular of the hopelessness of that situation.  The succinct description of the bedroom of an irremediably doomed widow betrays more insight into her life than do all the exegetic remarks that are likewise served up to us. 

Nevertheless, this first part of Verstörung leaves behind a decidedly ambivalent impression.  At first blush it seems to me that such a colossal accumulation of dismal, perverse, and gruesome elements quite simply undermines the novel’s economy: anything displayed in such abundance fails to achieve its intended effect and occasions fatigue rather than shock.

In addition, Bernhard proceeds from a programmatic thesis that condemns his book to failure from the outset.  The country doctor who elucidates the world for our narrator states, “In point of fact there are more brutes and criminals in the country than in the city.  In the country brutality, like violence, is the foundation […] The crimes committed in the city, the urban crimes, are nothing compared with the crimes committed in the country […].”

To this opinion, which is stated in the novel’s first few pages, Bernhard has subordinated the whole of Verstörung, with a characteristic—and in this case disastrous—result: the individual tableaux,  sketches, and genre paintings are always intended to reinforce and exemplify these theses [(sic) on the plural number (DR)].  Thus Bernhard degrades his narrative art: he consigns it to a merely illustrative function.  Consequently, in certain stretches the book reads like a blood-and-soil novel turned on its head.  The genre whereby the praises of rootedness in the soil were formerly sung must now be made to promulgate examples of rootlessness.

Naturally I wouldn’t dream of getting into an argument about the inhabitants of rural Styria with the author of Verstörung.  He knows his way around there; I don’t.  Moreover, he never gives one cause to doubt that his survey is sufficiently broad or deep.  But as a rule radical anti-idylls bear an embarrassingly close resemblance to idylls–namely in being at an equally far remove from reality.  And a social critic’s thesis-driven novel of ideas, even one that tries to elevate the world it depicts to the level of an allegory of our epoch, strikes me as an extremely dated literary anachronism.

But Verstörung has also got a second part.  The doctor and his son pay a visit to a certain Prince Saurau, who at the moment of their arrival is immersed in a conversation with himself, which he continues carrying on despite their presence.  His monologue, which is well over a hundred pages long, is registered by the narrator without commentary or anything else but occasional stage direction-like remarks.

This prince, who possesses enormous amounts of land, has plays staged in his “summer house,” is suffering from a mental illness, and is in the habit of carrying on “masochistic discussions” with himself for hours on end in a locked and bolted room; he can hardly avoid being stigmatized as conventional: such figures have been awfully popular since at least the days of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Bernhard’s prince tells anecdotes about his mysterious and unabashedly sadistic son and about three men who have applied to him for a job; he reports on catastrophes that have already happened and on others that he expects to happen; he meditates on the State and on suicide.  Everything is sited—so he proclaims—“in a homogeneous, dim-witted agony.”  He says that in his entire life he has only ever “beheld invalids and crazy people,” in incidental connection with which it is striking that he expresses views that are quite similar to those of the by no means-insane doctor in the first part of the book.  From the very beginning, the prince declares, he has dreaded “being compelled to be suffocated by the stench of the world.”  He says that the “mass-political madness of the masses” (?) is not so ridiculous “that in the future it would still not be able to destroy everything.”  Or: “The common people are stupid and smell bad; this has always been true.”  From the doctor we heard: “The poor are doubly brutal, vulgar, and criminal.”

To be sure, the author of Verstörung has sound reasons for giving plenty of space to the prince’s pathological hatred and to his contempt of humankind.  The only problem is that he lacks the eloquence required for fulfilling such a function.  The almost fanatical authorial obsessiveness that is so often in evidence in Bernhard’s prose is completely ineffectual here, where the object is to substantiate the confessions of an obsessive.  The few illuminating formulations and intriguing insights contained in this endless monologue are regrettably drowned in an ocean of platitudes and in a welter of chit-chat that makes extraordinary and unconscionable demands on the reader’s patience.

At least Bernhard has been ambitiously keen to elucidate the mental condition of a madman with the help of his own expressions.  But even this attempt proves unproductive, to put it mildly.  “The interior of my head is literally an unimaginable wasteland”; “the noise of my head prevents me from doing anything”; “In my head there is a snarl of lines”; “Repose is spreading in my head and is going to smash it to pieces”—these assertions are simply not up to snuff.  Persistently iterated messages like these reveal nothing but that the realization of the intended effect exceeds Bernhard’s present powers.

It would be unfair to suspect the author to whom we owe the novel Frost and a few extremely remarkable novellas of wishing to relieve himself of aesthetic and intellectual responsibility with this monologue.  But this foray into the domain of the uncontrollable has caused the man who time and again has depicted people on the edge of the abyss to stumble into the proximity of a perilous abyss in his own right.

Art must “go too far in order to learn how far it is allowed to go.”  Although these memorable words, first spoken by Heinrich Böll in his Wuppertal speech, originally referred only to artistic freedom, they hold good for the validity of art in a much more general sense.  In his Verstörung Thomas Bernhard has gone too far.  Probably he had to.  Will he be capable of drawing the right conclusions from having done so?


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Über Thomas Bernhard.  Herausgegeben von Anneliese Botond [On Thomas Bernhard.  Edited by Anneliese Botond] (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), pp. 93-99.   According to the bibliography in this book, Reich-Ranicki’s review was originally published in Die Zeit on April 28, 1967. 

Monday, June 08, 2015

A Translation of Thomas Bernhard's Correspondence with His Publisher, Siegfried Unseld. Part XIII: 1975.

Letter No. 307

St. Veit in Pongau, Salzburg Region

Dear Siegfried Unseld,

Exactly ten years ago today I came to Frankfurt from Bremen and buttonholed a rather cold-ridden publisher in his lodgings and haggled with him over the sum of forty-thousand marks, which he eventually handed over to me.  Do you remember that?  Then I continued on to Giessen and delivered a lecture and with the money, with the forty thousand and the ten thousand from Bremen, I founded Nathal, and it has brought me much good fortune.1

Today I am writing to remind you of our two-party “conversation about the hundred thousand,” which we carried on while scurrying up the mountain in the vicinity of the bemused art historian and his wife in the middle of a Föhn storm, the very same storm that probably triggered our shared infection, and now I am asking you to hand over to me the exigent hundred thousand as soon as possible.  I am having nightmares about interest fees, and it’s all quite unnecessary.  Neither of us will be putting himself at risk if you stick the hundred thousand into my coat pocket in, for example, Salzburg, by way of covering my bank debt (sixteen percent interest).  Think back to the forty thousand after Bremen; that was an audacious move on the part of the publisher!  At the time.  Today money and the flu are again the main topics.  Please personally bring the money to me in Salzburg and remember that we are going to have another premiere in that town in ’76.2  Etcetera.  This is at the same time an invitation to you to resume our conversation, which was so brutally cut short by the virus.  It’s a good thing that you are well again!  I have written Rach an important letter that is no less harsh than candid, and by now he surely will have briefed you on it.3

I myself am now in finest fettle after an inflammation of my lungs that was very trying but that has been quashed thanks to the administration of millions of units of penicillin at the hospital in Wels under the supervision of my brother, who is a member of the staff there, and to three weeks spent in the clean air of the mountains where Frost was written.  I am working on the comedy for Salzburg, then I’ll finish up with Atzbach and in March I shall be in Portugal.  I very much hope we meet up before the middle of February in Salzburg, because at this time we are both absolutely immune.

Where did the virus come from?  Sincerely
Thomas B.

  1. See n. 3 to Letter No. 5.

  1. Bernhard inadvertently wrote “’66.”  The premiere of the play Die Berühmten [The Celebrities] was scheduled for July 1976 at the Salzburg Festival.

  1. Bernhard’s letter to Rodolf Rach is dated January 20, 1975 and reads as follows:
“Your (own or the theatrical publications division’s) indiscretion vis-á-vis the director of the Burgtheater has occasioned me enormous embarrassment here and also in the press and has perhaps even brought to ruin my plans with the Burgtheater.  This when we had after all agreed to keep absolutely silent.  But this is not the point of my letter.

You write (and the newspapers also write) that the The President will probably not be receiving a May premiere in Vienna.  I must make it clear that by no means, and I repeat: by no means, will I tolerate a postponement in Vienna, because by all means, and again I repeat: by all means, the first performance in Stuttgart must take place before the summer holidays.

Precisely and uncountermandably, and I am drawing the firm’s attention to my uttermost consistency at this early date by way of forestalling any instance of non-compliance with my demand, although I naturally assume that the firm is acting in complete and total conformity with my intentions.

Regardless of the circumstances, if the Burgtheater fails to make the premiere happen in May (I couldn’t care less about this premiere as a specifically Viennese one: I only agreed to it because Klingenberg wouldn’t release me from the contract), a delay of the premiere to a post-May date is out of the question.  Stuttgart must take place.  And it most certainly must even if we lose all the money that was to come from Vienna, which is a possibility.  That makes no difference to me.

From now on please act in conformity with my intentions in compliance with this genuine ultimatum, and keep me promptly briefed.

After a fortnight’s stay in hospital (a severe inflammation of the lungs arising from a case of the flu) I have arrived in a single bound back in Ohlsdorf, and on account of the fog I shall be reachable through next Tuesday at the Sonnhof Hotel in St. Veit in Pongau, Salzburg Region A 5621.”

Both performances ensued as planned: the world premiere, directed by Ernst Wendt at the Academy Theater in Vienna, on March 17, 1975, and the German premiere, directed by Claus Peymann, at the Württemberg Regional Theater in Stuttgart on May 21, 1975.  

Letter No. 308   

[Handwritten on the stationery of the Hotel Belvédère, St. Moritz]

St. Moritz  

Dear S. U.,

It was for me a completely & utterly splendid sojourn & I thank you for idea & invitation--the day has had an excellent effect on my mind.  I am convinced that our future is good, it is so clear & consequently the best sort of one for the purposes of our motives!1

I wish you a luck- & [joy-filled] SKI-WEEK.
Th. B.

  1. In his Travel Journal, Zurich-St. Moritz-Poschiavo, September 9-16, 1975, Unseld noted:
“On Monday evening in Chur I met with Thomas Bernhard, who traveled with me to St. Moritz and stayed there for two days.  On the whole it was a very productive conversation.  Vis-à-vis further financial undertakings, we were granted the possibility of doing as we see fit with The President, and he promised to deliver the manuscript of Correction at the end of April; this is definite.”

In his Chronicle entry for February 7, 1975, Unseld gives an account of how this shared vacation came about: “Telephone conversation with Thomas Bernhard.  He bristled at the idea of my going on vacation at the very moment when decisions regarding The President were being made in Vienna.  He asked me to come to Salzburg; I declined to do this.  Minutes later he rang to tell me that he would visit me in St. Moritz instead.”


Letter No. 309

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
February 19, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

I still have to thank you for the lines you left behind for me in St. Moritz.  I too am under the impression--a lasting one--that we get the best results when we work together.

The negotiations with the bank have commenced.

I am once again recalling your promise to give us the manuscript of Correction by the end of April.  You gave me your word, and I am building on it.

Right now, though, I have a request that we did not discuss in St. Moritz.  It has to do with the collection First Reading Experiences that I am editing.  Would it not still be possible for you to write a short text for this.  This really should be possible, and it would be a shame if you were not included in this collection.  So leap over the shadow, go to your typewriter and write down your memory down.  I would be most delighted.

[Siegfried Unseld]

Letter No. 310


Dear Siegfried Unseld,

Today came your letter, in which you put me in mind of my first two books.

You cannot expect anything from me beyond this brief declaration.1

Kaut wrote today that he had firmly reserved my place for ’76 and I now have a title for the work: The Celebrities.

I myself am going to be at the Frankfurt airport at eight-o-five on Saturday morning and will have an hour of time; the machine takes off for Lisbon at nine-twenty-five; I am writing this only thus precisely because I would be very happy to chat with you during this free hour.2

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard  

  1. Bernhard evidently attached to this letter his contribution to Volume 250 of the suhrkamp taschenbücher, the collection Erste Lese-Erlebnisse [First Reading Experiences], edited by Unseld.  In this text Bernhard described Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation and Christian Wagner’s poems as his first “intellectually decisive” books.

  1. In the upper-right margin of the letter is a handwritten comment by Unseld: “done v[iva] v[oce].”  Therefore, Unseld agreed to the proposed meeting.  He wrote about the encounter in a note for his Chronicle:
“The month began rather inauspiciously.  I was scheduled to meet Thomas
Bernhard at 8:05 a.m. at the airport; admittedly he did not specify where.  So I
sacrificed 200 meters of swimming to him, sidled through the customs check, and met him at the gate, although his flight was ten minutes early.
He was accompanied by his brother, who is very likable.  Bernhard was in a remarkably unjocular mood; his brother trailed us at a distance of ten meters.  Then he stayed in the waiting room.  Bernhard and I went into the Senator Lounge.  No sooner had we sat down than he launched into his cannonade of abuse: Dr. Marré’s letter had received a false echo, both from the bank and from Thomas Bernhard.   I had of course promised him in St. Moritz that we would try gradually to take on his debt to the bank; but Marré tendered a surety (to say nothing of the absorption of interest and further obligations on our part).  The bank, perhaps at the inspiration of Bernhard, reacted huffily to this: Bernhard, it said, was a good customer, so why did we tender a surety?  The bank, as I said, got huffy; Bernhard himself was outraged.  Marré, he said, was like Rach: impossible, incompetent, and basically fit for nothing but to be fired.  After this latest catastrophe he again demanded to be given the DM 100,000.00 on the spot and without any endorsements.  I refused to comply and stuck to the terms of the proposal I had made in St. Moritz.  After 20 very rough minutes Bernhard was at least prepared to “permit” our tendering another offer to the bank.  He is of course always the same: he is ruthless, extortionate, and he has even raised this to the level of a personal artistic ideology.  And this is only going to keep getting worse.

He was content with Wendt as a director for the Vienna production and also with Dorn’s idea of casting a man (Holtzmann) as the first lady.  He wasn’t interested in anything but the DM 100,000.00.

He plans to come and see the matter settled on March 15.”              

Letter No. 311

[handwritten; picture postcard: “Lisboa--Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno”--Lisbon, Campo Pequeno bullring]


--for your own ARENA! I shall get in touch on the 15th, at around 3:00; yours & your wife’s sincerely,
Thomas B.

Letter No. 312


Dear Siegfried Unseld,

My memories of my visit in Klettenbergstrasse are very fond ones.1

I have, however, given up hope on seeing the program of the tour2, and my desire for new books, especially books from the BS, is no longer being acknowledged.  Perhaps good things happen in ones.

Today Peymann is going to be here; everything looks as though it will turn out well.

Please talk to Rach about the videotaping for television and then work out a deal with the television network; what really matters for me is that the Stuttgart performance, and none of the other ones, should be broadcast.  For me this is all about keeping Vienna from coming to us with anything.

I believe The President is off to a good start.

At the moment all is good.

Thomas B.

  1. In a note on this Conversation on Saturday, March 15, 1975, in Frankfurt for his Chronicle, Unseld wrote:

“Thomas Bernhard arrived two hours late.  In Lisbon the passengers for his flight were understandably searched and required to show their papers several times.  This screening procedure lasted two hours, and even on board the plane some very young on-duty soldiers stood with machine guns in firing position.

Bernhard witnessed the new ‘revolution.’  Inwardly a drama, outwardly an operetta.  He said that Portugal is now a communist country ruled by a communist military regime; their goal is a socialist state patterned not on the the Soviet Union or China but rather on Cuba and the GDR.  Everything, he said, would develop in this direction; they were probably clever enough not to break with the other western-European countries, but the course had definitely been set, and now that Spinola had left another backlash against this development would probably no longer be possible.

Moreover, he was glad, and indeed, elated, to have escaped from this troublesome situation.  He listened almost cheerfully to my reflections on his
DM 100,00.00 demand.  He signed the loan contract and an additional agreement immediately; he was nonchalant in his acceptance of DM 25,000.00.

After that, everything went smoothly; he approved the performance of The Ignoramus in Brunswick, the performances of The Force of Habit in Rotterdam and Ljubljana, and took in my news about the planned production of The President with interest.  On May 20 in Vienna, with Ernst Wendt directing and Beck and Krottendorf as the two protagonists.  In Stuttgart Beckmann and Heedegen are slated to play the principal roles, and at the beginning or in the middle of June Dorn will put on The President and His Wife with two men (Held and Holtzmann).  He was pleased.  He especially found Wendt a very good choice.

He has definitively promised Correction for the end of April; this probably means he will give it to me in Vienna in the middle of May.

He had a very guilty conscience about his demeanor at the Senator Lounge a fortnight earlier.  I told him once again that he could make whatever moves he liked along with me, but not against me, and I told him that on that very day at the Senator Lounge I had come very close to walking out on him, that only my respect for his work had deterred me.

He is and remains a remarkable man.  Undoubtedly a genius but also saddled with all the perils of a genius.  Self-indulgence, an unrealistic outlook, and always ready to strong-arm his partner in material matters.  On the other hand he was amiable, chivalrous towards my wife, and he felt unbelievably comfortable in the setting of Klettenbergstraße, where the two Chinese vases he had given my wife were standing on the mantelpiece.”

2.     The Force of Habit toured the German-speaking countries in 1975; for more on the program see n. 1 to Letter No. 299.

Letter No. 313

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
March 24, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

Sincere thanks for your letter of March 18.  I also found our most recent encounter quite agreeable.  The vino tinto, by the way, was excellent, and even the candied greengages were and are exquisite.

In Vienna everything seems to be going normally; Wendt is rehearsing.

We will reserve the television rights for Peymann.1  

The tour continues to get rave reviews.  Minetti is visibly improving.

I am sending you the tour program by the same post, and I shall also try to send you a few volumes from the BS and from the new series.  

I would be really pleased if you could give just a few readings in the second half of September.  Shouldn’t we have a genuine go at this?  We are organizing a Suhrkamp book week for that period, and I would be pleased to see you there reading, chatting away.  I would be glad to be among those present then.

with warm regards,
[Siegfried Unseld]

  1. The production of The President that was ultimately recorded and broadcast by both the ZDF (July 11, 1978) and ORF was not Peymann’s but Wendt’s at the Bayrischen Staatsschauspiel (first performance: July 1976).  In this production the sets were designed by Michael Degen, the president was played by Kurt Meisel, and the first lady by Maria Becker.

  1. The enclosure cannot be identified.

Letter No. 314
[Address: Ohlsdorf]
Frankfurt am Main
April 25, 1975
Dear Thomas Bernhard,
Our deadline is approaching; we had of course agreed that I would receive the manuscript of Correction by the end of April.  I attach the greatest imaginable degree of importance to this.  Please send me a telegram whenever you mail it or have found some other way of dispatching it to Germany.
Where will you be on May 15 and 16?  On those two days I am going to be in Vienna; on the evening of the 15th I am giving a lecture at the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Literatur [Austrian Society for Literature]; on the morning of the 16th I shall be at the university, and in the afternoon and also in the evening of that day I shall be meeting with book-dealers.  In the event that you are in Vienna on Friday the 16th and wish to take part in a dinner with some book-dealers, that would be very nice.  I really would be delighted.
On May 17 I shall fly back to Frankfurt so that I can be in Vienna again on the 20th for the performance and stop over at Stuttgart Station on my way back.
I hope very much that we see each other.  Please drop me a line.
with sincere regards,
[Siegfried Unseld]

Letter No. 315



my flight with ms wednesday daytime or thursday next week which suits you better sincerely

Letter No. 316
[Address: Ohlsdorf; telegram-memorandum]
Frankfurt am Main
April 30, 1975
Meeting possible May 8.  Requesting you phone Ms. Zeeh.
Meeting likewise possible, 15, 16, or 20 in Vienna.
Letter on its way.1
v. sincerely, S.U.
1. The meeting took place in Vienna.  Unseld wrote of it in his Travel Journal Vienna, May 15-18, 1975:
“This was certainly an extremely tiring but also extremely successful and then again extremely enjoyable trip.  In Vienna the infrastructure for our activities really just keeps improving.  An important decision was made: the Vienna book-dealers fairly begged to be allowed to participate in the Suhrkamp book week, and I allowed myself to be persuaded to have the book week take place in Austria, and perhaps specifically right after the German book week, meaning that it would then begin on September 29; Thomas Bernhard is even prepared to read; we will also consider adding other readings and activities. […]
The […] most important thing: Thomas Bernhard gave me the manuscript of his Correction; I read 60 pages straight away, it is an utterly superlative thing, and there is absolutely no doubt about it: a pillar and centerpiece of our schedule for the second half of the year.
Thursday, May 15, 1975, 6 p.m.:
Thomas Bernhard visited me at the hotel; we had a very pleasant conversation; he handed over the manuscript to me, and I handed the banknotes over to him.  We hurried at the double to the Palais Palffy, where I was to give my lecture “The Vocation of a Literary Publisher Today.”  I arrived exhausted and bathed in sweat and was obliged to deliver the lecture under the auspices of this sweatiness.  But this lecture went down well.  I have seldom received so many compliments, let alone from so many competent people.  Dr. Kraus, Dr. Berger, some book-dealers, then Hilde Spiel, who had listened “with fascination,” Friederike Mayröcker, and the following day Thomas Bernhard told me that he had been “delighted” with his publisher.  So on the whole it seems to have been quite effective.
Sunday, May 17, 1975:
Lunch, a lengthy one, with Thomas Bernhard, his aunt, Ms. Hilde Spiel, and the book-dealer Christl Wagner.  A very congenial group; here we debated the establishment of an Austrian library at Suhrkamp Publications [see the attachment to Letter No. 87], the cultivation of new authors, towards which Bernhard naturally has a very skeptical attitude.  (He views ‘the remote resemblance’ of E.Y. Meyr to him as ‘a very close resemblance’; we ought, he thinks, to take note of this ‘instance of plagiarism’ and forbid Mr. Meyer to write in this manner, and under no circumstances should we print anything he writes in it!)  In the course of this conversation it once again became clear what a strong position is occupied by Bernhard and Handke; at the moment these two sum up Austrian literature, at least as far as the younger generation is concerned. […]
Bernhard and Hilde Spiel proposed the inclusion of Alexander Lernet-Holenia in the BS, and specifically with a volume called Mars in Aries.    

Thomas Bernhard quite rightly pointed out that the collection of texts about him, On Thomas Bernhard [see Letter No. 87, n. 114], was now hopelessly out-of-date; I promised him a new collection; Reinhard Urbach is under consideration as a possible editor.  At first Bernhard was against the idea, but then he assented to it; perhaps we should put out two books: one on Bernhard the prose-writer and the other on the dramatist.  Urbach and Ernst Wendt could be suitable as editors.

Bernhard was very confident on account of the forthcoming performance of  The President that evening; admittedly he was not planning to attend it; he was going to go to the cinema instead.  But Wendt, he said, had done an excellent, indeed, a perfect job.  His optimism seemed suspicious to me.     

My suspicion was destined to be borne out.  The performance scraped by, was greeted with approbation, obviously, that was to be expected; a few people walked out on the performance under protest, but somehow the overall effect was unsatisfying.  The first two acts were too long; the woman playing the president, Ida Krottendorf, was not up to the task, especially not vocally.  [President: Kurt Beck]  The fifth scene with the lying in state struck me as unsuccessful in every respect.  A small coffin that looked like a lunar rocket; embarrassing funereal pomp.  Peymann certainly would have directed the thing differently, with more severity.  But the set design, with the exception of the fifth scene, was perfect [Set designs: Rolf Glittenberg].  On the whole this performance gave one the impression that in virtue of his excessive fidelity to the text the director has done more harm than good.  But of course we are all making a mistake: we accept and adopt Bernhard’s work too precisely.  A half a year ago, after my first reading of the manuscript, I told him that the first two acts were too long.  Bernhard remembered this when we spoke about the performance after it.  I am anxious about the reviews.”

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of May 20, 1975 Georg Hensel wrote under the headline “A First-Class Burial”: “Thomas Bernhard has an astonishing capacity to capitalize on his incapacity to write a dialogue.  Perhaps this time he has overrated this talent a little.”  Herbert Gamper’s review in the Weltwoche (“Geisteswitterung des Zeitalters” [“Intellectual Weather of the Age”], May 28, 1975) begins with the following sentences: “The latest play by the Austrian gloom-writer Thomas Bernhard was advertised as ‘an anarchists’ play.’  But it is much more of a play about anarchy and an anarchic play.  At its premiere in Vienna it was mislaid. [...]”

In a special note in his Chronicle headed Vienna, May 15-18, 1975, Conversations with Thomas Bernhard, Unseld remarked:

“Bernhard informed me that he was not only writing the play for the Salzburg Festival in July of 1976 [The Celebrities], but also another one for Vienna and in November 1976.  I was inwardly terrified because I am getting the jitters about the subject-matter on which Bernhard is basing these plays.  The Salzburg play is of course once again supposed to be devoted to the portrayal of successful and “celebrated” people, then the Vienna play will deal with “critics,” but there ought to be something else going into these plays.  “Ambition, hate, and fear and the like” [This is an approximate quotation of a recurring phrase from The President (DR).]--that is no longer enough.  After the premiere Bernhard had no interest in going to the actors’ premiere party; we met in the 13th district in a garden-café.  Present there were the Spiels, his aunt, and the architect Hufnagl with his wife; Hufnagl is one of Bernhard’s closest friends and advisers; Wolfgang Schaffler had repeatedly spoken to me about him, Bernhard’s evil spirit.  Hufnagl is an active, vital fellow, not without intelligence, and also not without respect for Suhrkamp, but he must be reckoned with.  Mrs. Maleta had a peculiar lot tonight: of course for a time her husband [as president of the national council] had been been acting president of Austria, and from her Bernhard had gleaned the details of princely splendor for the act set in the bedroom; her husband did not attend the premiere (allegedly he was with a lady friend in Venice, just as the president in the play was with a lady friend in Portugual).  Mrs. Maleta was with a male friend, a dentist (not, as in the play, with the chaplain or butcher), at the premiere.  The most remarkable thing: Ida Krottendorf as the first lady had a hairdo that resembled Mrs. Maleta’s, but these are obviously nuances for the cognoscenti alone.

Only a few days later Bernhard and Unseld met again; the record of this meeting in the publisher’s Travel Journal, Stuttgart, May 21-22, 1975 reads thus:

“That evening saw the German premiere of Thomas Bernhard’s play The President.  The exact antithesis of Vienna: the first two acts were outstanding, and it was easy to see how much depends on the performers.  Edith Heerdegen [as the first lady] and Doris Schade [as Mrs. Frölich] were outstanding; the hour-and-a-half slipped by effortlessly.  The part after the intermission, though, was the antithesis; the president--Horst Christian Beckmann--couldn’t cope with the role, and so there were some embarrassing longueurs.  If the play had been performed in two hours, it would have been a success.   The actress was played by Libgart Schwarz, Peter Handke’s wife.  She did a good job.  At the end the director was booed, perchance in lieu of the author?

A long premiere night.  But at least Thomas Bernhard had turned up.  It was impossible to tell whether he was in the house or not; Peter Handke had come; originally he did not plan to see the play.  But the evening with the two authors and with Peymann afterwards was quite pleasurable.  The most surprising thing: Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, who have of course been increasingly polarized by the Austrian environment, took a shine to each other.  I took advantage of this to propose the idea of having a joint reading by the two authors hosted by the Viennese book-dealers on September 29 in Vienna.  Neither of them objected.  Then Bernhard gave me his consent the next morning; I shall write to Handke and then obtain his confirmation.  This is an important piece of news I am bringing home with me. Next morning another very amiable conversation with Thomas Bernhard.  It centred on the future of his next two works.”

Letter No. 317


Dear Siegfried Unseld,

I have written for Minetti a dramatic text that he must perform, execute like an exercise, while he still exists, before he is irretrievably defunct; and yet it is an art/work, and I would like to know if we can put out a book entitled Minetti in the BS.  Minetti is supposed to make his entrance on New Year’s Eve at the Stuttgart Theater.

It is a text exclusively for Minetti and exclusively for that evening.  Why do I hear nothing from Frankfurt, the holy city?  For me, all other German cities, Hamburg, excepted, are utterly and absolutely unbearable; Frankfurt stands alone as a permanent majestic hideous gorgeous creation!  The others are lifeless, unbearable brainless, shameless, tawdry museum pieces.

Veritable lumber rooms of human deadwood in which feats of art come to term only while being veritably kicked up the backside.

The President was of course not intended for the assholes who slept through it.

Please see that a deal with the Poles (enclosed letter) is worked out and concluded.2.

I am in especially good form.

When will you be coming to this neck of the woods?

Thomas B.

  1. The letter bears a receipt-stamp date of June 23, 1975.

  1. In the enclosed May 28, 1975 letter from the Polish publishing firm of Wydawnitcwo Poznanskie, the editor Adela Skrentna asks if she may purchase the rights to a Polish translation of Frost from Bernhard or from Insel Publications and makes a concrete bid for a contract for the purchase.

  1. At the end of the letter there are an “x” and and arrow referring to a handwritten postscript on the back of the page; the postscript reads, “What is going on with the Salzburgers & Viennese?”

Letter No. 318

6.[between 10 and 30].75

requesting complete galley proofs “correction”

Letter No. 319

Frankfurt am Main
July 1, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

I am still going to write you a letter in reply to your latest one.

But today the following:

Today Suhrkamp publications turns 25.  We are not celebrating but rather putting out good books, for example the Salzburg Plays in the setting of the suhrkamp taschenbücher.  By the same post we are sending you a copy express; two more are on their way from us.1

We printed a run of 10,000 copies; retail price DM 6.00; the deduction of the honorarium will follow as usual.   Please let us know how many copies you would like to have.

very sincerely,
Siegfried Unseld

  1. The Salzburg Plays [Die Salzburger Stücke], Volume 257 of the suhrkamp taschenbücher, contains The Ignoramus and the Madman and The Force of Habit.

Letter No. 320


Dear Siegfried Unseld,

I will attempt once again to put in writing everything, apart from certain very basic things that I can now no longer formulate, that was disclosed in the letter I sent you about five weeks ago and that you say have not received.

I am writing a theatrical text which is entitled Minetti, and which will be performed on New Year’s Eve in Stuttgart, and only there and then and never again!!!, with Minetti in principal role and which is a text intended exclusively for Minetti, for I must exploit this magnificent actor for my theatrical purposes while he is at his peak, and that can’t last much longer.  My question was whether we could put out a BS volume in December.

In my letter there was enclosed another letter (now unfortunately lost) from a Polish publisher in Lodz, whose name I can’t recall, who complains that he wrote three or four letters to Suhrkamp entreating (!) you to grant him the rights to Frost, and that he received no reply and now thinks he can obtain the rights to publication in Polish from me, but I don’t have those rights.  Please try to find out which publisher in Lodz this is; there can hardly be hundreds of them.

An important point in the “lost” letter is devoted to my asking you whether it would be possible to extend the July deadline for the balance (the remaining half) of the loan to August 2.

I then wrote urging you to finalize the contracts with Salzburg and Vienna, which is now no longer possible, because the people are already on vacation, or, in the case of Salzburg, have something else on the brain; I have negotiated and finalized everything barring the issuing of the contract, because it is now firmly settled that I will be bringing out The Celebrities next summer in Salzburg and in Vienna in October/November a play at the Burg in honor of Klingenberg’s departure.  But I have already told you several times to draw up contracts with these two, Kaut and Klingenberg; in the end these plays are important things that have no precedent in these times and it would be essential to get behind them.

Unfortunately my oft-expressed wish for a couple of individual volumes of the BS to be sent to me has fallen on deaf ears; so far I have not received a single book; the wish was distinctly articulated in St. Moritz.  So I guess whatever I am interested in I will just have to buy.

Much else was divulged in this letter; none of it is coming to mind at the moment, but to move on: from Michel Demet, the translator of my plays into French, for Gallimard, who works at the Sorbonne, I hear that several good theaters wish to perform my plays, if Gallimard will publish them; Gallimard will publish them if the theaters will perform them and so I am asking you to communicate personally and explicitly with Erval from Gallimard about this business so that something will happen.  The fact is that there are so many possibilities that never get exploited because I myself do not have the time to do so, because I naturally must work without interruption on my intellectual work, which of course seems to me to be of the utmost importance; on the other hand the firm--and this is a genuine accusation--lets everything follow its own course and nothing follows its own course on its own!!!--and to whom am I reciting this sad old tale if not the firm?!   And what is going on with England and so on!  There have been so many times here in which I have been driven to the brink of despair  over the fact that quite simply nothing will get done unless I do it myself; the firm reacts only when it is given a good shove towards something, and even then only rarely and for the most part ineptly.

Yesterday I received the so-called Salzburg Plays, but my very first glance at it had to bump into an irresponsible misprint: the performance dates of the Ignoramus are immediately followed by Mr. Vince and one Ms. Gstrein, but the sets were by the magnificent Hermann and the costumes by Moidele Biekel!  This is quite simply irresponsible brainless feeble-mindedness on the part of the people who have been made responsible for such a book and it occasions me only anger and nausea, nothing else.  There is much to discuss and clarify, but I cannot content myself with your meeting with Schaffler on August 2 and perhaps also meeting with me afterwards; I find such an idea unbearable and the fundamental issues I once again have to discuss with you have nothing to do with the usual estival vacation-mania.  It is essential for you to set aside some time for me as soon as possible and to come here.  We cannot keep working together in this desultory fashion.

Regarding Correction: probably nobody will comprehend what it is; people never make the slightest effort to comprehend anything; this is not an age of effort, but this is something I really have no business even starting to care about; but still, I have never before received the galley proofs in such maddening, nerve-racking installments.  What a fine pass the firm has come to when it no longer sends me the whole package at once, as it always did until now.  Wherever one looks one is only ever dealing with incompetence, and slovenliness is the foundation from which this incompetence draws its by no means negligible wages.

My dear Siegfried Unseld, please treat these lines as a challenge, as in a challenge to a duel, and inform me by letter or telegram where and when we can meet as soon as possible either here at my house or at some place in the immediate vicinity; I cannot travel any farther.  We must speak with each other.

Yours sincerely,
Thomas Bernhard

Regarding Correction: as this has been a four year-long undertaking, it deserves to be literally bowed down to, but I fear that this book is going to be allowed to slip away like all those other books that have been printed so far but that now collectively amount to nothing but one big mindless rubbish heap!  It’s all stupidity, shamelessness, charlatanry!  I refuse to put up with it and I will have nothing to do with his now-blatant case of terminal degenerative dementia!
Letter No. 321

[Address: Ohlsdorf; handwritten telegram-memorandum]

Frankfurt am Main
July 11, 1975

Proposal for meeting Thursday evening July 31 Munich or August 3 from 3-5 p.m. in Ohlsdorf.  Letter follows.

Sincerely SU

Letter No. 322

[Address: Ohlsdorf; telegram-memorandum]
Frankfurt am Main
July 15, 1975

Re Galley Sheet 143: when you send back Correction please insert the missing part.  Regards Siegfried Unseld

Letter No. 323

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
July 15, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

A publisher, too, is only human.  So he also needs to be stroked.  If he is only beaten like a dog, then he obviously can only turn canine...I sent you a telegram with two dates for a meeting.  I hope one of them suits you.  I would then bring the third quarter of the loan to this meeting.

Regarding the contracts, I had decided from the outset not to start anything before the holidays.  Both Kaut and Klingenberg would have let things stall over the holidays; the contracts would then have been left sitting for weeks, and that is not good.  If a contract exists, it should be signed.  I shall send Kaut his contract at the end of July, and Klingenberg his in mid-August.

I cannot judge whether Minetti is makeable into a volume in the Bibliothek Suhrkamp; in order to do that I would actually have to be familiar with the text or have received some detailed information about it from you.  What is more, it is worth considering that we are probably going to try to include The Celebrities and also the following play in the BS, and an excessively large accumulation of titles by you in the Bibliothek Suhrkamp is not good for either party.

I don’t understand why you get so riled up about typographical errors; these things can be rectified in a partial second printing, and then the case is closed.  In a large company, one cannot do everything oneself, and typos are unfortunately bound to crop up.  Nobody is perfect--except for Thomas Bernhard, when he is ranting.

Ms. Borcher gave the galley proofs for Correction to our mailing department in two batches, and I was assured she was doing so for technical reasons relating to customs.  After all, you don’t wish to have to deal with customs duties when you collect the packages.  

That is also the reason why we haven’t sent you any books so far.  If we send you books, you have to pay customs duties and you rant; if we don’t send you any, you also rant.

Apart from that, I quite like, not to mention cherish, Correction.  I am gearing myself up for it, and we are going make the book our absolute focus.  And so during a function at the Suhrkamp book week in Frankfurt on Friday, September 19, in front of about 150 invited guests, from A ([Hermann Josef] Abs) to Z (Professor Zeller, Marbach), the most important people from the intellectual and economic sphere will be in attendance.  The centerpiece of this function is a 20-minute reading by you from Correction.

We negotiated a deal with the Poles quite some time ago!  The publishing firm made us an offer for Frost: 7% for 10,000 copies, payable on publication, half in forex, half in zloty.  We accepted this offer; since then we have been waiting for the signed contract.  We presumably still could arrange for everything to be paid in zloty; in that case, the honorarium would be non-transferrable.  Is this what you would like?

During Erval’s Frankfurt visit four weeks ago I spoke with him about an edition of the Plays.  He was planning to look into it.  Nothing follows its own course on its own!  We are doing our bit.

And not a word in acknowledgment of what we have accomplished with the productions of the plays!  Here a really solid foundation has been laid for you.

I hope we see each other soon.

[Siegfried Unseld]

Letter No. 324
on no account issue amras as suhrkamptaschenbuch
thomas bernhard
Letter No. 325
Dear Siegfried Unseld,
The main shortcoming of your letter of the 15th is that you quite simply wrote it and sent it off much too late, but it does contain the remark that you “cherish” Correction, a remark that you do not dare to utter directly, only indirectly; all the same, it makes me happy, because it has been a great many years since anybody said that he cherished anything I had done.  That makes up for the whole multi-year-old morass produced by all the critics.

The galley proofs have been corrected and will be sent back to Frankfurt along with this letter, and I would like you to send me two rough paginated copies.

One must possess a great many sterling qualities to go two months without comments!  But it’s all well and good that you have such robust faith in me.

Today I shan’t expatiate on all the more or less important points of your letter; we can discuss those here on August 3.  But I will touch on just one of them: please don’t send a contract of any sort either to Salzburg or to Vienna; we will do that in October or November!!1

That you are only human is clear, and what a human you are!  And what a human indeed! and what a publishing firm!

Regarding the galley proofs of Correction: I have never before seen such exquisite typesetting and I would like you to communicate to the typesetter  my admiration of this quite outstanding, and indeed well-nigh incredible, superhuman achievement!; because of course I am well-acquainted with the manuscript; it is a masterly performance.  And I would like you to have the compositor of Correction sent a bottle of champagne at my expense (hence via the debiting of my account!).  And please don’t forget this request of mine!!2

I naturally thought you would come when I asked you to, on the 3rd with the third and fourth installment.  But as always, come to Ohlsdorf in a good mood.

In excellent form, with sincere regards,
Thomas B.
  1. A letter from Bernhard to Josef Kaut, also dated July 22, sheds light on the background of the Salzburg Festival’s reticence vis-à-vis The Celebrities.  In this letter Bernhard asked Kaut why The Celebrities did not figure in the published program for the following year’s festival.  After some shilly-shallying on Kaut’s part, Bernhard wrote him another letter on August 20; in it he withdrew the play from consideration for performance in Salzburg and stated, “Theater history long ago decided who was more important to whom, Bernhard to the Festival or the Festival to Bernhard.”  

  1. On August 8, 1975, Burgel Zeeh sent Bernhard a letter informing him that a bottle of Veuve Cliqot Brut champagne had been sent to Rolf Kopf at the typesetting and bookbinding firm of Göbel.

Letter No. 326  
Frankfurt am Main
August 5, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

Apropos of our Salzburg conversation1 I would like to cite the following sentence penned by the 61-year-old Goethe: “Illness only preserves the healthy.”  The fact that this sentence hails from a controversial, erotic poem of Goethe’s, a poem that a few people have described as pornographic, does not diminish its truth in the slightest.2

I shall do my best to prevent the simultaneous publication of Correction and The Cause from working to your and our detriment.  So far we only have to deal with the possibility that the Fundamental Cause [Ur-Sache] is simply essential to a precise understanding of Correction.

But I am taking note of your pledge not to submit any further manuscripts to Residenz.  Should you ever contemplate licensing a work to a third party or even to Residenz again, I would like to be consulted about it before a decision is made.  This strikes me as the least we owe to our collaborative relationship.   

I am granting you your wish: Amras will be coming out in the Bibliothek Suhrkamp, and even at the very top of the new schedule--in other words, in May of 1976.  On September 19 you will receive the fourth installment of the loan.

On September 29 we were also planning to speak with Klingenberg in Vienna.

As far as the procedure for the new play goes, Mr. Kaut is supposed to receive the manuscript at the end of October.  Zurich will have the contract ready in time for it to reach Mr. Kaut on the same day.

I hope very much that by the time you receive this letter you will have sent off the corrections to Correction.  We are anxiously awaiting them.  Hopefully you have crossed out, modified, or at least put a question mark at the end of “public menace of a whoremongering State.”  For your sake.  For our sake.  Not for my sake.3

With this in mind,
Siegfried Unseld

P.S. Enclosed you will find the contract for Correction in duplicate.        

  1. Unseld wrote of this conversation in his Travel Journal, Salzburg--Munich--Salzburg, July 31-August 4, 1975:
“In Salzburg there were essentially three points to settle:
1. The placement of Thomas Bernhard’s new play The Celebrities at the 1976 Salzburg Festival.  The director of the festival, Mr. Kaut, had already hinted to me of difficulties.  His dramatic advisor, Professor Haeusserman, is adamantly opposed to Bernhard.  It must be said that the flock of Bernhardians has thinned quite a bit in the past six months (and even in the inner circle).  Bernhard knows that when push comes to shove he can’t count on anybody but the Austrian minister of culture and Mr. Kaut.  The governor of the state of Salzburg has wanted to “offload” him for a long time.  This makes it all the more astonishing that Bernhard is pressing to have a memoir of his early years in Salzburg published.  That is guaranteed to trigger yet another scandal.  It was now agreed that Mr. Kaut would receive the manuscript and the contract (one with the same conditions as pertained to The Force of Habit) together at the end of October.  Apart from this, the festival was very much in Suhrkamp’s bad books; the props and sets [from the tour of The Force of Habit] returned to Salzburg in catastrophic shape.
2. Conversation with Mr. Wolfgang Schaffler of Residenz Publications, Salzburg.
This was devoted exclusively to the timing of the release of Thomas Bernhard’s book Die Ursache [{An Indication of } The Cause]; as I said, it is a description of Bernhard’s early years in Salzburg, a highly critical settling of scores with the secondary school Bernhard attended, with the Church, and with Salzburg’s local institutions.  I knew that Bernhard had promised Schaffler a manuscript, but I had not been informed that this book was to be published at the same time as Correction.   I gave the two of them—Bernhard and Schaffler—a severe dressing-down and asked Shaffler to postpone the publication date, but that doesn’t suit him; ostensibly he has already sent off 50 galley sheets, the book is already half printed, and he has scheduled only a single shipment in mid-September.  I didn’t want to play my last card, and so we have agreed on a more or less simultaneous release.  Our argument will be this: the tendering of this book to Schaffler springs from an old promise; moreover, this text is a piece of the autobiography of the young Bernhard; by no means may this Cause be regarded as the cause of other texts, and therefore this author desires to have the two texts issued simultaneously.
In the light of this not very pleasant discussion, there will be no further pursuit of joint undertakings.
3. Conversation with Thomas Bernhard.
I spoke with him several times; naturally the publication of The Cause stood at the center of our conversations.  Bernhard really just expects the simultaneous publication to make the debate a bit livelier (whereas Mr. Schaffler is of the opinion that the flagging Bernhard debate is in urgent need of such a jab).
Bernhard will send us the corrections to Correction in three days.  He said that the cover that I showed him was “perfect.”  But the blurb has to be revised; I shall do this myself (Residenz Publications’ cover of The Cause strikes me as absolutely awful and totally inappropriate for Bernhard.)
A long discussion about Amras in the suhrkamp taschenbücher series.  He won’t have it.  Amras, he said, was one of his most important titles and had always been his favorite text, and it had to be in the BS.  I acquiesced.  So we will be introducing this title not via the st but rather in the context of the next schedule of the BS.

In the SLZ [see n. 1 to Letter No. 291] we have carte blanche with Verstörung or Amras.

He gave his word to give the reading in Frankfurt on Friday, September 20 (duration: 20 minutes), and a reading in Vienna (duration: 30-40 minutes).  On the other hand he has no interest in traveling to Linz.  We will negotiate a deal for the Viennese play with Mr. Klingenberg in Vienna on September 29.

On September 19 Bernhard would also like to receive the fourth installment of the loan.”

In a letter dated February 20, 1975, Bernhard consented to Wolfgang Schaffler’s publication of an autobiographical volume under the imprint of Residenz Publications.  The book originally had been given the working title Remembering (see Letters Nos. 244, 256, 271, and 283); later it was supposed to be called The Boarding School, and by June, when Bernhard sent Schaffler the manuscript, it bore its definitive title, The Cause.  For more on the genesis of The Cause see Volume 10, pp. 516ff. of Bernhard’s Works.

2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, The Diary (1810).  

3. In the published novel, there is certainly longer any mention of a “public menace of a whoremongering State,” although two phrases that do occur in it--“completely dilapidated State” and “this perversity and prostitution in place of a State” (Bernhard, Works, Vol. 4, p. 26)-- are perhaps equally harsh.  Correction was delivered to the bookstores on September 10, 1975, with a retail price of
DM 28.00.

Letter No. 327

Frankfurt am Main
September 4, 1975

Dear Mr. Bernhard,

By the same post we are sending you two large-format printed items; one of them is a poster, and the other is a prospectus that is being printed in a run of 2 million copies.1  You are there in the middle of the first row, and somehow that really denotes to a turn your position here in the house.

with sincere regards,
Siegfried Unseld

  1. Neither the poster nor the prospectus survive in Bernhard’s posthumous papers.  The DIN-A4-sized (8.27” × 11.69”) poster bears the slogan “Man lives off his mind” and displays photographs of 25 of the firm’s authors.  Bernhard is third from the left in the first row.

Letter No. 328

[Address: (Ohlsdorf); telegram-memorandum]

Frankfurt am Main
September 4, 1975

Would you like to read in a church in Schaffhausen on the 21st/22nd?
Sincerely Unseld

Letter No. 329


arriving airport friday 8.25 a.m. requesting good hotel room1
sincerely thomas bernhard

  1. Bernhard came to Frankfurt for the opening function of the Suhrkamp book week (September 18-28 in Germany with over 100 functions) held in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of Suhrkamp on July 1, 1975.  Unseld wrote about the first day of the book week in his journal under the date of September 19, 1975:
“On my arrival in Klettenbergstraße from Bonn [The Suhrkamp book week opened on September 18 in the auditorium of the University of Bonn; Max Frisch read from his Montauk, which had been delivered to the bookstores on September 10, 1975], I encountered a very cheerful Thomas Bernhard.  We still had an hour to spare for a conversation; then the Suhrkamp reception began in Siesmayerstraße.

Approximately 250 invited guests; these were basically the firm’s friends in Frankfurt.  I delivered the Frankfurt-oriented version of my speech for the opening of the book week.  Then Bernhard read the final pages of the first part of Correction; he read magnificently, elatedly, alacritously, bringing to the forefront the musical structure of the book.  Afterwards conversations lasting till midnight.  It was a starting-point beautifully grounded in sympathy, and we were nurtured by many warm wishes.”

Under the headline “Neue Narrenburg,”[“New City of Fools”] the Frankfurter Neuen Presse of September 22, 1975 reported on the function as follows:

“Unseld celebrated the 25th anniversary of the foundation of Suhrkamp with radiant optimism and wished his red wine and Sekt-feted guests a ‘long night’ in the best of spirits.  He, the Man of Will, had managed to coax the despairingly lugubrious writer out of his Austrian sequestration and present him to the public.  A special attraction [...]

Bernhard writes and speaks in a controlled automatism; he enunciated his long sentences briskly and clearly.  Whether one is hearing him or reading him, one is somehow or other drawn into the undertow of his idiom.

The book seems to me to be consciously trying to follow in the footsteps of Stifter’s Narrenburg; here as there a fantastic architecture and biography, a biographical compulsion, is generated by the mutually interpenetrating and conterminous themes.”

Bernhard read one more time in connection with the Suhrkamp book week, at 8:00 p.m. on September 29 at the opening of the week’s Austrian segment (September 29-October 3, 1975) at the Haus der Begegnungen [House of Encounters] in the Kagram district of Vienna.  In the Travel Journal Vienna--Graz--Innsbruck, September 29-October 3, 1975, Unseld wrote:

“At 7:00 p.m. I met Thomas Bernhard at the Hotel Intercontinental.  He was furious and made the grave accusation that his appearance, our appearance, had been deliberately booked at an inappropriate venue.  He said that the House of Encounter (sic [DR]) was in a very remote spot, that it was almost impossible to get to and would never attract the sorts of people who were interested in such an evening.  Dr. Berger met up with us, and Bernhard immediately laid into him with this reproach.  Berger defended himself with the argument that this House of Encounter was sited in an up-and-coming neighborhood, in an outer suburb that would mobilize some quite advanced Bernhard readers.  But Bernhard didn’t really care to hear any of this.  What was more, he didn’t have a copy of Correction with him, and nobody knew if there would be one at the House of Encounter.  So I asked Dr. Berger to go back to his office to fetch it.  We took a taxi, 25 minutes, to the House of Encounters.  The hall itself wasn’t bad and acoustically quite pleasant, but it is totally unreasonable to expect a listener to make such a lengthy trip.

Bernhard was in a terrible funk.  I tried to make the best of the situation and address those people who had arrived so far.  Then Bernhard read; he took a while to warm up, and after ten minutes he was all there, and I am of the opinion that the evening went off quite well.  Afterwards a short pub-crawl.  Thomas Bernhard was satisfied.  Dr. Berger was less satisfied.  He felt misunderstood.  Nobody could talk him out of his trendy idea of having Bernhard read in the outer suburbs.

[...] Another conversation with Thomas Bernhard.  He filled me in on his conversation with Professor Klingenberg, the particulars of which are to be kept confidential.  The Celebrities is going to be staged at the Burgtheater or the Academietheater in a performance directed by Claus Peymann.  The rehearsals will begin in mid-May of 1976, with the performance taking place in the last days of the season.  The book version of  The Celebrities in the BS should be out by then as well.  In September of 1976 he will finish up Atzbach for the edition suhrkamp.”

In Die Presse (October 1, 1975) Rudolf U. Klaus wrote of the evening: “The hall, a space of rarified hideousness--its poisonous electric orange styrofoam-and-plastic construction literally stung one’s eyes (and one wondered what architect’s mad fling had been responsible for it! )--was about a third full when Siegfried Unseld, the head of Suhrkamp Publications, stepped up to the lectern. [...] Bernhard himself then read an approximately half-hour-long excerpt from this book [Correction], and what he read was truly the ‘monological torture’ as which it had been advertised beforehand: a monologue intérieur of endless, complicatedly turned sentences and phrases, only occasionally caesura’d by asides like ‘I thought’ or ‘he told me’; it was reflective, agonizing, full of manic-depressive humor --prayer-wheel prose.  But it was ‘authentic,’ unmistakable Bernhard.”

Letter No. 330
[Address: (Ohlsdorf)]
Frankfurt am Main
November 4, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

I am going to be in Vienna from the 10th through the 13th of November.  Have I got a chance of seeing you?1

[Siegfried Unseld]

  1. At Rilke All Over the World, an event at the Palais Palffy organized by the Austrian Society for Literature in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth, Unseld gave a talk entitled “Rilke and His Publisher” and met with Friederike Mayröcker among others.

Letter No. 331

[Address: Ohlsdorf]

Frankfurt am Main
November 26, 1975

Dear Thomas Bernhard,

You sounded pretty angry on the telephone the other day.  I am sorry that we couldn’t see each other, but my Vienna schedule was so tightly booked that I couldn’t make a side trip to Ohlsdorf, and of course unfortunately the AUA from Vienna to Frankfurt doesn’t stop at Salzburg Station.

Here everything is going quite well so far, with the usual vicissitudes.

On the Bernhardian front, though, things are going very well indeed.  I am certain we are going to finish what we have set out to do.

The Dutch performance of The Force of Habit is in January 1976 at the Stadtoneel in Amsterdam.  Will you be going to it?  

I was in Paris.  People there are now more receptive to German-language plays than they used to be.  I also noticed there was some interest in The Force of Habit.  Incidentally, at our insistence Gallimard has accepted Correction.

The Dutch version of The Lime Works will be coming out in the fall of 1976.  The publisher has asked to be allowed to postpone making a decision about Correction.  Sweden has turned us down “with a bleeding heart”; they said that only 200 copies of The Lime Works had been sold, but they think they might be able to put out Correction at some point.

In the schedule of the Bibliothek Suhrkamp Amras figures in the first half of the year in April and then The Celebrities at the time of the performance.  It is now the end of November.  I assume you will be sending the manuscript to Klingenberg as agreed and hopefully to me as well.

By the way, I ran into Klingenberg in Vienna at the (to my mind) disastrous Strehler premiere.  Klingenberg and I are in accord about the procedure.1.

I am writing you these lines by way of keeping open a connection with you in case we don’t see each other again this year.  Will you be spending the last days or weeks of the year in Ohlsdorf, or are you traveling?  Perchance you will even be in some latitude where someone might see you “at the bridge between the two years”?
with sincere regards as ever,
Siegfried Unseld
P.S. It really is quite remarkable: no sooner did I mention Klingenberg than he got in touch with me. |by telephone from Vienna:| Peymann will not be free until the end of June, which would be too late for the festival.  But recently Dorn got in touch with him to let him know that by a fluke he would be free in the spring and to ask him for something to direct.  So provided you agreed to it—and I don’t doubt that you would—Klingenberg could engage Dorn.  But for Klingenberg everything is contingent on whether and how he can cast your play.  He must come to a decision about this in the first week of December.    
1. On November 12 Unseld attended the world premiere1a. of The Game of the Powerful, based on Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, at the Burgtheater in Vienna.  Under the heading Vienna, November 10-13, 1975, the Chronicle records of the encounter with Klingenberg: “Conversation with the general manager of the Burg, Mr. Klingenberg.  Duration: one minute.
For budgetary reasons the minister of culture has vetoed two major projects: a series of performances of Faust and the new Bernhard play [The Celebrities].
After reading the play and deciding in its favor, he might be able to say that we had already come to a verbal agreement about it.”   
1a. From Letter No. 257 and its fifth note one gathers that The Game of the Powerful received an earlier performance at the 1973 Salzburg Festival. [DR]


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 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. 456-491. 

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 these notes into line with what he believes to be mainstream editorial practice in the Anglosphere, most signally by moving most instances of the historical present into the simple past.