In 1989, the year of Thomas Bernhard’s death, the American composer and self-styled musicalologist Peter Schickele issued a recording of a work entitled Bach Portrait, a kind of spoken-word cantata that he had composed as a belated 300th birthday tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach, a work in which, as he said in his audio introduction to the piece, he had endeavored to communicate “what a great guy [Bach] was and everything,” and to do for Bach what “[Aaron] Copland did for Lincoln [i.e., in Lincoln Portrait], what Tchaikowsky [sic] did for Little Russians [i.e., in his Second or “Little Russian” Symphony], and what Richard Strauss did for himself [i.e., in Ein Heldenleben].” Bach, said Schickele, had had “only two things on his mind. One of them was music and the other was…” Regrettably at this point Schickele fell through a hole in the floor in the corner of the room that he had chosen as the site of the delivery of his introduction on the perhaps excessively romantic grounds that it was the place in which Bach himself had been delivered into the world. Happily, Bach Portrait itself leaves the listener in no doubt as to the identity of the second squatter on the mind of the Cantor of St. Thomas. Its speaker’s text consists largely of excerpts from Bach’s letters, and every one of these bits of correspondence is centered on something quite flagrantly having to do with money. Throughout Bach Portrait “Jack Bach” as Schickele has the confounded bumptiousness to nickname him, does nothing but kvetch that his employer is short-changing him to the tune of a few groschen per pay packet, that he is unable to make ends meet by providing music for funerals because people aren’t dying in large enough numbers, that the cost of living wherever he happens to be is too high, that he is having to pay exorbitant customs duties on presents from his relatives that don’t make it to him in one piece, etc. One comes away from one’s first audition of Bach Portrait under the side-splitting impression that J.S. Bach was the most squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner outside of fictional literature; at any rate, one comes away therefrom assuming that it is as such a risible and contemptible figure that Professor Schickele views Bach, that the principal aim of Bach Portrait is or was to expose the greatest of all composers and hence the greatest of all musical artists as being no less mercenary or more preoccupied with intrinsically aesthetic and spiritual matters than the most shamelessly crowd-baiting two-bit Tin Pan-Alley hack. But in the course of subsequent listenings, after one’s surprise at the contents of the letters has entirely vanished, such that one’s attention perforce shifts to the purely instrumental episodes in the work, one realizes, or at any rate comes to believe, that the real target of the satire here is not Bach himself but rather a certain idea of artistic “greatness” or perhaps even of “greatness” tout court, a kind of bastardized Romantic notion thereof that would require it to be divorced from baser sublunary concerns at every moment and in every register. The stentorian, tympani blow-laden tuckets and sennets with which Bach’s dunning and kvetching are invariably punctuated come to seem much more contemptible in their overwhelming, bombastic fatuity than the comparatively unassuming picayune petty-mindedness of the dunning and kvetching themselves. Taken on their own, Bach’s dunning and kvetching certainly do not augment our sense of his greatness, but there is no reason why they should detract from it either, provided that we confine our notion of greatness to what is achievable by human beings living under a sub-paradisiacal material dispensation, specifically a commercial or mercantile dispensation governed by the quasi-principle (or quasi-phenomenon) of exchange. Let us suppose that originally music was the only thing on Bach’s mind—well then, in being attached to a body that mind must have been dependent on material sustenance even to continue to think about, through, and in music, and in a commercial society such sustenance is indirectly afforded by money, which likewise would have been exigent by the bucketful in the realization of Bach’s thoughts about, in, and through music via the keys, reeds, strings, and larynxes of materially contingent instruments and singers. The Bach we all revere had no choice but to be an unrelenting hard-ass in monetary matters, for a Bach who had been softer-assed therein never would have found sufficient leisure to conceive, let alone write, let further alone conduct, the Sts. Matthew and John Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, the Brandenburg Concerti, etc. Such, at least, seems to be the upshot of Bach Portrait, especially in the light of the speaker’s prefixing of the piece’s concluding hyper-pyrotechnical fanfare with a disarmingly childlike vocal rendition of the principal of melody “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in place of another piece of epistolary invective.
Mutatis mutandis and at bottom, Thomas Bernhard's correspondence with his publisher, Siegfried Unseld, presents the same superficially debunking but ultimately redeeming view of Bernhard. A strikingly large proportion of Bernhard’s side of this correspondence—indeed, perhaps the best (in more than one sense) part of that side—consists of communications to the ultimate, down-boiled effect of “Where’s my money, punk?”—often phrased in language even less genteel than that. But in the final analysis, one cannot hold such relentless, remorseless cupidity against Bernhard when via both sides of the correspondence one sees first how happily and indeed magnificently this cupidity coexisted with a dedication to literary activity whose intensity had perhaps not been seen since Balzac’s career, and second, how significantly the fruits of this cupidity contributed to the most cherished and powerfully eloquent elements of Bernhard’s work, to the features of this corpus that one thinks of as most characteristically Bernhardian and also most eloquently significant or exemplary, as George Steiner termed such features. A case in richly ramifying point is a loan for 40,000 deutschmarks first mentioned in a footnote to Letter No. 5 (Bernhard to Unseld; January 15, 1965), a footnote that reveals that Bernhard both requested and received the loan during his very first face-to-face meeting with Unseld—in other words, that Bernhard was hitting Unseld up for cash virtually from the very beginning. By Letter No. 6 (March 19, 1965), Unseld is laying out a timetable of amortization with an in-hindsight flagrantly optimistic closing date of New Year’s Eve 1967. The loan was ultimately only paid off in the early 1970s, and in the meantime it occasioned a kind of epistolary moto perpetuo of Bernhardian recrimination and Unseldian stonewalling. But it also funded Bernhard’s purchase and restoration of a gigantic farmhouse—a sort of two-story square fortress with a courtyard in the middle—in Ohlsdorf, an Upper-Austrian hamlet six miles north of the Podunkish (pop: 13,000) resort town of Gmunden. “At the time of the purchase,” the editors report, “the house was a ruin”; when Unseld visited it in August of 1969, he observed, perhaps a tad enviously, that “the barns and stables [have] been cleared out and whitewashed; the whole of Suhrkamp Publications could be housed within it,” and that “the residential wing is spartanly, simply furnished with a luxurious bathroom” (Letter No. 86, n. 1)—an account that more than bears out the editors’ assertion that Bernhard “spent a great deal of time and money on [the] restoration [of the house].” A description of the restoration-from-near-scratch of the very same sort of building found its way into Bernhard’s 1978 novella Yes, in which the narrator’s dogged perseverance in finishing the project entirely on his own transparently abets his subsequent near-total isolation from the people in his neighborhood and the consequent postponement of his introduction to the book’s real central human figure, the unnamed “Persian woman.” Perhaps especially in the Anglosphere, where his best-known books (above all Correction and Extinction) have prevailingly rural constellations of geographical reference (the word of first resort here is of course setting, but no mature non-dramaturgical Bernhard text has a setting in the established sense), Bernhard is regarded mainly as a chronicler of rural existences (I employ this admittedly stilted phrase advisedly: rural life Bernhard doubtless would have poo-pooh’d as so much Stifterian sentimentality; rural existence as so much Heideggerian pompousness). But this reputation belies the prevailingly urban tenor of both his life and writings from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s—a period stretching from his late adolescence through to his decidedly post-youthful adulthood. Several of the dozen-odd short stories he penned and published in the 1950s pointedly represent themselves as narratives hailing from “the big city” (construable usually as Vienna but occasionally as Salzburg), and both of the first two extended prose works of his maturity, Frost and Amras, are geographically-referentially centered on urban locales, the fictional town of Weng and the real city of Innsbruck, respectively. Of course, the present-day Anglophone reader (perhaps along with most of his fellow-readers in the Germanosphere) will be inclined to demur that neither Innsbruck nor Weng is a “big city” and that both are decidedly provincial and therefore effectively interchangeable with rural locales, but in mid-twentieth century Austria, or at any rate in Bernhard’s Vorstellung thereof (which, to judge by all non-Bernhardian indications thereof was not very wide of the mark, for all its literary realism-flouting extravagance), the ethical, psychological, and human-geographical difference between even the tiniest of provincial cities and the un-built-up countryside in any part of the country was far from trivial. Moreover, Bernhard by no means took an immediate or wholehearted shine to his new rural stomping grounds. By September of 1965 he was concurrently complaining to Unseld (Letter No. 12) that the new house was becoming “a tiresome burden” and making him feel “like an Austrian citizen, which is something I have no desire to be” (more on this non-desire anon) and commissioning the real estate agent Karl Ignaz Hennetmair (the model of Moritz in Yes) to sell the house because it had made him “horribly immovable” and because thanks to it “I am debarring myself from all sorts of possibilities, e.g., accepting fellowships to study abroad, in America, Italy, etc.” (n. 1 to Letter No. 13). From this one may infer that the Bernhard of the late 1960s and onwards could very easily have turned out to be quite a different writer than the Bernhard who ultimately wrote Correction. Extinction, etc.—no less of a loner, perhaps, than that Bernhard, but a globetrotting preeminently urban loner, forever flitting restlessly from one continent and capital city to another for reasons strategically or tactically withheld from his readers, a figure perhaps not radically dissimilar from his principal rival and bugbear Peter Handke. But by the end of 1965, Bernhard’s bond to the house and to the rural modus vivendi had congealed into virtual solidity and he was penning the first of his numerous almost ritualistic epistolary tributes to the salutary effects of the solitude and isolation afforded by his residence: “My wishes and greetings are coming to you from a gloomy fox’s den; the slyness of the fox consists in his never leaving his den under any circumstances” (Letter No. 18). It took a while for the habitus of the vulpine homebody to seep into his practice as a writer (Verstörung, a.ka. Gargoyles, the first of Bernhard’s novels completed after his settlement in Ohlsdorf, is still a remarkably outward-looking text; even its most mentally alienated figure, Prince Saurau, derives much of the material for his confabulations from the immediately outside world, which he is enabled to survey thanks his castle’s privileged position at the top of a tall hill) but once it had, its influence was marrow-deep and irreversible. Beginning with Midland at Stilfs and The Lime Works, the typical Bernhard novel or story centers on a single person, a couple, or a small group of people living in rural isolation and experiencing only occasional and usually contentious contact with other people in the neighborhood and beyond.
But quite apart from its reverberations in his work, there is something that must be established—that is to say, made both crystal-clear and public—about Bernhard’s dunning, at least to the mind of any Bernhard fan who wishes, as I do, to think of him as no less of a “great guy” than Jack Bach—namely, that it was at least initially motivated by genuine alimentary necessity. From the mini-memoir My Prizes, we know that Bernhard enjoyed very little financial security during his first three years as an author for Insel, the years that witnessed the publication of Frost and Amras1, as well as the composition of Verstörung—that at the beginning of this period his principal income-source was a gig as a beer-truck driver and that his Lebensmensch, Hedwig Stavianicek, however much spiritual succor and encouragement she may have afforded him, was certainly no sugar-momma, because Bernhard writes of both being lent a sum of money by her and scrupulously repaying her every schilling of the loan, a repayment that, along with the cost of a car that he rendered unresellable by accidentally wrecking it immediately after purchase, seems to have wiped out all his savings, including his honorarium from the Bremen Prize. This meant that the repayment of the loan from Unseld,and hence the mortgage on the house in Ohlsdorf, along with his remaining living expenses, had to be covered by fresh revenue, and from the outset of his financial involvement with Unseld, Bernhard seems to have envisaged all such revenue as originating from his work as a writer for Unseld’s publishing firms. That he was not legally justified in envisaging such a financial dispensation seems pretty clear from both the ad-hoc, short-term character of his early contractual arrangements with Unseld & cos., and the piddling remunerations attached to them. Whether he was morally entitled to kvetch about these sums’ alimentary insufficiency (e.g., “Don’t you realize every living human being has got a belly? He’s got to fill it; it’s just that simple.” [Letter No. 46; 7.11.68]) is what the reader is doubtless expecting me to term an open question, especially if, like me, he or she is a writer who plies his métier diligently despite having never made enough money from it to line his own belly with a diurnal packet of Cheetos, let alone fill that belly. And yet I don’t think it is an open question at all: I think, to the contrary, that Bernhard was not only entitled but positively obliged to give Unseld hell unrelentingly in these early years. Why? Well, first of all because Bernhard’s argument in favor of Unseld’s obligation to afford him complete alimentary support is simple and, from a laborer’s point of view, and as a statement of what he deserved, incontrovertible: writing, he says, is more taxing and time-consuming for him than any so-called manual trade he has every plied or ever could ply, and so he deserves to be remunerated for it at least as lavishly as he would for plying the lowliest of such trades (he instances “chopping down trees,” i.e., becoming one of those woodcutters who turn up time and again in Bernhard’s writing from Frost onwards and who of course supply the title and central motif of one of his most illustrious late novellas). Unseld counter-argues by citing the sales figures for Samuel Beckett. If, Unseld, argues, even Beckett, “the Number 1 out of all the authors at Suhrkamp Publications” (Letter No. 47; July 15, 1968) has not managed to sell more than roughly 10,000 copies or “an average of 10 copies per month” (though I am no statistician, I believe I am entitled to be bemused by this calculus, inasmuch as at the rate of 10 copies a month, Beckett and Suhrkamp Publications, then 62 and 15 years of age, respectively, would have taken 83 years to sell 10,000 books), then he, Bernhard, indisputably a much lower author on the Suhrkamp totem pole (exactly how much lower is hard to say; in 1980 he described himself as Suhrkamp’s “Hard-Working Hired-Writer No. 27 [n. 1 to Letter No. 407; June 16, 1980]), has no right to gripe about having sold only 1,800 copies of a single book (viz. Verstörung). But this pseudo-defense evades Bernhard’s challenge. For that challenge was not couched in relative terms: Bernhard did not complain that he was being poorly paid for a Suhrkamp-Insel author; he complained that he was being poorly paid in relation to the amount of labor he had expended and what he needed in order to make ends meet, and Unseld’s cited figures for Beckett prove nothing but that that Suhrkamp’s Number 1 Author is being screwed by Suhrkamp-Insel nearly as royally as Thomas Bernhard is. From the picture adumbrated by this meta-commercial exchange, it is difficult not to conclude that by the late 1960s Suhrkamp-Insel (meaning, by this point, effectively Unseld solus) was both exploiting its authors and abdicating its self-appointed (and also universally acknowledged and applauded) remit as the preeminent upholder of literary culture in the German language. Naturally the reader seduced from the outset by Unseld’s unflappably calm and indulgent tone will be inclined to demur that it was hardly Unseld’s fault that neither Beckett’s nor Bernhard’s books were selling like solid-gold hotcakes, because the market was apparently uninterested in spending as much on a copy of Verstörung or The Unnamable as on a solid-gold hotcake, and there is no way of holding a gun to the head of the market, no way of making it purchase goods that it is defiantly disinclined to buy. To this objection there are two irrefragable counter-objections, both supplied by Bernhard himself within the text of the Correspondence. The first is that the response of the market is essentially completely determined by advertising (as Bernhard points out to Unseld on several occasions), either directly through notices in the newspapers, or indirectly through the distribution of review copies to influential critics. Would-be readers axiomatically cannot be persuaded to buy a book, no matter how spectacularly crowd-pleasing it may be, whose existence is completely unknown to them. From the Correspondence we do not learn how intensively or extensively Insel/Unseld advertised the first edition of Verstörung, but from the meager sales figures we may infer that the campaign on the book’s behalf was not very aggressive. To this the Unseld sympathizer will naturally demur that a publishing company’s advertising budget is finite and that no single author can possibly receive as much publicity as he or she deserves and requires when this finite budget must be apportioned among dozens or perhaps even hundreds of authors per year. But to this demurral the Bernhard sympathizer may in all enlightened partiality demur (and incidentally supply the second of the two abovementioned counterobjections), “Why did you sign on all these dozens or perhaps even hundreds of authors if you were incapable of giving them the publicity they deserved and concurrently paying them enough to make ends meet?” The reader who is offended, amused, or exasperated by Bernhard’s barrage of dunning should be prepared to entertain the notion that it is at minimum counterpoised in point of objectionability by a stonewall of Unseldian silence on matters about which it would not have been unseemly in him to be a touch garrulous. (As the famous American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt has hazarded, although bullshit is preeminently a mode of talking, some forms of silence may likewise be manifestations of bullshit.) Although from very early on, Unseld is both inquisitive and encouraging about Bernhard’s productivity as a writer, at no point in the correspondence does he initiate any discussion of Bernhard’s financial situation from a Bernhard’s eye (or belly) point of view; at no point does he treat him financially speaking as anything but his current or prospective debtor. He never says anything remotely to the effect of, “Is what we’re paying you (not lending you but paying you) enough? If it isn’t, I could recommend you to this or that person who needs such and such sort of work done and could pay you such and such an amount by way of making up the alimentary shortfall.” It is as if he simply assumes from the beginning that Bernhard is independently wealthy, or at least well-to-do enough that he can afford to regard a five-thousand deutschmark royalty as a purely symbolic garnish to an established, reliable, alimentarily sufficient income. “Of course,” the Unseld sympathizer will demur, “even if Unseld had offered to hook him up with any supplementary income-source, Bernhard doubtless would have rejected the offer with a brusquely tendered two-finger salute, for after all, he never tires (or perhaps, and rather, tired) of boasting of his high-mindedness in eschewing journalistic hack-work.” To which I must counter-demur that on at least one occasion Bernhard sought out such a supplementary income-source from Unseld, and this in proposed exchange for performing a job even less illustrious than journalistic hack-work, namely proofreading (Letter No. 55; 12.16.68). Unseld’s response was typically succinctly smugly peremptory: “Proofreading is of course a job in itself. The readers [i.e., Insel-Suhrkamp’s house editors] would presumably not look with a kind eye upon such competition” (Letter No. 56; December 19, 1968). These two sentences tidily encapsulate everything that is wrong—either unpardonably mendacious or equally unpardonably blinkered–about Unseld’s comportment towards Bernhard qua writer of unquestioned merit (yes, unquestioned even back then) and indefatigable industriousness. In them he as good as says, “Our readers are proper workers, who desperately need the money they make from proofreading, and moreover deserve this money as loyal and dedicated employees of our firms; you, on the other hand, are an artist, a de facto non-worker who should count himself privileged to be recognized as one whether or not he is paid a single red groschen for his pseudo-efforts, and who in any case would not have come as far as he has in the practice of his metiér if he had not had some inexhaustibly tidy sum of dough squirreled away somewhere; moreover you are an Einzelgänger, a lone wolf-cum-free agent who can set off for pastures new any time he wants [he said or says through gritted teeth as he tightened or tightens his choke-hold on the hapless author via an option clause effectively prohibiting him from ever again publishing a book under the imprint of any other publisher].” In these sentences, as in virtually every other sentence in which he treats of alimentary matters, Unseld reminds me of no one as much as the director of graduate studies at the university humanities department in which I was enrolled in the mid-1990s, who was reportedly self-righteously outraged when somebody asserted to him that the graduate-student teaching assistants in his department, who then received stipends of $10,000 per year, were living in poverty. He surely could not have been unaware that an income of $10,000 per year was below or at best imperceptibly above the official poverty line (yes, even way back then, whippersnapper), and so his outrage must have been founded on the assumption that none of the students was actually living off that or those $10,000, that all their core living expenses—rent, groceries, and car insurance (for all of them but me seemed to have cars)—were being covered by their parents, parents who needs must have been well off enough not to sweat an annual allowance outlay of, say, $15,000 (for I seemed to be the only graduate student in the entire university who was living in a barely cat-swing-worthy $400-a-month garret apartment). In reaction to this anecdote, the Unseld sympathizer (along, perhaps, with many a Bernhard sympathizer) is doubtless exclaiming, “Self-regarding nonsense!” in 1940s Lionel Barrymore-esque peevish consternation (if not quite in unnamed 1990s DGS-esque self-righteous outrage). But in reacting thus he or she is showing himself or herself to be not only most unfair but also most imperceptive, because in the present context the anecdote, for all its tangential relation to yours quasi-truly, has an upshot that is anything but navel-gazingly nominalistic, in intimating to the present-day Anglophone reader that the Bernhard-Unseld correspondence as a whole (i.e., considered as inclusive of not only Bernhard’s letters to Unseld, or even these letters plus Unseld’s to Bernhard, but of all the letters plus all the footnotes) deserves to be regarded as something more than a quaint time-and-space capsule of so-called literary culture in the German-speaking world of 26-to-55 years ago, that indeed it contributes substantially to the adumbration a certain constellation of so (and rightly)-called high-cultural production in the Western world as a whole since the middle of the twentieth century. The constellation amounts to this generalization: that over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, as the managers of high-cultural productive concerns came ever-more slavishly and lavishly to ape the comportment of their counterparts in the bigger, flashier, and more technically rationalized sectors of the economy (e.g., mass-cultural production and big-ticket consumer goods production), the laborers in or for these concerns were paradoxically but also quasi-inevitably required to adopt a comportment ever-more reminiscent of that of the gentleman-amateurs and fawning patron-seekers of the old, pre-industrial age of cultural production.2 A mini-diatribe by Bernhard, recorded by Unseld in one of the dozens of travel journal-excerpts that crowd the correspondence’s footnotes and equal or perhaps even exceed the letters themselves in point of sheer verbal bulk, furnishes us with the anchoring star of the constellation: “What [, Bernhard asked,] was left of the entire history of Suhrkamp Publications now anyway? What had become of the heroic intellectual figures of the fifties and sixties? He said that he had calculated that we put out roughly 300 titles per year. That that was truly horrifying, that we were by no means a boutique purveying intellectual goods, but rather a factory turning out miscellaneous commodities. That no author could put up with it” (n. 8, Letter No. 484, August 7, 1985). Here Bernhard first nostalgically evokes Suhrkamp’s foundation in the early 1950s as a small or “boutique” press with a tiny roster of authors hand-chosen on account of their merits as “heroic intellectual figures” capable of re-imbuing the Nazi-compromised German language with ethical purposiveness. It was presumably in the hope of joining this select group of heroes that Bernhard applied to Unseld for publication in the first place, and that while still an Insel author he perpetually pestered Unseld to add one of his books to Suhrkamp’s most prestigious catalogue-strand, the Bibliothek Suhrkamp. Then he flashes forward to the Suhrkamp of 1985, a “factory turning out 300 titles”--i.e., “miscellaneous commodities”—“per year.” When (implieth Bernhard) one is on the roster of such a publishing house, one cannot regard oneself as a hero—at least not qua author on that roster—because the whole raison d’être of the enterprise has ceased to be heroic (because in turn there cannot be as many as 300 books worth publishing in a single year), and because one’s work is compelled to vie with hundreds of “miscellaneous commodities” for the attention of the publisher and for the honoraria and advertising funds at his disposal.3 It is prevailingly in the light of this radical change in Suhrkamp’s constitution over the course of 30 years that Bernhard’s lambasting of Unseld’s aggressive hyping of Martin Walser’s 1985 novel Breakers must be understood. In an August 7, 1985 note in his private diary (styled by him the Chronicle), Unseld notes that he and his employees are preparing to launch Breakers “as a bestseller” (Letter No. 485; November 26, 1985; n. 1). “Bestseller” is in English in the original, and Unseld’s use of this bit of modish Anglo-Saxon trade jargon makes it plain that by now he either regards himself outright as a promulgator of mass-edition airport novels or at least takes no small amount of aesthetic pleasure in fancying himself one. And so when Bernhard later that month declares, “When I think of what a gigantic advertising budget you assiduously lavished on Mr. Walser’s book over a period of three months, when you did virtually nothing for my Old Masters despite the fact that you know that advertising is almost all that matters nowadays, it really is enough to eradicate every trace of my pleasure in collaborating with the firm” (Letter No. 485), he is not simply giving vent to a personal grievance—or, at any rate, at the very worst, he is giving vent to a personal grievance founded not on the ignoble passion of envy but rather on the often-noble passion of jealousy: he is incensed by the advertising deutschmarks lavished on Walser’s book not because they have been lavished on somebody else and he craves them, but because he believes that they belong to him by right, as an author of a superior work manifestly not geared to airport newsstand shoppers, and that they have been robbed from him; hence he is protesting under the auspices of a disinterested principle—the principle that a “boutique” publisher should be drawing the public’s attention exclusively to books that are worth reading. There is of course a boilerplate culture-peddling businessman’s rejoinder to such complaints (not that Unseld himself rejoins it), namely that it is only thanks to the success of his low-quality but high-selling titles that the culture-peddler is able to publish high-quality titles at all, that the airport novels effectively subsidize the “boutique” novels, and I am not disputing this rejoinder as a description of how things actually work in the world of culture-peddling (incidentally, I have chosen this term in preference to “publishing” because I have seen it adduced in scads of other contexts than publishing, notably that of the recorded music industry), but I object to the simple reflexive assumption that this is how things must work in that realm and that a summons to making things therein work as they ought to is simply to be dismissed out of hand—as it is dismissed time and again by Unseld in his letters to Bernhard, occasionally through the citation of irrelevant in-house accounting data, but largely through silence. Two sentences from one of Unseld’s travel journals (n. 1 to Letter No. 215, November 3, 1972) succinctly capture both the objectionable nature of the entire dispensation and Unseld’s oblivion of this objectionability. “He [i.e., Bernhard] said that the firm [i.e., Suhrkamp] looked to him like a kind of co-op, and that he had no interest in joining its membership rolls. In plain terms: he is expecting special treatment.” A co-op by its very nature is an organization in which everyone must regard his or her fellow members as equals and entitled to as large a share of resources as oneself. But any writer worth his or her salt must regard his or her own work as superior to the work of the majority of other writers and therefore cannot but demand “special treatment” of the sort exacted by Bernhard. A cooperative outlook on cultural production, according to which everybody is simply assumed from the outset to be contributing to a single endeavor and to be an equally meritorious contributor thereunto, is inimical to the very impetus to cultural production, which consists in the will or desire to say not an utterly fungible brick-like word on one out of thousands of utterly fungible brick-like subjects, but the definitive word on the all-encompassing subject of subjects.4 What Adorno said of the mutual relations of artworks holds equally true of the mutual relations of producers of artworks (and probably of all even vaguely artwork-like objects as well): they wage all-out war to the death against one another (at least qua producers of such objects, although not necessarily—I hasten to add!—qua complete empirical subjects-cum-biological organisms: I can’t seriously imagine Bernhard taking out a contract on Martin Walser or Peter Handke).
“Be all this as it may (and it may very well not be),” remonstrates the Unseld sympathizer, “it cannot be denied that at some point along the way—and not very far along the way at that—Unseld began attending to Bernhard’s financial interests if not adequately by his own princely self-measure, then at least quite handsomely by the average Austrian’s standards, for beginning in ca. 1975 Bernhard’s account balance at Suhrkamp was reliably in the black, and he ceased to have any financially defensible need to ask Unseld for loans or supplementary advances. And you mustn’t forget that at his death Bernhard left an impressive collection of real estate comprising at least five properties—the house in Ohlsdorf (valued at two million deutschmarks), the other house (the ‘Krucka’) in the Gmunden area, a house in Gmunden city proper, a house in Ottnang near Castle Wolfsegg of Extinction fame, and an apartment in Vienna.” I shan’t deny the substantial and ever-rising uptick in Bernhard’s financial fortunes, but I will (sic) submit that to judge by the portion of the financial record made visible by the Correspondence, Unseld’s contribution to this uptick—at least his direct contribution to it—was slight. “Who then was responsible for it? I don’t see anybody else here.” That is because you think of Bernhard principally as a novelist and habitually overlook his achievement as a playwright, a sub-métier he took up only in the very late 1960s, hence after all the above-cited squabbling over the alimentary self-sufficiency of Gargoyles. Again to judge by what we can learn from the Correspondence, Bernhard’s income from his plays outstripped his income from his prose texts by a factor of about ten to one, inasmuch as from 1970 onwards he wrote at least as many plays as extended prose works, and the honoraria associated with the plays tended to be five-figure ones as against the four-figure honoraria associated with the prose works. Formally, the proceeds from these plays came into Bernhard’s hands via Suhrkamp and hence under the stewardship of Unseld, but in material terms they were mostly the fruits of Bernhard’s cultivation of relationships outside of Suhrkamp—notably with Josef Kaut, a longtime director of the Salzburg Festival, and the firebrand German theatrical director-cum-general manager Claus Peymann. From Kaut he derived a guarantee of prestige, and from Peymann a guarantee of controversy–both of which amounted to a great deal of attention from the press and consequently a competitive market price for the plays, both as playhouse-spectacles and as source material for television broadcasts by government-owned media organs in both Austria and West Germany. By 1981, Bernhard was negotiating for telecasting rights one-on-one with “the Almighty” director general of Austria’s main broadcasting network, the ORF, a man whom he describes as “a friend of my work [who] is forcing it through” (n. 1 to Letter No. 426; March 2, 1981).
This “friendly” disposition of the director general of the ORF to Bernhard, like Bernhard’s professional intimacy with Kaut, points up something that may not come as an entirely welcome revelation to Bernhard’s Anglophone readers—namely, that B.’s relations with the Austrian national government were by no means always as antagonistic as some of the later novels and novellas—especially Woodcutters and Old Masters—would lead one to believe. To be sure, from the beginning, at least the official beginning,6 Bernhard was generally hostile towards and contemptuous of the Austrian common people or Volk: one thinks, for instance, of his relentless and remorseless depiction of the inhabitants of Weng, the fictional setting of his first novel, Frost, as a passel of intellectually and physically stunted dog-eaters. But such an attitude was by no means incompatible with a certain measure of respect for the Austrian national government qua trustee of the loftier achievements of Austrian nationals both dead and living—that is to say, not only the achievements of Mozart, Grillparzer, Stifter, Freud, Wittgenstein, et al., but of Thomas Bernhard qua continuer of the tradition established by Mozart, Grillparzer, Stifter, Freud, Wittgenstein, et al. Certainly one cannot account for the acutely aggrieved tone of Bernhard’s letter to Unseld in the wake of the unanimously hostile response to his acceptance speech for the 1968 Austrian State Prize (Letter No. 43; 3.16.68) but by way of the assumption that at this point he still expected the functionaries of the Austrian national government to be much more cultivated and culturally broadminded than Johannes and Johanna Linzertorte. And by this point, his friendly relations with certain members-cum-associates of that government had already become quite personal—a great deal more personal, indeed, than his relations with Unseld ever would be. I am referring here to his close friendships with his Gmunden-area neighbors Alfred Maleta, president of the Austrian national assembly from 1961 through 1975, and his wife Gerta. Gerta figures quite prominently indeed in the footnotes to the Correspondence thanks to her numerous à deux excursions and holidays with Bernhard (they went to Portugal together at least once, airplane trouble alone prevented them from attending the London premiere of The Force of Habit together, and Bernhard brought her along as his date for a dinner with Unseld and his family [Letter No. 339; July 7, 1976, n. 1]) and her undisguised service as a model for several Bernhard characters—the general’s wife in The Hunting Party, the president’s wife in The President, and the narrator Maurau’s mother in Extinction. Of course, none of these portraits is particularly flattering, and Maurau’s mom is a veritable monster; and in the only letter in the correspondence in which he mentions Mrs. Maleta, Bernhard complains that she is “so inescapably stuck in the diplomatic-cum-industrial quagmire that I often find it difficult to keep my composure around her” (Letter No. 393; 11.26.79). Be all this as it may and was, Bernhard must have seen something of value in her, because he remained on excellent terms with her until his death. (In the Correspondence, she is last seen “sedulously” fielding flak against Bernhard’s Heldenplatz alongside Unseld on Austrian television in October of 1988.) I don’t wish to make too much of all this fraternization with the locally high and mighty, or indeed anything at all of it qua exposer of Bernhardian political clay feet. I do, however, wish to argue that our new awareness of this fraternization allows us Anglophones to impart a bit of chronologically inflected nuance to our sense of Bernhard’s celebrated hostility to the Austrian political-cum-cultural industrial establishment, to perceive that like his affective disposition to the Austrian people, his affective disposition to this establishment was very much one of love-hate until fairly close to the end, and that it became one of hate-hate only after the multi-pronged judicial assault on Woodcutters, an assault that does after all antedate Bernhard’s most famous gesture of contempt and defiance to the Austrian state–his prohibition of the selling of his books and the performance of his plays in Austria for the duration of legal copyright. To be sure, Bernhard had been sued for libel twice before, first in 1956 by the director of the Salzburg State Theater on account of a disparaging review in a newspaper, and again in 1970, by (comically enough) the editor of that same newspaper, on account of a magazine article referring to its intervening degeneration into “a public digest of perverse Catholic-Nazistic vacuity” (see Letter No. 104; 1.25.1970, and n. 1 thereof). But these suits had been occasioned by public statements issued by Bernhard in his own name, and so they had not impinged on the core of his métier as a writer of avowedly non-factual (one shrinks from calling them fictional, in the light of Th.B’s aversion to the German equivalent of fiction, Dichtung) works. The legal actions launched against Woodcutters, on the other hand, were occasioned by references to a non-existent person, a Mr. Auersberg, in a work that had been presented to the world as non-factual. Of course, as Bernhard implied in his 1984 interview with Krista Fleischmann, the character of Auersberg, like all the other personages in Woodcutters, had been modeled on a specific person, in this case the composer Gerhard Lampersberg, but that (so Bernhard) was quite beside the point: Bernhard had not called the Lampersberg stand-in Lampersberg (or, indeed, any other name beginning with Lamp), and so the empirical-cum-legal Gerhard Lampersberg had been imperviously shielded from the general book-buying public’s identification of him with that stand-in. That Lampersberg did not appreciate this (in both senses—that of not understanding it and of not being grateful for it), that he regarded the wounding of his vanity alone as a sufficient pretext for lodging a libel suit, was ridiculous; but that the Austrian judiciary should countenance such ridiculousness, to the extent not only of entertaining the lawsuit rather than rejecting it out of hand, but further of having the book confiscated from the bookstores by the State gendarmerie, was (so Bernhard) an abomination, and even more significantly, an ill omen for the public fortunes of his future writings. In the light of the potentially permanent repercussions of the Woodcutters lawsuit, Bernhard’s demand for the non-distribution of his books within Austria seems only fair, and it most certainly does not redound to Unseld’s credit that he had next to no sympathy with Bernhard’s request for an extension of the distribution-block to subsequent publications. His expostulations in favor of lifting the block for the publication of Old Masters are so lame and unconvincing that they cannot but have been motivated by naked commercial self-interest: “Your weapon is the pen, and you wield it brilliantly and influentially, and that is really what your life is all about. A block on distribution would counteract this: your readers would be offended; your enemies would merely gloat. People would cease to be able to understand this; in hindsight they would even regard our demeanor leading to the block as a gimmick. In short, we would both expose ourselves to globally resounding ridicule” (Letter No. 484; August 7, 1985).
This passage is but one of scads in the Correspondence that eloquently give the lie to any notion of Unseld as some sort of calmly disinterested cultural pontiff indulgently pardoning Bernhard’s sinfully petty egoism, in showing that Unseld could be quite pettily egoistic in his own right (a right, incidentally, far less redeemable than Bernhard’s, given that according to Unseld’s own lights Bernhard was but one of many, and at minimum dozens, of stable-authors contributing to his prestige as a publisher). One thinks in this connection of, for example, his petulant, Shakespearean-bastard-like, repeated carping about Bernhard’s choice of Verstörung as a novel-title, on the grounds that it would put off shoppers for books to present as gifts (Letter No. 47; July 15, 1967), and, above all, of his interminable hounding of Bernhard to wrest the publication rights to his autobiographical writings from the Salzburg-based firm Residenz and reassign them to Suhrkamp. Here, Unseld may have been technically within his rights given that Bernhard had an option clause written into his master-contract with Suhrkamp, such that he should have offered the autobiographical works to Suhrkamp before offering them to Residenz. But in the light of the puniness of their three-hundred-odd-page cumulative bulk as against the several thousands of Bernhardian pages issued by Suhrkamp and Insel, together with Bernhard’s firmly reiterated (and substantiated) pledge to publish all his other writings through Suhrkamp, Unseld’s obsessiveness about them seems gratuitous. And it is particularly painful to witness this obsessiveness swelling in direct proportion to the precipitous deterioration of Bernhard’s health in his final years, and to observe, indeed, that Unseld’s last written communication to the by-then-visibly-moribund Bernhard is a telegram excoriating him for his supposed “disavowal” of Suhrkamp in earmarking one more manuscript for Residenz, a telegram whose off-breaking “i can’t go on any longer” (Letter No. 523; November 24, 1988) flagrantly out-Bernhards Bernhard in point of prima-donna-ish melodrama. (Incidentally, the Correspondence could not possess a more gracious, poignant, or aesthetically satisfying ending than the second and concluding sentence of Bernhard’s reply to this telegram, “I was surely one of the most uncomplicated authors you ever had” (Letter No. 524; November 25, 1988) [note that he writes not the present-perfect have been but was—simple past, the tense of an already-dead man].)
Finally, to round out the Unseld-bashing section of these notes, it must be mentioned that for all his veneer of Fortune-500-executive-esque professional businessman-ism—the multi-week intracontinental jet trips and multi-year intercontinental ones, the business letters dictated in absentia, the hermetically sequestered team-building sessions with sales representatives, the professionally nuts and bolts-orientated speeches at international trade fairs—even at the most gross strategic level Unseld, the self-styled Alfred A. Knopf of Germany, seems not to have run his publishing firms in the most commercially prudent fashion, seems, in particular, to have been more than a bit of a seat-of-the-pants man commercially speaking. Most strikingly in this regard, he was in the habit of advertising books as immediately forthcoming not only before they had been definitively corrected and typset, or even before he had received complete manuscripts of them, but often even before he had received more than the briefest or vaguest of outlines of their contents. Whether this is or ever has been the usual modus vendendi of publishers in Germany is entirely beyond my ken. I am reasonably sure that it is not the usual modus vendendi of American publishers of Unseld’s stature, who typically (at least so I have heard) plan for a time-gap of more than a year between receipt of a manuscript and the publication of the consequent book. But even supposing this modus vendendi conformed exactly to the practice of publishers from Gutenberg and Caxton onwards, all it would prove is (or would be) that every publisher in history had been a complete moron, because it is plainly a moronic MV to practice when one is in the business of selling emergent intellectual wares, whose successful and timely readiness for publication is no easier to pin down than the birth of a baby conceived two days ago, or, to do greater justice to the precariousness of the event, the landfall date, position, and category strength of a brand-spanking-new tropical weather system. As Samuel Johnson famously said regarding Shakespeare’s conclusion of II Henry IV with the overhasty promise of another play including the phenomenally popular Falstaff in its dramatis personae, “It is dangerous to sell the bear which is not yet hunted, to promise to the publick what [you] have not yet written.” But at least Shakespeare did not (at least as as far as we know) go so far as to inundate London with bills advertising the next and still-unwritten Falstaff play; moreover, as both commissioner and prospective author of such a play, he was always in a position to know what along the desired lines could be produced and what could not. Unseld by contrast, like Wotan in the Ring, repeatedly and perversely places himself in the position of exacting from others—namely, his authors—the fulfillment of obligations that have no material basis but his own will, inasmuch as he is after all the sole publisher and shot-caller at Suhrkamp-Insel. One might have thought this would be a highly embarrassing and delicate position—the position of having to hector authors to hurry up, get their asses in gear, and express-mail one manuscript copy by the shed-load when one has absolutely no knowledge of how close the works in question are to feasible completion. And yet (or perhaps, rather, “unsurprisingly”), once in this position, Unseld nags and badgers the authors with all the shameless peremptoriness of a chain fast-food restaurant employee’s nightmare customer, as though for these seeming-mere-scribblers it is always merely a question of performing an operation as simple and mechanical as emptying a bag of pre-processed goop on to a kitchen range. To be sure, or, at any rate, far from uncertain, there may have been certain authors on the Surhkamp and Insel rosters whose productivity benefited from such peremptoriness from the publisher, who indeed really would have been content to let months if not years go by without putting pen to paper in the absence of a proverbial sub-posterior kindling. But Thomas Bernhard? Give me (and I hope scads of fellow-Bernhardians) a break. This is/was a guy who has/had shown himself to be compulsively productive as a writer from the get-go, who has/had never had fewer than four projects in the works at one time, who “wr[ites] because of course he is always writing, because he simply writes” (Letter No. 46; 7.11.68), who has declared that in doing “work nothing but work” he “enjoy[s] his lifelong pleasure” (34; 5.18.67). And yet this is a guy whom Unseld in January 1969 has/had the effrontery to urge to rush to completion one of his longest and most ambitious novels (The Lime Works) in time for a fall release date merely because Uwe Johnson’s and Günter Grass’s likewise prospective novels “most likely will not be ready by then” (Letter No. 60; January 23, 1969); in other words, because chance (perhaps in collaboration with two authors whom Unseld has tactlessly revealed to be more important to him than Bernhard) has contrived to leave a gaping hole in his fall schedule. It is/was amazingly gracious and indulgent of Bernhard to pass over this adjuration as he does/did rather than sending off (as the present writer flatters himself he would do/have done) a telegram reading gaping hole in fall schedule your problem not mine. And don’t even get the present writer started on Unseld’s interminable copy-dunning on ostensible behalf of his (ostensibly) insatiably swag-hungry sales department; his declaration time and again, season after season, and year after year, that he “must have something for the sales representatives” (see, e.g., Letter No. 112 (April 16, 1970) [vis-à-vis The Lime Works]; Letter No. 288 (March 27, 1974) [vis-à-vis Correction]; Letter No. 465 (February 3, 1984), n. 1 [vis-à-vis Woodcutters], et ad nauseam cetera). Here, as a apropos of Unseld’s kvetching about the schedule-lacuna, the present writer is inclined to think that Bernhard was too lenient to Unseld, or perhaps (inasmuch as he seems never to have sent in a manuscript that he regarded as substandard merely for the sake of meeting one of Unseld’s deadlines) less resourceful in his own stonewalling than he might have been. What I mean is that in the light of his awareness of the ever-swelling pullulation of books in the Suhrkamp and Insel catalogues, and hence of the ever-dwindling share of his own contribution to the commercial good fortunes of the two firms, he might have dashed off to Unseld a missive reading something to the effect of, “I know these chaps, blokes, dudes, and/or dames, gals, and ladies need dough like anyone, but presumably they’ll be getting plenty of it from sales of books by Handke, Walser, Frisch, et al.”
But considerations of textual economy alone have caused me to dwell on Unseld’s failings at such length, for it is obvious that he must have had some signally impressive virtues to keep such an exacting author as Thomas Bernhard on his roster for a quarter of a century. The most impressive of these virtues was without a doubt his generosity with his time and his person. Unseld first visited Bernhard at Ohlsdorf in August 1969. From then on the two of them met—either there or at places comparably inconvenient to Unseld, a Frankfurter—on average about four times a year, sometimes for only a few hours at a stretch, but more often for an entire solar day, and occasionally even for two or three days in succession. If Unseld was comparably generous in bestowing his presence on Suhrkamp-Insel authors of comparable stature to Bernhard (e.g., Beckett, Bachmann, Handke, and Eich, to name the first four that come to mind), he must have had a traveling schedule fit to rival that of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and it is a wonder that he was ever in Frankfurt long enough to brush his teeth. Only less slightly less impressive is his forbearance towards the substance of Bernhard’s writing, his principled refusal to request, let alone demand, any changes to Bernhard’s manuscripts as an effective or binding condition for their publication.7 Even revisions prompted by considerations of continuity and usage, revisions that a less conscientious (and, to my admittedly publicationally inexperienced mind, utterly typical) publisher-cum-editor would have silently incorporated into the galleys, he is careful to run by Bernhard beforehand. So, for instance, regarding the manuscript of the play Immanuel Kant he asks him why he prefers Columbia Universität to the English form Columbia University (Letter No. 354; October 3, 1977), and merely points out as one of the “things [that] have caught our eye,” that the newspapers read by Kant are reported as older in one piece of dialogue than in another (Letter No. 355; November 4, 1977). Both Universität and the inconsistently dated newspapers were retained in the published version of the play. Only on one occasion did Unseld earnestly try to persuade Bernhard to make a substantive change to a manuscript, to a passage in the novella Walking in which one of its quasi-eponymous walkers asserts that people should be put to death by the State for having (or, as this character terms it, “making”) children. Unseld appreciated that this was not necessarily a sentiment endorsed by the author, but he was still dismayed to find it being articulated by a character presented in a partly sympathetic light. The mere designation of the begetting of children as a heinous crime (so implied Unseld) was in principle morally redeemable, because in allowing the malefactors to live it left open the possibility of their repenting of and amending their conduct, and moreover left the agency of this repentance-cum-amendment in their own hands. But in ceding to any State the right to deprive such malefactors of their lives one was less chastising the malefactors than apotheosizing that State in allowing it to preempt and nullify the malefactors as moral agents: “I do not wish to see any State, under the auspices of either the left or the right, exercise the function of an executioner. The State may for my own good take possession of all my other rights, but in my opinion the determination of whether a human being is to live or die should no longer lie in the hands of any State. Regardless of the circumstances.” (Letter No. 161; July 15, 1971) “In my view,” wrote Unseld, the death penalty-recommending passage was “the only passage in the text in which it abdicates its otherwise significant moral and philosophical high ground” (ibid.). Here, in laudable contrast to certain already-cited episodes in his side of the Correspondence, one sees Unseld’s commitment to the original mission of Suhrkamp shining through and carrying the day, for the locus classicus and Ultima Thule of a State wielding power of life and death over its citizens was of course the Austro-German State under the Nazis, from whose depravations Peter Suhrkamp had (as mentioned before) hoped to rescue the German language in founding his publishing firm. In urging Bernhard not to include the passage recommending the death penalty for procreation, Unseld is effectively saying, “Don’t allow yourself to be associated with the ethos that you implicitly rejected in affiliating yourself with this publishing firm; don’t be a Nazi.” But for all—or perhaps even because—of the vehemence of his opposition to the death penalty-recommending passage on anti-Nazistic grounds, Unseld pointedly refrains from dictating the obliteration of this passage: “[P]lease don’t get angry with me because you think that I am going to insist on your doing it. Beyond this point, it is you who will have to be convinced, you who will have to decide this question, not me. I am being true to that unwritten law here at the house, the law that states that the author has the last word. But I am electing to fight it out with you up to that last word” (ibid). An unwritten law is of course perhaps as often as not a toothless law, a law that can be briskly whisked into retroactive nonexistence as soon as it is invoked in the hope of eliciting a decision that the lawgiver would deem detrimental to his material interests, and in the absence of any firsthand knowledge of Unseld’s correspondence with other Suhrkamp-Insel authors, one (i.e., I) cannot know how toothful this law actually was—one cannot know how consistently Unseld let the author have the last word when he found that word objectionable for whatever reason. For all that, to my mind this single instance of editorial forbearance sets Unseld morally head and shoulders above at least most if not all other heads (and shoulders) of culture-purveying organizations that I have ever heard tell of; for I indeed cannot think of a single such organization that was ever so little mindful of its public image, or so credulously trusting of the juridical efficacy of the formula “The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of Organization X,” that it allowed one of its charges to voice a sentiment by which it (or its head) was sincerely, disinterestedly, morally appalled (as against merely pseudo-morally repelled or embarrassed)—in short, an organization in which the publisher’s (or other purveyor’s) word was not invariably the last one. Bernhard’s reply proved that Unseld had not gone amiss in remonstrating with him about the offending passage: “I am…going to abolish the death penalty in Walking because the maximum penalty meant in it is a much bigger one” (Letter No. 162; 7.11.71). Of course, here Bernhard is not even hinting at anything to the effect of Good save, Siggie! I can’t believe I let that howler slip in, because I certainly don’t want to be mistaken for a Nazi any more than you do. Indeed, he seems to wish to give the impression that Unseld’s remonstrations had no effectual influence whatsoever on his decision to abolish the death penalty; he seems to wish to make it seem that removing the reference to the death penalty was entirely his own idea, and that in removing it he was ramping up rather than toning down the severity of his censure, that he altered the text solely because on reflection he had concluded that death was too good for the child-makers, that they deserved to pay a “much bigger” penalty than forfeiting their lives. To enter into speculations as to the identity of this “much bigger” penalty “were to consider too curiously” by half—most likely Bernhard never had any notion of any such penalty in mind and the whole business about it was just a lot of macho posturing, but macho posturing that he doubtlessly felt not only entitled but even obliged to indulge in, for to have thanked Unseld for drawing attention to his crypto-Nazism would have been to acknowledge that his publisher had made an essential formative contribution to the definitive text of the novella, that Watten was not a purely Bernhardian text, that it was, say, .001% Unseldian in provenance. And in Bernhard’s metaphysics of the ego, as every reader of Extinction, The Loser, or Wittgenstein’s Nephew knows, the instant one acknowledges so much as a scintilla of subjective heteronomy, the moment one acknowledges that the smallest particle of what one is has been derived from the mind of another, one is always at best a hop and a skip—i.e., not even a full hop-cum-skip-cum-jump—away from being utterly destroyed.
In ascribing to one item in Bernhard’s share of the Correspondence a metaphysical outlook substantially identical to that evinced in Bernhard’s official corpus, which is to say the aggregate of texts that he allowed to be published under his own name, I have effectively both broached and definitively weighed in on the question of whether his letters to Unseld ought to be added to that corpus. But before I go on to defend this questional in-weighing of mine, I should like to say a bit more about Unseld qua publisher of Bernhard and Suhrkamp and Insel qua chief Bernhardian publishing houses, if only because shooting the breeze in a breezy tone on quasi-gossipy matters is ever so much more enjoyable and ever so less contentious than hermeneutically involved ranking and sorting. So then, to pursue my breeze-shooting in chronological order: the reader informed at least to the quarter-assed extent that the present writer is on the way things are done in publishing in the present-day Anglosphere will doubtless have found something anomalous—or perhaps more precisely, amateurish—in the first letter of the Correspondence, Bernhard’s blanket supplication for consideration (Letter No.1 [obviously]; October 22, 1961), namely, that it is addressed to a publisher by an author directly rather than by an agent writing on behalf of an author qua client. Whether the quasi-profession of literary agency was established or widely practiced in the German-speaking countries in the early 1960s is beyond the ken of the present writer, who can, however, firmly testify that to the best of his recollection there is no mention of literary agents or literary agencies at any point in the Correspondence—at least not by Bernhard in connection with his own work. But this is not to say that Bernhard did not benefit from intermediaries in his dealings with his publisher. His inaugural letter received the sort of treatment a present-day Anglospheric reader expects such a letter to receive from a publisher: Unseld palmed it, along with its attached manuscript (that of an even-now unpublished novel), off on to a house reader (a.k.a., in certain circles, editor), Karl Markus Michel, who subsequently wrote Bernhard a none-too-encouraging rejection letter, a letter that all but went as far as to say, “Don’t quit your day job (i.e., of driving beer-delivery trucks).” The second letter in the correspondence dates from October 17, 1964, nearly three years after the first one; it is from Unseld to Bernhard, and in it the publisher is unabashedly currying favor with the author, doing his best to assure him that “It is most important to me to set out on” a certain “new path in concert” with him. What has happened in the meantime? How, or by what means, has this former absolute untouchable been transformed into a woo-worthy commodity? The obvious answer to this question is that in the meantime Bernhard has had a novel, Frost, published by Insel, but this answer merely raises the question (of) who was the main person batting for Bernhard at Insel before Unseld’s acquisition of it, and Ockham’s razor suggests that that person was none other than somebody whom Unseld mentions at the very beginning of both of the second letter’s brief paragraphs, namely, Annaliese Botond, one of Insel’s readers (i.e., senior editors),5 a woman who initially mediated and kept close tabs on all of Bernhard’s transactions with Unseld (she was present alongside him during the abovementioned first encounter, the one in which Bernhard secured the DM 40,000 loan) and continued to facilitate many of them right up until her resignation from Insel in September of 1969. A particularly commendable example of such late-in-the-day facilitation is to be found in a July 11, 1968 letter (excerpted in a footnote) wherein she first avers that the DM 2,000 honorarium quoted by Unseld in his most recent letter to Bernhard is a thousand deutschmarks shy of the amount he has quoted in house, and next urges Bernhard to insist on receiving the higher sum: “A curt rumble of Ohlsdorfian thunder in answer to the lightning from the skies of Frankfurt is very much in order” (n. 1 to Letter No. 45; July 9, 1968). The “rumble of Ohlsdorfian thunder” turned out to be the above-discussed seminal Letter No. 46, in which Bernhard took Unseld to task for the general alimentary insufficiency of the sums remitted by Insel-Suhrkamp. But Botond, quite above and beyond being a hard-bargainer, and unlike many a literary agent (read: most of the smattering of literary agents I have heard of) was also a sensitive and sympathetic reader of her unofficial client’s writing, as her all-too-brief but insightful afterword to the prevailingly uninspiring critical reader Über Thomas Bernhard makes plain. And that Bernhard was quite appreciative of her services in every capacity is evident in a pithy yet extremely magnanimous postscript to one of his letters to Unseld: “My reader A.B. is the post to which I am glad to tether my sheep, the entirety of my authorial vocation” (Letter No. 70; 5.11.69). So Annaliese Botond’s influence on the vector of the first third or so of Bernhard’s career was undeniably hefty. And yet the present writer, who in all modesty (if that is the right word for the attitude in question) believes himself to be one of the Anglosphere’s more ardent and sedulous Bernhard fans, had never heard of her before reading Letter No. 2 of the Correspondence. (Indeed, before the Correspondence he knew barely anything about Siegfried Unseld, who receives only two mentions in Gita Honegger’s 2001 biography of Bernhard.) And so as I plowed or forged or what have you further ahead into the correspondence, into the triple-digit letters and the 1970s, I was ever hopeful of becoming acquainted with figures of parallel unknownness-cum-influentiality chez Bernhard, and of gaining fresh and substantial insight into Bernhard-associated figures of whom I was already aware. Of figures of the first sort the only person mentioned in the last ca. two-thirds of the Correspondence who can vie with Botond is Unseld’s secretary Burgel Zeeh (née Geisler), whose telephone messages occupy an ever-increasing share of the footnotes and who eventually, in a sense, crowds Unseld himself out of the Correspondence, at least as a recipient, via the routinization of her already frequent telephone conversations with Bernhard into punctiliously scheduled fortnightly events explicitly conceived as substitutes for epistolary exchanges between publisher and author. The extent to which this Zeehification of the Bernhard-Unseld long-distance relationship was owing to Bernhard’s indisputably increasing attachment to Zeeh, to Zeeh’s disputably increasing attachment to Bernhard, to Bernhard’s equally disputably increasing weariness of Unseld, to Unseld’s equally disputably increasing weariness of Bernhard, or to some blanket, undiscriminating, non-specifically Bernhardward-directed change in Unseld’s manner of dealing with authors, is impossible to determine, as the editors, perhaps quite rightly (depending on the extent of their obliviousness) provide scant-to-nonexistent commentary on such tectonic shifts in the lie of the Bernhardian-Unseldian land. Bernhard never ceased singing Zeeh’s praises to Unseld, but whether these praises were elicited by anything beyond the traditional secretarial virtues of promptness and good organization is almost impossible to determine. I say almost because there are certain moments, for example in her telephone-message précis of Extinction (n. 3; Letter No. 462; August 7 ), in which she seems to evince a more than superficial acquaintance with Bernhard’s work, but because she attributes the substance of the précis to Bernhard she may after all merely be evincing an exceptionally resourceful mastery of DEK shorthand. Running at a very distant second to Zeeh in this category is Elisabeth Borchers, one of Botond’s successors on the editorial staff (and a fairly illustrious poet), with whom Bernhard exchanged a smattering of extremely charming letters (all extensively quoted in the footnotes) on a Th. B.-edited collection of the poems of his fellow-Austrian senior contemporary Christine Lavant. These letters hint—albeit merely hint—at a friendship of great tenderness and mutual sympathy, and I very much hope they do not exhaust the extant Borchers-Bernhard correspondence, that theirs was not a virtually exclusively viva voce friendship. As for familiar figures from the Bernhardian Landschaft: most conspicuously, one does get an eye’s earful of chatter about Claus Peymann, but none of it radically transforms the sense of his relationship with Bernhard that one gets from other sources—television and newspaper interviews with Peymann, Bernhard’s interviews with Krista Fleischmann, &c. At most it gives this sense a slight, two-or-three degree turn towards the colder side of the thermostat, in suggesting that Peymann and Bernhard were not quite as tightly conjoined a duo as one had previously supposed, and concurrently intimates that at least initially, as a scandal-provoker and Nestbeschmuzter, Bernhard was taking many of his cues from Peymann. So, for instance, vis-à-vis the above-mentioned “Emergency Light Scandal,” it becomes clear that Bernhard’s opposition to any performance of The Ignoramus and the Madman in which the emergency lights were not extinguished in the final scene was merely an aftereffect of Peymann’s refusal to stage the play under such conditions rather than the issue of a preemptive plan devised by the playwright and the director in concert; inasmuch as before Peymann’s refusal Bernhard makes no mention (at least not to Unseld) of the conformity of the performance to his stage directions and indeed seems indifferent to every aspect of the production apart from the quality of Bruno Ganz’s performance in the role of the doctor. Then there are occasional references to Peymann’s high-hatting of Bernhard, either by speaking out of turn about him or not keeping him abreast of his plans. The first note to Letter No. 520 (August 26, 1988) affords examples of both species of Peymannian snubbage: in it he is reported (by Unseld in his record of Bernhard’s oral statements) to have not “stood by” Bernhard after making some irresponsible remarks in an interview for Die Zeit and to have “not been in touch with him in two months” on the eve of the beginning of rehearsals for Heldenplatz. Revelations about other familiar Bernhardian figures are even spottier and less revealing. On the basis of the abundance of testimonials of Bernhard’s admiration of and intimacy with Ingeborg Bachmann (the most signal of these being the lavish and affectionate praise he bestows on the character of Maria, her stand-in in Bernhard’s magnum opus and last published novel, Extinction), together with the two writers’ shared publication by Suhrkamp and Unseld, I was expecting her to figure fairly prominently in the Correspondence—not, to be sure, in any worldview-transforming way, but at least as a significant offstage presence: I expected, for example, to find Unseld repeatedly asking Bernhard to convey his regards to her and repeatedly vice-versa. And at minimum I certainly expected one or the other of them to have conveyed condolences, or words of mutual commiseration, immediately after her death. But in the Correspondence all we hear of the living Bachmann is in a proxy invitation by Unseld to visit “a house at the seaside…that has been placed at her sole disposal for the month of July” (Letter No. 161; July 15, 1971). And the earliest we hear of her death is a full year afterwards, when Bernhard irascibly reports on having “received a telegram from Vienna [presumably specifically from a newspaper or other media organ sited there] to make a so-called statement on Ingeborg Bachmann” (Letter No. 298; 7.2.74)—i.e., on the occasion of the first anniversary of that death. To be sure, Bernhard’s rueful remarks on the context of the invitation, his having severely scalded his hands and thereby potentially secured himself the same kind of lingering, painful demise Bachmann suffered, make it plain that a loss has been keenly felt, that he feels a kind of posthumous solidarity with her as a fellow burn victim; nevertheless, one wishes that it had not taken such an unhappy coincidence to elicit a registration of her irrevocable absence. Bernhard’s other great Austrian literary contemporary, Peter Handke (I trust that notwithstanding Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize, it is not contentious to assert that Bachmann, Bernhard, and Handke are the three greatest figures in late twentieth-century Austrian literature), is mentioned rather more often (as is perhaps understandable, given that unlike Bachmann he did not predecease Th. B. by 16 years and indeed is still alive today), but the greater referential frequency does not amount to a more illuminating picture of a literary acquaintanceship or enemyship or whatever sort of relationship theirs actually was. That Handke initially admired Bernhard’s work unreservedly we may infer from his rapt review of Verstörung and Suhrkamp’s incorporation of excerpts of this review in its advertising campaign for a re-release of the book (see n. 2 to Letter No. 89; September 18, 1969). That this admiration was at least partly reciprocated we may gather from Bernhard’s inclusion of Handke as a prospective fellow-editor in his and Unseld’s ultimately abortive plans for a revival of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s library of Austrian classics. And as late as 1975, Unseld reports that although Bernhard and Handke “have of course been increasingly polarized by the Austrian environment” (whatever this means [see n. 2 to Letter No. 465; February 3, 1984]), he and Peymann spent a delightfully convivial evening in the company of the two writers, “who took a shine to each other [cf. the original German, ‘fanden Gefallen aneinander’]” (n.1 Letter No. 316; April 30, 1975)—an odd locution more befitting the first encounter of two total mutual strangers than of two people who presumably were/had been introduced to each other more than a decade earlier. Still, the ultimate upshot of this passage is that as of then the Bernhardian-Handkean Verhältnissesgeist was prevailingly sympathetic rather than antipathetic in tone. In 1980, though, Unseld reports that during a meeting with Bernhard in Salzburg (also a favorite spot for Unseld’s meetings with Handke, who lived there), “Handke’s name was never mentioned and was off-limits for mentioning” (n. 1 to Letter No. 407; June 16, 1980) without explaining why it was off-limits for mentioning. This comment is the great divide in Bernhardian-Handkean relations, at least as registered on Bernhard’s end; from this point onwards, with one exception,8 Handke is never mentioned by Bernhard (either directly in his letters or according to Unseld) but as the biggest (along with Martin Walser) of Suhrkamp’s overrated authorial parasites, an ever-more-corpulent giant leech incessantly sucking away publisher’s resources that would be more virtuously devoted to Thomas Bernhard. The extent to which Handke became aware of this invective, and consequently the extent to which any such awareness catalyzed his brazenly cavalier dismissal, in a 1986 magazine interview, of Bernhard’s writing as something that “isn’t literature” and “seems to me to be having an almost detrimental effect on art,” because it did not “tackle problems of narrative or form at all” (n. 1 to Letter No. 501; November 25, 1986) is or are indeterminable by any evidence furnished by the Correspondence. Equally indeterminable thereby, and downright mystifying all around, is Unseld’s justification for taking Handke’s dismissal of the Bernhardian corpus to task not only on the grounds that this dismissal made Bernhard’s already contentious relationship with the world even more difficult (this is or was, after all, only two years after the juridical brouhaha over Woodcutters), but also on the grounds that “I would prefer not to see any friendships shattered” (ibid.; a quotation from a December 30, 1986 letter from Unseld to Handke). On reading this, one in effect wonders wherefrom in heck’s name Unseld, of all people, at this late hour, is deriving this notion of a still-extant unshattered friendship vase bearing the inscription “P.H. & Th.B BFF.”
I personally, or for that matter impersonally, am inclined to attribute Bernhard’s irrevocable disaffection with Handke to the Wim Wenders film Wrong Move, whose 1975 release year places it conceivably above the mambo stick of the abovementioned delightfully convivial H.-and-B. including evening. This film, for which Handke wrote the screenplay, features among its cast of characters a none-too-physically-prepossessing Austrian poet named Bernhard, who spends a good portion of his onscreen time declaiming verses that are patently meant to be regarded as execrable because none of the other characters pay(s) any attention to them. As to the question (of) what in Bernhard’s output or comportment as a writer could have provoked Handke to satirize him so brazenly, in terms far more plausibly legally actionable than those for which Bernhard was sued by Gerhard Lampersberg [in connection with which suit, incidentally, Bernhard’s seeming total public silence on Handke’s lampooning of him does him great credit, in suggesting that he was able to take even heavier helpings of obloquy than those he dished out], I can only suppose it can only have been what Handke must have regarded as a turn to or heightened concentration on the corporally macabre, inasmuch as the onscreen Bernhard’s verses are dominated by imagery involving viscera, internal organs, and excreta, imagery that puts one distinctly in mind of, for example, the doctor in The Ignoramus and the Madman’s clinically detailed monologic descriptions of postmortem examinations.
But of course this is all so much digressive, Correspondence-irrelevant gossipy chit-chat. And so to return to Correspondence-relevant gossipy chit-chat, as for example the meta-mention that simply must be made of the presence in the Correspondence of Bernhard’s so-called Lebensmensch, the widow Hedwig Stavianicek, who, although she is referenced in the letters themselves only a handful of times, figures quite frequently in the footnotes, most often as part of an explanation of why Bernhard is/was writing from somewhere other than Ohlsdorf or is/was unreachable there. Not to point too fine a point on it, and at the risk of seeming prurient—heck, who am I kidding?: in the brazen certainty of seeming prurient—I have to aver that the first and often also last question I ask as a Bernhardian when appraising a corpus of Stavianicekiana is, Does this make it any clearer whether Th. B. and H.S. were regular or even occasional co-coitionists? And as I am certain I am not alone in this respect, I might as well weigh in straight-away with my answer to this question vis-à-vis the Correspondence’s corpus thereof, and that answer is, Not really, although it does rather tend to reinforce one’s suspicion that they were. As early as letter No. 2, which is to say, October 7, 1964, we learn that Bernhard and Stavianicek spent more than two weeks together in the Croatian coastal resort town of Lovran; over the next several years there are several other references to Lovranian sojourns with Stavianicek, and in Letter No. 373, written on March 21, 1973, Bernhard calls his holidaying in Yugoslavia “a twenty-year-old tradition.” Far be it from the humble post-millennial transatlantic likes of me reflexively to ascribe my own cultural norms to a different somewhat legitimately so-called age and undoubtedly dubiously so-called culture, but where I come from (wherever that is), people who are not or have not been in the habit of coiting with each other do not tend to make annual visits to seaside resort towns in the sole company of each other. That said/having said that (to employ an absolute formula much beloved of the post-millennial transatlantic mobility), one must note that for the first decade-and-a-half of the Correspondence, Unseld consistently refers to Stavianicek as Bernhard’s aunt, in other words, by way of the formula that Bernhard habitually employed as the clumsiest, most dime-novelty store so-called beard for his transparently heterodox relationship with Stavianicek. So either Unseld was actually taken in by the imposture or he at least wanted to be on record as having been taken in by it. Suddenly in 1982, with the publication of Wittgenstein’s Nephew, the book in which Bernhard christens Stavianicek his Lebensmensch, Unseld begins referring to her by this tag and never again calls her B.’s aunt. This is entirely natural (or, as Bernhard would have said, naturgemäß), but it is somewhat disconcerting that Unseld never registered the change. If he had believed H.S. was B.’s aunt before, should his Chronicle not have recorded his astonishment on discovering that there was in fact no familial relation between the two of them? On the other hand, if he had never believed she was his aunt, should the Chronicle not have recorded his astonishment at B.’s confounded chutzpah in supposing that anybody ever could have taken him at his word that that was what she was?
“Who cares one way or the other? This is all so much gossipy flatus, so much trivial tittle-tattle, that has absolutely no bearing on our understanding of Thomas Bernhard’s oeuvre.”
In to-my-mind refutation of such remonstrations, I am of much of a mind simply to (re-)point the reader to the counterargument adduced in my essay Johnson du cote de chez Wilson vis-à-vis Proust’s assertion that “the ‘I’ that one encounters in the world is entirely separate from the ‘I’ that produces the work of art,” but insofar as I am under no illusion(s) that there is any overlap of interest in the Johnsonian-Boswellian sectors of this blog and the Bernhardian sectors thereof, I shall instead rehearse the argument and segue without warning into its applicability to Bernhard. In a verbal nutshell the argument amounts to this: viz that for all its perduring respectability, for all its status as doxa among all intellectual strata from the lower-middlebrow upwards, the notion of the separation of the “I” that one encounters in the world and the “I” that produces the work of art is historically conditioned and does not apply with equal watertightness to all milieus and epochs. In a milieu-cum-historical period such as that of the Belle Epoch, a milieu-cum-period awash in equally appealing incentives to introspection and public self-distinction, the art-producing “I” will perforce be of a radically different character from the “I” that one encounters in the world, because the two “I”s are required to perform, and indeed are sumptuously rewarded for performing, two radically discrepant sets of spiritual calisthenics. In this epoch-cum-milieu to be a beloved dinner-party raconteur like Henry James or Marcel Proust was an achievement in its own right but also a very tiring task that left little time for reflecting on, for example, the sedimented centuries of social existence that had made possible the fin-de-siècle dinner party. In a milieu-cum-epoch such as that of the developed West since the Second World War (I suppose one might as well call it the Laide Epoch), on the other hand, the art-producing “I” and the “I” that one encounters in the world are not mutually distinct, and cannot afford the luxury of pretending that they are mutually distinct, because the human individual is entirely too fungible an entity either to develop anything like a coherent spiritual regime or to benefit more than negligibly from its development (I deliberately write develop and development and not cultivate and cultivation because dans nos jours the very idea of agency inherent in cultivation has acquired a whiff of blasphemy). The core “fictional” works in the Bernhard corpus explicitly point up the mushiness, the mutual intra-and-extra-subjective bleedover, not only suffered but enacted by the would-be cultural producer in the late twentieth century. Their protagonists are forever trying, very much like Proust’s narrator, to tackle some grand intellectual project, but they are equally forever getting tangled up in distractions from this project–not distractions of the sort encountered by Proust’s narrator—demoralizing but spiritually enlightening amours and social encounters, distractions that in the long run prove highly nutritive of the project—but rather distractions that are risibly mechanical or bureaucratic, or mechanical-cum-bureaucratic, in character, distractions that lead to nothing, that do nothing but waste the protagonists’ spiritual energies, and of which the protagonists are often as much the instigators as the victims–e.g., buckling and unbuckling their shoes, rummaging through piles of dirty laundry, arguing with bank managers, lecturing shopkeepers on the fraudulently shoddy quality of their wares, &c.—this because subjectivity at its very core has become mechanized and bureaucratized, because the self-monitoring-computer-like compulsion to appraise the efficiency, functionality, and sustainability of the faintest velleity, of the weakest intellectual and volitional impulse, is part and parcel of what (in the phraseology of our mawkish puppy dog-stroking intellectual lumpen proletariat) it means to be human in our age. So much for the internal poetics of the corpus: now one, I, or we must consider the comportment of the producer of such a corpus in the light of both the state of affairs alluded to in the corpus and the self-revelations obliquely made by the corpus. A writer who in his or her works has laid bare the mental operations of the perpetually self-surveying “I” qua conduit of extra-subjective forces, who has laid bare his or her own alienated self-surveillance qua example of a universally devouring impetus to alienated self-surveillance, cannot get away with asserting (I do not write pretending, inasmuch as the epistemological tenability of the assertion as such has no weight here) that his or her so-called art, his or her written corpus, is a(n) hermetically self-contained realm unto itself, inasmuch as the in-its-own-right-self-surveilling mobility (a.k.a. the reading, or potentially, reading, public) will always regard the most degrading, the most heteronomy-indicative passages in that corpus as the most basal, fundamental attributes of his or her subjectivity, not only qua writer, but also qua voter, taxpaying citizen, bachelor/spinster-or-pater/materfamilias, renter/homeowner, etc.—as in a sense they are perfectly entitled to do, inasmuch as the writer, no less than each of themselves, is an ultimately fungible anonymous schlub bereft of any affiliation with anybody with the merest soupcon of world-historical wherewithal. He emphatically is not, say, Marcel Proust, son of the most illustrious surgeon in France, best chum of the widow of the most beloved opera composer in history, shoulder-rubber with a direct descendant of the principal architect of modern democracy and with an intimate of the late King of England. Rather, he is (say) Thomas Bernhard, grandson of an utterly obscure anarchist-turned-Volk-celebrating novelist manqué, former best chum of a long-since-dead composer of an utterly forgotten opera, seeming-paramour of a retired nurse-cum-utterly obscure painter, and shoulder-rubber of a celebrated philosopher’s nephew who ultimately amounted to nothing, who spent his last days memorably (thanks to Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew) filing papers in an office, and schlepping groceries from the market to a studio apartment. Such a writer has no choice, if he is not to be utterly destroyed (i.e., to be written off as just another late-twentieth century sod or schlub-cum-crank), but to present himself as his own best exegete and critic to every receptive pen and ear he happens to meet (with). He must relentlessly correct every erroneous or at least debatable reading of his work that has hitherto been tendered and do his level utmost to preempt future misreadings. Moreover, in his dealings with others in non-auto-exigetical domains—for example, the negotiation of honoraria—he must take care not to curb the most rebarbative elements of his habitus that he has disclosed in his official corpus, lest this entire corpus should be taken for a joke, act, or shtick. “But doesn’t this very no-holds-barred-ism tend to degrade the writer’s idiom to a joke, act, or shtick–to a ritualized exercise in self-caricature?” No, because unlike any sort of mere exercise, it brazenly courts material consequences; it has made no provision for a moment in which the evil enchanter’s scary beard, turban, and greasepaint will come off and he will show himself to be an entirely good-natured and reasonable bloke like the alleged rest of the alleged us. It is prepared to be treated exactly as what it openly presents itself to be. The locus classicus of such Bernhardian outfacemanship is perhaps his February 28, 1981 letter (No. 425) regarding Rudolf Rach, the off-and-on director of Suhrkamp’s theatrical publications division, a person who by then has unaccountably metamorphosed from being somebody whom Bernhard “[gets] along excellently with” and “a man of real worth” (Letter No. 173; 11.1.71) in his eyes, into Th. B.’s chief whipping boy and preeminent focus of paranoia at Suhrkamp. In this letter, Bernhard reports that according to “two visitors” to his house in Ohlsdorf, Rach has been “roaming all over the place as my full-fledged enemy, vilifying my work and therefore me wherever he shows his face,” including in the theatrical milieus of New York City, “at the very moment when, as I know for a fact, in America a significant boost to my work and to my entire development is beginning to build,” defames Rach as an espouser of the slogan “I am all for light-entertainment literature and loathe and despise everything highfalutin,” and hints at withholding all further manuscripts from Suhrkamp unless Rach is shown the door. Whether the Rachian vilification of Bernhard actually took place we cannot know because Bernhard does not name the two visitors, and because the editors do not footnote the mention of them. Rach himself, writing to Bernhard after Unseld’s reception of Bernhard’s letter, emphatically abjured the imputation of lowbrowism (“The only reason I left my [work as a dramaturge at a] theater…was to escape from that degenerate form of theater”), and at the same time more than tentatively conjectured to Unseld that Bernhard had concocted the entire episode, including the visit of the two informants, by way of securing higher honoraria from Suhrkamp (ibid. n. 2). As a rule one can expect to find epistemologically fuzzy passages in the letters themselves being at least partially clarified in footnoted excerpts from Unseld’s Travel Journals and Chronicle, mainly because most of the meetings documented therein were scheduled at least partly for the purpose of clarifying such passages for the correspondents’ own benefit(s). But in this case, there is no such clarification: in his notes on the pertinent follow-up meeting, Unseld merely reports that Bernhard reiterated the gist of his complaints about Rach in Letter No. 425 and adds, “It was a difficult conversation whose details I most certainly cannot repeat” (n. 1 to Letter No. 432; before March 24, 1981). My own impression is that the visitors were real visitors and that they more or less accurately conveyed the Stateside scuttlebutt on Rach, but that Rach, even by the visitors’ account, was by no means as categorically anti-“highbrow” or anti-Bernhardian as Bernhard makes him out to be in Letter No. 425. Most likely, it seems to me, Rach (had) expressed sentiments roughly consubstantial in tone with those that Bernhard attributes to Unseld by way of the anonymous “they” in Letter No. 417 (Nov. 1, 1980): “They say you have said that Peymann shouldn’t always be directing productions of Bernhard, that your firm has plenty of other authors in its catalogue.” Here, says Unseld, according to Bernhard, according to “they,” not that Bernhard’s plays are rubbish in any absolute sense, nor even that they are not first-rate plays, but merely that there are other plays by other authors that deserve their turn at the Jeffersonian-Peymannian bat. So here we are back at the notion of Suhrkamp as a “co-op,” and at the presumption on the publisher’s part that authors should always be sportingly willing to make way for other authors. Insofar as this position is one that, as we have seen, Bernhard was categorically committed to abjuring, he really had no choice but to treat Rach as his archenemy rather than as the sort of entity as which Rach probably quite reasonably saw himself, namely Th. B.’s ever-obliging but decidedly non-exclusive friend. If Bernhard had swept the visitors’ revelations about Rach under the rug, if he had diplomatically behaved to Rach as if though he believed Rach to be utterly and exclusively committed to his plays, he would not only have been behaving in a non-Bernhardian manner, but also have effectively ceased to be Bernhard. If, on the other hand, Unseld had stood behind Rach to the extent of striking Bernhard from Suhrkamp’s roster of authors, Bernhard would have remained Bernhard even though he would then have lacked a publisher. For not only the mind but also the oeuvre of Bernhard, a foolish consistency proved to be not a hobgoblin but a Godsend, and it was and is only thanks to the unremittingly preemptive if often seemingly foolish blows he dealt on this oeuvre’s behalf that its integrity (aesthetic, metaphysical, ethical, younameit-al) could be safeguarded during his life and that this integrity has held firm since his death.
And inasmuch as a goodly proportion of these blows were struck during meetings with Unseld, meetings whose minutes were preserved by Unseld and transmitted to us by the editors in their footnotes, I am perforce compelled to argue that these minutes must also be regarded as part of the Bernhardian corpus proper. Admittedly, any argument to this effect is bound to come across as more than slightly barmy, inasmuch as Bernhard himself did not pen the minutes and the utterances attributed to him in them were after all merely attributed to him by Unseld and therefore seem prima vista to belong exclusively to the Unseldian corpus. But I would advise any would-be institutionalizer of the present writer attentively to re-consult certain indisputably literary works in the core of the Bernhardian corpus—certain prose works that are manifestly not memoirs and that have generally come to be known in the Anglosphere as novels or novellas—Frost, Gargoyles, Correction, Walking, The Lime Works, Der Untergeher/The Loser, and Old Masters—before ringing up the non-lepidopteristic butterfly net-wielding dudes. In none of these works, he or she will notice, is the figure who has ostensibly committed the entire screed to paper the figure of central interest—although, to be sure, he is almost always a figure of more than negligible interest, and sometimes, and in particular in Der Untergeher/The Loser, he exerts quite a powerful fascination in his own right—and so the words of that figure of central interest, a figure that I have elsewhere termed the Geistesmensch, employing a term coined by Bernhard himself (albeit probably not with such figures exclusively in mind), may never be regarded verbatim as words ever actually spoken by him. For all this epistemologically preemptive obliqueness, the quasi-amanuensis never seems to manage to accede to a position of epistemological sovereignty; the reader never senses that the Geistesmensch is ever at his mercy, that the quasi-amanuensis has ever even felt, let alone fruitfully succumbed to, the temptation to make his record into something more or other than a stenographic transcription of the Geistesmensch’s ravings; mainly, so it generally seems, because he is too busy maintaining the delicate integument of his own subjectivity against the relentless newtonial (i.e., measured in newtons) onslaught of the Geistesmensch’s undertow (a term recurrently cropping up in the footnotes of the Correspondence, as it is an encapsulation of Bernhard’s prose idiom much favored by certain critics quoted therein). The Geistesmensch always remains the sole critical center of gravity, and an ineluctable one, perhaps less a star than a black hole, around which the quasi-amanuensis is unremittingly helplessly orbiting and into whose bottomless all-destroying anti-maw he is always in danger of being irretrievably drawn. In short, for all his complete detachment from and indeed complete obliviousness of the compilation of the screed at hand, the Geistesmensch always ultimately emerges as its effective author. The same may be said of Unseld’s minutes of his conferences with Bernhard: they were all penned exclusively by Unseld qua amanuensis, and yet the governing genius of them is consistently and indisputably Bernhard qua Geistesmensch.
Perhaps my argument has not been convincing; perhaps now that it is concluded the reader is once again reaching for the speed-dial button connecting him or her to the local loony bin (“This sort of thing happens more often than you would think,” he or she blasély intones); or perhaps, though vehemently disagreeing with me, he or she does not believe that I am beyond the reach of rational persuasion, in which case he or she says to me, “You seem to be attributing some kind of supernatural, and indeed well-nigh-divine degree of agency-cum-pleniscience to Bernhard, as though you believed he had been feeding Unseld his observations in advance of their recording via some sort of one-way telepathic link. For assuming Bernhard was not possessed of sensory powers beyond those of an ordinary human, he could not have fully or even approximately read Unseld’s mind during these conferences; consequently he could not have preempted Unseld’s reflections on him; consequently Unseld qua would-be author must ultimately have remained beyond his epistemological reach, and consequently (and conclusively) Unseld must be regarded as the sole author of the minutes of these meetings with Bernhard.” I am in fact according Bernhard no powers beyond those at least in principle attainable by the ordinariest of ordinary humans, although I concede that in practice they probably have not been attained by very many humans; or, rather, I concede that although they may very well have been attained by a great many humans, few of those great many have been so ruthless (or, as Bernhard would put it in his native tongue, rücksichtlos) as openly to exploit their possession of such powers. Take (yet again) Proust for an example. Adorno at least skirts the penumbra of an articulation of this eminently naturally attainable pseudo-psychic quality when he says that P. “spares the reader the pleasure of thinking himself cleverer than the author,” and Proust himself gets even closer to articulating the nature of this quality (even if presumably out of modesty he eschews naming himself as an exponent of it) when he says that “a great work of art must create its own posterity.” In Proust’s case this was a posterity that he already imagined as not only post-aristocratic but post-bourgeois, a mass audience of “working electricians” and other “workmen” who would be interested in his chronicle of the evanescently resurgent Belle Epoque aristocracy precisely because that milieu was so foreign to them, because “workmen are as inquisitive about princes as princes are about workmen” (see Time Regained). To envisage this future readership and build it into the text of his novel did not require superhuman powers of clairvoyance; it required, merely, an attentive eye to the trajectory of the world, a rare but by no means unprecedented ability to extrapolate a broadly accurate and comprehensive sense of what all people would be like in the future from what some of them—the cinemagoers, the sports enthusiasts (like his principal female character, Albertine, the cyclist, and the amateur golfer Octave, modeled on Cocteau, perhaps the most successful mid-twentieth century massifier of the avant-garde), the Dixieland freaks—were already like in the present. For Bernhard, a writer who, as we have already seen (or, at any rate, as I hope you have already seen), was obliged to practice his art without the confines of his literary corpus proper, to transform himself into what one may term a quotidian gestural artist, this recuperative-cum-projective work had to be done in the present and vis-à-vis the people with whom he was obliged to associate in day-to-day life. Like Jimmy Durante in “I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord,” he did not enjoy the luxury of waiting for posterity to salute him. So he had no choice but to behave consistently like his own Geistesmenschen and in consequence his interlocutors had no choice but to behave consistently like the comparatively low-profile official narrators of his novels and novellas even when producing their own versions of their encounters with Bernhard. They had no choice because like these narrators, they had a more or less conventional and circumscribed official function to fulfill in the world—be it the selling of insurance policies (like the narrator of The Lime Works) or the selling of real estate (like Moritz in Yes and his real-life model and counterpart Karl-Ignaz Hennetmair) or studying mining at the University of Leoben (like the doctor’s son in Gargoyles), or indeed the publication of German-language literary texts—like Siegfried Unseld. Of course, Unseld’s subjective life presumably was by no means exhausted by his official function, but the same can be said of all of Bernhard’s low-key framing narrators—for all the reader knows, they may very well be the life of the subjective party in some other setting, but here, in this setting, the one-man salon of the Geistesmensch that is a Bernhard prose text, they never can be anything but the real estate agent, the insurance salesman, the mining-student, etc., for that is all they ever will be in the eyes of the Geistesmensch, and painful though such a reflection may be to the conventional gourmandizer of correspondences (nay, painful though it is to the present writer qua such an unabashed gourmandizer), who yearns to regard every epistolary double act as the Story of a Friendship, it would seem that Thomas Bernhard qua round-the-clock Geistesmensch-cum-quotidian gestural artist never allowed himself the luxury of regarding Siegfried Unseld as anything more or other than a publisher. But the present writer qua Bernhardian cannot but feel relieved that Th. B. never did allow himself this luxury, for had he done so, he would have debased himself to the sub-intellectual lumpen-proletarian level of the typical late twentieth-century (so-called) literary author; a figure who, after the manner of Joseph McCarthy bumptiously glad-handing his victims in the Senate corridors on the grounds that his body-and-soul-destroying attacks on them had been purely a matter politics, peremptorily insists on having it both ways on the epistemological, ethical, and dramaturgical fronts; who has the Botoxed effrontery to ask us to believe that the ever-recurring marionette show performed in his novels is affording us insight into the lives of real people, only to insist, no less peremptorily, once he steps out from behind the micro-proscenium, that his own marionette-ic twitchings and jerkings are the spontaneous outpourings of a perfectly autonomous will.
Even supposing the argument about the canonicity of The Correspondence to have been settled in favor of its inclusion, one must still consider the question of its degree of essentiality to that corpus. I know there are those who favor some sort of post-Copernican view of the components of artistic corpora, who believe that every moment, every word, note, or brush-stroke of an artistic corpus must be as central to that corpus as every other word, note, or brush-stroke therein; and at times I find myself figuring in their fraternity-cum-sorority; nonetheless, out of sympathy for one’s fellow mortals with a limited fund of time at their disposal, who are always grateful to know where to begin, continue, and end with a given author (and whose gratitude thereunto must be heeded especially punctiliously vis-à-vis an artistic corpus of such formidable bulk as Bernhard’s) I feel duty-bound to specify what I am at least inclined, in my least post-Copernican moments, to regard as The Correspondence’s place or site in the Bernhardian cosmos. I am inclined to regard that place or site as lying about as far from the center as the plays, which is to say farther out than the shorter novellas (e.g., Walking and Midland in Stilfs) but nearer than the interviews and occasional journalistic pieces. The Correspondence deserves especially high marks for its inclusion of at least a half-scad of first-rate pieces of Bernhardian invective—for example, the above-mentioned rant against Rach, and the also-abovementioned account of the reception of Bernhard’s Austrian State Prize acceptance speech, an account which for the present writer’s money equals and surpasses, respectively, its counterparts in Wittgenstein’s Nephew and My Prizes. And Bernhard is often also at his most coruscatingly irascible, his most trenchant and witty, in Unseld’s journal entries, as in his account of being twice “left in the cold” (Letter No. 441; before January 28[, 1981]; n. 1) by a pair of Salzburg’s cultural bigwigs, or in his dismissal of Stanislav Lem’s servility to the Austrian cultural minister in a prize acceptance speech: “Lem could not have crawled any farther up the esteemed minister’s ass” (Letter No. 490; April 2, 1986; n. 2). Nevertheless the Correspondence is disappointingly thin on a certain sort of epistoliana that one rather expects by default in any exchange of letters between two intelligent and reflective people over such an extensive span of time, and its few bits of this sort are on the whole rather prosaic and not very intellectually flattering. I am basically thinking of patter, chit-chat, and holding-forth about people and events in the news. To be sure, precious little of this stuff goes a long way; and to be further sure, Bernhard himself explicitly espoused an authorial ethos relentlessly and remorselessly opposed to topicality (q.v. a certain stricture on contemporary literature promulgated by the narrator’s father’s Jewish friend in Gargoyles), and as I have already plumped for the inclusion of the Correspondence in the Bernhardian canon, to the extent that I am a committed Bernhardian I can hardly fault it overmuch for being insufficiently topical. At the same time, as a committed Bernhardian, I value Th. B.’s work not least as a sort of seismograph of the unprecedented horribleness of existing in the late twentieth century, and insofar as phenomena reported on in the news tend to participate in this horribleness, either qua symptoms or qua harbingers thereof, they—and in particular the more cataclysmic among them–deserve at least some intermittent notice from Bernhard qua letter-writer. A dearth or absence of such notice tends rather to betoken a kind or degree of Biedermeier complacency stridently at odds with the unabashedly apocalyptic tenor of the remainder of the Bernhardian corpus. I can hardly fault Bernhard (or Unseld) for not weighing in on celebrated world events of their day that for all their celebratedness did not in point of Weltgeist-alteration amount to a hill-let of beans [“Hey, how about that moon landing, Siggie?”; “Did you catch Hendrix’s closing number at Woodstock, Tom? Far out, dude!”] or even on rightly called tragedies (e.g., the Kent State shootings) that had little if any bearing on everyday life in Central Europe. But a fleeting bit of garment-rending and hand-wringing over the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, would have been not unwelcome. Complementarily, one is rather put off by the disproportionately rapt attention Bernhard devotes to events that at least in North American hindsight seem utterly inconsequential and forgettable. The Alpine Ski Championships and the 1980 Winter Olympics serve him as topical metaphorical vehicles for his authorial vocation (Letter No. 358, 1.23.78; and Letter No. 399, Feb 20, ’80; respectively) and corollarily suggest that he was more of a typical male TV sports-gourmandizing couch potato than his television-free prehumous official corpus may have led one to believe. (Those who cock a skeptical eyebrow at the notion of Bernhard as any kind of television viewer should see Letter No. 121 [7.5.70], in which he mentions having watched a broadcast of excerpts from his play A Party for Boris.) And then there are his euphoric postally mediated high-fives to Unseld on political events that deserved (at least in North American hindsight) little more than a smiling yawn—the victory of the Social Democratic Party in the 1972 West German parliamentary elections (Letter No. 219; 11.22.72) and of the Socialists in the 1981 French general-assembly elections (Letter No. 433; 6.21.81).9 I know that people who actually participated in these events—to the extent that being alive and Continental European during them constitutes participation therein—will tell me that I just don’t understand what it meant to us to be free of the yoke of 18 thousand billion years of life under the Christian Democrats (?) and National Republicans (?), but I am uncowed by such parochially blah-blah-ish remonstrations, for I am by now old enough to have lived through four or five comparably momentous yoke-liftings (or re-settings) in American (and European) politics, and I never “slept an hour less nor ate an ounce less meat” on account of them, let alone written any congratulatory letters to people having no immediate concern in them. At the same time I have lost (i.e., did lose and continue to lose) a good many hours of sleep and ounces of ingested meat to what I have always regarded as an entirely rational fear of nuclear annihilation, a good many of these hours having been spent as a contemporary of the living Thomas Bernhard, but the Correspondence sadly tends to bolster the present writer’s long-held suspicion, based on a tiny scrap of monologue in Old Masters (i.e., “in the unlikely event of a so-called Third World War”), that Th. B. regarded the Bomb-threat as chimerical10 not only in virtue of its unmentioned-ness in any of his 200-plus-letters-strong contribution thereunto, but also in virtue of the celebratory tone he adopts (or is said to adopt by Unseld) whenever he (admittedly rarely) has occasion to mention the contemporary world qua host or engine of technical progress: “[He] once said that big bridges, power stations, and the opening moments of airplane flights are the secular descendants of the holy sanctuaries of yore” (Letter No. 363; May 8, 1978; n. 1); “[H]e regards the age in which we live as a magnificent one, as an age of transition” (i.e., implicitly but necessarily, an age with a future) (Letter No. 434; July 3, 1981; n. 1); and finally, during his last meeting with Unseld, “Life is wonderful, the world is magnificent, we live in a grand age” (Letter No. 524, November 24, 1988). To be sure, these outbursts of whiggishness are not far removed in tone or purport from the panegyrics to the pleasurableness or meritoriousness of being alive that one occasionally encounters in the prose works and interviews. But in those settings, the local light legitimately serves to offset the prevailing local darkness because the all-forestalling darkness of the global picture is taken for granted. If I assume that the world is headed for hell in the proverbial handcart or hand-basket, I can indulge in the occasional personal flight into euphoria as a hard-won hiatus or syncope in the otherwise unrelenting and rhythmically unvarying universal procession towards the abyss, or the equally unrelenting and rhythmically unvarying descent into personal despair as a synecdoche of this progression, but if I assume that humanity is basically on the right course and that all is getting ever-righter with the world, then my nostalgic lingering over the smell of the clothes of a now-deceased person dear to me or fulminating against the deterioration of my own body becomes axiomatically petulant and churlish, because the axiomatically appropriate course of action under such a providential dispensation is to contribute every last quantum of one’s energies to the ever-upward march towards the New Jerusalem, like some figure in a socialist-realist public mural. Speaking of both Jerusalem and whiggism, the most unsettling of all of Bernhard’s politically oriented utterances in The Correspondence is centered on Israel and seems to have been underwritten by the same whiggishly H-bomb-oblivious strain in his worldview that occasioned the remarks about power stations and off-taking airplanes and whatnot. “In Israel,” he writes, “I was always more or less depressed by that experiment that is doomed to failure; it isn’t a country that you can look in the eye and announce to it that it has an incurable illness and is going to die soon; it is not an organism of that genus. It is a beloved incurable in whose presence one must endlessly dissemble” (Letter No. 351; 6.27.77). Obviously the ultimate impetus to this remark is Bernhard’s laudable philo-Semitism, or in other terms his fervent opposition to the anti-Semitic legacy of Nazism. But even in 1977, it must have taken a great deal of naivety (or disingenuousness) to consider the merited prosperity of the Jewish religion and people as being perfectly consubstantial with the good fortunes of the Israeli state, and the notion of that state as a “beloved incurable,” i.e., as an entity doomed to perish on its extremely convenient lonesome, i.e., by being overwhelmed by its hostile yet geopolitically insignificant neighbors, and without eliciting a finger of demurral from any of the great powers, is one that could not have jibed with the geopolitical facts any later than the early 1950s. Certainly by 1977 it must have been clear that if Israel was indeed doomed it could not perish without concomitantly taking out a good chunk, if not the entirety, of the rest of the global human population. (This was, after all, already after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war [quasi q.v.], when the alert level of the United States’ nuclear forces sank (or rose) to its penultimate reading of D.E.F.C.O.M. 2.) Up to a point, despite my advocacy of the inclusion of the Correspondence in the Bernhardian corpus, I shy away from making much of anything of such gaffes or transgressions—and not (I hope) merely out of personal prejudice. For while the extension of the artist’s activity into so-called everyday life, an extension seminally instanced by Bernhard, may be exigent at this historical moment, it is undoubtedly too exacting of the quotidian gestural artist (at least at this early [albeit still possibly terminal!] phase of his participation in the Weltgeist) to expect him to be perfectly self-consistent, or to possess the traditional great artist’s full fund of that quality that E.T.A. Hoffmann termed Besonnenheit, meaning presence of mind. He must be allowed a certain amount of spontaneous free play, which will inevitably occasion a certain amount of inconsistency. It is only when the inconsistent elements start to become consistent in their own right, to form a passably reliable pattern, and at the same time resist dialectical assimilation to the significative tendency of the oeuvre as a whole,11 that they threaten to vitiate its integrity (or perhaps even and rather annihilate it, inasmuch as integrity may be regarded as an absolute quality like perfection). As of this writing, Bernhard’s apocalypse-denying whiggish moments do not seem to occur often enough to constitute such a pattern—in a word, they are elements of his oeuvre that repel me after the manner that Stephen Mitchelmore, taking up a remark by Unseld,12 has discovered to be characteristically Bernhardian, albeit not to the extent of vitiating (let alone annihilating) my Bernhardolatry.
Notes on the translation:
Dates are always presented in American format, i.e., with the name of the month before the date and year. This would not even be worth mentioning were it not for a small number of letters in which the correspondent has opted for the abbreviated dd/mm/yy format, a choice that will perforce occasion misdating in the mind of the casually browsing right-of-the-Pond reader who has not noted the long-formatted, and hence unambiguously left-of-the-Pond, dating style of the bulk of the letters.
German titles and other honorifics have for the most part (or possibly even the all part) been converted into present-day Anglophone quasi-equivalents. So “Herr Dr. Unseld” has become simply “Dr. Unseld” and “Herr Bernhard” “Mr. Bernhard.” “Fräulein” I have uniformly rendered as “Miss,” and “Frau” uniformly as “Ms.” even when the marital status of the woman in question is known.
The comma in the greetings of most of the letters has been converted into the colon required in Anglophone business-letter greetings; commas in the bodies of the letters and in the footnotes have been silently converted into semicolons where sense and Anglophone etiquette seemed to require this.
Vis-à-vis the nomenclature of the various publishing entities referred to throughout the Correspondence I have been obliged (though some may rather say that I have “taken it into my head”) to take some intrinsically debatable liberties—by this I mean not that the liberties themselves were unnecessary but that in retrospect a different system of liberties is quite legitimately entertainable. The whole ball of wax or can of spider monkeys or what have you starts with the English-naming of the two publishing firms headed up by Unseld—Suhrkamp Verlag and Insel Verlag. As near as I can tell, the norm in the Anglosphere is to refer to these organizations exactly as they are referred to in the Germanosphere, with the “Verlag” still attached and un-Englished. This seemed unacceptable to me inasmuch as “Verlag” is a common noun meaning (inter a few alia to be discussed below) “publishing firm” and is not peculiar to Suhrkamp’s or Insel’s self-designation but rather figures in the self-designation of virtually every publishing firm in the German-speaking world (so: Springer Verlag, Reklam Verlag, Samuel Fischer Verlag, etc.). Such being the case, it seemed propitious to render “Verlag” by what struck me as its most common sympatric analogue in Anglophone publishers’ self-designations, viz. “Publications.” (When Unseld participated in the foundation of an American branch of Suhrkamp he—or he and his co-founders—chose to dub the new organization Suhrkamp Publishers; but S.U. doubtlessly would have objected to the application of the plural number to an organization [i.e., the German Suhrkamp] at which he was the buck-stopper and sole shot-caller.) But both Unseld and Bernhard routinely refer to “der Verlag” when they mean Suhrkamp. (Insel seems never to have had that honor bestowed on it even in the early years when it was Bernhard’s sole publisher.) In this case, “Verlag” obviously cannot be rendered via “publications” and by all rights ought to be rendered by the abovementioned standalone most-common sense English term, viz. “publishing firm,” but because “Verlag” is not a compound noun and any English-speaker who repeatedly referred to a firm already understood to be a publishing firm as “the publishing firm” would be accounted pedantic to the point of lunacy, in these settings “publishing firm” has been abbreviated to “firm.” On top of all this, within Suhrkamp itself there are (or were) “Verlag”-dubbed entities that patently cannot be regarded as firms because they have no existence independent of the master-, mistress-, mother-, or father-firm. And so, in condign acknowledgment of their subordination, if also in unjust heedlessness of their quasi- or pseudo-autonomy, these “Verlage” have all been redesignated divisions. As for the other current Anglophone postpositive to “publishing” organization, namely “house,” I have employed it only in rendering those very few passages in which Unseld refers to Suhrkamp-Insel as a “Haus.”
The problem of register, i.e. degree of formality or informality, is often a nettlesome one for translators, and it is particularly nettlesome when working in a so-called target language, recent and present-day English, whose registration-markers are constantly (and to my mind, perniciously) shifting. If the translator opts (as most translators probably have always done) to employ the register-markers of his or her own micro-epoch, he or she risks giving the reader the misleading impression that the author or authors of the source text was or were just like us (or more likely just like you all, yinz, or you lot, as I am conscious of dwelling in an anachronistic linguistic time-bubble); if, on the other hand, the translator opts to employ the register-markers of the source text’s period of composition, he or she risks being accused of having produced a so-called museum piece that is bound to mislead the reader into thinking that the source-text’s author or authors hailed from another planet. (The other hand is just another version of the argument that Shakespeare’s plays should never be performed in doublets-and-hose[s] and stomacher’d dresses and always in sweat-suits and spandex onesies.) In English, the register-marker that has undergone the most pronounced shift in the past half-century is the contraction. Probably until about the early 1970s, contractions were regarded as semi-categorical no-nos (or nonos or no-no’s) in formal English prose—the prose of written speeches, discursive forms such as the essay and monograph, and business letters. The early 70s strikes me as a good terminus ad quem here because I recall neither having been warned against using contractions in any form of writing when I was an elementary school student in the late 1970s nor having seen very many contractions in the prose of the best-known American essayists active in the years immediately before my birth—Trilling, Barzun, Wilson, et al. Today the most common contractions seem to be fully normalized in every register of English prose on both sides of the Atlantic: it now seems to be perfectly good form in the most genteel or official setting to write of how anybody or anything, be he, she, or it a president, a philosopher, a nation-state, or a weather-system can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do something, even if in some quarters one might still be frowned at (or upon) if one opined in writing that such an entity should’ve done something or that it’d be better if he, she, or it did such-and-such. In modern German, contractions have enjoyed no such de-stigmatization, and even the newest and most informal German prose is wholly free of them. (Granted, I am not including reported dialogue or aggressively dialogue-mimicking forms of writing [e.g., internet forum chatemes] under the heading of prose.) Accordingly, in choosing whether to render, for example, ich habe as I have or I’ve, the translator from German must be guided entirely by his ear as an English speaker (and writer); his source language can provide him with no more guidance than a colorblind person can provide to a would-be colorizer of a black-and-white movie.13 Or, rather, it can provide him guidance only obliquely, via the source-text’s author’s use of other elements of language, elements that like contractions can serve (N.B. the qualifying can!) as vehicles or indicators of register-level. In German, the most telling of such elements is probably the distinction between formal and informal “you,” between Sie and du (along with their respective oblique forms), which as near as I can tell has constituted a pronounced and stable register-divide in the Germanosphere over the past several centuries. Unseld and Bernhard invariably addressed each other as Sie rather than as du. Occasionally, during episodes of unusual warmth of good feeling between them, Unseld began a letter with the greeting “Lieber Thomas” rather than the usual “Lieber Herr Bernhard,” but Bernhard always promptly smothered the creeping du-wardness of the formula by saluting Unseld with the usual “Lieber Doktor Unseld” in his reply. In the Englishing of a much shorter correspondence hailing from the same period (1961 through 1988; i.e., the first seven-tenths of the last two-fifths of the twentieth century), a correspondence consisting of a mere handful of letters exchanged between near-strangers who rarely if ever met in person, this level of formality of address probably would not have precluded the inclusion of the full complement of late twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon common contractions, for in such a correspondence, the correspondents would have been addressing each other in essentially the same attitude as the one in which they addressed anonymous readers—respectful, to be sure, in recognition of their unknownness, but by no means standoffish, as though the unknownness were regarded as essential rather than contingent. But when two German speakers consistently “Sie” each other over more than a quarter of a century, a quarter-century in the course of which they break bread and bunk under the same roof dozens of times, one is justified in inferring that the formality of address is more than a bit forced; and indeed perhaps even affected or coy—and so the translator is inclined to make the prose seem more than a bit more formal than the contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon prose norm, which means rule-of-thumbishly, albeit not categorically, proscribing contractions. And so the reader will run across very few contractions in my translation of the Bernhard-Unseld correspondence. In further furtherance of this aura of self (and mutually)-enforced starchiness, I have in this translation also implemented or enforced (admittedly rather laxly and haphazardly) the old (ca. pre-1970) rule about distinguishing between shall and will in future-tense verbs, the rule that stipulates that for the denotation of mere futurity shall shall be used in the first-person singular and will in all the other persons and numbers. In the high season of its heededness, the mid-early through mid-mid twentieth century, this rule was generally, and in the teeth of evidence to the contrary (notably President Eisenhower’s insistence on knowledge of it as a prerequisite for working for him) regarded as being current exclusively in England. To the extent that this assumption lingers on subliminally in the minds of the high-season inhabitants’ descendants, much after the manner of the aversion to no-longer-extant electrified fences by deer now living in the neighborhood of the old Iron Curtain, readers may find that my translation has a peculiarly English (i.e., non-American, non-Scottish, etc.) bouquet; if so, this is perhaps not entirely amiss in the light of Bernhard’s lifelong Anglophilia.
Unseld’s hefty fund of footnoted private or quasi-private jottings—consisting overwhelmingly if not exclusively of entries in his various Travel Journals and his apparently monolithic Chronicle—is/are often fairly-to-highly elliptical, and what is worse elliptical in a way that regularly resists and occasionally even defies straightforward translation even into semi-intelligible to-do-list English. All the same, it is generally possible (at least so the present translator flatters himself) to construe the basic gist of his sense, and once one has done that, any effort to garble this sense enough to render it as elliptical in English as it originally was in German seems perverse and possibly even cruel. And so in general once I have arrived at an understanding of what this or that particle of Unseldiana refers or alludes to, I have not scrupled silently to make the reference or allusion explicit. To have kept such particles implicit in the main body of the footnote-text while glossing them adequately would have produced a well-nigh-Kakanian collateral corpus of sub-footnotes, and “the bulk of my virtual volumes would have frighted away the student.” There is at any rate one Unseldian stylistic trait that I have at least intermittently managed to preserve without more than trivial violence to readability, namely his habit of reporting other people’s speech in the subjunctive mode, a habit that requires one somehow to keep the reader at all times from succumbing to the de facto irresistible inclination to regard the reportage as a verbatim transcription. Whenever in passages quoted from Unseld the reader sees a string of sentences—or perhaps, more properly, sentence-fragments, beginning with a “That” (I copped the technique from James Boswell, who has frequent recourse to it in his journals), he or she can be certain of being reflectively in the presence of the subjunctive; and should she or he find it a trifle stilted or mannered, he or she should be reminded—or perhaps, in most cases informed—that Bernhard himself was extremely fond of the subjunctive of indirect speech-reportage.
The preceding two paragraphs are essentially preemptive challenges to those who would attack my translation as licentious, and more specifically as sacrificing the richesses of the source language for the sake of readability. Since about 1980, the translation industry seems to have been dominated by source-language native speakers or would-be source-language speakers (see my animadversions on the translator of Adorno’s Prisms) whose principal aim seems to be to bring home to English-speakers the supposedly hopeless defectiveness of their own language. To be sure, the most egregious examples of such sanctimonious linguistic bigotry are to be found not in translations from the German language but rather in those from the Russian. And I will be so bold as to name names here: I am thinking in the main of the unholy couple, the veritable translational Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, known as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who over the past twenty years have been methodically and inexorably turning the entire corpus of Russian literature in English into a giant vat of inedibly rancid linguistic kasha. To be further sure, this strain of bigotry has been building for a very long time: by the 1950s the dominant (or perhaps even exclusive) early twentieth-century translator from the Russian, Constance Garnett, was endlessly reviled for having made Dostoyevsky’s supposedly coprophagically earthy characters into genteel, po-faced, stiff-upper-lipped late-Victorian ladies and gentlemen straight out of Henry James, but in the early twenty-first century one cannot but conclude that she did the right thing, in that even in Russian Dostoyevsky’s crudest louts come across as infinitely more refined than the average supposed upper-middle-class Anglo-Saxon of our own time.
Quite apart from my treatment of Verlag, my Englishing of certain bits of publishing terminology may strike some readers as eccentric, but it was occasioned by certain incompatibilities, certain non-equivalences between the Anglo-Saxon and Germanophone bookselling trades that I simply could not evade or gloss over in good conscience. I have called publishing-workers like Anneliese Botond and Raimund Fellinger, people whom Bernhard and Unseld refer to as Lektoren or Lektorinnen, as readers. I suspect that this term has never been current in American publishing, and even in a British publishing context it has an aura for me of the three-piece-suited world of Faber and Faber during T.S. Eliot’s days there. The most obvious current American quasi-equivalent term for Lektor(in) is almost certainly editor, but this is not really satisfactory because an American editor qua handler of manuscripts is somebody who feels free not only to correct typographical and grammatical errors but also to offer criticism at the level of style and content and sometimes even to make substantial changes to an author’s manuscript in the teeth of his or her objections, and the only figure at Suhrkamp-Insel with that kind of around-throwable weight was Unseld himself. And then there is the matter of the very occasional appearance in the German original of the Gallicism Redakteur (see, for example, Letter No. 25; June 28, 1966; n. 1) as a designation of the manager of a specific series or catalogue line within a publishing firm, a designation whose synonymy with “editor” via the English verb “redact” meaning “to edit” is reinforced by my sense that such administrative figures are called “editors” at American publishing firms, such that for all “reader”’s old-timey Britishness and “editor”’s tonic exotericness it seems best to confine “editor” in the translation to the spotty mentions of series-editors.
For terms relating to the technical side of the production of books I have been entirely reliant on various online lexicons of presumably varying credibility. When one is on solid ground vis-à-vis technical terms, the most prudent course is to yoke each German lexeme tightly and rigorously to an English equivalent; when, on the other hand, one is on shaky ground such terms-wise, one sometimes does better to use more than one rendition for a single term, so that one may be reasonably close to certain of using the right (or in some cases merely best) term at least once. Such has been my policy towards Umbruch, which I have rendered heterogeneously as rough paginated copy, paginated rough copy, and collated rough copy. The object in question seems to be (or to have been [interpolate obligatory blather about computer-induced obsolescence]) a refined galley proof in whose composition the page numbers for the printed edition have been included. Presumably the author was expected to make all substantive changes at the galley-stage and in correcting the Umbruch to confine himself to mere tweaks that would not alter its pagination.
Another word that is markedly heterogeneously rendered in my translation is Staat, not because it is in any sense recondite but because it can denote so many things, each of which is by its very nature both hard to define and hard to separate from its fellows in the list of denoted entities—a country, a government, a state or State (of course!), a nation, or (or and) an administrative organization. It would be nice to have a translation in which each instance of Staat was rendered by some word or phrase that made it absolutely clear which sense of Staat was meant; whether such a translation will ever be possible depends on whether the sense of each and every occurrence of Staat in the Bernhard-Unseld correspondence ever becomes clear to me. At any rate, in the meantime I do not think that going back and changing every Staat-paired country, government, etc. into state (or State) is advisable.
Finally, to expand on a note that I suffixed to most of the posts among which the translation was originally apportioned: in the original German text, all the editors’ remarks on events that took place concurrently with the correspondence are in the historical present, meaning that they are grammatically treated as though happening in the editorial now (i.e., the time when the editor is relating them) rather than the time when they actually occurred; so, for example, according to the editors, on December 4 1971, Thomas Bernhard “asks” (bittet) rather than “asked” (bat or hat gebeten) Helene Ritzerfeld for a contract (Letter No. 182; 2.11.72; n. 2), and on January 7, 1981, Burgel Zeeh “sends” (sendet) rather than “sent” (sandte, hat gesandt, sendete, or hat gesendet ) Bernhard a telex (Letter No. 418; 5 January 1981; n. 2). In writing these notes, I have come to acquire a good deal of respect for the historical present, which I had formerly scorned without reflecting as I should have done that it is not any less intrinsically defensible (or, to put it another way, any more intrinsically barmy) than the Anglosphere-wide literary-critical convention of referring to events in fictional narratives (even, most bizarrely, events that the text itself relates in the past tense) in the present tense. Certainly in these notes it has often been unclear to me whether to use the present or the past tense, and in hindsight it half seems as if I should have used the present tense throughout—in other words, to have treated the events in Bernhard’s and Unseld’s lives as part of the same time stream as the one participated in by the texts of their letters, to have written “Bernhard by no means takes [rather than took] an immediate or wholehearted shine to his new rural stomping grounds” or “Unseld perforce has [rather than had] to do with the publication of Frost and Amras only negatively.” Such a grammatical-temporal policy would at minimum have obviated the awkwardness of many a temporally piebald sentence such as this one: “By 1981, Bernhard was negotiating for telecasting rights one-on-one with ‘the Almighty’ director general of Austria’s main broadcasting network, the ORF, a man whom he describes as ‘a friend of my work [who] is forcing it through’.” But all these concessions having been granted, I remain convinced of the unsuitability and incommodiousness of the historical present in the editors’ footnotes. If the footnotes had consisted mainly or even residually of close analysis of specific passages in the documents cited within them, it might have been better to keep them in the present tense, which would then have been not an historical present but an exegetical present, the present of a lepidopterist or forensic pathologist setting to work on a specimen with his tweezers or scalpel. But for the very most part the editors confine themselves (quite rightly, in my view, and with a thoroughness that is both exemplary and unprecedented in my experience of edited English-language correspondences) to verbally handing the documents over to the reader and allowing their contents to explicate themselves. Such being the case, the consistently recurring present tense of the editors’ minimal contextualizing comments takes on an air of gratuitous drama, something like that of a basketball commentator yammering on in his usual breathless vein at a chess match, e.g., He shhh… [as player seems to be reaching for a knight]…oots; he scores! [as player takes pawn with knight twenty minutes later]. And so, in all dispassionate disregard of the laboriousness and chronophageousness attendant on such a chore, I have no plans to bring the notes’ translated versions back out of the past.
- Unseld perforce had to do with the publication of Frost and Amras only negatively, through the withholding of his veto, as he became a part-owner and joint chief-executive of Insel only in January 1963, by which point both books were already slated for publication. Before strongly censuring either Bernhard or Unseld for excessive formality and wariness at any stage of their correspondence, and particularly its earliest years, one must remember that Unseld did not seek Bernhard out as an author, but rather inherited him from his predecessor at Insel, Rudolph Hirsch, after having rejected the manuscript of his novel Der Wald auf der Straße.
- Contextually exigent footnote to the above anecdote: the above-mentioned director of graduate studies prided himself on his intimacy with a certain media tycoon-cum-nationally recognized politician, and towards the end of my (and his) stint at the university was reportedly aiming to close a multi-million dollar media deal with perhaps the most notorious and tyrannical of the West-Coast media concerns.
- Bernhard’s comportment here puts one in mind of the unnamed lawyer in his short story “The Weatherproof Cape”, a man desperately zealous to distinguish his uncle’s weatherproof loden cape from the hundreds of thousands of such capes produced by the Innsbruck textile factories.
- Unseld himself fleetingly evinces an awareness of this mandatory writerly resistance to fungibility in his Chronicle entry on a 1977 party he threw in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first day at work at Suhrkamp, a party to which he invited all of the firm’s authors and employees: “An author wants above all else to be seen as an individual, and at this gathering there was a very great danger that each author would believe he was simply disappearing into the ‘mass’ and indeed being extinguished by it” (Letter No. 343; January 11, 1977; n. 3). But this momentary betrayal of scruples must be given comparatively light weight when counterpoised with the inherently megalomaniacal, well-nigh-James Bond villain-worthy character of the very notion of getting together all of one’s dependents of every genre under one roof to toast one’s attainment of a merely personal milestone.
- In a 1980s interview with Kurt Hofmann, Bernhard implied that Wieland Schmied, “a very good friend of mine and...a reader at Insel Publications,” was the main person responsible for the acceptance of Frost. If this is true, it means that Bernhard owed his big break to an even less agent-like figure than Botond, viz. an inside contact.
- In a travel journal entry, Unseld records Bernhard as stating “[t]hat his corpus began at the earliest with the poetry collections and Ereignisse [Occurrences]” (Letter No. 441, before January 28, 1982), in other words, between 1957 (when Auf der Erde und in der Hölle [On Earth and in Hell] and In hora mortis were first published) and 1959 (when Ereignisse was completed). But between 1950 and 1956, Bernhard wrote and published 14 short stories, in many of which the people of Austria, and in particular of rural Austria, are treated with a kind of reverential sentimentality.
- Occasionally Unseld did suggest minor changes to the substance of Bernhard’s submissions, usually out of a genuine wish to improve them (see, for example, his critical remarks on Bernhard’s “coquettish” narrative behavior in the manuscript of Extinction [Letter No. 490; April 2, 1986; n. 2)]), but sometimes apparently out of less laudable motives. In the play On the Far Side of All Summits Is Peace a publisher complains about the “dilettantism” of existing German translations of Joyce and Proust. Unseld asked Bernhard to “reconsider” the publisher’s strictures, evidently out of fear that they would reflect poorly on Suhrkamp’s Joyce and Proust editions (Letter No. 408 and n. 1). But in none of these cases did Unseld insist on the changes. Only once after the publication of Frost did Unseld altogether reject a Bernhard manuscript, a collection of mini-plays that he objected to because of their potentially libelous political content, and he instantly regretted his decision (see n. 1 to Letter No. 434; July 3, 1981).
- In June of 1983 Bernhard told Unseld (according to Unseld) that “the next day he was going to meet with no less than Peter Handke.” But perhaps Bernhard was pulling his leg about this meeting, for Unseld immediately adds/added, “Peter Handke did not inform me of this (“did not inform me of this”= hat mir das nicht mitgeteilt—simple perfect rather than past perfect tense, perhaps implying not merely that Handke had not told him about the meeting before Bernhard did, but that he had not subsequently told him about it either, depending on how long after Bernhard’s reportage Unseld recorded it). But then again, Unseld further immediately adds, “Bernhard tried to rope me into staying longer and being present at this encounter,” suggesting that the encounter was indeed at least actually planned; but then almost immediately further, Unseld writes that Bernhard told him, obviously with tongue firmly in cheek, that “[f]or security’s sake they [i.e., he and Handke] were each going to be accompanied by a female escort whose job would be to fill out all the pauses, because of course they were both famous for their eloquent silence,” thereby casting doubt once again on the prospective actuality of the meeting and at the same time registering a kind of wry respect on Bernhard’s part for Handke as a fellow self-cultivated reticent (see n. 1 to Letter No. 461; 6.27.83).
- To be sure, Unseld purportedly alludes to the Manson killings in Letter No. 84 (August 13, 1969), but the allusion is couched in such vague terms (“A remarkable period of murders, deaths, funerals, and trials”) that in the absence of pointing from the editors, the Anglophone reader probably would have regarded it as pertaining to events in Germany [as at least the funereal part of the list does: in the preceding sentence Unseld has announced the laying-to-rest of Theodor W. Adorno]; and the same, mutatis mutandis, goes for Bernhard’s sole allusion to the Red Autumn of 1977 (“The terrorism hysteria has even taken its toll on the general manager of the theater in Stuttgart [i.e., Claus Peymann]” [Letter No. 356; 11.22.77]), an allusion that he presumably would not have made at all had the alluded-to circumstances not impinged on the premiere of one of his plays, Immanuel Kant.
- A remark on the topic Bernhard made to Kurt Hofmann frustratingly neither bolsters nor undermines the suspicion: “those stories [i.e., novels, etc.] about nukes are all tedious, because they end in nothing.” The uniform ending of these stories may make them tedious, but a tedious story may be just as plausible or implausible as an interesting one.
- An inconsistency in an oeuvre has been dialectically assimilated when it is somewhere resolved (or in Hegelian terms sublated) in a passage within the oeuvre subsuming both (or, in multifarious cases, all) facets of the inconsistency. So, for example, Bernhard’s alternating eulogization and vituperation of Austria is dialectically assimilated by his numerous assertions to the effect of Austria is a beautiful country but its government [or sometimes people] is horrible.
- Namely a remark on Bernhard’s play Ritter, Dene, Voss “[I]t is simple and complicated; it is by no means a play about the actors Ritter, Dene, Voss, but rather one about Wittgenstein; the genius Bernhard is simply possessed by this genius, in the sense of being attracted and repelled by him. But because he saw these three actors in Bochum and was impressed by them, he wrote a play for these three people, but it isn’t a play about Ludwig Wittgenstein as seen by Bernhard either; rather, it is a play about Bernhard by Bernhard” (Letter No. 497; August 28, 1986; n. 2). Like the politically oriented passages I have found fault with, the piece of Bernhardiana that Mitchelmore goes on to single out for its repellence, Th. B.’s rant against Suhrkamp’s publication of a novel by Marianne Fritz in Letter No. 486 (January 19, 1986), is an undialectical inconsistency: however poor he deemed Fritz’s work, he should have appreciated that it spurned commercial success even more brazenly than his own writings and therefore suggested that Unseld was at least not exclusively interested in publishing bestsellers like the Martin Walser novel B. had complained about in Letter No. 485 and was at least occasionally willing to lavish resources on writers with negligible commercial prospects.
- At first blush this may seem to be a choice on par in this respect with the choice of whether to leave a German verb in a simple tense—e.g. “she runs” for sie rennt—or make it into an English verb in the progressive aspect [“she is running”]—but it really is not, as vis-à-vis the second choice-genre the text usually provides clues as to which would be more appropriate and there is usually an emphatic difference in meaning between the two choices. It makes a great deal of difference whether you report that somebody “runs” a marathon (i.e. participates in it every year) rather than “is running” it (i.e. is participating in it at this moment), but the reader is not going to get any kind of wrong idea vis-à-vis the reported-on phenomenon if you write “she cannot run the marathon” rather than “she can’t run” it—although he or she may (albeit only may) get the idea that you, the reporter, are some kind of hyper-tight-assed toff.