Friday, August 19, 2016

A Translation of "Flucht zum Menschen" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

A Flight into the Arms of Humanity

I had tuberculosis and pimples all over my face, and I was emaciated and pale, and the whole thing began because there was an unveiling ceremony for a memorial plaque for my grandfather in Henndorf.  I still remember that.  There was this unveiling and then there was a lunch or something like that with my relatives in the tavern, with newspapers and reporters and whoever standing around and with flags and rifle-shots.  My grandmother was sitting next to me, and so was Kaut, and she said, “Good Lord, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my grandson, he’s a good-for-nothing and going nowhere, and so perhaps he could write.”  And Kaut said, “Send him to me on Monday.”  OK, and then on Monday I went to see him at the Demokratisches Volksblatt in Salzburg.  Then he said, in fact I think he even addressed me as “Du,” it really strikes me as quite comical; he said, “Hop to it, kiddo!”  There was a refugee camp in the—Rosittenkasern it was called, so it was a barracks; I was supposed to go there and write something about it.  Anyway, so I went there and then typed something up.  I lived in Aiglhof.  Next morning it was in the newspaper, heavily trimmed of course, naturally, and I was really proud.  Then I thought to myself, wow, you bring it in in the afternoon, and the next morning it’s already in there.  That’s an uplifting feeling.  And at the time there was a guy who covered the courtrooms who fell ill, to my good fortune.  And then nobody was covering them; this was a small newspaper with nothing.  So then I started going to the courtrooms, on an interim basis; then the guy stayed ill for ever and ended up never showing up again.  I have no idea who he could have been, and I just kept doing that for two years.

At bottom I wanted—because back then I was always changing my mind—I wanted to open a shop, meaning a grocery store or something like that.  I had already asked a junk dealer for shelves and drawers and whatnot; I had made up my mind that I was going to sell something.  What that would be I had no idea; small household items or things like that.  It had always been a desire of mine and a dream of my youth, because in Henndorf, at my Aunt Rosa’s, they had had a general store with sugar-loaves and whatnot.  Because I had spent time there as a child.  The whole shop was half the size of this room here.  Plus a second room, a bedroom; there actually wasn’t anything else.  As a child I had often spent every day there for months on end, and later on I started spending the night there.  I always hated it, but in compensation I was at least allowed to sell things there, behind the counter.  And so I put up with being around this old, hideously senescent aunt, in her horrible bed.  I didn’t get a wink of sleep—all the windows were shut tight as a duck’s bum; it was a dank, musty hellhole—the entire night.  But I certainly garnered an experience from that cornershop trauma.  But because it happened to occur along with the writing, well then, I know I used to get thirty schillings per contribution, and it made no difference whether it was three pages or three lines.  So it was a fixed fee.  Then I always made sure I had three contributions in each number, even, say, “The Pregnant Widow.”  Then I would go to the district court and ask, “What the hell’s going on today?”  They had legal documents that I would transcribe on the fly.  So I earned quite a bit relatively speaking, almost 90 schillings a day, which was a huge sum of money back then.  By the end of the month I was sitting pretty there.  And then I thought to myself, you know, this is really a more favorable situation than the other one.  I had plenty of job-satisfaction, and I could read my own hokum over breakfast.  At the time I really didn’t quite believe it was hokum.

One day I came into the office, and Kaut said to me, “This is never going to last the way it is now; now we’ve got to join the party, so I’m talking about our becoming a socialist newspaper, which means becoming nothing, because there’s no such thing.”  Then he immediately took me by the hand, like an uncle.  The party office was only five addresses farther down the street, and the future mayor was there.  [Heinrich] Salfenauer was the party secretary then; he was a short, weedy, rachitic homunculus, basically offensiveness personified, a caricature of a nonentity, utterly average and preposterous.  I thought to myself, “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference to me; I’ll go ahead and join the party now.”  And the members’ badges for a half-year membership had already been prepared, and we signed on right then and there, and that was the end of the story.  I went home and I said to myself afterwards, “What exactly is it that you’ve just done?”  It was a spur-of-the-moment, brainless act, and so it sort of gave me a nasty feeling.  Then letters to “Comrade Bernhard” started arriving, and then I said to myself, “Oh boy, somehow or other this has really got to stop.”  And I am absolutely sure that the very next day or the day after that I took my party membership book, I wrote a letter to Peyerl, who was the governor of Salzburg at the time; he was a Red as well, and he also lived in the Aiglhof: “To the Chairman of the Party in Salzburg.”  I wrote that on a certified mail envelope and then I wrote, “I really don’t think much of socialism and whatnot, and I herewith enclose this book, which was a load of drivel,” and the rest was history.  After that I couldn’t be open with Kaut anymore, and then naturally my whole ninety schillings a day were gone.  It was all over.  After that I was out of touch for I think ten, fifteen years.  That was it.

Then I immediately rang up the Salzburger Nachrichten and said, “Could I do something for you?” and so forth; I always just used to rush into things, and back then the editor-in-chief was [Ilse] Leitenberger, who has been at Die Presse for decades now.  Somehow by then I was already beginning to get the picture.  She said, “Ah, he starts out pretending to be a Socialist.”  Over the telephone, right away, incredible as it seems.  I thought, “You can get stuffed,” and I hung up.  I’m still totally certain it was in the telephone booth in the Rainerstrasse; such a devastating rejection.  And then I just stood there.  Then Becker got me something at the radio station; they had a news magazine show; I think it was called Radio Austria; so a kind of preview of certain upcoming programs, the kind of thing that’s everywhere now; it involved writing something about them beforehand.  I chose programs about science.  Instead of going to the library and looking things up, I always just made up everything myself, and wrote, “…as Heidegger has already said…”  I made it up myself, these turgid sentences that didn’t say zip or anything else, but they sounded grand.  I had to submit five short paragraphs every week, and then I got three hundred schillings a month, and I was able to live on that for years, that lasted years, until I got the sack, because I kept missing the deadlines.  The backlog was piling up to my neck, and so I kept putting it off, and then it was too late.  I foundered.  By then of course I had enrolled at the Mozarteum, and at the same time I was coming up with these little things in the newspaper.  That was everything, I think.

And then there’s another thing I still remember: that at the time I got a merit scholarship.  At the Mozarteum they were announced publicly in a list, specifically on the bulletin board.  The scholarships were for 50,000 schillings, an enormous sum of money back then.  Back then old Paumgartner was still alive, and the president of the Mozarteum.  By then I had already written some poems, privately.  My poems were already being published when I was still in the seminar.  The book had also come out by then as well.  (Auf der Erde und in der Hölle [On Earth and in Hell], Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg,  1957).  And I can still remember thinking, a merit scholarship, how wonderful; for that you’ve got to get dressed up, because the 50,000 schillings were handed over by the president himself in white envelopes in his office, on the ground floor.  And so Thomas Bernhard, I said to myself, wearing just a pair of trousers and a pullover; I had never owned a coat up until then.  Well and then he hands them out, and then he runs out of envelopes, and I’m just standing there.  Then he says, “So, what the hell do you want?”  I say, “Well, now, what do you mean?  I’m on the list, after all.”  Ah, that was a mistake.  Awfully shabby of him, wasn’t it?  And he didn’t even manage to crack a joke, and he wasn’t at all nice about it either.  And I was left standing there like a drenched [poodle]…I tell you, these people are incredibly coarse.  They call themselves connoisseurs of culture, they’ll conduct an evening concert at the drop of a hat, and they beat the living tar out of you there.  I went home, and I was knackered.  I tell you, these stories, it’s only just becoming clear to me.  Such remarkable things that these people couldn’t have cared less about.  Back then I lived on nothing but goulash soup for years on end, and because of that I had raging acne and I looked horrible.  Goulash soup and a black bread-roll, that was my actual daily diet, and in the morning I would usually guzzle a couple of liters of tea, and at night I didn’t go home.

I had known Becker, the director general of the ORF, from earlier on, and I was always striking little deals with them.  Once when All Saints’ Day was coming up, he said to me, “We’re about to make a program about the cemeteries of Salzburg,” and for that I wrote “From Grave of Honor to Grave of Honor.”  I listened to it enthusiastically afterwards, when an actor read it, possibly from a theater, in Salzburg.  That was certainly a pinnacle.  Or “Poet’s Corner,” or whatever it was called, a quarter of an hour.  Ernst Schönwiese was still there then, so some fine poems got read.  In the intervals there was some piano music.  At home I was bashful; I sat down in a tavern where nobody knew me, and I asked, “May I please hear the radio broadcast?”  And so I solemnly listened to it.  Well, all right.  And I thought, “Now you’re officially the Great Poet.”  And I went up to Otto Müller with the manuscript, it was all very simple from then on; I never met with any resistance at all.  Well, after all, that was quite a momentous thing.  I was through with the Mozarteum by then.  I took this exam and wrote some stories; I was finished, and once I got my diploma, I swore that I’d never have anything more to do with that again, because I had no interest in it.  I basically enrolled at the Mozarteum just to avoid becoming isolated and going completely to the dogs, plus I was simply forced to be around people my own age.  It was a total flight into the arms of humanity.

What else could I have done?  For one thing I was ill.  When you’ve got a lung disease, you obviously can’t go to work for a business, so that already rules out a couple of things.  At the Mozarteum I never said anything about it; in fact, nobody ever asked me about it.  In a school you can cough up a storm whenever you want; it’s as simple as that.  But when you’re going to work at a grocer’s or at a hardware store or someplace like that, you’ve got to present a clean bill of health; otherwise they won’t hire you.

Well, I’d already written some novels, really long ones, three hundred pages long, really insufferable things, right?  One of them was called Peter Goes to Town, and I was already at page 300, and he was still stuck at the train station.  So I just stopped working on it; the whole concept was wrong.  He hadn’t even once taken a seat in a streetcar, and there were already 150 pages.  So zero points for economy.  From that point on, good Lord, when was that anyway? By then I was at least 25 years old; so then the book came out, and I had begun writing earlier, when I was sixteen, seventeen.  For almost ten years there was nothing, but then I was writing without putting too much thought into it.  But then I got the feeling when I was finished [with Frost] that this was it, something that nobody had really done before and that nobody would imitate either.  And when Frost came out it was of course snubbed by everybody around here anyway.  I still remember that everybody, all those people who are still writing in the same half-cocked, slapdash kind of way, wrote “This is a trial run, but we don’t want to hear another word about him, about that boy there in Salzburg.”  It’s no skin off my nose; of course anybody can write what he likes.  Encouraging it certainly wasn’t.  If it hadn’t been for a couple of reviews that were printed abroad, reviews that were drivel in themselves but got hyped in a big way, the book might have vanished without a trace.  The whole thing was effectively written into a void.  I was going through a phase then when I was living in Vienna with my aunt.  I was working at building sites and digging ditches, and I also drove trucks.  I made a phone call; there was one of those “St. Christopher’s” offices there then.  So you go there, you get a leather waistcoat—I actually already had one then—and then you start driving.  I worked for a company called Kemeter for months.  They’re actually still in operation today.  With the same blue cars.  I really liked driving anyway.  I am of course a passionate motorist, always have been, and I actually like trucks even more, and I’m actually very sorry that all that’s so long over and done with.  Somehow it did something for me.  But I had already finished writing Frost by then.  Wieland Schmied was a very good friend of mine, and back then he was a reader at Insel Publications.  They sold three thousand copies, I think.  That basically had no effect whatsoever.  And later on the boss there at Insel said to Schmied, “So he’s talked our ears off; we’ve got to accept it.  But of course the whole thing isn’t all that good, as you yourself told me way back when.”  And other jokey things like that.  And somehow the book came out and there were reviews.  But apart from their existence, they didn’t really cheer me up much, because each one of them contradicted the others, and in the end, just because I was a halfway intelligent person, I managed to figure out what sorts of intellectual products I was dealing with.  Because basically there’s nothing of substance to them, and long reviews never contain a single sentence that has any real personal meaning for the reviewer, that gives you the feeling that he’s read the book with genuine interest.  It’s obviously all conceived in a businesslike way; he takes care of his business and he’s done.  For him the whole thing is a crude, alimentary, breadwinning business.  And then you sit there with the reviews and the book, and you never get the faintest clue what kind of book it is, whether it’s anything like this or that and so forth.  Then I went back to driving trucks, but there was something unwholesome about it.  It was an unwholesome situation.

If the book hadn’t been accepted, I probably would have gone to Ghana, but in the meantime, after I’d gotten my visa and everything else, this American in Accra who had set the whole thing up, an official working half for the UN and half for Catholic Charities, suddenly died of a stroke.  In my life, death has always had excellent timing.


Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard.  Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 42-52.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, August 05, 2016

A Translation of "Großer, unbegreiflicher Hunger," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

Great, Inconceivable Hunger

Way back when, in those forsaken and ever-so-forsaken days, I used to walk along the street.  I would look at the birds on the rooftops and at the people beneath the sky.  I would sniff at the doors and the windows and think about how the trees here were all of a similar height—like in the distant city of gold behind the blue mountains.  Slowly I migrated to the gray facades of the houses, which were wrapped in music, in the distant secret music of my childhood, in the days and hours beneath my grandfather’s trees and in the gardens near the green river.
The dead are good sorts, I thought.  Then amid the thousands upon thousands of little stones here, on the soil of the city of spirits, I searched for a reddish-brown stone, of which there are millions upon millions in my native city.
The beautiful city!
There are poets who sing its praises, the praises of its lustrousness and meekness, of its breezes and its towers, which graze the sickle of the moon on summer nights.
The city of spirits!  
I would think about the people whom I had seen during the day.  I had wandered eastward, westward, northward and southward; their faces kept rising from the depths of the gorge of loneliness; imbued with the fragrance of the chestnut trees, they kept crossing the path of my gaze; the pain and the thousand-fold sorrow of life propagated endlessly.
On the bench in the park I became conscious of the loneliness of my heart, the loneliness of my flesh and of my blood, of my bones, the loneliness of my young self, which was roaming around aimlessly by both day and night and was unable to find peace.
I didn’t know if I would ever again see the beautiful city behind the blue mountains.  My father had grown up in it and died in it, more than once, hundreds and thousands of times.  My father had spoken there and so had my mother; in the course of a year the peach tree in front of our house had grown two or three new branches—it was a happy time.  All this, I thought, is something that I would like to experience one more time: the voice of my father and the voice of my mother.  I would like to experience the sunrise and the sunset, the open sky over the verdant countryside, which always ends with the river in the west, but every day begins with the sun in the east.
I would fish out the last letter I had received from the beautiful city and read some of it.  I always began afresh from the beginning.   My cousin Michael’s oversized handwriting pounded away at my brain like a hammer, but soon I was gripped again by my old great yearning for my reality, for the blue mountains and what lies behind them.
“We are now harvesting the fruit,” I read in my cousin’s letter.  “The apples are finer than last year’s.  We are overjoyed.  They are rosy-cheeked and bigger than ever before.  This morning we were at church and prayed.”
I paused, looked at the tree.
Later I read some more: “…I plan to send you some lard.  You know of course that things are not going very well for us either, but lard is something we still have plenty of, yes, plenty of lard…I am praying for you…Your cousin Michael.”
At the very bottom of the page: “Wrap yourself up tightly in your scarf at night.  You know that’s important.  Your mother always used to tell you that.”
After I had risen from the bench, I took out of my coat pocket the schilling that I had found early that morning.  I held it up to the sunlight.  I pulled out my handkerchief and polished it.  I looked at the sower and at the field and I gazed beyond them all the way to the blue mountains.  Slowly I walked along the gravel road and watched the park warden as he fed the pigeons, threw more and more crumbs into the crowd of pigeons, crumbs over which they squabbled with one another the way human beings squabble with one another over every breath they take from the very beginning.
When I reached the long street with the yellow and red lights, I thought about home.  But this thinking vectored towards another world that seemed unattainable did not procure me the strength I would have needed in order to survive the moment.  I had nothing—nothing but the long road, steps and walls, wind and loneliness, train-tracks, women, girls, and a hunger that a man can feel when he wakes with a start and cries out a name from which he learns that he has been stricken from the great tablet that spells happiness for him, when he wakes with a start like a wild animal.
I had been meditating for a long time; then at length I entered a “gourmet” grocery store.  I went up to a man whose upper lip was slightly trembling.  The man’s entire body seemed to be a single incurable illness.
“Haven’t you got anything for me to do?” I asked.  “I haven’t got a job, but I have to live.  I’m not picky.  Have you really got nothing for me to do?”
And then I thought to myself that there is a moment in which one packs it in with the whole lot, including the blue mountains, including the towers of the fair city, and retains but one desire: to run away, as quickly as possible.
“Across the street somebody is feeding white bread to the pigeons,” I said to the man.
I gazed into his watery face as its features shoved themselves asunder and then reconvened, into this dimwitted, pulpy circular face whose eyes seemed to have been implanted in it at some kind of eye factory.   
Later, at a vegetable stall, I again asked: “Haven’t you got anything that needs to be done?  I’m not picky.”
The man at the vegetable stall rolled his eyes.  He said: “Clear away that stuff over there for me!  That pile of dirty leaves!  I’ll give you some of my tomatoes.  They’re not fresh anymore, but they aren’t quite rotten either.  If you’re hungry, you can eat them—otherwise I’ll throw them out.  He turned his back on me for a moment as he continued: “I always have something left over for a poor devil.  I am a good Christian, do you understand?  So get on over there and clear away that stuff for me.”
With his spongy hands he rooted around in a crate of tomatoes.
I applied my attention to the putrescent tomatoes, to the brown, slithering leaves.  I beheld the oozing pulp, around which the stinging flies circled.  Once I cast a glance at the people behind the tomato crate—then at the pudgy, nimble feet of stout, laughing women.  I beheld roaming shopping bags, roaming bread, roaming hocks of ham, roaming sausages, cheeses, butter, milk bottles—everything was roaming past me, vanishing before I had assimilated it.  Bleak midday hung over the city and weighed down on its houses, from which the sound of cutlery clattered out into the muggy air.
“There you are,” said the fat man.  He sneezed, rubbed his nose, despised me in my entirety as I was.  “Now beat it,” he said: “if my wife sees you you’ll catch a real shiner.”
By and by I was walking and eating tomatoes, fruits of the earthly paradise, fruits from a Thousand and One Nights, imbued with a slight smell of putridity, with a whiff of the south, touched by that man’s watery hands, plucked perchance by healthy, robust Italian girls.  I stuffed my belly full of fruits; I swallowed them one by one, I gorged greedily until it hurt.  Soon I had only a couple of the red hemispheres left in my sack, which was already soaked and brittle in many places and on the verge of falling to pieces.
My knees ached.  In the midst of my great, instantaneous, tomato-induced bliss I suddenly felt like a man who has fought in a war right up until its end and is now returning home and does not know where home is; like the men in the ragged uniforms of a defeated army, with swollen bellies, emaciated breasts, battered arms, broken-up hearts.
It occurred to me that I still had the schilling in my wallet.  For a schilling I can buy two rolls or a glass of milk, I thought.  Milk?  For a schilling?  But I had no desire to drink milk in the city, because it smelled of metal, of milking-machines and centrifuges.  I wanted some milk from the udders of cows bred where I was born, with the scent of the grass and the singing of the milkmaid to go with it.  And as I sensed the tomatoes in my belly and life as it is endured by all young men of our time, I saw my mother, the good, deceased woman, walking above the tall trees, with a kind-hearted smile on her countenance.   
“Wrap yourself up in your shawl,” she had always used to say.
I forged ahead.  I pressed the doorbell-button of a metropolitan “mission.”   I saw the taut face of a woman, two piercing eyes; I heard a voice.  I entered.  By and by I took a seat in a broad armchair stationed before a large desk.  Somewhere the hand of a clock was tracing its path.  I heard the jingling of typewriters.  Into the seashell of a telephone receiver the woman was unremittingly saying: “Yes…no…yes…no…yes…no…yes…but…no…”
This went on for a long time, and the expression on her face, a face interchangeable with millions of others, scarcely ever changed.
It had gotten quite late when she said to me: “What do you want?”
I told her the highly unremarkable story of my life.  I knew it by heart; I no longer needed to rehearse it in my mind beforehand.  I wasn’t embarrassed—no, I spoke calmly, but for all that, my voice was imbued with a great sense of dread.
The fairly old woman seemed highly suspicious of me.
She ran the tip of her pencil over her white sheet of paper: “When?  How?  Why?  That?  No!  You?  Ah…are you crazy?  Do you understand a thing I’m saying?...Do you understand me?  Perhaps…Do please pay attention...In my opinion..Don’t you understand me?  Can’t you understand me?...”  I was drowning in this torrent of words.
Nobody in the big city noticed that I was hungry and young.  I said so many, many times, but nobody listened.  I knocked on many, many doors, but nobody opened any of them.          
I hungered for everything: for apples and pears, for butter and honey, for mountains and wheat-fields, for birdsong, for river-waters and for the sky over my solitude, for maternal women and for mature fathers, for gardens, paths, prophecies, for all the fruits of the earth.
When I got back to my room, I put the tomatoes in the drawer of my table.  I couldn’t eat any more of them; I could only cast my gaze through the window on to the cobblestone square against which my thoughts were chafing themselves raw, the square on to which my soul was slowly bleeding to death.
“Where is the beautiful city?” I asked myself.
“Where is the green river?”
And nobody brought me an answer.
Then came the evening, the night.
“Why?” I asked myself.  “To what end?”
I threw myself on to the bed.  I tried to fall asleep.  But I kept seeing the four walls, a towel, an old table, a typewriter, a pair of old shoes.  I saw a door and a window and behind them the Nothing.
I shut my eyes.  Nobody in the world was sleeping a sleep like mine at that hour.  I saw the homeland of the homeless, the infinitude of the finite, the heaven of the earthly, and the eternally ripening harvest of a seemingly fruitless humanity.

Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 483-488. Originally published in Stimmen der Gegenwart [Voices of the Present] 1954.  Edited by Hans Weigel.  Vienna: Albrecht Dürer, 1954, pp. 138-143.  A slightly different version was published as Der große Hunger [“The Great Hunger”] in Demokratisches Volksblatt on October 15, 1953.  

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson