Friday, September 16, 2016

A Translation of "Eine katholische Existenz" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

A Catholic Existence

In the end, everything comes to naught; everything ends in the cemetery.  There you can do whatever you like.  Death carries everybody home, and then everything is over.  Of course, most people let death carry them away by the time they’re seventeen, eighteen.  Nowadays young people throw themselves into the arms of death especially early; by the ages of twelve and fourteen they’re already dead.  Then there are isolated fighters, who just keep fighting death until they’re eighty or ninety, and then they’re dead too, but all the same they’ve lived a pretty long life.  And because life is beautiful and a lark, they’ve had a long lark.  People who have died young have had a short one, and they really deserve to be pitied.  Because they never properly got to know life.  With all its horrors.

My mother constantly, all her life, suffered from something I have never suffered from in mine—really terrible headaches.  Of course she didn’t get very old, but never mind that.  And I always used to fetch her pills, her anti-headache pills, really strong ones.  And one day I went in and I said, “The pills for my mom.”  And he handed them over to me so nicely out of the jar, well, and then I swallowed them.  I don’t know, thirty pills at one go.  That was what saved me, because it was too much, and so it all came right back up.  I still remember quite clearly that I spent a week in bed and did nothing but throw up, even though I hadn’t had anything in my stomach in a whole week.  It’s really unpleasant.  You feel as though your stomach is being ripped out.

Of course children are always possessed by the Devil.  Any child that’s not frail and ill and gentle and paying attention to everything is obviously going to be told, “You’re possessed by the Devil.”  Because of course they annoy their parents and are actually always superior to them.  Of course a child still has an unspoiled, healthy intelligence.  Doesn’t he?  Parents can sense this, and so they basically hate their children.  And as a result they hate themselves, because they’re responsible for the children’s existence.

I don’t think I’m wide of the mark here; I think that almost every child quite often thinks of killing himself, that almost all of them try it as well, but then they don’t do it or it doesn’t succeed.  That’s really quite a strong impulse when you’re a child.  It comes like a wave, between the ages of seven and eight, then it ebbs away, then you get a bit more robust, I think, then there comes another sensitive phase between eighteen and twenty-four, and anybody who gets over that hurdle makes it to, say, fifty and gets married and marches into normal life with his head held high and his heart steadily beating.  Then beginning at fifty people start to get reflective again.  By then their marriages have fallen apart, their children have turned into monsters, and ingratitude is their reward from the world.

All my life, at every moment of it, I’ve been planning to kill myself.  But since I haven’t managed to do it, life must be more valuable to me than anything else.  So I’m really not sure.  Of course my illness isn’t like multiple sclerosis, something that goes away completely and then comes back.  It’s not something you get over, I think.  It’s very hard to say.  But perhaps I’ll put myself to shame and make it to eighty.  I just don’t know.  It’s not something that’s up to me.  There’s obviously no point in sitting in the coach and flogging the horse when it’s been a corpse for ages.  In my life everything’s always winding down.   

I have adhesions on my lungs, from earlier on, probably; I had pneumonia at one point.  I think they somehow must have started back then.  Because of course I have an ailment that’s permanent there, a dilation of the heart that’s incurable.  And then you can live on for another quarter of an hour or for three more years, or even being around seven years from now is a possibility.  According to the doctors, I really should have been dead a long time ago.  Anyway, death is—so I’m not worried at all; the whole thing is all the same to me.  I actually don’t understand the fear of death because dying is as normal as having lunch.  Sometimes I’m afraid of people, such as they are, but it’s impossible to be afraid of death.  What is it if you can never feel it?  Then I’m just going quit life–I guarantee it.  I’m firmly determined not to linger on as a puny invalid.  Of course that’s a choice that’s open to everyone; anybody can kill himself anytime.  The only question is how.  But an existence in which I can’t do as I like anymore will be hard-going in any case, but after all, I would never do that.  Then once you’re down below, no matter how you got there, there are of course all those charitable abominations that find the kingdom of heaven somewhere, but otherwise nothing.  Started by everybody from the Knights of Malta to whoever; it’s all revolting.

I think people should think more about themselves.  Then at least you’ve got the right feel for things.  Because I don’t need any naturopaths either.   Since I know myself, what I do; I know that I take mild things, expectorants, and there’s nothing more to do than that.  Once you’ve woken up to the fact that you’re basically rusting, right?  It’s like when you’re scouring the barrel of a gun; obviously tending to your throat isn’t any different.  Of course it’s not at all a bad idea to add some bland, oily stuff to your diet, along with honey and milk, to take in some clean air; then it goes away.  But not completely or for good, right?, there’s the rub.

I have actually written about headaches, about terrible headaches, because I’ve always been interested in them, and my grandfather had insanely terrible headaches, and so did my mother, basically everybody in my family.  But I don’t know what it’s like to have a headache.  Except the one you get after being drunk.  I do get a backache when the weather’s changing, and I can sense it in my head.  One way or another you’re at the mercy of the weather.  It’s obviously not a big mystery when something is hurting you.  You’ve only got to look up and you’re sure of it.  But it’s never attacked me in the head, not really.  It attacks me from behind and inside, and it stabs me.  Well, obviously you can’t escape it, and it’s naturally also a stimulus, but if you can’t get to sleep for months on end, not for a single night, and you start to feel lucky if you sleep three hours straight without anything playing up, then the stimulus is naturally blunted quite a bit.

Earlier today I spent some time with my brother; he’s an internist, thank God, because that lets me spare myself all that ghastly drivel involved in visiting doctors’ offices, but he is always marveling at all the things I still manage to do.  Of course he thinks that somebody in my condition should have been lying in bed for years and doing God knows what.  Of course if I’d done that I’d be no longer with you, probably.  But I’m certainly in relatively good shape, and I’d rather do too much than too little anyway; otherwise I’d obviously be finished.

In Lisbon I had a urethral blockage, which lasted three days, OK?, and then there was suddenly blood and pus as well.  I told my brother about it by phone, and he said “check into a hospital right away,” and it was high time to do that.  If you wait a day too long with that—my grandfather died of the same thing.  But I still flew back on my own with the catheter in.  And it turned out not to be too late, it was early enough, and it cleared up.

My mother was bedridden with cancer for two years, and then she died; she was already like a skeleton, and my aunt, who of course you’ve seen, was also bedridden for a year, and I nursed her, more or less.  Intellectually she was a hundred-percent lucid up to a day before her death, but ghastly to look at, nothing but skin and bones.  I know what that means, that a so-called normal death is quite ghastly.  But these people, even when they can’t put up any kind of a fight anymore, keep hanging on to life, which is so stupid that you can’t even talk about it.  So death and life; it’s really quite normal, normal and completely natural.  It’s stupid only when you see somebody else who’s like that and who’s on her way there; that’s horrifying.  Besides, you’re deteriorating and you just can’t do certain things anymore.  I simply can’t walk up a single flight of stairs in a building anymore, just like people stop being able to swim, overnight, or run long distances.  And I think I would even go so far as to say that anybody who isn’t dead yet or hasn’t killed himself yet is happy after a fashion.  Even if he’s unhappy.  Otherwise of course he would have done away with himself.  The moment when that prevails, the weariness prevails, when it’s so strong that you want to kill yourself—then you can of course make up your own mind whether to be happy or unhappy, fortunate or unfortunate.  It’s simply not true that it descends on you from heaven.  Or that people can talk you into it.  Everybody has got his own life in his hands, in the final analysis.  I think this has naturally gone really far, but I could say without further ado: if a person is blind, for him it could be the greatest piece of good fortune—even if he would have to endure incredible pain, even if he’ll be half-starved—to be able to see just one more time.  So at a moment like that he’s already fortunate.  And it’s highly fortunate for you that I don’t bludgeon you to death with my hoe right now.  Right now I obviously really could kill you.  For example.  But perhaps that would be highly fortunate for you; it’s obviously impossible to say.  Or for me.  So the first thing murderers feel, as soon as they become conscious of what they’ve done, two minutes afterwards, is shock.  After about two minutes they rush outside and scream, “Aw, Ah done keelt’im!”  And that’s probably exactly what I would do.  I really don’t think I’d just calmly drive away in the Mercedes, with the windows rolled down, and say, “I have killed a certain person.”  I don’t think I’d do that.  So I really would rush outside, with my shirt unbuttoned, my fly unzipped; somehow you get the feeling that “Less will happen to me because I’m already being a bit cunning.”  So I might think along those lines, sure.

You really do enjoy a slice of good fortune, of happiness, every day.  Happiness, I think, is doled out just like unhappiness; everybody gets his share.  And even a guy with one leg is still happy, because he’s still got one leg.  And a guy who’s just got his torso left, and can keep on living, is happy.  It’s that way right up until the end.  Probably that’s what happiness is.  And the idea that you’re supposed to be happier than you already are is probably sheer hubris and unfeasible.  But naturally I’m no village priest.  I’m obviously not protesting anything.

I’m satisfied with everything, completely.

Probably because I’m so self-satisfied and so happy about everything.1  In the truest sense of the word.  I am thoroughly happy, from head to toe, from my left hand to my right, and this is like a cross.  And that’s what’s so beautiful about it.2  A Catholic existence.  I wish everybody could have religion and all that, because it’s wonderful.  It’s all like creamed soup.

Because you can’t do anything.  You get a name, Thomas Bernhard, and you have it all your life.  And if you go and take a walk the woods one day and somebody snaps a picture of you, then for eighty years you’ll be doing nothing but walking in the woods.  There’s not a thing you can do to stop it.

Naturally if some reporter is sitting in a bar and hears that you’ve said, “Beef is no good,” then he’ll always maintain, “This is the man who can’t stand beef.”  Meanwhile maybe from that point onwards you’re eating nothing but beef.

Anybody who’s been branded an “ox” is an ox all the way to the slaughtering block.  So everybody knows that in the spring he eats grass, then foggage.  It’s the same in the case of a writer.  He’s been branded a “writer.”  Hence, the farmer who sells him at the slaughtering block is the publisher, who sells him at the book market.  Everybody knows what the writer does.  Just as a cow devours grass, a writer devours thoughts, assimilates them.  Whether they’re always the same ones or different ones is none of his business.  It’s a higher sort of intuition.  Perhaps it’s also partly owing to my having received extreme unction when I was in hospital at the age of eighteen.  After that I was in a sanatorium and bedridden for months in the mountains.  Always the same mountain in front of me.  I couldn’t move, and out of that boredom and that solitude with that mountain, for months and months—then you’re either going to go mad or you start to write.  And there I got over my aversion to books and writing and the pencil by writing.  And that is certainly the root of all evil.  But everything helps you further along, and you can make a living from anything, and so you make a career of producing nonsense.  Life consists of a concatenation of nonsense, a bit of sense, but almost exclusively nonsense.  No matter who it is.  Even if they’re now great and important, supposedly great and important people—it’s all pitiful and leads to nothing but the end.

Then at home you can put your little books on shelves, and then you can look at them.  And despite that you keep grinding the mill.  Just as you get used to having a cup of coffee every morning, or a cup of tea—tea is even more sensible—it’s that way with writing.  Because you get addicted.  It’s even a kind of narcotic.

If you enjoy being alive as I do, you simply can’t help living with a kind of constant feeling of love-hate towards everything.3  It’s a kind of tightrope walk.  Of course to surrender directly would spell death.  If you enjoy being alive, you obviously don’t want to be dead.  Everybody enjoys being alive, even somebody who’s killed himself, but after that it’s no longer possible for him.  Because it’s never possible to undo anything.

You’re just tossed to and fro.  That’s the best incentive and impetus to live that you can have. If you only love, you’re doomed.  If you only hate, you’re just as doomed.  Nothing can survive without eroticism.  Not even the insects; they need it too.  Unless you’ve got a completely primitive idea of what’s erotic.  That’s out of the question, because I’ve always taken care to get the better of primitivism.  I have no need of either a sister or a mistress. You’ve got all that inside yourself; sometimes you can even exploit it, if you’re in the mood. People always think that whatever isn’t directly stated is absent, which is nonsense, of course.  An eighty-year-old man who’s bedridden somewhere and hasn’t enjoyed this kind of love in fifty years—he’s also got his sexual life in there.  In fact, his is a much wilder form of sexual existence than the primitive kind.  I’d rather watch a dog doing it and keep my strength.

Sexuality plays a huge role for everybody, just as everybody plays a role in it.  Everybody’s got to play that role, of course, because everybody’s got it.  There’s no such thing as a non-sexual human being.  Even if you were to cut off somebody’s breasts, dick, and everything else, he’d still be totally dependent on sexuality afterwards.  To be sure, then he’d be dead and a total sacrificial victim of total sexuality.


  1. Cf. Hofmann’s “last conversation” with Bernhard, a traditional question-and-answer interview: “HOFMANN: You’re content with everything. / BERNHARD: I’m satisfied with everything.  Completely. / HOFMANN: So why do you write? / BERNHARD: Probably because I’m so self-satisfied and so happy about everything” (p. 138 of Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard).

  1. “I am thoroughly happy...beautiful about it.” This passage appears in Siegfried Unseld’s obituary for Bernhard, as quoted in n.1 to Letter No. 524 of the Bernhard-Unseld Correspondence.

  1. “If you enjoy...towards everything.”  Another passage that appears in Unseld’s obituary.

  1. “Nothing can survive...and keep my strength.”  A passage that appears verbatim in Werner Wögerbauer's 1986 interview of Bernhard.  For more on this see the footnote to my translation of the first monologue in Hofmann’s collection.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 53-63.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, September 02, 2016

A Translation of "Wintertag im Hochgebirge," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

A Winter’s Day in the Mountains
From the very first days of my life onwards I felt at home there.  Detours drove me to leave, but my hopes and worries kept driving me back: back into the landscape of the sylvan pathways, of precipitously plunging torrents, into the solitude of a montane village.  In winter it is the snow which casts an imperishable spell on human beings, which gets the better of everything by which it is elsewhere confined amidst the burgeoning houses of the city, where life is unrelentingly being buried hour after hour and one’s worthiest thoughts are forever being trodden flat by the muck of a bitter existence between walls with whose fissures one has been well acquainted from the beginning.
You are well acquainted with the morning, when the canopy of clouds dissipates and the fog ascends above the frozen pond.  You are well acquainted with the tree that stands hunched over outside your window.  You are well acquainted with the village.  And when you step out up to the centuries-old gate in the shadow of the church tower and take a breath, the world behind you is one that you have never loved.  But when you now walk, onward, with a swift, vigorous gait, the way your fathers and grandfathers walked, you are struck by its simplicity.  Everything is simple; the whole of life is simple and grand.
You walk to the cemetery, with your collar turned up, your cap pulled down over your ears, and trudge your way between the graves.  There lie your brothers and sisters, covered in a meter-thick layer of snow, and the crests of snow on all the crosses are full of gaiety.  There is no grieving for the dead here.  When a person dies here, he nevertheless remains a part of our little community.  They don’t just bury him in some field for the masses; no, they carry him out and pay their regards to him every Sunday when they go to church.  For all their poverty, the people in this area—mountain farmers, cottagers, shoemakers and other artisans—believe in the fertility and resurrection of the created world.  And when in church they sing along to the playing of the organ, and their warm breath ascends into the icy air, when the altar boys ring their little gilded bells, they all feel: we are not alone in our loneliness.
What pains you about this place is that although by way of this road you are rediscovering your homeland, the people here regard you as a stranger.  They can see: he isn’t wearing a coat sewn by our tailor.  He isn’t wearing a hat; we wear hats.  He has different shoes.  He has a different face…and then when you greet them, and they greet you in turn, you stick your hands in your trouser pockets just like them.  It is too late.  You are no longer one of them.  You have become different.  Who made you into what you now are?  Why have you become like this?
The road passes through the village and leads up to the mountain.  Here stand primevally ancient suntanned wooden houses.  Within them you see little children pressing their warm noses against the frost-work on the windows.  Did you use to do the same thing?  And then you wander along the trails left by the sleighs that have preceded you uphill along the same path.  You feel like a newborn, as though your life had been completely pointless until now.  The stream running alongside the path is steaming and rippling below and is overhung with snow.  As a boy you used to take a running jump and leap over it—and back.  No, now you can’t do it.  Why can’t you do it?
The hay-barn is the same as it was years ago.  A long time has passed.  Back then it was summer.  If you step up quite close to it, you can smell the fragrance that seeps through the fissured joists.  You used to spend the night on a haystack, when the night caught you off guard.  You used not to care about having a bed.  It made no difference to you.  You must have been very young.
You can wander around for hours here without running into a human being.  People would force themselves upon you during the war.  There were too many people who were worried about you, who wanted something from you, who scrutinized you, investigated you, who forced you into their ranks, because you didn’t play along.  It was a bitter world chock full of human beings.  And that was why you became anxious in their presence.  But here there is nobody, although now and then a deer steps into the road, a hundred meters from you, stands still and waits, beautiful, noble, in the divine snowy landscape, and its eyes look at you, if you approach it, as if they had just opened for the very first time.
Now the sky is clear above the mountains.  Now you behold the gigantic crag; your gaze wanders over a hill on which larches from which a shower of gold once fell are growing…on the one side the Heukareck casts its mighty shadow over the deep valley through which the highway, which you cannot see, meanders; on the other, the Hochkönig towers into the blue.  But that is already enough—not to have to describe anything, but merely see it.  Just as the flowers of summer are destined to blossom before your eyes, so is the snowy landscape of the mountains destined to make its appearance.
After putting three hours of snow and ice, splitting trees, planks, and haystacks behind you, you espy a house.  The color of its wall is barely distinguishable from that of the snow.  Its roof is white; its clothesline stretched between two trees is hung with frozen-solid laundry.  In front of it a young woman is sitting on a sleigh.  Perhaps she has never left this place.  Cocooned in wool, she greets you with a laugh, runs up to you, and goes with you into the house.  Before entering, you knock the ice off of your cruel shoes, take another look back at the road that you hail from, but the fog is already cloaking it quite near the firs.  A real Christ child might have actually touched down here a few days ago…
“Isn’t that true?” you ask.
The girl nods.   They sit in the little front room, in the midst of their poverty.  The mother is cutting slices of home-baked bread from a loaf; the father is warming himself at the stove.  So you ventured out into the cold, they ask, and the question makes it obvious that they regard this city boy as a weakling.  Ventured out?  They work themselves breathless, haul wood down from the mountains through the snow on weekdays.  A harsh life.  They have little, a roof over their heads and butter and milk and a pocket calendar that you present to them; you contemplate them with kindly eyes.  They spend their entire existences working up here, in seclusion—their cries are inaudible even at the nearest farm—and they mostly die on the mountainside, under a tree trunk, rarely in bed, except the mother, because she brings her children into the world in solitude.

The walk back is long and the night catches you off guard.  By and by you see the stars.  They shine above you and beneath the snow.  You are freezing.  From time to time you are alarmed when a branch snaps, when a bird screeches, but by and by the village lights are coming towards you, and just like in the old days, years ago, you race downhill along the well-trodden path.  Although you are hungrier here than you have ever been anywhere else, this night in the mountains, this “being left entirely to your own devices” on the darkly shimmering earth, imparts to you an intimation of endurance and eternity.      


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 489-492. Originally published in Demokratisches Volksblatt on January 13, 1954.  

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson