Friday, October 28, 2016

A Translation of "Die Landschaft der Mutter," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

The Landscape of the Mother

There is only one landscape that a human being can truly love: the landscape of the mother.  Wherever in the world I resided, restlessly walking along the road, in terror and in fear of death, in the thousands upon thousands of nights of the metropolis of a forsaken youth, the maternal landscape loomed.  It is always the gently curved hill that affords me a view of the peaceful farms, of the meadows and summer fields shading into the dark mystery-fraught trunks of the fir forest.  There is your homeland, you think, and you stride forward light-heartedly through the brittle fissures of the present age, enfranchised from the ailing worlds of the uneasy distances.  Nothing in the resounding streets consoled you.  They did not squeeze you into the overcoat of their bygoneness.  You still falter at many turns in the road, but not a single worthy thought retreats anymore.  You are all expectation: is the tree still young?  Is the pond still deep?  Are the apples still ripe and sweet?  Do they already have everything, the corn and the wheat, in the house?  Is she, your aunt, still there?      

The most beautiful thing in life is homecoming, returning home to the land of village wind-bands, milk-tables, blackberry vines, and the consoling sun.  How often have you been prey to bitterness; you have left unpaid your debt to a certain person for a veracious saying he passed on to you, to a certain animal for imparting the gesture of protectiveness to your hand, to your mother for a thousand kindnesses, and to your native environs for their love.  

But nothing could be more soothing to you than the little piece of the world belonging to your parents, where you took your first steps from the one thing to the other, from the little kitchen garden to the azure shore of the lake.

All of a sudden you are realizing that everything is changing, and also that you are out of time, that the great hours of Being Here are crowding in on you.  Your life is one great act of passing by, of passing by flowers in bloom, passing by clear and turbid roaring waters, passing by mystical sitting-rooms full of wine and smoke beneath ceiling beams of the lofty centuries ahead of your breath.   To track down meaning, to sacrifice what you are, with all your heart; this is your variation, your Up and Down between morning and evening; and this is your creed.

Life is helpful in its struggle, but today you must put your nose to the grindstone more assiduously than ever, so that you can remain the way you are, and the way your forebears wanted you to be.  Dangers lurk in your world, in all places, within and without, and the dances of the modern age are dances of death, and its images are images of the dead, and its music is a requiem.  Therefore, I say cherish the farmer’s heart in your breast, and don’t let anybody rob you of it.  Conceal yourself and remind yourself of the great duty you assumed on your very first day, when the clockwork in your mother’s bedchamber also imprisoned you in its powerful rhythm.
Beauteous is the landscape behind the hill.  Between Seekirchen and Sieghartstein, beyond the mighty castle on the hillside, lies your unforsaken world.  Henndorf in the Salzburg district is the isolated native town of my father and mother.   Here their house of tuff is still standing, with a garden in front and a garden in back.  How many pieces of fruit have been carried into this house; how many coffins have been carried out of it?  The house of generations of farmers; that is what I will call it.  It has steadfastly outlasted time and the wars.  From it have emerged farmers, craftsmen, poets, and painters; straightforwardly doughty men and women who tilled their own field.  Each of them had a righteous heart and a cheerful disposition, the needful portion of seriousness, two strong hands, and a good, fresh intellect.  In the churchyard above the house their names can be read and their stories seen.—

The sun still rises in the east over the sacred and already aged landscape.  The hens still cluck, the ducks still swim down from the carpenter’s house to the mill.  The children still laugh through the window of the sitting room, the trees still cast shadows on the road, the cider still smells tart to us in the evenings.  The village is more than a homestead and resting-spot to me.  Its inhabitants are genuine human beings.  They create and pray; they say clever things.  Often, too, one of them goes to seed; then he drinks his fill and drunkenly falls into his grave.  They deal well with pigs, and with horses and cows as well.  They know how to bake crullers and how to sweeten pears just the right amount.  They are mistrustful of the new “erudition.”  They don’t allow themselves to be duped.  There are morons in every township, why not here alongside the Roman road as well?  But by and large they are a pithy lot.  The springs on the borders of the village rejoice in a single uninterrupted existence shared with the larks in the wheat-field.

How heartily I enjoy lingering among the trees at evening, then climbing up to the church and listening to the songs of the choir and inhaling the incense!  Rambling by myself through the churchyard in the fog, talking with my people—this gives me strength.  For they, the old people under the ground, have not died; rather, they have long since risen anew in exultant splendor to till all the fields around the neighborhood with the blessing of heaven.  As long as the farmer keeps sowing the grain and the farmer’s wife keeps singing her children to sleep with sweet lullabies before nightfall, we need not fear for the safety of the world.


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 500-502. Originally published in Handschreiben der Stifterbibliothek No. 13 (August).  Salzburg, 1954, unpag.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Translation of "Es ändert sich kein Mensch" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

Nobody Ever Changes

You really don’t need to worry about catastrophes; they just happen.  But perhaps from time to time you need to provoke them because on their own they take too long.  And then you die, and then it’s just no fun anymore.  But at bottom you’ve got lots of options; you’re really only too restrained and too tense around other people.  Sure, you can set fire to everything or even kill somebody, even go on a rampage with a club; perhaps that would even introduce some novelty.  Of course there are long stretches when you can’t rely entirely on your inner reserves.  Every place becomes a dead end, bollocks, it becomes empty after a while.  But it makes no difference whether I’m sitting here in Ohlsdorf  or in a city, because you’re sitting there alone unless you do something about it.  You can sit like that in Bochum or in Wuppertal too, or in some place where there are ten million people.  Nobody pays any attention to you unless you initiate something yourself.
Of course I yearn for peace and quiet when I’m away from here.  And when I get back here I’m also quite happy.  Then I step inside, but no sooner do I put my toiletries down somewhere than it starts getting to me again; I basically can’t stand it.  Just like I really don’t like Sundays; I’ve always loathed them, because everything’s peaceful and unnatural.  Perhaps that’s also a mistake.  Basically I’ve always fancied that I couldn’t live anywhere but in the country, because of the way my lungs are, but perhaps that isn’t true at all.  I was just now out there, where it’s supposedly so unhealthy, and I felt really well there.  Basically, though, I’m a person who can’t stand being anywhere for long.  I really can’t stand harmony; I don’t care for family life either, where everything is just right and it’s pseudo-peaceful; that’s not my scene.  My brother is just the opposite; he’s always raved about families, children, and harmony and so on.  I’m happy when I don’t see them.  All that stuff irritates me.

Of course nobody ever changes.  You’re already there in your essentials when you’re a child, and in this respect I’ve never changed.  I’m familiar with that harmonious family life; obviously I know all about it.  But since I need to travel I couldn’t put up with it day after day, but of course it’s all a pack of rotten, hypocritical lies anyway.  So I take off for some place and say to myself, “You’ve done this out of necessity.”

Naturally I have acquaintances who are pleasant company sometimes; they’re all really, you know, pleasant, but I don’t see anybody here; when it comes to human beings, you generally only have one in your life.  The awful thing about that is that as a result you pit everything against them, and yourself against them in a horrible fashion…Like with my female neighbors, I’m lying there with my lungs—“I’ll bring you something to eat at noon”—, meaning noon, then she showed up at seven at night.  Me with a 41-degree fever, then I told my neighbor, “Throw yourself and your soup right back out the door.”  When you come right down to it, you can’t get anything out of ordinary people, because ordinary people exist entirely on the surface, as collectable examples of interesting or spectacularly moronic behavior.  But as for any human qualities?  Of course you only have friends, if you have any at all, from a long time back, when you yourself were still nothing, meaning a blank slate.  I still have lots of friends whom I’ve known since I was two years old, but to whom I naturally no longer have anything to say.  You obviously can’t sit around eating omelets forever, and saying “Do you still know so-and-so?” and “Can you remember such-and-such?”; that really gets on your nerves.  That fizzles out over time, but these are still the only people that I could still ultimately, uninhibitedly, hit up for some money, for a cool thousand; I’m always telling myself that.  But everyone else, later acquisitions, obviously aren’t even as valuable as the trash in that trash can over there; none of them amounts to anything at all.

Of course people really have no idea of how superficial it all obviously is, and then they pick out maybe twenty sentences that I uttered earlier in the context of local politics; of course they’ve got nothing to do with these people.  Then I end up being on their side.  Then they keep saying, “What did you say back then?”; the whole thing naturally has an entirely different context.

Today once again I went somewhere; there were actual Nazis standing around, saying, “What a bum, sittin’ in the coffeehouse and not doin’ a lick o’ work,” you can hear them saying it the whole time; I’ve already put it all behind me.

“He writes, but it’s rubbish, because it’s of no use to anybody or anything; it’s worthless, and you don’t even see anything.  A parasite.  He lives away from everybody else, does nothing, drives around in his car, wolfs down food, sits in the coffee house starting first thing in the morning, scowls and makes a living from shady doings.  So definitely not by working.  You should always make short shrift of such people.  They just pour scorn on other people all day, they’re useless, pointless, and do nothing but make scenes and they live off their scene-making and try to talk people into believing that it actually amounts to something, that mind and brain actually  amount to something, but who bothers trying to prove that…?”  I’ve got nobody, so I know that.  For example, I haven’t got anybody I could rely on, who would be there when I needed something.   

At the moment I actually can’t even deal with being around a cleaning woman or whatever.  So here from some time there’s been this person who stops by, but she’s charming and goes away afterwards.  But in Vienna, the idea that somebody would come in and then…I can’t abide it.  Of course I’ve always taken care of everything myself; not once in my life have I employed a secretary or whatever, to deal with my writings, not even a single line of them.  My grandfather employed typists, even though he supposedly never produced anything, and spent enormous amounts of money on those people’s services; the idea of doing that has never even crossed my mind.  Now as ever, I type my own stuff myself on cheap, absorbent paper stock and leave it at that.  Anybody who thinks it’s not good enough can get stuffed.

Because you’d really have to have some bitchy girl who types everything up, writes everything, organizes everything.  I saw that kind of thing once at Zuckmayer’s place when I was visiting him; he had an actual office.  The whole ground floor was full of three-ring binders, with readers’ contact information, in alphabetical order; tens of thousands of records, I presume.  There were two people who had been looking after all that stuff and maintaining it and keeping it in order the whole time.  With my stuff there’s absolutely nothing, because I don’t allow myself to get involved in any of that.  It’s out of the question.

Of course you also have to deal with people who just want to shoot their mouths off, and most of the time you find yourself in the situation of one of the proverbial beggars who can’t be choosers.  That’s what most situations are like: you’re dealing with people who you actually can’t stand and think are idiots; you eat your dinner and try to put on some kind of show for them.  Of course on the other hand you can’t be completely alone; you really can’t do that either.  You can do it for long periods; I’m a past master of it, but sooner or later something’s got to happen, and when it does, I think to myself that in any case I’m naturally alone for longer periods than I’m not alone.

Sometimes the biggest cataclysms don’t bother you at all, but then you’re moved by the most ridiculous things; that’s the way it is; of course you’re aware of it.  Of course you’re weak; you’re simply hanging on by a thread.  A human being, who is delicate and sensitive to changes in the weather and has back problems and doesn’t know whether his bladder is going to hold out or not, how is he supposed to be independent of all these things?  Of course he’s at the mercy of everything.  And he sleeps, sleeps badly and is lazy and vulgar and brutal and gentle and sensitive and everything; you can add anything you like to the list—you’ll find it in me.

I’ve had every possible kind of relationship that you can think of with women and with men.  What am I supposed to tell you?  That every person is completely different and the method you use in confronting one person won’t work with another?  Then you’ve just got to find another method.  And if you look for one, you won’t find it.  Either you’ve got it or you haven’t; there’s no grid that everything falls through on command.  You just feel attracted to someplace.  And then you’re either turned on or you’re not, and so on and so forth.  Whether it’s a woman or a man, in the final analysis it really makes no difference.  It’d be much more beneficial if more men did it, probably then there wouldn’t be so much overpopulation.

I’ve got the feeling that men and women are only ever experimenting.  That’s my opinion.  Because cohabitation and relations between men and women is [sic] really always an experiment, from the man’s perspective.   And it’s not any kind of natural recreation.  It’s also much more speculative.  Less cunning, because women are much more cunning and certainly more speculative.  Because I very seldom hang out with other people, my experimentation is always highly discontinuous.  Often even for months.  Afterwards I experiment again passionately, perhaps for a couple of days.

Now from time to time you get a kind of feeling of pleasure, and the more you reflect on it, the more abhorrent you’re bound to find everything, logically.

Then things can also get pleasant again.  Then you get a bit of a feeling of triumph, which doesn’t last long either, because then you see again that the triumph is really based on very little, or on almost nothing at all.  So it can’t be changed.  But it can always be turned around or rather flipped.  Then you’d have to keep relearning what turning around is and what flipping is.  And you wouldn’t get anywhere.

Every person has his path, and every path is the true one.  And I think there are now five billion people and five billion true paths.  Human beings’ great misfortune is that they don’t want to follow their own path, that they always want to follow a different one.  They strive towards something other than what they are.  Of course every one of them is a great personality, whether he paints or sweeps floors or writes.  People always want something else.  That is the great misfortune of the world, ninety-eight percent of it; maybe we can even add a percentage point to that.  Every time you’re talking with somebody, you’re talking with an idiot.  But they’re likeable, because of course you’re no killjoy; you keep talking with people, you have dinner with them and it’s charming and nice.  And at bottom they’re brainless, because they never make the slightest effort.  Whatever you don’t use atrophies and dies off.   Because people only use their mouths but never use their brains, they get highly developed palates and chins, but there’s nothing left in their brains.  That’s the way it usually is.

I make sure that I’m as independent as possible from everything and everybody.  That’s always the first requirement, because it’s only then that you can act completely differently.  Even by yourself.   That’s the only way it can happen.

Humanity is logically always getting more intelligent, because it’s at the end of time, because there’s more and more inside it than fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, and so on.  That is on the one hand a step forward, as they say, but on the other hand, it naturally gets more and more spiteful the more it knows.  Because of course it sees more and more.  And people today see a lot more than people ten years ago, because of course they had no way of knowing what would be happening in ten years.  All that’s a part of us now.  And so we’re much smarter.  And if Wittgenstein were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing the way he did back then anymore.  In other words it’s less valuable than if Wittgenstein’s brain were thinking it today.  In that case there would of course be more stuff inside it now than then, but Wittgenstein’s brain isn’t around anymore.
I think it’s all very good.  They’re sentences1 that strictly speaking just fall apart again and dissolve into nothing, but they’re actually very well constructed and stir the imagination more than most of the others that have ever been written.  

If any elegant people have stopped by here, they’ve always been Wittgensteins.  Of course I never knew him personally.  I only knew his nephew.  The family owned a peninsula and some mountainside houses; those people have long been filthy rich, right up until today.   At some point they got rich, I have no idea when, and the same goes for the Köcherts, the Viennese jewelers; of course they’re all related; the Wittgensteins, Köcherts, have those palatial houses in Vienna and have been patrons of the arts for two hundred years, and Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms and everybody else they wanted to stayed there overnight and lived there and wrote pieces of music for them; really well-to-do people for whom money, even millions, was no object.  You can calmly give away seven million when you’ve got a hundred.  And I can calmly go to any village anywhere and “simplify” myself as a schoolteacher if I have four million pounds in the Bank of England.  But that’s really not so unpleasant.  You just can’t get by on it.  You see all these people constantly looking for exits and always on the run.  Everybody always is.  Even the chimneysweep.  Until at some point he never comes up anymore.


  1. Here Bernhard seems to be talking about Wittgenstein’s propositions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 64-73.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Thursday, October 06, 2016

A Translation of "Der Untergang des Abendlandes," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

The Decline of the West

My cousin’s prophecy had fallen wide of the mark.  Not only was it not raining, but the skies were blue above the rooftops of our little town on Saturday.  In a fresh linen shirt, with a prayer book under my arm, and even with my head held a bit higher than usually, I walked up to the parish house.  It was there that I was supposed to receive from Father Zephyrin Kiderlen my final instructions on how to conduct myself on the following Sunday.

After the priest’s fat cook Marie came to the front door and let me in, I ambled across a plush purple carpet towards the priest’s study.

“Softly,” whispered Marie.

She was responsible for maintaining peace and order in the house.  “Knock twice,” she said.  On the outer door, and on the inner one.  And make sure that you never stop bowing.”  She said this and much else as though I were setting foot for the very first time in this peaceful, near-palatial house, which was seldom visited by anybody, at most by me, and by a couple of other people, and at certain times, but never before the harvest of the wall-pears, by the archbishop in his purple vestment.

I knocked.

When I was given permission to enter, I opened the door and poked my head into the gap between it and a fishing rod.  My gaze sought out the priest, who, as always at this time of day, was sitting behind the armrest of his upholstered desk-chair and reading not a newspaper but—and this was what in particular caught my attention today–a big book: The Decline of the West.

No sooner did I sit down than I began to wonder what sorts of things might be contained in this remarkable dark book, to wonder why it was as thick as my mother’s cookbook, and above all, where in the world this West that was its subject happened to be located.

The estimable Father Zephyrin Kiderlen, to whom I had greatly endeared myself over the past few weeks, cleared his throat.  “The West is here, where we live,” he said, “in contrast to the East, through which, as you of course know, Jesus Christ, the son of God, roamed after he had arrived in the world to redeem the souls of men and women…”

I had already heard about all that.  And also about the olive trees and the cypresses, about the Virgin Mary, Bethlehem, and a bunch of other things on the banks of the Jordan.  But nobody had ever before told me that I lived in the West.

“The West stretches from the East across the Mediterranean to the far north,” said the priest.

He took something out of a strongbox.

Now I wanted to know why this place, which to the best of my knowledge had not only a west but also an east, not to mention a north and south, was called “the West.”
Zephyrin Kiderlen, whose sister sang the strangest songs to her own plodding accompaniment on the organ every Sunday, took his pipe in his hands and packed its brown bowl with fragrant tobacco.

“This tobacco,” he said, “comes from the East, from somewhere not far from Jerusalem.”
He lit the pipe.

“The West,” he resumed in his gentle voice, “is what they call our region of the earth, because the sun, after it has risen in the morning, sets on us in the evening.”
This made everything completely clear to me.

“You of course know where the sun rises in the morning and where it sets in the evening.  Or do you not know?  Over there, where it rises, is the east; over there, where it sets, is the west.”

I nodded.

The priest savored his pipe.  He sucked on its mouthpiece, and each time he did this his cheeks were drawn inwards.  When he blew out the smoke, they turned red like two apples shimmering in the morning sun.

“And what’s in that big book?” I wanted to know.  “Can so much be written about this West?”

The old man in the black coat could not help laughing out loud.  He could not even help coughing.  He started choking; his face turned beet red.  I sat motionlessly across from him, with my hands in my lap.  Then my gaze glided, slowly, meanderingly, over the mountains of books that were piled up on every side of the room.

Have all these been written by people? I thought.  By clever people?  By poets, by…
Now I wanted to know why exactly this learned man, whom I had never heard of before, had given his book the title The Decline of the West.

“Is this West really declining?” I asked.  I feared the worst.  I clasped one of my knees firmly with both hands.

Zephyrin Kiderlen took the pipe out of his mouth and drew a deep breath.  “Yes, and if it keeps declining, it will go under.  For sure!  What’s more, it won’t take very long to go under. And everything that crawls around on its surface will go under along with it—”

I sat in total silence.  Now the thought of nothing in the world gave me any pleasure.  Quick as a flash, I said:  “Then of course I shall go under too, and so will everything else, the entire country, the villages, the cities, my music-groups, the deer in the forest and the frogs…”  I asked him how this West of ours could just go under one fine day, meaning overnight, and what sorts of things would happen while it was going under, and how soon we would ultimately have to deal with this incredibly bizarre business of going under…   

The priest sneezed.  He did this in a quite peculiar manner and fashion, more genteelly than anybody else I had ever met did; even his hand gestures …His name was Zephyrin Kiderlen and he was our priest, a brilliant man, the most brilliant man in the parish, who reported directly to our Father in Heaven.

“The connections are all internal,” he said.  “And whatever happens internally, inside of us, so to speak, you can certainly feel, but you won’t understand it until much later.  Your time has not yet come, in contrast to mine, which is almost over–but by then you will be a reasoning individual…”

He coughed.

“But let me give you an example,” he resumed: “When a ship on the ocean, no matter how sturdy it is, has too much cargo in it, and this cargo is unevenly distributed, then this ship—in conformity with the laws of physics—inevitably sinks, it goes under.  That’s what the West is now—a sturdy, overladen ship.”

“Hence the title The Decline of the West,” I said, although I had understood only a small part of what the sage had been talking about.

Zephyrin Kiderlen shook his head gently.

The room became dead silent.  There were no birds singing outside, at the windows—not  a creature was stirring; Zephyrin sucked on his pipe, took a breath every now and then, and gazed amusedly at me through his spectacles.

“It’s a philosophical book,” he said.  The man who wrote it is very clever.  He is a thinker.”
I immediately thought of the old professor whom I occasionally crossed paths with on the street, an extremely peculiar person who hardly ever said anything and whom I had basically always regarded as nothing but a fool, because whenever you saw him his nose was buried in a notebook in which he was always jotting down something.

“He is a philosopher—and he’s also not a philosopher at all,” resumed the priest.  “His name wouldn’t mean anything to you, like most names.  There are men who have a mind magnified and sanctified by the Almighty.  What they see is in their eyes life, an estate, a house that is pleasant to live in; in their eyes it is a tiny cog in the giant machine of the world.  Out of the teeniest and tiniest bolts they build the world…

By this point my mind had reached its limits.  I nodded a couple of more times as the priest continued speaking, but in the end I had to admit that I had understood pretty much nothing the priest had just said.  I had retained in my memory only a single word of his brief speech: knowledge.  And even regarding that word I didn’t know a thing; I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to begin thinking about it.

“Will a person really know everything,” I asked, “once he’s read this book?”

Eyeing me contemplatively, the priest leaned back.

“Nobody knows everything,” he said.  “The man who wrote the book, some years ago, doesn’t know everything either.”

“But then,” I wished to know, “will a person know what’s inside the book once he’s read it from its first to its last page?”

Zephyrin Kiderlen took his pipe out of his mouth and shook his snow-white head to and fro.
“Why yes,” he averred—he kept moving the pipe farther and farther away from his head—“one person will know, and the next person won’t.  People are diverse.  One person’s brain has received God’s benison, and the brain of the next person hasn’t, as I have already said.  A tricky story, Christoph.  Even among sheep there are only a few that can bleat in conformity with the rules of their art.  Most of the people who have read this book don’t know what’s inside it.  It exasperates them.  God knows why.  Most human beings, I tell you, are a vexation to books!  Of course they pretend they understand what they read or have read and think themselves clever and wise and have their noses perfumed—but for the most part what they understand is utter muck—and for the longest time their lives have been as limited as those of grocers’ wives!  And the most dangerous of them are those who give the appearance of knowing something, of understanding something.  The majority of worthwhile books”— here the old man, using his pipe, indicated a swathe of them that ran along the walls of his study—“never penetrate the brains of their readers. ‘It doesn’t ring a bell’ is what they say in our valley.  Everything that is unsurpassably beautiful goes to the dogs.  And whatever is unsurpassably beautiful and precious is also—mark my words—unsurpassably inconspicuous.  So it goes for everything on God’s green earth, my son.  So it has ever gone, from time immemorial.  So it will ever go, my dear Christoph.  Reading a book is exactly like praying.  You should do both of them on your knees and with devout attentiveness.  Today’s world is much too loud, too scheming, too unbalanced, people are too lazy and idle and wishy-washy to linger in the company of a book as it deserves.  Books, my son, are little worlds unto themselves.  When you open them, you can walk around in them as long as you like, without getting boxed on the ears anywhere by anyone.  That is what is so beautiful about books.  And such worlds still exist in our time, worlds whose mornings are cloudless and whose skies are broad, and in which the sun shines perpetually…

At this point, the grizzled priest concluded his speech.  He picked up the book The Decline of the West and flipped it around every which way a couple of times.

“I always take a sniff at them.  Each one of them smells different, better than the next one,” he said.

Then he stood up, took a couple of steps, and shoved the big, dark, mysterious book into some place in the wall of books next to the window.

“The important thing is to summon up the courage to step into the worlds of books as if you had just arrived in the world and had never seen anything ever before.  You’ve got to amble through their first few pages like a newborn, and then you will perceive the fresh morning breeze as it wafts over you,” said the priest.

I opened my mouth and pricked up my ears.

“Most people,” resumed the old man, “no longer see anything.  They bleat all over the place
like our neighborhood sheep, sniffle like dogs, trumpet their platitudes to every point of the compass, wear nice suits and dresses and coats, drink their coffee in conformity with a rigidly determined schema, and flock to wherever everything tastes sweetest.  Mark my words, Christoph, wherever it smells best and tastes best, there you must don your hat—if you’ve got one by then—and vanish!”

I now felt as though I had understood every word the priest had said.  This feeling came upon me just like boundless enlightenment pouring down from heaven.  A new world was opening up, a land of unbounded beauty, a land without end.

“Perhaps,” opined the priest, “some part of what I have just confided to you has stuck to that white skull of yours.  Someday you will repay me for it.  Most people nowadays just smile indulgently at the pronouncements of an old man…”

He opened the little grate-door of the stove that heated his study, knocked his pipe empty, and took a look out the window.

“Life is like a treasure chest.  Everybody can take whatever he likes out of it,” he said.  Then he glanced at his watch, paced a couple of steps up and down, and stopped.  A little while later he remarked that I would have to be in the church in a half an hour, and that by then he would already be sitting in his confessional…


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 493-499. Originally published in Linzer Volksblatt on July 7, 1954.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson