In a Convent for Fallen Girls
My mother was in a village here, and when she noticed that I was on the way, she went to Holland. Back then it was common for Austrian girls to work as housemaids in Holland, and she, this friend of hers, was already there, and she told her that she should come to Holland because of course she was being sort of ostracized; in a village like that it is of course bad form to have an illegitimate child on the way, growing in your belly. And this was in Heerlen. In one of those convents that have a wing set aside for fallen girls. And so they let her stay there until the child had been born. Back then it was probably quite a small town; now it’s an enormous place. I liked it quite a lot, those houses; they’re tearing up the place so that the curtains can hang straight and the houses can stand level too. I was probably there for just a couple of weeks. Then my mother went to work as a housemaid somewhere in Holland, specifically in Rotterdam. Because this friend of hers had fixed her up with something and she handed me over to a fish-cutter or somebody of that sort in the harbor. Because this was a family that took in children, and they had lots of hammocks, and whenever a mother came by she would drop off her child, so that was that. For about a year. And then she moved with me to Vienna. But the landscape of those nether-lands down there is very beautiful. I’ve been in Heerlen a couple of times since thanks to these people who owned a chateau there; they were the noble Stolberg family, one of whom was the Count Stolberg Goethe knew…they had this chateau, actually it was a proper castle, it was a marvelously beautiful house, an old house with a kitchen with lots of tiles, and the floors of the rooms were sunken quite deep; during the war they had stored grain, old beds and chests of drawers, and then they had to rent out the place and sell it. The N.A.T.O. chief, Kielmansegg, was there; he used to reside in that castle. It’s perhaps fifteen kilometers from Aaachen; I don’t think it’s very far from it. But wondrously beautiful. And the countess had an old black car, and we drove to the church at Aachen with her daughters, and I went along with them. And at the border she, “the cou-u-u-ntess,” doffed her hat, then we went into the cathedral and drove back. That was quite a couple of weeks.
It was thanks to one of the daughters that I was there then. And then the whole thing came to an abrupt end.
It wasn’t a simple matter being an illegitimate child back then. Naturally times were difficult all during the war. My mother’s husband, who was a little hairdresser’s assistant, didn’t pull in any wages, as you can well imagine. He lived more off of tips. Cutting people’s hair in a white coat in a small town isn’t exactly a job with bright prospects. Naturally my grandparents didn’t have anything either. When I was living with my grandfather, who was a writer, there was a really huge library, and being around those books constantly, every single day, did nothing but horrify me.
My grandmother worked as a babysitter in the countryside, meaning for farmers, and we lived off of her earnings from that. And you know how stingy farmers are and the kind of money you make babysitting for stingy farmers—so it didn’t amount to much. In spite of that, it was a beautiful childhood, even a stable one. I really didn’t want for anything. I had one pair of shoes, which I wore only in the winter; in the summer, through November, I went barefoot, which never made for any problems. Once a year the children would get a—it was called a Ruderleiberl—it was a kind of T-shirt, with stripes; that was enough for the whole year. And you ran around dressed like that and drank warm milk straight from the cow.
My grandmother of course was just knocked about as well; she was the daughter of a livestock dealer, specifically of a bled-livestock dealer; of course pigs are killed by bleeding and cows by slaughtering. Hence slaughtered livestock and bled livestock. They lived in Salzburg where the lift for the “Mönchsberg” is, in the house right next to it. Their son was Bernhard the master-tailor; he made uniforms. He clothed all the army officers. First he clothed the SS and then the American generals later on. He was in Klessheim, and when the outfit fitted well, the general invited him to Castle Klessheim, for dinner. And then it was terrifying for him, the sweetened American meat, and as the general was looking the other way, he picked up something, a cutlet or something like that—he was always telling this story—and stuck it in his trouser pocket, and in his terror he ruined his trousers. He’s not alive anymore; otherwise he would still be clothing Chinamen. One time he made me a suit and completely screwed it up, when I was fifteen years old or something like that, my only custom-tailored suit in my entire life; it was unwearable, it didn’t fit right at all. Naturally he had it made by an apprentice, because he thought, after all, this is my nephew, so we don’t need to put any work into it, and then I still clearly remember that I threw the suit in his face; of course he even wanted me to pay for it. When I saw the way it looked in the mirror, I threw the whole suit in his face, and with that my relationship with my uncle Bernhard was history. Then back at home for a long time after that they would talk about what a horrible thing I had done. Naturally they thought I should have accepted the suit and worn it; and then even years later they were still asking what he could have done with the suit. Of course he couldn’t have sold it to anybody, and he, the posh tailor, had taken a huge financial hit because of me. But he came to a horrible end. All posh people have to die of a horrible case of bowel cancer and therefore come to a horrible end.
It was certainly wonderful, but while you’re living through it, it’s decidedly execrable. I don’t think that’s at all auspicious. It’s my opinion that life has definite and intrinsic drawbacks. Because when you’re young it’s execrable, and you’re being attacked everywhere you go, and you never get a firm grip on things, and once you’ve got one, your hand gets chopped off right away. When you get older you still haven’t gotten anything out of it, because you see through everything even more clearly and on top of that you’re getting old. None of it is particularly pleasant. There may be some intellectual pleasure to be derived from such things, sure. I certainly believe that. And also occasionally from fresh air, but the air is seldom fresh. And I’m certainly no nature lover, and I really don’t have any pastimes either. When you grow up in a completely normal way—right?—with all the usual childhood larks and stuff, and then people tell you all your life that you’re a charlatan, and that it’s utterly impossible for this boy who does nothing but crack jokes to get shirty about some lousy dinner his grandmother cooked—that dogs you all the way to your grave.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 36-41.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson