Rats, Mice, and Day Laborers
If I weren’t living here, the house wouldn’t be here anymore. It was a ruin. Because everybody spurned the house. I was the only one who settled here. Except that for decades I had company. There were quite a lot of rats, mice, and day laborers here. And today there are just other people and animals.
There’s basically only one sensible aspect to it—that it forces you to do something as a distraction, something that’s a counterweight, namely, farming. Of course it was all very interesting, when you plunge into debt and are fighting a running battle for fifteen years, and so you feel pressure, and naturally you can also work your way out of it. So it’s also sensible in that way. But I’ve never felt at home in the neighborhood; at most I’ve felt attached to the house, because of course I know everything about it, down to every last stone, where it’s going, where it’s been, but the neighborhood…
I don’t do any walking or anything else around here either. I drive to Gmunden just to read the newspapers, and of course I find the town hideous anyway, and then I never even know what I’m doing there—and then to come back and do some work? Of course you can’t force it, and then the urge for it isn’t there either. And if it doesn’t happen here then there’s always Vienna. There there’s a noisy street, a tiny apartment, and things function much more smoothly there. And here, where it’s peaceful, where you would say it’s ideal, most of the time nothing whatsoever happens. Then I sit here and think to myself, “This is really ghastly.” Here it’s beautiful and all. But it doesn’t give me the urge to produce anything, and here I don’t even have anybody I’d really, really want to go see and can go see. And then for over seventeen years these scheming people with their visits and their chattering and raving. They don’t do you any good at all. Still, I prefer being preyed upon here to being other people’s guest. Then you go to their house and do your jester’s act and entertain everybody at the party for six hours, until they all fall over and are knackered. And then I drive home. But what have I gotten out of it then, apart from a so-called good meal, which wasn’t all that good anyway? The people say it’ll be really exceptionally good, and you come home and feel sullied instead. Or you go to see people with lots of children, because you sometimes want that yourself too. I’ve quite enjoyed that, for an hour, but for me an hour-and-a-half is already too long. The children draw pictures there and show them off. Then they put on a play, and their parents are fascinated. But it’s all actually ghastly. And their lives are completely empty; these people have really got completely empty lives; they’ve really got nothing but their children and a job and otherwise nothing, otherwise absolutely nothing. Not a speck of imagination, and no interests of any kind either, nothing of any kind at all. They spout such utterly inane blather, and their children, who of course are charming and wonderful, become exactly like them: insignificant, abhorrent adults, fat or thin, but stupid. And then I naturally say to myself, when I get back here, “Thank God that’s all out of the way,” and shut the door, and have a place where I can at least run to and fro as I please. Of course that’s why I didn’t answer the telephone just now. Of course it’s an unlisted number. I always know who might be calling. There are six or seven people, and then I mull over who it could be. I don’t want to hear or see anything else today. And if I were to go there now, I naturally already know I’d have a terrible time. I’d have to explain myself again and whatnot, and that simply means I can’t allow myself to go there.
Back then it was still quite a strange little neighborhood with sunken roads. It just looked completely different—so no asphalt; there was none of that here back then. And there were dung-heaps all over the place inside the courtyard. And if you lived here you were either a farmer or you were nothing. Insufferable from every point of view. And I let the people around here know as much. And then they kept saying, “He’s got to go back to where he came from.” For years. To this day the father of my neighbor across the road hasn’t once said hi to me. It’s been twenty years, and he still hasn’t said hi to me. For the first half-year I always said hi to him, until I finally realized that of course you can’t say hi to somebody five hundred times. At that point you give up. Then I asked his son, “Say, why doesn’t he say hi to me?” Then he says he just can’t get over the fact that I’m not a farmer. So it’s a deep-seated animus. It wasn’t easy. Of course I came close to getting out of here a couple of times. But where to? On the one hand it was a conflict-ridden situation; on the other hand I didn’t find it all that difficult because I was familiar with these people’s mentality. Because my parents were also from the country, and of course I speak their language. So this is really nothing new. This neighborhood was pretty much cut off from every trace of civilization as recently as fifteen years ago. In Gmunden on the other hand things are really quite different. But here at the edge of the forest it’s a border, and strangers never used to come over here. They weren’t familiar with the area. And anybody who didn’t ply his trade in time with the seasons was completely insufferable. Eventually they saw that I wasn’t as insufferable as they thought. Even though there were some very, very difficult moments. And of course neighbors in general are difficult.
None of it is as innocuous as it looks. One day I came back from Vienna, and there was a slip of paper there, a rain-soaked slip of paper. And I thought to myself, “What is this, something from the legal authorities?” And on the slip of paper there were these words: Permission for Construction of a Pig-Breeding Plant. And so this man wanted to build a pig-breeding plant ten meters away from my house, because his property abutted that closely on it; it would have completely ruined my life. And basically his intention was to take this as far as the planning stage and then not to do it only if I said no. These are my darling neighbors. They’ve always been like that. And I can’t allow myself to forget that even as I look at their friendly faces.
This is indeed an agreeable neighborhood, because here there’s a mixture of all walks of life. Here you have landowning farmers, farmhands, and factory workers all living together right on up to the nobility, including the Wittgensteins, who of course all used to live in the area. This is a so-called top-to-bottom milieu, a milieu of refined types and louts; all the types are mixed together. For me that’s ideal. This isn’t a neighborhood inhabited solely by factory workers, which would be boring. Or solely by industrial magnates, which would make me puke. Here the whole thing is a kind of puree. It positively radiates agreeableness. In a big city you could have exactly the same thing. In order to portray something, you have to get to know it in its entirety first. You obviously can’t describe, I don’t know, some politician, if you don’t know him, or know him only superficially. And you can’t describe barn doors either unless you’re familiar with them. And so on and so forth. Otherwise it comes across as lopsided, overbearing, provincial, and ridiculous.
Like the musical theater in Salzburg. Of course none of it’s real. But naturally people, who only go there for two days or three weeks in the summer, stay in a good hotel, get waited on hand and foot and then go see some stupid opera—they’re lulled by it. It’s quite clear that in their eyes there’s something to it. But basically if they were honest with themselves: of course in Salzburg nothing but scowls roam the streets; you’ll hardly find a single friendly native face there. They’re like their weather, their houses—dank and dim-witted and fundamentally brutal. They’re unregenerate bullies and blackmailers. And none of them is ever puny enough not to be always talking about it. He wants to exterminate everybody and beat everybody up and whatnot, and shoot them dead and bump them off and wipe them out. This is the kind of language you’ll hear uninterruptedly there. But they just sell an extra pair of stockings and a couple of extra bras in the summer to the people who are lulled there; and if they didn’t they wouldn’t bother putting on such a show. Because of course they’re completely fed up with it.
Everybody’s got his own thing; you obviously can’t participate in everything. For me it’s purely a question of climate. Here you naturally get to that point very quickly, because then you’re in that kind of mood, one where you don’t want to read music or anything else, because everything horrifies you, but then you can still disappear, as long as you’re able to. When I can’t anymore ever, I’ll just stop. Of course I always live exactly the way I like to live, and that’s that.
Of course it makes no difference where you live; of course I’m not a proper small farmer who’s tied down to this place. It’s all totally insufferable; of course you’ve only got to turn on the radio. They talk pure bilge that’s of no importance and no value. They’ll always do whatever they like.
It’ll nip itself in the bud, this little country. You can’t be a free agent here; if you take a look at the people, if you line them all up in a row, it’s really impossible.
I’ve completely adjusted myself to this. Of course it’s like this in other countries; things really are pretty much the same everywhere, it’s the same rubbish, and politically the same chaos and the same tit-for-tat-ism and corruption and all those things; the people talk the same bilge as they’re talking here at the moment, if you take a closer look at things. It’s just like when you take a closer look at a good set of teeth, when you do that you also see that they’re not in nearly as good shape as they seemed.
Here it’s especially pronounced; it’s really atrocious. Which is quite strange, because this is a country that used to have so many people, such a mixture of people; they really should be quite different now, they should have gotten used to one another’s ways and be much cleverer; I don’t know why it’s so horrible; it’s all somehow inexplicable, a quite illogical development.
In German-speaking countries, including Germany itself, it’s really horrible. Switzerland of course would be the worst place of all; I really wouldn’t care to be painted there. No, no, the ideal place is away, far away, and in a hotel, so long as it suits you, and then on to another one. You can run along the seashore or in the woods, and you come home; everything is over and done with. I’ve been traveling to Portugal for twenty years now; to Spain or to Portugal; the Portuguese are more ingratiating.
Every place that’s perfect and beautiful is visited by foreigners, and then it’s invaded by swarms. With the EU that’s going to stop now, because once you enter the Union, you’re really finished. Just as Americanism has ruined everything in Europe, the EU is making everything the same. And the postmen will soon look exactly the same in Ohlsdorf as in Estoril. They’ll all get the same uniforms. Here they don’t gain anything in the way of charm and there they lose it. Everything will be pretty much the same. But we’ll get to enjoy it for a few more years.
Of course I enjoy living there. When I wake up and see the people, who have friendly faces—and they’re not imbeciles either. You have to understand that life is by no means as imbecilic as it is here—where people cash their pension checks and don’t know what to do with themselves. There even the poorest people live more sanely and take their time. They eat for two-and-a-half hours at midday, and the workers or people who’ve got nothing just eat olives with their hands, and their cheese, and their excellent vegetable soup. But there it’s really got vegetables in it, fresh ones, without all that molding. So I go away when the fog sets in here in Ohlsdorf. From the beginning of November I’m away, and then you’ve got to tough it out until April. Because of course as you can see yourself, until the middle of May, nothing’s moving.
Down there in Portugal it’s twenty degrees above zero and then twenty degrees below zero—a forty-degree difference. And then you can dine out really well there, whereas here of course you can’t go anywhere; it’s really all just muck and slop no matter how good it supposedly is. It really can’t hold a candle to what they’ve got down there, in every pub. And then for everything together—I obviously can’t itemize it all—you pay the equivalent of seventy schillings. Here you’d pay six hundred for that and lose your temper. These are naturally things that are quite beguiling.
And if you live here, then you’ve still got to heat your house and lap up this atrocious slop. And all of that together ends up being twice as expensive as when I travel to anywhere abroad. And then here you always get these atrociously filthy tablecloths that everyone leaves their fingerprints on for posterity. They’re shaken out after you get up, and then they’re put back on the table. And in Portugal, in every little pub, you can take it for granted that they’ll put at least a small white sheet of paper on the table. But it’s a new one for every guest, and here in Austria you find boogers on your tablecloth, boogers that dried up weeks ago. At our restaurants at best you get Meinl or Eduscho napkins—in other words, advertising abominations; down there food is cooked with love and life is lived with love. If they knew how abominable central Europe is, they’d probably jack up their prices right away.
Yes, that’s what’s really nice down there, the fact that everybody lives and lets live. Where I go there, there are two million Angolans and Mozambicans, in other words, blacks, who live in the ghastliest conditions you’ll ever find anywhere in Europe. When they’re living here, we can’t stand them, but when you go there, you actually start liking people again. When you’re riding the bus and school’s out, out of sixty children thirty are black, twenty are Indonesian, and a small minority are white. And they’re all completely the same and talk amongst themselves with wonderful ease. When I was there I didn’t even notice how different that was. And today, if three black people are walking down the Kärtnerstrasse, fifty people will be staring at them. Of course that’s horrible. You see what an abominable country you’re dealing with the moment you get back. Down there people live completely normally and let other people live; they leave other people in peace. So society as a whole gets by really well too. There aren’t any of these problems we have. There are only problems having to do with survival. Because it’s also a really small country. It’s comparable to Austria; the two of them have met with a similar fate: enormous colonies and an enormous empire, and then it shrinks. With no natural resources whatsoever and no industry. And now on top of that they’ve got to take in two million refugees. That’s naturally a huge problem. Of course we’ve never experienced that. Of course two million people have never come here; we got all riled up about a mere couple hundred thousand; we’re still constantly talking about two hundred thousand Hungarians we took in way back when—so of course that’s a really a huge event.
In that relatively big city, Lisbon—of course it’s not really a big city, and of course Vienna isn’t either—but it’s a reasonably big city, and to that extent both of these cities are ideal for me; of course you can run all over town, from one end to the other, at your leisure; they’ve got a hundred bars; you can stop by any place anywhere. And down there of course they also have the sea, and of course I’m a huge fan of the sea. Or at least of being near the sea; I need the feeling that the sea is nearby; it really peps me up. But then naturally when you have to check into a hospital again in the middle of the night—into a hospital run by a convent, hundreds of people screaming, wasting away, wheezing at eleven at night, people covered in blood, dead-drunk—the place is full of all that. And then you’ve also got the relatives, who traipse in from the countryside, with their admittance forms, and who stand there afterwards sniveling—it’s ghastly. And then you’re walking along a long corridor lined with cubicles with ghastly, filthy plastic curtains, and behind each of the curtains there’s a plank-bed with a naked person stretched out on it and waiting to be treated, and as soon as one of them is free, they shove you into it, and then nobody understands a word you’re saying, and yet you know that something’s got to happen; it’s really quite a shock at the time. But the doctor turned out to be a very good one. How can a person actually carry on doing a job like that?—when of course that entire scene is acted out night after night there. And then you get a catheter stuck into you, an incredibly old-fashioned one of the type that we don’t ever use at all anymore; then you get an insane attack of the chills and you’re put into a taxi and driven back to your hotel, where nobody lifts a finger to help you, and then there were questions, an air ambulance. It really doesn’t make any impression on me, all the fuss, and then you’ve got to change flights with the catheter and the little bag, the bag of urine, in your hand, and with your luggage, and then you’re carrying the bag of urine like a handbag; it’s grotesque, and then the urine’s constantly running down the legs of your trousers and spilling on to the floor.
You just fly away, as long as you take the Vienna-Salzburg route, by train, three hours, and then you’re already three thousand kilometers away and you hop out exactly the same. Only not as tired and disgusted, and it’s all behind you, the lot of it from Waldheim to the Kronen Zeitung. There’s pretty much nothing here anymore, because of course it really is nothing! And then you come back to this bilge here, to this ghastly provincial kitchen, where every kind of bilge is overcooked and stirred up. It’s all nothing, nothing.
In Portugal they don’t know anything whatsoever, Waldheim and the like; down there they reported quite well on every piece of nonsense; then I really marveled at how seriously they still take it, in a comical spirit, as if it were still some colossal empire; of course it’s all basically bilge. Of course I always go away when it’s like this.
I’m always happy to be going away, because there they speak a language that I can barely understand and that I couldn’t possibly ever learn either. I know enough to be able to tell them what I want. And then of course above all you’re abroad. Then you read a couple of newspapers; there aren’t any from here, thank God. That’s enough. Then you can also work again. Of course I’ve got to keep aloof of it, because of course my strength isn’t limitless. Of course it’s all a matter of strength. Because I know I’ve got more important things to do than get involved in shenanigans like that.
I’m not motivated to come back to Ohlsdorf. When I come back here—of course it’s horrible, when you go to a grocery store around here or somewhere like that. These dimwitted people; of course the climate gives them their physiognomy; stupid droopy eyes; they all go to pot; then they crowd the doctors’ offices, like my brother’s. It’s all really ghastly. And then everything is five times as expensive as in Salzburg. If you need a button for your trousers, you won’t be able to find one in a shop specializing in buttons. Because they don’t stock normal buttons like that. They have hundreds of trouser buttons, but they can’t sew any of them on because they’ve only got one hole or what have you. You can’t find a normal trouser button, and then you feel as though you should start picking fights everywhere you go, in every shop. You feel then as though you should say, “What kind of shop is this? You’ve got ten thousand buttons and not a single normal trouser button; what’s all this about?” And it’s like that with everything. I prefer a thousand people to two stupid peasants gaping at me like idiots. Then you go into a drugstore, and they haven’t got nine things out of ten. There is one great thing about Vienna; my apartment is in a block of flats, where you can disappear—in a normal, ugly, dilapidated, and run-down block of flats; now unfortunately it’s being whitewashed into rubble.
In Germany this show Saturday Club is always on television. I stumbled onto it by chance while flipping through channels, as one does; they were showing pictures of the Azores and even a couple of pictures from where I had been the previous year. There was a Portuguese man from the Azores, a peasant-like figure from a government department, like our chamber of agriculture, not stupid by any means. And face-to-face with him, a buxom Upper-Bavarian peasant ogress, in other words, just as you’d imagine: little buttons, puffy sleeves, and breasts like you wouldn’t believe—gigantic ones. So of course I turned up the volume in the middle of the thing. I was so dumbfounded and so fascinated that that was happening to me. A place that I love so much and then basically these ghastly images come along. And then you see these people there and peasants and animals and pastures, so quite magnificent. Then the presenter said to the peasant woman, the Upper Bavarian—but he said it very nicely—“So, wouldn’t you like to live there?” “Naw, Ah’d nayver wanna go thyer!” It was really insufferable! Now he’s sitting there next to her, so that he’s just got to say something. But she didn’t have a glimmer of anything whatsoever: ““Naw, Ah’d nayver wanna go thyer!” Now they’ve finally translated it, and what is he supposed to say to that? She’s had eight or nine children, I think, so she’s a real matron. “Would you like your daughter to get married there?” “Why, it’s such a horrible place, and they’re so fa-a-ar awye!”—she kept saying this. “They’re so fa-a-ar- awye!” Courtesy was out of the question! Even if you’re convinced the place is worthless, for the sake of somebody who’s from there you should go to a little trouble anyhow. But no, this abominable talk just blatantly gushes out, like a pulmonary hemorrhage. And she kept saying: “They’re so fa-a-ar- awaye!” But he tried to say, “But perhaps it would have something to recommend it, on account of the EU and pollution and all that…” “Why, it’s so fa-a-ar awye, Ah’d nayver wanna..” Unbearable. And I thought to myself, that’s the way it is, and from this you get a complete picture of the people over there in Bavaria and around here. Of course they’re quite similar because of course Bavaria and here is all the same place. I’d like to see it again. Incredible. It was so awful! At the end he was sitting there like a wet poodle. He was a nice guy. But there was nothing left at the end; she smashed everything to pieces.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991), pp. 110-125.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson