“I’ll be here just a bit longer.”
Thomas Bernhard in His Last Interview
“I’m deathly ill; please keep that in mind. But I enjoy hanging out with you; you know that.”
During all my conversations with Thomas Bernhard over the years, I was always worried that they would break down. Throughout these conversations, I was always focused on their end. Everything else was a surprise. A game at the edge of the abyss.
As this book was being compiled, it became evident that the only form that could do full justice to Thomas Bernhard as an author was the monologue, and that accordingly the interviewer’s questions would have to be omitted. The last conversation that I had with him before his death was different: Bernhard spoke more slowly, and he was in pain. (“It’s getting close to the end.”) It is therefore reproduced here in its entirety, as a dialogue.
Kurt Hofmann, autumn 1990
BERNHARD: Oh God.
HOFMANN: Hello, Mr. Bernhard.
HOFMANN: I took what you told me seriously. If I was in the neighborhood, I was supposed to stop by, even in Ottnang, and I also sent a telegram…
BERNHARD: Quite possibly. It’ll be just fine.
HOFMANN: Ottnang is more pleasant, more peaceful.
BERNHARD: But not for everybody. Take Handke and set him down here. After three days he’ll go running in tears to his daughter. That’s the way it is. But today I can’t say a single thing to you. I’m not doing anything like that today. You can do what you like, but without me.
HOFMANN: That’s hardly going to be possible.
BERNHARD: There’s not a thing you can get out of me, because what am I supposed to say now?
HOFMANN: I’ll ask you that first.
BERNHARD: I’ve already seen you coming up to me like a murderer, at the hillside in the woods. How long have you been waiting anyway?
HOFMANN: Two hours.
BERNHARD: Come inside. We’ll drink a cup of tea. What’s that slip of paper you’ve got there? A conscription? A conscription into the army of heaven?
HOFMANN: I’ve been taking some notes on it.
BERNHARD: Lovely paper.
HOFMANN: On this paper it says, “What ideas do you associate with death?”
BERNHARD: I can’t associate anything whatsoever. “Association” is actually impossible. What comes next? How would you go about forming an association of ideas?
HOFMANN: I would address the question.
BERNHARD: What’s that got to do with association?
HOFMANN: You know what’s meant by that.
BERNHARD: I know that people always mean something different, but that they say…
HOFMANN: Do you believe in reincarnation?
BERNHARD: It’s just complete drivel. It’s marvelous for weak fools, but I don’t need it.
HOFMANN: But if you manage to believe in it…
BERNHARD: If it costs you any effort it’s just stupid. Either you believe in something or you don’t.
HOFMANN: And you don’t believe.
BERNHARD: I don’t believe in anything whatsoever.
HOFMANN: Hopefully you believe in yourself.
BERNHARD: What do you mean? I don’t need to believe in that when I wake up, when I’m dead. At most I can believe that you’ll come tomorrow or that you won’t. But then it’ll naturally be three before or six past eight. Perhaps that’s belief. And belief moves mountains, as I’ve always heard.
HOFMANN: That’s just a stupid proverb.
BERNHARD: I can’t believe in such things, so-called serious inanities…Canetti is just as inane: “What do you feel when you hear the word ‘feeling’?”
HOFMANN: What do you feel when you hear the word “hate”?
BERNHARD: Requited love, probably. This concept—it’s all really just bilge. And when you think about the opinions of the great philosophers, it’s even more gruesome (laughs).
HOFMANN: You’re an especially cheerful person. I enjoy that.
BERNHARD: Ah yes, that I am. That’ll certainly be true.
HOFMANN: In spite of the things you’ve lived through.
BERNHARD: I was always a cheerful person. Of course I was never otherwise.
HOFMANN: But in your books and plays you also describe other sides of things.
BERNHARD: Of course you can write like that even if you’re a cheerful person. Of course cheerfulness doesn’t protect you from its opposite.
HOFMANN: Is writing a kind of liberation for you, or a protest?
BERNHARD: No, of course I’m not protesting anything.
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.
HOFMANN: Are you bored?
BERNHARD: Bored? No; if I were bored I would have already left. Somehow I’ve got to be kept from leaving. By something remarkable no matter what. I’m difficult.
HOFMANN: What’s difficult is that you don’t address my questions. But probably none of that’s important.
BERNHARD: Exactly, none of it’s important.
HOFMANN: What’s important is for you to do this the way you do it.
BERNHARD: I don’t know about that, but I’m doing it.
HOFMANN: I’m going now.
HOFMANN: I’ll keep in touch.
BERNHARD: Ah, do you really want to go already?
BERNHARD: On second thought this is too early for me.
HOFMANN: This is too early for you?
BERNHARD: I’m really never easy to deal with. Let’s drink some more.
HOFMANN: Let’s play a little game. Now you’re not Thomas Bernhard; instead, you’re one of his neighbors, a farmer.
BERNHARD: And now I’m supposed to say something about Thomas Bernhard?
HOFMANN: Yes. How long has Thomas Bernhard been living in Ohlsdorf?
BERNHARD: It seems to me that it hasn’t been that long, but he says 25 years. But he’s always still a newcomer.
HOFMANN: Have you ever spoken with him? Do you have any contact with him?
BERNHARD: Once a year. He very rarely comes out of his house; when he does he goes to church.
HOFMANN: Where does he go?
BERNHARD: To church.
BERNHARD: At night, when nobody else is there. He doesn’t dare to go openly. He pretends he has no affiliation with the Church, and so he probably finds it unpleasant.
HOFMANN: And what’s he like when you run into him?
BERNHARD: Shy. Very shy. Shy of people. People-shy and work-shy.
HOFMANN: I know journalists come here. Do they come to see you then?
BERNHARD: Then they come to see me and not to see him. And then sometimes I just tell them some stuff about him. The way he walks or the way he stands still.
HOFMANN: You’re a farmer by trade.
BERNHARD: Yes, I’ve always been a farmer. My grandparents were farmers, and everybody was a farmer. Of course my children are too…
HOFMANN: What do you think of a person like him…
BERNHARD: Who’s not a farmer?
HOFMANN: Who writes…
BERNHARD: It’s really just drivel, because it’s of no use to anybody and it’s nothing. Nothing.
HOFMANN: Have you ever read anything by him?
BERNHARD: Yes, once. But it bores [sic] me.
HOFMANN: What was it?
BERNHARD: I don’t remember anymore. Of course he talks pure nonsense. Of course he’s just destructive and perverse and all that.
HOFMANN: The closer I get to you with the microphone, the farther away you walk.
BERNHARD: That’s the essence of my theory of collisions.
BERNHARD: Otherwise we’d obviously destroy each other. Just picture it to yourself: if you were to keep coming closer to me, and I to you, then I’d pass through you and vice-versa, and then nothing would be left, thanks to the overwhelming force of the collision.
HOFMANN: Mr. Bernhard—social contacts—do you really always find them unpleasant?
BERNHARD: What do you mean by social contacts?
HOFMANN: Just ordinary contacts with other people.
BERNHARD: Yes, no—why? Of course that’s always been the only thing of any use.
HOFMANN: What sort of relationship do you have with the opposite sex?
BERNHARD: A different one every day.
HOFMANN: I’m referring to interpersonal relationships.
BERNHARD: Now that’s just the most awful sort of bilge. “Interpersonal relationships.” I think of that as something person-to-person. So it would be something incredibly kitschy. But of course it’s quite normal; you really don’t need to talk about it at all, because everybody knows the way he is and acts in that setting. And because there are millions of women, you have—or, rather, would have, if you met each of these millions of women—a different relationship with and a different attitude towards each of them.
HOFMANN: And what about sexuality?
BERNHARD: Of course that plays an enormous role in everybody’s life; likewise, it’s a card that everybody plays.
HOFMANN: What do you think of Freud’s theory that artistic creativity originates in the sublimation of the sex drive?
BERNHARD: That’s a completely weirded-out proposition, and Freud himself was a real weirdo. He was a mediocre writer, and he just set something in motion.
HOFMANN: What sort of relationship did you have with Paul Wittgenstein?
BERNHARD: A love relationship.
HOFMANN: How can that be defined?
BERNHARD: You can’t ever define a love relationship. Of course you never know where it comes from, where it’s going.
HOFMANN: So he was a good friend of yours.
BERNHARD: A very good friend. He was highly intelligent, more intelligent than everybody else, and he was quite often in the loony bin, which did him a world of good. And then he said, “When I die, I’d like 200 people to be at my funeral, and for one of them to make a speech.” There were, I think, only five or six people there, and nobody made a speech either. The beginning and end of a philosophical life. He of course was a philosophical guy as well, albeit in a different way from his uncle, and he was really quite musical and loved music in contrast to Ludwig, who was unmusical. He only loved Ariadne auf Naxos; that was his goal; he wanted to stage a performance of it on the lake in Gmunden; “We’ll make a big wooden stage there and perform Ariadne auf Naxos” with his girlfriend as Zerbinetta. I saw her—when I was a young man—in Salzburg in The Magic Flute. She was a famous singer, an American woman.
HOFMANN: Why didn’t it work out?
BERNHARD: Because normal people don’t want to have anything to do with crazy people, with so-called crazy people. Now there, where Ariadne should have been performed, there’s a sausage stand. People prefer that. If I were to ask you, “Which would you rather have, when you’re hungry, Ariadne auf Naxos or a couple of sausages?” you’d also probably opt for the sausages. Wouldn’t you?
HOFMANN: I’d opt for the American singer, so close to the water…
BERNHARD: Sure, sure, you want to die, but you’re afraid of it.
HOFMANN: How intense was this friendship with Paul Wittgenstein?
BERNHARD: The less often we saw each other, the more intense the friendship became. It’s always like that. You depend most of all on somebody you see as little as possible now, and when he turns up, the friendship weakens. It’s like that with every friendship.
HOFMANN: Why weren’t you at Wittgenstein’s funeral?
BERNHARD: Because I wasn’t here. I was out of the country on that day. I didn’t know he was dead; otherwise, I probably would have gone to it. Perhaps.
HOFMANN: When did you first sense that you were getting close to the end of your life?
BERNHARD: Nine, ten years ago, I think.
BERNHARD: Because I suddenly found everything painful. I think it was that physical sensation that you don’t have any appetite for anything anymore and that you can’t sleep more than an hour each night. For me there’s also the problem of being quite financially secure, and of no longer being able to tremble with fear that you might not live until next week; that’s also always gone whenever money is around.
HOFMANN: And has that frightened you?
BERNHARD: I don’t know; on the one hand of course it’s quite pleasant, but you’ve got to deal with being old.
HOFMANN: The adventure is over?
BERNHARD: Yes, somehow, somewhere.
HOFMANN: But you’re not in a situation where you’re going to say to yourself, “Now I’ll put an end to it all?”
BERNHARD: According to the doctors’ diagnoses I should have been dead a long time ago.
HOFMANN: For the most part people given up for dead live a long time.
BERNHARD: They live a very long time. But naturally there are exceptions to this that prove the rule (laughs).
HOFMANN: In Vienna you feel much healthier than in Ohlsdorf.
BERNHARD: The climate is much more pleasant. And on top of that, the chestnuts in Vienna outside my window…
HOFMANN: But what about all the strange people…
BERNHARD: You don’t have to talk to them, and apart from that the people are pleasant.
HOFMANN: As long as you’re anonymous it’s fine, but of course with your face being so well known that’s not possible for you anymore.
BERNHARD: I’m perfectly happy walking along the Graben…when you’re doing that people come up and talk to you.
HOFMANN: That must be incredibly vexing.
BERNHARD: Well sure, so maybe I should stop going there.
HOFMANN: That’s why I like your farmhouse, which is more like a fortress, and this house in the middle of nowhere as well.
BERNHARD: But you really mustn’t lock yourself up at home either, because of course then you go to rack and ruin. But if you open the front door you’re also lost.
HOFMANN: Now talk about me.
BERNHARD: Well, you know, it’s always the same with you. But I enjoy hanging out with you. From time to time.
HOFMANN: Do you also enjoy being in this lovely country?
BERNHARD: At the moment I literally don’t want to have a thing to do with it, because it’s reached a point where it just can’t go any further.
HOFMANN: Is this a feeling of powerlessness?
BERNHARD: It’s really just ridiculous. Look at a map of the world; get into a lather about Hong Kong; it’s more worth it. Of course this place here is nothing.
HOFMANN: But I don’t live in Hong Kong.
BERNHARD: Of course it makes no difference where you live. Of course I’m no small farmer. Of course that’s all totally insufferable. Let them do whatever they want.
HOFMANN: They do that no matter what.
BERNHARD: It’ll nip itself in the bud, this little country.1
HOFMANN: But of course there are other things that aren’t so horrible.
BERNHARD: Of course there’s no need to bother about those.
HOFMANN: It’s gotten late.
BERNHARD: Let’s drink some more.
HOFMANN: I’m surprised that you manage to produce so much in the light of your health situation.
BERNHARD: Well, you know, obviously I don’t do anything else.
HOFMANN: And are you worried that you won’t be able to write anything more?
BERNHARD: I’m always worried. I’m constantly haunted by the fear that I won’t write anything anymore and won’t be able to do anything anymore. But then of course it’ll come to a natural end, so you don’t need to be worried.
HOFMANN: I’m not worried.
BERNHARD: (laughs) But then again naturally everybody’s quite happy to keep living. Especially when they’re getting older. Of course that’s actually the most interesting part of it. In the beginning you plunge yourself into debt and even blackmail people; of course it makes no difference how you do it. You’ve just got to make some space for yourself somehow.
HOFMANN: Blackmailing people in what sense?
BERNHARD: I don’t remember anymore; it just happens then, whatever you like. Of course there are lots of forms of it.
HOFMANN: I don’t think of you as being that cunning.
BERNHARD: Probably I actually am. But then of course that’s also a part of it. At first you do something like that while you’re sleepwalking, and then you yourself wonder how it turned out that way. The end.
HOFMANN: The end?
BERNHARD: I was actually hoping to finish the ironing by now.
HOFMANN: The ironing?
BERNHARD: I’m sure you can’t iron as well as me. I am the master of ironing.
HOFMANN: I can’t iron at all.
BERNHARD: But it’s really quite simple; just as some other person plays tennis, I iron.
HOFMANN: I think it’s superfluous.
BERNHARD: Of course this is ironed too. The collar is ironed.
HOFMANN: Yeah, yeah.
BERNHARD: And most of the things that somehow feel pleasant on my body are ironed. Because if it isn’t it looks like a rag. And everything that looks ironed on its own feels unpleasant to me. I feel as though I’m being electrified.
HOFMANN: Does personal appearance play such an important role in your life?
BERNHARD: Huh? No. I want to be comfortable. Personal appearance used to play a big role; in my earlier days I was quite vain, and I certainly still am; I’m the same as I ever was—probably. But in a different respect.
HOFMANN: In which respect?
BERNHARD: Good Lord, there are an enormous number of things.
HOFMANN: Thomas Bernhard, the homemaker.
BERNHARD: Of course with the laundry you only have to toss it in and hang it up.
HOFMANN: For lots of people that’s too much.
BERNHARD: It’s really no work at all; while the water for tea is boiling I toss in the laundry, and when I get home it’s finished.
HOFMANN: Then there’s cooking meals.
BERNHARD: I never cook. I always have dinner at the tavern. At most every now and then I’ll cook some porridge on the stove, or when my sister is here, she’ll make something. And when it’s done, nobody likes it. A back-breaking ordeal and a sweat-fest, and now it’s supposed to be pricelessly good, and naturally it isn’t. That’s the way it is.
HOFMANN: What sort of relationship do you have with your brother, the doctor?
BERNHARD: Well, a fraternal one. It’s quite sporadic, ordinary, and yet it’s quite the contrary. Actually very pleasant. When somebody’s so different, there aren’t any problems. That’s the way it is. Where did you park your car?
HOFMANN: In the valley.
BERNHARD: And how did you get up here?
HOFMANN: In my brogues.
BERNHARD: I used to have brogues as well.
HOFMANN: You can wear them both day and night.
BERNHARD: Sure if you dream about hiking in the mountains…(laughs)
HOFMANN: They’re just hard to take off.
BERNHARD: It’s like with false teeth, you’ve got to get the better of them too. For two months you’re not allowed to get weak, now take a close look at my teeth. You just say the word teeth and they’re instantly hanging between your lips, but I’m not talking about my own here. I have other artificial parts; of course everybody’s got lots of falsehood in him; of course a false turn of phrase can have the same effect as a false set of teeth.
HOFMANN: Are you afraid of dying?
BERNHARD: No, death is really no big deal. I’m sometimes afraid of people, given the way they are, but you just can’t be afraid of death at all.
HOFMANN: In spite of your health problems.
BERNHARD: In spite of them. Because you naturally often ask yourself, “Is there any point to this?”; but when afterwards there’s another period when things are easier, then you quite enjoy it again.
HOFMANN: When you were a child you tried to kill yourself.
BERNHARD: But everybody’s experienced episodes like that.
HOFMANN: But not everybody has actually tried it.
BERNHARD: So many people I know have tried, have tried to kill themselves (laughs).
HOFMANN: It’s the execution of the act that I’m interested in.
BERNHARD: Quite a high percentage of them throw themselves off something, gas themselves, and, I don’t know—hang themselves.
HOFMANN: Can you imagine doing something like that now?
BERNHARD: I can imagine everything. But I’m certainly not going to keep living as a sickly invalid.
HOFMANN: You look tired.
BERNHARD: Yeah, so get outta here. But it was quite pleasant, like a kind of relaxation exercise.
HOFMANN: Thank you for the tea.
BERNHARD: Not at all. It was very pleasant. Really.
HOFMANN: Thank you for this afternoon and evening. See you later.
BERNHARD: OK, I’ll be seeing you. And do please stop by again when you’re in the neighborhood.
HOFMANN: How much longer will you be in Ottnang?
BERNHARD: I’ll be here just a bit longer, because afterwards I’m going to disappear completely for a good while; I just need to get some rest, and I’d prefer not to see anybody at all.
HOFMANN: What do you mean by “disappearing”?
BERNHARD: Disappearing means not being here anymore.
- Both this line and Bernhard’s contribution to the earlier interchange about satisfaction and contentment appear verbatim in monologues (“A Catholic Existence” and “Rats, Mice, and Day Laborers,” respectively) that Hofmann implies he recorded before this interview. In Hofmann’s defense I must remark that the first edition of his collection (identical to the edition I have used but for the absence of this concluding interview) was published in 1988, when Bernhard was still alive and hence in a position to protest any inaccuracies; such that it is more than likely that everything attributed to him in the monologues was actually said by him at some point.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991), pp. 133-151.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson