Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Translation of "Drei Tage" by Thomas Bernhard

Three Days

Day No. 1

…my first impressions, on my way to register at the elementary school, on the very first day of first grade…my route took me past a butcher’s shop, and on its open doors there were hooks, hammers, knives hanging in rows, all very nicely organized, on the one hand bloody, on the other hand glaringly white and tidy, slaughtering-gun apparatuses…then the sound of the horses, as they quite suddenly slump to the ground, those enormous bellies that are swelling, collapsing, bones, pus, blood…then from the butcher’s a couple of flights of stairs up to the cemetery, a hall for lying in state, a tomb…I still cannot quite recall my first day of school, a pale youth in the hall for lying in state, a cheese-maker’ s son…and from there, my heart pounding, to the classroom…a young schoolmistress.

My grandmother, who always took me with her, by the way—in the morning I would walk through the cemetery on my own, in the afternoon she would go with me into the charnel-houses—would lift me up, say: “Look there’s another woman laid out.”  People who were dead and nothing else…And this is of considerable significance for everybody…and one can draw conclusions about everything from it…

Childhood is just one piece of music after another, of course they’re all non-classical pieces.  For example: in 1944 in Traunstein I had a rather long walk to school.  My grandparents lived [just] outside the city limits, hence four kilometers from the school.  And halfway to the school [there was] a thicket, I don’t know what else.  And every time I walked past it, a woman would jump out and scream: “I’ll get your grandfather packed off to Dachau yet.”
In 1945 another story, another piece of music, perhaps a twelve-tone composition.  A friend of my brother, who was seven years old, I was fourteen, stuck his hand into the barrel of a bazooka, and he was completely blown to bits.  The place is called Vachendorf.  And I go with my brother to the funeral there on our bicycle.  And so I can just barely get my feet past the top tube, and he is sitting on top, in front on the handlebars.[1]  Along the way we pick flowers.  But halfway to the site of the funeral a young man suddenly jumps out of the woods, pulls my brother and me off the bike, tears up the flowers, and stomps the bike flat—in other words starting with the spokes, then he cuts the handlebars to pieces, then he ruins the mudguards, then he boxes my ears, then he throws my brother into the creek.  And it all struck me as so--I don’t know whether he was a Pole or a Czech…it was quite remarkable.  And we sat there on the bank of the creek and cried and went back on foot, and so there was no more talk about the funeral.  And then when we got home we told this remarkable story.  And there’s an entire series of stories just like it.

Two serviceable schools, naturally: loneliness, apartness, remoteness on the one hand, then continuous mistrust on the other, mistrust arising out of loneliness, apartness, remoteness.  And that was when I was still just a child…

My mother gave me away.  In Holland, in Rotterdam, I was shunted off into the care of a woman on a fishing-sloop for a year.  My mother visited me every three, four weeks.  I don’t believe she thought very much of me at the time.  Then of course the situation changed completely.  I was a year old, we moved to Vienna, but there was still the mistrust, which by then had become permanent, when I met my grandfather, who actually loved me, just as I actually loved him.  Then those walks with him—this is all in my books, and those characters, male characters, each and every one of them is my maternal grandfather…but besides my grandfather each and every person was…you’re alone.  You can develop only when you’re alone, you always will be alone, your consciousness of the fact that you can’t come up with anything on your own…Everything else is a delusion, is dubious.  Nothing ever changes…
In your years of study, you are completely alone.  You have a bench-mate at school and are alone.  You talk to other people, you are alone.  You have opinions, other people’s opinions, your own opinions, you are always alone.  And when you write a book, or books if you are like me, you are even more alone.

Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.  Out of solitude, out of aloneness grows an even more intense aloneness, apartness.  Eventually you change scenes at ever-briefer intervals.  You believe that ever-larger cities—your small home town is no longer enough for you, Vienna is no longer enough, London is no longer enough.  You’re forced to go to another continent, you try going here and there, speaking foreign languages—is Brussels perchance the right place?  Is it perchance Rome?  And you travel to every place in the world and you are always alone with yourself and with your ever-more abominable work.  You go back to your native country, you withdraw back into your farmhouse, you shut the doors, if you are like me—and this is often for days at a time—you stay shut up indoors and then your sole pleasure and on the other hand your ever-increasing source of delight is your work.  Which is sentences, words, that you build up.  Basically it’s like a model train, you put one thing after another, it’s a musical procedure.  It’s of a predetermined height, sometimes it gets as high as four, five storeys—you build it up—you can see through the whole thing, and you throw it together like a child.  But all the time you’re thinking you’re not so bad at this after all, somewhere on your body a tumor is growing, a tumor that you recognize as a new job of work, as a new novel, and that keeps getting bigger and bigger.  So basically isn’t a book just a malignant tumor, a cancerous tumor?  You have it taken out in an operation, and you don’t quite realize that its metastases have spread throughout your body and that a cure is no longer possible.  And it naturally keeps getting stronger and worse, and there’s no cure and no way of going back.
The people that came before me, my ancestors, were marvelous human beings.  It is certainly no accident that I’m suddenly thinking of them on this ice-cold bench.  They were everything at one time or another: filthy rich, dirt poor, criminals, monsters, almost all of them were perverse in some way, happy, well-traveled...

Most of them at some point suddenly up and killed themselves, and especially the ones who everyone had assumed would never dream of terminating their lives with a gunshot or a jump.  One of them jumped into a light-shaft, another one put a bullet in his head, a third simply drove his car into the river… And thinking back on all these people is as horrifying as it is pleasant.  It’s like when you’re sitting in a theater, and the curtain rises, and right away the people you see up on stage are divided into goodies and baddies—and not only into good and bad characters, but rather into good and bad actors.  And I have to say, it’s an absolute delight to watch this play from time to time, time after time.

Day No. 2

The difficult thing is getting started.  For a stupid person that isn’t difficult at all, indeed, he doesn’t even know what difficulty is.  He makes children or makes books, he makes one child, one book—child after child and book after book.  He’s quite indifferent to everything, indeed, he doesn’t even think about anything.  The stupid person doesn’t know what difficultly is, he gets up, washes, steps out into the street, gets run over, is squashed to a pulp, it’s all the same to him.  There are brute resistances right from the start, probably always have been.  Resistance, what is resistance?  Resistance is material.  The brain requires resistance.  While it’s accumulating resistances, it has material, resistance?  Resistances.  Resistance when you look out the window, resistance when you’ve got a letter to write—you don’t want any of this, you receive a letter, again a resistance.  You chuck the whole thing into the trash, nevertheless you do eventually answer the letter.  You go out into the street, you buy something, you drink a beer, you find it all tedious, this is all a resistance.  You fall ill, you check into a hospital, things get difficult—again resistance.  Suddenly terminal illnesses crop up, vanish, stick to you—resistances, naturally.  You read books—resistances.  You don’t want to have anything to do with books, you don’t want have anything to do even with thoughts, you don’t want to have anything to do with language or words, or sentences, you don’t want to have anything to do with stories—you pretty much don’t want to have anything to do with anything.  Nevertheless, you go to sleep, you wake up.  The consequence of going to sleep is waking up, the consequence of waking up is getting up.  You must get up, stand up, take a stand against all resistances.  You must step out of your bedroom, the paper rises to the surface, sentences rise to the surface, really only the same sentences over and over…you have no idea where from…uniformity, right?  Out of which new resistances emerge, while you’re noticing all that.  You want nothing but to go to sleep, to know nothing more about it.  Then suddenly pleasure drops back in…

Why the darkness?  Why this ever-unchanging darkness in my books?  That’s easy to explain:
In my books everything is artificial, in other words, all the characters, events, occurrences, take place on a stage, as in a play, and the area around the stage is totally dark.  Characters entering on to a stage, into a stageplay, in a playhouse, are in virtue of their sharper outlines more distinctly recognizable than when they appear in natural lighting as they do in the prose we are most accustomed to.  In darkness everything becomes clear.  And so it’s not only like this with the images, with the pictorial element, but also with the language.  You have to picture the pages of a book as being completely darkened.  The word lights up and from this illumination it receives its clarity or hyperclarity.  This is all stage machinery that I have been using from the beginning.  And when you open one of my texts, it’s like this: you should imagine that you’re at the theater, when you turn the first page you make the curtain rise, the title appears, total darkness—slowly from out of the background, out of the darkness, words emerge, words that slowly metamorphose into incidents involving a nature that is both internal and external, words that metamorphose into a nature of this sort with especial clarity precisely on account of their artificiality.

I don’t know what sort of person people picture a writer as, but any such picture is bound to be wrong…As far as I’m concerned I am not a writer, I am somebody who writes…on the other hand you receive these letters from Germany or wherever, from provincial towns, from fairly big cities or from broadcasters or certain collective enterprises…you show up there…and you’re presented as this tragic, downbeat poet, and that sticks so long that you are represented as such a person in critical plaudits, in pseudoscientific screeds.  Word then gets around that this is an author, a writer, who is to be classified as such and such, and his books are downbeat, his characters are downbeat, and his landscape is downbeat, and so—the person who’s sitting before us is also downbeat.  Plaudits like that pretty much reduce you to some downbeat clod in a black suit…Well, of course, I am considered a so-called serious writer, the way Béla Bartók is considered a serious composer, and my reputation is spreading…but basically it’s a really lousy reputation…it positively discomfits me.  On the other hand, I naturally am not a light-hearted author, I’m no storyteller, I basically loathe stories.  I am a story-destroyer, I am the epitome of a story-destroyer.  In my work, whenever any sort of portent of a story appears, or I see any sort of suspicion of a story surfacing from behind a massif of prose, I shoot it down.  It’s the same way with sentences, I practically revel in nipping in the bud sentences that even possibly might come to term.  On the other hand…

I’m happiest when I’m alone.
Basically that is an ideal situation.
Even my house is really just a giant prison.
I quite like that; walls that are as blank as possible.  They’re blank and bleak.  It has quite a salutary effect on my work.  The books, or whatever it is I write, are like the house I live in.
Occasionally the individual chapters in a book strike me as being like the individual rooms in this house.  The walls are alive—right?  So—the pages are like walls, and that’s enough.  You have only to stare at them intensively.  When you’re staring at a white wall, you realize that it actually isn’t white, isn’t blank.  
When you’re alone for a long time, when you’ve gotten used to being alone, when you’re schooled in loneliness, you discover more and more things in all the places where for normal people there’s nothing.  On the wall you discover fissures, tiny cracks, irregularities, invasive insects.  There is a colossal amount of movement on the walls. 
In point of fact, there’s absolutely no difference between walls and the pages of a book.

People outside find my way of life monotonous.
Everyone around me lives a much more exciting, or if not exactly a more exciting, at least a more interesting life…
For me the life of my neighbors, who pursue very simple, manual vocations, is—my next-door neighbor is a farmer, catty-cornered to me lives a paper-maker, right next door to him a carpenter, farther afield in the neighborhood nothing but paper-makers, artisans, farmers—I find that interesting…as each of these strikes me as an occupation that, even if it’s being performed a hundred thousand times in exactly the same way each time, takes place as an event, is new each and every time… my own life, my own occupation, my own day, strike me as monotonous, unvarying, inconsequential.

The thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose.  Of course I could have done something completely different.  I have studied many other disciplines, but none of them are terrifying.  For example, I took drawing lessons at a very young age, and I probably would have made a halfway decent draughtsman, it would have come quite easily to me.  I studied music, and it came quite easily to me, playing instruments, making music, in other words, composing.  There was a time when I thought I was destined to become a conductor.  I studied the aesthetics of music and one instrument after another, and because I found it all too easy, I gave it all up.  Then I wanted to become an actor or a director or a dramaturg.  That lasted for a while, and then I started finding it very constraining.  It was really stressful, I acted in a lot of plays, mainly in comic roles, put on some productions…I also attended a business school, which means there was a time when I thought, why not, I could just as easily become a businessman, I was attracted enough by the idea to start getting trained along that path…

And from quite an early age I—right on through to the age of seventeen, eighteen, I hated nothing as much as I did books…I lived at my grandfather’s house, and he wrote, and there was a huge library there, and to have to be around those books all the time, to have to walk through that library, was for me simply horrible…and probably…why actually did I ever start writing…why do I write books?  Out of a sudden opposition to myself, and to that situation—because for me resistances, as I said earlier, mean everything…I craved resistance on just such a colossal scale, and that is why I write prose…

Perhaps it’s because by the age of eighteen I was an inmate of a hospital, I had been laid up there, for a year, and there I received what I believe even today is still called extreme unction.  Then I was in a sanatorium, for several straight months I was laid up there in the mountains.  The whole time I had as my view the same mountain.  I was lying in a simple plank-bed, with a gray coverlet, with a single coarse woolen blanket, and outdoors throughout the autumn and the winter, day and night.  Out of sheer boredom, because you simply can’t lie there opposite a single mountain uninterruptedly—I mean, of course I wasn’t able to move about—I happened to start writing…That was probably the motive and the cause.  And out of this boredom and what with the solitude and that mountain, which is called the Heukareck, and towers over Schwarzach St. Veit, a real six-thousand footer…when for months on end you’re looking at it, and it’s always the same…it never changes, because it’s on the shady side, then you either go mad or you start to write.  And so I simply picked up a pen and some paper and just jotted down some notes for myself and overcame my hatred of books and writing and pencils and pens by writing, and that is undoubtedly the cause of all the vexation I’m dealing with now.

Basically I would like nothing more than to be left in peace.  This is very exacting, and with the passage of time I’ve ceased even to be interested in changes in the outside world.  Of course they’re always the same things over and over.  Other people will have to deal with them.  I am interested only in my own procedures, and I can be quite ruthless.  And it’s all the same, it makes no difference to me whether I’m in my farmhouse or in some city, be it Brussels or Vienna or Salzburg…whether everything is falling to pieces around me or getting even more ridiculous than it already is or not…I find all that pretty much meaningless, and it doesn’t get me anywhere I haven’t already been to, at the very least it gets me back to myself…and once I’m there…

Day No. 3

Yes…intercourse with philosophy, with written texts is extremely dangerous…for me especially…I sometimes beat about the bush for hours, days, weeks on end…I don’t want to have any contact with anyone…I don’t want to have anything to do with anything.
On the other hand, it happens that the authors I deem most important are my greatest adversaries or enemies.  You’re constantly sparring with the very people you’ve already surrendered to completely.  And I have surrendered to Musil, Pavese, Ezra Pound…there is of course nothing lyrical about them, they are absolute prose.
There are quite simply sentences, a landscape, that is built up in a few words in Pavese’s diary, one of Lermontov’s rough drafts, naturally Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, basically all Russians…I’ve pretty much never taken any interest in any of the French, apart from Valéry…Valéry’s Monsieur Teste—that’s a book that’s been thoroughly thumbed through…and I’m always having to pick up a new copy, because it’s always going kaput on me, because it’s been read to death, to shreds.    

Henry James—I’m constantly sparring with him.  It’s a bitter foeship…and it’s always in flux.  Most of the time you think you cut quite a ridiculous figure alongside these people, but when you think that you can’t work…but little by little you gather your strength…you become stronger than the lot of them…and you can crush them…you can hoist yourself above Virginia Woolf or Forester, and then I have to writeAnd on the whole comparison is the art that one must try to master.  It is the only school that has anything of any significance to teach and that gets you ahead or anywhere you’ve never been to.  Nothing integral can be suffered to exist, you’ve got to chop it to pieces.  Anything that’s been done well, that’s beautiful, grows more and more questionable.  Moreover of course you’ve got to break off at the most unexpected point possible along the way…So it’s even wrong to write a so-called chapter properly all the way to the end.  And the biggest mistake is when an author writes a book all the way to the end.  And in your relations with other people it is actually quite a good thing if you suddenly break off the connection.

Melancholy is quite a beautiful condition.  I fall into it quite easily and quite readily.  Not too often or pretty much never when I’m in the country, where I work, but right away in the city…For me there is no more beautiful place than Vienna and the melancholy that I feel in the city and have always felt…there are the people there whom I’ve known for two decades, and who are melancholy…there are the Viennese streets.  There’s the atmosphere of that city, the city of studies, quite naturally.  There are the ever-unchanging sentences that people there utter to me, probably the same ones that I utter to those people, a marvelous prerequisite for melancholy.  You sit anywhere in a park, for hours on end, in a café, for hours on end—melancholy.  There are the young writers of yesteryear, who are no longer young.  Suddenly you see one who is no longer a young person, he’s pretending to be a young person—probably just as I pretend to be a young person but am no longer a young person.  And it intensifies over time, but it becomes quite beautiful.
I quite enjoy going to the cemeteries in Vienna, to the Döbling cemetery right around the corner from me or to the cemetery at Neustift am Walde, and I really revel in the inscriptions, in the names I recognize from earlier visits.  Melancholy, when you walk into a shop: the same sales-girl, whose movements twenty years ago were so incredibly brisk, is now really slow.  She slowly fills the bag with sugar.  It’s with a completely different movement that she picks up the money, shuts the cash drawer…the bell on the door makes the same sound, but it’s melancholy.  And this condition can last for weeks.  And I think perhaps for me melancholy, this constant self-administration of melancholy in tablet form, is the ideal or the only effective medicine…

There is always the non-existent conversation with my brother, the non-existent conversation with my mother.  There’s the equally non-existent conversation with my father.  There’s the non-existent conversation with the past, which itself no longer exists, which will never exist again.  There’s the conversation with long, non-existent sentences.  There’s the dialogue with non-existent nature, intercourse with concepts that are non-concepts, that never could be concepts.  Intercourse with conceptlessness, cluelessness.  There’s intercourse with a subject-matter that is unremittingly imperfect.  The conversation with material that doesn’t answer back.  There’s the absolute soundlessness that ruins everything, the absolute despair from which you can no longer extricate yourself.  There’s the imaginary prospect that you have built for yourself in order to be able to keep only imagining it.  There’s the attempt to brush up against objects that dissolve the moment you think you could have touched them.  There’s intercourse with actualities that turn out to be shams.  There’s the attempt to piece back   together a period of time that was never unified.  There’s always the same groping in your imagination towards a representation of things that by its very nature must prove false.  There’s your identification with things that have emerged out of sentences, and you know neither anything about sentences nor anything about things, and time and again you know pretty much nothing at all.   That is of course the quotidian element, from which you must distance yourself.  You have had to leave behind everything, not to shut the door behind you but slam it shut and walk away.  And everything time and again has had soundlessly to vanish from a single path and by its own agency.  You have had to go from the first darkness, that is, has ultimately become, totally impossible to master in a lifetime, into the other, the second, the conclusive darkness, and as far as possible, impetuously and, without any tergiversating, without any philosophical hair-splitting, to try to reach it, simply to enter it…and perchance by closing your eyes to anticipate the darkness, and to open your eyes again only then, when you have attained the certainty of being absolutely in the darkness, in the conclusive darkness.


[1] Many thanks to Flowerville for help with this sentence.

Source: Thomas Bernhard. Der Italiener (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989), pp. 78-90.   This book comprises Bernhard's screenplay to Der Italiener, a film directed by Ferry Radax; a fragment--also entitled Der Italiener--upon which the screenplay is based; the above texta modified transcript of a monologue delivered by Bernhard in an another film directed by Radax; and a brief afterword by Bernhard.  A complete translation of the book in PDF format is available here.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson


Unknown said...

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Cy Lester said...

Once more, the Unauthorised Translator has rescued more literary Bernhard tidbits from oblivion for this famished English monoglot reader. No text by Bernhard is excelled by any of his contemporaries' literary remains. For which I am truly grateful for being able to read.

Dana said...

Dear Douglas Robertson, Thank you so much o this intelligent, beautiful translation. I am using it in my review of a 2023 Wiener Festwochen performance piece Melancholy Ground in the online Plays International & Europe theatre magazine. It is such a rarity to find a translator of your caliber and discrimination sharing with the world at large. How lucky we are!