The Past Is Unexplored
VIKTOR SUCHY: I am delighted to have the opportunity of welcoming you here, and I thank you, Mr. Bernhard, for making yourself available for a conversation for our clearinghouse. First and foremost we would like to clear up some of the mystery surrounding your birth in the Dutch town of
. You are of
course in actual fact an Austrian. Heerlen
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, I am nothing, nothing but an Austrian.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Are your roots in
THOMAS BERNHARD: In the Flachgau, and of course the
, which is almost in Kobernaußer Forest Upper
Austria, or the general
Wallersee area, all my ancestors are from there.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Let’s begin with some routine questions. You obviously have only just turned 36, but have you ever, since you are a very keen observer of yourself, thought about making notes for an autobiography or keeping a diary or about publishing such things, or are you no longer the type of person who keeps a diary or makes notes for an autobiography?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Naturally I jot down notes more or less every day, or I don’t, depending on what happens to occur to [me]. Mainly for your own purposes you do of course want to take a look at what was going on back in the old days, and of course you do forget entire periods, and so there are whole months of nothing but white space, like at the North Pole. The past is unexplored there.
VIKTOR SUCHY: How accurate are the smattering of entries on you in the literary dictionaries?
THOMAS BERNHARD: They are indeed just a smattering, and many of them are completely wrong. Either through their own fault or through somebody else’s.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Maybe we could compile a little entry of our own together. So at least your date of birth has got to be the right one:
10 February 1931.
THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s not entirely clear whether it was the ninth or the tenth; even I don’t know which. Until the age of 25 I always thought it was the tenth, and then one day I wrote to Heerlen requesting a birth certificate, and they wrote back straightaway that it was the ninth, they urged, as they say, they insisted it was the ninth. And so everything including my passport and these stories should be invalidated, but I’m sticking to the tenth.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And so by chance you were born in
in Holland … Heerlen
THOMAS BERNHARD: It was purely by chance, yes.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Where did you subsequently spend your childhood?
THOMAS BERNHARD: For the first two, three years I was in
, it was in Wernhardtstraße in the 16th
district, which is near the Maroltingergasse; that was where my grandparents,
by whom I was raised, lived. The next
stop was Henndorf, where my ancestors have [sic on the present tense] a kind of
VIKTOR SUCHY: Zuckmayer was in Henndorf…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Zuckmayer was there, and so was Richard Mayr, Csokor was there, and so was Horváth…
VIKTOR SUCHY: So you grew up in a literary environment.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, but I was there, as I said earlier, at the ages of three, four, five. Stelzhamer died there.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And then you moved to
THOMAS BERNHARD: No, then I was in Seekirchen, that’s where I started elementary school. Then, after Seekirchin, in ’38, I moved to Traunstein, which is on the Chiemsee, and I grew up in the countryside there and went to school there, in
, for a couple of years. Then I moved to Bavaria and into the boarding school, in other words the “ Salzburg ,” as it was called in those days. After ’45 it was the “Johanneum,” the same
school. I was one of the few who
automatically went back to the same school.
Now, though, instead of a picture of Hitler there was a cross on the
wall, hanging from the exact same nail. National Socialist Preparatory School
VIKTOR SUCHY: Let’s spend a bit more time on your experiences as a boarding-school student. Do you feel that during this part of your youth that coincided with the period of National Socialism you were under its spell, in other words, did it have a strong influence on you, or did it basically just wash over you without having any sort of effect?
THOMAS BERNHARD: No, naturally I was very impressionable in those days, in that period of course that was just what you were, and in a home like that, it was strictly inculcated, with reveilles and “Heil Hitlers,” but of course everybody went through that at that age; I got a decent number of cuffs to my ears from the housemaster, who couldn’t stand me…These were of course very strong impressions…the air raids and the stampedes into the tunnels in Salzburg. Then the Schranne market, which is across the Schrannengasse from the school, was destroyed, a blockbuster [crashed] into [it]. Then I went back to Traunstein and took the train to school every day, for month after month. But you generally were there only until , and by that time the warning sirens were already sounding, so of course for month after month school pretty much never happened. But it was romantic and really very… you pretty much learned nothing, [that was the only hitch].
VIKTOR SUCHY: So did you go to university after graduating?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve always heard this or that…
VIKTOR SUCHY: You initially had a very strong interest in musicology; that much I know.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, I studied music at the Mozarteum, its theoretical aspects, the aesthetics of music. There were some really good professors there in those days, people who had fled the cities that had been bombed into ruins, Professor Werner, who was an eminent scholar in
. We also
played instruments, but that was much less important to me. Then I packed that in and gave it up
completely, and just stuck to singing, for example in church, Bach and that
sort of thing, which I actually still do to this day. Salzburg
VIKTOR SUCHY: Then came your stint as a journalist; you were at one time a crime reporter. That must have given you quite a keen eye for the unsavory depths and weaknesses of human beings.
THOMAS BERNHARD: I think it’s quite a good school, crime reporting.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Didn’t you find it horrifying?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, you know, when you’re very young you really don’t find it particularly horrifying. In the main you find it interesting.
VIKTOR SUCHY: I’m asking specifically because I had a peculiar experience: I originally studied law, and I ran [like hell] from jurisprudence for a very definite reason. I was a working student, like everybody [else] at the time, and I worked at a notary’s office. And what I experienced there, [in seeing] how the heirs immediately started to squabble over [every last] chair leg, when the body wasn’t even cold yet, made me take to my heels.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, well, I’ve had peculiar experiences of my own.
VIKTOR SUCHY: The literary dictionaries list a hefty number of works under your name. I’d really like to review their dates with you to see if they’re correct. I believe the first work on the list [is said to date] from the year 1955; this was the radio play “The Three Holy Kings of St. Vitus.” Is that correct?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That was never even published.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Never published? Then how did the literary dictionaries come to learn of it?
THOMAS BERNHARD: It was supposed to be published, in the Stifter Library, which was a serial publication in
; in the event, it never got that far. Salzburg
VIKTOR SUCHY: Is the manuscript in your possession?
THOMAS BERNHARD: At one point it was sent by the Stifter Library to a certain count, to Count Dombrowski, and that was the last I heard of it.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Then somebody’s got to contact Count Dombrowski [and ask him] if he’s still got the manuscript.
THOMAS BERNHARD: No, no, of course the thing is absolutely atrocious…
VIKTOR SUCHY: It’s interesting, though, [as] your first actual work. Next the literary dictionaries mention the year 1957, specifically [in connection with] the short story “The Swineherd.” Is that correct?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, that was first in Contemporary Voices and then reprinted separately.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And immediately thereafter Thomas Bernhard the lyric poet makes his first appearance in print, and specifically in 1957 with the collection of poems called On Earth and in Hell, which was followed in 1958 by another collection, In Hora Mortis. Is that also correct?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s correct.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Then in 1959 come the dialogues…
THOMAS BERNHARD: in 1958, there was one more collection, published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, which was called Under the Iron of the Moon; that was the third collection of poems, the third and last one.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And then the dialogues in ’59.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, those are actually the libretto to a twelve-tone opera.
VIKTOR SUCHY: This was the Roses of the Desert?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’s always inaccurately described as a poem.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And it was actually the libretto of a twelve-tone opera. And who was supposed to compose it?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Lampersberg composed it.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Was it ever performed?
THOMAS BERNHARD: A portion of it was at the Wiener Festwochen, last year, and this May it’ll be performed at the Deutschen Oper Berlin.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And then four years later comes your first novel, Frost, in 1963, then the novella Amras was published. And even as we speak a new book is in the immediate offing…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’s just come out. It’s a done deal…
VIKTOR SUCHY: Gargoyles, again published by Insel. Once again, a question: do you still have in your possession actual manuscripts of your texts and books, in other words, are you still generally in the habit of writing by hand, or are these typescripts that you subsequently correct by hand?
THOMAS BERNHARD: It all depends. Most of them I do actually write by hand, but then again…
VIKTOR SUCHY: Please do hold on to the handwritten manuscripts, as literary history will someday have need of them.
THOMAS BERNHARD: For the most part I hold on to nothing.
VIKTOR SUCHY: That’s really too bad, because a person could use them to study the works precisely in their developmental stages, and in the case of an author like you that would often be very important. Did you make any attempts at writing before 1955, in other words, during your youth?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, right after the war actually.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And when you started writing did you still have specific models, mentors, works, that you initially emulated, as every young person does? Did you perhaps have one foot in the past, or were you an author of the present day from the very beginning?
THOMAS BERNHARD: In my childhood I actually always loathed books like the plague, because there were an awful lot of books around me then. Of course my grandfather was a writer, and when as a child you get the feeling that you have to, ought to do a certain thing, obviously you don’t do it, and you resist doing it. I started reading seriously at a very late age.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Can you still remember the names of any specific writers you emulated?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s all really hazy now. Charles Péguy and people like that, whom I was greatly interested in very early on[;] other Christian French revolutionaries.
VIKTOR SUCHY: So Péguy, Bernanos, perhaps a dash of Claudel…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, and Michaux, those were wonderful people.
VIKTOR SUCHY: You are of course still relatively young, Mr. Bernhard, but when you think back on this eventful period in which you were forced to grow up, do you think of any of your contemporaries whom you knew personally as people who are already significant figures, people you would be sorry to have never met? Or do you think it’s still too early to ask that question here and now?
THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s hard to say…sure, there [must have been] somebody or other…
VIKTOR SUCHY: But you surely must be able or willing to name somebody specific…
THOMAS BERNHARD: At the moment I’m afraid I can’t think of a single specific person…
VIKTOR SUCHY: Mr. Bernhard, you obviously figure among the avant-garde of Austrian prose literature…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, but only very warily…
VIKTOR SUCHY: “Avant-garde” is a dangerous word, I know.
THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s really no such thing as an avant-garde here; the stuff that a lot of people get up to here [under that heading] isn’t avant-garde, it’s childish. People horse around, which you can get away with until you’re 25, but then you really ought to start putting your mind to serious use. But if you’ve run out of steam by then, then you just keep horsing around, when you’re 30, 40, and then it naturally just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.
VIKTOR SUCHY: So does anything like a literary-theoretical schema underlie your own works? Or are they solely an outgrowth of practice? You do of course take a very keen interest in philosophy.
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have no interest whatsoever in mere superficial narrative or description.
VIKTOR SUCHY: This brings us to the theory of modern prose literature. I believe that in a certain case you must have been very powerfully influenced by Wittgenstein.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, he is after all a fascinating phenomenon.
VIKTOR SUCHY: On the other hand the will-screening representation, the world as representation, has a very definite and interesting presence in your writing. Schopenhauer hasn’t been especially well received in
. Where then
do you stand in relation to the big picture?
From time to time one suspects that you might have been indirectly
influenced by the novels and short stories of the New Wave, by their propensity
for the procedural. Austria
THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s probably unconscious, because on the whole I don’t care for those sorts of novels, which are of course pure examples of descriptive literature and are therefore a complete pole apart from me.
VIKTOR SUCHY: The most distinctive thing about you is that you focus on humanity’s borderline situations; this is almost existentially conceived. In your two most recent books, in Amras and in Frost, the borderline situation is that of either a terminal [physical] illness or a mental illness. Are you fascinated by illness as a borderline situation, in that you are trying to dissolve the positive side of things while depicting the negative side with exaggeratedly sharp lines?
THOMAS BERNHARD: [It’s] probably just the psychic tightrope walk. Stretching the rope ever tighter is naturally an immense pleasure.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Naturally from these books one might erroneously conclude—as many critics have done—that you were an utter pessimist. Speaking as someone who knows you personally, I don’t believe you are anything of the kind.
THOMAS BERNHARD: No, no, in person I am actually completely different from the way I am in my works; yes and no, that may be the most interesting thing,
actually, but I don’t bother to look too closely into it.
VIKTOR SUCHY: But surely above all what’s important is the borderline situation, which you depict with exaggeratedly sharp lines: the borderline situations of fear, of death, of severe illness, of mental disorders, from which you literally endlessly elicit new material. What is this novel Gargoyles all about anyway?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, the book begins, how shall I put it…it’s like a
range of mountains, it begins in the plains with a physical death blow, and it ends with a psychic one. These blows are the medical investigations of a doctor over the course of a single day.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Do you want your depictions of illnesses to be read at the same time as a symptomatology of our age? Are your books thus admonitions?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, perhaps.
VIKTOR SUCHY: That’s how I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays—as dramatic admonitions: look—this is what you are; if you don’t change, then everything’s going to get even more horrible. Do you think that there are subcutaneous cross-links between your literary works and music or sculpture or painting? Is there an element of music involved in literary production, in your own method of composition?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it plays a very important role. [Insofar as I know anything about music.]
VIKTOR SUCHY: And what working techniques do you favor when you’re writing a book?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s rather difficult to say, because I wander about for a year [at a time] and just mull things over and jot down notes and do absolutely nothing else and can’t write at all unless I get the feeling that now’s the time and then it just starts happening, and that [phase] lasts probably another two years. It doesn’t happen very quickly.
VIKTOR SUCHY: As your background is in the aesthetics of music, and as you are accordingly familiar with aesthetic problems, is the problem of form a serious one for you?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, the rhythm, you know, the rhythm of the syllables, has got to sound right to me, otherwise it all falls apart from my point of hearing.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Have any of your books been translated into other languages?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, this summer Frost and Amras are being published by Gallimard, and then in the autumn they’ll also be published by Garzanti in
VIKTOR SUCHY: But have you yet managed to have any experiences with the translations of your works?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Frost has been translated a second time; the first time was virtually a complete failure; they were attempting to repackage me for the French mind, and the result was really pretty horrible. And the second time they did a very nice job. It’s coming out in
VIKTOR SUCHY: Have you also collected the reviews of your works?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have to some extent, although if one of them especially irritates me, I throw it in the trash so I won’t have to look at it anymore.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Now for two questions of a very different sort, questions about Bernhard not as a creative individual but as a receptive one. Which theatrical performance, including performances of musical theater, has made the strongest impression on Thomas Bernhard?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That absolutely has got to be The Magic Flute—and Don Giovanni—so those two—probably everything by Mozart.
VIKTOR SUCHY: The brand-name of “The City of Mozart,” which is such a powerful force here…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, I was involved in all that from childhood onwards, and did a lot of work as an assistant-director, Shakespeare plays in
and naturally Kleist, The Broken Jug, or
Büchner. Of course for drama school
seminars I also wrote plays and produced them and acted in them. Munich
VIKTOR SUCHY: And as for the other arts, was there in any of these a particular work that made an especially deep impression on you? In the visual arts, [for instance]?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I fiddle around in a lot of them—in fact [I’m doing a bit of that] now thanks to Wieland Schmied—as my mind or fancy takes to them, on a child’s level of critical discernment–nothing beyond that.
VIKTOR SUCHY: We spoke just now about the avant-garde and about your own works. How do you envision the possibilities overall; in which direction do you think modern prose literature is headed? In which direction would you yourself like [to be headed]?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I’d like to keep getting more and more intelligent and more and more clear-headed, and because I live in the historical moment, I think that’ll probably be more than good enough for the historical moment I live in. Experimentation [is a byproduct of] helplessness and in my opinion leads absolutely nowhere or to fragmentation.
VIKTOR SUCHY: So as for the use of montage as a technique and other such things…
THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s an amusing game of sorts, [one that] can even be exciting. I think it was [exciting], 40, 50 years ago, right[?]
VIKTOR SUCHY: Nowadays it almost seems as though a person can produce a much more exciting effect by trying to be a bit more conservative, even in matters of form, than by experimenting.
THOMAS BERNHARD: A lot of people are incapable of thinking; otherwise they’d get absolutely no enjoyment out of playing games; if you can think, you obviously have no use for any of that. I mean, I can do it too, those sorts of things: in fact, I have done them with Roses of the Desert. I wrote some extremely short plays when I was 20, 21, and they were exciting and awful; some of them were even staged by Wochinz, with very good actors.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Yesterday I jotted down a few notes on some parallels I happened to notice. It seems [to me] that you’ve been intensely studying Kant for some time.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes; sure; without a doubt.
VIKTOR SUCHY: What then is your position on—and this is of course one of the central problems of the modern novel, of modern prose literature—on the problem of actuality, on the problem of reality? As a Kantian you would [have to] say that you pretty much have no purchase on reality because in your view there is nothing one can take for granted other than appearances. Doderer was of course of the diametrically opposite view: he said that what one takes for granted is what actually exists. I think of you here rather as occupying a position somewhere between Kant and Wittgenstein.
THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t think it can be defined.
VIKTOR SUCHY: I was struck by your attitude to childhood in a sentence from the concluding chapter, when you say: “Childhood is in no sense a home-base, therefore it is lethal.” That is the exact opposite of the position taken by Rilke and George, who transfigure, deify childhood, who say that childhood must in the first place be , according to Rilke. How did you arrive at this opinion?
THOMAS BERNHARD: The childhood we have now is the diametrical opposite of those people’s childhood; it’s obviously no longer possible to compare one’s own childhood to theirs. I at any rate always felt as a child that I was acting on a stage that was tangible and actually there.
VIKTOR SUCHY: It may well be the [signature] experience of your generation that you were robbed of your childhood.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’s [pretty] safe to say that.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And is it this stolen childhood that you’re thinking of when you call childhood lethal?
THOMAS BERNHARD: That ought to be seen in context now.
VIKTOR SUCHY: And talking again of the concept of reality in literature, do you hail instead from the school of Broch or Musil, in that you believe that we need to isolate reality using the methods of science and then dissolve it into the art form [known as] the novel, hence into the synthesis of the essayistic mode with the mode of pure storytelling? Broch says pure storytelling is no longer possible today.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Indeed, that’s quite clear, because it isn’t true, because the concept of truth is very problematic. The life, or the moments, that we live, simply do amount to the elements of a story, they’re just a bunch of plug-in modules. But [from] the way Musil wrote to what we’re going through now it’s still actually a bit of a hike…
VIKTOR SUCHY: Dr. Kaufmann, the music critic of the “Neuen Zeit” in Graz has developed a remarkable theory about the Austrian aspect of the formal aspect of music: [that] in contrast to the great classical masters, Schubert and Bruckner, for example, synthesize elements of addition and summation[;] they [employ] not the closed but rather the open forms, in which hence the plug-in modules are summarized and varied in infinite and minute ways. Does this seem possible in prose as well today? Are you striving for something similar?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m not striving for anything; rather, I discover it absolutely naturally, not [through] an act of violence, but just naturally.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Do you still get worked up about the hoary old dialectic of content and form? Do you think that there is such a thing as internal form that exerts a constraining force on external form, or do you reject that?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t reject it, just because something like it is probably always in play. Everything’s always the same and everything is constantly in flux; of course you can say that about anything. There’s no such thing as anything new, and yet everything old is [always] fading away.
VIKTOR SUCHY: Indeed; let me offer you my sincerest congratulations on your new novel, and I wish the book every possible success. I thank you for talking with me today, and I hope we can continue our conversation when some new books by Thomas Bernhard are next in the offing.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur. Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons. Herausgegeben von Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth. Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles. Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).