Monday, February 03, 2014

A Translation of "Ich fülle die Leere mit Sätzen aus" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Nicole Casanova on May 17, 1978).

“I Fill the Void with Sentences” [1]

NICOLE CASANOVA: Thomas Bernhard, does it sound right to you when I say that you live and work [and] move around within an empty space, the space of metaphysics?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Perhaps it is an empty space that I’m filling.  [Everybody] fills the void on his own [somehow].  I fill it with sentences.  I try to have thoughts, and the thoughts turn into sentences, if I’m lucky.  And by doing this I can manage to exist—perhaps.  But the void always bobs back up again, as a matter of course.  One could always throw oneself into it, and that would be the end, but that would be a terrible blow to our curiosity.  In the empty void something has always got to happen.

NICOLE CASANOVA: Thanks to language?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes.  That is my passion.  It’s like the case of a circus performer who has to dance or else he’ll kill himself.  And I have to write or else I’ll kill myself.  And for some time now I haven’t felt like killing myself, although I used to feel the compulsion [to do so] very keenly.  But some years ago it tailed off.  I never know when it’ll come back; from time to time it’s there again, but only briefly.  Killing yourself makes just as little sense as continuing to live does.

NICOLE CASANOVA: You’ve got to cast your lot with things that can [actually] happen.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, at first nothing happens, and then something happens.  It’s a game of chance.  You’re like a gambler who’s always hoping to win.  You buy a ton of lottery tickets, and one time after buying sixty at a go, you win fifty schillings.  Then once again you get the feeling that you have to keep going, even if you don’t win anything with the next hundred tickets.  You’re always hoping you’ll hit the jackpot.

NICOLE CASANOVA: What would you like to win?           

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s [something] you never know.  Maybe it’s just life [itself], right?  But you learn only after the fact that that was the big prize.  The game is a con.

NICOLE CASANOVA: Do you need these walls in order to be able to write?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I acquired them for the sake of [my] writing, but it was a mistake.  I’ve lived here for thirteen years, but throughout the first six years I couldn’t write in this farmhouse courtyard.  I had to go elsewhere.  Now [I can write] here.  I force myself to do it, and it gets done.

NICOLE CASANOVA: Do you often have to force yourself to do things?


NICOLE CASANOVA: I’m trying to picture to myself whatever it is that surrounds you, apart from this projection of sentences into an empty space.  Books?  Have you got a lot of books?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve always got too many.  I really only ever feel free when there are no books nearby.  But every day [new] books arrive.  I could never live with a library.  It would overwhelm me.  Or I’d have to be indifferent to it, but there are few things I’m indifferent to.

NICOLE CASANOVA: [Surely] you don’t lack human company?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m never completely alone, even when I want to be.  Or I have to go somewhere else.  I deal well with being alone.  It’s always been when I couldn’t put up with people anymore that I’ve worked best.

NICOLE CASANOVA:  Do you read reviews?  Do you ever feel as though [the reviewer] understands you?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I believe I’ve yet to read anything that’s made me think: “That’s just right; that’s exactly what I think.”  But no doubt there’s actually no such thing as this feeling.  If anyone could with full precision express the thoughts of another person, he’d have to hold his tongue, because otherwise he’d be soaked up, devoured.  [And so] you [run] away, you save your own skin, [and] at the same time you take refuge in lies and superficiality, like a drowning man struggling to escape from a whirlpool.

NICOLE CASANOVA: Do you manage to keep in contact with objects like fruits, trees, and rocks?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Sometimes I’m in very close contact [with them], when I’m not working, when nothing’s moving ahead, I take refuge in objects.  But when I sense that I’m about to get back to business, then I edge away [from them], and they no longer interest me.  At that point, pretty much nothing any longer interests me.  Only when my intellect shifts into the background, when I’m not writing, do things suddenly acquire significance—which [is something] you attribute to them, because they can exist only via the significance that’s conferred on them.

NICOLE CASANOVA: Is it fair to say that in your case language plays an ontological role?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, without a doubt.


Editors’ note: First published in Les Nouvelles littéraires, Vol. 56, No. 2641, June 22-29, 1978.

German translation by Monika Natter [first published] in Von einer Katastrophe in die andere, edited by Sepp Dreissinger (Weitra, 1992), pp. 63-67.

The interviewer, Nicole Casanova, wrote the following prefatory remark to the German translation: “Every request for an interview with Thomas Bernhard went unanswered.  When the then director of the Residenz publishing firm, Wolfgang Schaffler, perceived how helpless I was, he sent Thomas Bernhard a telegram that read as follows: “Nicole Casanova visiting you May 17 at…”.  And he said to me, “Just go there, you’ll see [what happens]!”  So I hit the road in my car, [driving] from village to village, without really knowing whether I would find anybody at the end [of my journey].

Bernhard’s farmhouse reminded me of a fortress from olden times; perhaps it had even originally been one.  Nobody greeted me at the gate; nor was anybody to be seen in the courtyard, which in my mind triggered associations with a bullfighting arena divided into “sol” and “sombra” sections.  I waited for a moment; then on the sunward side [of the house] I noticed a small door that seemed to lead to the residential rooms.  I had my hand on the door handle and was on the verge of stepping in when Thomas Bernhard suddenly materialized behind me.  I now realized that he had been hiding in the barn on the shady side.  Dismay at my intrusion into his house must have driven him from his hiding place.  If I had been fainter of heart I would have taken off without having seen him—of that at least I am sure.

I must add that at that first moment I thought of the apparition of Nosferatu in the film of the same name—but Nosferatu had had the courtesy to station himself in front of his front door, albeit in a somewhat abrupt fashion…

The conversation took place in the courtyard; we sat across from each other at a small metal table, on the sunward side, which gave Bernhard an excuse to keep on his black sunglasses.
I was certainly disturbing him, and my intrusion [into the house] must have vexed him very much.  Nonetheless, he was very friendly and answered my questions patiently and at great length, and he did not otherwise make me feel that he found me a nuisance.    

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 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). 

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