Monday, May 05, 2014

A Translation of "Alle Menschen sind Monster, sobald sie ihren Panzer lüften" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Jean-Louis Rambures in Le Monde)

All Human Beings Are Monsters As Soon As They Show Their Armor [1]

THOMAS BERNHARD: Certain people are of the opinion that I live in an ivory tower.  But these days the very idea of an ivory tower is moronic.  With a simple transistor radio you can get lost simultaneously in eternal snow and in the social world.  You can’t find anonymity in the country anymore; you find it, rather, in the larger cities.  The fields have made way for urban districts, the sunflowers for city streets.  What’s more, today the cities are what the country used to be—places in which nothing ever happens and in which life, to the extent that it still exists and you aren’t an actual professional pollster, has become completely invisible.  It was on my doctor’s advice that I settled in the country after my years of wandering.  “If you don’t change your life,” he threatened, “you’ll go kaput.”  For all my fascination with the word “kaput,” I opted for serenity.  But the serenity didn’t last long, and I soon realized what a mistake I had made.  In the country everybody knows everybody, and every day, whether you like it or not, you are confronted by fate in the form of births and deaths.  There’s a lot of industry around here, and you can’t take one step without running into victims, people who have been made into cripples by machines.  It’s certainly a very stimulating region for a writer.

JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: Why are you so allergic to interviews?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Try to picture yourself being shackled hand and foot to a tree, and someone firing a machine gun at you.  Don’t you think that would make you a bit tense?

My starting-point is the principle that a conversation between people who don’t know each other is impossible.  I’m happy to concede that people who see each other constantly are capable of parrying each other’s opinions.  Like, for instance, a married couple bickering over a recipe in the kitchen.  But I find that every other form of conversation has something overblown, constrained, about it.  And that’s especially strong when the parties are seeing each other for the first time.  It’s a bit like an orchestra when it starts rehearsing.  It takes months for it to find the right sound.  And when people finally understand each other, conversation once again becomes pointless—not because you no longer have anything to say, because you always have something to say, but simply because talking has become superfluous.  To put it another way, conversation is meant for people who haven’t yet reached this point [i.e., of mutual understanding].

JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: In any case one has to admit you’re right.  Your argument is quite alarmingly logical.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In any case everybody is right.  That’s the drama of the whole thing.  I really don’t care for the expression “in any case,” though; it has an air of tragic security about it.  When you use this little phrase, you climb into a crevasse and fancy you’re going to come out from the other end as you would from the emergency exit of a cinema, whereas in fact crevasses have something about them that keeps you from coming out from their other end.

JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: Let’s move on to the subject of your books.  Why since 1975 have you set aside novel-writing in favor of autobiography?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have never written a novel, but merely prose texts of greater or lesser length, and I’m going to take care not to describe them as novels; I don’t know what the word means.  I haven’t ever wanted to write an autobiographical work either; I have a genuine aversion to all things autobiographical.  The fact is that at a certain moment in my life I got curious about my childhood.  I said to myself, “I haven’t much longer to live.  Why not try to record my life up to the age of nineteen?  Not as it was in reality—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.” 

When I was planning the book I envisaged it as a single slim volume.  A second one emerged.  Then yet another one…until the point when I started to get bored.  In the end childhood is always just childhood.  After the fifth volume I decided to call it a day.  [2]  In the case of each my books I’m always torn this way and that between a passion and a loathing for my chosen subject.

Every time my second thoughts get the upper hand, I resolve to give up intellectual pursuits for good and dedicate myself instead to purely material tasks, for example to chopping wood or plastering a wall, in the hope of recovering my good cheer.  My dream is of a never-ending wall and never-ending good cheer.  But after a stretch of time of greater or lesser length, I once again start to loathe myself for being unproductive, and despair about this drives me to seek refuge in my brain.  Sometimes I tell myself my instability is something I’ve inherited from my ancestors, who were a very heterogeneous bunch.  This bunch included farmers, philosophers, laborers, writers, geniuses, and morons, mediocre petit-bourgeois types, and even criminals.  All these people exist within me, and they never leave off fighting each other.  Sometimes I feel like committing myself into the custody of the goose-keeper, at other times into the custody of the thief or the murderer.  Because you’ve got to make choices, and every choice means precluding other choices; this round-dance ultimately drives me to the brink of madness.  Such that if I make it to the end of my matutinal shaving routine without killing myself in front of the mirror, I have only my cowardice to thank for it.

Cowardice, vanity, and curiosity are the three basic and essential impetuses to life, the things that keep it moving along, even though every conceivable rational argument gainsays this movement.  At any rate, that’s the way it seems to me today.  Because it may very well happen that tomorrow I’ll think something completely different. 

JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: In each of your books, you iterate that every human action is pointless, because it’s ultimately doomed to perish.  And yet you go on writing.

THOMAS BERNHARD: The thing that impels me to write is quite simply my appetite for play.  You get an enjoyable feeling from staking everything on a single card and consequently knowing that every time you can either win the whole jackpot or lose it.  The risk of failure seems to me an essential stimulus.  There’s also a different kind of enjoyment in figuring out how to cope with words and sentences.  The actual subject-matter I think of as being quite secondary; all you have to do with it is scoop out of it the stuff that surrounds us.  I am convinced that in a very strict sense every human creature carries the weight of humanity as a whole.  The only thing that distinguishes individual people from one another is their way of coping with the world.

To get back to how I go about writing my books: I’d say that it’s a question of rhythm and has a lot to do with music.  Indeed, you can understand what I write only if you realize that the musical component is of uppermost importance, and that what I’m writing about only comes in secondarily.  Once that musical component is in place, I can begin to describe things and occurrences.  The problem lies in the How.  Unfortunately, critics in Germany have no ear for music, which is so essential to a writer.  I derive as much satisfaction from the musical element as from anything else; indeed, my enjoyment of the music is equal to my enjoyment of whatever idea it is I’m trying to express.

JEAN-LOUIS RAMBURES: The writer who can’t write—and I’m thinking in particular of all your heroes from The Lime Works onwards—is a recurring figure in your work.  Is this a problem for you personally?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Once I’ve reached my tempo of work, nothing can distract me.  When I was in Brussels working on the manuscript of my novel Gargoyles, a fire broke out in a large coffeehouse, the Café Innovation, quite close to the open window of the room I was sitting in.  I saw the sky darken and then metamorphose into a ball of flame.  As I sat there engrossed in the writing, I wondered why I wasn’t hearing any fire sirens.  By the time they sounded, the fire had already devoured everything. 

But before this period of studious industry there’s a period when the most trivial incident, even a visit by the postman, can call into question the whole project.  At such moments, the best system for combating your anxiety is to have no system or to take a plane trip and get lost somewhere—never mind where, as long as the landscape isn’t too pretty.  If I haven’t even started to write yet, the beauty of a place can actually have an enriching effect, in that it infuriates me.  But for the actual work I prefer some random place, or even a downright ugly one.  The beauty of cities like Rome, Florence, Taormina, or Salzburg is lethal to me.

JEAN-LOUIS RAMBURES: In An Indication of the Cause, you describe Salzburg as “a fatal illness that its inhabitants fall prey to at the moment of their birth.”  Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The more beautiful a city is on the outside, the more bewildering is its actual face, which it hides beneath the façade.  Walk into any restaurant in Salzburg.  At first glance you’ll get the impression that these are just nice, decent people.  But if you eavesdrop on your tablemates, you’ll notice that they’re dreaming of nothing but extermination and the gas chambers.  I’ve got a splendid anecdote for you.  Not long after An Indication of the Cause came out, the German critic [3] Jean Améry took me aside and said to me, “You can’t talk like that about Salzburg.  You’re forgetting it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”  A few days later, after I’d read his review of my book in the Merkur, which I was still fuming over, because he’d understood absolutely nothing, I heard a piece of news over the television: the previous day Améry had killed himself, and in Salzburg of all places.  That’s no coincidence.  Just yesterday three people threw themselves into the Salzach.  Everybody blamed it on the föhn.  But I’m certain that there’s something about that town that physically weighs down on people and ultimately destroys them.

JEAN-LOUIS RAMBURES: Still, it seems that you have an extraordinary gift for detecting monsters everywhere.

THOMAS BERNHARD: All human beings are monsters as soon as they show their armor.  Incidentally, I know myself well enough to notice when I’m projecting my feelings onto other people.  To be sure, I am fascinated by monstrousness, but believe me:  I never make it up.  If reality strikes you as less outrageous than my contrivances, that’s just because in the real world the facts come to light in a piecemeal fashion.  In a book you’re unconditionally bound to avoid empty stretches.  The secret consists in inexorably piling up sheaves of reality more or less as one would in the initial abortive drafts of a manuscript.  Perhaps this is what commonly goes by the name of imagination.

JEAN-LOUIS RAMBURES: In West Germany the existence of a specifically Austrian literature is often denied.  Where do you stand on that question?

THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s no question about it.  Just take for instance pronunciation, the melody of speech.  There’s an absolutely essential difference.  My way of writing would be unthinkable in a German author, and what’s more I have a genuine antipathy to the Germans.

You also mustn’t forget the weight of history.  We bear the stamp of our imperial Hapsburg past.  Perhaps in my work it’s more visible than in other people’s.  It manifests itself in a genuine ambivalence to Austria that is ultimately the key to everything I write.

But that doesn’t stop me from setting myself apart from people who maintain that the state of the world is always worsening and that it’s always getting more absurd and unbearable.  Even if from your own vantage point you can discern nothing but ubiquitous ugliness and malodorousness, every minute that passes constitutes an augmentation of your experience.  You and I at this very moment have a decisive edge over everybody who died yesterday, in that we know what has happened since then.

JEAN-LOUS DE RAMBURES: You have a decisive talent for making every affirmative answer into a negative one.

THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s never been any such thing as a definitive answer.  And that’s fortunate, because if people ever ran out of questions to pose, their telos would have to be relocated to some point beyond the universe itself.
One thing alone is certain: death, that grill on which we all end up as sausages.  But nobody knows exactly what it consists of.

[1] Editors' note.  First published in French translation: Le Monde, Paris, January 7, 1983.
First published in German in a retranslation by Andres Müry in Von einer Katastrophe in die andere [From One Catastrophe to the Next], edited by Sepp Dressinger, (Weitra, 1992), pp. 104-113.  [The reader will have gathered by now that the present translation (like that of Nicole Casanova's interview with Bernhard) is a re-retranslation.  Presumably de Rambures kept no record of the interview in its original German or it would have appeared in Dressinger’s collection.  I would have preferred to translate from the less remotely derivative French version, but I could not even find a reference to the interview at the Le Monde website. (DR)]

The German version is prefaced by the following comment by the interviewer, Jean-Louis de Rambures: “It took me a year of negotiations to secure an initial rendezvous with Thomas Bernhard.  His German publisher repeatedly told me that this was a practically infeasible undertaking and, moreover, that he had never granted an interview to a French journalist [True only if Nicole Casanova was not a journalist (DR)].

Then one fine day my telephone rang: “Thomas Bernhard is waiting for you.  Don’t lose any time because he can change his mind on the spur of the moment.”

My heart was palpitating when I arrived at his house, a large square-shaped farmhouse, half monastery, half prison, in the Salzburg Prealps.  Had he not once kept his publisher waiting an entire morning with a set of galley proofs under his arm?  Thomas Bernhard was standing on his front doorstep and laughing: “You must admit I’ve given you a good scare.”

The interview was very stimulating.  Thomas Bernhard talked the way he wrote.  When the article appeared in Le Monde, I expected no reaction from his end.  I had written that he never replied to letters.  Hence, I was all the more surprised to discover some affectionate lines from him in my mailbox: “I can’t believe I said everything you wrote,” wrote Bernhard, “but I also can’t swear these sentences didn’t come from my mouth…”

[2] I haven’t ever wanted to write an autobiographical work...I decided to call it a day.  This passage is evidently the source of the remarks attributed to Bernhard by David McLintock in the introduction to Gathering Evidence, his translation of the five autobiographical texts.

[3] Améry was actually an Austrian.  I cannot but wonder if here, as in Bernhard's earlier reference to “critics in Germany” (albeit obviously not in his unfavorable comparison of German writing with Austrian writing towards the end) some elision of the distinction between Germans and German-speakers has taken place, though at which stage, at whose hands (Bernhard’s, De Rambures’s, or Müry’s), or whether deliberately or inadvertently, I would not dare to guess.  


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), pp. 216-222.

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