Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Translation of "Bernhards Plädoyer," a 1984 letter from Thomas Bernhard to the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Bernhard’s Plea
On the lawsuit in Vienna
Occasioned by Woodcutters [1]

I know that in central Europe it is unprecedented for a literary critic and editor of the literary supplement of a so-called reputable newspaper to haul an author and fellow-countryman into court on account of a work of art produced by this author.  Mr. Haider can be motivated by nothing but animosity towards me.  I have seen him in person exactly three times in my life: first six years ago in Trieste, where a so-called symposium on my work was held.  He spoke to me, but he did not interest me. Next, at a dinner-table at the hotel Regina a year ago, when he nodded at me.  Then, at the airport at Frankfurt am Main a couple of weeks ago, when he nodded at me.  Mr. Haider nodded and waved and immediately looked down at the floor.

Mr. Haider urged Mr. Lampersberg to file this complaint that Mr. Lampersberg has filed against me.  Mr. Haider maintains that my character Auersberger in Woodcutters is Mr. Lampersberg.  Mr. Lampersberg has nothing to do with my Auersberger.  Mr. Auersberger in my book is called Auersberger and not Lampersberg, and all the places in my book are different from the places inhabited by Mr. Lampersberg.  That Mr. Lampersberg glimpses resemblances to himself in my Mr. Auersberger is possible, because every reader glimpses resemblances to himself in the text he is reading.

And so from now on all the people who discover some sort of resemblance to themselves in every book are going to run to the law courts and have these books in which they have detected some resemblance confiscated.  And all these readers who have detected some resemblance can rest assured that the book that they have run to the courts to lodge a complaint against and in which they could not help detecting some resemblance will be confiscated.

Even before the author of one of these books has been questioned, armed policemen are being sent into all the Austrian bookstores, and the books supposedly containing something that the instigator of confiscation supposedly construes as a resemblance are being confiscated.  All at the behest of the instigator of confiscation, absent any say from the author.  The instigator of confiscation can look on with delight at the confiscation of the book in which he has detected some sort of resemblance to himself; the author too can look on at this confiscation, albeit with the greatest concern, nay, with outright horror!

The court is confiscating a book that nobody can have known the slightest thing about at the moment of the confiscation order, and doing so solely at the behest of the instigator of confiscation and on the additional evidence of the instigator of confiscation’s gross misquotation from an advance copy.

The court is confiscating on the additional evidence of an expert opinion delivered by Haider the literary critic, an opinion that is not merely bristling with errors but also catastrophically misconceived at its very core.

The court is also making this catastrophically error-ridden, false, and mendacious expert opinion its own, in the text of its confiscation order, and is having the book confiscated and does not even know who the author of this book is, because it has yet to hear a word of testimony from him, as is evident, and it is confiscating the book in a coup de main; it is summarily slamming the book shut.  Justice has in this case flagrantly disregarded its duty of care. 

The author has seen how his books have been cleared out of the bookstores by police brutality, and is completely helpless.  The author awaits a written statement from the court.  No such statement arrives.  A full six weeks (mark my words: six weeks!) after the confiscation the author receives from the court a summons in which it is mentioned that a hearing against him is scheduled for November 9.  For six long weeks the court deemed the author unworthy of the most trifling communication.  The author has been treated as a minor by the Austrian judicial system.  The court, which has carried out the confiscation and thereby inflicted irreparable injury on the author, has violated the author’s rights in the crassest fashion.  I am certain that in any other country in Europe, apart from the eastern dictatorships, such a procedure would be impossible.

The author has written a book entitled Woodcutters, in which a dinner party hosted by a Mr. and Mrs. Auersberger serves as the setting of the happenstances and circumstances of this book.  This Mr. and Mrs. Auersberger have nothing to do with the plaintiff, Mr. Auersberger.  Mr. Lampersberg, who used to be called Lampersberger and who in recent decades has been repeatedly and in any case at least partially declared a legal minor, sees resemblances to himself in my book.  That is his problem.  To drag me into court with the assistance of Mr. Haider and to inflict irreparable injury not only on me but in the final analysis on every writer of fictional literature in this country with the assistance of a frivolously finagled judicial confiscation order ought not to be his privilege.

In a radio interview Mr. Haider has proclaimed that he trusts the court implicitly!  What a fine future writers and literature have to look forward to in the house of Austria, a future when literary critics will automatically place their implicit trust in the courts!  I suggest to Mr. Haider that he look through all my previously published books to see if he comes across many more characters who bear plausible comparison to certain people.  He will track down hundreds of such apparent dead ringers in my books, and then, I presume, successfully incite each of their supposed counterparts to file a lawsuit against me.

Perhaps in the future it will be the remit of this country’s literary critics to alert semblable depictees to their depicted semblables and to bring the originators of these depictions to court.  And perhaps in the future it will be the remit of our judicial system to pass judgment on written works of art and in one case after another frivolously, nay, blindly to hound authors with a radical confiscation order, as it has done in the case of my Woodcutters.

In this trial there are only two guilty parties: Mr. Haider and the judicial system, which has evinced neither the slightest regard for its obligations nor the faintest consciousness of its responsibilities.  That this judicial system will be chastened as a result of having behaved so uncouthly and negligently I do not believe.  I am standing before the bench of an Austrian court for the fourth and not the first time under the auspices of a complaint that never would have been brought to trial in any other central European country and certainly not in any so-called civilized nation, and therefore I must submit myself for the fourth time to a judicial procedure that is nothing but depressing and degrading and in the long run incapacitating to my artistic work, which is my sole mission in life; and it really would seem as though the government of this country had no other interest in me beyond dragging me into court from time to time.

What is coming to light here is intolerable to an accused party in any reputable Austrian courtroom.  Literally abrading and degrading and intolerable.  And it ought not to be happening.  Any paragraphs in our judicial code that allow such intolerable conditions to be imposed on defendants and accused parties ought to be summarily abolished.  Such paragraphs hardly redound to the credit of a country’s system of government and render that system not merely ridiculous but also ominous.  My book has been dragged through the dirt thanks to the plaintiff and his abettor, their lawsuit, and its consequences.  It is high time for the book to be pulled back out of that dirt.

Thomas Bernhard 

[1] Editors’ note.  First published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 15, 1984.  Below the article the editors remarked, “Dr. Hans Haider is the cultural editor of the Viennese daily newspaper Die Presse.”

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. 226-230.


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