Friday, December 09, 2016

A Translation of "Das Theater als Sumpfverein" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

The Theater as a Social Cesspool
Humankind is completely rotten in and of itself.   So you can’t get the better of anybody, I think.  Everything that you get to know at all well becomes unappetizing and unpleasant if you spend any amount of time on it.  If you look at all closely at it, it becomes unendurable.  I just know what definitely isn’t bad, and the work of the famous actors was bad.

I can remember : I used to go to rehearsals all the time, when I was a boy, at the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg.  Werner Krauss played Caesar there.  Of course the very sound of it is funny, isn’t it?, Werner Krauss playing Caesar?  It’s simply moronic.  I mean it’s simply as grotesque as you can get!  And Ewald Balser as Brutus, right?  When Krauss was a genuinely great actor and Balser a nonentity!  He really was a nonentity; he had nothing but a sonorous voice, completely hollow, and his brain was like his stomach, so stupid.  And I can still remember that Josef Gielen, who was directing at the time, had to explain everything to him, and then I thought, wow, and they’re so famous!  How can somebody be so stupid and so famous!  You’ve literally got to explain the meaning of every single sentence to them completely, and then you’ve got to tell them, look, you’ve got to think about what he just said, and now you’ve got to react to it in this way—they just don’t get it.  The more famous they are, the stupider they are.  At the dress rehearsal the whole play was a wreck. The soldiers didn’t enter from stage right, but from stage left, and then total chaos ensued. They lost their nerves at the dress rehearsal, and the premiere was basically a non-starter. But at the Felsenreitschule and in that whole star-studded sky, people obviously don’t see anything having to do with art; you can do what you like there as long as the scaffolding looks nice, and you can say any old thing.  What they say is always the same; it’s just got to be said as sonorously and distinctly and bombastically as possible.  With that you can fill up three hours.  And I still remember that during the curtain call, Werner Krauss took his bow in a trench coat and with a briefcase in his hand, because a taxi was already waiting outside to take him to the airport, because he had a film shoot in Hamburg to get to that night.  Then I thought, look, that’s the great world of the theater.  This was in the fifties.

But music is always beautiful.  Opera is beautiful, because of course it makes no difference what they sing or say or if they’re stupid.  If the voices are beautiful and everybody comes in at the right time and the music is good then not much can go wrong.  But you can’t convey intelligence from the stage because there’s none to be conveyed.  It’s simply abominable.

Of course at the moment the Salzburgers hate me; they obviously must loathe me like the plague.  Of course it’s quite amusing.  But where there’s nothing a director can’t direct anything.  Of course I don’t care about anything but a good performance, a reckless one, and then done, full stop.  I obviously can’t have anything to do with that whole kit and caboodle that’s still put on there.  Or with the truculence of those people there, the stagehands and the rest, who are super-tightly organized there and just throw everything together like bricklayers.  You obviously can’t stage a play properly there.  It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the theater; it’s obviously a social cesspool, but it’s not a theater.

It’s like everywhere in Austria, when you go inside and open up everything.  Then you get the feeling, as soon as you step outside, that everything is basically falling to pieces behind the scenes yet again.  Then yet again somebody rings you up and the like; it makes no sense. You can’t even hold people to their word with contracts on anything.  They always find loopholes and lawyers and stories; I’ve got no interest in that.  I don’t mess around with any of that at all anymore.  Either it’ll be done the way I think it should be—even then it won’t turn out the way you think—or not at all.  In Salzburg of course it was all the same; of course it was always just a pack of lies and cheats in the final analysis.    

Of course I’m not in touch with actors at all; I have no interest at all in that.  There’s nothing more horrible than an actor, when you sit down with one afterwards; of course I never do that.  I did commit that awful blunder exactly one time, though; when you do that every one of them shines an interrogation lamp on you and you have to tell every one of them that he was the best one; of course it’s incredibly loutish.

Of course they’ve chosen their vocation.  I’ve chosen mine as well, deliberately.  But in their case there’s really no excuse or whatever.  It’s a tough business, full stop.  Either you’re up to the job or you aren’t; of course that’s the only criterion there is; of course there aren’t any others.  It’s got nothing to do with sentimentality or phoniness.  I really can’t imagine doing anything at all with any Austrian actors.  They can’t even talk.

I got a look at this funeral in Vienna; I was passing by in a streetcar as that Hörbiger affair was taking place.  Then I saw these stage-prop obelisks for the burial.  Then I thought, “I’ll get out now and take a look.”  Then I was standing there like a journalist in my light-colored coat, staring greedily at this pseudo-necropolis, and I listened in and looked at them all; they all looked so horrible.  Because of the way they were all roaming around at a trot, completely dilapidated, gone to seed, rickety, knackered, mendacious, from the ninety-five year olds all the way down to the kids, but they were all striding around together, because that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to do.   Actors get appendicitis and die.  Letters don’t die; that’s the advantage of prose!

I don’t earn any money from the prose works anyway.  Then you can accept all the young writers, who all earn much more.  Because there’s nothing to them and they vault over two thousand copies, like with beginners, nothing at all beyond that.  It’s still the same way today; there’s nothing to be gained from it; the publisher covers his costs, but just barely, because he doesn’t do anything extra, and I don’t force him to, because it’s really all the same to me.  If I make any money, it’s off the plays, or whatever you want to call them.  I don’t know whether they’re really plays; it really makes no difference anyway; they’re something for the theater, and that’s that.  And it’s really just something I get a kick out of, and that a certain actor gets a kick out of.  And that’s the main thing: if nobody gets a kick out of it, if they never stage it, then I don’t need to worry about it anymore.  The moment nobody’s getting a kick out of it, nobody will stage it.  It’s really quite simple and clear-cut.  Nobody is being forced to perform something somewhere or to read anything; these people are all doing it of their own free will.  But I can easily put a stop to it, if I get the feeling that this free will is really an end in itself or that it’s giving me a bad name or spoiling my mood.
Of course it would be completely unproductive to have the books acted out onstage.  Can you really picture a country doctor coming on to the stage over and over again, with his son and his little doctor’s bag?  Within a quarter of an hour, or if a really great actor was involved, a half an hour, the curtain would fall.  Of course I’m of the opinion that you can even make a theatrical event out of a pile of shit.  The curtain rises, and there’s a big pile of turds there, and more and more flies keep flying in, and then the curtain falls.  So I mean, when you come right down to it—that kind of thing really happens in the theater; of course it always has done.  Whether when the curtain rises a pile of cow manure or Hermann Bahr is lying there, it pretty much makes no difference.  If it’s well done.  You can’t argue with it if it is.

Of course you can make people prepared for anything.  You can fill a theater with certain people who have been fortified by newspapers and so forth.  When they’ve been told for months or years that some big event is on its way, you can actually infect the public.  You can treat the theater in general exactly in the same way as a general hospital.  Infect the general public and then you’ll catch the audience and you’ll catch the critics as well.  Then any old thing can be acted out for three hours, and they’ll think it’s grand.  And of course it might actually be grand, because absolutely nobody’s said that it isn’t.  I actually even think that it might be magnificent for a great actor just to sit on stage for three hours and shake his foot or whatever.

I think actors genuinely vie for parts in my plays.  So the general managers of the theaters basically dislike my stuff, because they don’t make much money off of it, and it doesn’t attract much interest from the public, but it still gives actors something to do.  Sure, I know that at the Burgtheater there are actors who don’t care to perform in these things because they find them too difficult, and on top of that and in the background there’s no guarantee of success at the outset.  Actors are like that.  Of course they want to serve up delicious first-rate food, like at the Zauner, and they want to be sure of the price they’re going to get.  And that it says in advance on the menu how much they’re going to get for what they do.  In the case of my plays, they serve up stuff, and they really get nothing in return.

The Burgtheater is like this: I can remember that the first of my plays at the Burgtheater, which was The Hunting Party, I was expecting Paula Wessely to star in it, along with Bruno Ganz, and it had in fact been written for them.  And Ganz even gave up certain things, plays at the Schaubühne, just so we could do it there, and then at the Burgtheater the actors all stood up and went to the management as a delegation, I don’t know how many of them there were, and said he can’t come here to the Burgtheater, if he does we’ll make a stink or whatever, and Paula Wessely made it contingent on that, she said, well if he isn’t in the play I won’t be in it either, and I had such a stupid contract that I couldn’t get out of it anymore without ruining myself completely, and then it ended up being done I must say truly wretchedly, with Joachim Bissmeier.  So that’s the Burgtheater for you.  It’s like that everywhere in Austria.

With normal actors you can’t get anything done; they give you at most six weeks, and in six weeks you can’t rehearse something like that.  It worked when Minetti was the star, because he wouldn’t let anything interfere with his work; he did it completely for himself, and Dorn just stood by him and Minetti worked it all out.  In cases like that it works.  To a certain extent.  Minetti just has an incredible amount of experience, decades of it, and he’s taken part quite deliberately.  And so not just like some timeserving bureaucrat of an actor, but with the utmost refinement, the utmost abominableness.  With him you can have a really pleasant chat.  Because he’s so forthright, and that’s kept him in good form.  He comes across as genuinely young, but with the added bonus of all that experience he has.  He often reacts like a twenty-two- year-old, whereas these other people, if they’re thirty-five, are already worn-out and nothing but marionettes of the theatrical world.  They let themselves be juggled and have got nothing of their own left.

But at the same time he’s had operations and has got actual nails in his bones; it’s all chrome-plated and screwed in.  And considering that he’s now nearly eighty and acts there all evening four times a week.  Then he flies to Bochum, has a lie-down for an hour, then he acts again and is on the stage for hours, for the whole evening.  Then he goes out on the town until two in the morning, and then he says he’d like to show up yet again for breakfast.  And most people are older than dirt at sixty; they don’t get involved in anything new, they have their single-family house somewhere and make everything center on that, as their theater career keeps rolling along, so everything centers on their little vegetable garden and the beloved little walk they take every day.

I have good luck with Peymann.  You really mustn’t hire any bad actors.  If you do that things go pear-shaped.  And whenever I compromised the thing ended up dead in the water.
It was my own fault, because I must have seen that myself, and I certainly did see it, but I lost my nerve.  And once you lose your nerve, it’s all over.  And you take all the blame for it, obviously; it logically all falls on to your shoulders.

There are so few intelligent actors; in Vienna you can’t find a single one.  Of course I know an actor doesn’t actually have to be intellectually brilliant or highly cultured, but then again he’s got to have a quality like—I don’t know, like what Käthe Gold or somebody like that’s got.  Peymann himself is surrounded by total idiots; he’s got to deal with politicians, because if didn’t he’d have to pack his bags and leave town tomorrow.  But that’s all truly abominable.  He’s got to have dinner with wastes of space who’ll do anything to trip you up, and he’s surrounded by total deadweights, by total assholes who hang on to him like lead and do nothing but lay on great dollops of schmaltz.  But all that stuff in Vienna is just horrible.  It’s no skin off my nose, really, in the final analysis, as long as he’s in charge of the production.  I really like Peymann, full stop, period.  As a person.

They say nobody goes to see them, that they’re boring.  But of course that’s completely untrue.  Because more people go to see my plays than to the plays of any other living author.  But it’s completely untrue, the received opinion.  When I think of the fact that I’ve already sold out the Schiller Theater ninety times, can you believe that?  A one-man play with a little girl.  I told him he could do whatever he wanted with it.  I never thought that he would play the role at all, ninety times; it defies imagination.  But then Mr. Blaha says, “This is an author everybody walks out on, because he’s so boring.”  I can’t think of anything else that people find so entertaining.  But that doesn’t mean anything, the fact that it’s good enough for me.  Collaborating with these people is the main thing.

But as for the prose, what can you do with it?  You can hand it in and say, “I’d like it to look this way.”  I design the covers of my books myself as well.  I do everything myself, because of course if I didn’t everything would turn out awful.  Because only if you make it simple will it look good and also be effective.  If you leave it up to graphic designers, who’ll go berserk with it, then of course it’ll be unsightly, repulsive, and ghastly.  I completely put the kibosh on all that.  Graphic designers don’t have any say in my stuff anymore, because they believe that you’ve got to put a picture of a shoe on the book because somebody takes a walk in it.  Which of course is horribly crude.

And theater in itself has always fascinated me, ever since I was a child.  It’s certainly nothing new; it’s something I just play with.  You write a play, which is for them [i.e., I believe, “these people” above (DR)] and for the public, and then they perform it, if it gets produced.  Theater is a difficult, characterless business.  Of course no play has ever had character as its starting point, or morality either.  They’re total swines or total pipsqueaks.  And under certain circumstances, they can produce something grand or something atrocious.  And what’s more, the productions are never all that great.  I was at the playhouse recently, and it was more atrocious, more ghastly, than any performance I had ever seen in my life! Unmotivated, brainless, and the actors even reacted appropriately, as they were sitting there and taking everything at face value.  It was as good as nothing.  Because the actors were impossible.  That’s the way they’re still acting it now, after a full year.  So I march into the theater and write it all off and then march straight back out.  Of course that’s got nothing to do with my idea of theater.  It works for a run of at most ten, twelve performances.  Up to that point it’s rising to its peak, but then of course it just sags back into nothing.  Then ideally you should take hold of them again, flog them all, and start all over again at the beginning and tell them all how atrocious they are.  If you let it keep going, it’ll turn into something so ghastly that you can’t and won’t have anything more to do with it.  It’s like making butter in a dairy.

I’m no great fan of stage directions, which are obviously the ruin of any play.  The dialogue itself should direct the actor’s performance.  And writers who use them are invariably the worst ones.  The more stage directions there are, the less elbow room there is for the actors and the director.  The text should be so compelling that everything that it’s about comes directly out of it, and if the text isn’t strong enough, then stage directions are absolutely useless, like in Hochhuth or people like that, where the thing is five-quarters stage directions, and a quarter of them are impossible, with lame dialogue, meaning that it’s unintellectual, unemotional, unpoetic—basically everything beginning with “un.”  In Shakespeare there are no stage directions.  Aside from “Scene: a palace or a throne room,” “exit” or “enter” “left” or “right,” there aren’t any.  Everything emerges directly from the dialogue.  That’s the way it really should be.  Which means, of course, that you see everything; you obviously don’t have to spell it all out everywhere.  But actors are so loutish and stupid that you actually have to tell them everything, unless they’re absolutely outstanding.  But fame is no defense against stupidity.  At the age of seventeen, eighteen, I would attend rehearsals where I would bury my face in my hands and think, “What is this, a world-famous man, and the director still has to tell him, ‘When your partner says this, you’ve got to think this.’”  And that’s how they work on plays.  It’s really insupportable.  And with names that made you fall on to your backside with admiration when you were a child.  And these people aren’t even worth rapping on the knuckles with a wooden spoon.  But it’s like that all the time and everywhere.

Apart from making me money the theater allows me to maintain my friendships, or people, my relations with other people.  Because in the theater you’re forced to get together with other people whether you like it or not.  You get together with a set designer and you talk and chat with him about the way the set should look, and then you run into an actor, and then you see, aha, I last saw him three years ago; now he’s three years older and you are as well, now he’s got a better sense of humor or a worse one, now he’s limping on the left side or isn’t; that’s all quite thrilling.  And then one of them falls ill and another one dies and a third one doesn’t want to do it anymore; it’s all very upsetting.

The possibilities you have with an actor like that [i.e., I believe, Minetti, Ganz, and Gold (DR)] are of course really much greater, but the thing itself on the other hand is quite lame, the actual realized performance is always lame.  On the one hand it’s often better than I was expecting but often also different.  So again it’s unsatisfying.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 79-92.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Translation of "Der Veleger verlegt ja alles" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hoffmann)

Of Course a Publisher Misplaces Everything

When you’ve written a book, you give it to your publisher, and he’s got a business.  Of course a publisher really hasn’t got a clue about art or literature, about anything having to do with the mind at all, and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it either.  He plies his trade under the pretext that he wants to do something for the mind.  But if he can’t make five schillings off of the mind, he won’t do anything for it.

A publisher is always just a single person who has business on his mind whenever he shows up.  He comes in here with his briefcase, opens it, and skulks until you give him the manuscript.  He’s got to promise himself something; otherwise he wouldn’t do it, because he’s certainly no benefactor.  And once the manuscript has vanished into the briefcase, he’s quite keen on vanishing himself, because of course he’s got what he wanted, and in the final analysis he really couldn’t care less about the person who made it.
What is this thing, a publisher [Verleger]?  I could of course by the same token ask, “What is a publisher?”  It’s unequivocally clear what a bedside rug [Bettvorleger] is.  But “a bedside rug without bed next to it” makes for a very problematic answer.  Or when somebody misplaces [verlegt] something; of course he’s scatterbrained if he misplaces something and then can’t find it ever again.  That’s obviously the real definition of a publisher.

So then, a publisher: he misplaces things and manuscripts that he’s accepted, and then he can’t find them ever again.  Either because he doesn’t want to anymore or because he’s scatterbrained, they’re no longer anywhere to be found.  He misplaces things.  For ever.  I only know publishers who are misplacers.  However high and mighty they are they’ve certainly never been high and mighty enough not to be the kinds of publishers who misplace things.  And after these things are misplaced they’re either in tatters or irretrievable.

I’ve never had any difficulties getting anything published.  Way back when I met Moissl, who was a reader for Müller, and of course at the time Müller was the best publisher, and I said, all right, sure, Trakl is all fine and well, but forty years have passed since then; I mean, I’m living in the here and now, and this simply has got to see the light of day.  So he took a look at it and said, well now, we’ll see, and we sat down and picked out some poems, and then, about three months later, they were simply published.  It never presented any difficulties.

As far as publishing enough to live on goes, it’s been maybe fifteen years since that sorted itself out for good.  Of course that came at the end of a hard slog of debts and work, and then, you know, my aunt, whenever it got to the point of things being repossessed, would pay whatever the bill happened to be.  Actually it wasn’t quite that simple.  And now I’m successful, even financially speaking.  Now I don’t have any financial difficulties; after all, I’m not particularly pernickety and I live on my own, so it works.  But of course for a long time it was a hammer-and-tongs existence for me, because of course people are asinine; of course, for the past twenty-two years practically all my books have been published in America.

In Spain practically everything has, in Italy almost everything, in France, I really couldn’t ask for anything more; I’ve really never gotten any negative press—sure, it’s totally asinine, just like it is here, but in a completely different kind of pretentious vein. Here I can read about Extinction; over the review there’s this headline: “Poor Wretch,” and then twenty lines of that; it’s really stupid, it puts paid to itself, and in the Salzburger Nachrichten, as I’ve seen, “A Wannabe,” there’s something to that effect in there; these are just things that you really can’t say anything about.  I mean, because their whole way of thinking is pure irony and stupidity.  Of course, the people who understand a thing or two see things completely differently.  And I know that I’m grossly downplaying it when I say that it doesn’t hurt me, but of course if you lay it on any thicker then nobody will ever believe you again.  But it’ll all be put to rights later on, someday, because of course by then it’ll all have been ploughed into the ground; then people will be able to look it all up.  What was going on back then will all be described in a relatively temperate prose style.  I’m obviously not an author just for Austria or three Podunk towns.  That obviously doesn’t interest me at all.   

In other countries, in the so-called Romance and Slavic world, people are altogether more interested in literature; it has a completely different status than it has for us.  Literature here isn’t valued at all.  Here music is valued, acting is valued; really nothing else is valued at all. It’s always been that way.  A translation is a different book.  It no longer has anything whatsoever to do with the original.  It’s a book by the person who translated it.  Of course I write in German.  They’re mailed, the books are mailed, to my house, and they either get a laugh or they don’t.  If they’ve got hideous covers then you just get cross and you leaf through them once and then you’re done with them.  Quite apart from the weird and completely different title, they’ve got nothing in common with your own books.  No, it’s obviously impossible to translate anything.  A piece of music you can play anywhere in the world if you follow the notes.  But a book should be read, or in my case, played, in German everywhere.  On an orchestra.

It’s certainly a real corker, like fifty toilets, but on the other hand I couldn’t care less about it, because I’m surrounded by very pleasant people, because, for example, my siblings aren’t interested in the slightest.   They really have no idea whatsoever of what one of my plays or novels is like.  It’s all the same to them.  Ideal people to be around.  I mean, I obviously refuse to present myself as anything, either as a great man or as a hack.  
Of course I’ve said more when people have read the books, but of course people don’t read the books.  Everything I’ve written about over the past twenty-five years in all my books has come to pass.  Every book I’ve written is chock-full of resolutions.


Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 74-78.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Translation of "Es ändert sich kein Mensch" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

Nobody Ever Changes

You really don’t need to worry about catastrophes; they just happen.  But perhaps from time to time you need to provoke them because on their own they take too long.  And then you die, and then it’s just no fun anymore.  But at bottom you’ve got lots of options; you’re really only too restrained and too tense around other people.  Sure, you can set fire to everything or even kill somebody, even go on a rampage with a club; perhaps that would even introduce some novelty.  Of course there are long stretches when you can’t rely entirely on your inner reserves.  Every place becomes a dead end, bollocks, it becomes empty after a while.  But it makes no difference whether I’m sitting here in Ohlsdorf  or in a city, because you’re sitting there alone unless you do something about it.  You can sit like that in Bochum or in Wuppertal too, or in some place where there are ten million people.  Nobody pays any attention to you unless you initiate something yourself.
Of course I yearn for peace and quiet when I’m away from here.  And when I get back here I’m also quite happy.  Then I step inside, but no sooner do I put my toiletries down somewhere than it starts getting to me again; I basically can’t stand it.  Just like I really don’t like Sundays; I’ve always loathed them, because everything’s peaceful and unnatural.  Perhaps that’s also a mistake.  Basically I’ve always fancied that I couldn’t live anywhere but in the country, because of the way my lungs are, but perhaps that isn’t true at all.  I was just now out there, where it’s supposedly so unhealthy, and I felt really well there.  Basically, though, I’m a person who can’t stand being anywhere for long.  I really can’t stand harmony; I don’t care for family life either, where everything is just right and it’s pseudo-peaceful; that’s not my scene.  My brother is just the opposite; he’s always raved about families, children, and harmony and so on.  I’m happy when I don’t see them.  All that stuff irritates me.

Of course nobody ever changes.  You’re already there in your essentials when you’re a child, and in this respect I’ve never changed.  I’m familiar with that harmonious family life; obviously I know all about it.  But since I need to travel I couldn’t put up with it day after day, but of course it’s all a pack of rotten, hypocritical lies anyway.  So I take off for some place and say to myself, “You’ve done this out of necessity.”

Naturally I have acquaintances who are pleasant company sometimes; they’re all really, you know, pleasant, but I don’t see anybody here; when it comes to human beings, you generally only have one in your life.  The awful thing about that is that as a result you pit everything against them, and yourself against them in a horrible fashion…Like with my female neighbors, I’m lying there with my lungs—“I’ll bring you something to eat at noon”—, meaning noon, then she showed up at seven at night.  Me with a 41-degree fever, then I told my neighbor, “Throw yourself and your soup right back out the door.”  When you come right down to it, you can’t get anything out of ordinary people, because ordinary people exist entirely on the surface, as collectable examples of interesting or spectacularly moronic behavior.  But as for any human qualities?  Of course you only have friends, if you have any at all, from a long time back, when you yourself were still nothing, meaning a blank slate.  I still have lots of friends whom I’ve known since I was two years old, but to whom I naturally no longer have anything to say.  You obviously can’t sit around eating omelets forever, and saying “Do you still know so-and-so?” and “Can you remember such-and-such?”; that really gets on your nerves.  That fizzles out over time, but these are still the only people that I could still ultimately, uninhibitedly, hit up for some money, for a cool thousand; I’m always telling myself that.  But everyone else, later acquisitions, obviously aren’t even as valuable as the trash in that trash can over there; none of them amounts to anything at all.

Of course people really have no idea of how superficial it all obviously is, and then they pick out maybe twenty sentences that I uttered earlier in the context of local politics; of course they’ve got nothing to do with these people.  Then I end up being on their side.  Then they keep saying, “What did you say back then?”; the whole thing naturally has an entirely different context.

Today once again I went somewhere; there were actual Nazis standing around, saying, “What a bum, sittin’ in the coffeehouse and not doin’ a lick o’ work,” you can hear them saying it the whole time; I’ve already put it all behind me.

“He writes, but it’s rubbish, because it’s of no use to anybody or anything; it’s worthless, and you don’t even see anything.  A parasite.  He lives away from everybody else, does nothing, drives around in his car, wolfs down food, sits in the coffee house starting first thing in the morning, scowls and makes a living from shady doings.  So definitely not by working.  You should always make short shrift of such people.  They just pour scorn on other people all day, they’re useless, pointless, and do nothing but make scenes and they live off their scene-making and try to talk people into believing that it actually amounts to something, that mind and brain actually  amount to something, but who bothers trying to prove that…?”  I’ve got nobody, so I know that.  For example, I haven’t got anybody I could rely on, who would be there when I needed something.   

At the moment I actually can’t even deal with being around a cleaning woman or whatever.  So here from some time there’s been this person who stops by, but she’s charming and goes away afterwards.  But in Vienna, the idea that somebody would come in and then…I can’t abide it.  Of course I’ve always taken care of everything myself; not once in my life have I employed a secretary or whatever, to deal with my writings, not even a single line of them.  My grandfather employed typists, even though he supposedly never produced anything, and spent enormous amounts of money on those people’s services; the idea of doing that has never even crossed my mind.  Now as ever, I type my own stuff myself on cheap, absorbent paper stock and leave it at that.  Anybody who thinks it’s not good enough can get stuffed.

Because you’d really have to have some bitchy girl who types everything up, writes everything, organizes everything.  I saw that kind of thing once at Zuckmayer’s place when I was visiting him; he had an actual office.  The whole ground floor was full of three-ring binders, with readers’ contact information, in alphabetical order; tens of thousands of records, I presume.  There were two people who had been looking after all that stuff and maintaining it and keeping it in order the whole time.  With my stuff there’s absolutely nothing, because I don’t allow myself to get involved in any of that.  It’s out of the question.

Of course you also have to deal with people who just want to shoot their mouths off, and most of the time you find yourself in the situation of one of the proverbial beggars who can’t be choosers.  That’s what most situations are like: you’re dealing with people who you actually can’t stand and think are idiots; you eat your dinner and try to put on some kind of show for them.  Of course on the other hand you can’t be completely alone; you really can’t do that either.  You can do it for long periods; I’m a past master of it, but sooner or later something’s got to happen, and when it does, I think to myself that in any case I’m naturally alone for longer periods than I’m not alone.

Sometimes the biggest cataclysms don’t bother you at all, but then you’re moved by the most ridiculous things; that’s the way it is; of course you’re aware of it.  Of course you’re weak; you’re simply hanging on by a thread.  A human being, who is delicate and sensitive to changes in the weather and has back problems and doesn’t know whether his bladder is going to hold out or not, how is he supposed to be independent of all these things?  Of course he’s at the mercy of everything.  And he sleeps, sleeps badly and is lazy and vulgar and brutal and gentle and sensitive and everything; you can add anything you like to the list—you’ll find it in me.

I’ve had every possible kind of relationship that you can think of with women and with men.  What am I supposed to tell you?  That every person is completely different and the method you use in confronting one person won’t work with another?  Then you’ve just got to find another method.  And if you look for one, you won’t find it.  Either you’ve got it or you haven’t; there’s no grid that everything falls through on command.  You just feel attracted to someplace.  And then you’re either turned on or you’re not, and so on and so forth.  Whether it’s a woman or a man, in the final analysis it really makes no difference.  It’d be much more beneficial if more men did it, probably then there wouldn’t be so much overpopulation.

I’ve got the feeling that men and women are only ever experimenting.  That’s my opinion.  Because cohabitation and relations between men and women is [sic] really always an experiment, from the man’s perspective.   And it’s not any kind of natural recreation.  It’s also much more speculative.  Less cunning, because women are much more cunning and certainly more speculative.  Because I very seldom hang out with other people, my experimentation is always highly discontinuous.  Often even for months.  Afterwards I experiment again passionately, perhaps for a couple of days.

Now from time to time you get a kind of feeling of pleasure, and the more you reflect on it, the more abhorrent you’re bound to find everything, logically.

Then things can also get pleasant again.  Then you get a bit of a feeling of triumph, which doesn’t last long either, because then you see again that the triumph is really based on very little, or on almost nothing at all.  So it can’t be changed.  But it can always be turned around or rather flipped.  Then you’d have to keep relearning what turning around is and what flipping is.  And you wouldn’t get anywhere.

Every person has his path, and every path is the true one.  And I think there are now five billion people and five billion true paths.  Human beings’ great misfortune is that they don’t want to follow their own path, that they always want to follow a different one.  They strive towards something other than what they are.  Of course every one of them is a great personality, whether he paints or sweeps floors or writes.  People always want something else.  That is the great misfortune of the world, ninety-eight percent of it; maybe we can even add a percentage point to that.  Every time you’re talking with somebody, you’re talking with an idiot.  But they’re likeable, because of course you’re no killjoy; you keep talking with people, you have dinner with them and it’s charming and nice.  And at bottom they’re brainless, because they never make the slightest effort.  Whatever you don’t use atrophies and dies off.   Because people only use their mouths but never use their brains, they get highly developed palates and chins, but there’s nothing left in their brains.  That’s the way it usually is.

I make sure that I’m as independent as possible from everything and everybody.  That’s always the first requirement, because it’s only then that you can act completely differently.  Even by yourself.   That’s the only way it can happen.

Humanity is logically always getting more intelligent, because it’s at the end of time, because there’s more and more inside it than fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, and so on.  That is on the one hand a step forward, as they say, but on the other hand, it naturally gets more and more spiteful the more it knows.  Because of course it sees more and more.  And people today see a lot more than people ten years ago, because of course they had no way of knowing what would be happening in ten years.  All that’s a part of us now.  And so we’re much smarter.  And if Wittgenstein were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing the way he did back then anymore.  In other words it’s less valuable than if Wittgenstein’s brain were thinking it today.  In that case there would of course be more stuff inside it now than then, but Wittgenstein’s brain isn’t around anymore.
I think it’s all very good.  They’re sentences1 that strictly speaking just fall apart again and dissolve into nothing, but they’re actually very well constructed and stir the imagination more than most of the others that have ever been written.  

If any elegant people have stopped by here, they’ve always been Wittgensteins.  Of course I never knew him personally.  I only knew his nephew.  The family owned a peninsula and some mountainside houses; those people have long been filthy rich, right up until today.   At some point they got rich, I have no idea when, and the same goes for the Köcherts, the Viennese jewelers; of course they’re all related; the Wittgensteins, Köcherts, have those palatial houses in Vienna and have been patrons of the arts for two hundred years, and Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms and everybody else they wanted to stayed there overnight and lived there and wrote pieces of music for them; really well-to-do people for whom money, even millions, was no object.  You can calmly give away seven million when you’ve got a hundred.  And I can calmly go to any village anywhere and “simplify” myself as a schoolteacher if I have four million pounds in the Bank of England.  But that’s really not so unpleasant.  You just can’t get by on it.  You see all these people constantly looking for exits and always on the run.  Everybody always is.  Even the chimneysweep.  Until at some point he never comes up anymore.


  1. Here Bernhard seems to be talking about Wittgenstein’s propositions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 64-73.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Translation of "Eine katholische Existenz" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

A Catholic Existence

In the end, everything comes to naught; everything ends in the cemetery.  There you can do whatever you like.  Death carries everybody home, and then everything is over.  Of course, most people let death carry them away by the time they’re seventeen, eighteen.  Nowadays young people throw themselves into the arms of death especially early; by the ages of twelve and fourteen they’re already dead.  Then there are isolated fighters, who just keep fighting death until they’re eighty or ninety, and then they’re dead too, but all the same they’ve lived a pretty long life.  And because life is beautiful and a lark, they’ve had a long lark.  People who have died young have had a short one, and they really deserve to be pitied.  Because they never properly got to know life.  With all its horrors.

My mother constantly, all her life, suffered from something I have never suffered from in mine—really terrible headaches.  Of course she didn’t get very old, but never mind that.  And I always used to fetch her pills, her anti-headache pills, really strong ones.  And one day I went in and I said, “The pills for my mom.”  And he handed them over to me so nicely out of the jar, well, and then I swallowed them.  I don’t know, thirty pills at one go.  That was what saved me, because it was too much, and so it all came right back up.  I still remember quite clearly that I spent a week in bed and did nothing but throw up, even though I hadn’t had anything in my stomach in a whole week.  It’s really unpleasant.  You feel as though your stomach is being ripped out.

Of course children are always possessed by the Devil.  Any child that’s not frail and ill and gentle and paying attention to everything is obviously going to be told, “You’re possessed by the Devil.”  Because of course they annoy their parents and are actually always superior to them.  Of course a child still has an unspoiled, healthy intelligence.  Doesn’t he?  Parents can sense this, and so they basically hate their children.  And as a result they hate themselves, because they’re responsible for the children’s existence.

I don’t think I’m wide of the mark here; I think that almost every child quite often thinks of killing himself, that almost all of them try it as well, but then they don’t do it or it doesn’t succeed.  That’s really quite a strong impulse when you’re a child.  It comes like a wave, between the ages of seven and eight, then it ebbs away, then you get a bit more robust, I think, then there comes another sensitive phase between eighteen and twenty-four, and anybody who gets over that hurdle makes it to, say, fifty and gets married and marches into normal life with his head held high and his heart steadily beating.  Then beginning at fifty people start to get reflective again.  By then their marriages have fallen apart, their children have turned into monsters, and ingratitude is their reward from the world.

All my life, at every moment of it, I’ve been planning to kill myself.  But since I haven’t managed to do it, life must be more valuable to me than anything else.  So I’m really not sure.  Of course my illness isn’t like multiple sclerosis, something that goes away completely and then comes back.  It’s not something you get over, I think.  It’s very hard to say.  But perhaps I’ll put myself to shame and make it to eighty.  I just don’t know.  It’s not something that’s up to me.  There’s obviously no point in sitting in the coach and flogging the horse when it’s been a corpse for ages.  In my life everything’s always winding down.   

I have adhesions on my lungs, from earlier on, probably; I had pneumonia at one point.  I think they somehow must have started back then.  Because of course I have an ailment that’s permanent there, a dilation of the heart that’s incurable.  And then you can live on for another quarter of an hour or for three more years, or even being around seven years from now is a possibility.  According to the doctors, I really should have been dead a long time ago.  Anyway, death is—so I’m not worried at all; the whole thing is all the same to me.  I actually don’t understand the fear of death because dying is as normal as having lunch.  Sometimes I’m afraid of people, such as they are, but it’s impossible to be afraid of death.  What is it if you can never feel it?  Then I’m just going quit life–I guarantee it.  I’m firmly determined not to linger on as a puny invalid.  Of course that’s a choice that’s open to everyone; anybody can kill himself anytime.  The only question is how.  But an existence in which I can’t do as I like anymore will be hard-going in any case, but after all, I would never do that.  Then once you’re down below, no matter how you got there, there are of course all those charitable abominations that find the kingdom of heaven somewhere, but otherwise nothing.  Started by everybody from the Knights of Malta to whoever; it’s all revolting.

I think people should think more about themselves.  Then at least you’ve got the right feel for things.  Because I don’t need any naturopaths either.   Since I know myself, what I do; I know that I take mild things, expectorants, and there’s nothing more to do than that.  Once you’ve woken up to the fact that you’re basically rusting, right?  It’s like when you’re scouring the barrel of a gun; obviously tending to your throat isn’t any different.  Of course it’s not at all a bad idea to add some bland, oily stuff to your diet, along with honey and milk, to take in some clean air; then it goes away.  But not completely or for good, right?, there’s the rub.

I have actually written about headaches, about terrible headaches, because I’ve always been interested in them, and my grandfather had insanely terrible headaches, and so did my mother, basically everybody in my family.  But I don’t know what it’s like to have a headache.  Except the one you get after being drunk.  I do get a backache when the weather’s changing, and I can sense it in my head.  One way or another you’re at the mercy of the weather.  It’s obviously not a big mystery when something is hurting you.  You’ve only got to look up and you’re sure of it.  But it’s never attacked me in the head, not really.  It attacks me from behind and inside, and it stabs me.  Well, obviously you can’t escape it, and it’s naturally also a stimulus, but if you can’t get to sleep for months on end, not for a single night, and you start to feel lucky if you sleep three hours straight without anything playing up, then the stimulus is naturally blunted quite a bit.

Earlier today I spent some time with my brother; he’s an internist, thank God, because that lets me spare myself all that ghastly drivel involved in visiting doctors’ offices, but he is always marveling at all the things I still manage to do.  Of course he thinks that somebody in my condition should have been lying in bed for years and doing God knows what.  Of course if I’d done that I’d be no longer with you, probably.  But I’m certainly in relatively good shape, and I’d rather do too much than too little anyway; otherwise I’d obviously be finished.

In Lisbon I had a urethral blockage, which lasted three days, OK?, and then there was suddenly blood and pus as well.  I told my brother about it by phone, and he said “check into a hospital right away,” and it was high time to do that.  If you wait a day too long with that—my grandfather died of the same thing.  But I still flew back on my own with the catheter in.  And it turned out not to be too late, it was early enough, and it cleared up.

My mother was bedridden with cancer for two years, and then she died; she was already like a skeleton, and my aunt, who of course you’ve seen, was also bedridden for a year, and I nursed her, more or less.  Intellectually she was a hundred-percent lucid up to a day before her death, but ghastly to look at, nothing but skin and bones.  I know what that means, that a so-called normal death is quite ghastly.  But these people, even when they can’t put up any kind of a fight anymore, keep hanging on to life, which is so stupid that you can’t even talk about it.  So death and life; it’s really quite normal, normal and completely natural.  It’s stupid only when you see somebody else who’s like that and who’s on her way there; that’s horrifying.  Besides, you’re deteriorating and you just can’t do certain things anymore.  I simply can’t walk up a single flight of stairs in a building anymore, just like people stop being able to swim, overnight, or run long distances.  And I think I would even go so far as to say that anybody who isn’t dead yet or hasn’t killed himself yet is happy after a fashion.  Even if he’s unhappy.  Otherwise of course he would have done away with himself.  The moment when that prevails, the weariness prevails, when it’s so strong that you want to kill yourself—then you can of course make up your own mind whether to be happy or unhappy, fortunate or unfortunate.  It’s simply not true that it descends on you from heaven.  Or that people can talk you into it.  Everybody has got his own life in his hands, in the final analysis.  I think this has naturally gone really far, but I could say without further ado: if a person is blind, for him it could be the greatest piece of good fortune—even if he would have to endure incredible pain, even if he’ll be half-starved—to be able to see just one more time.  So at a moment like that he’s already fortunate.  And it’s highly fortunate for you that I don’t bludgeon you to death with my hoe right now.  Right now I obviously really could kill you.  For example.  But perhaps that would be highly fortunate for you; it’s obviously impossible to say.  Or for me.  So the first thing murderers feel, as soon as they become conscious of what they’ve done, two minutes afterwards, is shock.  After about two minutes they rush outside and scream, “Aw, Ah done keelt’im!”  And that’s probably exactly what I would do.  I really don’t think I’d just calmly drive away in the Mercedes, with the windows rolled down, and say, “I have killed a certain person.”  I don’t think I’d do that.  So I really would rush outside, with my shirt unbuttoned, my fly unzipped; somehow you get the feeling that “Less will happen to me because I’m already being a bit cunning.”  So I might think along those lines, sure.

You really do enjoy a slice of good fortune, of happiness, every day.  Happiness, I think, is doled out just like unhappiness; everybody gets his share.  And even a guy with one leg is still happy, because he’s still got one leg.  And a guy who’s just got his torso left, and can keep on living, is happy.  It’s that way right up until the end.  Probably that’s what happiness is.  And the idea that you’re supposed to be happier than you already are is probably sheer hubris and unfeasible.  But naturally I’m no village priest.  I’m obviously not protesting anything.

I’m satisfied with everything, completely.

Probably because I’m so self-satisfied and so happy about everything.1  In the truest sense of the word.  I am thoroughly happy, from head to toe, from my left hand to my right, and this is like a cross.  And that’s what’s so beautiful about it.2  A Catholic existence.  I wish everybody could have religion and all that, because it’s wonderful.  It’s all like creamed soup.

Because you can’t do anything.  You get a name, Thomas Bernhard, and you have it all your life.  And if you go and take a walk the woods one day and somebody snaps a picture of you, then for eighty years you’ll be doing nothing but walking in the woods.  There’s not a thing you can do to stop it.

Naturally if some reporter is sitting in a bar and hears that you’ve said, “Beef is no good,” then he’ll always maintain, “This is the man who can’t stand beef.”  Meanwhile maybe from that point onwards you’re eating nothing but beef.

Anybody who’s been branded an “ox” is an ox all the way to the slaughtering block.  So everybody knows that in the spring he eats grass, then foggage.  It’s the same in the case of a writer.  He’s been branded a “writer.”  Hence, the farmer who sells him at the slaughtering block is the publisher, who sells him at the book market.  Everybody knows what the writer does.  Just as a cow devours grass, a writer devours thoughts, assimilates them.  Whether they’re always the same ones or different ones is none of his business.  It’s a higher sort of intuition.  Perhaps it’s also partly owing to my having received extreme unction when I was in hospital at the age of eighteen.  After that I was in a sanatorium and bedridden for months in the mountains.  Always the same mountain in front of me.  I couldn’t move, and out of that boredom and that solitude with that mountain, for months and months—then you’re either going to go mad or you start to write.  And there I got over my aversion to books and writing and the pencil by writing.  And that is certainly the root of all evil.  But everything helps you further along, and you can make a living from anything, and so you make a career of producing nonsense.  Life consists of a concatenation of nonsense, a bit of sense, but almost exclusively nonsense.  No matter who it is.  Even if they’re now great and important, supposedly great and important people—it’s all pitiful and leads to nothing but the end.

Then at home you can put your little books on shelves, and then you can look at them.  And despite that you keep grinding the mill.  Just as you get used to having a cup of coffee every morning, or a cup of tea—tea is even more sensible—it’s that way with writing.  Because you get addicted.  It’s even a kind of narcotic.

If you enjoy being alive as I do, you simply can’t help living with a kind of constant feeling of love-hate towards everything.3  It’s a kind of tightrope walk.  Of course to surrender directly would spell death.  If you enjoy being alive, you obviously don’t want to be dead.  Everybody enjoys being alive, even somebody who’s killed himself, but after that it’s no longer possible for him.  Because it’s never possible to undo anything.

You’re just tossed to and fro.  That’s the best incentive and impetus to live that you can have. If you only love, you’re doomed.  If you only hate, you’re just as doomed.  Nothing can survive without eroticism.  Not even the insects; they need it too.  Unless you’ve got a completely primitive idea of what’s erotic.  That’s out of the question, because I’ve always taken care to get the better of primitivism.  I have no need of either a sister or a mistress. You’ve got all that inside yourself; sometimes you can even exploit it, if you’re in the mood. People always think that whatever isn’t directly stated is absent, which is nonsense, of course.  An eighty-year-old man who’s bedridden somewhere and hasn’t enjoyed this kind of love in fifty years—he’s also got his sexual life in there.  In fact, his is a much wilder form of sexual existence than the primitive kind.  I’d rather watch a dog doing it and keep my strength.

Sexuality plays a huge role for everybody, just as everybody plays a role in it.  Everybody’s got to play that role, of course, because everybody’s got it.  There’s no such thing as a non-sexual human being.  Even if you were to cut off somebody’s breasts, dick, and everything else, he’d still be totally dependent on sexuality afterwards.  To be sure, then he’d be dead and a total sacrificial victim of total sexuality.


  1. Cf. Hofmann’s “last conversation” with Bernhard, a traditional question-and-answer interview: “HOFMANN: You’re content with everything. / BERNHARD: I’m satisfied with everything.  Completely. / HOFMANN: So why do you write? / BERNHARD: Probably because I’m so self-satisfied and so happy about everything” (p. 138 of Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard).

  1. “I am thoroughly happy...beautiful about it.” This passage appears in Siegfried Unseld’s obituary for Bernhard, as quoted in n.1 to Letter No. 524 of the Bernhard-Unseld Correspondence.

  1. “If you enjoy...towards everything.”  Another passage that appears in Unseld’s obituary.

  1. “Nothing can survive...and keep my strength.”  A passage that appears verbatim in Werner Wögerbauer's 1986 interview of Bernhard.  For more on this see the footnote to my translation of the first monologue in Hofmann’s collection.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 53-63.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson