Friday, May 20, 2016

A Translation of "Wie ein völlig verschmutzter Teppich" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)

Like a Completely Filthy Rug

Of course you can’t itemize everything; a life obviously can’t be unfurled so easily.  When you unfurl your life, you can thwack it clean like a completely filthy rug; you would just as soon thank me for thwacking you in the face.  And it would be quite dangerous for anybody with any sort of life to thwack his life clean in front of you.  It would give you a coughing fit, and in no time flat you’d be running away.

I have given a performance like that at the coffeehouse in Vienna.  I go in there so that I can have some peace and quiet and read the newspapers, and then people pounce on me and talk about some book I wrote twenty-two years ago; it’s really quite impossible; I no longer have a clue about what’s in the book.  And when you say, “I don’t want to talk to you,” they don’t even notice.  They keep sitting there.  Until you finally say, “You’re talking nonsense,” then they say, “If anybody’s talking nonsense, it’s you.”  What are you supposed to do then?  Then the next person has just come from an art exhibition and says, “Excuse me for disturbing you, I wrote to you once regarding a preface,” but I of course am no preface-writer, then we start fighting, then you leave, and a week later somebody informs you that behind your back the waiter said, “At last we’re rid of him, he certainly won’t be coming here again.”  At a place I’ve been frequenting for thirty years, instead of shielding me from those people they get downright cheeky.  A man dashes out of the place in despair, and afterwards they still nickname him “Mr. At Last We’re Rid of Him.”

In the first place, I get a hostile reception everywhere; of course I have to put up with all that.  Then they characterize me as arrogant and ghoulish, as a ghoulish figure; you’ve got to put up with all of that.  I’m obviously not some Peter Alexander type who can just suck up to everyone.

I’m sick of dining out in Vienna, because I have been going to that place for thirty-five years, in other words, longer than the abominable creatures who flock there now, because it’s in my neighborhood.  The chancellor sometimes goes there.  But I don’t speak with these people—“As a one-offer, I’m going to invite you to my next dinner party”—then I say, “Well, hopefully not.”  It’s horrible when these people come up to you like that.  Everybody mingles like that, everybody waters everybody else, but you can’t do that kind of thing to me.

There are people, untiring people, who don’t understand or hear anything whatsoever.  They immediately get cheeky with you, they even get cheeky if you don’t open the door; then they start hammering at the door with that knocker, as if they’re trying to knock it down out of sheer rage, and the neighbors say, “He’s in there.”

In Vienna I am of course anonymous.  There I don’t need to pick up the phone, for example, and it’s always the same when you’re expecting somebody, then it’s always eh who is it this time, it’s always a vicious circle.  But on the other hand that’s part of the whole thing, of course.  If it were all completely different than it is, then of course I wouldn’t rush back there so quickly.  I’m certainly not the kind of person who locks himself up in his house and spends all his time alone, sleeps, and turns into a blithering idiot in the process.  Obviously nobody can get away with locking himself up in his house and shutting up everything, but when I open my front door they come inside.  Then people come here and think it’s their property.  Like with a giraffe that anybody can look at, that’s always available for public viewing.

How are you supposed to like people who know nothing about you and then just sit there and stare at you; there’s nothing of value in that, just—what’s really likeable anyway?  It’s wrong even to count on anything at all; that’s every bit as wrong, of course.  Then of course you can also just stay stuck in some marriage; I obviously don’t care to do anything like that either.

Everybody wants to join in the game and at the same time be left in peace.  And because it really isn’t possible to do both, you’re always in a state of conflict.  You shut the door in order to be alone again, and the moment you shut the door you become conscious that it’s wrong, that it’s a mistake too, because basically it’s something you don’t want; because in the first place you know that being alone is even more unpleasant, but in the other situation you can’t get anything done.  When you’re hanging around with a woman you can’t write any books, or just stupid books, ultimately; it just doesn’t work.  And when you’re hanging around with a man, he also gets on your nerves, because that’s not any different, so hanging around with people in general is all very serious and difficult.

The most grotesque things happen here of course.  Once twelve or fifteen years ago something happened with Peter Hamm, who at the time was quite a nice guy; back then he was absolutely smitten with Ms. [Marianne] Koch…and then he showed up once with this Ms. Koch, the actress, in her fur coat—it was a real bender—and a tape-recorder, and it lasted for hours.  And then he had it typed up, I believe some publishing firm was even involved, and it ended up being a kind of hodgepodge from that night, and then I naturally said this is completely out of the question, this is obviously impossible, you really can’t make this bender into a book.  Then he got mad.  He certainly racked up some expenses and worked quite hard on it for several weeks, but then I just had to say no.

I know all too well the sort of bilge that even I can talk; it depends on the circumstances, and of course everybody has his embarrassing and abominable side, why should that …I’m obviously not hiding anything.   The only thing that bothers me is the printing of words that I have never uttered.  Because there are certain things, certain words, that I just don’t say.  The gist of it may be right, such that I have said it, but of course I’m not going to be a total moron and say that I haven’t said it if I have said it.
I’m not hiding anything; I don’t want anything; I have no desire to make my portrait more faithful, or to prettify it, or to uglify it.  That’s up to everybody else individually.  The skillet is visible to everybody and so is the grease that I throw into the skillet, and on top of that I’ve got whatever sausage I’m cooking; there’s obviously nothing I can do to stop this.  And if I say it makes no difference to me [mir ist das wurscht], then the sausage [Wurscht] really does make no difference to me.

I can tell you everything that goes on here; then of course you would have to be constantly hiring detectives and constantly going to court.  Just now for example something has been published, apparently in connection with this performance of some plays in Spanish, my plays, that is, and it’s got a preface, and in it the name “Lampersberg” appears—pure bilge; I don’t know where he, the translator, got that from—and a country estate and a castle, when there’s neither an estate nor a castle nor anything else there, and a nobleman; of course I can only laugh at it; and then there are also some homosexual relations.  I mean, it really is too hilarious by half!   

That was an episode, but one that was completely false...of course the people haven’t a clue; it’s got nothing to do with me.  Incidentally, I saw him a few weeks ago in Vienna, wearing white shorts and whatnot; he is really a wretched fool; I haven’t read that little Lampersberg book either.  But when we publish a book about Lorca here, people naturally take it for the gospel truth in Andalusia, nobody fact-checks it, and it’s probably just as much of a load of bilge.  So there’s constantly an uninterrupted flow of spurious bilge everywhere.  All the same, this is a man who has been translating for ten years, and the publisher probably sends him some newspaper cuttings, and then from them he pieces something together and gets paid, say, ten thousand pesetas for it.

Or this so-called director…meaning for the theater and the like, came to Frankfurt, and now he has founded his own publishing firm there.  And he writes: “The first book I’ve published is yours,” and I open the book, and straight-away my name has been misspelled, so I mean…and the man sends it to me; he probably hasn’t even taken a single good look at the way it’s been typeset, how “Bernhardt” has been printed with “dt” at the end; it’s all quite intolerable; what in the world is wrong with these people?  But you really just have to take it on the chin and walk away.  He’s amazed that he hasn’t heard from me since.  And what am I supposed to write to him now: “It’s funny, your little book arrived, and it came as news to me that my name was spelled like that”?—the whole thing is completely pointless; I’m dealing with total idiots.

Then people send books, or fling books straight into your window, books “for you,” “to you,” “about you”; then you leaf through them, because after all there has to be some sort of connection, and right away…it really doesn’t affect me; rather it affords me a bit of amusement, with an undertone of slight worry that it will never lead to anything, because of course I can’t reply, because if I do I’ll fall into a maelstrom.  A reply of course means a return trip and one way or another that always ends horribly.  So I have to nip all that in the bud, and so all that stuff gets thrown away.  All books with requests for a reply I chuck into the trash; you can find all of them here in my trashcan.  And then later on you’ll be able to find my works in the big trash can outside.

Then in Vienna the telephone rings at eleven at night.  “Are you the writer Thomas Bernhard?”  I say: “No, he’s not here.”  But I don’t want to change the number, because it’s been the same for thirty-five years.  I find it really disagreeable, and because I overlooked the fact that after my aunt—it had of course been listed under her name, and because I overlooked the fact that that simply happened automatically.  But then there are two consecutive Thomas Bernhards in the telephone book.

Then I have the strength—I really have to say this—when I’m in Vienna, for days on end, I hear it ringing and I don’t go near it.  So literally for days on end.  I really manage to muster the courage for that.  If they knew that I was there and wasn’t answering , they would kill me.   In Vienna I’m at their mercy somehow or other.   But here too, and especially at weekends.  Then I’ve got to lock myself inside, and then they run around the house and knock at the windows and doors.  So I just drive away beforehand.

Then you have to put up with people yelling at you in the streets—“You’ll see how far you get soon enough,” and the like.  On the other hand, when you publish something, you naturally have to be prepared for that; you really don’t have any control over it.  That would be tragic of course.  It’s a precise reflection of the way everything is.  Since you can’t do anything; everything is made up of misunderstandings.  And people peeing on you, that’s something you also get used to over the course of the decades.  Well, you see, you probably present yourself to the world as a tree.  Then, you know, the doggies come up and do their business on you.  But no pee-watered tree has ever withered.

Yes, and then I think to myself, it’s horrible but you need, you’ve got to have—you’ve got to have contact.  There’s no help for it, but you can never have too little of it.  And so everybody spends his life knitting away at a pullover; one person knits a lot of little hearts into it, the next one not so many, with a greater or lesser number of runs, and in the end it’s all filthy and much too tight and full of holes, and even before you’re finished, the front is mouse-eaten and moth-eaten, your showpiece has already been frittered away before it’s finished, and then the Good Lord says, “That’ll work!”

When you’ve been alone for a long time, when you’ve gotten used to solitude, when you’re schooled in solitude, you always discover more and more there, where other people see nothing.

At the moment I can’t bear the presence of anyone.  And the very idea of somebody coming here…Grrrrrrrr, it’s really horrifying, I just can’t bear it—“Now, you’ve got to take part too”—no, nobody has to do that anywhere or at all.
I have never yet given anything like an interview; at most I have chatted with people, and afterwards they have cobbled together whatever they wanted, because I have always said, “It’s all the same to me whatever you do.”  Then naturally certain things often come to light, because of course everybody mangles it according to his own taste.  So dozens of Bernhards can be made out of it.  You can make a dramatic Bernhard, a tragic one, a mendacious one, a disgusting one, a cheerful one, out of it; whichever one suits you.  I of course let everybody do as he likes.  But whenever somebody asks questions and I answer them, it doesn’t work.  What gets me angry is when things that I never said in my life are printed afterwards.  But then I’d just have to go to court again.  People who want to have a conversation seem fishy to me from the outset because of course that implies a standard, a certain pretentious standard that these people obviously aren’t capable of meeting.   I can chat with simple people very well.  Whenever chats are supposed to be turned into conversations, it’s ghastly from the beginning.

It would be interesting if whenever someone asked a question—and this would naturally be very interesting for the person asking the question—he threw in ten schillings and a million came out down below.  With me on the other hand you’re throwing a hundred schillings in at the top and then fifty groschen come out at the bottom.  That’s the difference.  It makes the interviewer nervous, or he ends up unsatisfied, but I can’t do anything about it.  The answer, if I get round to giving one, is less valuable than the question most of the time.  And that naturally also rubs you the wrong way, but in my way.  It’s the only one available to me, after all.

Normally of course people ask questions like, “Do you honestly mean what you say or not?” and so forth.  Or: “Do you write more in the morning than in the evening?” and all those sorts of things.  All that stuff is thrown in at the top.  And the one person gives it a turn and then the other person gives it a turn.  An unbearable, malodorous sausage comes out at the bottom.  No matter who it is.  There are in fact collections of conversations, hundreds of them, volumes of them.  Indeed, entire publishing firms live off this stuff.  It’s like it comes out of an anus, and the whole thing ends up inside the cover of a book.  It gets slapped in there.[1]

I think that something becomes important or valuable only thanks to the way it’s received.  Through its echo.  If it hasn’t got one, it has no value.  Your emotions have no value as long as they stay pent up inside you.  And your protest is of no use either if nobody hears it, because then it’ll suffocate you and kill you.  There’s no point in that either.  So run outside, out of your house, and share your protest with other people.  And then the reaction will be important.  Either people will say “he’s crazy” or “he ought to be locked up”; in any case there will be an echo there.  Or people will shake their heads.  I’ve run dry.  That’s all.


[1] Everything in this paragraph from “And one person gives it a turn…” onwards, along with the sentence beginning “People who want to have a conversation,” in the preceding paragraph but one, appears nearly verbatim in a 1986 interview of Bernhard by Werner Wögerbauer.  I believe I have read somewhere that Hofmann’s interviews are “controversial”; perhaps the controversy is owing to the presence of mimeographic passages such as these.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 9-19.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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