A Flight into the Arms of Humanity
I had tuberculosis and pimples all over my face, and I was emaciated and pale, and the whole thing began because there was an unveiling ceremony for a memorial plaque for my grandfather in Henndorf. I still remember that. There was this unveiling and then there was a lunch or something like that with my relatives in the tavern, with newspapers and reporters and whoever standing around and with flags and rifle-shots. My grandmother was sitting next to me, and so was Kaut, and she said, “Good Lord, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my grandson, he’s a good-for-nothing and going nowhere, and so perhaps he could write.” And Kaut said, “Send him to me on Monday.” OK, and then on Monday I went to see him at the Demokratisches Volksblatt in Salzburg. Then he said, in fact I think he even addressed me as “Du,” it really strikes me as quite comical; he said, “Hop to it, kiddo!” There was a refugee camp in the—Rosittenkasern it was called, so it was a barracks; I was supposed to go there and write something about it. Anyway, so I went there and then typed something up. I lived in Aiglhof. Next morning it was in the newspaper, heavily trimmed of course, naturally, and I was really proud. Then I thought to myself, wow, you bring it in in the afternoon, and the next morning it’s already in there. That’s an uplifting feeling. And at the time there was a guy who covered the courtrooms who fell ill, to my good fortune. And then nobody was covering them; this was a small newspaper with nothing. So then I started going to the courtrooms, on an interim basis; then the guy stayed ill for ever and ended up never showing up again. I have no idea who he could have been, and I just kept doing that for two years.
At bottom I wanted—because back then I was always changing my mind—I wanted to open a shop, meaning a grocery store or something like that. I had already asked a junk dealer for shelves and drawers and whatnot; I had made up my mind that I was going to sell something. What that would be I had no idea; small household items or things like that. It had always been a desire of mine and a dream of my youth, because in Henndorf, at my Aunt Rosa’s, they had had a general store with sugar-loaves and whatnot. Because I had spent time there as a child. The whole shop was half the size of this room here. Plus a second room, a bedroom; there actually wasn’t anything else. As a child I had often spent every day there for months on end, and later on I started spending the night there. I always hated it, but in compensation I was at least allowed to sell things there, behind the counter. And so I put up with being around this old, hideously senescent aunt, in her horrible bed. I didn’t get a wink of sleep—all the windows were shut tight as a duck’s bum; it was a dank, musty hellhole—the entire night. But I certainly garnered an experience from that cornershop trauma. But because it happened to occur along with the writing, well then, I know I used to get thirty schillings per contribution, and it made no difference whether it was three pages or three lines. So it was a fixed fee. Then I always made sure I had three contributions in each number, even, say, “The Pregnant Widow.” Then I would go to the district court and ask, “What the hell’s going on today?” They had legal documents that I would transcribe on the fly. So I earned quite a bit relatively speaking, almost 90 schillings a day, which was a huge sum of money back then. By the end of the month I was sitting pretty there. And then I thought to myself, you know, this is really a more favorable situation than the other one. I had plenty of job-satisfaction, and I could read my own hokum over breakfast. At the time I really didn’t quite believe it was hokum.
One day I came into the office, and Kaut said to me, “This is never going to last the way it is now; now we’ve got to join the party, so I’m talking about our becoming a socialist newspaper, which means becoming nothing, because there’s no such thing.” Then he immediately took me by the hand, like an uncle. The party office was only five addresses farther down the street, and the future mayor was there. [Heinrich] Salfenauer was the party secretary then; he was a short, weedy, rachitic homunculus, basically offensiveness personified, a caricature of a nonentity, utterly average and preposterous. I thought to myself, “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference to me; I’ll go ahead and join the party now.” And the members’ badges for a half-year membership had already been prepared, and we signed on right then and there, and that was the end of the story. I went home and I said to myself afterwards, “What exactly is it that you’ve just done?” It was a spur-of-the-moment, brainless act, and so it sort of gave me a nasty feeling. Then letters to “Comrade Bernhard” started arriving, and then I said to myself, “Oh boy, somehow or other this has really got to stop.” And I am absolutely sure that the very next day or the day after that I took my party membership book, I wrote a letter to Peyerl, who was the governor of Salzburg at the time; he was a Red as well, and he also lived in the Aiglhof: “To the Chairman of the Party in Salzburg.” I wrote that on a certified mail envelope and then I wrote, “I really don’t think much of socialism and whatnot, and I herewith enclose this book, which was a load of drivel,” and the rest was history. After that I couldn’t be open with Kaut anymore, and then naturally my whole ninety schillings a day were gone. It was all over. After that I was out of touch for I think ten, fifteen years. That was it.
Then I immediately rang up the Salzburger Nachrichten and said, “Could I do something for you?” and so forth; I always just used to rush into things, and back then the editor-in-chief was [Ilse] Leitenberger, who has been at Die Presse for decades now. Somehow by then I was already beginning to get the picture. She said, “Ah, he starts out pretending to be a Socialist.” Over the telephone, right away, incredible as it seems. I thought, “You can get stuffed,” and I hung up. I’m still totally certain it was in the telephone booth in the Rainerstrasse; such a devastating rejection. And then I just stood there. Then Becker got me something at the radio station; they had a news magazine show; I think it was called Radio Austria; so a kind of preview of certain upcoming programs, the kind of thing that’s everywhere now; it involved writing something about them beforehand. I chose programs about science. Instead of going to the library and looking things up, I always just made up everything myself, and wrote, “…as Heidegger has already said…” I made it up myself, these turgid sentences that didn’t say zip or anything else, but they sounded grand. I had to submit five short paragraphs every week, and then I got three hundred schillings a month, and I was able to live on that for years, that lasted years, until I got the sack, because I kept missing the deadlines. The backlog was piling up to my neck, and so I kept putting it off, and then it was too late. I foundered. By then of course I had enrolled at the Mozarteum, and at the same time I was coming up with these little things in the newspaper. That was everything, I think.
And then there’s another thing I still remember: that at the time I got a merit scholarship. At the Mozarteum they were announced publicly in a list, specifically on the bulletin board. The scholarships were for 50,000 schillings, an enormous sum of money back then. Back then old Paumgartner was still alive, and the president of the Mozarteum. By then I had already written some poems, privately. My poems were already being published when I was still in the seminar. The book had also come out by then as well. (Auf der Erde und in der Hölle [On Earth and in Hell], Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg, 1957). And I can still remember thinking, a merit scholarship, how wonderful; for that you’ve got to get dressed up, because the 50,000 schillings were handed over by the president himself in white envelopes in his office, on the ground floor. And so Thomas Bernhard, I said to myself, wearing just a pair of trousers and a pullover; I had never owned a coat up until then. Well and then he hands them out, and then he runs out of envelopes, and I’m just standing there. Then he says, “So, what the hell do you want?” I say, “Well, now, what do you mean? I’m on the list, after all.” Ah, that was a mistake. Awfully shabby of him, wasn’t it? And he didn’t even manage to crack a joke, and he wasn’t at all nice about it either. And I was left standing there like a drenched [poodle]…I tell you, these people are incredibly coarse. They call themselves connoisseurs of culture, they’ll conduct an evening concert at the drop of a hat, and they beat the living tar out of you there. I went home, and I was knackered. I tell you, these stories, it’s only just becoming clear to me. Such remarkable things that these people couldn’t have cared less about. Back then I lived on nothing but goulash soup for years on end, and because of that I had raging acne and I looked horrible. Goulash soup and a black bread-roll, that was my actual daily diet, and in the morning I would usually guzzle a couple of liters of tea, and at night I didn’t go home.
I had known Becker, the director general of the ORF, from earlier on, and I was always striking little deals with them. Once when All Saints’ Day was coming up, he said to me, “We’re about to make a program about the cemeteries of Salzburg,” and for that I wrote “From Grave of Honor to Grave of Honor.” I listened to it enthusiastically afterwards, when an actor read it, possibly from a theater, in Salzburg. That was certainly a pinnacle. Or “Poet’s Corner,” or whatever it was called, a quarter of an hour. Ernst Schönwiese was still there then, so some fine poems got read. In the intervals there was some piano music. At home I was bashful; I sat down in a tavern where nobody knew me, and I asked, “May I please hear the radio broadcast?” And so I solemnly listened to it. Well, all right. And I thought, “Now you’re officially the Great Poet.” And I went up to Otto Müller with the manuscript, it was all very simple from then on; I never met with any resistance at all. Well, after all, that was quite a momentous thing. I was through with the Mozarteum by then. I took this exam and wrote some stories; I was finished, and once I got my diploma, I swore that I’d never have anything more to do with that again, because I had no interest in it. I basically enrolled at the Mozarteum just to avoid becoming isolated and going completely to the dogs, plus I was simply forced to be around people my own age. It was a total flight into the arms of humanity.
What else could I have done? For one thing I was ill. When you’ve got a lung disease, you obviously can’t go to work for a business, so that already rules out a couple of things. At the Mozarteum I never said anything about it; in fact, nobody ever asked me about it. In a school you can cough up a storm whenever you want; it’s as simple as that. But when you’re going to work at a grocer’s or at a hardware store or someplace like that, you’ve got to present a clean bill of health; otherwise they won’t hire you.
Well, I’d already written some novels, really long ones, three hundred pages long, really insufferable things, right? One of them was called Peter Goes to Town, and I was already at page 300, and he was still stuck at the train station. So I just stopped working on it; the whole concept was wrong. He hadn’t even once taken a seat in a streetcar, and there were already 150 pages. So zero points for economy. From that point on, good Lord, when was that anyway? By then I was at least 25 years old; so then the book came out, and I had begun writing earlier, when I was sixteen, seventeen. For almost ten years there was nothing, but then I was writing without putting too much thought into it. But then I got the feeling when I was finished [with Frost] that this was it, something that nobody had really done before and that nobody would imitate either. And when Frost came out it was of course snubbed by everybody around here anyway. I still remember that everybody, all those people who are still writing in the same half-cocked, slapdash kind of way, wrote “This is a trial run, but we don’t want to hear another word about him, about that boy there in Salzburg.” It’s no skin off my nose; of course anybody can write what he likes. Encouraging it certainly wasn’t. If it hadn’t been for a couple of reviews that were printed abroad, reviews that were drivel in themselves but got hyped in a big way, the book might have vanished without a trace. The whole thing was effectively written into a void. I was going through a phase then when I was living in Vienna with my aunt. I was working at building sites and digging ditches, and I also drove trucks. I made a phone call; there was one of those “St. Christopher’s” offices there then. So you go there, you get a leather waistcoat—I actually already had one then—and then you start driving. I worked for a company called Kemeter for months. They’re actually still in operation today. With the same blue cars. I really liked driving anyway. I am of course a passionate motorist, always have been, and I actually like trucks even more, and I’m actually very sorry that all that’s so long over and done with. Somehow it did something for me. But I had already finished writing Frost by then. Wieland Schmied was a very good friend of mine, and back then he was a reader at Insel Publications. They sold three thousand copies, I think. That basically had no effect whatsoever. And later on the boss there at Insel said to Schmied, “So he’s talked our ears off; we’ve got to accept it. But of course the whole thing isn’t all that good, as you yourself told me way back when.” And other jokey things like that. And somehow the book came out and there were reviews. But apart from their existence, they didn’t really cheer me up much, because each one of them contradicted the others, and in the end, just because I was a halfway intelligent person, I managed to figure out what sorts of intellectual products I was dealing with. Because basically there’s nothing of substance to them, and long reviews never contain a single sentence that has any real personal meaning for the reviewer, that gives you the feeling that he’s read the book with genuine interest. It’s obviously all conceived in a businesslike way; he takes care of his business and he’s done. For him the whole thing is a crude, alimentary, breadwinning business. And then you sit there with the reviews and the book, and you never get the faintest clue what kind of book it is, whether it’s anything like this or that and so forth. Then I went back to driving trucks, but there was something unwholesome about it. It was an unwholesome situation.
If the book hadn’t been accepted, I probably would have gone to Ghana, but in the meantime, after I’d gotten my visa and everything else, this American in Accra who had set the whole thing up, an official working half for the UN and half for Catholic Charities, suddenly died of a stroke. In my life, death has always had excellent timing.
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 42-52.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson