Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"my then completely empty house"

Today, the 11th day of this dark month, marks twenty years since the death of Thomas Bernhard. As I wrote in an essay to mark the tenth anniversary, the promise of an early demise from TB was necessary to his work. "Death is close to me now and so is winter" he wrote in his twenties. February is also his birth month.

What remains to be said about Thomas Bernhard? Sometimes, in the ten years since that indulgent essay meant to promote a writer who then demanded promotion, I have sensed a damaging influence; not only in the seductive, liberating style but also in the excess, the exaggeration of which he was so exaggeratedly proud. Yet then I read his story In Rome (translated by Kenneth J. Northcott), in which Bernhard remembers Ingeborg Bachmann, and these regrets fall away, replaced by gratitude.
The most intelligent and famous female poet that our country has produced in the present century died in a hospital in Rome from the effects of scalds and burns that she must have sustained in her bathtub, according to the authorities. I used to go on trips with her, and on these trips I shared many of her philosophical views, as well as her views on the course of the world and the course of history, which had frightened her all her life. Many attempts on her part to return to her native Austria, however, came to grief because of the shamelessness of her female rivals and the stupidity of the Viennese authorities. The news of her death reminded me that she was the first guest in my then completely empty house. She was always on the run and had always seen people for what they really were, as a slow-witted, stupid, thoughtless mass that one simply has to break with. Like me, she had early in life discovered the entrance to hell, and entered this hell even though there was a danger of perishing in this hell at a very early age. People are trying to decide whether her death was an accident or whether it was suicide. Those who believe in the poet's suicide keep saying that she was broken by herself, whereas in reality and in the nature of things she was broken by her environment and, at bottom, by the meanness of her homeland, which persecuted her at every turn even when she was abroad, just as it does so many others.


  1. Steve, It's good that we in the English speaking world remember the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. We shouldn't forget that he was born into the Alpine tradition of Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. World War II was just an unfortunate event. "Let's put it all behind us," says the good Burgermeister in the bar of the zum Lodenmantel. "Pretend it never happened. Of course Uncle Fritz didn't come back from Stalingrad. Well, that's ok, his photo is in the church."
    It's a small miracle that Bernhard achieved what he achieved. Someone had to shake up the establishment. And if not Bernhard, then who? Austria need Bernhard and Bernhard needed Austria. It was a mutual enterprise of sorts.
    To celebrate the 20th year I'm going to translate a poem from Gesammelte Gedichte. I haven't decided which one yet. And the other thing I'm going to do is read your 7 pages of 'Failing to Go Under'.

  2. Please forgive the failings of the essay. If I had known then it would still be online ten years later ...

    Of course, Bernhard could not have been English. If one has existed, he or she is as invisible to us as Allied bombing of German cities.



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