- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

By Gitta Honegger
Yale University Press, $29.95, 341pages, illus.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) resented biographies; the eccentric Austrian writer denounced their chronological approach as "tasteless" and "unintellectual." Gitta Honegger, author of this Bernhard monograph, had the courage to tackle her subject head-on by choosing his angry anti-biography statement as the epigraph to her book. Better still, while carefully avoiding mechanical chronology, she didn't acquiesce to Bernhard's aggressively self-protective attitude (and its implied prohibition to dissect his life), knowing that such opposition to research of facts is a noteworthy fact in itself, something that should alert the biographer and interpreter to underlying mystifications and lies.
After Ingeborg Bachmann, Bernhard was arguably the most representative Austrian author in the second half of the 20th century. Yet he is remembered less for his short stories, novels and plays than for his public persona a subversive maverick and literary jester who relished provoking public opinion and causing scandals, thus serving a cultural elite that relished nothing more than being provoked and scandalized.
Bernhard's preferred media were the theater, newspapers (to whose editors he sent numerous letters of protest and indignation), and finally the courtroom through which he even managed to "plot" his afterlife. Bernhard was also a skillful actor who painstakingly disguised his life's true tragedies while appearing to be completely absorbed by his own self-referencing writings.
Looming under the surface of an untiring provocateur was a fatigued idealist turned cynic. At one point, the author aptly compares Bernhard's personality to that of pianist Glenn Gould (to whom Bernhard devoted a novel): Both were obsessed with their bodies, both viewed art as a path to perfection, and to both artistic perfection was a response to an inner outcry of desperation.
The author's resistance to giving her book a chronological frame left her with the need to find a different structure. The one that she ultimately developed an array of essay-long chapters each of which focuses on a different aspect of Bernhard's persona and work has done her difficult theme utmost justice, with merely one exception to be discussed later. Given the state of literary criticism today, the author ought to be lauded for not pushing her investigation into a fashionable yet unproductive theoretical paradigm. Instead, she built a lively and multifaceted critical narrative around the mystique of this writer, approaching it chapter by chapter from a different angle family, fatherhood, kinship, nation, etc. ever widening the perspective.
Gitta Honegger is at her best and freshest when simply telling about Bernhard and acknowledging her own presence, including her emotions when meeting with Bernhard's friends and foes. (This admitted subjectivity of the narrating scholar is one of the few laudible accomplishments of modern literary criticism). Another forte of hers is formulatimg aphoristically crisp observations. Her depictions of Austria's self-absorbed cultural provincialism in particular breathe analytical clarity and daring. In contrast, the author's theoretical musings, brief as they may be, are the least convincing passages in this otherwise well written book; few of them connect organically with the text.
On the other hand, her sketches of postwar Austrian culture make for a fabulous read. She animates those bohemian circles meeting daily (and often all day long) in their traditional Vienna coffee houses, by characterizing all their petty conspiracies, betrayals and public accusations impressively staged storms in the coffee cup.
Although this is an introduction to the world of Thomas Bernhard, the enigmatic novelist and playwright, it is his lifelong struggle with his "Austrianness" that inevitably makes Austria and Austrians and their tricky identity issues a major focus of the book. Post-Hapsburg, postwar, post-imperial Austria, dwarfed by an unkind history but preserved enough to comfortably indulge in its own splendor, provided the treacherous playground for Bernhard's tormenting literary searches and in the 1970s elevated him to the status of a national icon.
Already during the preceding decade he had become a darling of the Austrian upper class, traveling Europe with counts, countesses and other celebrities who were eager to be seen as his friends and customarily paid all expenses for the honor.
His personal life was as tumultuous as it remained immature, endlessly repeating the same cycle of bonding, manipulation, and distancing. With many of his so-called "closest friends," Bernhard insisted on the lifelong "Sie," i.e. he maintained the formal honorific. After regularly breaking up with such patrons, he subsequently took bitter revenge by caricaturing them in a novel or play thus, in yet another turn, perversely bestowing upon them the highest honor in a society that places greater value on cultural importance than on wealth.
Some segments of Bernhard's private life were so unusual that in the past critics simply decided to leave them untouched (probably the most bizarre was his long relationship with a wealthy protector, a lady 37 years his senior who usually appears as "Frau Stavianicek," or "Auntie"). The biographer does not shy away from such stories, embarassing as they may seem, deliberately making them part of her sober analyses both of the author and of his cultural environs instead. After all, gossip can be of immense socio-cultural relevance. It is certainly telling how deeply Benhard detested that upper class and how much he yearned to be in its midst at the same time. The upper class for its part needed this self-defined and self-stylized alien and his shocking sincerity which made him an unlikely insider.
Bernhard's prose and plays appealed to an educated elite that cherished their absurdist twists and sardonic humor. He never aimed at popularity, his plots remained devoid of spectacular turns and his descriptions lacked evocative sensuality. It takes an acquired taste to enjoy Bernhard's ponderous intensity.
Still, all his weird wit and solipsistic inventiveness notwithstanding, Bernhard's most unique achievement is his language, a variety of German that betrays an enormous sensitivity to distant sound associations, a language so unconventional that its degree of originality may be compared to that of Franz Kafka. This, unfortunately, is the one quality of Thomas Bernhard to which this biographer devotes minimal attention, perhaps because explaining linguistic peculiarities to readers unfamiliar with a language is tedious, if not impossible.
At the end of his life, Bernhard was physically and creatively exhausted (he suffered from an incurable lung disease the final point of which was foreseeable). He began to repeat himself and became formulaic: Everything, it seemed, had been said. He he had created an oeuvre that was distinct, one that secured his name in modern world literature.
Gitta Honegger has written a formidable portrait of a rich, contradictory culture shedding light on its origins and intricacies,( including essential political underpinnings from the 1950s to the 1980s) by focusing on one of its literary masters. True, it is a culture with an insatiable appetite for gossip and scandal, with an obsession for titles that mask mediocrity. It is one with a blooming parasitic aristocracy and a socialist welfare state, and with huge subsidies for culture that keep cohorts of writers, musicians, painters and other bohemians on lifelong life support.
And yet what a fascinating culture it must be, one in which in which bohemians play such a prominent role. Asfor Bernhard, a terrifying sadness overshadowed all this: life unlived, or lived just for show, the refusal to communicate and the failed attempts at reaching out to other souls. Or, as he himself wrote about his non-encounter with his "friend" Paul Wittgenstein (a nephew of the philosopher) who became increasingly frail in his last years: "I did not dare to go up and speak to him. I preferred to have a bad conscience rather than to meet him …" Writing may well have been for him compensatioon for a failure to act in life.
In the annals of literature, Thomas Bernhard will stand as Austria's postwar genius a sad, lonesome buffoon desperately waiting for the salvation in which he was never able to believe.

Peter Rollberg teaches at George Washington University.

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