I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?
Recently I went to a book event. It is rare that cultural happenings are to my liking; at the risk of painting myself histrionic or sanctimonious, I find dispiriting these festivities devoted to the alleged magnificence of some representative or other of occidental culture that make not the least effort to reckon with what rank injustice the hegemony of the aforementioned was established and continues to be maintained –– events which, curiously, tend to be characterized by so extreme an expressive reticence in the person-to-person exchanges that follow them, as though inoffensiveness were some kind of atonement for the ludicrous level of privilege of which such affairs are an excrescence, that it is difficult to tell whether anyone is saying anything at all. Of course, it is less a matter of political correctness than of caginess, because the reading of good writing for pleasure and edification in the United States is nearly extinct, and most alleged readers are failed writers who merely skim books, ignoring the organic process by which a thorough and sensitive reading gives way to notions whose ideal expression, in the course of time, may be found by writing; the watchword of such skimmers is that most American of phrases, let’s cut through the bullshit, and in the sadly accurate recognition that talent and excellence have little to do with literary success when weighed against pretense and cronyism, their interest in books is reduced to the questions what can I take from this and what opinions am I supposed to have. But the conversion of literature from a proper vocation with a robust audience and a prosperous industry behind it into a marginal, nearly fallow offshoot of a nigh obsolete and entirely vague idea of the value of culture has the effect that at such events the number of people with any appreciable influence is negligible; as such, they easily devolve into an eyeing-up and feeling-out of people who may sense themselves rivals or collaborators in potentia but all of whom are more or less fully shut out from the influence system by which literary careers are formed.
At this book event, an author was being interviewed, and reference was made to Thomas Bernhard, a clear influence of his. During the pursuit of this Thomas Bernhard inquiry, three phrases were uttered that hung in my mind: the interviewer mentioned Thomas Bernhard’s autobiographical trilogy; Bernhard’s protagonists, he stated, are always fixated on a single key moment in their past; and, in praise of the urbanity of the author he was interviewing, the interviewer averred that Bernhard sort of flaunted his provincialism, he would never have established the kind of dialogue with high culture you have in your book.
It was difficult not to be reminded of Thomas Bernhard’s account of his reception of the Austrian State Prize in Wittgenstein’s Nephew:
The minister who, in the auditorium of the ministry, gave what is known as my encomium, uttered nothing but imbecilities about me in the course of this encomium, having confined himself to reading aloud from a piece of paper written by one of his functionaries who was tasked with the management of literary affaris: that I had, for example, written a novel about the South Seas, which naturally I had never done. Although I have always been Austrian, the minister declared that I was Dutch. Although I had not the least notion of such matters, the minister declared me a specialist in adventure novels. Several times in his discourse he declared that I was a foreigner and a guest of Austria.
Bernhard’s autobiographical writings comprise a pentalogy and not a trilogy; the notion that his characters’ lives revolve around a single, decisive moment in their past is so lacking in rigor that it could be applied as much to Raymond Carver or Kenzaburō Ōe as to Bernhard; and to characterize a writer whose protagonists almost invariably boast of their reading of Schopenhauer, Pascal, and Montaigne and of their detestation of Austria in comparison with the many other lands to which they have traveled, not to mention their minor obsession with English tailoring, as flaunting his provincialism, is beneath ridicule.
But what one says about a writer at these moments is not to be held to the standard of truth; it need only be truthy, in Stephen Colbert’s memorable formulation. As Pierre Bayard notes, actually to have read a writer may frequently prove a liability, for in general we find ourselves among others who have not done so, and the real writer may diverge so radically from the common conception of him that an attempt to reconcile the two will lead one to appear at best pedantic, at worst clueless.
Increasingly, I notice what I read and hear about books bears less and less relation to the contents of the books themselves. This is alarming because I am not at all a promiscuous reader either of reviews or contemporary literature. If these things are coming to my frequent attention, the condition must be epidemic. Knausgård has been an obvious victim, saddled with the epithet Proustian as a fancy synonym for long, linked to the pseudo-concept-but actually-meme of the banal or the mundane, words which have spread like bedbugs to seemingly every article about him, as though this were something worth commenting on, and rip-roaringness were the salient trait of belles-lettres in the past hundred years. If there were prizes for such things, I would nominate this article in Slate, purportedly about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which not only has dispensed with any pretense of originality, openly citing the other pieces from which every factual statement has been filched, apart from those concerning the author’s college poetry seminar, but which also repeats an outlandish error, and as a consequence is forced to print an only slightly less outlandish retraction, from an earlier article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education:
This post originally quoted Heidegger on the “fabrication” (Fabrikation) of corpses in gas chambers and death camps, and, following the Chronicle, suggested that Heidegger might have believed the corpses were invented, rather than manufactured. Scholars have disputed this interpretation, and the sentence has been removed.
“Scholars have disputed this interpretation,” or, in the Chronicle’s slightly stronger wording, “Most scholars now interpret Heidegger’s use of ‘fabrication’ as referring to the process of manufacturing,”: clever ways of avoiding the words: “My bad, I was talking absolute shit about a subject I know nothing about.”
Miguel Sáenz is Spain’s foremost translator of German literature, with some forty books to his name by authors ranging from Dürrenmatt to Handke to Christa Wolf. I had the honor of being published alongside him in an issue of literatur/a devoted to Josef Winkler. In addition to translating the entirety of Thomas Bernhard’s major works, Sáenz published a biography of the Austrian writer in 2004. While Bernhard still awaits a definitive treatment in the Leon Edel / Richard Ellmann style, Sáenz’s book is meritorious and an enjoyable read; I hesitate to say it should be translated, as it becomes clearer to me by the day that I am profoundly alienated from whatever criteria other people employ in the adjudication of worthwhile literature; regardless, it is nearly twice as long as its predecessor by a decade, Hans Höller’s Thomas Bernhard, and it brings to its considerations the special kind of feel for an author that derives from a lifetime spent wrangling intimately with his works. I translated this selection two years ago and have only made perfunctory attempts at publishing it, and now I am too busy to try too much to send it around, so I am putting it up here.
In the Kirchenwirt, a Gasthaus in Ohlsdorf, during the days dedicated to Thomas Bernhard in March of 1994. After various lectures, a group of Germanists sips beer serenely. “I have the feeling,” someone says, “that we’re repeating ourselves, that we are always saying the same thing… Why doesn’t anyone talk, for example, about what we all know, that Bernhard was gay?” Objections follow.
It was, of course, a provocation; but the question has been stated numerous times. Was Bernhard homosexual? I doubt it. Nor even bisexual, if one can even speak of preferences. As to whether he ever engaged in homosexual relations, I will hold my tongue, but there is nothing to impede my laying out the following:
In his untrustworthy conversations with Kurt Hoffman, Bernhard expresses himself ambiguously: “I have had every imaginable sort of relation possible with woman and with men… Whether it’s a woman or a man, in the end, it’s all the same. It would be better if more men did it, in that case we’d likely suffer less from overcrowding.”
The narrator of Woodcutters, on whose identification with Bernhard (though not one hundred percent!) there is no need to insist, says, with respect to the marriage of the Auersbergers (that is—though not one hundred percent!—the Lampersbergs): “They talk over and over about the things they have…They mention their fish hatcheries and their windmills and sawmills, but not their beds, and we let ourselves be impressed by them and we fall into their traps and into their beds.” Later he says: “At one time, you loved this man, more or less, I thought, observing him from off to the side, in another time, as it may be said, you were completely ensorcelled by this man.” And in another passage, even more directly: “Auersberger has always had young writers in his vicinity and in his bed, I was the first he invited up to Maria Zaal, I now thought. One of the first to fall into his trap, I said to myself.”
For his part, Gerhard Lampersberg published in 1987, in a costly limited edition, the book Perturbation (a title which, almost certainly, coincides with that of the French translation of Gargoyles), a kind of macaronic in German, French, English, and Latin. Only the cover, which reproduces the book Woodcutters hacked to pieces, permits one to know that it is a kind of rebuttal to Bernhard. It has three characters: a and c are two men between whom an amorous relation sparks up, and b a suffering woman. Years later, Lampersberg would publish another book—diarium—with three drawings, two musical scores, and a date: 1962. The story is the same (although more explicit), but this time it is only in German and the characters are named anton, joseph, and anna.
In any case, there is a fact that supports my convictions that, whatever his relations with Gerhard Lampersberg may have been, Bernhard was not homosexual. In one of his conversations with Hoffman, Bernhard tells him that, in reality, he would have to be constantly engaged in lawsuits: they had just published a collection of his theatrical works in Spanish with a prologue “in which Lampersberg appears and … moreover, there is talk of a homosexual relation.” It appears Bernhard was badly informed, as this prologue, which I myself wrote, does not state that such a relation existed, but his reaction would make no sense if he were in fact homosexual.
Nevertheless, it is certain that, as Reich-Ranicki has said, in the world of Bernhard, women play “a subordinate role and are, particularly in his early books, monstrous and malevolent beings, often patently terrifying and repulsive.” In the rest of his works—Reich-Ranicki recognizes—there is another sort of woman, but divested of physical presence (Joana in Woodcutters, Maria in Extinction)… In brief, “for Bernhard, women were either repugnant or fairy-tale figures.”
Ria Endres entitles one of the chapters of her doctoral thesis (which irritated Bernhard enormously) “La femme n’existe pas.” In Bernhard’s writings—she says—“the woman is almost always absent.” “Women do not have a name. In the novel The Lime Works, Konrad’s wife is simply called, ‘the Konrad woman.’ She is subordinated to her husband. In the other texts she is spoken of as the sister, the innkeeper, and so on. In most cases she lacks a bodily presence. Her spectral character is most evident in the novel Correction. This beloved figure of the sister is stripped of all sensuality.” Endres’s thesis, very feministic, arrives at certain indisputable conclusions: “The fear of contact with the female is great. For this reason, she appears only as a stereotype: saint or whore. The fear of any possible sexual desire toward women is frequently projected as a rejection of images of corrupted filthiness.”
In his works, Bernhard occasionally alludes to intimate relations with women. His first sexual experience—he says—took place in Traunstein. “When I was eight years old, Inga, from the Winter family, the youngest of the daughters of the saddler, opened my eyes on the balcony of the Winters’ saddlery, or tried to do so, in any case.” In Woodcutters he insinuates having had relations with Jeannie Ebner (ten years his elder) and says that he read her “poems by Éluard, at the same time tickling the soles of her feet… while she, more or less nakend…” But the truth is that Jeannie Ebner denies having ever been his lover. In regards to the alleged relation between Bernhard and the suicide Joanna Thul, described in the same book (“Naturally, a naked princess, I had said to Joanna, laid out in bed. And you the naked king, she had responded.”), the shopkeeper Marielies Felnhofer, a friend of the latter, finds it impossible to imagine that she ever had any sort of “relation” with Bernhard.
In his conversaions with Hoffman, Bernhard refers to the count and countess of Stolberg and their castle (in reality a Kasteel or country manor) near Aachen; he relates having gone to mass at the cathedral with the countess and her children and adds, referring to one of the latter: “I was there because of her. And then, suddenly, everything came to an end…” Nevertheless, as Huguet has demonstrated, the tale of this alleged relation between Bernhard and Ludmilla Stolberg and his visit to Kasteel Puth in 1961 or 62, with the intention of visiting his birthplace in nearby Heerlen, is far from reliable.
On the Mountain, his first important narrative text (written in 1959 but published posthumously, thirty years later) in clearly autobiographical: a sort of mixture of writer’s notebook and diary (court reporter, pneumoperitoneum, Salzburger). But most interestingly, it contains murmurings of accounts of love affairs that never show up again in Bernhard’s ouvre (if I am not mistaken, it contains the only, if very chaste, kiss in his published work: “I kiss her on the neck.”).
In brief, there appears to be no firm evidence that Bernhard ever had a lover. The Lampersbergs state that he “knew no other women in his life [besides Hedwig Stavianicek]” and Gerhard Lampersberg speaks funnily of the young Bernhard’s naivety: “He once kissed a cousin of my wife’s [Annemarie Siller] and (laughing) thought he had to marry her!” Hennetmair says that Bernhard liked women, but always older ones, mothers, really, rather than women, and adds, with little conviction: “From time to time, when he was young maybe, there was a girl from out in the fields, of the kind you’d want to throw out the window afterward…” (He seems simply to be repeating something Bernhard said toward the end of his interview with André Müller, when asked, definitively, if it were necessary to have someone: “There’s always some milkmaid somewhere who shows up at the right time. No, it’s not necessary.”) And in his diary of 1972, Hennetmair confesses to knowing nothing firm in this connection; asked by a journalist if Bernhard had a female companion, he says he imagines that Bernhard does what many priests do, enjoys the favors of well married women so that no problems might arise.” Regarding Bernhard’s relation to Hedwig Stavianicek, when Maria Fialik asks Franz Josef Altenberg, who knew him well, whether his “so-called Aunt” was Bernhard’s lover, he responded, “I believe so. I also believe that, in another time, there was a real relationship. Anyway, he always said that.”
In his interview in Majorca with Krista Fleischmann, Bernhard says: “In my case, sexuality was very limited because, in the moment when it began to arise, no?… I fell deathly ill. And I was therefore, for years, very restrained and limited… But between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, everything was there, I believe, as it should have been and as is normal, no?” And he says something similar to André Müller: “The sexual has never interested me. Nor was it possible, simply on account of my illness, because during the time when all that should have been naturally and was supposed to begin, I was in no shape to do it.” Nevertheless, Bernhard recognizes that sexuality was important: “Without eroticism, there is no life… Sexuality plays an enormous role in every human being, regardless of how it is expressed… There is no human being without sexuality.”
Gerhard Lampersberg affirms that Bernhard was “asexual,” and, finally, an anonymous party interviewed by Gemma Salem in Vienna in 1991 asserts: “Bernhard had what is called the sexuality of the angels. Nothing to do with women, nor with men. None of that interested him.”
It remains the case that Bernhard preferred the company of women. In his long interview with Krista Fleischmann in Majorca, he speaks his mind at ease, recurring to all the traditional stereotypes of feminine inferiority…., but it seems evident that he is not speaking seriously.
Who were the women Bernhard regarded highly?
Much has been said and written about Hedwig Stavianicek (1894-1984), Bernhard’s “aunt,” probably the only person he ever really loved and the only one to whom he was eternally faithful. Nevertheless, she seems not to have been the object of any exhaustive research and there is only diffuse testimony, often somewhat contradictory, from those who knew her as Bernhard’s companion. A few antique photos of Stavianicek (née Hofbauer) show her to have had an attractive countenance in her youth, but this had certainly faded by the time she met Bernhard in Gravenhof, and in the published photos, always wrapped in furs, shawls, or cloaks, she seems rather Bernhard’s grandmother than his aunt.
The first time Hedwig Stavianicek appears in print in most likely in Bernhard’s interview with André Müller in 1971. Later, in their 1979 encounter, she flits in and out of the conversation as if it were rehearsed: “His aunt sits down. I am a spectator at a theatrical performance. It appears to be, I think, an erotic spectacle. In place of contact are words, and the words are embraces…” To Müller’s question, “To what degree is your aunt important for your life and work?” Bernhard replies without hesitation, “She is, since the time I was nineteen, absolutely the most important being in my life.”
Ingrid Bulau describes her as “extraordinarily energetic, intelligent, cultured and very well mannered,” and says moreover that it was she who assured that Bernhard worked in a “hard and disciplined way.” Franz Josef Altenberg states that she was “extremely intelligent” and that Bernhard “learned a great deal from her. That is indisputable. She had such intelligence and a very sharp tongue, she was undoubtedly an enormously sardonic woman.” And Bernhard himself confesses: “I have never been content in my life. But I have always had a great need for protection. With my friend, I have found this protection. She has always made me work. She was happy when she saw that I was doing something. And that was wonderful. We have taken trips. I carried her heavy bags, but I learned a great deal.”
Annemarie Siller states that Hedwig Stavianicek “was truly his life partner. I mean to say that, when we were young, she was always the aunt, or later, the doctor. She was always a very distant person, much older than Thomas Bernhard, but she truly pulled him up from the mire and was always there at his side.” And Gerda Maleta writes to Bernhard: “If you ever loved anyone in your life, it was only your “life partner,” whom you called Aunt or Hede, a person much older, who was your example and your friend… That friendship of nearly forty years marked you, and you learned from her certain life-experiences, certain refinements in your dealing with different people and different situations. She also gave wings to your thoughts, as you said numerous times. That life partner accompanied you down many roads, and we, your friends, had to accept her and recognize her. You stayed beside this woman until her last breath… Your dedication, fidelity, and altruism toward your life partner were admirable.”
Their relations, of course, were not always idyllic. In fact, though they lived together in Vienna for years, and although Stavianicek, when she went to Ohlsdorf, naturally stayed in Bernhard’s house, and although they took innumerable trips together, they could not bear more than a few weeks in a row. She tyrannized him, but Bernhard avenged himself, as he did with every other woman, by standing her up for long waits.
In any case, the pages he devotes to her death in Old Masters are among the most moving he ever wrote, and his wish to be buried alongside her (and her husband!) arouses alarm, but also respect. When Hedwig Stavianicek died, Bernhard’s despair was immense. Ingrid Bülau says that “He was absolutely crushed and felt himself so miserable that, personally, I cannot but believe that really, he was never able to get past this loss. She was truly … the dominant force in his life.” And Hilda Spiel seconds her: “I believe that, after the old woman’s death, who was for him his life’s partner, he put an end in reality to all human relations.” There is no doubt that if Bernhard had any “love” in his life, that love was Hedwig Stavianicek.
Nonetheless, as has been said, Bernhard appreciated women’s company in general. He could be charming to women, he found it funny that they would fall in love with him, and, on his journeys, his ideal was to have a woman at his side taking care of him, accompanying him… and leaving him in peace when he wanted it. His friends the O’Donnells speak of the “ladies” that hounded him, fighting amongst themselves, and say that “it diverted him a great deal to confront these ladies with one another. In an innocent way, obviously.” Some of these ladies wrote to him and, at times, showed up at his house uninvited, which he did not at all care for. Franz Josef Altenberg asserts that it enchanted Bernhard to sow a bit of discord in marriages. “He liked that a great deal, it interested him.” Maja Lampersberg, nonetheless, believes there was always something strange in his relations with women, as though he feared going too far…
When the journalist Asta Schieb leads Bernhard to notice that, in his books, with few exceptions, women are rather disagreeable and asks whether this corresponds to his personal experience, Bernhard replies: “I can only say that for a quarter of a century, the only relationships in my life have been with women…Everything I have learned has been only from women… After having learned from my grandfather… I have always sought refuge and protection from women who in many ways were far beyond me. Above all, women leave me rather tranquil. Around women, I can work.”
Be that as it was, after Bernhard’s death, many women have appeared who had more or less close relations with him and who, at times, have felt themselves obligated to divulge them. The depth of friendship seems to have varied greatly. Among the closest friends of Bernhard, the following can be cited:
Ingrid Bülau, the pianist Bernhard met when the two of them studied together at the Mozarteum. Later, in Hamburg, they played music together frequently, and they also took numerous trips oversees. Their friendship was lifelong and she was among the few people put up by Bernhard in his home in Ohlsdorf. About Thomas Bernhard, she states: “In reality, he had a very timid way of being. It was there early on, this inner shyness, and it never left him, it was always there.” According to Wieland Schmied, when Hedwig Stavianicek died in 1984 and Thomas Bernhard felt himself to be irrevocably alone, he considered the possibility of marrying Ingrid Bülau.
Annemarie Siller (later Countess Hammerstein), choreographer and costume designer, met Bernhard at the Lampersbergs (she is Maja Lampersberg’s cousin and, by marriage, that of the Countess Üxküll) and designed set-pieces for his early plays. They traveled together to Poland in 1963 and 1975, and he always introduced her as his “childhood friend.” Nevertheless—according to her—Bernhard was a very sick man and the only thing that interested him was being famous, having his monument in stone. And “when someone says to a girl that the only thing that interests him is having his monument in stone, there is no greater romantic disappointment.”
Gerda Maleta, widow of an Austrian politican. In her villa in Oberweis, near Gmunden, Thomas Bernhard carried out—he says—sociological research. Gerda Maleta accompanied Bernhard on journeys to Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as she has recounted in a book written as a long letter to the writer. Her testimony is important because, according to her, the Hunting Party actually takes place in her home and The President is a portrayal of her family. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the trip to Sicily in the company of monsignor Spadolini that Bernhard relates in Extinction was in fact undertaken with Gerda Maleta and monsignor Cesare Zacchi, papal nuncio in Cuba (and described discreetly by Maleta in her book as Enrico).
Gerta Maleta and Thomas Bernhard never addressed one another with the informal “du”: “You preferred distance, both verbal and physical.” And, by her account, Bernhard was, “in reality, a moralist.” Of his peculiar relations with women, Gerda Maleta gives an explanation that rings true in spite of its triteness and sentimentality: “As a child, he did not experience maternal love. For that reason, perhaps—this is my opinion, it may not be correct—he saw in every woman his mother.” Gerda Maleta is a fount of interesting information: “Many affirm or have affirmed that you preferred married women to single ones. On that theme I cannot speak. One thing is certain: you detested the word “friend” and avoided it in many ways. Only your aunt Hede was the center of your life and thus, your life partner. To everyone else, you doled out parts to play.”
Hilde Spiel (1911-1990), the writer, a very close friend of Bernhard’s, said that “he was one of the kindest people I have ever known,” and that her relationship with him was “strange, not always easy, but very beautiful.”
Concerning the actress Marianne Hoppe, a theatrical legend and a great interpreter of numerous works of Bernhard’s (The Hunting Party, Destination, Heldenplatz), their relation is known almost exclusively from her own declarations on television and in newspapers: “Everything is love, that’s what Bernhard always said…” She accompanied him on several journeys as well as in his last Christmas holidays in Torremolinos.
There were other women in Thomas Bernhard’s life: Grete Hufnagl, former vocal student at the Mozarteum, always ready to help or accompany him; Christa Altenberg (princess Altenberg), who had met him when she was a student under Gerhard Lampersberg; Agnes, the Baroness von Handel (the widow of Teufl) who said once to André Müller, in reference to Bernhard: “Affairs? Him? Never.”
The relations between Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann deserve a more detailed study. Bachmann is, without the least doubt, the Maria of Extinction (though there are probably traces of her in the Persian woman in Yes as well) and the page suit that Bernhard describes in the protagonist’s dream is documented perfectly in a photograph (and is probably the same that Hilde Spiel speaks of on a certain occasion). Bernhard admired Bachmann’s poetry, but also her intelligence: “I loved Bachmann a great deal, she was a very intelligent woman. A strange combination, no? Most women are stupid but acceptable, and agreeable in the right circumstances; intelligent as well, but rarely.” In The Voice Imitator, he dedicates a very felt page to her: “In a Roman hospital… century… I took trips with her… The news of her death… completely empty.”
Bernhard also loved Christine Lavant (1915-73), the sick poet, full of compassion for humanity, whom it was impossible not to love, and prepared an anthology of her verses as “a fundamental testimony of a human being mistreated by all well-thinking persons, as a great poetry still not known in the world as it should be.”
In any case, from a strictly literary point of view, can it be said, with Reich-Ranicki, that of the two great themes of literature—love and death—the first was unknown to Bernhard? (Reich Ranicki compares him in this connection to Kafka, who at least, he says, felt nostalgia for love). Everything depends on the concept of love brought into play. According to Bernhard, “love is completely different for every person. Love is everything, no? Love can be everything, because everything in the world can be loved right now…The word love can be written, but love cannot be described.” For Karin Kathrein, “there are always love stories in Bernhard. Wittgenstein’s Nephew is a quite beautiful love story.” Concerning his theatrical work, Peymann affirms: “If I think of Bernhard as probably the greatest writer of the present day, it is because he expresses so much about amorous relations… Bernhard presents the truth and the contradictions of those relations, because he understands love for what it is: a struggle for power.” According to Krista Fleischmann, the novel that Bernhard planned to write before death cut it short was to have been a bona fide love story, with the strange title Breaking One’s Head.
Still… “I don’t need a sister, nor do I need a lover” Bernhard said to Kurt Hoffman; and once, when André Müller asked him, “And if tomorrow you encountered your great love?” Bernhard’s reply was, “There would be nothing I could do to avoid it.”
Perhaps no other author has carried further the idea of literature as a vocation than the Austrian Marianne Fritz. After the publication of her first novel, Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, which was supported from a stipend by the state, she ceased giving interviews and seems to have appeared in public only rarely . For her second novel, Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani, she had a scale model of the town in which the book was set placed in her work room to better visualize the geography in which the plot unfolded. Due to its monumental size and difficulty, her work is often considered within the context of so-called outsider writing, but this label is far from appropriate to a writer whose working methods were so rigorous and references so broad as those of Fritz, not to mention someone whose talent, while not without controversy, was recognized by numerous prize juries and by Siegfried Unseld, who took her on at Suhrkamp as a house author. I am inclined to think her sex has been unhelpful to her fortunes: there is a tendency to be more charitably disposed, more ready to accept on credit, the “genius” of men who shut themselves away in rooms than that of women, who get saddled with labels like “hoarder” and “cat lady.” In any case, her work is of nearly unprecedented scope: after a thin first novel and a substantial second one, in 1985 she published the 3600-page Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst, and in the late 1990s the first two volumes of Naturgemäß, which run nearly double the length of the book that preceded them. Fritz continued to work on Naturgemäß until the moment of her death; pages of the third volume, which has not yet been printed, can be consulted here.
It was not only the Germanist’s frenetic spoken English that startled me, but also his prominent jaw, angular and more solid than in the photo he had sent me, so I would know who he was when I stepped off the train. In fact he had not met me on the platform, where I stood reading Ilse Aichinger’s Schlechte wörter and finishing a beer which, when I set it down for a moment on top of an alarm box to turn a page, an indigent young man tried to take, but rather at the bottom of the flight of iron steps. As soon as I met eyes with him, he made an incomprehensible joke within earshot of a tall bald man in an artistic outfit who smiled shyly; perhaps we had been mistaken for one another, though the man in the artistic clothing was far taller than I, and of a slighter build. It had not been made clear whether we were to eat or merely drink, and so I was relieved, because I do not like to dine with strangers, when the Germanist said he was not yet hungry and we should have a beer first. We walked down Schlesische Straße, I with a blue handbag of synthetic leather and he shouldering a green nylon messenger bag of a brand I was familiar with, though I could not recollect its name, and an apparently heavy black bicycle. We entered a nearly empty bar presided over by a vampiric person of forbidding sternness and decorated with two images in wooden frames: over the bathroom door, the motto FUCK YOGA, and several feet to the right, a painting of a young, shirtless Elvis Presley genuflecting before an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The barman seemed to have found our presence presumptuous and busied himself idly for several minutes before approaching us, and then, rather than inquiring as to our order, he stared imperially into the empty space before his eyes. The Germanist ordered a draft beer of a kind I hadn’t heard of and I said I would have the same. The barman topped the beers off repeatedly before passing them to us, to no end other than prolonging our wait, an act in which he took no visible joy. When the drinks were presented us, we walked outside and took a table. Two days before, the Germanist had sent me a chapter of the first book he was composing in English, with the unnecessary proposal that I edit it for style. He was dismayed by his written English, which I thought quite good but which seemed not to attain to the dignity of his writings in his mother tongue. We talked a long while about a communist playwright and an Austrian novelist about whom he had written a number of books; the former’s writing I had given some attention to when I placed greater faith in communism (a doctrine that, though I have no hope in it whatsoever, nevertheless begins every day to hold greater sway over my thoughts); about the latter I knew nothing at all. He also recommended that I read two other writers: one named Kampofsky and the other Ulrich Pelzer. I had wanted to meet with the Germanist to talk about Sebald, whom he had known personally, and about Marianne Fritz, whose work he had discussed intelligently in an essay and in an entry in a biographical dictionary, but it was difficult to broach these subjects because he, like nearly everyone I know who is employed in universities, institutions that have become antithetical to serenity, seemed unendingly preoccupied with the cynical jockeying for position that seems to be the lone alternative to redundancy, to use the economists’ term. Eventually I asked how he came to know Frtiz’s work; through Sebald, of course, he said, of course. Sebald had referred to Fritz’s interminable masterpiece Naturgemäß in one of his poems, as I said unnecessarily, but he viewed her work with suspicion, the Germanist asserted, considering it a Monumentenbesessenheit, he said, or perhaps the primary element was Zwangvortstellung or Fixierung, and he marked out with hisflattened hands a block-shaped apparition. Like Flaubert, how do you say it in English, L’éducation sentimentale, The Sentimental Education, I said, us, he said, the desire to encompass…I think you mean Balzac, I said as he continued to speak, L’éducation humaine, La comédie humaine, he corrected me, and continued: we see, as a corollary of the industrial revolution, the novel becomes a market commodity and artists enter int this productive fever, as though competing with the kinds of output potentiated by the machine age. I referred to Adorno’s analysis of superstition in The Stars Down to Earth, according to which elementary causal mechanisms systems of a proto-religious character substitute for the critical analysis of the concrete mechanisms of repression, the complexity of which is increasingly impossible to understand; these grandiose Zeitgeist-narratives, from Balzac to Vollman, represent a last-ditch attempt to tame the superabundance of the determinants of social life under a single operative scheme. Now this is giving way, I said, and we see the prostration of novelists like Tao Lin, the morally etiolated voices of a post-bourgeoisie which neither steers nor is acutely threatened by the grinding-onward of global capitalism, or a narrowing of focus, which is also a dimming of expectations and a despair as to the analytical robustness and transformative power of art, leading to meticulous but enervated reconstructions of the Hilary Mantel variety or the radical egoism of Karl Ove Knausgård. I did not say, even if I believe it so, because I am familiar with the contempt bestowed by many workers in the Humanities on the application of Darwinian or psychoanalytic precepts to the analysis of art, that I believed art-making in general to be reducible in numerous cases to a monomaniacal demonstration of dominance over a given field of symbolic values that substitute for the more proper ends of life, as defined from an animal or hedonistic perspective.
I talked to her on the phone once, the Germanist said with reference to Marianne Fritz. I had seen her reading her work in Vienna. The were two Marianne Fritzes in the Vienna phonebook, I tried them both, they said no, this happens all the time. I was given her number by a friend of mine. I thought with my background, because I had a legitimate interest in her work… No. It didn’t matter.
I had friends in Vienna who said awful things about her. That they used to see her in the supermarket. In Vienna they have this thing, if you find a product out of date, not only do they give it to you for free, they also give you twenty euros or something like that. And they said you could see her in the supermarket doing this, going through all the yogurt containers.
In general I lack compunction about my nosiness, and am always trying to wheedle the most salacious details of a story from my friends and even from people I barely know, and find nothing so tiresome as when others protest that they find gossip distasteful and lament the alleged want of discretion that is said to be a pronounced aspect of our time. But I did feel dispirited and guilty upon hearing this malicious story, though I assume I am glad to have done so (it is naturally not often possible to say whether we are or are not happy that we know something), because it may, although this too is impossible to know, in some way contribute to my thinking about this astonishing writer of whose work I have only read one book in its entirety but whose efforts I consider, however self-destructive, to have been a singular work of genius.
I first encountered Jean Améry’s name in an essay by W.G. Sebald in A Natural History of Destruction. I had no German at the time. Four of his books had been translated into English (excluding the journalistic works and popular biographies the obligation to execute which he seems deeply to have resented); I bought those and read them immediately, and then ordered two in French translation, Lefeu, ou la démolition and Charles Bovary, médecin de campagne. The first I gave away unread to a friend and the second I failed to finish, largely, I think, because that particular edition was of an awkward, oblong shape, uncomfortable to hold; but also because I was busy with other things.
Years later, I began translating, wisely without any thought of monetary benefit, but rather because I was coming across an increasing number of writers whose absence, partial or compete, from the anglophone literary imagination struck me as lamentable. I had the somewhat naive idea of addressing this shortcoming; and anyway, to translate them kept me from cheating while I read, because I was disallowed from passing over anything.
Jean Améry was one of the writers whose obscurity I found most reprehensible. It is not that his work is unknown; perhaps worse, its recognition is fragmentary and colored by the Améry’s Jewishness and his Holocaust experience which, while of relevance, do not exhaust its scope. When he was a young man, he was elated to see his writings praised by Robert Musil, and he seems to have been convinced, even if this assurance was vitiated by doubts about his capacities that preceded his torture and incarceration—doubts that were common to writers in the western world when an acquaintance with one’s literary forebears, and not mere raw authenticity, to use Trilling’s term, was thought obligatory for those disposed to exercise literary craft—that a future in letters was waiting for him. But his late youth—a time of gestation, of the acquisition and shedding of influences, of bluster and misgivings—was aborted; torture, imprisonment, and forced labor in Auschwitz transformed him in a matter of years from a brash stripling into an aged infirm; an impression that is double confirmed insofar as, removed from the web of friendships and favoritism that is, in all likelihood, more important to a writer’s success that talent and sedulity, compelled to take up residence in a country neither of whose languages he could call his own, and grappling, moreover, with the recent death of his beloved and the Philoctetian wounds the death camps had left in his heart, Améry did not embark on his true vocation until he was nearly sixty years of age.
A year ago I wrote an essay on Améry for Asymptote, in the hope of showing English-speaking readers that the scope of his work extended past the justly famous essays on Auschwitz, aging, and suicide, and I translated the suicide notes he left behind for his wife, the police, and the staff of the Hotel Österreichischer Hof, where he was found dead. Recently I was offered to submit a selection from an ongoing project of my choice to Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Améry’s book on Charles Bovary came immediately to mind.
The section I decided on, Die Wirklichkeit Charles Bovarys, is slightly thorny to the extent that it centers on the German word Wirklichkeit, which variously describes reality as a general condition, the realist esthetic for which Flaubert is famous, and actuality—the term I wished to use for the chapter’s title, as it strikes me an apter description for the lived condition of a person, but which I discarded because it was ill-fitted to the other considerations in the chapter. Mulling over my options, I picked up my old copy of the French version to see what its translator had done.
I found the style of the French quite different from the original’s, not necessarily to its detriment. In Améry’s essays, there is a play of abruptness and elegance that mitigates his erudite and often peremptory tone, giving it a humbler and more personal aspect. In his fiction, the same technique can prove clunky and even grating. In the French version there is an overall lighter feel, at once chattier and more musical, the tone of someone who must have grown up reading La Fontaine (or not; perhaps this is only an imaginative projection).
Great quantities of ink and thought, if rather more of the first than the second, have been devoted to the meaning of fidelity in translation. This is typical of the baleful tendency in the humanities to try and kill off its motley irreducibility in favor of an authoritative posture reminiscent at once of scientists and bureaucrats, according to which art, poetry, and prose, those safe havens of the embattled soul, are becoming ever-more sanitized and uncongenial. If translation is an art, as so many of its advocates contend, then the choices of translators and the preferences of their readers are contingent upon sensibilities that are largely immune to methodical codification.
For example, I have read Josef Winkler’s Wenn es soweit ist in four versions: the German original, Miguel Sáenz’s Spanish, Bernard Banoun’s French, and my own English. To state a preference from among them would be to assert that the solutions hit upon to the problems presented by the text were more proper in one case than in the others. In fact I thought the French and Spanish translations excellent, regardless of their differences or their divergences from the original text. Such departures are often culturally justified, even requisite, to render a book suitable to foreign readers.
To be more specific: the numerous German verbs that share the same stem, the meaning of which is determined by a prepositional affix, often have direct counterparts in the phrases verbs of English, excessive reliance on which yields a text that becomes, over the course of several pages, diffuse and even colloquial. With Latinate languages, the opposite occurs: resort to the first synonym suggested by the source text will result in a translation so rife with polysyllables as to seem at once pompous and etiolated, rather like Business English.
No native English speaker can fail to be bored when confronted with a Spanish orator: the apparently limitless adduction of examples, clarification by accretion of synonyms, the resort to a solemnity that seems inevitably to surpass by several degrees the importance of the occasion, combined with the customary lack of air conditioning, cannot but bring one to the verge of tears. And yet it is clear that in its context, this is the right way to speak and that it is we, the listeners, who have fallen into a kind of error which also has great relevance for the theme of translation. If eloquence is demonstrated in a certain way in a given culture, this must be honored when carrying over eloquence from another culture in which its expression is otherwise; to fail to do so is a graver infidelity than toying with a writer’s lexicon or syntax.
Yesterday I was translating an interview from Italian. I always do a first, very bad draft in which every word of the original is rendered literally and the structure of the sentence is represented clearly in English regardless of grammaticality, then I go back and clean it up. The preponderance of quindi, infatti, piuttosto, anzitutto, which I trust to have been appropriate in the original, quickly became intolerable in translation and had to be omitted or reconfigured. The leniencies of languages are broadly divergent. Even a single tongue may lack consensus in this matter: to Latin Americans, the frequent resort to the imperative in continental Spanish appears brusque, whereas many Spaniards find Latin Americans’ frequent employment of what appears an overly polite register tube cloying, suspect, and possibly duplicitous.
I have strayed too far from Améry.
After the war’s end, he settled in Belgium. His knowledge of French was exemplary, and France remained, till the end of his days, the beacon of his intellectual life, yet he never found a voice in that language adequate to what he wished to express, and remained chained to his mother tongue, the truculence and hatred that freighted it notwithstanding. On several occasions, he laments not having applied himself with greater diligence to his other languages.
If the French then is airier, more refined and expository, is this infidelity to Améry’s text, or merely a hewing to the French Améry might have written, had he been capable, or, if he was capable, as I believe him to have been, had he not been consumed by intimations of his own worthlessness? Might such a translation then comprise a service rendered to the spiritual reality of this deeply frustrated writer?
I have used the word expository on purpose here, to inspire thoughts, not only of exposition, but also of exposure, of denudement. The need to be known is a profound one and yet the trust in others, in continuity, and even in one’s own psychic and physical integrity necessary to lay oneself bare is often shattered in those who have been subject to trauma and degradation, and in many cases it can never be repaired. When I read Améry, particularly his fiction, the at-times misplaced curtness, the refusal of elaboration, is off-putting, and in translation, there is a temptation to smooth things out. Whether this is right or not, one cannot say; it is a question of the writer’s ultimate identity, his ontology. When we cry at a child’s dying, it is not only for the impotent immaculate being lying vulnerable on white cloth but also for the many-petalled flower of its possibilities that minute by minute are extinguished. Our voice is not our ideal voice but nor is it merely the distortions that have been effected upon this ideal by material forces that were directed toward our destruction.