Thomas Bernhard’s Women

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.”

Miguel Sáenz: Thomas Bernhard: Una Biografía, © Editorial Siruela, 2004