Juan Benet on James Joyce

For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.

Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.

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A map of a route taken in Ulysses by Valdimir Nabokov

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Juan Benet’s map of Región

Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.

A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual  – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.

What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…

If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.

What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.

… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.

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Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

The Exhaustion of the Poetic Lexicon

Every language has words that determine its poetry; words in one language are possessed of a poetic efficiency that they lack in another. Think of the sonority of morte: in Italian it carries great weight, for one thing the syllables are similar to notte, the words are almost synonyms… In part, certain words determine thematics, while others have ceased to be poetic for the abuse they have undergone; “los labios rojos,” for example, no longer functions poetically, now it has to be said a different way. There are many words in Catalan from the XV century that have not aged, that have been preserved in their disuse…

Thus Pere Gimferrer in a recent interview. It is true that words need to be left in peace to be adequate for poetry; if we think of the ideas of making-strange, making new, of the uneven Venetian pavers in Proust that symbolize those ripples in the tranquil effluence of time through which poetic awareness comes into flower, we see that the inappositeness thereto of any word that has been too much handled, the coarse textures or irregularities of which have been smoothed away by too many hands. Cyril Connolly remarks that in the age of Dryden, there was really no such thing as bad English writing; the act of putting words to paper was too new, nothing had yet been corrupted.

I wonder is the caducity of words always the outcome of mendacity. When Gimferrer refers to the poetic concept of “red lips,” he is speaking of something that gained its force as a departure from the strictly real; red lips are a striking image to the extent that the color of lips is not red, by use of this adjective they are made to stand out like Derain’s blue mountains or scarlet trees. But at the point at which people forget what color lips actually are, the word “red” becomes shorthand for the supposed color of a detail in nature that readers and writers have ceased to really look at; the cliché has supplanted the reality in the collective imagination. The words ruined by Business English are characterized generally by patent dishonesty (what large company has not at various times described its customers, its shareholders, its employees, its employees’ well-being, etc. as its “number-one priority”?) or by a kind of brute augmentation that is the linguistic equivalent of plastic surgery, hiding the paucity of thought behind syllabic superfluity: proactive for active, reference for refer, orientate (once a charming word meaning “to face the orient”) for orient, operationalize for use… Borges, commenting on Jorge Manrique, praises the power of the simplest words and metaphors, which he claims have greater immunity to such destruction; I am not sure if he is right.

The poetic possibilities of a language are defined in part by what ambits remain untouched by this progressive degradation. Anyone who reads in various languages can attest to the perdurant vitality of themes in one language that have been poetically exhausted in others. “I would die for you,” “I would walk to the ends of the earth for you,” and so on can no longer be said in English because the rank dishonesty with which they infest popular culture has left them toothless, but one can imagine a less meretricious culture in which they might still hold force. Gimferrer complains that Castilian is losing “poetic efficiency” from overuse, and has advocated for Catalan as a “prestige tongue,” perhaps in the hopes that a marginal but ceremonial status will preserve it from lyrical enervation.

Of course languages can be renewed as well. Acquaintances have always shown themselves perplexed by my interest in rap music, and generally consider it a conceit, a kind of reverse dandyism or provocation. That is absurd. For me English-language poetry in general, though I am not an expert, has become so withered and bound up in packaged arrogance and literary posturing –– this without mentioning its entrenchment in a system of privileges and perquisites dispensed on the basis of social placement, particularly in the academic realm, and hence, in the final analysis, on class –– that it inspires distaste rather than interest.

Rap has continued to engage, with the full battery of poetic resources, a sphere of authentic, lived concerns –– however truncated or ignoble they may be –– at a time when the majority of poets have lost all relation to their real longings and true natures, whether as social or spiritual beings. In addition, the best rappers have emphasized the fundamental importance of assonance, alliteration, variable stresses, and internal rhyme to English poetry –– the more naturally poetic elements of the language, as against a fixation on Italianate and Provencal forms grafted onto a tongue that diverged drastically from both its Germanic and Latinate progenitors. However distasteful many listeners may find rap to be, there is a force in its words and their employment that lies worlds apart from the soggy linguistic attenuation of a great deal of modern English poetry and popular song.

On a different note, Hölderlin describes the Ideal as the subjective ground of poetry in his (for me) very difficult essay Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes. I wonder if Proust has something similar in mind when he speaks of the spiritual obligations that impend upon us as though from another world when he describes the death of Bergotte:

Toutes ces obligations, qui n’ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente, semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci, et dont nous sortons pour naître à cette terre, avant peut-être d’y retourner revivre sous l’empire de ces lois inconnues auxquelles nous avons obéi parce que nous en portions l’enseignement en nous, sans savoir qui les y avait tracées – ces lois dont tout travail profond de l’intelligence nous rapproche et qui sont invisibles seulement – et encore ! – pour les sots.

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

The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”

 

In Tui, in the Province of Pontevedra

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I was brought to the city of Tui because I had asked to see Portugal, which lay on the other side of the Miño river, although, to tell the truth, the meaning of the phrase to see Portugal and the moral significance of this desire were not at all clear to me. In Tui, a city of 15,000 people, there is a stone ornamental tablet affixed to the outer wall of an artfully constructed but very dingy building commemorating the birthplace of the famous fascist Calvo Sotelo, whose murder marked an important flashpoint in the escalation of enmities that culminated in the Spanish Civil war. We had a coffee there and ate a Spanish omelette laced with long strands of golden potato like the flat, rectangular pencils carpenters use. In a pattern repeated incomprehensibly throughout the world, the people of Tui, who are in general quite poor, choose to be governed by a conservative party that would gladly see them ground into dust. Our guide was a man who, although an atheist and a Marxist, had special rights of entry to the cathedral, and we were therefore able to see the cloister, the orange trees, the stone lions with bronze tongues that flanked the rear egress, and the tomb of the cathedral’s builder, who bore the last name Torquemada, but was of no relation to the Grand Inquisitor and Hammer of the Heretics. Tui was among the last redoubts of antifascist forces in the northeast of the peninsula during the Spanish Civil War, and as a consequence suffered brutal repressive measures on being overtaken. There, against that wall, said our guide, pointing to the church of Saint Dominic, is where not only the insurgents themselves, but often their wives and children were brought to be shot.