[This page by Katya Krylova]
The German-speaking literary landscape is unthinkable without the voice of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (9 February 1931 − 12 February 1989). Bernhard was a prolific and exuberant writer. His oeuvre encompasses nine novels and seven novellas, several collections of short stories, five volumes of autobiography, eighteen full-length plays and four volumes of poetry.
Bernhard’s prose works and plays are, for the most part, dominated by monomaniacal characters who pour vitriolic attacks on Austria, the Austrian landscape, the Austrian historical legacy, Austrian political and cultural institutions, the futility of existence, their own failures (frequently artistic or intellectual) and the inevitable failure and absurdity of all human endeavour. It is unsurprising that this led to Bernhard being labeled a Nestbeschmutzer [a nest-dirtier] by some of his fellow countrymen. These outpourings by the central protagonist are absorbed by another character, frequently (but not always) the narrator. This narrative style is a distinguishing feature of Bernhard’s writing as is the musicality of his prose. Bernhard himself studied at Salzburg’s Mozarteum and often his protagonists are musicians, such as Glenn Gould in Der Untergeher; The Loser. The psychological and dissecting portrayal of his characters has led to comparisons with Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka, as well as with Samuel Beckett. However, Bernhard’s unique style has also shaped and influenced contemporary writers, most notably Elfriede Jelinek, W.G. Sebald and Imre Kertész.
Bernhard’s first publications were collections of poetry. His first three volumes of poetry, published in the late fifties, speak of transience, disease, violence and death, their pessimistic world vision unable to be redeemed by the Christian values which the titles of the volumes evoke. Bernhard’s literary breakthrough, however, occurred with his debut novel Frost (1963), a nightmarish depiction of the Austrian Alpine landscape dominated by violence and brutality. There followed in quick succession a series of short stories and novels. In 1970 Bernhard made his dramatic debut in Hamburg with Ein Fest für Boris; A Party for Boris, a dark grotesque drama reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd. His second play Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige; The Ignoramus and the Madman, examining the culture industry’s destructive drive for perfection caused a scandal when it premiered at the famous Salzburger Festspiele in 1972 as the total darkness that Bernhard stipulated in his stage directions at the end of the play went counter to safety regulations: it was performed at the festival only once.
During the course of his career, Bernhard would have the most important German-speaking actors of the day working with him, and would write plays with them in mind: these included: Bruno Ganz, Bernhard Minetti, Gert Voss, Kirsten Dene and Ilse Ritter. Plays entitled simply Minetti (1980) and Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984) paid homage to his muses. In a very productive artistic partnership Bernhard had Claus Peymann (Intendant of the Berliner Ensemble until 2017) direct most of his plays.
Bernhard’s five volume autobiography, published 1975-1982 (English title: Gathering Evidence), stretched concepts of truth and fiction. In it Bernhard described his formative experience of childhood and adolescence during the Second World War in Salzburg, as well as his near-fatal contraction of tuberculosis aged eighteen, a disease that would accompany him throughout his life. The completion of the autobiography signaled a turn towards an increasingly autobiographical form of writing in Bernhard’s prose fiction as well, for which Wittgensteins Neffe; Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982) and Holzfällen; Woodcutters (1984) are exemplary. Holzfällen, where a soirée at a composer’s home functions as the setting for a vehement critique of the Austrian cultural establishment, was to provoke one of the biggest scandals of Bernhard’s career. A former friend of Bernhard’s (the composer Gerhard Lampesberg) recognized himself in the composer Auersberger, depicted as an aged alcoholic in the novel, and promptly launched a court case against Bernhard which led to all of the hitherto published copies of the book in Austria being seized by the police. By the end of 1984 the ban on the book was lifted whereupon it became a bestseller. In 1986 Bernhard’s opus magnum, Auslöschung; Extinction was published, the culmination of Bernhard’s life-long preoccupation with the problematic inheritance of Austria’s historical legacy as exemplified by the inherited family estate.
The staging of his play Heldenplatz (1988), examining the persistent legacy of National Socialism in Austria, was to provoke the biggest scandal of Bernhard’s career. The commotion surrounding the play further weakened Bernhard’s already frail health and he died shortly afterwards, on 12 February 1989. Bernhard’s testament stipulated that none of his published or unpublished works may be performed, printed or even recited within the borders of the Austrian state for the duration of copyright law. This stipulation was however revoked by Bernhard’s brother, Peter Fabjan, ten years after his death.
Thirty years after his death, Bernhard no longer provokes the same controversy as he once did in his home-country. However, Bernhard has fulfilled his ambition of writing world-literature: his works have been translated into approximately 45 languages and thanks to numerous new translations and reprints his reception in the English-speaking world is increasingly growing.
Novels by Bernhard:
Verstörung; Gargoyles (1967)
Das Kalkwerk; The Lime Works (1970)
Korrektur; Correction (1975)
Beton; Concrete (1982)
Der Untergeher; The Loser (1983)
Holzfällen. Eine Erregung; Woodcutters (1984)
Alte Meister. Komödie; Old Masters. A Comedy (1985)
Shorter prose works include:
Watten. Ein Nachlaß; Playing Watten (1969)
Gehen; Walking (1971)
Ja; Yes (1978)
Die Billigesser; The Cheap-Eaters (1980)
Wittgensteins Neffe. Eine Freundschaft; Wittgenstein’s Nephew. A Friendship (1982)
Ein Fest für Boris; A Party for Boris (1970)
Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige; The Ignoramus and the Madman (1972)
Die Jagdgesellschaft; The Hunting Party (1974)
Die Macht der Gewohnheit; The Force of Habit (1974)
Der Präsident; The President (1975)
Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele; Eve of Retirement. A Comedy of the German Soul (1979)
Der Weltverbesserer; The World-Improver (1979)
Am Ziel; Destination (1981)
Der Schein trügt; Appearances are Deceiving (1983)
Der Theatermacher; The Theatre-Maker (1984)
Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984)
Auf der Erde und in der Hölle; On Earth and in Hell (1957)
In hora mortis (1958)
Unter dem Eisen des Mondes; Under the Iron of the Moon (1958)
Ave Vergil (1981)
Bernhard also wrote five volumes of autobiography (published together in English under the title Gathering Evidence). A collection of essays entitled Meine Preise (My Prizes), detailing Bernhard’s experiences of receiving various literary prizes and attending award ceremonies, was also published posthumously in 2009.
Please click on the above links for further information.
Further Reading in English
Augustinus P. Dierick, ‘The Teller from the Tale: Monologues, Dialogues and Protocols in Thomas Bernhard’s Major Novels’, Oxford German Studies 44:4 (2015), 416-27
Stephen D. Dowden, Understanding Thomas Bernhard (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991)
Samuel Frederick, Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011)
Russell T. Harrison, Thomas Bernhard’s Comic Materialism: Class, Art, and “Socialism” in Post-War Austria (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012)
Gitta Honegger, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001)
Matthias Konzett, The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)
Matthias Konzett (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)
Matthias Konzett, ‘National Iconoclasm and Dissent: Thomas Bernhard, Doron Rabinovici, and the Austrian Avantgarde’, in Blueprints for No-Man’s Land: Connections in Contemporary Austrian Culture, ed. by Janet Stewart and Simon Ward (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 57-71
Katya Krylova, Walking Through History: Topography and Identity in the Works of Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013)
Katya Krylova and Ernest Schonfield (eds.), Thomas Bernhard: Language, History, Subjectivity (Leiden: Brill, 2023)
J.J. Long, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and its Function (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)
Charles W. Martin, The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard: The Portrayal of Existential and Social Problems in his Prose Works (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1995)
D. R. McLintock, ‘Tense and Narrative Perspective in Two Works by Thomas Bernhard’, Oxford German Studies 11 (1980), 1-26
Marjorie Perloff, ‘Border Games: The Wittgenstein Fictions of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann’, in Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), Chapter 5, pp. 145-78
Ernest Schonfield and Katya Krylova (eds.), Heiko Berner: Photo-Illustrations for Thomas Bernhard’s ‘A Child’ - Fotografische Illustrationen zu Thomas Bernhards Roman ‘Ein Kind’ (Glasgow: School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Glasgow, 2019)
Byron Spring, ‘Art and Sociality in Thomas Bernhard’s Minetti, Der Theatermacher, and Alte Meister’, Modern Language Review 105:1 (2010), 171-90
Andrew Webber, ‘Costume Drama: Performance and Identity in Bernhard’s Works’ in Matthias Konzett (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), pp. 149-69
Further Reading in German
Martin Huber and Manfred Mittermayer, Bernhard-Handbuch: Leben – Werk - Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2018)
Manfred Mittermayer, Thomas Bernhard. Eine Biografie (Salzburg: Residenz, 2015)
Web Links in English
American website featuring bibliographies, links to articles and you-tube videos on Bernhard, and details of Bernhard events around the world
Five stories from The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard
Web Links in German
Austrian website including bibliographies, the Bernhard archive and Bernhard house in Upper Austria
International Thomas Bernhard Society
An interview with Thomas Bernhard on YouTube