Reconsidering Thomas Bernhard

In Wittgenstein’ s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard describes a trip to the Traunsee in the Salzkammergut with his closest friend, Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the philosopher, during which they spotted a child squatting by the side of the lake. Where Wittgenstein only saw the wretched child, giving him a 100-schilling note out of pity, Bernhard noticed at once that his mother had placed the kid in distress as a prop to arouse sympathy and elicit ill-begotten donations. Where Wittgenstein saw “only the surface,” Bernhard – ever the cynic who expected little and saw the worst – believes he “saw through the whole scene.” The dominant figure of Austrian postwar literature, Bernhard spent a writing life seeing through the whole scene. His novels, including Concrete and Extinction, Woodcutters, The Loser and Wittgenstein’s Nephew show how he distinguished himself as one of Austria’s keenest and sharpest observers, having mastered a particular blend of direct, acerbic commentary in a poetic, even musical voice. Now, 30 years after his death by assisted suicide at his home in Gmunden, aged just 58, the English publishing house Faber & Faber is reissuing those novels – heroically translated by David McLintock – replete with fresh artwork and introductions by his admirers. Mere months before his death, Bernhard experienced his greatest theatrical triumph. Heldenplatz – the story of a Jewish university professor who takes his own life after returning to the Austrian capital to find it as anti- Semitic as ever – premiered at the Burgtheater in November 1988 to a 45-minute standing ovation. Alongside the reissuing of his novels, Bernhard’s plays are being restaged during this memorial year, including revival of Heldenplatz at the Salzburger Landestheater. Heldenplatz is in many ways a historical artifact. At a panel discussion held last November at Vienna’s Literature Museum, the writer Josef Haslinger questioned whether the play could be successfully produced today. Bernhard’s cry that the country was “six-and-a-half million forsaken people screaming at the tops of their voices in search of a director” was indeed a sharp check on the country’s worst tendencies. But in many ways Heldenplatz was a catalyst for coming to terms with the Austrian past, a process whose fruits Bernhard never lived to witness. “There are more Nazis in Vienna now than in 1938” may have been true in 1988. It is not today.


Bernhard’s novels, by contrast, are an enduring summation of all that Bernhard was as a writer and what, in particular, consumedd him. For this, Wittgenstein’s Nephew – his 1982 work of memoir-as-novel or what we would now call autofiction – is the best place to begin. Opening on Bernhard’s stay at Vienna’s Steinhof hospital where, in 1967, he had a “fist-sized tumor” removed from his thorax – part of a life spent haunted by the specter of pulmonary disease – the novel has everything from digressions on coffeehouse culture and the Viennese theater scene to his observations on Wittgenstein’s decline and his own obsession with death. Bernhard understood life in theatrical terms. Austria was a stage and being Austrian, performance art. Workers, the narrator of Extinction says, don their blue overalls and then proceed to do nothing in them, believing the very act of dressing as a worker is the same as work itself. The landed gentry maintain vast libraries but talk only of pigs and cattle and read nothing more stimulating than the Upper Austrian Farmer’s Weekly, living out their days in stuffy rooms behind closed shutters. He wrote endearingly of Austria’s landscape but only with contempt of the nation built upon it, whose perceived emptiness – its philistinism, banality, and small-mindedness – he despised.

Bernhard reserved special contempt

for Austrian culture. He lived

part of the time in Vienna only


he hated the other cities

more – especially Graz, which he

called a viper’s nest of Nazis. He

frequented the Hotel Sacher


he loathed the literary coffeehouses.

Viennese theater, he

complains in Concrete, is the shabbiest

in Europe and the Burgtheater

“a witless, though unwitting, parody

of theater in general.” In Wittgenstein’s

Nephew, Bernhard complains

at length about how the Burg

and its actors purposefully destroyed

one of his plays, The Hunting Party.

Woodcutters, meanwhile, is a searing

takedown of the Viennese cultural

scene, with Bernhard drily observing

the world from a wing-backed

chair at a party held after a performance

of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.


This aspect of Bernhard’s thinking

comes across more clearly in the

novels, as does the fact that death,

and not the Nazi past, was his great

subject. When he was a child Bernhard

contracted tuberculosis, recovered,

but was left with sarcoidosis

– a disease characterized by the

growth of tiny collections of

inflammatory cells in one’s lungs –

that dogged him all his life. Understandably,

illness and death stalk his

novels, informing

and shaping his

narrative style; entire novels are

written as unbroken


that circle around and back to core

themes with a crazed and passionate

intensity. Extinction opens with the

death of the narrator’s parents and

older brother in a car accident.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew begins in a

hospital, follows Paul Wittgenstein’s

descent into madness, and

ends with his funeral. As Michael

Hofmann notes in his afterword to

Concrete, Bernhard’s brush with

death and his nihilism are interrelated.

“I don’t know which came

first,” Bernhard writes, “my illness

or my sudden distaste for society.”

Bernhard, Hofmann argues, “lived

the intense and prolific life of the

semi-invalid.” Following his death

in 1989, Bernhard was buried not in

Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof alongside

the great and the good but in an unassuming

grave beneath the shade of

a pine tree in an out-of-the-way

cemetery in Grinzing.

Bernhard was until the end an

awkward cuss, a contrarian who

thought and wrote against the

stream, against all others, at odds

with his country and with himself.

He wrote quickly, furiously, determinedly,

as if in a race against the

clock and a fate whose arrival he very

much foresaw. Thirty years on, his

dark, yet oftentimes comic, novels

continue to throw off heat and light

and retain their power to inspire and

enrage, astound and confound.

Without Bernhard,

there would be

no Austria, German dramatist Heiner

Müller once said.

But even if less true than it once

was, its literary landscape would certainly

be poorer without him.

Bernhard understood life in theatrical terms. Austria

was a stage and being Austrian, performance art.

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