Not to be missed in the August issue of Harper’s: a 1986 interview between Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard and Werner Wögerbauer, a teacher at the University of Nantes, translated by Nicholas Grindell. This interview seems to capture Bernhard perfectly—his churlishness, his wit, his occasional mean-spiritedness. What an impossible man to interview.
Just imagine the challenge to an interviewer of a beginning like this:
THOMAS BERNHARD: So, I’ll just keep reading the paper-you don’t mind, do you?
WERNER WÖGERBAUER: Well, no, by all means.
BERNHARD: You’ll have to ask something, and then you’ll get an answer.
I began studying Austrian literature in the mid-seventies and at that time Bernhard and Peter Handke seemed to be engaged in a foot race to see who would hold the coveted title of enfant terrible of the literary scene. (Elfriede Jelinek was in the mix too, though she was consistently much more civil, which explains how in the end she got the Nobel Prize, not Bernhard or Handke). Publikumsbeschimpfung had been published and was being performed, and it entailed, just as the title suggests, actors cursing out their audience. They outdid one another with assaults—on themselves, on their audience, on the hallowed icons of the literary past, and on literary critics. This was the high point of the literary art of provocation.
What were their agendas? Well, a good measure of the old échapper le bourgeois. To be sure. It was about overturning prejudices. Questioning the received wisdom. Why, if these icons were so wondrous, did the culture they spawned lead straight into an abyss? And then some specific questions about Austria, with a curiously Teutonic culture for a strikingly multiethnic population. But beyond all of that, I thought, Bernhard was really out for some fun. And he had it. And in this interview, he’s having it again at the expense of an academic who is, shall we say, a bit too serious? I have every sympathy for Wögerbauer, mind you—I couldn’t imagine coping with Bernhard in an interview. I have a difficult enough time with lawyers and politicians. A person of real genius is another matter.
Especially when the writer is doing his damnedest to defy analysis.
WÖGERBAUER: But this quest for perfection does play a role in your books.
BERNHARD: That’s the attraction of any art. That’s all art is–getting better and better at playing your chosen instrument. No one can take that pleasure away from you or talk you out of it. If someone is a great pianist, you can clear out the room, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carryon playing.
WÖGERBAUER: So it has something to do with failure, then.
BERNHARD: Everything fails in the end, everything ends in the graveyard. The young people of today are running into the arms of death at age twelve, and they’re dead at fourteen. There are solitary fighters who struggle on until eighty or ninety, then they die, too, but at least they had a longer life. Those who die early have less fun, and you can feel sorry for them. Because life also means a long life, with all of its awfulness.
Ripped from the frame of irony and denial, these lines are really the very essence of Bernhard. In the end, everything comes down to death; death makes the pomposities of life seem absurd. Do you hear the voice of “Everyman” echoing here? As he writes in Verstörung: “Wenn wir ein Ziel haben, so scheint mir, ist es der Tod” (“If we have a goal, then it seems to me it’s death.”) He is full of existential realizations, and he dispels the Romantic illusions of which the Austrian canon is in general so fond. Art is for art’s sake, not for the improvement of the bourgeois. He was determined to shock the Austrians back to their senses. But that perhaps was an impossible task for any writer and any people.
And then we come to the Bernhard who pisses in the corners of the literary living room:
If you open a newspaper today, almost all you read about is Thomas Mann. He’s been dead thirty years now, and again and again, endlessly, it’s unbearable. Even though he was a petit-bourgeois writer, who only wrote for a petit-bourgeois readership. It’s uninspired and stupid, some fiddle-playing professor who travels somewhere, or a family in Lübeck, how lovely. What rubbish Thomas Mann churned out about political matters, really. He was totally uptight and a typical German petit bourgeois. With a greedy wife.
Thomas Mann is for the twentieth century German literary establishment almost what Goethe was for the prior century. The unassailable Olympian. The artist against whose talents all others are measured. Robert Musil, for instance, is known for his depressed wailings about the public obsession with Mann. Bernard’s comments here are infantile, of course, even coarse.
In fact, Thomas Mann’s writings on political matters are extremely important. He started the process writing about Kultur und Zivilisation, a defender of extreme Wilhelmine cultural conservatism (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen), and came through a process of internal reckoning and self-criticism to recognize the profoundly flawed premises of this thinking. He embraced democracy and rejected the stultifying forces of German authoritarianism (Von deutscher Republik). Considering especially that he was a literary icon to the conservative forces, that was a courageous act. Moreover, it takes a great mind to travel the distance that Mann did. He stands in the bourgeois tradition, certainly—he does so proudly. I spent a good deal of time studying Mann’s political writings and I’m convinced they will withstand the test of time. Indeed, when asked to boil his views down, Mann said: “I am profoundly a man of the middle. If the ship of state moves to the right, I will lean instinctively to the left to keep it on an even keel, and vice versa.” It’s an approach that has much to commend itself, especially today. Alas, Bernhard despises the middle. He’d as soon sink the boat. But he does make us sweat, and think. Bernhard is no Olympian, nor would he want to be. He’s a literary gadfly, but an important one.
And in the end, Bernhard is skeptical about the value of his conversation:
In ten years you’ll see how stupid it all was. This wasn’t a conversation either.
Here he’s been proven wrong. We’re at twenty years, and his conversation has proven itself. Bernhard is the natural provocateur.