Thomas Bernhard on his 90th birthday: the last of its kind
Take the German writers Heinrich Böll and Rolf Hochhuth, mix Böll’s moral indignation with Hochhuth’s sharp-tongued and viciousness, and finally add the Austrian mentality. Voilá! The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is just looking at you.
The always polarizing Bernhard would have turned 90 on February 9, 2021.
Bernhard was probably Austria’s greatest skeptic. He raised his moral index finger when morality was an intellectual and not a “green” tool. He railed against human stupidity, which spread like a disease into every area of life: in the editorial offices, in the publishing houses, in the universities. He did this in his own idiosyncratic and specific way.
It was not for nothing that Bernhard achieved world fame. To this day, his dramas, along with Bertolt Brecht, are played across the globe, on the boards of the world. No other German-speaking writer succeeded in this to such an extent as Brecht and Bernhard. This also applies to the translations of Bernhard’s works.
The se have been translated into around fifty languages to date. From Spanish to Chinese to Norwegian. Even “Wittgenstein’s Neffe” appeared in Arabic for the first time in 2019.
Bernhard was haunted by pain all his life
But who was the man who spiced up his writing with so much anger and despair, cynicism and polemics? Bernhard was a withdrawn, shy, but philanthropic and warm person. Some may wonder how they fit together: misanthropy in works, philanthropist in life.
The re is no contradiction here. Precisely because Bernhard was a philanthropist, he found it difficult to bear human stupidity. He had to stand up to this. On the one hand. On the other hand, it was probably his way of dealing constructively with his pain and grief about this. Bernhard was haunted by pain all his life.
The Austrian writer was born on Born out of wedlock on February 9, 1931 in the Dutch exile, the city of Heerlen. A scandal for the time, a lifelong stamp for being an outsider. His mother, who worked there as a domestic helper, sent the little one back to Austria in the grandparents’ care at an early age.
The re his grandfather, the writer Johannes Freumbichler, particularly influenced and supported the boy.
Before Bernhard started studying dramaturgy and acting at the Salzburg Mozarteum, however, he had to suffer a few blows of fate. He spent 1941 in a National Socialist reformatory and attended a National Socialist boarding school between 1943 and 1945. In 1949, Bernhard was only 18 years old, he fell ill with pleurisy. He even received the final unction. But the young man recovered. In 1950 he was diagnosed with the lung disease Boeck’s disease.
A real wave of scandal rolled over Austria
However, this lifelong “companion” did not prevent him from continuing to pursue his art. Although Bernhard initially wanted to become a singer, his early experiences in the pulmonary institute in particular prompted him to devote himself more and more to writing. Before he made his literary breakthrough in 1963 with his novel “Frost”, for which he received the literature prize of the city of Bremen, he earned his living as a journalist. It was there that Bernhard learned the art of exaggeration, as he himself admitted retrospectively.
The se recognitions encouraged Bernhard’s writing. So from 1970 he also tried his hand at being a dramatist – and quite successfully.
The piece, which was actually scheduled for around two hours, lasted a full three hours at the premiere in the Vienna Burgtheater due to innumerable interruptions. A real wave of scandal rolled over Austria, which kept the whole country in suspense for several weeks.
This is hardly surprising if you listen to some statements from the characters there, above all Professor Robert: “All of these parties / but basically all Austrians together / are the gravedigger of their country today / everything here is at the mercy of humility”. Or Professor Liebig: “And the newspapers write rubbish / a language is written in the newspapers / that turns your stomach / on every newspaper page I guarantee you / apart from the lies that are printed there / a hundred errors / (…)”.
In times of language police and snowflakes, the Bernhard phenomenon would probably no longer be possible. He was insulted as a bully, right wing and racist. Bernhard in particular possessed the ability that many are losing nowadays: the ability to keep distance. To yourself, to others and to the world. It is precisely this distance that makes it possible not to feel offended everywhere and by everyone. It is precisely this distance that makes it possible to let off steam verbally and at the same time face life with a laughing eye.
The y are recipes for life.