Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld
A writer sends a letter to his publisher: “there are times when one suddenly hovers in the air over a dreadful abyss and is being watched by countless people who constantly clap and cheer and make one almost go deaf with their (perfidious) admiration, but not a single one of them stretches out a net into which one can fall—literally in the last moment—without unavoidably becoming a comical, if also pitiable, certainly ridiculous corpse among men.” The writer was Thomas Bernhard, about whom his fellow Austrian, the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, once remarked, “No one can get past this dead giant.” The publisher was Siegfried Unseld, who had secured a place for Bernhard at the prestigious German publishing house Suhrkamp. And the subject was a loan of 3,000 German marks that Unseld had given to Bernhard the month before, in December 1965. “With that 3,000 you stretched a net out for me.”
It was not the first such safety net, nor would it be the last. At their initial meeting in January 1965, which took all of twenty minutes, Bernhard arrived at Unseld’s house when the publisher was bedridden with the flu and running a temperature of forty degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The upstart writer demanded 40,000 German marks to pay for the farmhouse he had recently bought in the Austrian village of Ohlsdorf: “a thousand marks for every degree of the publisher’s fever, or for every half a minute of the publisher’s time.” Unseld obliged.
Subsequent nets were financial, but also moral, as the publisher stood by Bernhard through the many lawsuits initiated against him, including a 1970 libel action stemming from his characterization of the cultural-political magazine Die Furche (The Groove) as “a quadrature of perverse catholic-nazi monotony.” When Peter Handke, another prominent Austrian (and Suhrkamp) author, wrote of his archrival Bernhard’s work that it was “well-nigh ruinous for art,” Unseld defended him; and the publisher was sitting right next to Bernhard in 1978, when a group of enraged students at the university in Munich blocked an event where he was to read from his work.
“Here we do not publish books, but rather authors,” Unseld once said of Suhrkamp’s guiding philosophy. The publishing house’s namesake, Peter Suhrkamp, believed it was essential to curate as much of an author’s entire oeuvre as possible. His philosophy proved to be sound; shortly after he founded Suhrkamp in 1950, it would rank among the best houses in Europe. (It still does, despite being currently embroiled in a potentially ruinous internal power struggle.) In the case of Bernhard, Suhrkamp published almost all of his complete works, including nine novels, more than forty plays, several dozen stories, a volume of poetry, and a number of shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. Of Bernhard’s essential writings, only the five volumes of his autobiography were published by another press.
Unseld’s perseverance in acquiring Bernhard’s works for Suhrkamp paid off to the tune of 1.5 million copies sold by the year 2000. That success was very hard won. In 1988, Unseld wrote a piece titled “Publisher as Vocation,” a statement of faith in the profession to which he had devoted himself since starting with Suhrkamp in 1952. The first example he offered to highlight the peculiar bond between publisher and author was his relationship with Thomas Bernhard, who once characterized it as “mutual love-hate.” “How can one as a publisher endure such tensions?” Unseld wrote. “It is the respect for the mystery of creativity that gives one strength, that enables one to admire, to love.”
Bernhard was not easy to love. In his first letter to Unseld, dated October 22, 1961, he was formal and professional, mindful that he was addressing the German publisher of Hermann Hesse, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, George Bernard Shaw and Walter Benjamin. “I possess a few books produced by you and they are among the best of the recent time,” Bernhard wrote in one of the hundreds of letters collected in Der Briefwechsel von Thomas Bernhard, Siegfried Unseld (2009). (An English translation of selections from the volume is forthcoming from Seagull Books.) He requested a conversation, explaining that he knew people who knew Unseld, and then declared, “But I go it alone.” This was the first hint of Bernhard’s obsession with independence. Once, in September 1971, Bernhard turned up in Unseld’s office, requested the original of a contract he had signed the day before, tore it out of the publisher’s hands and crossed out one of its clauses. (“It was a definite low point,” Unseld noted in his chronicle of the meeting.) The main character in his novel Correction (1975) channels Bernhard’s frustration: “Our ambition is to get out of these contracts and written agreements, for life.” Though he often needed and demanded safety nets, Bernhard feared becoming entangled in them and struggled constantly against their embrace.
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