Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld | The Nation


Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld

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The relationship between Unseld and Bernhard spanned more than a quarter-century, from that first letter of October 22, 1961, to January 28, 1989, the day of their last meeting. The two always addressed each other in writing using their full names (and in Unseld’s case, Bernhard frequently also added his title “Doktor”), and unlike many of Suhrkamp’s other authors, including Max Frisch and Jürgen Habermas, Bernhard and Unseld never switched to the informal form of address (Du). It took Unseld more than a decade of renegotiated contracts and Bernhard’s periodic tirades to fathom the extent to which their relationship would be forever fraught, and to understand why. Following a meeting with the writer in April 1973, Unseld concluded, “in Thomas Bernhard sensibility, sensitivity, and neurosis have reached a peak that will not be easy to confront in the long run…. For my part I have discovered, not without admiration, how Bernhard manages to neutralize his neurosis through writing and physical activity. The price for this is high, and we will have to pay part of it ourselves—literally.” 

Der Briefwechsel von Thomas Bernhard, Siegfried Unseld
Edited by Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber and Julia Ketterer.
Suhrkamp. 869 pp. Paper €39.80.

About the Author

Holly Case
Holly Case teaches history at Cornell University and is the author of Between States: The Transylvanian Question and...

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Bernhard knew that he existed on a thin and arbitrary boundary between sanity and insanity. Comparing himself to his friend Paul Wittgenstein, who did several long stretches in a mental hospital, he wrote that Wittgenstein “has so to speak been overcome by his insanity; while I have taken advantage of and controlled mine.” Bernhard also had a keen sense of Unseld’s perception of his “neurosis” and sought to make the most of it. During a walk with his neighbor and friend, a pork wholesaler named Karl Ignaz Hennetmair, the writer confided, “With Unseld I have the freedom of a madman (Narrenfreiheit), I can do whatever I like.”

And he did. For Unseld, the price of Bernhard’s Narrenfreiheit was as often psychological as it was financial. He could be pitiless, as when he wrote to Unseld, “Sometimes lately I have doubted whether I even have a publisher, because it seems to me as though no one pays the least amount of attention to me.” Bernhard was perpetually engaged in an anxious calculus to gauge the level and limits of his publisher’s good will. On walks with Hennetmair, he complained that Unseld had not congratulated him on this or that prize, or analyzed at length what Unseld had given him for his birthday. He boasted to Hennetmair that he always spoke in a hickish Austrian dialect when visiting Suhrkamp’s sleek Frankfurt headquarters, chasing lesser writers from Unseld’s office and walking among the desks of the editors declaiming, “Schauts mir nur an, so schaut a aus, da Dichta” (the English equivalent: “Lookie heeya, y’all, heeya’s what ‘e looks like, duh poet”). During a meeting in Salzburg in July 1980, while Unseld was undergoing a fasting treatment, Bernhard insisted they go out to lunch, then ate slowly and with relish in front of his publisher, asking all the while: “How much do I mean to you? How much do I mean to the publishing house?” As Unseld engaged in an “orgy of sparkling water” and fed his author reassurances, Bernhard broke the news that he had just given the fourth part of his autobiography to the Austrian publisher Residenz, despite having earlier promised it to Suhrkamp. 

In Unseld—whose large, bearlike face and famously broad, slightly hunched back were a good physiological match for his approach to life and business (“I take games very seriously because I want to win, but try to solve serious things in a playful way”)—Bernhard’s betrayals and reprimands hit a wide, soft mark. “I truly deserve more recognition than your constant rebukes, which I seem to attract from you, God knows why,” Unseld wrote in July 1969. Yet the publisher rarely lost patience with Bernhard. It was not until November 24, 1988, on the eve of the writer’s death, after learning that Bernhard had breached his contract yet again by giving yet another manuscript to Residenz, that Unseld finally broke down and sent him a telegram composed in starkly untelegraphic language: “for me a pain threshold has not only been reached, it has been surpassed. after everything that we have shared over the past decades, and especially in the last two years, you disavow me, the colleague who has been favorably disposed to you and been at work for you…i can’t take it any more.” 

Despite the near catastrophic denouement of their correspondence, the relationship between the two men did have moments of genuine tenderness. Unseld and Bernhard enjoyed many long walks and swims together in and around Ohlsdorf. They met in Italy, Greece, Iran, Portugal, Spain and Belgium, sitting for long hours over meals and bottles of wine, and during those visits Bernhard was frequently in good spirits and on good terms with his publisher. “The farther one goes to meet him, the more closely he feels bound to publishing house and publisher,” Unseld wrote following one of their meetings in Lisbon in February 1987. Three years earlier, on the occasion of Unseld’s sixtieth birthday, Bernhard had written a tribute in which he recounted all the places he had met his “punctual and reliable” publisher (Trieste, Stuttgart, the ruins of Persepolis, Shiraz, the desert of Saccara, Tehran), and then related one incident after a diplomatic dinner in Cairo, when he and Unseld were in an elevator. A few feet before reaching the ground floor, its cable snapped and the cabin free-fell the remaining distance: “We shook the dust and mortar out of our hair and clothes and burst out laughing.”

It was when Bernhard soared without a net and had occasion to gaze into the abyss that his tone softened. In October 1976, he boarded a London-bound flight in Vienna to attend the dress rehearsal of one of his plays at the National Theatre. Shortly after takeoff, there was an explosion in the plane’s right engine, and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing. Bernhard’s next letter to Unseld was very nearly sentimental: “I report on a situation between two people who probably belong together for the long haul, in their own best interest and for their mutual pleasure.” The publisher nonetheless had no illusions about Bernhard. After a particularly pleasant meeting in August 1981, Unseld wrote, “Naturally one should not be deceived by all the friendliness of today. Every line that Bernhard has written means more to him than the relationship to me. He is simply for all or nothing.”

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