Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld
Yet as much as Bernhard glorified isolation, freedom and independence, fighting to avoid the snare of human relationships and their concomitant burdens (“a wife, a family, three children, divorce, a state, a company, insurance, a boss”), even he needed people—particular people—as much as, and at the same time as, he needed isolation and independence. In his novel Concrete (1982), the main character Rudolf declares: “I convinced myself that I did not need anyone, and am still convinced of it…. Naturally we do need another person.”
There were two individuals whom Bernhard called his “life-mates” (Lebensmenschen). The first was his grandfather Freumbichler, who died in 1949, two days after Bernhard turned 18. Bernhard spent that birthday in the hospital, recovering from a life-and-death struggle with tuberculosis; in a nearby room, his grandfather succumbed to the same illness. Not long after Freumbichler died, Bernhard’s second Lebensmensch appeared. Her name was Hedwig Stavianicek, the widow of a high-ranking Viennese ministry official; she was thirty-seven years his senior. To others, he called her his “aunt.” In a letter to her from 1962, he wrote: “You are the dearest person to me—how else can I say it? My mother? Yes!—Is it not so?”
Bernhard’s birth mother died in 1950, and for the fifteen years following his illness, Stavianicek supported him with a safety net of her doting attentions and ten Austrian schillings per day. He regularly stayed in her apartment in Vienna, and the two would take long trips together all over Europe. In Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), Bernhard wrote about her with rare candor, describing her as “in every respect an exemplary, intelligent woman, who in decisive moments never lets me down, from whom I have over the last thirty years learned everything, or have at least learned to understand, and from whom I continue to learn and come to comprehend the most crucial things.”
The complete works of Thomas Bernhard include just one (extremely short) love story. Little wonder, for Bernhard openly confessed to craving the highs of his work more than human intimacy. “Writing books is also a kind of intercourse,” he told Krista Fleischmann in 1984; “it is much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with someone.” The correspondence between Unseld and Bernhard—much like Bernhard’s work—is remarkably innocent of any references to physical intimacy or sex. One is aware that Unseld has a wife, and later a second wife (the writer Ulla Berkéwicz, who now heads Suhrkamp), but when, during a man-to-man with Bernhard in late May 1972, Unseld asked him about women, “he evaded the question with clichés, and straightaway started talking about the experience of his grandmother.”
Bernhard was with Stavianicek when she died in May 1984. The following year he published the novel Old Masters, which contains a background requiem for her. One of the characters in the book, Reger, has lost his wife. “My wife saved me,” he says at one point in the novel, and the narrator continues, “He had always feared and in fact hated the female sex with body and soul, and yet his wife had saved him.” Bernhard’s own view of women often echoed that of another Austrian, Otto Weininger, who in Sex and Character (1903) argued that women and Jews had neither Geist (intellect) nor soul. Women, Bernhard told Krista Fleischmann in a filmed interview, have feelings, but lack a fully developed Geist and so cannot “accomplish” what men do; they are too “emotional” and therefore not “objective.”
But as Bernhard wrote to Unseld in November 1970, and as Unseld himself well knew from his own experience with the writer, “The anger and the brutality against everything can readily from one hour to the next be transformed into its opposite.” In Old Masters, the reversal appears complete: “When you have lost the person closest to you, everything is empty…. And you realize that it was not these great minds and not these Old Masters who have kept you alive for decades, but rather that it was only this one single person that you loved like no other.” In February 1987, Unseld visited Bernhard in Lisbon, where he saw photographs of Stavianicek arrayed on a small table in the writer’s hotel room.
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Even prior to the death of his second Lebensmensch, Bernhard had begun a slow withdrawal from his friends and acquaintances, burrowing deeper into his work. He was spending ever more time in Ohlsdorf, forgoing opportunities to travel. In a letter to Unseld from December 1981, he explained the decision to cancel a planned visit to Frankfurt: “that I have opted for solitude…is to the benefit of my work…. When I think back, my whole life I have existed above all from what I have refused.”
In the last years of his life, Bernhard had far more credit with Suhrkamp than he cared to use (in April 1988 he asked Unseld for 100,000 of the 374,000 marks in his account at the time). There were ever fewer exchanges between the two of them about money and contracts, and after a meeting in August 1986, Unseld wrote, “It is incredible how this writer can find complete expression within, how he becomes freer, more sovereign.” Two years later, Bernhard took Unseld and Berkéwicz to see another house he had bought in the primeval forest. Unseld described it as “a place where fox and rabbit wish each other good night. An eerie stillness, a house from which all one can see is forest, meadow, and field.” Bernhard was very ill and had already written to his publisher that he did not have much time left.
Rewind: Unseld is on his way to a meeting with Bernhard in August 1981, and he begins reading the manuscript of Bernhard’s latest play, Am Ziel (1981), on the plane. The play is about a writer who has written a piece called Rette sich wer kann (Save Yourself if You Can), “about the creativity of a writer.” The meeting with Bernhard goes well, unusually so. Afterward, Unseld writes in his chronicle that he could not get Bernhard’s words out of his head: “Save yourself if you can. Coming from him that’s not so cynical. He considers the time in which we live to be a glorious one, a time of passage; indeed, it is wonderful.” Unseld was right again, as he had been nearly a decade before about Bernhard’s “neurosis.” And this time too, Bernhard was way ahead of him, for already two years earlier he had written to Unseld, “In the year three thousand they will excavate the Geist of this century when they dig out piece by piece what lies under the seal of Suhrkamp Publishing House. They will be amazed by what treasures from this time—which today is taken to be horrifically off its head—have remained.”
Fast-forward: Bernhard and Unseld are meeting for what will be the last time, on January 28, 1989, just over two months after Unseld sent his capitulatory telegram, and less than two weeks before Bernhard’s death. (Unseld will live another thirteen years.) Bernhard tells his publisher he is leaving him the farmhouse at Ohlsdorf, that his life has been good, that he has done what he wanted to do, that he still has the desire to write, but cannot. “Life is wonderful, the world is magnificent, we’re living in a great time.”
A selection from the recently released volume of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters appeared in our November 19, 2012, issue.