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“Here we do not publish books, but rather authors,” Unseld once said of Suhrkamp’s guiding philosophy.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.
* * *
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.”
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.”
* * *
“Where do I get this absolute sense of security on the one hand, and this horrific helplessness on the other?” Bernhard wondered in his autobiography. The answer he gives is personal, yet his perfectionism, his preference for “going it alone” and his unusually intense identification with his work resonated with a strain of the postwar zeitgeist. It was a time of “all or nothing,” one that worshiped the extraordinary, obsessed loner—who was almost always a man—striving toward perfection. In a letter from March 1971, Bernhard compared his situation to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the 1959 novel by Alan Sillitoe, made into a film in 1962. It’s the story of a boy, Colin Smith, from the wrong side of the tracks in industrial England, who lands in prison and takes up long-distance running as a form of mental escape from the cruelties of prison life. The prison leadership recognizes Smith’s talent and tries to co-opt it, offering him early release if he wins a critical cross-country race. Smith speeds ahead of the others and is favored to win, but then stops short of the finish line in a gesture of defiance. “My situation,” Bernhard wrote to Unseld, “is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I have given my present existence this title.”
Sillitoe’s novel, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958), Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970), the pseudo-documentary films of Werner Herzog about a ski-flier or a mountaineer driven to the ultimate jump or the impossible climb: all of these works betrayed a particular postwar fascination with the horror, loneliness, and ecstasy of defying the strictures of society and state, and in so doing, testing one’s capacity to the limits. With the war over and the welfare state ascendant in Western Europe and America, what this generation did not seem to want or need was a safety net. “You can’t fall off a mountain,” Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums. In his acceptance speech for the Bremen Literature Prize in 1965, Bernhard expressed the essence of Kerouac’s statement: “No time has ever set such high expectations as ours; we already exist megalomaniacally; because we know that we cannot fall and cannot freeze, we dare to do what we do.”
Brinkmanship of the human mind and human machine demanded the most ascetic and concentrated isolation. Bernhard wrote most of his novels and plays in the austerely furnished interior of his farmhouse in Ohlsdorf, which until the 1980s did not have so much as a telephone. “I have here an ideal prison as my house of work, in the best imaginable surroundings,” he told Unseld in December 1966. Though he often wrote of how he preferred the city to life in the country, Bernhard always returned to Ohlsdorf, whence most of his letters to Unseld were postmarked. One of his intellectual inspirations was the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, an uncle of Bernhard’s friend Paul, whose odd figure turns up in several of the author’s novels, stories and plays. In 1919, Wittgenstein famously gave away his considerable inheritance (his father, a Viennese steel tycoon, had been one of the richest men in nineteenth-century Europe) and left Austria for good, spending much of his later life living out of a backpack. During a visit to upstate New York in 1949, Wittgenstein told a fellow philosopher:
It’s like this: In the city, streets are nicely laid out. And you drive on the right and you have traffic lights, etc. There are rules. When you leave the city, there are still rules, but no traffic lights. And when you get far off there are no roads, no lights, no rules, nothing to guide you. It’s all woods. And when you return to the city you may feel that the rules are wrong, that there should be no rules, etc…. It comes to something like this. If you have a light, I say: Follow it. It may be right. Certainly life in the city won’t do.
One early reviewer of Bernhard’s novel Gargoyles (1967) wrote that with “Thomas Bernhard there breaks out again, amidst a decidedly urban literature, the primeval forest.”
* * *
The way Bernhard told it, his entire conscious life was a sustained charge “in the opposite direction,” into the woods. In A Child (1982), the fifth and final volume of his autobiography, he explained how he spent the first year of his life in a net. His cradle was a below-decks hammock on a fishing boat docked at Rotterdam, and he one of “seven to eight” infants hanging from the wooden ceiling in the “unbelievable stench” and “impenetrable damp” of the ship’s bowels, his face “riddled and misshapen by boils.” He was removed from the net once or twice a week, whenever his unwed mother managed to steal enough time from her housekeeping job to pay a visit.
In its details, most of what Bernhard related about the first year of his life was untrue. He lived in the boat’s hold not for a year but for just a few weeks, and there were not seven to eight other newborns; he was the only one. Bernhard was well known as an Übertreibungskünstler, an exaggeration artist, a designation he readily embraced: “without exaggeration one cannot say anything.” Thinking radically opposite was another of his trademarks. In the vision of his newborn self caught in a fisherman’s net, swinging helpless in the stench, untouched by anything but the strands of the hammock, Bernhard saw not confinement but freedom: “Only when I am by seawater can I truly breathe, to say nothing of my ability to think.” Though he would live most of his life in his mother’s native landlocked, mountainous Austria, he frequently called himself a “sea person”: “ich bin ein Kind des Meeres.”
A Child opens with a scene from Bernhard’s childhood, but not with his time in the net. Rather, the beginning—his beginning—is his first ill-fated attempt to break away: “At the age of 8 I mounted the old Steyr bicycle of my guardian, who was at the time engaged in Poland and was about to march into Russia with the German army.” So begins the breathless adventure of a child who had never before ridden a bicycle, and is so intoxicated when he discovers he can—“I rule the world”—that he immediately resolves to ride the nearly thirty miles to Salzburg to visit his aunt. All the while he imagines an audience of “observer-admirers” who “had to see that, in the face of the greatest obstacles and opposition, I had always prevailed and was victorious!”
Like the German army’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the boy’s exalted cycling surge toward victory and glory ended in humiliation and defeat. A hard rain fell, the bike broke, a sobbing Bernhard had to find shelter in a roadside tavern and was ultimately dropped off in front of his mother’s house in Traunstein by a pair of young men. The parallel between the Nazis during World War II and the young Bernhard’s misadventure is not a casual one: for any man in postwar Germany or Austria who wanted to live the life of the long-distance runner, the Nazi legacy weighed heavily. The Nazis thought themselves very special. They took from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche the idea of the Übermensch (Overman), from the writer Ernst Jünger a cult of extreme and detached heroism forged in the machine-gun fire of World War I, and from the legal scholar Carl Schmitt the concept of a “state of exception” that allowed them to vaporize the institutions of democracy with a single gesture. Theirs was a religion of exception that required the masses of its adherents to exist collectively above and beyond everything else, including death and the law.
After Germany’s second great defeat, and having proven themselves unworthy of Hitler’s grand ambitions, most Germans wanted nothing to do with the state of exception. But not all of them. Some sought a way to liberate exceptionalism from the Nazi legacy, to feel the ecstatic rush of striving without merging with the mass, or “going under” for the Overman, as Nietzsche put it. To them, and Bernhard especially, uniformed goose-stepping in unison was precisely not a life of “going in the opposite direction.” Slipping the net also entailed casting off this unwanted inheritance.
It was early morning when the young Bernhard was dropped off at home following his cycling misadventure. But instead of going inside to face an ox-pizzle lashing from his mother, he walked the few extra miles to the village where his grandparents lived to seek refuge with his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, from whom he expected, and received, understanding for what he had done. As Bernhard wrote in A Child, “My grandfather loved chaos…. Loved the unusual and the exceptional, the contrarian, the revolutionary, he came to life in contradiction, existed entirely from opposition.” During the war, Freumbichler was apprehended by the Nazis for listening to Allied radio and sent to serve in a labor unit. His brand of exceptionalism reached above and beyond the masses. “Have something big in your sights, that was his constant admonition, the highest!” Bernhard recalled. “Always have the highest in your sights!” When not out walking with Freumbichler, Bernhard spent much of his childhood alone. It was, after all, the loneliness of the long-distance runner that was his essence: “I hated the herd, I loathed the masses, a hundred and a thousand voices shouting from a single mouth.”
* * *
Nazism thrived on choreographed repetition. The Nazis wanted to change history by going back and repeating it. World War I was their ultimate pride and shame; they revisited it incessantly. Their random-access approach to history was like the “repeat” function on a CD or MP3 player, skipping back to relive the past, cry to the ballads and march to the marches, over and over again.
The Nazis’ mortal enemies, the Communists, believed in serial history, like a tape played from beginning to end. One could fast-forward, or accelerate, the tape, but jumping to an earlier track, even rewinding, was impossible. Once the tape had started (at the origins of mankind), there was no stopping it: the cosmic cassette would play to the end of human history.
Born into this age of extremes, Bernhard thought like a Nazi and believed like a Communist. Critics categorized Bernhard’s work variously as “anarchistic” and “reactionary,” but always, always on the extremes. Such was his comfort zone: he wrote his first novel, Frost (1963), in the middle of a beastly hot summer, and wearing only a swimsuit. But for all his extremism, what made Bernhard the very opposite of a Nazi or a Communist was his disdain for the roar of the masses and his tortuous romance with isolation. In his fiction and plays, creator-men go into seclusion in a remote or very particular place in order to perfect some philosophical project or solve a longstanding thought-problem. There they double back over their own thought path, moving inexorably through repetition and revision toward an exalted and perfect omega, literally thinking themselves to death. Creative self-destruction is the inevitable end that greets the protagonists in Bernhard’s best works: Correction, Walking (1971), Extinction (1986) and Heldenplatz (1988). As he once told his publisher, “I am a tightrope walker without a tightrope,” for whom “the abyss is not just below.” To read Bernhard is to soar impossibly high without a safety net, unable to distinguish the ecstatic rise from the horrific fall.
The conditions at that altitude are extreme. Bernhard’s favorite theater director was the German Claus Peymann, who staged the premiere performances of most of his pieces. Peymann’s sets were so tall that even when the actors were touching onstage, a frosted tragicomic irony stood in for intimacy—a reminder that living in Bernhard’s work is not for the faint-hearted or the sentimental. During his infamous “orgy of sparkling water,” Unseld reported having the sensation that “What we were doing was none other than a scene from a Thomas Bernhard comedy…. I don’t know if I would have the nerve to face another such conversation again.”
In his prose Bernhard abandoned narrative and exposition, dispensed with paragraphs and chapters, and was comfortable having sentences run on for a page or more, veering away from and circling back to a subject. But the aim of such ceaseless explication is never description, for Bernhard held that “everything is always otherwise than it is described.” In a 1986 television interview, he told the Austrian journalist Krista Fleischmann that descriptions of places and events in literature were “uninteresting” and “uneconomical.”
Despite his contempt for description, Bernhard did write obsessively about things, above all articles of clothing—shirts, pants, shoes—and their relative quality and care. In Walking, several pages are filled with a character holding pants up to the light, noting thin patches in the fabric and repeating with increasing intensity the phrase “Czechoslovak rejects.”
By his own admission, Bernhard suffered from “the so-called counting sickness,” a compulsion to count everything. He avoided riding in streetcars because he could not prevent himself from trying to count each window as it passed. No less fastidious with his own work, Bernhard turned revision into the very substance of his art. While revising Correction, he wrote to Unseld that the novel “is a mathematical problem and will become beautiful literature only when it is perfectly solved.” As Unseld grew increasingly impatient with each new delay, Bernhard went on in his letters about achieving the “last precision” and the “last perfection.” Finally, after four years and at least nine delays, Bernhard turned over the manuscript to his publisher. As the title suggests, the novel is about revision, and because Bernhard is its author, it’s about total revision, though one that the author realizes without succumbing to the dead certainty that awaits his protagonists. As Bernhard told the German writer Asta Scheib in a 1987 interview, “Unlike stunt pilots, who only crash once and then are mostly done for or dead, the writer is also done for and dead, but always comes back to life.”
What kept him from sharing the fate of his protagonists was his ecstatic passion for his work, which he described in a letter to Unseld as “my only pleasure, my only joy, my grossest possible indecency.” Bernhard made this passion almost physically palpable in his prose, and especially his plays, which often sound like music or poetry, relentlessly driven by rhythm and repetition. In Heldenplatz, a servant repeats aloud while demonstrating exactly how her late boss had instructed her to fold his shirts:
Like this you see this is
how he folded the shirt
then he snatched it up
and folded it again
and snatched it up
and folded it again
[looks at the clock]
Seven or eight times he snatched up the shirt
and folded it again
and then he said now you fold it Frau Zittel
fold it exactly
the way I’ve just folded it….
Like this the Professor said like this
and he turned in the sleeves
you see Frau Zittel see see see….
No no Frau Zittel I am not mad
I am simply exact Frau Zittel but not mad
I am simply exact Frau Zittel but not mad
a perfectionist is what I am Frau Zittel
I am not sick I am not sick he screamed
I am simply a perfectionist
I am a notorious perfectionist….
Intolerable person he screamed intolerable person
this is how you fold a shirt like this
Bernhard compared this pitiless, rhythmic language to “when some old grandmother…repeats every third sentence and every moment says ‘my identical twin.’”
His emphasis on the banality of the technique is telling, and calls to mind a passage from Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), about the trial of the primary logistical mastermind behind the Final Solution. Arendt observed how Adolf Eichmann “repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché)…. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think.” Bernhard may have shared this stylistic tic with Eichmann, but not the intellectual defect: instead of using language to mask the absence of thought and reflection, Bernhard’s banal repetitions are a willful plunge into the “internal processes” of the human spirit, “that which no one sees.” And the internal process that most captivated him was the human individual’s gorgeous, catastrophic romance with its own perfectibility. We believe it’s possible, we know it’s not possible, we believe it’s possible, we know it’s not possible; the spirit strives for perfection, tantalizes us with the very outline of perfection because it knows there is no such thing.
One of the earliest pieces of writing we have from Bernhard is a speech he gave at the age of 23 to honor the 100th birthday of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “He did not write on bond paper, but on stinking cheese packages—but precisely that was just poetry.” What Bernhard recognized in Rimbaud was that he had approached perfection via filth: “his literature was an only, indeed world-wide, historically free, unbound, unrefined religion, triumphant in dirt and tattered shoes.” This was to become Bernhard’s own counterintuitive method: what better way to cast off the Nazi legacy than by forcing its meaning in the opposite direction.
* * *
In 1941, on the advice of a doctor, Bernhard’s mother sent him to a Nazi home for children with behavioral problems, which stood in the middle of a large forest near Saalfeld, Germany, a day’s journey from Traunstein. The experience brought the young Bernhard into closer contact with the Nazi welfare state, an experience that would harden his grandfather-given suspicion of states in general and set him on a collision course with the stifling postwar Austrian welfare state in particular. On the first night in Saalfeld, he was “exposed” as a bed-wetter; the punishment was being denied breakfast and seeing the incriminating sheet hung on a line in the packed mess hall. “I had entered a new hell…. A German boy does not cry! And in the forest of Thuringia I did almost nothing but cry.” Bernhard visited the home again forty years later, around 1980. It was in communist East Germany and still serving the same function. “Nothing had changed,” he wrote in A Child, although the flag now flying outside was that of the German Democratic Republic.
Bernhard also saw a continuity from Nazi to post-Nazi in his native democratic Austria, so much so that from his humble beginnings as a bed-wetter, he became a Nestbeschmutzer, a nest-soiler—the name given him by his critics in the postwar Austrian establishment. He was infamous for his exuberant, vitriolic invectives against state and society in Austria, and in particular what he saw as the common ground between wartime Nazism and postwar cultural and political Catholicism, which were to him “nothing more than contagious diseases, mental illnesses.” In An Indication of the Cause (1977), Bernhard recounted his experience as an adolescent in Salzburg. “My home town is in reality a deadly disease,” he wrote, describing the “catholic-national-socialist atmosphere” in which he had grown up and attended school during and after the war. “Out of the so-called day room in which we were educated in National Socialism there emerged a chapel…and where the image of Hitler had once been on the wall there now hung a large cross…. The now daily…swallowed body of Christ was also nothing more than the daily so-called salute to Adolf Hitler.” Whereas the German writer Heinrich Böll, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, saw in a cross’s shadow on a school wall the persistence of a kind of dissent (the mark refuses to grow fainter even after it has been painted over by the Nazis), Bernhard saw the competition between cross and swastika as a false opposition. Their methods and ideals were essentially the same.
Above all, Bernhard perceived that the softening of power in postwar Austria did not necessarily lead to its diminution. He wrote about how society and state were still eager to make victims out of the “suffering, maimed and sick…. And the centuries have not changed this in the least, on the contrary, the methods have been refined and become thereby even more horrific.” In 1975, the year Bernhard wrote those words, the French historian Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish, which traced the transformation from physical to spiritual punishment over several centuries (as opposed to decades) but drew the same conclusion as Bernhard: the abandonment of torture and execution as methods of social control had merely transformed rather than attenuated the power of that control. “Is there a diminution of intensity? Perhaps. There is certainly a change of objective,” Foucault wrote. “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”
Bernhard’s assault against the soft stranglehold of societal and institutional control was a constant, categorical critique of the sort that frequently made his moderate German publisher uncomfortable. Unseld recounted a meeting with Bernhard in December 1982, in the Viennese apartment of Frau Maleta, a longtime friend of Bernhard’s and the wife of Alfred Maleta, the former president of the Austrian Republic. Maleta was of the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), a Christian-conservative party known as the “blacks.” Unseld: “And then his prognosis in the house of these blacks that the blacks did not stand a chance. But also the socialists did not stand a chance, and the greens did not have a chance—no one stood a chance, that was Bernhard as we all know him.” Bernhard’s tendency to reduce all politics (particularly Austria’s) to a single unmitigated disaster also manifests itself in his fiction and theater pieces, most notably the immensely controversial Heldenplatz, wherein the brother of a Jewish professor who has just leapt from a window to his death says: “in the past fifty years those in power/ have destroyed everything/ and it cannot be made right…. The socialists are no longer socialists/ the socialists today are essentially nothing more/ than Catholic national socialists…. The socialists today are capitalists.”
The correspondence between Bernhard and Unseld offers a rare glimpse of the nest-soiler’s true political sympathies. In 1972, he congratulated Unseld on the “birthday of your new country” after the Social Democrat Willy Brandt was reconfirmed as chancellor of Germany following a coalition crisis. And when the moderate Socialist François Mitterrand was elected president of France in 1981, Bernhard’s tone was ecstatic: “While in the human imagination every day and every hour a new world comes into being if we want it to, in politics it happens in such a spectacular way only a few times a century.”
But Bernhard is justifiably better known for his bile than for his accolades, and among the things he most despised were the mass market and state subventions for artistic production. His disdain for what he called the “assembly-line” approach to publishing accounts for some of the tension that runs throughout his correspondence with Unseld. Most of the so-called literature that is produced, Bernhard complained in a July 1975 letter, was “nothing more than a trash heap of spiritlessness [Geistlosigkeit]! It is all stupidity, shamelessness, charlatanry!… I’ll have nothing to do with this now obvious development in the direction of total dumbing down!” In April 1966, he wrote, “I’m making it difficult for you, just as I make it difficult and ever more difficult for myself…. I hate bad books, but for a good one I will push half of my fatherland into the abyss without the slightest hesitation.”
This was no exaggeration, for Bernhard quite regularly did as much. Addressing an abstract Austrian “young writer” in 1957, he declared that “Out of the nation of poets and thinkers has come a nation of insured, a nation of public servants and party members, a country of weaklings, a landscape of passionless file-carriers.” Nor did Bernhard’s position soften with age. As he told Krista Fleischmann in 1984, “I oppose all subventions, all forms of pension, and artists should not be paid a single Groschen [penny]…. Because then one can no longer write a good book…. Everything cultural here has been destroyed because everything is supported.” In state subventions for culture, Bernhard saw a force that supported mediocrity—a hundred and a thousand voices writing with a single pen—and marginalized, indeed pulverized, the exceptional.
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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.