Though still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989 at the age of 57, is widely recognized as one of the foremost figures in contemporary European literature. Celebrated in Europe since the early 1980s, his unmistakable prose style has marked a number of talented younger Austrian and German writers such as Lilian Faschinger (Magdalena the Sinner), Elfriede Jelinek (The Piano Teacher), Hans-Ulrich Treichel (Lost) and, perhaps most obviously, W.G. Sebald in his last novel, Austerlitz. The monomaniacal protagonists, the relentlessly unparagraphed stream of reported speech, the architectural rigor of even his wildest sentences–these peculiarities of Bernhard’s prose have worked their way into the interstices of new literary forms in the German-speaking world and beyond. Even in the United States, where Bernhard’s macabre humor and disregard for novelistic conventions have prevented a broader reception, he is appreciated as a writer’s writer, a kindred spirit of Paul Auster, Harold Brodkey, William Gass and Jonathan Franzen.
Despite this international recognition, Bernhard is deeply Austrian in a way that few outsiders can fully appreciate; even his hatred of Austria, which was deep and longstanding, was typically Austrian. Like the Viennese turn-of-the-century political journalist and poet Karl Kraus, or the nineteenth-century regional playwright Johann Nestroy, Bernhard was a satirist whose literary genius needed the foibles and dirt of his contemporaries in order to take flight; a childlike rage and humor propelled his sentences. Sebald, who grew up in a region of Bavaria that is quite close to Bernhard’s world, described the writer and his literary alter-egos as “nearly blasphemous” in their attacks on Austrian society and politics, which corresponded “neither to a model of engaged criticism nor to any concept of artistic autonomy” and therefore provoked the outrage of “conservatives and progressives in equal measure.” Deeply Austrian as well is Bernhard’s sense of disgust for power–especially of government and family–which always appears in his work as dirty and corrupt. In this respect he most resembles Kafka (another Austrian) and his contemporary Peter Handke, who once wrote that his own disgust for power “has nothing moral about it, [but] is a fact of my humanity, a quality of every cell in my body.”
Bernhard’s provocations were legion. His few public appearances to accept prizes for his work inevitably culminated in brief but devastating denunciations of whatever official institution was about to honor him. His play Heldenplatz (“Heroes’ Square”), commissioned for the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Austria’s national Burgtheater in 1888, focused instead on the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, when thousands of Austrians jubilantly greeted the arrival of Hitler’s troops into the capital. Politicians tried to cancel the performance and expel the author from the country. Once he suggested that all mothers should have their ears chopped off. “I said that,” he explained in an interview, “because it’s a mistake if people think they’re bringing children into the world. That’s too easy. They’re having adults, not babies. They give birth to a sweaty, disgusting, pot-bellied innkeeper or a mass murderer, that’s who they bring into the world, not children.” Even in death Bernhard managed to slap his fellow Austrians in the face, having previously stipulated in his will that no performances of his work could take place in Austria, “however this State might constitute itself.” (Loopholes have since been found to get around this prohibition.)
Three Novellas, deftly translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott, provides a fascinating microcosm of the madhouse in which Bernhard found himself confined. His Austria is not Sound-of-Music Land or the alpine vistas of the travel agencies. Nature is reduced to a rotting tree or the frozen carcasses of deer buried in an avalanche; provincial life is unremittingly vulgar; state bureaucrats are meanspirited and stupid; the rare cultured individual is isolated and obsessed. At the same time, these early novellas supply us with a blueprint for the distinctive narrative style that Bernhard refined to perfection in later novels like Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Correction, The Loser and his last novel, Extinction. They all make use of the prototypically Bernhardian narrator–unnamed, crafty, obsessive, above all prolix–caught in the typically Bernhardian situation of having to relate the details of an acquaintance’s recent suicide, which has threatened his own existence.