Book: Warts in Vienna

Cosy Austria, land of skiing hols and boozy hospitality! But its finest modern writer, Thomas Bernhard, hated it like hell.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I read Thomas Bernhard literally in a fever, in bed with flu. This turned out to be the perfect Thomas Bernhard-reading state: troubled, flushed, dreamlike. Perhaps I'll like him less when I cool down. But I doubt it.

I've always wanted to read Thomas Bernhard, but it's not so easy in English. The University of Chicago Press has just released the 104 short, uneasy pieces of The Voice Imitator (translated by Kenneth J Northcott; pounds 14.25). To find most of his other translated books, you'll probably need a university bookshop or a library. Oxfordshire libraries only have eight Bernhards, two of them in German, and each in a different library. I probably got the flu tramping around Oxfordshire libraries. (This trick of repetition, and the obsession with illness, are both very Bernhard.)

Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, was an Austrian writer who loathed and despised Austria. This put him in excellent Austrian company, from Karl Kraus to Elias Canetti, but in a class of his own. He is outrageously, inexcusably rude; he exaggerates wildly, he is obsessed, deluded and mad; and every word he says is hilariously, tragically true. For example: "Politicians are murderers"; "One Chancellor-murderer leaves and the other murderer- Chancellor arrives"; justice is a "Nazi-Catholic man-crushing machine"; Austrians are "born opportunists", "crime-hiders" and complete shams. The Viennese is the image of the culture-lover, but, in reality, a complete philistine; the Austrian is the image of the loveable lover of life, but in reality "a cruel Nazi or a stupid Catholic", "the most dangerous person of all, more dangerous than the German, more dangerous than any other European, the Austrian is absolutely the most dangerous political person of all, as history has shown."

This is exhilarating not just because it's true. That would stir only Austrians, especially Austrians like me or my family - ex-Austrians, expelled Austrians, which is to say Austrian Jews. (Though everyone suffered when the jackboot replaced the Sachertorte, not least the British.) But Bernhard's Ubertreibungs-kunst (exaggeration art) and Schimpfkanonaden (complaint canonades) go far beyond his hated native land.

Bernhard hates everything. He hates teachers, who "stuff their students with official garbage like geese with corn"; he hates doctors, especially famous doctors, and most especially psychiatrists ("the real devils of our age"). He hates bad newspapers (ie all Austrian newspapers) and bad art (ie all Austrian art). "The painters paint garbage, the composers compose garbage, the writers write garbage." Anyone for the Turner?

He hates beauty - the beauty of Salzburg, the most Nazi city in Austria, the beauty of nature, which also hides "malignancy and ruthlessness". In fact, he hates life: "People think they're bringing children into the world. But they're bringing grown-ups into the world, not children. They're giving birth to a horrible fat sweaty innkeeper, or a mass murderer... But they don't see him, so that Nature can have her way, and the whole damn shit can carry on."

This should be depressing, but it isn't. It's not depressing because it's full of energy and wit. It's not depressing because it's absurd, it makes you laugh even as your nose is rubbed in the horror (people always say Kafka does this, but not to me). It's not depressing because there's no nonsense about What's To Be Done. There's nothing to be done; life is a terminal disease.

That won't do, of course, for the real and dreary business of making the best of things, about which Thomas Bernhard never had the remotest idea. We need other writers for that. But he was a genius at making the worst of things, and we need that, too.

His history explains how he came to be like this. The illegitimate son of a father he never knew and a mother he loathed, he lived from 11 to 14 in Nazi (as they were then) children's homes. At 18, he contracted TB, which gave him the chronic lung and heart disease that killed him at only 58. He shared, he said, the key experience of our age: the experience of the survivor, the living dead, who survives his own destruction.

That was centrally, of course, the experience of Europe's Jews; and Bernhard identified more and more with them. This made him especially savage about Austria's Nazi past, which everyone else (with Allied help) was busy covering up until a very few years ago. Of all the sore points between Bernhard and Austria, this was perhaps the sorest. It culminated in the fury with which his last play was greeted in 1988: Heldenplatz, the story of a Jewish family who emigrate from Austria 50 years after the Anschluss.

Bernhard's championship of Austria's Jews is, no doubt, one source of my own sympathy for him. But it, too, of course, goes far beyond the personal. There's nothing harder than to stand up against your own kind; and Bernhard never did (or wrote about) anything else. No wonder it drove him mad - or that he had to be mad to do it.

The Voice Imitator originally appeared in 1978. Its 104 pieces include several Oesterreich-tiraden (Austria tirades), and large numbers of murders, suicides, and episodes of madness. Many seem to buzz around the question of identity - fixed identities, changing identities, and exchanges of identities, like monkeys who feed visitors to the zoo. My favourites were the three playwrights furious over their mistreated plays, especially the one who "demanded that the people in the audiences, nearly 5000 of them... return to him what they had seen."

The Voice Imitator, in other words, is a good introduction to the surreal side of Bernhard, and to his absurdist style - long, exaggeratedly precise sentences, repeated with slight variations. This hyper-rationality only makes it all the more terrifyingly plain how irrational the world is; it is also, of course, another form of Teuton-baiting. But it will not give you the real flavour of Bernhard unless you already know him.

Read Wittgenstein's Nephew (my favourite), Old Masters, Cutting Timber, The Cheap-Eaters (in Quartet), or Extinction (in Penguin). And write to the editor of Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics and say we must have Thomas Bernhard (this is my letter).

In England, we have had nothing like Kraus, Canetti and Bernhard since the 18th century, with a writer such as Swift or an artist such as Hogarth. Perhaps our crimes have become paler. But Bernhard may present a danger to the English reader. He needed - as a literary device and, perhaps, as a private fantasy - an emigrants' heaven to oppose to the hell of home. Using the biography of his model Austrian genius, Wittgenstein, he chose England. We must remember that by "England" Bernhard does not mean here, or anywhere on the face of the earth. When we read Thomas Bernhard, we are all Austrians.

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