Friday, 12 December 2008

Thomas Bernhard, Alte Meister

At the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Literatur (Austrian Society for Literature) yesterday there was a presentation of a new edition of the late Thomas Bernhard's novel Alte Meister (Old Master) published by the Frankfurt publishing house Suhrkamp. Bernhard's works are not published in Austria. Never have been. There was even a period after he died, nearly twenty years ago, when his plays were not allowed to be performed in Austria. This was by his express wish according to his Last Will and Testament.
Bernhard has a long history of courting controversy with the Austrian establishment which he has always seen as being full of old Nazis. During his lifetime his famous play Heldenplatz brought matters to a head. There were protests and demonstrations on the opening night in Vienna and Bernhard was labelled as a bird who soils his nest. Heldenplatz was the scene of an address by Adolf Hitler from the balcony of the Hofburg Palace to adoring crowds during what is called by the average Austrian in the street the Nazi time. These days the palace houses the offices of the Bundespräsident of the 2nd Republic.
The book reading from Alte Meister was by the wonderful articulate actor and friend of Thomas Bernhard, Martin Schwab. The man seems to have been around for ever. There was a tear in his eye as he ended what was an emotional reading. Alte Meister is on the surface the story of a man who goes into an art museum every second day to admire a Tintereto painting of a man with a white beard.-
One day an Englishman from Wales turns up and claims to have the same painting hanging above his bed in his house in Wales. Is one of the paintings a fake? Could it be that the painting in the Vienna museum is a forgery? But that question is only a metaphor. It is what is behind the question that is the point. Subsequent events in the story bring a scathing attack on the Austrian establishment and its bosom friend the Roman Catholic Church. It ends with a visit to the theatre where Bernhard's play Heldenplatz was controversially premiered. This time the play is called Zerbrochenen Krug (Broken Jug).
It was a great pleasure, indeed an honour, to speak with Martin Schwab at the end of the proceedings. The man is a gentleman. An actor of the old school. A rare bird in these times. A man worthy of respect. An old master one might say.
Purchased: One copy of Alte Meister signed by Thomas Bernhard's brother Peter Fabian. One copy of Holzfällen by Thomas Bernhard.


  1. One of my regrets PiR is that I have never learned another language sufficiently well to be able to converse naturally in it - how I envy you with two languages at your finger tips.

  2. Not exactly at my finger tips but I struggle on. I think you have to live in a place to get nuances.

  3. I should have said that I prefer to translate Krug as jug rather than as pitcher since it keeps the sound the syllable count the same. Many of Bernhard's writings have a repetitive pulse like quality that I am loath to throw away for the sake of following the fashion.


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