Yesterday Vienna's Burgtheater played host to Suhrkamp Verlag's sold-out book presentation of Thomas Bernhard's newest work Meine Preise (My Prizes). Burgtheater actor Gert Voss was on hand to read three chapters from the book. These were Der Julius-Campe-Preis, Der Grillparzerpreis and that jaw-breaking tongue twister Die Ehrengabe des Kulturkreises des Bundesverbandes der Deutschen Industrie prize.
What these prizes are called, or known as, is more or less by the way. What is more important about the book are the insider details that the author reveals about the business of prize giving and receiving; what his jaundiced and penetrating eye perceives to be the reality behind the gloss of literary back-scratching.
During his all too short career this thorn-in-the-flesh, this nest-soiler, this at-odds-with-the-catholic-fascist-political-establishment, this Austrian James Joyce, this multi-talented satirist, playwright, novelist, poet and master of the German written word received thirteen literary awards, and in Meine Preise he writes about nine of them.
Thomas Bernhard died after a long and troublesome illness at his home in Ohlsdorf, a small village in the Austrian Lake District, in February 1989. He left behind amongst his papers a typescript for Meine Preise on the front sheet of which was the scribbled note: 9 prizes from 12 or 13. And this is the book, marking the twentieth year of his passing, that is now published. It may generate controversy and it may open old wounds. It is an entertaining and informative document and it will surely be, in Austria and Germany, a best-seller.
The prizes are not listed in chronological order but rather in the way that artists place certain colours next to each other to enhance contrasts and bring out the desired quality in the colour; this arrangement gives much to the book as one prize-giving is contrasted with the next in the reader's mind.
The first story, Der Grillparzerpreis tells how Bernhard, who always went about in his trademark pullover and slacks, decided to buy a charcoal grey suit, a shirt, a tie and a pair of socks from Sir Anthony for the ceremony only two hours before the ceremony and how he took his old clothes and his old aunt to the ceremony and the subsequent chaos that resulted because nobody recognized him.
Bernhard brings the tale with great humour and skill to the point, and the point as in many of Bernhard's works is not always where you'd expect to find it. For instance the story of the Austrian State Prize for Literature is tucked away in the middle of the book. This prize giving caused uproar and outrage; politicians, VIP's, and invited guests stormed out of the auditorium during Bernhard's acceptance speech. The scandal, as it came to be called, made front page headlines in the national newspapers.
In Der Grillparzerpreis following the presentation of the award for the play Ein Fest für Boris (A Party for Boris) and the playing of closing music by the Vienna Philharmonic the following took place:
After a time the minister looked around and asked with inimitable arrogance and stupidity in her voice: yes, so where is our little poet then? I was standing quite near to her, but I didn't venture to identify myself. I took my aunt and we left the auditorium, unhindered and without anyone noticing [...] outside our friends were waiting for us. With these friends we went to eat at the so-called Gösser Bierklinik. A philosopher, an architect, their wives and my brother. Loud and jolly people.
The twentieth anniversary of Thomas Bernhard's death is being marked in Vienna with a series of performances and readings at the Burgtheater, and at two smaller theatres, the Vestibül and the Kasino.