Sunday, 9 February 2014

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) Gathering Evidence

On 12th February this year it will be 25 years since my favourite Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard died. I plan to visit his grave, which is not far from here, sometime this week to stand for a moment in reflective silence. 

I'm currently rereading the David McLintock translation the novel Concrete (in German Beton).

A lot of Austrians don't like Bernard and the reasons so many of Bernhard's fellow Austrians don't like him are not hard to find. Bernhard exposes their weaknesses and also the roots thereof. He delves into their secret dark corners. He changes their names and writes about them and their scandals in his thinly disguised novels. He provokes them until they have to react. 

When I came to Austria the great theater director Claus Peymann was here, blown in like a breath of fresh air, and so I went to the Burg to watch the Thomas Bernhard plays, as well as the others, in order to improve my knowledge of German. I particularly enjoyed the Bernhard comedies. I instantly became a Bernhard fan.

I also went to Thomas Bernhard book readings, Thomas Bernhard exhibitions and many Thomas Bernhard events in Vienna and Upper Austria and Ohlsdorf which was Thomas Bernhard's home. Now and then there were only a handful of people at these events but I was always happy that I was one of them.

I remember one exhibition in a Vienna Palais where I had all three rooms to myself for over an hour, and then two or three other people came in. I found that particular Bernhard exhibition so fascinating that a week later I went again.

This second time the Palais was even busier. At least six other people passed through my space during the couple of hours I was in there. In particular I recall the sudden presence of a disturbingly loud elderly couple caused me some annoyance. I think I was reading slanted newspaper accounts under glass of the anti-Bernhard anti-Heldenplatz demonstrations.

Thomas Bernhard is an Austrian writer but he was born on a trawler in Holland where his mother had fled to avoid the angst and trauma of giving birth to an illegitimate child in her Roman Catholic homeland. Thomas was brought up by his grandparents who doted on him.

In his youth he succumbed to pneumonia as a result of unhealthy working conditions. He was sent to a hospital for the terminally ill and the elderly. He subsequently wrote of his early life and his hospital experiences in a book, translated by David McLintock, titled Gathering Evidence. The following insightful quotations are to be found next to the five chapter headings in that book:

No one has found or will ever find. - Voltaire 
(Chapter 1 - A Child)

Two thousand people every year attempt to put an end to their lives in the province of Salzburg. A tenth of these suicide attempts are successful. This means that in Austria, which together with Hungary and Sweden has the highest suicide rate in the world, Salzburg holds the national record. - Salzburger Nachrichten, 6th May 1975
(Chapter 2 - An Indication of the Cause)

It is an irregular uncertain motion, perpetual, patternless and without aim. - Montaigne
(Chapter 3 - The Cellar: An Escape)

Being unable to overcome death, misery and uncertainty, men have agreed, in order to be happy, not to think about them. - Pascal 
(Chapter 4 - Breath - A Decision)

Every sickness can be called a sickness of the mind. - Novalis
(Chapter 5 - In the Cold)

To complete the story I turn to Martin Chalmers' introduction to Thomas Bernhard's novel Concrete (Beton): 

"Bernhard, who had often been close to death since contracting pleurisy  and tuberculosis at the age of eighteen, did not want his burial to be an occasion for another kind of humiliation. He was determined that there should be no hypocritical gestures  of reconciliation over his dead body by an Austrian state and an Austrian literary establishment."

On the 16th February when the news came that Thomas Bernhard had died four days previously it was already too late for the hypocrites. As per the script there were only three people present at the funeral. 

I have now been to Vienna's Grinzing Friedhof to stand at the grave of Thomas Bernhard. I spent a few moments reflecting on his life and its relationship to mine. I concluded that the graveyard was home to the ashes and bones of several of "The Ignorant and the Insane" (Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige in German) which is the title of the Thomas Bernhard play I was going to see at the Burg after visiting the graveyard. I took several photos of Bernhard's last resting place. I think the above are the two best.

Gustav Mahler's grave was nearby so I went there too. A friend took the photo below. I placed myself alongside the stark headstone to give you an idea of scale.


  1. A strange life to be sure Gwil - I have not heard of this writer.

  2. If you can get hold of his book My Prizes it's a wonderful introduction.

  3. I live in rural East Anglia. We have high rates of suicide, the misunderstood, family secrets, silence, embarrassed speaking too loud followed by silence and then hollow laughing. And then it repeats. It is slowly diluting with each generation. I see Bernhard here.

  4. Rachel, today in my paper there was a report of 800,000 years old human footprints being found in bedrock on a beach in Norfolk. What a sensation!
    Today is Alice Walker's birthday. I have a link to her blog and there you can read her new poem about spying dedicated to Snowden and view a 17 minute video from near the so-called statute of liberty (the NY one) by David Icke.
    From what you say East Anglia sounds much like the land of another of my favourite writers the Welsh priest R S Thomas with his hero Prytherch and god's failed experiments as he calls them. Have you read him I wonder.

  5. A grave has appeared here today while I have been at work.

    It is very rare to speak of Alice Walker and David Icke in the same paragraph.

    I do not wish to read her poem about Snowden, I will leave that to the Guardian.

    I have not read R S Thomas. East Anglia is what it is. We do not mess around.

  6. Rachel.

    Another part of the same grave will now appear as if by magic.

    I do rare things.

    Would Alice Walker's Snowden poem ever appear in the Guardian?

    Wales is Wales and there we take advantage of our freedom to mess around since they now allow us to drink and mess around on Sundays. My dad had to go on his motorbike to England on Sundays for his messing around. But you are right I walked much of the East Anglia coastal path and didn't see anyone messing around. Very orderly place it is.

  7. Flowers and a new grave with a man have appeared today. At first I was puzzled and so I had to go back to the words. Is there to be no end?

  8. The end is nigh ;) as they say on their placards at the Epsom Derby. In fact the end is now. It is the end of the end. Heimo von Doderer I left off so as not to puzzle you completely.


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