Who is Thomas Bernhard?

A writer who continues to rise in prominence
Thomas Bernhard
'Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth.'

Thomas Bernhard, Gathering Evidence
Who is Thomas Bernhard? The name now rings a bell, but it never did before. I try to remember the first time I heard it, but no luck, it’s impossible to trace. I knew that he was a writer from the start, so I try to think back and remember a context, but nothing. Perhaps I saw his name in a newspaper review, or an essay somewhere? No. Maybe I came across a battered old paperback in a second-hand bookshop? Possibly, but it’s unlikely. I’ve been trying to recall my first sighting for some time now, or my first hearing, but it’s no use. I can’t remember any of his books, or any of their titles, I can only remember his name.

It’s strange that since hearing his name once, I’ve heard it a dozen times. An odd phenomenon, that. Like a new word, I can suddenly hear it everywhere. There are internet blogs that light up at the mention of Thomas Bernhard. Critical theorist George Steiner has commended him as ‘one of the masters of contemporary European fiction’; he is ranked among Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett as a virtuoso. Praise indeed. But Bernhard’s relative anonymity has a root: the novels of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard remained, for the most part, untranslated and enclosed until fairly recently. It is only in the last ten years, as new editions of his work has been published in English for the first time, that Bernhard has garnered a wider reputation, and a growing public acceptance.

Thomas Bernhard’s novels are characterized by a persistent restlessness, and a propensity towards reflection. He has often been criticized as a writer who focuses too much on the morbid elements of human existence: an effort to accept and express historical trauma; a fraught interrogation of individual identity, or what it means to ‘be’; and a lasting preoccupation with death. None of these elements constitute ideal holiday-reading material, but they were never supposed to. Bernhard’s writing approaches serious issues from a number of difficult perspectives, and attempts a working-through of these issues. And his work is not without humour, either. It would be unfair to dismiss Thomas Bernhard as a hopeless miserablist. There is even space for affirmation in Bernhard’s work, the affirmation of life, even, if the reader cares to see it.

It’s difficult to pin down who Thomas Bernhard really is, or was. Although he wrote a collection of short autobiographical pieces, published together in English as Gathering Evidence, Bernhard seems to reveal little of himself to the public. This is ironic considering that he was candid and open with those who approached him, and articulate about the issues that concerned him most. But the fact remains that little is known about his private life, and Gitta Honegger’s biography, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, often falls silent at key moments.

Thomas Bernhard as a young man
What we do know from the biography, and from interviews with Bernhard himself, is that he led a difficult and complicated life. From an early age, his identity was marked by a split between his parents, he lost his father shortly afterwards under mysterious circumstances. It is also known that Bernhard contracted tuberculosis at the age of nineteen, and was told to expect an end to his life.

Somewhat miraculously, Bernhard survived the ordeal, but never fully recovered. He began to write as an act of celebration and relief, an expression of his victory over death. Yet at the same time there was a newfound awareness in the young writer of his own frailty, and his precarious reliance on the body. Bernhard ultimately wrote in affirmation of his own existence, while always aware that the existence itself was, at best, tenuous. As Stephen Mitchelmore puts it:
‘Victory was the result of a decision to become himself, to live despite all that suffocated him, even though it was futile. I say "futile" because all that suffocated him also provided the oxygen. It is no coincidence that, despite the oppressive details, there is a sense of freedom pulsing out of the pages of Gathering Evidence. Later, the existential energy of Bernhard's neurasthenic narrators will also emerge from this outrageous, paradoxical act of will.’
And so, despite the grim realities of a failing body and a dwindling consciousness, despite the existential angst, and despite the nihilistic suicides that pepper Bernhard’s novels, there is a music and a poetry in his prose that makes it compulsive and readable. As George Steiner says in the preface to Bernhard’s Correction, there is a ‘sombre magic’ about the novel that sparks a ‘bracing, energizing afterglow.’

I don’t think I will ever know who Thomas Bernhard is, but I have committed the names of his books to memory. I suggest you do the same.

Further reading:
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