The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Thomas Bernhard Prose (1967)

 

‘I prefer to know everything. And I always try to rob people and get everything that is in them out of them. As long as you can do so without the others recognizing it. When people discover that you want to rob them they shut their doors. Like the doors are shut when someone suspect comes near. But if nothing else is possible you can also break in. Everyone has some cellar window open. That also can be quite appealing.’ — Thomas Bernhard

‘The neuroticism and cruelty on display in these seven newly translated short stories leave you short of breath but entirely absorbed – or, more accurately, entrapped. The theme of imprisonment runs through the collection, and Thomas Bernhard forces us to confront his characters’ sense of confinement with dizzying, claustrophobic whirls of syntax. We too feel the craze-inducing “sleeplessness” (the word hypnotically repeated throughout the narrative) of the new tutor in “Two Tutors”, and grasp the pain of Georg’s deformity in “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son”: “Every morning he woke up in the firmly locked cell of a new age-old day.” What translator Martin Chalmers describes as Bernhard’s “verbal logjam” evokes madness and suffering to the extent that we experience them ourselves.

‘The stories are preoccupied with mental illness and a sense of disappointment at the world. Bernhard’s loathing of the everyday is palpable. Vienna is viciously referred to as a “cemetery” with “silent megalomania”. The city is busier but no less isolating than jail, physically imprisoning its inhabitants and mirroring their mental states. Rural Austria doesn’t fare any better; the narrator in “Jauregg” spits blood about a small mining community: “general exhaustion prevails and a general will to nothing.” And while one tale, “Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?”, is specifically about the theatre, thespian imagery is used throughout the collection to convey the crudeness of modern life, “a repulsive operetta”.

‘In theme and style, Prose, which was originally published in 1967, closely echoes Bernard novels such as Old Masters and Concrete. It provides an excellent introduction to his work, or a satisfying reading experience in itself for those who like angst in small doses.’ — Mina Holland

‘The collection of Thomas Bernhard’s prose, aptly titled Prose (Seagull Books), should be anticipated as a major literary event (or at least as a book to celebrate). Whenever readers of the future want to recommend a Bernhard to start with, I hope that it will be this one. It’s possibly the most deranged, compact and dangerous performance I’ve seen Bernhard give, a performance somehow polyphonic within Bernhard’s singular voice that’s always, to often brutal and hilarious effect, dashing behind itself only to expose its weaknesses again and again. Here Bernhard is a tightrope-walker like no other.’ — Alec Niedenthal

 

Further

* Buy Thomas Bernhard’s ‘Prose’
* Thomas Bernhard Website (in English)
* The Thomas Bernhard Foundation (in German)
* Thomas Bernhard Website (in Spanish)
* Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Asta Scheib
* ‘Heidegger, That Ridiculous Nazi Philistine’ by Thomas Bernhard
* ‘My Thomas Bernhard Obsession’ @ More Intelligent Life
* ‘Reading Thomas Bernhard’ @ Context
* Thomas Bernhard’s poetry reviewed @ The New York Sun
* Robert Kelly’s ‘Letter to Thomas Bernhard
* Dumbledore’s death in the style of Thomas Bernhard

 

Media


Thomas Bernhard: Three Days (1970) – ‘You talk to people, you are alone.’


Thomas Bernhard – 1988


Thomas Bernhard in Mallorca in 1981


Thomas Bernhard’s house


Thomas Bernhard grinding

 

Gallery

 

Interview
(from signandsight.com)

 

Thomas Bernhard: So, I’ll just keep reading the paper, you don’t mind, do you?

Werner Wögerbauer: Well, no, by all means.

TB: You’ll have to ask something and then you’ll get an answer.

WW: Does the fate of your books interest you?

TB: No, not really.

WW: What about translations for example?

TB: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

WW: What happens to your books in other countries.

TB: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

WW: Reading your books, one gets the impression that you see no hope whatsoever in (eroticism).

TB: That’s a stupid question because nothing can live without eroticism, not even insects, they need it too. Only if you have a totally primitive notion of the erotic, of course, that’s no good, because I’m always at pains to go beyond the primitive.

WW: What kind of intellectual aims do you…

TB: These are all questions that can’t be answered because no one asks themselves that sort of thing. People don’t have aims. Young people, up to 23, they still fall for that. A person who has lived five decades has no aims, because there’s no goal.

WW: Many of your readers, including so-called highbrow critics, have repeatedly subjected your books to negative readings.

TB: I really couldn’t give a damn how people read my work…

WW: When people ring you up and say they’d like to commit suicide with you?

TB: People hardly ever ring up anymore, thank God.

 

Book

Thomas Bernhard Prose
(Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press)

‘The Austrian playwright, novelist, and poet Thomas Bernhard (1931–89) is acknowledged as among the major writers of our time. The seven stories in this collection capture Bernhard’s distinct darkly comic voice and vision—often compared to Kafka and Musil—commenting on a corrupted world.

‘First published in German in 1967, these stories were written at the same time as Bernhard’s early novels Frost, Gargoyles, and The Lime Works, and they display the same obsessions, restlessness, and disarming mastery of language. Martin Chalmer’s outstanding translation, which renders the work in English for the first time, captures the essential personality of the work. The narrators of these stories lack the strength to do anything but listen and then write, the reader in turn becoming a captive listener, deciphering the traps laid by memory—and the mere words, the neverending words with which we try to pin it down. Words that are always close to driving the narrator crazy, but yet, as Bernhard writes “not completely crazy.”’ — University of Chicago Press

Excerpt

Two Tutors

While the new tutor has until now remained silent during our lunchtime walk, which to me has already become a habit, today from the start he had a need to talk to me. Like people who for a long time have said nothing and suddenly feel it to be a terrible lack, as something alarming to themselves and the whole of society linked to them, he explained to me all at once, agitatedly, that, really, he always wanted to speak, but could not speak, talk. I was no doubt familiar with the circumstance, that there are people, in whose presence it is impossible to speak . . . In my presence, it was so difficult for him to say anything that he was afraid of every word, he did not know why, he could investigate it, but such an effort would probably vex him over far too long a period of time. Especially now, at the beginning of term, under the pressure of hundreds of pupils, all of them hostile to discipline, under the pressure of the ever coarsening season, he could not afford the least vexation. “I permit myself absolutely nothing now,” he said, “I consist one hundred per cent only of my personal difficulties.” Although or precisely because I was a person who, so it appeared to him, had the greatest understanding for him, at my side he was always condemned, at best, as he put it, to make “ridiculous, indeed embarrassing remarks,” yes, or condemned to absolute silence, which caused him continuous torment. For weeks now we have been going for walks side by side and haven’t conducted a single conversation. It is true that we, the new tutor and myself, the old one, have been able, until this moment, to manage a single conversation; the remarks on the unusual weather conditions, on colours, the egoism of nature, abrupt excesses on the surface of the Alpine foothills, on books, read and unread, intentions, lack of intentions, on the catastrophic lack of interest of all pupils in their studies, on our own lack of interest, on eating and sleeping, truth and lies, chiefly, however, on the most shabby neglect, on the part of those responsible, of the forest paths on which we walk, are not conversations; our remarks destroy our will to converse, our remarks, like remarks altogether, the “attempts at capturing the moment,” as he calls them, have nothing to do with the idea of conversation. Here on the Mönchsberg we make, as we walk, walking and thinking, each for himself and completely isolated, hundreds of remarks, but we have not yet succeeded in having a conversation, we do not tolerate a conversation. Because we are who we are, there is no lack of topics of conversation, but we do not permit ourselves to deploy them for purposes of pure entertainment. Since the beginning of term we walk with each other, beside each other, as if above the dreadful school accumulations, and have not conducted a single conversation. We prevent conversation as if we loathe it. Conversation as the expression of the most absurd human miseries is not possible for us. As far as conversation is concerned we are both such characters who must avoid it in order to save ourselves in a totalitarian madness from being frightened to death. Today, too, no conversation came about. We walk well outside the town and above it and in the middle of it through a grotesque alpine limestone flora, constantly at the mercy of critical observation and constantly making critical observations. The soothing effect of a conversation—we do not permit ourselves such a thing. In fact what the new tutor during our walk today had initially taken the liberty of judging a “confession,” he already described, after only a couple of sentences, as if he wanted from the outset to prevent any intervention on my part in this “confession,” to make it impossible, as merely a remark. Today’s remark, however, is of the greatest importance. With respect to his person, and with respect above all to the relationship between him and myself, today’s remark by the new tutor proves to be the most revealing.

The new tutor joined me under the windows of the great dormitory after morning lessons. He was pale from overexertion, but did not complain. His undemanding nature occupied my thoughts in the most painful way as we rapidly made progress, finally coming almost to the walls of the brewery, where he suddenly began to talk of his earliest childhood and then immediately of the sleeplessness, which is very closely related to his earliest childhood. This inconsiderately inborn sleeplessness was worsening indeed with time and there was no remedy for it. It was absurd to suddenly say now, that he suffered from sleeplessness, everything was absurd, and that his sleeplessness was that absolute brain- and body- destroying sleeplessness, the cause of death for him, for his confession, however, “for what follows,” it was, he could no longer remain silent about it, indispensable.

“If you can imagine,” he said, “that already as a child I had to lie in bed awake for ten, twelve nights in a row, dead tired, without being able to sleep. An adult,” he said, “can, thanks to his intelligence, control his sleeplessness, make it ridiculous. Not a child. A child is at the mercy of sleeplessness.” Above the New Gate, without as usual looking down vertically on the town, we turned, as every day, to the right, not to the left: he wants to turn right, turns right, so I also turn right, because at this point above the New Gate he has always turned right, he now no longer dares turn left, I think . . . It is up to me, one day to turn left, then he too will turn left, follow me, because he is the weaker of the two of us. . . For the same reason I have now for weeks been following him to the right . . . Why? The next time I’ll simply turn left, then he too will turn left . . . The time when I can be useful to him when as usual I allow him to turn right, follow him to the right, is over, I think, now I only harm him, when I let him turn right and follow him . . . He no longer has the strength all at once to turn left . . . Shortly after the fork he said: “What I said to you regarding my sleeplessness is related to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment, in which, as you know, I was employed until the beginning of the holidays.” He said, “All my life I have led only an awful life, and it is my right to lead an awful life, and this awful life is my sleeplessness . . . But now, the story which led to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment. Like all my stories it begins with my inability to sleep. I was unable to fall asleep. I take many drugs, but no drug helps me any more. I had,” he said, “walked for hours along the north bank with my students. We were all tired. My eyes open, incapable of distracting myself by reading, at the mercy of my lifelong sleeplessness, I was gripped by the most despicable thoughts and said to myself again and again: they sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep . . . This boarding school silence, this dreadful silence emanating from the dormitories . . . When everyone is asleep, only I am not sleeping, I am not . . . This tremendous capital in the young people’s dormitories, I thought . . . The Föhn conditions which stuff sleep into people and suck sleep out of people . . . The pupils sleep, I don’t sleep . . . These endless nights when heart and spirit die . . . Profoundly aware that there is no remedy for my sleeplessness, I was unable to fall asleep . . . Just imagine, I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks . . . There are people who maintain they don’t sleep, but they do. There are some who maintain they haven’t slept for weeks, and have always slept excellently . . . But I really haven’t slept for weeks! For weeks, for months! As my scribblings, my notes, show, I haven’t slept for months. I have a thick notebook in which I keep a record of my sleeplessness. Every hour of the night in which I don’t sleep is marked by a black stroke, every hour of the night in which I do is marked by a black dot. This notebook,” said the new tutor, “contains thousands of black strokes and only five or six dots. You will not doubt, I assume, now that you know me, the accuracy with which I keep a record of my sleeplessness. And that night, on account of which I am now once again incensed to such a degree that I fear it could give offence, indeed give you offence, that night after a day full of annoyances, as far as my pupils are concerned, incessant, juvenile nonsense, insufferableness, the unyieldingly perverse rock face of Hafelekar in front of me, I was unable to sleep, unable to fall asleep, not even by enlisting quite the most embarrassing pretexts in my already catastrophic choice of reading . . . I leafed,” he said, “quite randomly through Fear and Trembling and through Either/Or and through the Pascalian thought particles, as if these were popular masochistic pharmacology books for cases of quite minor imbecility . . . Then suddenly, at about two in the morning, at the moment at which my tiredness could overcome my sleeplessness, I suddenly felt it: the tiredness began to get the better of the sleeplessness, I fell asleep, really, I fell asleep, although for a long time, as you know, I had no longer thought of being able to sleep, had no longer dared think . . . But hardly had I fallen asleep, than I woke up again—and was woken by an animal, by an animal that had come out of the forest . . . This course of events had already repeated itself for weeks by then . . . I wake up and I hear the animal, for weeks I hear the animal under my window . . . in the snow . . . every night at the same time I hear under my window the animal in the snow . . . I don’t know what kind of an animal it is, I don’t have the strength to get up and go to the window and look out and down . . . Even now I don’t know what kind of an animal it was . . . The course of events, that I was unable to fall asleep, but then fell asleep nevertheless and after that was immediately woken up by the animal, was repeated, as is shown by my sleeplessness notes, for exactly thirty-six nights. On the thirty-seventh night, the same course of events: I was unable to sleep, unable to fall asleep, and, while I am still humiliated in the most terrible way by the thought of being unable to sleep, of not having fallen asleep, I must, as in the previous thirty-six nights have fallen asleep nevertheless, because I suddenly woke up, awoken by the animal which has stepped onto the snow beneath my window which, as you know, is always open, even in the most severe winter . . . Looking for food . . . Then,” said the new tutor, “I got up and released the safety catch on the revolver which, throughout my career as a tutor I always have under my pillow, and shot the animal in the head.”

We were now both looking down on the square in front of the brewery. “Naturally, everyone woke up,” said the new tutor, “the pupils first, then the tutors, the professors, the headmaster. I observed, I listened, as they pulled the shot animal away from the draw-well, along the wall. The tutors dragged it into the building. I heard my name called. A good shot. Naturally, I instantly handed in my resignation. A good shot. I detest Innsbruck. Here, in Salzburg, I already observe now, however, after only the shortest time, the signs of a new calamity. I expressly ask you, dear colleague,” said the new tutor, “for forgiveness.”
—-

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** David, Hi. I’ve never watched ‘Dr. Who’, not even an excerpt as far as I can remember. So Tom Baker is a total blank. I’ve only been arrested twice, unless I’m spacing out, both for boring reasons a million years ago. Once for not paying my parking tickets, once for growing pot in my backyard. Every time I ever did something actually arrest worthy, I got lucky. How boring. Good thing the Dream Police are just a song though. ** Bill, Hey. From what I can tell from following his feed and exchanging the odd message, Steve is doing quite well. Lives out in nature, I cannot remember where. Maybe Oregon? Naturally my mind is instantly imagining how I can make a Hell Banquet ASAP. Thanks, buddy. Onodera’s work is pretty all over the place, which I like about it. I guess her early films were more narrative and film-like. One of them, I think ‘Ten Cents’, apparently caused some kind of riot at the SF Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, as it was known then. ** _Black_Acrylic, I think your flash fiction association makes sense. Wow, your comment the other day was by dictaphone? I wonder if that’s a first ever for this blog. If so, imagine a trophy and me handing it to you. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Oh, you only just saw ‘Irreversible’? Yeah, it’s intense, no? I loved it, but it did really shake me up the first time I saw it. That head crushing scene at the beginning has to be among the most shocking filmic moments ever. I saw it in a theater when it first came out with some friends, one of whom had to run to the bathroom and vomit. But she came back and watched the rest of the film. I knew your love would put his Nobel Prize to good use. Gust is a little weak, true. Maybe a tempest? Dare I draw the conclusion that your love of yesterday strangely resembled you? If so, I hope sanity is both of yours now. Love pulling a hat out of a rabbit, G. ** T, Hi, T. I’m very happy that Onodera charmed you. I suspect a charm offensive is part of her deal. No, I’ve never been to Fontainebleau. It’s one of those nearby places I always want to go but never have. For the forest and the castle. I like castles. If you like castles, I recommend the Loire Valley. There’s a shitload of them there, and a couple of them are wack. How did you know that my today will be spent in a daze? I can tell it will be already. And I …think it’ll be pleasant. I hope your today is really non-dazed just to give your life some variety. xo. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. I agree about the hurricane sex. That might also give the watered down Gaspar Noe ‘endless’ tracking shot that proceeds it a bit more oomph. Mm … I don’t think I’ve devoted a full Day to anarcho-punk, no. I should, shouldn’t I? Huh. Okay, I’ll look into that. Thanks! I’ve eaten vegan fake ‘turkey’. It doesn’t even remotely taste like turkey, although I haven’t eaten turkey since I was 14 years old, but I’m pretty sure. Was it the kind where faux-turkey meat is sculpted around a plastic turkey skeleton such that it tries to look like a real cooked turkey but doesn’t at all? I had one of those once. Cute but yuck.  ** Brian, Hi, Brian. So true about overblown hype. ‘Annette’ is up there for me too. I don’t know if it’s my fave. I have to make my list for the blog. I don’t know if it qualifies as full-on experimental, but one of my favorite films of recent years is ‘The Rest I Make Up’,a documentary about the theater maker Maria Irene Fornes. It’s great. As far as great older experimental docs, let me think about that. There are quite a lot, I think. To state the most obvious, Herzog’s early documentaries are really great. And Errol Morris’s too. ‘Fast, Cheap an Out of Control’ is one of my favorite films. As is Herzog’s ‘The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner’. I agree with you about ‘VU’. I don’t know ‘Son of the White Mare’ or ‘The Apple’. I’ll investigate. I didn’t end up seeing the Rainier films for boring reasons. Oh well. Enjoy your family in every way possible. You guys doing the whole classic Thanksgiving shebang tomorrow? ** Right. I thought I’d train the spotlight on good old Thomas Bernhard, and, this blog being this blog, I chose a book of his that people don’t write or talk about so much. See you tomorrow.

6 Comments

  1. David

    Stefano Brizzi was the murderer I mentioned… there was a documentary on about him, on a couple of years ago…. he killed the police man from the second station I was at…. (some years later)….. They met for an s + m session… he did all this fucked up stuff… after killing him. high on crystal meth he chopped up the body and attempted to dissolve parts in a bath tub filled with acid…. a couple of miles from where my flat is… I remember watching the documentary and thinking WTF…. the first station I was at was also in the news as a young baby being looked after by the police there went missing…. but was then located….. time I suppose brings in all the usual suspects…

    My current mood today is ‘ London calling the Vapor wave version’… (not sure how to include links so it’s a copy and past thing I think….) >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbyD1P_NsU4

    I do like the slowed down versions of songs on youtube…

    How many films have you and Zac made altogether? I made some shit experimental films in the past…. using film footage I’d taken over the years…. also did one of me being born of a Jackal years ago… didn’t have anything that looked like a Jackal though so used a nodding Alsatian dog, tomato sauce and a spiderman action figure of Tobey Maguire…. oh and one called ‘I’m in your room’ I film my face reflecting on the tv screen back when tvs were reflective… so when replayed it looked a bit like I was sort of in the room of the watcher reflecting on their television… (didn’t really work but sort of did if you were on very bad drugs)

    Thanks for this Saint Bernhard post…. interesting….

    David/Little Horn/the antichrist figurine….

    I

  2. Dominik

    Hi!!

    Yes; it’s been on my list since forever, but I only got around to watching it now for some reason. And it did shake me up too, which was unexpected. The murder at the beginning, the extremely violent tension of the whole movie and especially the scene when they “talk” to the prostitute who witnessed the beginning of what happened to Alex… And the rape scene… I don’t even know. The longest few minutes I’ve ever experienced during any movie. I read somewhere that many people got sick in theaters, partly because there’s a certain kind of frequency they used in the first half hour of the movie that induces that kind of reaction. It can’t be heard through headphones, but I also felt decidedly… uncomfortable, even when nothing was actually, graphically happening yet.

    A tempest definitely sounds like a worthy baby to me, yes!

    Yeah, haha, yesterday’s love was me. I luckily regained my sanity by now, but hell… who plays these games, haha? Now, THAT’s a real magic trick! Does your love do birthdays? Love offering free blow jobs to emo guys over 25, Od.

  3. _Black_Acrylic

    Digging the extracts here today. I’m really not familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work, is there anywhere you would suggest as the best place to start?

    My writing homework for tomorrow is to write a fable. Quite a difficult task. I’ve spent most of the day on it, and so far I’ve just come up with a bear sitting beneath a tree surrounded by butterflies. I’m not quite sure where it’s gonna go next so am just gonna sleep on it.

  4. Steve Erickson

    Has PROSE just been published in English for the first time?

    I watched BENEDETTA this afternoon and raced to turn in a review before my editor left for the holiday. It’s OK, but Verhoeven has made far more exciting and provocative films (despite the predictable protests at the New York Film Festival from right-wing Catholics.) If anything, it’s too polished and clean for its own good, especially since it lies in the shadow of THE DEVILS.

    The fake turkey was packaged inside a box, so I couldn’t see its details. (Whole Foods probably sells fresher versions as well.)

    I’ll be spending Thanksgiving afternoon seeing THE SOUVENIR PART 2 at Lincoln Center.

  5. Jeff J

    Hey Dennis – Really enjoyed this Bernhard post. I haven’t read this collection yet.

    Did you know Spurl Editions recently published his novel “The Cheap-Eaters” for the first time ever in the U.S.? It’s newly translated, too. Seems like an event of sorts, though it hasn’t made any waves.

    Did I read right in the comments that you saw ‘Titane’? I seriously disliked it, though I suppose it had a few mildly interesting scenes. Mostly I’ve been baffled by the accolades, including the Palme. What did you think?

    I’ve been catching up on new movies. I really enjoyed the new Wes Anderson – seemed like his most Tati-inflected. Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ is great for the first half then the plot unravels completely and the intrusive CGI undoes many of its vintage visual pleasures. Alas. And I think I mentioned that I enjoyed the ‘VU’ doc? It’s a shame Haynes couldn’t muster more brio for their music after the first two records, but clearly that wasn’t his project. What’ve you seen?

    I’m finally in the homestretch of teaching, which has been consuming my life, and I’m looking forward to having more time to write, etc. Any news about the movie, or the novella you’re working on with Zac?

    xo

  6. David Ehrenstein

    Bernhard is arvelous.

    I love his Glenn Gould book.

    Been thinking about Marc Bolan lately

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