Thomas Bernhard in 1987
9 February 1931|
12 February 1989 (aged 58)|
Gmunden, Upper Austria, Austria
|Occupation||Novelist and playwright|
Nicolaas Thomas Bernhard (German: ['to:mas 'bnha?t]; 9 February 1931 - 12 February 1989) was an Austrian novelist, playwright and poet. Bernhard's body of work has been called "the most significant literary achievement since World War II." He is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era.
Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 in Heerlen in the Netherlands, where his unmarried mother Herta Bernhard worked as a maid. From the autumn of 1931 he lived with his grandparents in Vienna until 1937 when his mother, who had married in the meantime, moved him to Traunstein, Bavaria, in Germany. There he was required to join the Deutsches Jungvolk, a branch of the Hitler Youth, which he hated. Bernhard's natural father Alois Zuckerstätter was a carpenter and petty criminal who refused to acknowledge his son. Zuckerstätter died in Berlin from gas poisoning in an assumed suicide in 1940; Bernhard never met him.
Bernhard's grandfather, the author Johannes Freumbichler, pushed for an artistic education for the boy, including musical instruction. Bernhard went to elementary school in Seekirchen and later attended various schools in Salzburg including the Johanneum which he left in 1947 to start an apprenticeship with a grocer.
Bernhard's Lebensmensch (a predominantly Austrian term, which was coined by Bernhard himself and which refers to the most important person in one's life) was Hedwig Stavianicek (1894-1984), a woman more than thirty-seven years his senior, whom he cared for alone in her dying days. He had met Stavianicek in 1950, the year of his mother's death and one year after the death of his beloved grandfather. Stavianicek was the major support in Bernhard's life and greatly furthered his literary career. The extent or nature of his relationships with women is obscure. Thomas Bernhard's public persona was asexual. Suffering throughout his teens from lungs ailments, including tuberculosis, Bernhard spent the years 1949 to 1951 at the Grafenhof sanatorium in Sankt Veit im Pongau. He trained as an actor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (1955-1957) and was always profoundly interested in music. His lung condition, however, made a career as a singer impossible. After that he worked briefly as a journalist, mainly as a crime reporter, and then became a full-time writer.
After a decade of needing constant medical care for his lungs, Bernhard died in 1989 in Gmunden, Upper Austria, by assisted suicide. His death was announced only after his funeral. In his will, which aroused great controversy on publication, Bernhard prohibited any new stagings of his plays and publication of his unpublished work in Austria; however, in 1999 this was annulled by his heir, his half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan. Bernhard's attractive house in Ohlsdorf-Obernathal 2 where he had moved in 1965 is now a museum and centre for the study and performance of his work.
Often criticized in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest) for his critical views, Bernhard was highly acclaimed abroad. Nevertheless, while reviled by some Austrians for his outspoken and harsh views of his homeland, including its Nazi past, he was, during his lifetime, also highly acclaimed in Austria, winning a number of major awards, and was seen by many as the pre-eminent writer of the time.
His work is most influenced by the feeling of being abandoned (in his childhood and youth) and by his incurable illness, which caused him to see death as the ultimate essence of existence. His work typically features loners' monologues explaining, to a rather silent listener, his views on the state of the world, often with reference to a concrete situation. This is true for his plays as well as for his prose, where the monologues are then reported second hand by the listener. Alongside his serious and pessimistic views, his works also contain some very funny observations on life. Bernhard is often considered a verbose writer, but Andreas Dorschel has broadened this view by showing that Bernhard's characters (specifically in Das Kalkwerk) oscillate between excessive speech and highly economical expressions. As Dorschel argues, the two modes produce a series of oppositions with mutually informing sides.
Bernhard's main protagonists, often scholars or, as he calls them, Geistesmenschen (intellectuals), denounce everything that matters to the Austrian in contumacy-filled tirades against a "stupid populace". He also attacks the state (often called "Catholic-National-Socialist"), generally respected institutions such as Vienna's Burgtheater, and much-loved artists. His work also continually deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection, since this same perfection would mean stagnancy and therefore death. Anti-Catholic rhetoric is not uncommon.
"Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt" (Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death) was his comment when he received a minor Austrian national award in 1968, which resulted in one of the many public scandals he caused over the years and which became part of his fame. His novel Holzfällen (1984), for instance, could not be published for years due to a defamation claim by a former friend. Many of his plays--above all Heldenplatz (1988)--were met with criticism from many Austrians, who claimed they sullied Austria's reputation. One of the more controversial lines called Austria "a brutal and stupid nation ... a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe." Heldenplatz, as well as the other plays Bernhard wrote in these years, were staged at Vienna's famous Burgtheater by the controversial director Claus Peymann.
Even in death Bernhard caused disturbance by his, as he supposedly called it, posthumous literary emigration, by disallowing all publication and stagings of his work within Austria's borders. The International Thomas Bernhard Foundation, established by his executor and half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan, has subsequently made exceptions, although the German firm of Suhrkamp remains his principal publisher.